Eagle Stories (On Lewis & Harris)

“Eagles? When I saw my first eagle,” Cate says, “it was on the single-track road to Ullapool. We startled it as we drove around the corner and it flew off, wings as wide as the road. And my memories of it” – Cate’s eyes widen – “are as if it happened in slow motion.”

Cate is right. Eagles, for those of us who lack the fortune to see them regularly, seem to have this quality. Of crystal clarity and a slowing down of time. It becomes all about the moment.

***

The sky is a conjurer. Its sleight of hand is to reveal and hide in plain sight.

“I’m sure that was an eagle,” I say. Miranda pulls the car over by the side of the road, twenty minutes’ drive out of Stornoway. A scattering of roadside houses and heathery bog to our right. To our left a loch and a smooth brown moor, suede-like, rolling to the black hills of south Lewis.

The seconds stretch by. I become increasingly frantic. And then it pops out beyond the roof of a house.

A big bird, black against the bright sky, in a lazy-flapping flight. A buzzard is harassing it, diving at a wing bigger than the whole of itself.

A young white-tailed eagle. It drifts for thirty seconds, unbothered by the buzzard before it vanishes over the fold in the moor that hides the rest of the island from us.

And then we turn around.

It’s sometimes impossible to say what first draws your eye. It must have been the slow movement, of a dark shape against those dark hills. Or of the sun catching on the soft-edges of feathers, ringing slow wings with a halo of light, throwing the bird into relief against the landscape as it flies directly towards us. An adult white-tailed eagle. Pale head, white-tail, body the colour of the island of Lewis.

It carries on coming towards us. A wingspan of 7 foot is the salient detail but it is not the whole story. It is the details that the angle throws up that surprise me more. It is the depth. The breast and legs that give it a primordial bulk, that you don’t see when they are high in the sky.

And it carries on coming towards us until it gains height, gliding, disappearing over the moorland fold, a threshold between our world and its own. And in that moment I realise I can say nothing at all. My thoughts trumped by thrill. My language dissolved.

***

The wind rakes the island like a reckoning.

Overnight Harris has been painted with snow and now it is alternating sunshine and hail. There’s not much to do this February day other than drive and walk and sit and stare.

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At Luskentyre the sand is as soft and powdery as fresh snowfall. We watch waves roll in past Taransay and to the north, the clouds scud over white peaks reflected on wet beach, and the hills to the south turn black as the snow rolls in. We invent new gauges for visibility. We decide it’s ok when the distant headland reappears, even if the hilltops are still shrouded, the sea’s horizon still smudged with blizzards.

We drive through the landscape to the lochanscape, then the rockscape, then the lunarscape.  Along the south coast of Harris the valley walls have a lace-curtain of snow and ice. A raven reverberates around them, the sound like a distant rock movement. It draws my eyes to another black speck, a winged glitch in vision. And I know what it is immediately. I can tell by the way my breath-catches in my throat and the way that my fingers tremble on the focus wheel of my binoculars.

One glitch becomes two. A pair of golden eagles rise above the valley walls and now the raven is nowhere to be seen. They drift against the snow-cloud grey sky. The smaller male folds his wings in, drops briefly, unfurls them and rises up again. The female repeats. They undulate through the sky until they too have drifted over the ridgeline. And then the hail begins again and the sky closes in.

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