“October is the coloured month,” Nan Shepherd wrote in The Living Mountain, her now-celebrated account of her relationship with the Cairngorm range of Scotland. Here, where I live on the Spey side of those mountains, it is radiantly true. Somehow this transitional time gathers the full spectrum of colours, shades and tones and spills them across the landscape and into our spirits.
Fragments from my journal over the years testify to its moods.
Magical morning with a low mist rising slowly. A clear, pale sky full of the promise of blue, brushed with feathers of grey cloud. The forests ring with the light piping and trilling of birds and thousands of cobwebs stretch across the heather, glittering. The loch is grey and muted, the smooth water broken by a duck’s turn. The mist now is thinning and glowing gold. A disappearing veil, a vanishing breath.
It is a season of contrasts, of shifting temperatures, weather and light, both across the month and within any day. Something within us turns, too, recognising the cycles of laying down and letting go in order to journey forward.
Woke to the first frost of the year and sunshine. Then a sudden, beating rainstorm in the afternoon and when it cleared, the far hills to the east were dusted with white.
It is usually early October when we get the first snow up on the Cairngorms, lying like the ermine cape of a queen, answered by the pure white of the swans on the loch, the ancient stone church and the high clouds. The harbinger of winter, it can suddenly fill the valley in deep drifts this month and send children charging forth with shouts and sledges, but then just as quickly disappear again.
The first week of October brought astonishing weather with temperatures in the low teens. The mornings started in a white blur of frost and mist, then the sun burned through and turned the sky to clear cobalt. A vast brightness, the beginnings of autumn gold, patches of apricot and orange, blushes of red.
The trees are the glory of this time, especially those that are changing, their shades of green losing themselves in the colours of fire. The yellows, bright singing as canaries; the brazen, blazing oranges; the reds of berries and extravagant leaves splashed across the forest. All of it falling. All of it dying. These are the colours of death, of trees that cannot keep pouring out new life but must gather it in to hold fast against winter and wind.
As darkness draws closer around each day, the hours of light become more intense, the lowering sun pierces, the colours glow. We reach out to it, longing for it to last but knowing it is already slipping away, that its potency is its transience, the unbearable radiance of its passing. We ache at all this beauty and loss, knowing this is death; but knowing also, this is life.
The air gets colder and loses all the lazy grassy smells of summer. Instead there is a sharpness, a bracing touch on the cheek. The shadowy folds of the woods crumble into damp, rot and fungus, the odours of rich earth rising with the rain. These are the smells of deep-down, life-giving death.
Our strath falls quiet. The flocks of holiday makers are gone, the bikers and boaters and booted walkers have dwindled. The traffic has thinned, the sports cars zoomed away, the campervans and caravans rattled south. By the middle of the month, many of the breeding birds have flown their nests, too, and the raucous gathering of the skies and waters has hushed. The cries of those that remain are all the keener.
A grey heron flies up the River Spey, a giant bird with an abrasive croak. All pointy beak, elbows and knees, like a living missile firing north.
In October, only the wind gets louder.
A violent storm with gales of 70 miles per hour battering the north and east of Scotland. Trees have come down, branches fallen, twigs with clusters of leaves strewn everywhere. In the valley, a steady, pounding rain and the roof of the school begins to leak.
Then there are days emptied of all colour and sound, where even the sky has vanished.
Down by the loch in the morning, the world is deep in fog and the water perfectly still. There is no texture and no movement, just a soft grey milky-ness hiding everything. The island, the trees, the rushes emerge like brush strokes in a pale wash, delicate and half-formed as a Japanese painting. The only shining thing is the string of spider webs along the wooden planks of the bridge.
After the endless light of Highland summer and the gentle settling of September, October dusk falls at dinner time, charcoal soft and tugging us home to the smells of wood smoke in cold air. Night unfurls herself, taking ever more time and space, spreading brighter stars and bigger moons across her black beauty. There will be owls and firesides. There will be dark.
And there will be day.
A walk along Speybank looking across to the risen sun above the Feshie hills. Mist ghosting across the surface of the river; mist resting in a downy layer against the slopes. Clouds hang motionless above the ridge, holding their breath as beams of sunlight pierce them. The long grasses by the water are all the shades of rough metal – pewter, silver, copper – and the brassy leaves of the aspen glow and tremble, as if filled by the Spirit. The skin of an oak leaf is slick and beaded with dew; the rock-rippling of the burn carries on under birdsong; I hold still. From the dark conifer forest beyond the fields, a lone bird lifts above the trees, white wings flashing in the light. A skein of geese furrows the sky, calling and calling. A single gold leaf falls to earth.
About the Author
Merryn Glover is Australian, born and brought up in South Asia and calling Scotland home for over 25 years. Her stories are widely anthologised, her plays broadcast on Radio Scotland and Radio 4 and her first novel A House Called Askival, was published in 2014. She was the first Writer in Residence of the Cairngorms National Park and her second novel, Of Stone and Sky, is set in this area and due out in April 2021. She is currently writing a non-fiction book in response to Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. She can be found at www.merrynglover.com.