The first haar of spring

“In the months of April and May, easterly winds, commonly called haars, usually blow with great violence, especially in the afternoons.”

From William Nimmo’s ‘A General History of Stirlingshire’ (1777)

It usually happens after the first run of blue-sky days in early spring.

Eyes itchy with pollen, faces aching from creasing them against the light, legs sore from bending to tend to a small garden. These bright days in April are rare, and although they are lengthening, what happens next shortens them.

It is slow, gentle even. It begins with a haze, a light sigh, and save a lungful of minutes and a growing breeze, white soon swallows blue. Sea and land, gone.

This is a cold coastal fog, known by those who experience it on the east coast of Scotland and Northern England as haar, hoar, or sometimes sea fret.

Haar, my favourite variant and the most commonly used in Scotland, is a breath of a word, beginning with an exhale, and ending with closed jaws. Reminiscent of the cloud itself.

The science of how the fog is formed seems simple. The North Sea stretches from the cliffs, crannies and castles of eastern Scotland over the horizon to Scandinavia. Haar happens when warmer spring air moves over the still-cool North Sea, causing it to condense into micro-beads of moisture. Then, an easterly wind pushes the sea fog inland.

Yet the essential facts of its formation can never quite capture the true feeling of the fog — watching it, walking through it, wondering.

It is thick as milk, light as a baby’s sigh. But it can also be quick, icy, bewildering, dangerous, and sometimes sinister.

Haar is the enemy of early spring days that bring the first real warmth of the year. It cuts short warm walks up slopes or beneath blossoms; it makes navigating the Forth Estuary a nightmare for ship captains and renders lighthouses next to useless.

But the fog also brings a murky and magical atmosphere, one that helps sell ghost tours and tell horrible histories, to Edinburgh as well as the coastal towns and low-lying landscapes nearby. In city streets, it confuses centuries, washing buildings and people in a timeless mist.

And in places like mine, on the estuary, fog spills into cul-de-sacs and between cars and over small hills from the sea.

Not even 200 metres high, our local slope is a minute thing. Yet it has power in association. It is part of a family of extinct volcanoes and volcanic plugs, hundreds of millions of years old, that circle this coast.

Bass Rock.

Arthur’s Seat.

North Berwick Law.

When the haar creeps into the Forth estuary in late afternoon, I sometimes watch from the window, as I’ve often watched the seasons pass by during these last few years. The crag goes first, its familiar outline erased in whiteness, then the distant trees. Each is picked away by the ghostly cloud, turning to grey, then gone altogether.

Somewhere in the distance, a horn sounds. Maybe a cruise ship anchored off the port of Leith, a tanker going to Grangemouth, or perhaps the heavy lift vessel we saw from the beach when the skies were clear, holding a platform.

Three huge metal columns reach into the heavens from its rusted body. A fossil from the North Sea oilfields. Hidden by the haar, it’s easier to turn your gaze — if not your ears — from what this giant remnant represents.

On cloudy spring mornings like this one, I think ahead to the summer. Haar has always been a part of my life on the east coast of Scotland during the warmer months.

But I wonder whether I’ll welcome it as frequently as I have in the years to come, or whether it will disappear, like it seems to be elsewhere in the world, as both air and sea continue to simmer their warnings.

Subscribe by email

Pop your email address below and you’ll receive a notification when there’s something new to read on this website about slower travel, switching off, and Scotland. I don’t use your details in any way.

2 responses to “The first haar of spring”

  1. I enjoyed this haar update. The Danish name for it, is ‘havgus’. It reminds of summer, by the harbour, you can’t see much and you feel the welcoming cold on your unprotected arms, as the seagulls swarm around to find a place to rest.

    • Thank you Nadja! That’s interesting — the word ‘haar’ is thought to come from the Old Norse, so I wonder whether there is some link here between the Danish and Scots words! I recognise that ‘welcoming cold’ very well. That’s a lovely way to put it, both a relief and a rawness at the end of a hot day.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at