It is March, and hares are appearing everywhere from nowhere. Where have they been all winter? Now they are ubiquitous: brown in every field and hollow. Beside every burn, beyond every ditch in the gradually greening grass. On the turned furrows or at the edge of the heather. Not one, but three hares together. Following each other round in their silly, slow dance, like a spring winding until …
… off they go; northwest, east and south into the brightening day. A shower and a fragment of rainbow on the pastoral horizon. Their effortless, unhurried sprint. Haring over the fields, they are the fastest creatures on legs in our archipelago – more like a small roe than a large rabbit. The richly brown hare is a beast of some weight and power.
If you should strike one with your car (he has been traversing an Orkney hillside along the same contour since the ice retreated) you will feel a heavy crunch at the level of the number plate. The sound is not easily forgotten. If you have shot a hare and carried it in your game bag for a morning, you will know its weight. The weight is not easily forgotten. The death of a hare is always, I feel, a cause for regret. I drive slower each year, and could not now contemplate shooting a hare.
An old man who grew up in Rousay told the following story. When he was a boy of about nine or ten, he was out walking in the hill when he came across a hare in the long grass. It lay absolutely still, petrified, and he was able to light on it and grab a hold of it. His family were hungry, but he was not strong enough to kill the hare. Instead, he held the convulsing creature tight round his waist – forefeet in one hand and hindfeet in the other – and walked for a mile over the heather to the house, where his mother dealt with it. It provided a hearty, protein-rich meal, a welcome break no doubt from the monotonous staples of oatmeal porridge and salt fish.
In Evie, the New Year’s Day Hare Shoot was attended by all the men of the parish, who drove the hares ahead of them through the arable and down to the headland at Aikerness, where the creatures had little hope of escaping the guns. A New Year’s dinner followed at the farmhouse. This tradition gradually declined until the guns finally fell silent in the late twentieth century. Now, the hares are more numerous than ever in the parish, and they do no-one any harm.
It’s little wonder, with their uncanny speed, that the credulous peasants of the Middle Ages believed them to be otherworldly, spirit creatures that came and went from our world into a magical other place. Gentle beasts, silly speedsters, harmless beauties.