Hownam, Scottish Borders

The light slips here, it moves subtly but dramatically, as did the slide of snow from the cottage roof earlier. When we arrived, I saw it as a slipped blanket soon to fall off the bed. Helen, who lives next door and is looking after us during our stay, told us to walk close to the house as we leave by the front door, the eaves will save us from the small avalanche. She is right. One moment it holds in a snug grip, next, down it comes, without warning, in one solid thud. It interrupts my semi-silent keyboard tapping.

I stand with a cup of tea looking out onto the day. I admire the sharpness of the morning light. I wonder if the prints on the snow belong to the hare. I examine frost patterns on the outer pane of the triple glazed windows. Deep winter is a consummate artist, it has ice-sketched delicate filigree tracings that resemble bare deciduous trees on a hill fort, not dissimilar to what I can see beyond on this Borders landscape.

Mid-morning walk, riverside. The cottage rests in the hollow of a singing bowl, it is rounded by low hills bent and bowed like supple bodies. It hums with soft sounds subdued by a thick lagging of snow everywhere. I hear the caw and cackle of jackdaws and crows, the almost synthetic squeak of the tread of my boot as it squeezes and pulls on the snow, the gurgle of the Kale Water, the gentle drip of the thaw. Snow is winter’s noise insulation. Sounds do not carry. I hear little else: caw, cackle, squeak, gurgle, drip. Us talking.

Adjacent, a neat Kirk with gravestone-filled grounds, the quietest of places to be laid to eternal rest. Only a skirmish of sparrows in the bare sycamores break the repose. This is a place from another time, it could be one hundred years ago were it not for that bright white contrail, a single etching in the clear sky.

Icicles hang from the old willow fallen across the Kale Water. Curious light-catching shapes have formed on trailing twigs and small branches. They look like lightbulbs, or flower heads. This one is an upside-down crocus. This one a dropped-headed fuchsia. Here, a set of exquisite miniature crystal hanging bells blown by an icy blast of nature, ringing out over the water.

The beech hedges are in deep hibernation, their old, wizened leaves intact, sheltering the buds below. ‘Fold down, stay in,’ the snow-heavy, spent leaves say to their successors. I pull my hat lower and think about the fire to which I’ll soon return.

Snow holds tight to the old stone wall, a clean, pure layer upon a sponge of clinging moss: white on green with a sudden flash of red from a visiting robin. The ash is bare limbed and cold; but look closely at the buds biding time: fixed, black buds, like the tip of a ballpoint pen, in spring they shall write the new season green.

This is the highest reach of todays’ winter sun, purifying the spare colours, making the landscape grander, bigger, more. Even the makeshift, wire-bound chicken coop, a little prison closed in from the foxes, is made perfect by a fall of snow and a dazzle of pure light. The old wooden railway carriage, now a store for hay and grass, looks as natural here as the flash of golden breasted kestrel that has just flown low overhead.

I am home now, and the light is failing, the snow turning blue-white in the gloaming, a stripe of orange has appeared at the rim of the western hill. A pheasant cries from its perch on the wooden fence, bidding farewell to the day. Venus flicks itself on, the first in the sky before full darkness enwraps us. Later, when the night is navy-black, thousands of stars appear, and Venus burns brighter still. It is the head of a just-lit match shooting celestial beams worthy of a bible illustration. It hangs over us, marking this as the place.

3 thoughts on “Hownam, Scottish Borders

  1. The detail is great….it reminds me of the enthusiasm that the painter David Hockney has for looking and seeing and looking again and going back to places in the different seasons. His paintings of bare winter trees or teeming hawthorn blossom in early summer are beautiful. And like him, you bring us with you and invite us to look. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

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