Louis

Robert Louis Stevenson, by John Singer Sargent

I am obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson. He has become a habit, and it’s costing me a fortune in books.

Like many famous authors, Stevenson is surrounded by a fog of mythology and legend. It seems unfair that he should be remembered for children’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped when his work sprawled across all kinds of varied and challenging terrain. Most people know that he suffered from recurring illness throughout his life; it’s a curious piece of pub trivia that he dropped dead unexpectedly in Samoa. But beyond those scanty impressions, the man himself is oddly obscure.

During a cold weekend in October, I buried myself in Richard Woodhead’s 2001 book The Strange Case of RL Stevenson. It’s a biography in the loosest sense of the word because the book is only partially true. In a bid to shed light upon the precise nature of Stevenson’s life-long illness, Woodhead imagines a series of interviews with several doctors who cared for the author during the course of twenty years. The narrative is based on medical notes, diaries and extensive research, but the gaps are patched with fabrication and guesswork.

And it’s entirely fitting that the real Stevenson should shine like a furnace in this odd hotch-potch of fact and imagination. His personality is revealed with such warmth and excitement that I could’ve leaped into the pages and hugged him. Forget that dry, establishment figure who recently passed his 170th birthday; here is a giddy, passionate boy, wracked by illness and burning with extraordinary love for the world around him. He’s mercurial, rapturous and desperately vulnerable; torn by Presbyterian guilt and yet simultaneously driven forward by a wild and desperate rebellion against authority. I simply warmed to him with every passing page.

We’ve all stumbled over the name “Robert Louis Stevenson” for so long that it was a joy to realise that he was merely “Louis” to his friends (pronounced Lewis). Stripped away from his novels and the cult which emerged to consume his work after he died in 1894, I was able to see Louis fidgeting with excitement in a haze of his own cigarette smoke; giggling and bright-eyed with some fresh adventure or dream. After this glimpse of the man himself, I am desperate to revisit everything I know of his work, including many books and writings which I have never seen before. It’s a kind of pilgrimage, and it delights me more with every passing day.

The Strange Case of RL Stevenson is printed and circulated by a small publishing house in Edinburgh. It’s a marginal text for a niche audience, and I doubt we’ll see it on any bestseller lists. But as a frame to capture and express a personality, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling “biography”.

I’d like to write an awful lot more about Stevenson over the next few months on this blog, but it’s worth throwing down a marker now that, for me, it all began with this strange biography.

Adder

The bull calf and his mother

In my line of work, progress comes with such ponderous slowness that I am rarely satisfied by it. Unless you take stock and raise a pint now and then, it’s easy to forget that you’ve made any headway at all.

Gathering, sorting and loading three beasts into a trailer today, I looked up and found that I was engaged in complex, challenging work. And there was nobody to help me; and I hardly cared about that absence. I used depend upon friends and family members to walk me through even the simplest tasks – now I realise that I can do most things on my own. Of course there will always be some chores which require an extra pair of hands, but it’s a fair boost of confidence to realise that I have come to think nothing of jobs which used to overwhelm me.

And bigger still, there’s a good reason why I gathered those beasts and loaded them up in the bright and watery sunshine. One of my first riggit cows had a bull calf this year, and he’s just about perfect. He’s thick and blocky in the shoulders, and there’s a fine blue smudge around his lugs which simply makes me smile. There’s a fair margin for personal preference when it comes to riggits, but in following my own taste, I think this calf is as good as I’ll get. However, there’s small demand for riggit galloways in the modern world, and only a handful of bulls are sold each year. It costs a great deal to raise a bull if you aren’t sure that you’ll be able to sell him. In a normal year, he would’ve been castrated by now as a matter of course. It wouldn’t have mattered that he shows style and promise – he’d have been earmarked for the abattoir.

But this boy has found a buyer; a farmer in Northumberland who’s looking to set up a herd of his own hill cattle.

That’s a fine, prestigious endorsement. A bull is more than half your herd, so to have a stranger come and buy an animal you’ve bred? – well, that’s getting near to being an honour. The deal was done in August, and I’ve enjoyed seeing the boy grow on towards maturity. His brothers were castrated on a bright day in October (on which perhaps more to come), but the bull calf was kept back and allowed to remain intact. He’s been given the name “adder“, and once that’s been approved by the Riggit Galloway Cattle Society, he’ll go down as the first pedigree beast I’ve bred and registered.

