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Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire
Part III.—Natural History of Gairloch

Chapter II.—
Climate and Weather


Note: Pages 222, 223 and 224 are missing from this book

 were all alike. Who ever hears now of such blistering sun, unless on an extra thin-skinned, toddy-filled, irritable nose? Then in our eastern garden the extensive walls were every year coated with apricot, peach, and nectarine trees, just crusted with loads of as fine and well ripened fruit as five most healthy stomach-always-empty urchins, who had the free run of the garden, could eat up as fast as they ripened, aye, afford often to pelt each other with a half-eaten peach or apricot, because a wasp had dug into it on its wall side. And where in that garden, or in my own still warmer one (Eileanach, Inverness), is a living, growing peach or nectarine wall tree now to be found? Every one dead for want of sun to ripen its wood ere winter killed it. In our garden (Conan House) was a standard filbert tree, perhaps twenty-four feet high, with a stem as thick as my body, every year bearing bushels of as fine full filberts as Mr Solomon ever exhibited in Covent Garden, till old John, ruined in mind by having a vinery put up for him about sixty feet north of the poor filbert, actually cut it down on the sly, when we were in the west, in the idea that it might possibly shade the vinery ! I never saw my father (Sir Hector Mackenzie of Gairloch) in a hurry, or passion, or heard him swear, but sure I am when he came on the site of the filbert, where it was not, a friend would have avoided listening to his even sotto-voce thoughts on that day. But old John perhaps only looked forward to the shocking seasons to come, when money could not discover a ripe common hazel nut, as has been the case for years now in our nut wood jungles, that used every year to flood the country with myriads of sacks of nuts, every one full to the bung, in cartloads at the Beauly markets, and in every town and village,—the nut crackers being a regular nuisance, paving every street and road and room with shells for months. The whole people in the country seemed to live with pockets full of nuts, their price being fabulously low. Nonsense talking of our temperature now being what it was seventy years ago! Moreover we used (I believe as a matter of duty) always to be settled in the west (Gairloch), for the summer, before the ' King's birthday/ June 4th. Is there an idea of loyalty in Britain now resembling the general adoration of King George the Third in those early times? I don't believe we really know now what was meant by the loyalty of those old days. Did the general feudal feeling of those times promote royal loyalty? Probably it did. Was it the cause of our never failing to have a huge china bowl after dinner with a pail of cream that wad mak a caunle o' my finger to wash down the first strawberries of the season on the 4th of June? Don't I remember their delicious smell in Flowerdale House, and their taste too?  'North Carolinas' the gardener called them. And now, in the same garden (but I deny the same climate utterly), no strawberry thinks it is called upon to ripen in less than a month later. ' The same temperature as seventy years ago!' What fools we must be supposed to be by the rascal astronomers! And we also always had a few Mayduke cherries to swear by on the 4th of June. Afterwards, was there ever such a mass of cherries offered, before or since, to five fruity boys, and as devoted a tutor, as in the Tigh Dige garden (Flowerdale), sheltered from every cold wind, and held up to the sun, by all that could be desired in woods and mountains. No, I'm sure; no one can tell me where it defied five such fruiterers and their equally busy tutor to make such an impression on the tall crowd of cherry trees in that garden. Our dear tutor told me, years after, of one thing that was a weight on his mind, viz., that having dropped one forenoon nine hundred cherry-stones from his mouth into his worm-fishing bag, he was called away, and prevented finishing his thousand in one day!"

From March to September the nights are much shorter than in more southern latitudes. In June and July night may be said to be of only two hours' duration, and in clear weather those two hours are but a subdued twilight. A description of a summer evening on Loch Maree is given by Dr MacCulloch (see Appendix D). Of course in winter the days are shorter and the nights longer than in England. In autumn and spring grand displays of the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights, often relieve the darkness, frequently prognosticating tempestuous weather. Rainbows of intensest brilliance are frequently seen in Gairloch, and the weird lunar rainbow is occasionally to be observed. Strange to say fogs are almost unknown in this humid region ; even with a hoar-frost there is no fog. With a south-east wind and a cloudless sky, the mountain ranges are often rendered marvellously imposing by a silvery haze, which apparently enhances their magnitude and adds mystery to their forms.

