Fried

There’s a surge of momentum to write in the moment and pin down the smallest details of each new experience. It’s compelling, but sometimes the impetus founders and the mist comes down. You might have work to do; meetings to attend. You can’t always reach for a pen, and I start to think that growing up is busy work. I worry that by the time that I’m an adult, each day will be full as a berry, with no space left to think or write things down.

And I’ve learned that if you haven’t seized the second, be prepared to see it fade and no amount of twitching revision can recapture it. I sometimes think I’d like to write about things which happened twenty years ago, but when I try, I see that recording and recovering are two different things. I like them both, but would you fry your steak or make a stew?

Two things have happened in the last month which cannot go unrecorded, even if they’re finally run ground in the context of a note about missing the moment.

The first was found in the headlights of my truck on a forest track between Laggan and Roy Bridge. It was a wildcat, or at least a creature so close to that ancient designation that it served as a fair stand-in. It stood for a moment in the electric beams, looking across me in profile with a face as flat as a pug and a tail so thick you’d call it a brush. Then it was gone, and I hardly know how to feel at having seen the unseeable.

The second was more myself, and perhaps it struck me harder to be out on the hills of home, walking on the table-top flats of an old red mountain. Stags roared in the corries, and then a shoal of golden plover coursing past within the range of a horn-tipped crook. Looking up for an explanation, I watched an eagle turn and go back upon itself towards the bay and the bright coils of the Cree, hardly hunting but enough to spread panic in the small birds.

And that’s all I can do with them for now; two moments in the current. Ten years ago, I had time to spin lovely tales from the dags of a sheep’s fleece. Now I count myself lucky if I’m able to throw the occasional placeholder in the purring pages of a book which runs through my fingers like a rising wind.

There were black grouse feathers in the grass the morning as I checked the cattle, and it’s hard to stomach that kind of loss. But with a few hours to reflect on the discovery, I’ve reached a kind of steady equilibrium.

For a start, the feathers had been shed for some time. They’d come from a young bird before it had fully fledged into early adult plumage. You don’t often see these adolescent feathers, which enable youngsters to flutter and do little more. Most of them are moulted out by the autumn, but I took some good photos of captive-reared birds at this stage (above) and it was useful to cross-check the feathers I found against these pictures.

I mainly found tail feathers (which are flimsy and barred) and feathers from the upper back between the wings. These photographs came in handy when I tried to guess time of death. I’d say that the remains I found originated from a bird between ten and twelve weeks old – so assuming that it hatched as normal around June 15th, it met its maker in the middle of August.

You can rarely be certain when it comes to a cause of death, but a fox had certainly been part of the party – the quills were all bitten through. Young black grouse often just turn their toes up and die for a range of complex reasons, and it’s not fair to immediately point the finger. The bird might have died and been picked up post mortem by a fox, and I have no real evidence to contradict that narrative. If it was killed by a predator, birds this size and over are generally only vulnerable to foxes and goshawks. Goshawks usually kill hardest in the winter, so I’d say by law of averages that if this bird was killed, it fell foul of a fox.

And I can settle with a degree of equilibrium because this kind of predation is par for the course. Young birds are weak and daft, and almost every other species in the world attempts to produce more than it requires to survive. Call it attrition, and while we sorely need more black grouse on the ground in Galloway, the real problem comes later in the autumn and the earliest days of spring. That’s when our young birds are decimated, and high hopes fall apart. Predation (exacerbated by poor winter feeding and cover) simply drives them into the ground.

I have been quite pleased with brood productivity this year, and counts have revealed some nice, well-grown broods of four, five and six. That’s a solid summer, but I’m not sure that productivity is our problem here in Galloway. We usually have good broods, and I often swing into September on a high. But those birds do not survive the winter, and they rarely live long enough to breed. Losing the odd youngster in August is normal. Losing your entire year’s new breeding stock every winter is not.

