Summer is starting to fade in Scotland. The leaves are turning russet, the nights are drawing in and with it the unstoppable march towards winter begins. How we long for summer in the depths of winter. The first taste of it usually comes in April. In the midst of spring and renewal an expected blast of heat arrives and a million Scots say a silent prayer pleading with the gods to let this be the year that we experience a full summer. Like the one our parents speak of from the 70s: when the sun shone constantly for 8 weeks and children played happily in the outdoors all summer long building dens and swimming in lochs.
If Scotland had a proper summer, it would be overrun. In every other way except the weather, we consider this little country of ours to be perfect. Perhaps the weather is as much about protecting this beautiful landscape of ours as it is about providing a conversation starter. What else is there to stop people arriving in their droves other than the weather?
The lengthening days mean more time for exploration. One exceptional weather weekend in June, we set off towards Glencoe hoping to finally experience it in beautiful midsummer conditions. The Glen of Weeping, named for the massacre that took place there in 1692, suits a bit of grim weather: it brings the ghosts of the past to life. That particular weekend, the weather was a revelation. The greens of the hills were lush and luminous and the purple heather just starting to flower. Coachloads of tourists arrived by day, scurrying from one scenic photography spot to the next, never really taking the time to absorb it all. We left our touristing until the evening, preferring the solitude and quiet that came with it. We stopped at Loch Achtriochan, lured by the perfectly still waters mirroring the majestic landscape all around. Stepping out of our camper van and craving an ice-cold drink, we made our way alongside a wildflower verge down to the water's edge. The gentle hum of insects lulled us until we saw a haze of black surround us. The dreaded midge, which thrives on dry, windless days had settled in for a feast. This contrast between the sweet and sour of adventuring in Scotland is often what makes trips memorable.
The changeable weather in summer makes it hard to plan in advance. You can wake up to a glorious day but not know if the weather will hold long enough for you to have a bbq for dinner. In the same way that you need the challenges and down times in life to make you appreciate the great times, our more challenging weather helps us seize the day when the warm weather arrives. At the first whiff of sun, we play. At home, my children can while away many hours with a hosepipe, the spraying water making rainbows and soaking anyone in its path. We eat outside and I watch the juices from their watermelon slices leave a sticky trail down their chins. Away from home, we forage for blaeberries and raspberries, hike up purple drenched hills or ramble through woodland thick with foliage and moss. One evening we take the children out to a nearby estate. We make the mistake of wearing simple summer shoes. They are no match for the recently drenched landscape and we squelch our way through the fields like elephants after a monsoon. We walk through a tunnel of trees emerging into the warm light at the other end. We touch the rough stone of old settlements and speak at length about the people who lived here before us. We catch sight of tiny frogs, jumping like popping corn in the path in front of us. The longer we observe, the more we see. Nature's broadway performance.
Sometimes we go days and days without a hint of rain. The earth dries, the leaves and grass crisp and there is a hazy stillness in the air. The rain always comes though and after it, we are left with a musky, earthy scent. The very essence of the earth and rocks beneath our feet released.
On the coast, you breathe in the air and taste the salt on your tongue. Usually the domain of squawking gulls, the summer months find many of our coastal areas taken over by a multitude of seabirds. Guillemots, kittiwakes, fulmars and our favourite - puffins, all cram together on the carved out cliff edges, the sea breeze dispersing the pungent aroma far and wide. Summer is also a good time for dolphin and if you are very lucky orca spotting. We venture out on a boat on aqua green waters off the west coast of Scotland and are observed by some very inquisitive seals. Keeping our distance, or trying to, the seals appear at regular intervals, bobbing up out of the water almost as if they have joined an observation tour of us. It's almost midsummer's eve and as l look into their human like eyes, l think back to the stories l have heard of the seal people or selkies. Those with the ability to cast off their sealskins and appear in human form. Many a tale has been told of the alluring selkie dancing under the moonlit sky and of humans hiding their sealskins to prevent them from returning to the sea. If you venture to the coast on the summer or winter solstice, perhaps you will have a story to tell too.
On the north-east coast, hot and windless days can sometimes be tainted with haar: a thick porridge like mist that spreads a chill over the city. For those unaccustomed to this sight, it can seem quite apocalyptic. Best to head inland on those days.
Venturing away from the coast, a favourite sight is that of the rosebay willowherb. This pink wildflower consumes usually desolate areas dispersing pink across the landscape. Roadsides, wasteland, railway embankments all transformed into thriving and colourful insect metropolises. The national flower follows suit although isn't nearly so prolific in its endeavours. The thistle's silvery stalk leads up to a spiky bulb with a vibrant purple flower perched on top, instantly identifiable as a source of pride for all Scots.
The platitudes don't fade with nightfall. Night is so brief at this time of year, the daytime glow never really disappears. We wrap the kids up, head inland and clamber on top our our camper. Wrapped in duvets and warmed from the inside out by milky hot chocolate, our 6 year old is our star guide. He points out the north star, the W of Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Andromeda and the milky way. As our eyes adjust, we make up our own constellations. Nature's encore performance is stars shooting across a twinkling sky, the zenith of the Perseid meteor shower.
As we enter August, there are hints of Autumn. The darkness closes in on our long, light evenings, early morning temperatures dip and the luminous green of the landscape begins to fade. By the end of the month, the leaves will start falling announcing Autumn's arrival. But summer has one last bittersweet delight: the flowering heather. In a matter of days the hills, glens and moors are carpeted in various purple hues from lilac to vivid deep violet. This is my favourite time for exploration. The light is softer, the colours more gentle. Summer's last lingering days gently ease us into the next season of life.