Adder will head to his new home in February, and then I’ll get to follow his progress from afar. I know that he’ll make a handsome beast, and I’ve started to think of him as a spark flung from my project to start a fire elsewhere. I find that very satisfying indeed.

So I loaded him into the trailer with his father and brought them both home after a long summer; back to the sheds and the in-bye fields where I can cosset them both and oversee their progress into the winter. I want to be proud of that calf when he goes. For all that he shows promise, there is still work to do; and when he proves to be a success, I hope we’ll share it together.

So I look up and realise that as weeks and months glide past without celebration or comment, there is plenty to be proud of.

New

After several years of writing this blog, I was beginning to feel like I’d made some progress. Working for Grouse had become a substantial piece of work, and it was a pleasure for me to sift through that back-catalogue of records and notes which spanned more than a decade. I believe that there’s sufficient material in Galloway to fill a century of journals and diary entries, but I also began to worry that simply recording my days was only part of the picture.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time working inside a genre called “nature writing”. That wasn’t a conscious decision, but since my book Native was published in April, it was interesting to see where that label placed me on a map alongside other writers. I was a little uncomfortable with what I found. I’ve often struggled to connect with “nature writing”, which can lean towards some fairly staid and cosy principles. More often than not, the countryside is represented as a fragile but restorative escape from the hectic reality of urban life. Nothing could be further from my experience of living and working in the hills of southern Scotland.

And while I’ve made snooty complaints about “nature writing”, that genre has expressed similar discomfort about me. I don’t really belong. I’m reckoned to be one of the “bad guys” because I used to work as a gamekeeper. Those nasty old habits die hard, because I still shoot guns, set traps and burn heather as part of a farming life which can be staggeringly immersive.

In seeking to write well and honestly about my experience of Galloway, it’s been jarring to find that many readers consider my approach to be obscure or offensive. That was never my intention; I’m not here to court controversy or start arguments. I started to write this blog because I was excited by birds and wildlife. And now I’m beginning to see how those subjects tie into all of us and the experience of life itself. I’m desperate to approach these new angles with passion and clarity.

So while pushing on with some well-established threads of this blog, I’d also like to go outside the normal flow. I was tempted to convert Working for Grouse into a vehicle for grumblings and dissent. That would’ve been fun, but I think it might be more useful to focus upon subjects and ideas which I find inspiring and exciting. I’ve been writing reviews, stories and essays for several years. They’ve been abandoned on my computer, but there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be publishing this kind of stuff here. Perhaps it’ll seem disparate at first, but I hope that sharing it will help me to work out where I’m going.

Having found that my writing lacks an obvious home, I think it’s a fair response to make one.

Recovery

The grass turned and the cows faltered. Two mornings of frost fried the blades and spooled them into ribbons which came loose at their roots like slack teeth. Having blown back and forth across the hill with the lightness of moths at the height of midsummer, the beasts were finally pressed into work. They covered the ground as September wore on, and they took more of the failing grass than ever before.

Until that moment, the hill had come to them in a breeze of easy living. The frosting drove them to bellow and moan, and they’d rush to me when I walked amongst them in the heather and myrtle. It was not discomfort, but something more like antsiness and a growing sense of impatience. They didn’t know what I could do to help, but they nagged at me for something. And in those few transitional days as the grass turned, I think the cattle did more good for the hill than in all the summer combined.

Deep, rank beds of vegetation were baffled by the grind of heavy hooves. Accustomed to lying loose in long, extravagant strands, the tussocks were trimmed down to the barest bristles. I found lumps of black grouse shit in the clearings, and a brood of young birds clattered up around the willow scrub like chickens going to roost. On the better ground, the bracken banks were mashed beyond all recognition; tangles of red wreckage destroyed and overturned like busted scaffolding. The beasts knew where to go and how to make use of the hill; they fanned out and covered the bogs and the deep flushes which trembled with scabious and white flags of parnassus. For ten days, they ruled the roost and delivered everything I had been looking to see all summer.

And then the moment passed. The grass moved beyond that jammy redness to something thinner and crisp, like miles of spooled out cassette tape. The antsy cattle spilled into open frustration. The cold weather pressed them to work overly hard, and two of them escaped back to the Loch and the marshes where the grass seemed greener. Watching them on my computer via the satellite tags, I could see they were travelling further every day. They began to ping around the moss like pinballs, gathering energy and momentum to move under their own steam. If I had all of this ground, I would’ve opened the slip gate and sent them out to cover the neighbouring hill for the winter – but for me it was time to bring them down again; home to the inbye and the promise of silage. And of all that I have learned this year, the most valuable lesson is how to spot that precise moment of transition when the beasts have done enough.

