The Vantage Point

Who knows what to take from Robert Frost? I’ve heard good things and bad, but my curiosity was recently piqued by finding “Out, Out”, in an essay on Seamus Heaney. That poem caught my attention as it probably would yours, but before I could make an approach to the man himself, I recoiled from criticism which appeared to slam Frost as little more than a baggy batch of yesterday’s news; sentimental wordplay for a generation of Americans now gone to seed or planted underground.

So, undecided, I bought a collection of Robert Frost’s poetry from a junk shop in Glasgow. It was eighty pence and raining outside, and trying to reverse a downward trend of thought I walked to see the cathedral. Sure enough, it lay exactly where I’d left it in March 2019, black as a bunker. It’s not a big building or a truly lovely one, but you can breathe in a place like that. You can shut your eyes and let the beads of desperation run down off your back like syrup to pool and set again on the old, cold slabs.

And the cathedral was closed. “It’s Monday”, the caretaker said, and anyway “You have to book a slot”. Then he went off jingling his keys through gravestones devoted to all the other slot-bookers without a wink of irony. So I sat alone in the portico in the fading light and I started to read Robert Frost’s poetry. I would not usually have leaned my weight into such an untested quarter, but I had no more bones to roll. And he was both good and bad to me as the darkness grew. I curled my lip at most of his early stuff. We’ve heard enough from lone, enraptured men on “the road not taken”. That’s just gloating, but parts of his later work were silly too in that dreadful, playful way that old men have that dries your teeth with sympathetic smiling.

However, there was some value in a middle section, which after half an hour was soaked and pulping in the rain. The pages sopped like kale at their edges, but there were sparks of undiluted truth in there; snappy vignettes of people at work, and better, people hurting. I read two stories in verse about witches, sitting back to back with an old cathedral. The first one really pleased me, and for a moment I was somewhere else. It’s hard to see whether literature is really consolation or just a rope-ladder dropped from a cloud. Maybe its strength lies in linking you home to everyone else in the world, and thinking this I looked beyond the busy tombs to flats and kitchens where other people were getting ready for the evening. 

I sat for a while in curiosity and watched a man frying something in a square-lit window. It occurred to me how often I’m alone in my own house at this time of night. I could never imagine somebody near enough to see me at ease. The light outside my kitchen fades with the day as if light itself had ceased to exist and everything with it, because that’s how I like it. Downstairs from the frying and four across sat a man with his back to the window, tossing and catching a ball in the air. He seemed to have a hell of a lot to laugh about, and I wondered if the two men knew each other. Then fearing that friendship would buoy them, I hoped that they didn’t.

Folk passed chatting. Cars slashed in the guttering camber, and someone blew their horn. Listing badly in the midst of this clatter, I stood to leave and a phrase of soothing music came down amongst the city’s rush hour. A song thrush was singing from a treetop in the necropolis. Normal rules do not apply to urban birds, and by my reckoning this is more than a fortnight early for the first thrush of the year. But hang the rules, because hearing that, I could suddenly see what I am again from the edge of losing sight. The rain fell upon me in flat and placid lines; the worst of me began to run like makeup onto the grass.

My copy of Robert Frost’s poems is still in that portico if you want it. Drop it on the radiator overnight and the paper will dry up curly in a manner more becoming of stuff that used to be wood. For me, I bought a new and extended edition of the same book this morning. Because I’ve only just started to wonder what I should take from Robert Frost.



The Vantage Point

If tired of trees I seek again mankind,
Well I know where to hie me – in the dawn,
To a slope where the cattle keep the lawn.
There amid lolling juniper reclined,
Myself unseen, I see in white defined
Far off the homes and men, and farther still,
The graves of men on an opposing hill,
Living or dead, whichever are to mind.

And if by noon I have too much of these,
I have but to turn on my arm, and lo,
The sunburned hillside sets my face aglow,
My breathing shakes the bluet like a breeze,
I smell the earth, I smell the bruisèd plant,
I look into the crater of the ant.

From A Boy’s Will, 1913

Silage Times

The cows have had the hay, and now it’s time for black-wrapped silage and the curse of heavy machinery.