It’s a general pattern that most of our displaying blackcock are old or very mature in May. If they can get through their first winter, black grouse often live long and lavishly. I once knew a cock that lived for seven years. That’s quite an innings, but for all that he fathered many offspring during that time, he hung around on his own and he never saw any of his sons come through to join him at the lek. Of thirty-ish blackcock I saw this spring between Galloway and Ayrshire, only four were in their first year. You could say that young birds can be harder to find, but I’ve never seen much evidence to support this and I don’t think it’s a complete explanation anyway. Like curlews and so many other declining species, black grouse dwindle because they cannot retain the numbers they need to stand still. And like curlews, it’s easy to be gulled by the illusion of productive success. In population terms, it’s crucial to realise that unless young birds go all the way through the winter and produce young of their own in the following spring, they might as well have died in the egg.

I often get snipped for being gloomy. I won’t lose my rag over the death of a single poult in August because while I think that’s a pity, the problem clearly lies elsewhere. Reading back through old blog articles, I realise that ten years ago, I forecast the complete extinction of black grouse in Galloway within a decade. That hasn’t happened, and I was wrong. Perhaps that reflects badly on me, but I’m not sure there’s much to trumpet in my error. The number of black grouse at leks I count have declined by 80% and the birds have disappeared from six parishes where I knew them then. If you look at a map of their current distribution, it’s confined to a few feeble pockets, often with miles between them. Ten years ago, we needed a game changer; some radical new approach which placed a real value on these birds and allowed them to push back against the pressures which are crushing them. We haven’t had it, and when I look to the headlines and the local press, the only thing coming is more of the same. If I feel daft for my gloominess, it’s only because I spoke too soon.

Magic

Last night I saw two foxes fight in the moonrise. I ran to the gate’s cheek to meet the squall of the squirming bodies and the white tags of their tails. They battled cattily for a moment, then rose in a pair like steeples standing face to face and screaming with their heads sheared and snipping at the rush-light. I saw the eyelash moon behind them. I felt the stink of piss and hot breath, and I might’ve reached for those creatures with a stick or a pick handle. But they flew to the rowans as one thing in two parts, and I swear they left the ground.

My sense of magic’s sorely stunted. It’s too weak to hold my weight, but I would gladly retell that story as something more than a territorial dispute between competing males. Struggling inside my own confinements, I’ve found a friend in WB Yeats. He consoles me with the realisation that our busy modernity denies the “time to gather meaning, and too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold”. We can’t afford to follow every thread to its full, fantastic range of possibilities. Even as I’ve tried to describe this sudden thing to you, I’ve simply picked the fastest way, and the easiest one of the many things it was.

Results

Only as a brief postscript, it’s worth including this photograph of the vegetation on the hill where the cattle have been. In forty years without grazing, this purple moor grass had grown into a maze of deep and heavy tussocks. Each summer, new leaves would rise up and fall down uneaten to build a mat of old growth which turned white in the first winter and grey as it mouldered away. Purple moor grass is famously invasive. Nothing else can live where it prevails. But the cows have smashed that routine to smithereens, and the result is a pleasure to see.

When it comes up now, the new grass is munched away and the ribbons are severed to square-ends. The old carpet of dead vegetation has been trampled into ruin and it’s become possible to see the individual tussock-heads exposed. If you run your fingers through these shaggy tumps, the new grass feels like the bristles on an old man’s wart – but the cows don’t seem to mind the coarse grass and they do fine eating it. Some of the tussocks have been kicked to bits and several have snapped off and rolled away under the heavy cattle hooves. In the gaps and between the tussock-heads elsewhere, tormentil and bedstraw has begun to rise. Bracken which used to stand proud above the better bits has been battered back into submission. The first stems were trampled and the auxiliary second shoots seem stunted and anxious in their wake.

