The skylarks have returned and at every glimmer of sunshine ascend in a paroxysm of delight. There are noisy gatherings of Oystercatchers speed dating in the field, and the lapwings are practising sky dancing aerobatics to advertise their prowess as a sign of their parental fitness. To earthbound mortals the song of the lark is a clarion call, time to finish the winter maintenance and start planting seeds rather than perusing seed catalogues.
March is a capricious and seductive month, a flirty chameleon capable of switching its wintry hues to reveal tantalising glimpses of spring green. Traditionally it begins with strong winds, torrential rain and squalls of hail and as the equinox approaches it can deceive with calm days full of soft spring sunshine before departing with a tail lashing of stormy days. Infected with the mania of “mad March hares” we rush around trying to squeeze in a little gardening between the routine chores of clearing the gutters, collecting the accumulation of winter storm debris and the endless task of spreading muck, seaweed and garden compost to replace the precious top soil swept away in the tumult of the westerly gales.
Tackling the rebuilding the fruit cages after two stormy winters has now become a priority. The side netting needs new and even bigger batons to hold it firmly in place and the roof netting, torn to shreds and hanging like Spanish moss from the rafters, has to be completely replaced. This will be the third redesign and repair of the roof, and as I’ve just ordered another 1000 stainless steel screws I hope it will last longer than the previous version. Garden projects designed and built by the Head Gardener have always been constructed to last until the next millennium, but here, however much we over-engineer and try to compensate for the weather, it is never quite enough. I begin to empathise with Sisyphus endlessly rolling the boulder up the hill and wonder how I had managed to offend the gods to such an extent as to be condemned to eternal repairing of storm damage.
The garden sleeps on, oblivious to all the activity as I clump around the garden trying not to damage any tender new shoots which may be lurking beneath the piles of wind-blown stems and old leaves. Carefully the winter debris is collected and the new growth exposed. The young, tender leaves are bejewelled with crystals of rain and are vulnerable to the cold northerly winds and the nip of a frosty morning. The power of the sun on a calm afternoon is just enough to stir a hibernating bumblebee, but they soon retreat as the garden has nothing to offer other than a few bedraggled primroses.
There are times when I am envious of the glorious displays of bulbs and blossoms in more temperate gardens, but for all it’s capriciousness March like the larks is a welcome harbinger of spring. There is the anticipation of discovering what has survived the winter, the gift of finding some self-sown plants and the joy of watching the new growth emerge. Best of all I still have the spring flowers to come and I’m anxiously waiting to see if one of the apple trees will produce a sprig of blossom.
This morning a perfect line of 21 swans flew low across the water, stark white against a dark indigo sky. Resolutely heading north-west, each wing beat perfectly synchronised, beauty in perpetual motion. The children of Lir are departing once more and now I know that the season has changed and spring has arrived.
Whether you wear a cardi and blue stockings, designer labels, or wellies and woolly hat, have a Nobel Prize, Oscar or an accolade from the local flower and produce show; be proud, value your achievements, stand-up for who you are and use the F word in support of the women and girls throughout the world who can’t make the choice.
“Remember always that you not only have the right to be an individual, you have an obligation to be one.”
“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru
Venturing across the Minch and driving across the Highlands through Glen Shiel and Glencoe in the February may not be for the faint hearted but it hardly ranks among one of the “great journeys” that the world has to offer the intrepid traveller. Although taking the ferry has become as routine as catching a bus (and about as reliable as any rural bus service) and we have travelled this road many times, the landscape never fails to delight and the weather to surprise. Perceptions of Scotland in winter are bound by myth and cliché; but if you are prepared to risk the fickleness of the weather, the colour of birch twigs in a shaft of sunlight, a waterfall frozen into icy daggers or a rainbow framing the gateway to a rainy glen can turn myth into reality.
Organising something as mundane as having the car serviced is a routine chore for many, but for those of us who enjoy living in rural isolation it can require the logistic precision of a military operation and getting the car to the garage can cost more than the service. Although I am never enthusiastic about leaving the island, there are times when it is necessary, and the prospect of a little self-indulgence helps make the chore more palatable. The opportunity to visit friends, discover a new garden, nursery or bookshop and explore some less familiar regions of Scotland are good enough reasons to muster a little enthusiasm.
On recent trips to the mainland we have been exploring the borders from Berwick in the east to Stranraer in the west. The landscape is much softer and richer than the austere windswept islands which are now my home. The verdant valleys, woodland and rolling farmland are comfortable within the shelter of the hills and moorland of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria and the Scottish southern uplands. It is as if a mantle of settled, affluent middle age has descended on the shoulders of rebellious, turbulent youth, turning reivers into yeoman farmers as times rolls on.
The border between England and Scotland is not a precise line drawn by modern cartographers following UN peace negotiations. It meanders from coast to coast, an ancient demarcation drawn by centuries of conflict, changing allegiances, internecine feuds and treachery. This is the land where as a boy Walter Scott was first introduced to the Border Ballads and it is just a short step to Waverley novels and the creation of the romantic myth of Scotland. Whether you like your history with a sugar-coating of romance or prefer the darker under tones of harsh reality the Scottish Marches like their Welsh counterpart do not carry their history lightly.
There are no border posts, wire fences or police patrols and the bands of reivers have been banished by time, but in other parts of the world borders are still areas of conflict and despair. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie now belong to film noir, the le Carré genre of cold war espionage fiction and Trip Advisor, as the focus of history has now moved once again to the borders of Greece, Turkey, Syria and beyond. As we meandered along these now quiet Scottish border lands, admiring carpets of snowdrops in the rain and misty vistas of distant hills, it was difficult not to be aware of the darker side of the history and the despair which seems to drift like a miasma over lines on a map. As for the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, we never did manage to find any of the gardens advertised as open – perhaps another border myth.