‘The woods suddenly resound with rasping, sawing, trilling song’
It is the second week of February before our latitude hands us back a full working day. After months of getting up in the dark and having to abandon outdoor work early, it’s revitalising to find that once again there is a full eight hours of daylight. Our woodland edges are the first to test winter’s mettle. In radiant drifts of white, snowdrops are blooming defiantly among quilts of snow-flattened leaves. If it happens that the temperature is generous, as it has been of late, the small resident birds —tits, robins, wrens —seem to adopt the mood, and the woods suddenly resound with rasping, sawing, trilling song.
Yet for all those tantalising enticements, this is the most frustrating moment of the year. Those with sense go away, take a break, skip south to the sun, as we have done many times. It helps to discard a chunk of February like that. To stay is to trudge through the long, depressing wait for the Highland spring, still fully two months away. But what is even more frustrating is knowing that in southern England daffodils are blooming and birds are nesting. Here the spring fools with us like a child with a puppy on a long lead, letting it go and then hauling it back in.
Yes, the days go on getting reliably longer, and the sun continues to inch its way up the sky, but for every day that seems a little warmer and brighter, there are two or three that drag us back to winter. Sleet and icy rain on snarling winds, cheek-stinging hail squalls, swingeing frosts and sudden snowfalls are all entirely predictable throughout the whole of March and well into April. While smiling southerners are busy oiling their lawnmowers, we are still grimly longing for the daffodils to burst.
I am a Taurean. My birthday falls in the second week of May and I use it to gauge the season every year. Downy birch, Betula pubescen, (often wrongly but forgivably called silver birch), is our commonest native Highland tree. It loves acid soils and, with enviable stoicism, is wholly unfazed by our increasingly capricious climate. Ignoring the cold and wet, it grows vigorously wherever its delicate wind-borne seed flutters into a niche. Some years the first birch leaf appears in late April, others it is the first few days of May, but occasionally, if it has been held back by desiccating cold winds, green tips are only just showing on the eighth.
Snow can arrive at any time. Often I have awakened on my birthday to find the world white with a dusting of fresh snow, and the local crofters always shake their heads sagely and warn me, ‘Aye, that’ll be the lambing storm. There could be more yet.’
It seems perverse, but it’s so often the case that just as the first lambs on wobbly legs are beginning to appear in the fields up and down the glen, usually around Easter, the snow comes barrelling through with an overnight dump sometimes several inches deep. Every now and again I have to remind myself that I have chosen to live north of the 57th parallel, closer to the Faroe Islands than to London, closer to the Arctic Circle than to Paris —something the Arctic’s icy tendrils never let us forget.
So spring comes late to the Highlands —always. It is what history tells us to expect.
Gods Of The Morning: A Bird’s Eye View Of A Highland Year by John Lister-Kaye is out now published by Canongate priced £9.99. You can read another excerpt from the book here on Books from Scotland.
John Lister-Kaye’s memoir, The Dun Cow Rib: A Very Natural Childhood, will be published by Canongate in August 2017.