And all the while, the whole salad bowl has been sprayed with cowpats. When you lie face down in the grass as I did today, you can hear the undergrowth crackling with insects. It’s a sign of the change that I even thought to lie down and try it at all. In previous years, I’ve been too worried by the challenge of standing up and falling down in the deep grass and getting covered in ticks to even dream of lying on this hill.

News from the Hill

It’s been a better year on the hill. For several accidental reasons, the cows went out more than a month later than they did in 2020. The grass was there to meet them, and they swam into it. I dropped them off on June the third and they’ve never once looked back.

Two factors have really helped their progress. The first relates to the age and dynamics of the group. Last year, I worked with a cohort of very young stock. Most were under a year old and they had only recently been speaned from their mothers. That made them cautious and uneasy. They patrolled the perimeters of the hill and moved in a constant state of restlessness. This time around, the young beasts are accompanied by two empty cows and two steers which were on the hill last summer. That’s given them a sense of calm and focus which they sorely lacked before. They move with confidence and it’s easy to summon them up by shouting and waving a bag. I had to train them to this last year, and that was a lot of work. But they know the score this time around, and what a difference that makes.

The second change is that we’re now in year two. I felt like ten young beasts would be lost in a two hundred acre block of rough moorland, and it’s certainly true that they ricocheted around without seeming to leave a trace of their passing. But it turns out that they did make a difference. They grazed many of the best and most productive areas of the hill, and the action of their grazing went to improve the quality of the forage on offer. The hill is now greener and more diverse, and new grass grows through the punctures which the cattle stamped in the old mats of dead grass. Some of the strongly-established tussocks have been trampled into stumps, and wildflowers rise around them. The quantity of scabious and knapweed I’ve seen in the last few weeks is staggering. It’s a delight to see all the well-kent theories of conservation grazing in action, and it’s also clear that in the most popular areas for cattle, bracken coverage is in drastic decline.

Perhaps the most telling change comes from the satellite collars, which tell the story of where the cows spend their time. Last year, the tags would ping almost at random anywhere inside the two hundred acre enclosure. The beasts were constantly on the move. This year, the cattle have stuck to a single fifty acre patch. They could head further afield whenever they want, but they’ve never even tried. And the harder they graze, the better this piece of ground is able to cater for them. We often talk about finding a balance between farming and nature, and most farmers are trying to drag their management in a more environmentally friendly direction. I’m doing the opposite; working to fit livestock into a landscape so wild that many visitors can hardly believe that such a place exists. I will find a balance, but my start-point is very unusual.

In the heart of the most popular area, there is a greyhen with chicks in the myrtle. I doubt she could have raised young here without some grazing assistance, and I notice that the young birds often hang around under the bigger willow trees where the cows often lay for shade in the hotter days. The vegetation here is mown short as a bowling green, and the black grouse enjoy the ability to duck in and out between different sward lengths. That’s just one of many interesting and unforeseen side-effects of livestock grazing.

In the midst of all this progress, the cows are in excellent condition and I feel confident enough to enjoy the process at last. Last year was a constant source of stress and anxiety, but this time I’m finding things a great deal more peaceful. It’s interesting to see such a clear expression of the idea that grazing begets more grazing, and I’m surprised at the level of change which has transpired in two grazing seasons. From a distance, the hill looks almost exactly the same as it did when I started – but walk through the grass and it’s hard to ignore the enormity of the change.

Help

I had a dead calf in the spring. I never mentioned it, at least in part because I know that I’m too willing to be maudlin. It’s a bad habit. I should amend it, but in a world without many markers, that calf has begun to follow me; a creature that never walked and revealed itself only once as something that fell and kept falling.

And there it lay until the ravens found it. When I came, the face had gone from the skull and the tongue was pulled from its shoe. In her confusion and distress, the cow had trodden all around the empty calf and stepped once upon its back in accident. So the hind legs were splayed at puppet angles; when I rolled the carcass into a barrow, the bone-ends ground like grates of coral in a bag.

