Dimming of the Year

by Tom Morton -

Now comes the shortening of days, the change of light. A need to hoard and treasure the sun whenever it shows itself, peeking, low and slanting, as the planet’s axis tilts and we feel the chill begin to creep into our fingers and toes.

Winter, but not quite. The all-encompassing, enclosing darkness of December is waiting, but in early November there is still the memory of October’s amazing, unexpected warmth, a strange spurt of growth in the grass, a few stubborn leaves still clinging to brittle branches, the last migrant avian stragglers flung onto this remote rock on their flutter south.

This is the dimming of the year, a season without a name, beyond hairst, or autumn, before the grip of winter tightens. The days are long enough to get things done, and if the equinoctial blows aren’t hammering in, you can work outside. As I write, I’m watching the painstaking repair of a drystane wall in the ancient cemetery near our house. It’s slow, careful work, a buttressing of memory, a race against time. A battle against the dying of the year.

It's a battle against the dying of the year

Time. What we have now is more than the fragile blink of illumination you get in the absolute depths of winter. There are hours to enjoy, to treasure the light, to reflect on the well-being it brings, in the knowledge that day by day, our allowance lessens. Faster, faster comes the darkness. But right now, the low angle of the sun makes the Shetland hills gleam, glitter and occasionally glower.

The clocks have flicked an hour backwards, and there is a sense of urgency about getting out of bed, so you can use the limited light, value it. You can feel the days diminishing, and this is a time of preparation: are the vehicles ready for the demands of the Big Dark and the Howling Cold? Lights, tyres (snow tyres, spare rims, even chains) anti-freeze. Shovel, rope. Spare gloves, an old anorak, just in case. Wellies, ice-insulated ones if you can afford them. Freezer trawler fishermen’s boots are incredibly expensive but astonishingly warm.

There is an urgency about getting out of bed, so you can use the limited light, value it

The peats are in, the chimneys swept, tatties gathered (a bad year for potatoes, this; too warm, lots of pests). Central heating oil ordered, slates checked, for the gales are coming, rattling and rippling at the roof.

But there’s still time, there’s still enough of a day to get things done. To go for walks beyond the West Ayre to Burnside, up to Eshaness, over to Urafirth. To snatch a cycle if it’s not too windy, before the cold starts clutching at your chest with every breath.

And there is colour, too. Rainbows and radiation. The shallow rays and blustery squalls provide prismatic glories, while at night, the storm of solar restlessness lends our skies the shifting spectacle of Da Mirrie Dancers. The Northern Lights.

Light. We look for it, long for it, and relish it while we can. And yes, the winter will be long. But darkness has its own delights. As we will soon see...

And there is colour too. Rainbows and radiation