So I called them up to the gate and shook a bag and they came from half a mile away, thundering and moaning like teenage boys. Fearing that this final stage of the summer’s work would be the hardest, I had gnawed at my nails in anticipation. Any fool can put cattle on a hill, but it’s a tough job to bring them home again. Knowing that the final hurdle would be the hardest, I had trained the beasts to respond to this summons over many weeks. My nerves were frayed by the suspense of that moment, but it was no surprise to find them willing.

They barrelled up to the open gate, then thundered out to the old railway line where they dripped and churned with excitement. I found it strange to see them exposed in their naked entirety without a skirt of grass or myrtle to conceal their modesty. I had become used to finding them afloat in the moss; I hadn’t seen their feet since May. And how they’d grown!

Then I walked them down to the gathering-pens which were built in a steep-sided railway cutting. And “cutting” is a misnomer, because there is no carving granite – that slot was blasted into the rock with sticks of dynamite. I’ve heard it said that the busting of that line could be heard for thirty miles in every direction, and it’s fair to say those Victorian engineers achieved wondrous things in the far hills. Now that they’ve gone forever, the image of black, satanic steam engines feels more like a dream in this place than any practical reality.

Having pulled the cattle off the moss, it was wonderfully straightforward to run them down the railway line into the pens. They began to gallop, so I ran alongside them with a bag of nuts until they blew and clattered and tossed their heads. The first gate gathered them in, and the second closed fast behind them. It took a few moments to bring up the livestock trailer, and in the rush of thundering hooves, I realised that less than five minutes had passed since I first shouted on them to “come up” and “well done”.

And with the customary batter and slam of heavy trailer doors, the cattle were heading home after their first summer on the hill.

Beef

The butcher’s shop was broad and clean on the High Street. It was fun to go there as a child. I loved to see the meat laid out in banks and patterns like the start of a board-game, and like every shop I knew back then, the butcher’s had a smell of its own; crisp and familiar as the bell above the door.

It made sense to find scents of bread in the bakery. The grocer’s reeked of cabbage and soil, but the butcher’s smelled only of butcher. I rarely paused to wonder where that smell came from, but I knew it wasn’t meat. The butcher smell hummed in the air like an electric flytrap; a whined reminder of something else.

My mother would ask for chops and rolled shoulder, and I’d smile at the men and goggle at the wads of square sausage and sliced haggis laid out for display. One of the butchers slipped me a twenty pence piece from the till one morning. He was a small man and always smiling, and he kept an orgy of naked women on his forearms, bleached and blue as if they’d been drawn on cheap paper. He loved to run his dogs, and it was reckoned that most of the hares in that shop window had come from farms around the town. I wonder now if he ever had the pleasure of selling them back to the farmers he’d robbed, and I think he was the kind of man that would’ve been tickled by that. Years later, I heard that he drank one night and rolled his car on ice above Colvend. And that was the end of him; a graceful glide into the root of a roadside tree.

I saw my first cow killed on Saturday. Down she went, and then a stench so powerfully familiar that I reeled away from it. Because here is the butcher’s smell traced back to source; not meat, but a moment written in scent so rich and wild that it could wake you in the night, like peat smoke or the shock of broken stone. It’s ox-blood and fresh death; a sticky baste of joint fluid and eyes drying; not meat, but killing as it always has been. And I can forgive myself for failing to recognise that smell because cows are one of two things to a child – alive or beef. It’s hard to imagine a space between those states, but believe me when I say there is a third way in the lolling, unstrung tongue which is neither living nor cold as the clots begin to wobble.

Feeling curious in the aftermath of that killing, I leaned headfirst into the drum where her lungs had hung. I drew that butcher’s smell into my nose and exploded at the recollection of blue tattoos and the heavy gold chain around his neck; and his Rangers hat which he wore to work in the coldstore where steam rose from his breath like hot liver and the bunchy clumps of kidney fat all strapped in slatted ribs like the staves of a busted barrel. Having seen what can happen when you fall to your knees, I fought to stay upright.

I went back to explore the carcass on Sunday, but the smell had gone. The body was steady and stiff with the cool, sober odour of beef; something you might serve to guests or children. But the recollection of an old scent can fairly set you going. And I have my hands full, packing and slicing joints into bags and wraps of paper. There is no time for me dwell upon the memory of a man who has been dead for two decades. But he swarms around me, and I can’t remember his name.