This calf had meant to be a bull, but he changed his mind and it died overnight as I lay in bed. Perhaps there might have been something that I could have done; a wishful list of past modals to cover the fact that I didn’t. But the cow gave no sign that she was ready, and I thought she owed me that. She could have let me help, but even these calm, domestic animals retain memories of an ancient animosity.

At some near-forgotten level, they know I’m out to get them. When I touch their bodies, I feel them gag in anticipation because what else can I be but danger? They cannot grasp the contradiction of our relationship, so when I’m done checking tags or pouring wormer, I drive the beasts home to their fields and they experience the resumption of their freedom as predation evaded – another near miss. They think I lack the killer clout; that I’m some clawless malevolence that would if only I could. The irony is that when I finally do, they’ll meet the change with no surprise and only wonder why I took so long. So why should they come to me for help except when all other hope has gone?

When the calf was lifted, she stayed around the flattened grass for a time. Then she walked back to the herd with her teats hung dry and hard like tubes of paint between her knees. I watched her go, seeing only the hide of her hardship and calling it my own.

Glorious Normality

We observed the Twelfth and killed birds because their time had come. How normal it was to see the hill grass thrown and churning in the wind; how like this month to feel rain and clouds gouging the tops like a sound of crumbled pumice.

When I was a child, I’d look forward to this day above all others. Grouse were the whole and brimful year, but I know them now and the heat’s gone out of our love. They’re comfortable friends, and I’m as glad to watch the cocks fight in March as I am to see their infants killed with the dying summer. The more I look, the less sense it makes to turn upon the birds suddenly because some change in the calendar permits it. Some of the grouse we saw have been ready for a month; others will take another month, and there is something unhinged about that midnight transition into the season. I’d hate to be the one who tried to explain it to the birds.

Most grouse are shot by busy visitors who lead their lives in a flux of motion. They come to the hills in August and each year serves a fresh chance to recall seasons gone by in a place that is always summer; always fragrant with dried flowers and the novelty of dogs. On dud days, they’ll say “it’s just nice to be out”, and I envy that. I’m not so easily satisfied because the stink of that heather is too like my life to slacken me. The bracken smells like a knapsack sprayer; I can feel as short tempered shooting grouse as I would be gathering cattle, and there’s nothing new or calming in the hills. Shooting is a fine observance and the year would feel slim without it, but it’s begun to carry the taint of work. It lies on the list between speaning lambs and gathering berries; fine as part of something bigger, but layered in a thousand related tasks.

When all the guns had gone, I sat for half an hour to watch the hill repair itself. A young cuckoo dropped down from the stones above me. It fluttered in the ragwort, picking caterpillars from the stripped-off stems. Most young cuckoos are gone by now; this is the latest bird I’ve ever seen here. That was fine, and then the engineer rang to say that work on the baler’s slipclutch is more complex than he feared and would I come and see. I’ve standing oats and I’ll soon have straw to bale, so I went to see, and the year rode on.

Here’s To Us, Sir Walter

I share my birthday with Sir Walter Scott. Having recently passed the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Scott’s birth, it’s been fascinating to see one of my favourite writers under the microscope in the media, particularly as we try to reassess his cultural and literary significance for modern Scotland.

In the BBC documentary In Search of Scott, the author Damian Barr attempted to pinpoint an explanation for why Sir Walter has fallen off the map. With a sense of growing exasperation, he concluded that he had never met any writer who cited Scott as an inspiration. That’s a fair sign of the times; Scott has never seemed more distant, but even if we can’t trace a direct influence from the man himself, it’s hard to think of a single nineteenth century writer who was not somehow influenced by Scott’s work. The man was a giant, and while it’s easy to make modern comparisons to big names in today’s literary scene, I’m not convinced that any of them really capture the scale of Scott’s celebrity. So if nobody wants to claim a connection Sir Walter Scott these days, I’ll happily step forward to fill the gap. He’s been a massive presence in my life for twenty years.

