It was just before the winter solstice. The day had flung its arms wide for the short hours of light, throwing glitter on every frosted leaf and making the waterways shine. As the sun melted into the south-western hills, the full moon rose directly opposite, like perfectly balanced balls at either end of a cosmic see-saw. The sky around it softened into mauve, smoky blue and turquoise, the silver disc growing bigger and brighter, like a fierce guardian over the depths of winter.
At this darkest, coldest time of the year, it seems a kind of madness to take a canoe onto a Highland loch in the middle of the night. But we did that very thing for the summer solstice, a small party of women in a boat and two paddle boards, on the night that only dims for a few short hours, so it felt right to come back for the year’s counter-weight.
Now we are just three, striking at the irons of winter to set the world turning again. As we embark, thickly swaddled against the cold, our camp kit stowed, we are the Swallow, off for adventure. There is chatter and laughter, a determined tilt to our chins. But our guiding moon is muted now by a thick mist stealing over the world. As we cut across the loch, the black water fades without seam into grey cloud, all the familiar landmarks on the shore dissolving.
Everything falls quiet in this great and shadowy space without bearings. The silence is broken only by the slap of paddles and the creak of boat until unseen geese are startled. Their rising hullabaloo erupts into a storm of wingbeats and splashing near the shore till they circle above us, invisible. Settling again, their cacophany gradually fades into a few disgruntled squawks and then to silence. It is as though they emerged from a formless abyss only to submerge again, more memory now than substance.
We make for the dark island, feeling like the Dawn Treader on the brink of nightmares, at that place in the seas beyond Narnia where dreams come true and nothing could be more terrible. On its shore we judder across a skirt of ice that cracks and splinters beneath us. Now we are the Endurance at the ends of the earth. It is a land we cannot visit from spring to autumn because of a nest that harbours osprey, back from Africa. But we can come now, in winter, to the hallowed ground.
Our vessel hauled up on the frosted shore, we head for a clearing at the foot of giant beeches, sweep away leaves and dig out a circle of turf for a fire. It was the trick of the Highland Travellers, to create a shallow dirt pit for flame and, afterwards, douse it and return the turf, leaving the earth as it was found. Flasks appear, bowls of warm custard on cake and mugs of hot chocolate. There are stories, jokes, memories, hopes. A gathering of women and warmth in the tall forest, on a secret island, in a dark loch, at the heart of winter.
We stretch out under the air without a tent, making our beds in bivvy bags. But I spend the hours trussing myself in ever more layers of fleece, down and discomfort, my body stiffening into cold. On this longest December night, the moon has suffused the fog with a strange half-light and I am as wakeful as when mid-summer will not surrender the sky. It is not a place where dreams come true but where they simply will not come. In the long, freezing hours, I stare at the trees and the embers and the inside of my bivvy bag, finally understand the longing of the watchmen who wait for the morning.
At last it is 7am, still dark but time to move again. Clearing camp by head torch, we discover hair ice pluming from a fallen branch like candy floss. Shiny white and soft to the touch, it is a small miracle of winter that only occurs when the actions of a particular fungus in rotting wood and very precise temperatures come together. The moon is still shrouded and the sun a long way off. An owl makes a wild, demonic shriek from deep in the trees and we depart the forbidden isle.
At first the canoe scrapes across the top of the newly frozen ice before breaking through into water the colour of mercury. Beside us, the reed beds are furred with hoar frost, crackling as we brush past. Cloud holds sway all around, hiding horizons, smudging forest and land, blurring edges. Quietly, we slip back to civilisation, fugitives from another world. In our cargo, the solstice secret, our Promethean fire stolen from the longest night: darkness holds beauty, the cold carves gifts, winter is warmed by friendship.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Guardian Country Diary.