The last vestiges of Autumn slowly drift away. Everything is stripped back. Sparkles appear in the shops indicating the imminent party season. I prefer sparkles of a different kind and find my eyes pulled upwards towards more celestial delights. The inky black sky is peppered with glitter. The kids look for constellations and then we make up some of our own. We follow the International Space Station traversing the sky 400km above us. The size of a football field, it appears as a bright white dot above us for seconds at a time before disappearing over the far reaches towards other continents.
The damp days give way to frozen delights. With teeth chattering we stomp on frozen puddles, the ice crunching and breaking beneath us. Red, dripping noses and warm breath, seeking out pockets of light when we can whether it be from the sun, the glowing embers of the fire or from the twinkly fairy lights strung up haphazardly around the house.
Daylight and energy are sapped, the cloak of darkness wrapping us up sometimes as early as 3.30 in the afternoon. Light is so fleeting, barely has the day begun than the sun is setting. We warm our bodies from the inside out with copious amounts of steaming tea, warming stews and bubbling hot pots. This is the time to nourish our bodies. The dark nights feel like nature's way of slowing us down, a forced rest from the constant busyness of modern life.
A skit of snow dusting the landscape heralds November's arrival. Like a sprinkling of icing sugar on a cake. Stepping out gingerly into the perfect stillness of a frosty morning, we marvel at the snowflakes and ice crystals which, in the right light represent nature's diamonds. The snow also gives us an opportunity to develop our rudimentary tracking skills. We seek out prints in the snow, sketching them with numb fingers before internet sleuthing to reveal a number of creatures including deer, a fox and even a badger.
This month also brings us our nightly serenade from our resident tawny owl. The familiar hooting of the owl staking his territory, engaging in nightly musings with a mate, provides an atmospheric backdrop to our dreams.
Winter solstice passes largely unnoticed by the masses too focused on the Christmas mayhem. Although l enjoy this season, I'm extremely happy to welcome midwinter. Daylight stretches every day from now until the summer solstice when there will be an extra 11 hours and 15 minutes of daylight than there is today. As darkness approaches, I light candles and tea lights dotted around the house, creating light where there is none, imbuing a sense of cosagach or cosiness. We collect wood and methodically prepare the fire. The job is a therapeutic one on days when we have time to lounge. Kindling and paper, twigs and logs all placed in a careful pyramid. The spark from a match is all that is needed to turn this into a roaring fire.
I snatch a day to myself and head out to the hills with a flask of tea and a bagel stuffed with brie and leftover christmas cranberry sauce. Driving out the scenic Deeside way, l make for Loch Muick on the Queen's Balmoral estate. Having set off late, l have the place mostly to myself. Past the visitor centre with its mountain artefacts, a red squirrel accompanies me for a short time, its russet coat standing our against the snowy backdrop of mountains. The path around the Loch is frozen solid and requires careful footing. Not so for the herd of deer who nimbly dart about the upper reaches of the crags eyeing me suspiciously. The freezing mist suspended over the water obscures the other side of the loch but not the jagged mountain peaks which, with their winter coats, hang menacingly over me. Shards of black ice paths zig zag up the seemingly impenetrable slopes of mountains including Lochnagar, Broad Cairn and Creag a Ghlas-uillt. A buzzard swoops down from the hilltop in front of me gliding over 'The Widow's House' named after it became Queen Victoria's place of respite and grieving following the death of Prince Albert.
Jan and February hit hard. With no Christmas to distract us, the long dark nights and never-ending seagull grey days wear everyone down. The land has been stripped right back. Desolate swathes of nothingness. Seemingly incapable of supporting any wildlife but wildlife does thrive here. The roe deer are regular visitors to our gardens with as many as 7 visiting at one time. They feast on leaves, weeds, fungi, ferns and less pleasing to the gardeners amongst us, garden plants. It's a small price to pay for such a delightful sight. The holly tree with its beautiful deep green spiky foliage and bright red berries provides a feasting ground for a variety of garden birds entertaining me through the window as I edit.
Early nights with ferocious winds battering against the windows create the perfect hermit conditions. Warmed by an electric blanket I devour seasonal books with a hunger impossible to conjure in the long days of summer. As l read about wild swimming, stargazing, mountain climbing and nature spotting, my mind drift towards warmer days where exploration and adventure opportunities abound.
The essence of the highlands seeps out of the fire made possible with a bag of peat from the Hebrides. As plans are made for the coming year, the house fills with the smells of my childhood, inducing a sharp nostalgia for all things and people gone. Never do you feel a loved one's passing more keenly than a family celebration with Christmas being the hardest one to bear. Just as well this season is followed by that of Spring: renewal and hope are just around the corner.