03 Jun Rain
There’s a mountain across the sea loch that’s shaped like a saddle for a colossal prehistoric beast, the almost perfect cone at the top like a cantle, the flatter mound behind, the pommel. As you look out of the big window of the cottage called Cuileag where we stay, you can see it behind and a little left of the island of Ornsay. That tiny spit of land in the sea gives its name to the cluster of houses and the hotel by the jetty down below – Isleornsay. Another hillside lies between Ornsay and the ancient mountain-saddle, another layer of landscape creating the kind of view that makes you drop your lower jaw and usher up a sigh. Something about the distances and the shadows, the relationship between land and water, the perspective and the angle of the light on the loch makes of this particular view something miraculous.
But not today. The mountain is out of sight – again. Occasionally a hint of it looms through the mist for a moment, though I wonder if I imagine it because I know the mountain is there. It was the same most of yesterday and all of last weekend. The Misty Isle is living up to its name.
Last Saturday, I had planned a walk in Armadale Woods with an old schoolfriend up from Glasgow on an island tour with her prestigious choir. I longed to show her the bluebells, the wild garlic and the fiddleheads unfurling into ferns of strident young green that edge the path through the mature, majestic trees. Neither of us is shy of a bit of rain but this was forbidding, unstinting and unlikely to pass. Sunday, when I drove north on the island to hear her concert, it was even wetter. My grandmother would have talked of ‘stair rods’; Glasgow folk might have said ‘fair stoatin’.
As I drove back to Cuileag later that afternoon I had a moment of insight – or perhaps madness. There is something wonderful about this kind of daylong downpour. Thousands of gallons of the stuff cascading down the mountains, filling the rivers, the hillsides cut with slashes of pure white as if someone is hiding up there pouring Dulux Brilliant White into every crack. Driving through the glens between the mountains or along the shore road with the rain battering the windscreen and splashing off the tyres as I cornered through standing water that hadn’t had the time to drain away, I had the sense that all this drama playing out all around me was beautiful in a way. Once you’re resigned to abandoning that walk, once you’ve stopped resenting the weather forecasts of sunshine and sweltering temperatures in the south, once you’ve come to terms with the wildness of the weather you can just let yourself marvel at it.
Someone told me that there are several words in Gaelic for rain – at least as many as the Inuit language has for snow. That’s fifty, apparently. I know a Gaelic speaker or two and discover it’s not the Gaels but the Scots who have an eyebrow-raising number of words to describe the quality or effect of rain. On one list I counted 107, some of them in common usage south of the border but mostly a mixture of Scottish regional dialects with borrowings from Norse and Gaelic. Many of them I use myself, words I learned at home like dreich and smirr. Many call up other voices from the past and I can hear them again getting their mouths around those firm Scottish syllables – drookit, scrow, bowder, smizzle. Today started with a ‘daggle’ – rain falling in torrents. Now it’s a ‘pelsh’ – a drenching shower.
That thing about there being a finite amount of water on planet Earth and that it’s all a question of distribution? Tell it to the birds sheltering in the trees. That it could be true – sometimes feels impossible.