By Mavis Gulliver
I started this letter on 21st December - the shortest day - the Winter Solstice - the day when the North Pole is tilted at the farthest possible angle away from the sun and the least amount of sunlight reaches the earth.
Apparently the sun rose at 8.52 am but it was obscured by cold blustery showers and only made the briefest of appearances around mid-day. By 15.54 it had set so we settled down for the longest night of the year.
On subsequent days, gales meant that a number of ferries were cancelled. Travelling to and from Islay was a nightmare for those wanting to be with their loved ones for the festive season. Once Christmas Day was over, a lull following the storms provided a perfect opportunity for beachcombing. The rough seas and strong westerlies of the previous days had scattered the beaches with unwelcome plastic rubbish, but among the unsightly mess the waves arranged natural items in attractive ways.
My most intriguing find was a small group of Goose Barnacles, Lepas anatifera, adhering to a glass bottle.
These unusual crustaceans, related to prawns and lobsters are at the mercy of wind and tide. Each 4 cm individual attaches itself to a floating object by way of a long stalk or peduncle. Discovering a colony of thousands was an unexpected bonus to a walk along Laggan Bay.
In 1633, John Gerard, botanist and author of Gerard’s Herbal, wrote:
‘There are found in the north parts of Scotland, and the islands adjacent, certain trees whereon do grow certain shells of a white colour tending to russet wherein are contained little living creatures, out of them grow those little living things, which falling into water, do become fowles, which we call Barnakles’.
This myth arose from the fact that Barnacle Geese, Branta leucopsis, were only observed in Britain during the winter months. There was no evidence of their breeding and it was concluded that barnacles were a kind of fruit, which, when ripe gave birth to geese. Hence the linking of the names - the geese becoming known as Barnacle Geese and the barnacles becoming known as Goose Barnacles.
It was later discovered that Barnacle Geese breed in Iceland and Greenland and that at least 45% of those from Greenland visit Islay’s RSPB Gruinart Reserve. Not restricted to the Reserve, they are a familiar sight around Islay, whether drawing distinctive v shapes across the sky or scattered on grassland, merse and shore like the members of a smartly dressed black and white army.
Other familiar creatures on Islay are feral goats, which, in winter, come closer to habitation in search of food. Frequently referred to as wild goats they are descendants of goats that were kept for milk and meat and for grazing cliff-tops. Sure-footed and agile they are able to negotiate steep grassland and coastal rocks where sheep would be in danger of falling. It may be that their presence in these areas deters sheep from following suit.
A few winters ago a herd demolished the Christmas gift from my husband - a selection of newly planted shrubs in our garden. Hence, goats are not my favourite creatures. Even so, it is fascinating to catch a whiff of their pungent scent in advance of actually seeing them. And it is always a joy to find a kid tucked away in a crevice while its mother keeps an anxious watch on my movements. At such times it’s a case of taking a quick photograph and retreating without causing undue distress.
In Bridgend Woods the snowdrops are pushing through the leaf litter. Ravens, the earliest of breeders, are performing aerobatics, making swift upside-down turns in mid-flight and uttering their guttural contact calls. Hazel catkins, still in tight bunches on bare-leaved branches, will soon start to expand into familiar ‘lamb’s tails’. Already, the days are starting to lengthen so spring is undoubtedly on the way.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.