I should know better by now but the arrival of autumn always takes me by surprise. The gold of the buttercups is fading and the bleached heads of the grasses are a pale cream highlighted by the richer hues of the red clover. Russet brown seed heads of the wild angelica stand tall like skeletal acacias in a Lilliputian savanna where the last meadow brown butterflies still dance in the sunshine.The meadow pipits and the skylarks have gone and each day small parties of swallows swoop over the fields as they move south. Gone too are the short-eared owls who worked tirelessly to feed their brood and were the most effective rodent control operatives I have ever seen. The stealth bird and his mate still quarter the croft each day and delight our visitors with their elegant effortless flight. A pair of merlins, small wizard falcons, have returned to harass the starlings and like synchronised swimmers they perform parallel acrobatics as they twist and turn until the starlings descend to the cottage roof to chatter hysterically.
Gone are the heady scents of summer flowers leaving the tang of salt on the wind and the pungent aroma of seaweed. Peat smoke permeates the air as stoves are lit to combat the coolness of the autumn evenings and as the days shorten and darkness returns lights appear in the croft houses.
There is change in the air. The beaches are thronged with life and as busy as an airport departure lounge on a holiday weekend. Herring gulls probe busily among the kelp whilst their smaller brethren, common and black-head gulls, daintily pick up titbits from the surface of the water as the waves stir the weed. Sandpipers are spread all along the shoreline – sanderling like small clock-work toys run along the water’s edge with the more sedate dunlin feeding purposefully amongst them. Rotund ringed plovers dash about higher up the shore where the oystercatchers doze oblivious to the feeding frenzy on the beach. Some of these birds have bred locally; others have traveled from Iceland, Scandinavia and the high arctic; many will stay on our beaches and the rest will fly further south to winter on warmer shores. There is a mood of frantic activity, peeping chatter and restlessness as they feed to lay down fat for the winter or the long migration. These are just the first arrivals and as the equinox approaches more wading birds will arrive to throng Ardivachar beach and entice me to wander from the garden to watch the birds on the other side of the wall.
I may not have any trees to tell me when it’s autumn, instead I have the birds. There are over 60,000 pairs of gannets breeding on St Kilda and I think most of them must fly past my window as they move south during the last few weeks of August. Beautiful white birds with dark wing tips, stark silhouettes against a dark blue sea, arrow straight with powerful wings. Non-stop executive travel.
When the air is heavy and the horizon indigo with distant thunder lethargy stalks the garden as the plants and the gardeners grow languid. The borders are blowsy and going to seed like an ageing actress insisting that she must go on to please her adoring audience of bees. The vibrant colours of the cottage garden are slowly fading and take on softer hues reminiscent of ancient tapestries.
These are the dog days* and after the exuberance of spring fever and the decadence of the white nights my enthusiasm is senescent. Lulled by the sensual music of the bees and intoxicated by the honeyed perfume of bedstraw the gardener has become a lotus eater. In these enchanted isles dancing at Lughnasa should never be taken lightly lest sensuality seduce the unwary.
*The ancient Romans noticed that the hottest days of the year, in late July and early August, coincided with the appearance of Sirius – the Dog Star, in the same part of the sky as the Sun. The ancients believed that the star contributed to the heat of the day. It also coincides with Lughnasa or Lammas – the festival which marks the end of the summer and the start of the harvest.
North Uist Annual Show
In any rural community the major event of the summer has to be the agricultural or local garden show, although here this maybe disputed by the islands’ highland gatherings (games). Whether it is a grand county event or the local village fete being asked to be a judge can either be viewed as a privilege or being offered a poison chalice. In the outer isles judges are usually appointed from other islands so if necessary they can leave early to catch the ferry home! However, when we were asked to judge the gardens, flowers and vegetables at the North Uist Agricultural Society Annual Show I could not have been more pleased than if I’d been asked to be a judge at Chelsea.
As you can imagine, the island shows have their own special character – think English village fete without the tombola and Morris dancing but with assorted livestock (Hebridean sheep to guinea pigs) and vintage tractors. The arrival of a bouncy castle and lamb burgers has not destroyed the character of the event and a perusal of the show schedule still includes such gems as “Shepherd’s crook (horn)”, “Stockings (knicker) heavy knit”, “Clootie dumpling” and “Ladies corsage”.
Vegetable growing and gardening in general is growing in popularity here, but in this part of the world it is not a pursuit for the faint hearted – although a wimpish island crofter or fisherman is impossible to imagine. The number, quality and diversity of entries for the flower and vegetable classes were impressive. We had some animated discussions over the first and second prizes and when the identity of the winners were revealed it was a relief to see that they were evenly spread among the competitors. So it was not necessary to make a hasty retreat and we’ve not be declared persona non grata in North Uist and Berneray as far as I am aware. So to everyone involved in the show thank you for a great day out!
In these distant isles ladybirds are rare gems. Every year I search the garden and polytunnel for these beneficial beetles, whose larvae gobble aphids at a prodigious rate, and I’m lucky if I find one or two.
Whether it is for reasons of geography, climate or an unpredictable food supply we only find the 11-spot ladybird (Coccinella undecimpunctata) in the Uists. This is a coastal species often associated with dry areas and an uncommon in Britain, particularly in the north.
So after a back-breaking session on a very warm afternoon, I was overjoyed to find a ladybird on a fence post and then another. I was quite tempted to kidnap them and put them on my aphid infested aubergines! I reluctantly left them to enjoy the sunshine and slowly ambled away to collect my tools which as usual were scattered around the garden. At the end of the day I’m always reluctant to return to my domestic chores – rather like a child being told to stop playing and put they toys away. However, on the fruit cage I found some more ladybirds – 10, 20 and more and more! In the end we counted over 500! Absolutely amazing – I’d read about ladybird swarms (usually 7-spot ladybirds) on the south coast of England – but up here in the islands – staggering.
So on another perfect day we’re out and about and I shall be looking for ladybirds. This has been an amazing summer and the wildlife has been outstanding – dare I say gold medal winning performances!