Mellon Udrigle is a small crofting settlement strung along the western shore of Gruinard Bay. Suilven and the mountains of Coigach dominate the view from a turquoise sea and a pristine beach of broad white sand.
‘The little hill of Udrigle’, udridgle coming from the Norse/Gaelic meaning ‘gully or ‘cleft’
It’s a beguiling part of Scotland and an area where I’ve had some memorable encounters with Divers. A little further south from the Udrigles’ a road runs north from Poolewe up the east side of Loch Ewe and here the Black-throated Divers have never let me down and in good numbers too during the early summer months.
Back to Mellon Udrigle. This time last year we took a walk along the coast to Greenstone Point with magnificent views, some of the finest surely in Scotland, and headed back taking the inland route past a couple of small lochans. It was boggy and hard going and more welly terrain than the boots I had on. Passing a couple of Dunlin on the tops in fine breeding plumage and seeking out a couple of classic Scottish flowers, Bog Asphodel and Northern Marsh Orchid, I stopped to scan one of the lochans and caught sight of a pair of Red-throated Divers. The next few hundred yards were very slow due to the nature of the terrain and trying to approach the Divers without spooking them.
My brother Mike had split with us and found a different route back to the van and was out of view of the lochans and had no idea about the Divers. Phone signal was very in and out, mostly out, but after a number of attempts I got a garbled message to him and he began to approach the lochan from the opposite side to us. With a slow and careful approach he was able to get close to the shore and sit tight as the Divers, unconcerned by his presence, gave ever better and better views.
We were against the sun and on the other side and I’d decided to take the lighter Lumix on the walk, leaving the much heavier lens back at the van. I simple enjoyed them through my ‘bins’ and resolved to visit the following day with the full kit.
So the next day, Mike had returned south to home, I dropped Gwenda a few miles back for her to cycle to Mellon Udgrigle, whilst I headed out for the loch again. A careful low approach with the sun with me this time and yes they were there again. I settled down behind a grassy tussock and spent a good four hours with them as they ploughed the lochan, sometimes well away and on the odd occasion really close for such a shy bird.
I get lost in such moments, become part of the whole and the heart beats faster. R.S. Thomas puts the feeling beautifully in his essay, ‘A Thicket in Lleyn’ when coming across a flock of Goldcrests in October preparing for migration,
This is a thoroughfare for migrants, warblers in spring, thrushes in autumn. Once on a day in October, after the gales had stripped it, it was alive with goldcrests. The air purred with their small wings. To look up was to see the twigs re-leafed with their bodies. Everywhere their needle-sharp cries stitched at the silence. Was I invisible? Their seed-bright eyes regarded me from three feet off. Had I put forth an arm, they might have perched on it. I became a tree, part of that bare spinney where silently the light was splintered, and for a timeless moment the birds thronged me, filigreeing me with shadow, moving to an immemorial rhythm on their way south.
Then suddenly they were gone, leaving other realities to return: the rustle of the making tide, the tick of the moisture, the blinking of the pool’s eye as the air flicked it; and lastly myself. Where had I been? Who was I? What did it all mean? While it was happening, I was not. Now that the birds had gone, here I was once again. Such things, no doubt, had occurred before and other humans had been present, had been a part of them for their own timeless moment, before returning to themselves, involuntary prodigals. Was this Coleridge’s experience? To him, you remember, it was the imagination which was primary: ‘a repetition in the finite mind of the infinite I AM.’ Is that what had happened to me? Had the infinite I announced itself in a thicket in Lleyn, in the serenity of the autumnal sunlight, in the small birds that had taken possession of it, and in the reflection of this is in a human being? And had the I in me joined seemingly unconsciously in that announcement; and is that what eternity is? And was the mind that returned to itself but finite mind?
This metaphysical sense of being is a state I can relate to entirely, being taken somewhere else whilst watching birds. It doesn’t happen always, in fact infrequently really, but there are certain times when time, place, mind and bird all coalesce to create something outside of yourself.
On a more prosaic note these moments leave me seemingly incapable of pulling myself together and checking that I’ve got everything I came out with when leaving! On this occasion I managed to leave both my binoculars and bean bag! It’s only when I was back at the van, perhaps half a mile or more from the lochan, that I realised. So another pull back up to hopefully relocate the spot and connect with the forgotten items. I’ve done it so many times over the years that I’m trying to build a strategy that ensures I take stock before moving on, and check I’ve got what I came with.
But these moments are very special and a summer plumage Red-throated Diver is a particularly smart bird and if there’s just one adjective you could choose to describe it it would be elegant, or maybe stately, perhaps delicate, graceful, stylish – there we are, one won’t suffice!, you get the idea. These are no ordinary birds and to spend time with them in such a striking location and on my own, will stay with me forever.