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A Season Of Ice And Fire

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Tinder dry days, a dusting of snow, and the drift of smoke.

There are few times in the island calendar when Harris is as elemental as it is at the end of winter, and this year is no exception.

A bitter wind has been blowing endlessly from the east, and the clear skies and low sun have combined to dry the heather, bracken and grasses to a tightly wound tinder.

And, while we have been spared the heavy snowfalls which have fallen across the rest of the country, the temperatures have been the lowest here for a long time.

Red deer on the cold Harris hills.

Frozen hills and the bay at Ardhasaig, Isle of Harris. Images © Peter Kwasniewski.

It has made for a beautiful but surreal start to 2021, particularly when combined with current COVID crisis which has limited local life even more than usual.

The Harris hills are bright white, as the Clisham and her surrounding sisters wear a mono-colour coat and in the bay below, where our whisky warehouse stands, the shores of Ardhasaig are frigid with a hard sea frost.

The sea lochs on the eastern coasts are frozen too, with local fishing boats waiting for the thaw of late morning to break out from the ice which binds them.

Giant icicles cling to the cracks and crevices of cliffs.

Local fishing boat, the 'Lead Us', breaks through the thawing ice at Stockinish. Image  © Marie M Morrison.

The small, dark peat streams have stopped flowing as the cold confines them to a crystalline form, and long, clear icicles cling to the cliffs.

But, among these pure, pre-Spring scenes there are rivers of flame flowing across the moor, flecks of ash on the wind, and a deep aroma of drifting smoke all around.

It is the time of ‘Falaisgear’ (pronounced fal-ish-gur), an old tradition of land management which involves lighting the heather to prevent overgrowth and allow fresh shoots of grass for sheep grazing to push through.

Rivers of fire from the annual 'falaisgear'.

Moor-fires ablaze by night. Image © Stevie Passmore

More commonly known in the rest of Scotland as ‘muirburn’, the practice of such burning usually comes with strict rules and regulations to ensure the safety of local people and wildlife alike.

However, in such tinderbox times, fires can start with a simple spark from the sun's rays on broken glass, or a carelessly discarded cigarette.

Then there’s the unavoidable fact that old habits can die hard here in the Outer Hebrides, and many of these blazes have been started in accordance with long-held crofting culture and customs, without mischief or malice, but with perhaps less care as to their control.

Local fire crews work hard to keep things under control. Image © Stevie Passmore

Local Fire & Rescue volunteers help with COVID vaccinations in Tarbert, Isle of Harris.

Every year it causes much debate as those who adhere to the benefits battle it out with those who see it as outdated in these days of carbon management and care for the ‘wild’ environment.

Whichever camp of the controversy you fall into, there’s no denying the drama of these bone-dry days, and the scent and sight of the landscape ablaze, especially by night, is often an unforgettable one.

For our part, we spare a thought for the amazing community volunteers of the local emergency services who have been busy supporting the roll-out of COVID vaccines as well as fighting on these other fronts.

A big thanks to them all, from the Western Isles NHS teams to the Harris Fire & Rescue squads, and we hope they’ll enjoy a well-earned (and perhaps slightly smoky) dram when this strange season of ice and fire finally comes to a close.

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