Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.
I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.
Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.
Down in the damp hollows of disused railway tracks, where trees have quietly colonised the banks over 50 years of neglect, the pussy willows are in fragile blossom.
Spring has arrived.
I travelled such a long way to visit….
… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.
Oh it’s grey, grey, colourless bleak on the beach in these dying hours of the year. The waves, the sky, the land – even the little birds feeding down at the tide’s edge disappear in the dirty half-light. Monochrome. Cheerless.
And then they rise up and you’re mesmerized and smiling. They flash quicksilver white, swarming sky-high in a throng of thousands, diving and twisting, catching light you didn’t know was there. There’s a rush of wings and they’re bearing down, funneling a wind as they flock over and around, and suddenly silence. And then another synchronized spiral of wings and they disappear to lifeless cloud.
Happy, mercurial little knots, you have made magic in a grey day.
The autumn migration is under way; the geese are back and filling the skies above me, wave after wave of dark wavering skeins, honking and hooting as they search out and settle in to their winter quarters around the Cromarty and Moray Firths
I’ve been on Nairn beach every morning and evening this week, powering along the sand as my new dogsitting customer, Harley-the-Golden-Retriever pounds through the waves; crazy-happy, beautiful dog
And I’m not alone in stopping to admire the synchronized flight.
“Save your energy for flying!” One woman called out as the sky grew dark and the decibel level intensified above our heads.
They sound excited to have arrived after their journeys from the Arctic Circle, Scandinavia, Greenland and Canada and use their vantage point to scope out the roosts and fields – where they’re not always welcome.
They pass over, still bickering and swerving, swapping places to avoid fatigue among the flock. Here it’s mainly Greylags but there are Pink-Foot, White-Fronted Geese and Barnacles – over 700,000 of them migrating to Scotland every autumn. Last year at this time I was wandering among flocks of Canada Geese on the shores of Lake Ontario, the water sparkling in the autumn sunshine. Great memories.
Whatever the species, they represent the most exciting time of year. October has always been the month of new beginnings; leaving home, starting university, beginning new jobs, embarking on big travel and adventures.
It’s the month when anything might happen.
Sparkling Lake Ontario