Lockdown Parable

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Tonight, I have fulfilled a longstanding ambition: to sow a peedie patch o sacrificial crop for wild birds. At just 0.1 o a hectare, it’s no the biggest area o arable in the West Mainland. But I’m excited aboot it.

I’m excited tae think that, through the winter months, I might see a flock o Twite, or Greenfinches, a charm o Goldfinches, or – whit I secretly hope for above all else – that most endearing o peedie birds, a December Brambling foraging among the fallen oats.

There is ancient poetry in the names o the mixed smaller seeds: Buckwheat, Phacelia, Linseed, Camelina, Borage. Carrying the bag o seed across the field, I feel like a character in a story by George Mackay Broon. The west wind has gone to bed, a bull blares in the next field, and we broadcast the seed by hand in the dyes of the westering sun.

Nicola Sturgeon will likely broadcast the beginnings o the end o lockdown the morn. Coronavirus continues tae decline for noo. We hope these seeds will germinate, grow tall, and feed the peedie winter finches in January 2021.

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Return of the Eagle

The white-tailed sea eagle occupies a unique place in the history and prehistory of Orkney. It is the mythic bird, known as Onyo to the Orkney Norse, that fed carrion to ragged fledglings in heathery nests on the eponymous Enya’s Hill, in Rendall. It is the Pictish spirit bird from the Broch of Birsay, carved – complete with dense leg feathers extending down to the feet – on the perplexing, meticulous symbol stones. It is, most famously, the talisman bird of the Isbister chambered tomb in South Ronaldsay; the world-renowned Tomb of the Eagles.

It was with no small sense of expectation that we began to read, years ago, of the modest successes of the reintroduction programme in Mull. I don’t like melodrama, but it’s true that I have been waiting all my life to see a white-tailed eagle in my home islands.

When the moment finally arrives, at about three o clock on Saturday afternoon, it is not as I had expected. I’m driving my daughter home from her weekend job at Woodwick House, when we see an agitated mixed flock of hoodie crows, gulls, a whaup and a teeack. What are they mobbing? Well, yes, it is enormous, and flying low over my neighbour’s barn at Fursan: the bird which needs no identification.

Luk! It’s a sea eagle! I say.

Calm doon, Dad. It’s just a bird, she says.

And this is the undecorated truth: it is just a bird. Of course it is the size of a medium-sized car bonnet. But apart from the shock of its size, the creature seems relaxed, at home, unperturbed by its frantic flock of frightened followers. An ordinary bird, gaan aboot its business. Slouching a little, hounded, not too majestic, and with the broad, stubby sea-eagle tail. Covering about four metres to every wingbeat, it makes its way across the steeper fields to Moonlight, and beyond to the hill land.

So where does this leave the years of build up? It hasn’t been so much the Pictish spirit bird of the carvings. And it didn’t appear like my imagined Neolithic talisman, circling at dawn round bright sunshafts out over the North Sea, five miles east of the Isbister craigs. It turns out to be a familiar, hungry-looking bird. The kind of thing you might see crouched on your neighbour’s midden, mobbed by rooks and jackdaws, glaepan a ku’s cleanings. Less a mythic spirit of Scotland’s past than a domestic symbol of Scotland’s future.

What is it we love so much about creatures like this? Well, they connect us to other parts of Europe, reminding us that we are not at the end of any line. An orca can travel from Iceland to John O Groats, a walrus from Faroe to North Ronaldsay. A sea eagle that can soar over the Hordaland fjords can also fish in the Orkney soonds. So they remind us that we are at the centre of an interconnected northern ecological web. Our Scottish sea eagles cry out rebirth, renewal, revival. They are our triumph over the upper-class Victorian perversion for plundering nests, and shooting into oblivion anything that flew. They speak to us not of what Scotland was, but of what Scotland will be. And, for the record, I still do expect to watch a pair of magnificent Onyos soaring over Eynhallow in the dyes of the westering sun, in a not-too-distant future summer.

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A January Windfall

Two days of glorious westerlies arrive in early January with the kind of reassuring familiarity that takes us back to childhood. I abandon the computer for an hour to have some soup and then drive the battered Renault Scenic along the shore road to the broch. The sea is whisked, aerated, white as milk. Maybe an interesting bird will have been swept in from the North Atlantic on this solid, magnificent wind.