I will never get over the experience of reading Waverley. That book laid the foundations for my understanding of Scotland, not only from the enormity and breadth of that narrative but also in the creative potential of narrative itself. Scott was born within living memory of Culloden and the shadow of rebellion. By repatterning the all-too-fresh sense of discord and conflict in Scotland, he was able to work a tale which espoused a national myth; a story which offered the possibility of reconciliation between warring factions. Embracing the inherent diversity of Scotland across boundaries of religion, politics, language and geography, Scott was able to think about what a healed nation might look like. It’s not too much to say that Scott’s writing made Scotland, and it’s crucial to understand that as he undertook this task, he showed his working.

Scottish history never figured when I was at school, but the fag-ends I found as a child seemed to suggest that Culloden had been a battle between Scotland and England. Instead of this, Waverley describes a disaster which could easily be seen as a civil war between north and south; highland and lowland. Of course my heart went out to the shattered clans, but I was a lowlander from a place that despises the memory of Jacobitism. Scott freed me from my frustrated sense that Galloway is merely a dilution of the “real Scotland” you find in the north. Many of us in the south are irritated by that idea, but Scott allowed me to feel like I was entitled to be Scottish too. It’s ironic that his work is often despised for creating an overly simplified Scotland full of tartan and terriers – my take is that he espouses unity by reflecting complexity.

Since Waverley, I’ve consumed more than fifteen of Scott’s novels. Some are excellent, but others were pretty heavy-going. It’s certainly true that his prose calls for a serious investment of time and concentration. The words do not slip easily from the page, and his introductory set-pieces can feel madly cumbersome and verbose. If you’d like to try reading Waverley, be aware that nothing whatsoever happens for the first one hundred pages. That’s all bound to the style of the day, but it’s also worth saying that when the plot kicks in, you’ll be glad of the investment.

Almost a decade ago, I found a complete set of the Waverley novels in a junk shop on Byres road. It was published shortly before Scott’s death in 1832, and I brought the whole lot home for £10. It seemed extraordinary that I should be allowed to own books which properly deserved shelf-space in a museum, but the reality is that Scott’s work is far out of fashion. Even during a visit to Scott’s former home at Abbotsford last week, I searched long and hard through the gift shop before I found a slim rack of his novels tucked in a back corner. These were partly concealed by “modern retellings” of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy; shinily designed hardback books with unabashed assurances that the stuffiness had been stripped from them. It seemed to confirm my feeling that while Abbotsford is an international tourist destination, it hasn’t quite decided what to do about the collapse of Scott’s literary legacy.

Scott’s castle at Abbotsford is a strange, confected folly, and experts say that you can’t understand the man without visiting the home he built for himself. I agree with that, but refuting any sense of co-dependency, Abbotsford’s current incarnation is oddly light on Scott. The house floats slightly outside the context of its creator, presented as the home of a lovely, rather eccentric old man who spent a lot of time doing unspecified things in his office. The new visitor centre might almost have the slogan “Welcome to Abbotsford – don’t worry, we won’t make you read the books”. I think that’s a missed opportunity; what better location than Scott’s own home to place his literary legacy front and centre?

It’s also interesting to learn that Scott’s use of language has become an obstacle for modern audiences. Many of his Scottish novels are full of Scots dialogue, and people find that hard to stomach. Writing about Scott in the 1940s, the critic VS Pritchett glibly remarked that “at some time in the last thirty years feeling against dialect especially the Scottish dialect has hardened into dislike. It is troublesome to the eye, it is a language which nags and clatters; one would as soon read phonetics”. I dislike Pritchett and I enjoy the fact that he failed to foresee that the prim intellectualism of his own language had a shelf-life of its own, but while Scott’s Scots is difficult, it’s no worse than some of Dickens’ awful cockney patois. You get used to it. I recognise parts of Scott’s language from my own life, but of course I can see how it would stand as an abatis to readers from elsewhere in the world.

