A January Windfall

Two days of glorious westerlies arrive in early January with the kind of reassuring familiarity that takes us back to childhood. I abandon the computer for an hour to have some soup and then drive the battered Renault Scenic along the shore road to the broch. The sea is whisked, aerated, white as milk. Maybe an interesting bird will have been swept in from the North Atlantic on this solid, magnificent wind.

It’s high water. A blizzard of gulls wheels round the mouth of the burn where ware is being churned in the shallows and driven ashore. There will be dead and dying fish here. The gulls rotate too quickly for me to identify anything. The Scenic shudders in the gusts. I step outside briefly and am surprised to be able to taste the salt in the air. The car door tugs in my hand, eager as a dog on a lead. It’s just too windy to be here.

I drive on, stopping to raise the binoculars again. There’s an almost imperceptible rise in the sodden field to the east of the road. It must afford some lee, because there’s a mixed flock of gulls here. About sixty five of them, hunkered down, beaks pointed northwest. Like so many upturned fibreglass hulls, bows to the wind.

Herring Gulls, Common Gulls, Great Black Backs. And there, among the familiar greys and blacks, is a gull of pure, brilliant white. I realise that I am seeing something I have never seen before. A pure white gull, immaculate alongside the grimy-looking young Herring Gulls, more delicate than the thuggish Blackbacks. Pure as the driven snow, storm driven out of the North Atlantic. In another time, in another culture, this bird would be worshipped as the pure spirit of winter; it is an Iceland Gull.

My friend Jim Meason tells me that, many years ago, an old seaman showed him a ‘white White-Maa’ in Stromness harbour. ‘Maa’ is the northern word for any gull – in Dutch, German or Scots – and a White-Maa is a Herring Gull or a Common Gull in Orkney. So the ‘white White-Maa’ was an Iceland Gull. Jim’s bird was more elegant in flight than the commonplace Maas, and had a more delicate expression. To this day occasional Iceland Gulls over winter in Stromness harbour, but I have never seen one there.

But now, as I turn in the car park at the broch and make for home, the entire flock lifts itself into the gale, wheeling skywards. The white bird soars highest, with exceptional grace. These moments of newness are rarer and more precious the older we become. I drive on, elated by the weather and my spectral windfall.

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