Lowlife

Lowlife

Among many other extraordinary things, my chum, Hazel, is a photographer. Possessed of a new camera and burgeoning enthusiasm, she told me she prefers to focus on the world in detail rather than the big landscapes; shoot telephoto rather than wide-angle, as it were.

I thought about this the other day as I embarked on one of my regular walks in Kinloch Forest. The trail runs roughly west to east along the south coast of Skye, though the angles and directions on this island are never easy to work out. Here the Sound of Sleat laps the island’s rocky shore. Supposedly, being a ‘sound’, from the Norse ‘sund’, this is a stretch of water you can swim across. I’m not tempted.

Normally I lift my eyes to the hills across the water, the light and shade of cloud on mountainsides, their colour already subtly graded by contours, nuanced in dips and hollows. Look right, as I normally do, and you glimpse the mainland. Countless aged peaks notched against the sky. It’s like looking into the past and the future all at once. Look left and you’re in the present. The minutiae, the ebb and flow, life that clings low to the ground.

The walk takes longer this way, I realise. You have to stop more to take it all in. Though, I’m under no illusions; I take in a fraction of what’s there. An eyeful is action-packed. The forests in this part of the island are on private estates mainly. Not the dark woods of commercial forestry planted thick with spruce for frequent harvesting. These are mixed woods with many tree varieties and enough light and air for the lowlife to flourish…..

Primroses perch under trees with mossy trunks.

Bluebells starting to flower, raising demure heads above swarthy leaves. Bashful. Seeming to grow out of a mess of tufts and twigs. Last year’s leftovers. Scottish bluebells are quite unlike the pale wannabes you find in the south. Is it the soil or are they just a different genus? Uniquely blue – self-referential.

New ferns come coyly into the world, pushing up with their heads bent. Surfacing from the copper-bronze debris of spent fronds like a phoenix on loan to the plant world. They call them fiddleheads, these shy heads that uncurl so slowly.

Tiny white flowers with delicate yellow stamens turn their backs to the breeze. Wood anemones, I discover. They’re all over the bank at the back of the cottage where we’re staying. They fold themselves away at night, shutting their tender petal eyes against the dark.

White heather appears like an outbreak of dandruff on a head of stiff, straggly hair. Why white rather than purple here? I don’t know but the purple will likely come later. Ling is the local name. They say it brings protection, good luck and the coming true of wishes. I make a wish and hope.

Mosses are the revelation in this teeming world of lowlife. Moss-green? Yes, but so much more. A tone poem of russets and golds, polenta and saffron. Radiant metallic brights vie with Farrow & Ball subtleties – Yellowcake, Book Room Red, Babouche. Who makes them up? Moss mats cloak boulders; drape vestigal trunks of trees felled long ago.

And the lowest form of lowlife? Intimations of that irritating wee beastie, the Highland midge. Definitely the odd nibble. An advance guard venturing out after a winter of hibernation and wanton procreation. In a month or two on a still, damp day like this, they’ll be out the little critters, out in numbers, out for blood.

So, I walked, eyes left, paying grateful attention to this lowlife world at my feet. Close-up the clouds can’t spoil the views.

3 Comments
  • Hilary Ivory
    Posted at 21:31h, 13 May Reply

    Hmm… I think those “pale wannabes” are actually Spanish interlopers. I say this because today (it’s May 13 as i write, rather late, but I”m catching up on your travels), my Sunday morning run took me through the Lady Isabella Plantation in Richmond Park, and I found myself in a bluebell wood to one side of it. Oh my, we’re talking the deepest purply-cobalt blue – dainty things that are quite unlike their big fleshy OTT Spanish cousins that have settled everywhere. Fabulous.

  • Anna Campbell
    Posted at 16:10h, 23 May Reply

    Lovely piece, Liz. I love revisiting Scotland through your eyes.

  • Sarah Fordyce
    Posted at 09:50h, 11 June Reply

    I share your and Hazel’s delight in the close up. I love this writing, with its attention to the details of the plants and life at your feet, but with the picture of the surrounding water and hills and light. I’m remembering wonderful Scottish walks with the children, years ago now, but also full of focus on plants, flowers, fungus and bugs.

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