Sunday Reading: Chasing Rainbows

words : Helen Duncan photo : Tom Eagar

It had rained in the night, but the sky showed signs of clearing. Newly arrived on the Isle of Skye we were ready for adventure and set off along the road to Broadford to explore. Colours danced alongside us on the moor above the Black Lochs. And as we drove Beinn NaCaillich began to shrug off the shawl of grey fog she had wrapped around herself in the night for protection from the mizzle.

The colours – a mere smudge of watery pink turning to orange merging into green and then blue – danced on, wavering above the tawny moor. It became a day of chasing rainbows.

Some appeared in much the same way: broad blocks of colour that painted the mountainside in damp hues, barely there. Others took shape as graceful arches, rising high into the sky, as if to defy the very dampness that had helped to create them.

We drove on, transfixed by the alchemy of light and water. Elements transformed into arcs of colour. Magic happening before us, and all around us, in the air.

We counted seven in all as we traversed an enchanted landscape of druid groves and marshes, moorland and reed beds – at times climbing high on winding mountain roads, at times skirting the sea edge where the glowing amber, deep carnelian, and yellow ochre of the seaweed lay bright against a black shoreline.

The rainbows appeared and disappeared, illuminating Viking past and warrior heritage; places steeped in myth and historical fact in equal measure. And all the while the vibrant colours of autumn, of scarlet rowan berries, russet bracken, and turning leaves, paraded against changing skies that moved from charcoal, slate, and dove, to reveal glimpses of the clearest blue.

At Elgol where empty lobster pots were piled high against the sea wall, we breathed in the view of the Cuillin, its distinctive ridges and peaks still shrouded in cloud.

Weather improving, we took the road back and made our way over to Ord. Stunted birch, warped ash, and gnarled oak cast shadows that belied their stature, stretching out across the green grass as the road made its way down to the sea.

There, the warm light of the late afternoon picked out mussel shells on the beach and fronds of green-grey lichen on the rocks. And as it shifted, past and present merged and parted, like the tide gently lapping at the shore.

Standing alone on the ground-down fragments of sea-life as the sun claimed at last what was left of the day, it felt possible to understand why our ancestors believed the veil between our world and the realm of spirits is at its most diaphanous at this time of year.

I wondered how many others have stood looking out across the water in that very same spot. The retreating waves, like lives that have been lived, returned to the ocean, as more came forth to make their imprint on the sand.

That night, as we stood gazing into the ever-expanding depths of a sky unspoilt by light pollution, we remembered how insignificant we are, how transient our lives. And then – right there! A shooting star struck across the blackness. It was so close.

So close.

To this day I am sure I heard it fizz.


Helen spent the last 12 years as a grantseeker for Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum: her words brought in over £14 million for projects including a major redevelopment. As a writer, she covers the natural world, folkore and fairytale, and special places. She is currently investigating the Welsh concept “Hiraeth” - a longing for one’s homeland.

Discover more stories of everyday magic in issue 33 of Oh Comely, on sale 13 October.