In well-lit Bristol I saw very little of the moon. I would glimpse it occasionally, on a walk home from the pub or a late night at the office, suspended in a space between buildings or resting on a rooftop. It was always unexpected; always a reminder. I’d stare, and a bit of me would ache to see it shine over a wide, wild landscape, to watch it sail across a vast night sky.
I thought I might see more of the moon here, but the summer evenings are light and long in the north and I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a night owl. Now, with autumn just around the corner, the days are beginning to shorten. A week or so ago, as I went out to put the hens away, I saw a patch of white, like a spotlight, on the water at the far end of the loch. It took me a few moments to work out that it was moonlight beaming down through a gap in a bank of clouds. It was a short-lived spectacle – the clouds closed in and the loch sank back into darkness – but a timely prompt.
I downloaded the lunar calendar and checked the full-moon nights. But knowing the moon’s timetable doesn’t mean it will reveal itself. That’s the call of the clouds. For three nights in a row I stared out at a blank sky, my moonlight plans scuppered. On the fourth evening a sliver of silver slipped through the curtains. Dragging myself away from the sleepy warmth of the fire, I stepped outside. In the west, the last of the sunset was sliding behind the hills in a fiery smear; in the east, the moon, like a newly minted coin, rose to join the first stars. It was just a shaving off full. I walked down the lane, disorientated by the landscape in this strange, cold light. The trees retreated into the dark, the white-washed cottage glowed, ghostly, and the lane ahead could have been a deep, still river. A ragged bat swished by. Across the loch the lights of Tarbert flickered – the only colour in this black and white scene.
I leant on a gate and looked up at the moon for a long while. It held my gaze, cold and steady. The sky was now full of stars, a vast, twinkling dome. I felt infinite space as I took it all in. Like mountains, the night sky gives me a good dose of perspective, a sense of being part of something bigger, more enduring. This is the same moon, I thought, that shone on my ancestors, its cycle shaping their daily lives – from gathering harvests to stealing cattle (across the Highlands the full moon came to be known as ‘MacFarlane’s Lantern’ because of the clan’s moonlit raids). Did they look up at the moon and feel the same shiver of wonder as me? Or is my shiver a response to something rare and longed for? Or perhaps I’m shivering because it’s cold and I’ve been staring at the moon a little too long, an activity which has been known to send people as loopy as dogs on a windy day. Back inside I caught myself in the mirror. My eyes shone and my pupils were as deep and dark as the night.
If you like a bit of moonlit wondering and wandering, then take a look at James Attlee’s book Nocturne: a Journey in Search of Moonlight. It’s a tale about the moon and its meanings, as well as a convincing appeal to turn off the lights and reclaim our stolen night.