It’s high water. A blizzard of gulls wheels round the mouth of the burn where ware is being churned in the shallows and driven ashore. There will be dead and dying fish here. The gulls rotate too quickly for me to identify anything. The Scenic shudders in the gusts. I step outside briefly and am surprised to be able to taste the salt in the air. The car door tugs in my hand, eager as a dog on a lead. It’s just too windy to be here.

I drive on, stopping to raise the binoculars again. There’s an almost imperceptible rise in the sodden field to the east of the road. It must afford some lee, because there’s a mixed flock of gulls here. About sixty five of them, hunkered down, beaks pointed northwest. Like so many upturned fibreglass hulls, bows to the wind.

Herring Gulls, Common Gulls, Great Black Backs. And there, among the familiar greys and blacks, is a gull of pure, brilliant white. I realise that I am seeing something I have never seen before. A pure white gull, immaculate alongside the grimy-looking young Herring Gulls, more delicate than the thuggish Blackbacks. Pure as the driven snow, storm driven out of the North Atlantic. In another time, in another culture, this bird would be worshipped as the pure spirit of winter; it is an Iceland Gull.

My friend Jim Meason tells me that, many years ago, an old seaman showed him a ‘white White-Maa’ in Stromness harbour. ‘Maa’ is the northern word for any gull – in Dutch, German or Scots – and a White-Maa is a Herring Gull or a Common Gull in Orkney. So the ‘white White-Maa’ was an Iceland Gull. Jim’s bird was more elegant in flight than the commonplace Maas, and had a more delicate expression. To this day occasional Iceland Gulls over winter in Stromness harbour, but I have never seen one there.

But now, as I turn in the car park at the broch and make for home, the entire flock lifts itself into the gale, wheeling skywards. The white bird soars highest, with exceptional grace. These moments of newness are rarer and more precious the older we become. I drive on, elated by the weather and my spectral windfall.

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Windthrushes

On the winter winds come the Windthrushes. Miraculous faals o them, flachteran doon in their tens o thoosands fae Scandinavia an the northern ocean. Doon fae the Fair Isle Channel an across the North Soond. Owre North Ronaldsay, Sanday, Westray, and doon on tae the sirpan pastures o Tankerness, Deerness, an the Orkney West Mainland.

Ower the last few days, there’s been such rain an wind that peedie lochs hiv formed in ivry depression o the land; it’s no exaggeration tae caal them lochs, for they rise in gurly, frothy waves in the wind at this time o year. And, everywhaur among them, Windthrushes, hardy peedie travellers that hiv braved the North Sea seekan maet.

There’s something heartwarmin aboot seean these plucky peedie Norskies on the stubble on a November morneen. No maitter hou cauld, weet an dark the winter gets, there’s life, colour an resilience there. Gloweran, wae their fierce-like yellowish eye-stripe. Flashan crimson fae their oxters.

I picked een up wan morneen. It haed flown intae the gless o me office window. The stunned craitur seemed unco light, fragile an delicate, afore it burst up oot o me haand an darted awey owre the washed-oot yellow-green o the Kirkpretty fields. William Groundwater noted in Birds and Mammals of Orkney (Kirkwall, 1974) that, on the night o October 18-19th 1966, a hunder an forty migrant Windthrushes were killed at the North Ronaldsay lighthoose.

O aal the winter visitors, I love these Windthrushes the most. Snow Buntings bring a touch o the exotic Alps or Cairngorms tae pastoral Orkney, and Fieldfares hiv a Presbyterian character aal o their own. Harlequin-coloured waterfowl arrive in their tens o thoosands fae Iceland. But there’s notheen quite as upliftin as seean a resplendent fall o Windthrushes, bold in fresh snow, or newly alighted in the low winter sun.

The Rev. G Low recorded the Orkney neem ‘Windthrush’ in the nineteenth century. But in whit distant prior century did an Orkney crofter poet think, as he watched them blowan in off the North Sea, tae christen them ‘Windthrushes’? Ither languages, too, hiv interestin names for the bird. Hooiver cauld it soonds in Latin, the name is no withoot some romance: Turdis iliacus – the ‘Thrush o Troy’. The English is the prosaic ‘Redwing’. But the Orcadian ‘Windthrush’ haes a poetry o weather an observation that’s lackan in these ither tongues.

 Alexander Redwing

 

Hares everywhere from nowhere …

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.