And it was doubly interesting to see the Scots poet Len Pennie stumble over reading a two hundred year old piece of Scott’s dialogue in the BBC’s In Search of Scott. If anyone should be able to handle a mouthful of Scots, it’s Pennie, but she seemed embarrassed by the trickiness and afterwards excused it by saying “that’s not my Scots”. Scots was and is a language, but many modern expressions of the leid are closely intertwined with the reclamation of national or class pride; some are so fluid and irregular that it’s more accurate to think of them as an unstandardized patchwork of dialects. I think that’s natural, but if we concede that “my Scots” might not be “your Scots”, we come back to that exciting sense of intranational diversity.

Scott’s nation-building work required him to gather and blend a wide variety of people and ideas and correlate them into one vibrant, outward-facing Scotland. The man was a unionist and a Tory, but he took lairds, calvinists, drunks and pirates from Wigtown to Orkney and showed them off to the world with a flair that would leave modern Scottish nationalists gasping with envy. Time has changed the meaning of the word Tory, but Scott would find it hard to reconcile the modern idea that “Tories Out” has become an acceptable political mission statement in this country. Scottish identity has become so heavily bound up with left wing politics that that “Scottish Tory” is almost considered to be an oxymoron. I have no great love for Tories, but “Tories Out” worries me. It’s the thin end of a political purge which goes further than denying power to the opposition; it attempts to usurp its very existence.

It’s no surprise that many modern Scottish nationalists regard the old Tory Sir Walter as a mild embarrassment, and some will find it convenient that he has been sidelined. His creative and political existence has even been made to feel like an aberrance, much as some Scottish historians have attempted to unpick Scotland’s complicity in empire and slavery. But you could say that controversies which arise from Scott’s life and work are more interesting and useful today than they’ve ever been; his legacy generates an entire world of conversations, but we aren’t having them. I think that’s a real concern at a time when nationalism has begun to reduce and narrow many of the ideas that Scott embraced.

It’s sadly ironic that a writer who often expressed such a giddy, credulous lust for life has been allowed to go down in history as a dust-coloured dullard. As a gift to myself on the night before our shared birthday, I stayed up late to read Alan Massie’s novel “The Ragged Lion”, a fictionalised biography of Scott’s life. It’s less than Scott himself, but it’s a clear, accessible expression of an astonishing, complex and dearly lovable human being. Two hundred and fifty years after he was born, discover Scott at full stretch on the subject of ghosts, faeries and ancient battles. Go to Abbotsford and be baffled by it. Reckon with the man on the nature of being Scottish, even if he makes your blood boil. Just please don’t say that he’s not for you.

Swallows

Did you ever hear of such a year for swallows? The yard is loud with them now in the early days of autumn, and the second broods have begun to join the first on the wires between the house and the telegraph poles. Pity the sparrowhawk who comes here hunting in the buchts and the pigsty rafters. He is doomed to fail and the sky darkens with fury above him. The adult swallows run a screen of interference, and even the new fledglings are safe when they bum around at waist-height above the cobbles like dor beetles and could be killed by any passing child. Nothing dares touch them.

I took a moment last week to count the swallows queued on a power line against the sun. I reached one hundred and twelve before my eye was drawn to a host of martins from the town and linnets like down in the breeze. In previous years I have counted similar, but only later when third broods have begun to fly, and it seems like this year will trump all those that came before it. We might make two hundred, but even on the cusp of that new record I am suddenly afraid.

In many parts of Britain, swallows have declined over the past ten years. For all that I whine of decline and collapse of the birds in the hills of old Galloway, I’m keenly aware that my ruins are riches to many who live in tidier places. Vast areas of Europe have been sprayed and pasteurised to a state of pristine sterility, and I need to keep my home in context. The swallows here prosper because they are able to cruise for miles across half-grazed moorland, willow scrub and a thickly souping river. To a swallow’s eye, nothing much has happened in the past century, but they should be aware that change can come in a moment; it can arrive in their midst like a burst carrier bag. It would take no time to spoil this place and reduce my dozen pairs to nothing.