Rat and a rat

“Hello Rat;

Hello a rat”.

Gripped in a fever, I pull a blanket round my shoulders and watch a creature crackle in the pig sty straw. I repeat those words to myself over and over; hello Rat; hello a rat, And it occurs to me that there are two meanings here. And I say Go on then – let’s pass some time and draw a line between Rat and a rat. tarrat. atat.

And having asked, I think aloud and reply to myself that Rat is the substance from which a rat can be drawn. Rat is the mother; the fire from which a rat is cast like a spark to run and writhe and replicate like rice.

I shiver and watch as a rat comes to butter its whiskers on the lip of a trough. My toes curl with disgust, but having talked myself into an awareness of Rat, I’m glad to have some diversion; because the endlessness of Rat is enough to wake you screaming in the darkness. I recoil from an idea which runs like a stain to link the actions of a million slithering parts.

And I’m ever more thankful for a rat, which allows me to say “I know what that is”. There’s comfort in the hateful certainty of it; and reassurance because the replicant’s secrets are bare. A rat is one and the same wherever you find it; lapping itself in a relay of theft and coitus; countably foul. I know that a rat can be solved by a spade or a slavering dog.

And I’m sure there is no solving Rat.

I coil this idea round and through my clammy hands for twenty minutes. It leaves a mark like that day when the snow fell and the whiteness was hashed by the track and backtrack of small prints between the feed bins and the dump. I run a temperature of 100.5 °F, and the morning light is rancid in the doorway. I wonder – if Rat was here, could I see it? Because now I’m looking.

Autumn

You’ll have seen the daylight fading?

And you’ll know that dawn has become a workday normality; that night falls when you’ve hardly made sense of your evening?

Autumn is a fair time to walk in the darkening hills and think of all that sunlight you pissed up the wall in June and July. Remember how angry it made you when, as a child, you were sent to bed on summer nights when it was broad daylight outside? Remember how you railed at the loss of that time, swearing to yourself that if you could only grow up, you’d never waste the possibilities of sunshine?

And does it not bother you to break that promise every summer now you’re grown? When did you start to care that it’s time for bed; that you’ve work in the morning and deadlines to meet? By Christ, you’re lucky that boy can’t see you now – now you’ve haltered yourself in a stall.

So if you’ve clocked this downward trend, perhaps you’ll take solace from a few autumn days which come stitched together in a semblance of stability. Perhaps you’ll find the season that you hoped for in a week of fine weather; matching days for golden leaves and the din of a stag in the gairies. Having failed to grab your childhood summer, grab this now because it’s all you’re getting. Before you know it, a wind’ll swing (as winds can swing) to bring rain or a sense of dullness. You’ll wake to find it’s dark for an hour longer in the morning, and comforting yourself, you’ll say “it’s just the weather – Autumn can’t have vanished overnight”.

And you’re almost right, because chances are that fair weather will return in a day or two. The light’ll widen slightly, and it’ll feel like a recovery. But there is no coming back from that first impact, and when rain drives in for a second or a third time, you’ll begin to see the shortfalls plainly. And so with every descending step into winter, each setback of darkness or fog will be restored with something fainter; each rally will reveal some fresh absence until, in a mass of low cloud and heaviness, you’re unable to recall the last fine day. And you’ll say

this must be how it feels to grow old

Best and Worst

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 7/6/20

The cattle have been out for a month, and it feels like they have grasped the meaning of their work. It’s fine to hear them ripping at the new grass, gently reshaping the hill with a thousand gobful tears. The ecological benefits of having them out are increasingly plain to see, but this project attempts to find a balance between agriculture and conservation, and it’s important to keep an even eye on both ends of the puzzle.

I have nine beasts on the hill, and seven are doing just fine. They’re broad-backed and heavy, and the heather has combed them into show-ground perfection. The other two are bugging me because they seem to be misfiring. They are the last two calves born in the first week of July 2019. They were late and small and never quite caught up with the cohort. It’s almost embarrassing to see how light they are against the others, and while I’m confident they will make up ground as the summer rolls on, it’s interesting that their bellies are often half-empty when the others are full, and they tread lightly around the group, often hanging about the fringes. It’s marginal stuff and perhaps I am tuned to focus on small details, but it’s a puzzle to wonder why they have been slow to bloom in a world of free and easy grass.

