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.
The owld byre at Rashabreck wis re-slated in 1966. Three winters ago, a northerly gale stripped off a patch o the Orkney slab slates an noo a ragged hole gapes oot tae the north. Cheust inside this opening, on top o the cupples, rests a most remarkable built structure – the largest made by any creatur in these islands. A metre wide by a metre high, it is a massive ravens’ nest.
It’s a coorse nest, reflectan the intelligence, strength and resourcefulness o its builders. Most o the dried sticks are sycamore or fuchsia. There are bits o rope, barbed wire, cable ties, heather roots, ku hair, scrap metal, an dried gresses wound intae the structure. It’s like a roond bale o rural detritus. The top is crowned wae a delicate, soft bed o cheviot wool. This is the regal bed o the corbies’ eggs.
There are folk that wid clim up there an smash those eggs. Ravens perpetrate unspeakable cruelty tae newborn lambs at this time o year. But I love them nevertheless. The purple sheen o them. Their cheust-fur-the-hell-o-it tumbling fall in mid-flight. Their gentle xylophone calls. Their size, their ability tae coont, their monogamy.
Me owld freend the late Ernie Donaldson loved the Scots ballad The Twa Corbies, in which twa ravens discuss the whereaboots o a cadaver. The ravens plan tae perch on the dead knight’s collarbone, eat his eyes, an use his ‘gowden hair’ tae theek their nest. Ernie liked tae remark that, although the knight was dead, he ‘gave so much tae life’.
Black, carrion birds they may be – but they are rich in iridescent colour and spirited character. They gie so much tae life themsels. I wish them weel, as they cock an eye oot fae under the brokken slates in the Rashabreck roof and luk owre Eynhallow Soond tae the Atlantic beyond.