Conservationists have begun to think of biodiversity in financial terms. It’s a necessary shift because nobody can remember how to assign value unless it’s expressed in pounds and pennies. So when it comes to saving species, the new front line is the bottom line; money is the only motivation, and it won’t be long before farmers are paid to conserve birds like swallows; paid because in managing meadows for insects and feeding habitats, swallows are a visible waste, a financial entitlement foregone. You can’t expect farmers to go without and endure the unfunded din of birdsong in the morning.

It all makes sense to me, and in the same breath I’m encouraging people to think of all that swallows do; all the things we never knew we needed.

With nothing to perch upon them, what use would power lines have? With nothing to kill them, a billion midges would die in their beds at home, with all the attendant waste of weeds and winding sheets. And think of the individuated mud particles which have been fetched from the burn to the rafters in the byre to make nests. Selected and loved and shaped to a function, they are more than pottery. With nothing to do that work, the mud would merely ride the next rain and roll down to the sea in a world unthinkable.

The Lorries

When the rain came at last, it found us by chance in the street in the town in a crowd. It came in a shade which rode over the quarry and the river to the kirk and mill in sheets. We stood against it, feeling the hiss and the turning leaves as it rushed through the gardens and gutters like a vandal. There was a cold smell of uneven air, then we were soaked.

We were waiting on a convoy of lorries. Everybody had come to see them, and the pubs poured people onto the street like listing ships. The lorries were cued to pass on a charity run from one corner of Galloway to the other, and people laughed at the rain and one man with blood on his vest stood with his eyes tight shut and his tongue pulled down like a blind over his chin. The rain fell harder and the martins squalled in the eaves as the roads began to flood, bobbing with fag packets and streaks of bark from the sawmill. Somebody said it was a shame that the rain would spoil the show; somebody else said we’ve been needing this.

So we could not have been wetter when they finally came down the Hill Road towards us; forty big engines, nose to tail and belling in the rain. The claxons pealed as they passed the Welcome sign and water rose from the road in a mist which billowed around the massive machines, loud enough to make a small boy cry. Everybody waved and the girls from the bar ran laughing inside because the rain had rendered them suddenly see-through. Kids on too-big bikes yelled like gulls and rode round in circles, giving hidden vees to police cars which had parked to block normal traffic in the High Street.

The lorries boomed through the town, and it was a joy to see them. They were huge and loud and it fairly took your breath away to be near them. All the upstairs windows were open in the houses and folk yelled and waved flags; somebody threw a can of lager which exploded on the kerb and span crazily round upon itself like a cut snake. Each lorry had been polished to a high sheen of pride and perfection; each cab lettered with the livery of haulage firms from Creetown to Lochmaben. The name of the driver himself was stencilled before the wheel; that’s how I know we saw Big Wull and Beady, Simples and The Mole, each one of them with the saltire hung against the cab’s back window.

One truck was painted with a fine design of Sitting Bull against a pack of howling wolves. One had Black Widow stretching her tight breeks tighter in a half-squat. Her hair made for a blaze of colour in the rain and the hiss of heavy tyres in the diesel and petrichor. More claxons rang in the queue behind until every last lorry was cheered for itself and the whole and the blasting horns had passed out of town towards Kirkgunzeon with Tam’s new steers at Dalmannoch running spare up the roadside fence, rolling their eyes and gurning at the shock of it.

Rain fell steadily in the aftermath. Fish nosed the new water in the burn behind the bottlebank, feeling their way upstream like blind men. Clusters of unripe berries felt the rise of new sap and were glad to think they might make a belly after all. And your man with the blood on his vest tried to make it all about himself. Somebody placed him in a headlock and pulled him back to the bar. The rain slipped off him like wax from an old candle.