The winters are not usually severe. Whether from the action of the Gulf Stream, or owing to the presence of such large masses of water, the frosts have not, as a rule, the same intensity as in many parts further south; so that a variety of shrubs and other plants can be grown in the open air which elsewhere need protection, and many flowers and fruits are earlier than in less favoured places. Some winters have been so mild that even geraniums and calceolarias have survived unprotected in the open ground.

There is a Gaelic proverb which may be translated thus, "If spring mist should enter the meal-chest, snow will follow." The meaning is, that when mist is seen in spring, snow always falls soon after. From long observation I can vouch for the truth of this curious saying. Snow often falls during the spring months; but the heavy falls of snow are now-a-days usually in December, January, and February. They are, however, of comparatively rare occurrence.

When snow comes it gives wonderful glory to the mountains, and even frost has its peculiar charms. In the exceptionally severe winter of 1880-1, which had only once been surpassed in the experience of the oldest inhabitants, the ice displayed some of the peculiar forms described by those who have visited the Arctic circle. On the margin of Loch Maree (whose waters never wholly freeze), and especially where streams debouch into it, great hummocks of ice were formed. At the same time the brackish waters of Loch Ewe became covered with ice floes, of such extent as actually to prevent the passage of boats which had started to cross from the west side of the loch to convey persons who wished to attend sacramental services then being held at Aultbea. It was the only time I ever saw the sea frozen, and this circumstance, coupled with the phenomena witnessed on the icebound shores of Loch Maree and the unnatural silence of nature,— whose murmuring streams were frozen dumb, and whose benumbed birds could give forth no note or song,—really seemed to transfer one to another world.

Perhaps the best spot in the parish to observe the sunsets is the Gairloch Hotel. Looking over the bay of Gairloch, no near mountains obstruct the view, and the aspect in summer and autumn is exactly right. Beyond the bay of Gairloch itself lies the Minch, and again beyond and above the Minch are the distant and seemingly transparent hills of Skye. The scene is as it were framed by the lines of hills on either side of Gairloch, and in the immediate foreground are strips of yellow sand and ridges of dark rock. None can tell, none can paint, the glories of the setting sun; words as well as pigments are powerless to adequately record the wondrous changes of the splendid colours that gleam in the sky and clouds, the subtle tints suffused over the sea and distant hills, and the marvellous glow pervading the whole of the beauteous scene!

In this mountain land too there are countless varieties of what may be called cloudscapes ; the numerous summits attract and then break up the cloud masses into rough and fleecy shapes, some thick enough to obstruct the light, others edged by silvery gleams, and others again brilliant with the sun shining through them,—the whole exhibiting wonderful examples of aerial chaos. These broken clouds are most usually seen in mountain lands; they are quite different from the wreaths of mist previously spoken of.

Some reference ought to be made here to the colouring of the landscape. Towards the end of winter, when frosts and snows are done with, much of the heather assumes an indefinable grey tint, and the bent-grass becomes a sandy brown. The leafless trees make one thankful for the firs and hollies with their grateful greens. The larches are the first deciduous trees to give signs of the coming spring. About the "Day of Our Lady " they appear tinged with pale green, and in April the birches usually follow. By the latter part of May all nature has revived, and most of the trees are in full leaf. The grasses and ferns become brilliant in June, and the heather is then making a rapid new growth of lovely velvety shades of colour. From this time until August the hillsides and moorlands present exquisite phases of green and russet colouring, on which the eye rests with unwearying pleasure. The artist, who generally visits the Highlands in the autumn, seldom attempts to depict these summer effects. He more usually represents the splendid tints of August and September, when the heather is of every shade of lilac and purple; when the brackens, broken by winds, are gorgeous with reds, yellows, and rich browns; and when the bent-grass is magnificent with its radiant orange hues. The declining year brings fresh glories ; all these colours are now modified and chastened; the rowan trees grow scarlet, the weeping birches become like fountains of gold, and the oaks a brilliant brown. Even in winter there are beautiful effects of paler colours; indeed it is true that there is no season when the landscape does not delight the eye.

I have long known and loved this country. I have seen it and been charmed by it in every kind of weather and at every season of the year, and I have found an ever new delight in its grand yet lovely scenery. You, my reader, may not have the same opportunity of prolonged observation, and you may not become possessed of my intense affection for this region, yet if you linger here awhile, and go about with eyes and heart open to impressions of beauty and joy, you will soon freely admit that these descriptions are not mere rhapsody.


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