I have no interest in showing cattle, but I can easily spot my best. If I was minded to do a little fussing and brushing, I could do fine on the show circuit – certainly not stellar, but steady. However, it set me thinking how every herd will have a mix of good and less good, and the show season permits the cream to float. And wouldn’t it be fun if the best animal from every herd also had to be shown alongside the worst? Imagine the shame of it, but at least it would be a better representation of the work that goes into breeding cattle. Picture the show-lines at Ingliston, with every rosette-wearing champion forced to stand alongside something a little dull and goonish, with torn ears and a funny gait. Knowing that no breeder is perfect, it would be easier to make your peace with the occasional “also-ran”.

Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton

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Cwa’een like milk-wort and bog-cotton hair!

I love you, earth, in this mood best o’ a’

When the shy spirit like a laich wind moves

And frae the lift nae shadow can fa’

Sine there’s nocht left to thraw a shadow there

Owre een like milk-wort and milk-white cotton hair.

 

Wad that nae leaf upon anither wheeled

A shadow either and nae root need dern

In sacrifice to let sic beauty be!

But deep surroondin’ darkness I discern

Is aye the price o’ licht. Wad licht revealed

Naething but you, and nicht nocht else concealed.

 

Hugh MacDiarmid, from Scots Unbound, 1932

 

In cutting peat and turning turf towards the wind, these late spring days continually draw me back to this poem which I learned as a teenager. I never liked MacDiarmid much, and I raged against him in articles I wrote and illustrated for the student magazine in Glasgow. But as I grew up, I began to realise that he had an eye for the hills of home and wrote better and with more clarity on the Southern Uplands than anyone since Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve often leaned heavily upon Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton, and it has never failed me.

MacDiarmid spent his early life at Langholm. His work was drawn from the hills around that “muckle toun” – but those hills are merely a single thread in a bigger bolt of moorland country which runs across Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire and the Borders. Draw a square with corners in Cumnock, Moniaive, Biggar and Newcastleton – it makes sense to think of that space as a single, blue-remembered whole which supersedes county boundaries.

When June comes, MacDiarmid’s land is soft and curlew-sounding; distance mounding with cloud and the hurl of sheep-sweat. It’s powerfully distinctive, but in recent years this landscape has become a place to build wind-farms and produce commercial timber. It clings to life in shreds and remnants, and while thousands of people pass through it in trains and cars every week, few will do more than blink at deep railways cuttings and the wreckage of industrial development. This land is living the eternal tragedy of Southern Scotland; to be overlooked and under-valued as an obstacle between bigger and better things. I was born and raised to look in at these hills from further south and west, but I know it well and a handful of my outlying ancestors recline in graveyards from Kilmarnock to Drumelzier.

MacDiarmid’s land is obscure to the point of fault, so it’s right that he should mark it with an emphasis on tiny, telling details. Milk-wort is a moorland flower no bigger than a bee’s head. It glows in shades of blue and purple, and it loves the old cattle-trods of the south. Bog-cotton is a more familiar plant, but it grows so thickly in the moss and peat haggs that it’s easily ignored. In merging the sunless combination of these two immaculately understated symbols, MacDiarmid is unearthing a live-wire connection to a very specific place. When an east wind blows down over the Nith into Galloway, there’s a tangible reek of milk-wort and bog-cotton in the air; the crazy old poet moves in a laich wind. And like him, I love the earth in that mood, best of all.

I used to think that life lay elsewhere. When I began to write, I always imagined myself on some adventure in California or the African veldt because I was bored with my home and it seemed impossible that anything valuable could ever happen here. But in this poem and a handful of others, MacDiarmid showed me that enormity lies wherever you look for it. And perhaps the best I can do is love my own place truly, then tell.

macdiarmid 1
“I never liked MacDiarmid much” – one of my old caricatures from c.2007

Arrivals

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The replicant – a carbon copy of her mother

Courthill, Buittle Parish – 31/5/20

The calving is halfway done, and the new calves lie snoozing in a blare of sunshine. Here is the second generation of calves from my bull Godwit, and they’re a fine mix of patterns and colours. The most beautiful by far is an immaculately marked riggit heifer born last week to one of my original batch of cows which came down from Balmaclellan in 2016. It was fun to find that this cow threw a bull calf last year which might have been herself in miniature. The resemblance was almost uncanny; every blotch and smudge had repeated upon the calf in beautiful duplicate. This year, she’s done it again – and in producing a heifer, she seems almost to have cloned herself.

There are four more calves to come, and one in particular that I am sorely excited to see. Every day seems to stretch on to twice a reasonable length as I agonise and fret, checking my watch and waiting for the new beasts to show themselves.