I mistake the seasons. When the bales are stacked in July, I stand in the sunlit field and conjure up an image of the winter. I imagine myself walking easily in the snow with a bale on my back like a Farquharson painting, passing out flakes to the neatly begging beasts. It’ll all be crisp and clear I say, and I look forward to that cold when the sweat of a year’s haymaking hangs in a drip from my nose. 

But in reality, the bales get burst and they blow away in the mirk. Cattle stamp and bugger about. The bull is so tame that he shoves me to one side like a dog and together they chew the twine and trample me. I’m deafened with their bellowing and the quad bike stutters in the rain which shines in the hoof-print pools as if the world was a mirror and there was only four inches of mud resting upon it.

The same knife cuts two ways. Standing as I do now in the first week of January, my memory of summer is misled. I’m certain that it will be dry and comfortable for six entire months. I never give a second’s thought to wet grass and pollen. I forget that midges exist.

So I’m into silage bales and the mud boils under my tractor wheels. I never had the vet to come and run pregnancy tests, but I know that everything’s in calf except that red cow who turned up empty last year; the one that went to the hill with the steers for the summer. I’m sorry that she’s still cycling and being jumped by the bull after three rounds, and I can’t imagine what’s wrong. I’d send her for the abattoir, but I won’t because she’s beautiful and she sets the tone. If I rattle a bag, she’s first to come in and she brings the others behind her. If there’s a shock or a mad-eyed steer, she settles them down. She makes my life easier, and she doesn’t take so much that I can’t afford to carry her. 

Up in the glen, my neighbour said that cast cows are making such money that if something’s empty, cut its throat and buy a heifer with the cash. “Cut its throat”; he said that a few times in the same conversation, and I think he’s said it elsewhere so often that the words had lost their edge for him. But they rattled me, and trying them on for size, I took those words to my own cows. I steamed in the rain and from under my hood I tried to say “I’ll cut your throat” to the red cow, but my hand stopped my mouth. I’ve killed my share of cows and sent many more to be killed on my behalf in the pens at Lockerbie. There’s no reason for me to be squeamish about killing, and part of it must be selecting the right words. And lines like these are some of many reasons why I’ve disqualified myself as a real contender.

The other beasts are working well. They’re all suckling calves and growing another fresh crop at the same time. And hazel catkins are beginning to turn yellow. The mavis will begin to sing by the end of the month, and although we stand on the edge of progress, the worst is yet to come; the worst in the pounding thump of tractor hydraulics and the smell of silage in your cuffs when you’re eating your piece or cleaning your teeth.

First Foot

Dogs barked in the close and the stackyard. He swore at them, then he let himself in to yell A Good New Year to the almost empty house. By the time I came to find him, his jacket hung on a chairback and a lump of coal had been dumped on the stool at the stove. He shook my hand and we sat together with the darkness rising and the wind about the slates.

The New Year has often been a bold time for my neighbours and I. We’ve bragged and looked forward to things we’d do in coming summers, hoping that by talking big, we’d do it too. But we’re getting short on numbers now. I had two neighbours last year, and we three swelled to the rafters with tales of times to come. We couldn’t have known that inside twelve months our three would become two, and the biggest job we ever did as a group was trumped by the trick that one of us pulled off alone.

Notwithstanding that absence, we stacked ourselves against the silence on the night of New Year’s Day. He drank Lang’s Banana. God knows how that started, but he gets it special from Dumfries. The bottle of rum came up smelling like a Caribbean pool party and I swore at the memory of it. It stained the glass like Trodax, and I took brandy and a cigarette and tried not to breathe through my nose. An eddy of smoke pearled around the lampshade, disgusted with itself.

During the course of 2021, hares vanished from the meadow and the lèann which lies between our homes. We never had many, but the reason for that disappearance is controversial. It was the first subject we came to, and it recurred several times during three hours of conversation. A big old hare was killed on the road at the start of last year, and it was reckoned that he’d been the father of every hare in the parish. It’s no wonder they failed in his absence, and that was one idea. But we can’t deny that grass was mowed sooner than it should’ve been above the haugh. If there were any leverets, they’d have been minced. That’s my take, but what do I know? I’m just a boy. 

Then we talked about hares on the hills and how they’re being shot now to protect the new plantations. Six places in this parish have been sold to become commercial forestry in the last twelve months. Jimmy Mitchell’s place sold for two and a half million pounds to an engineering firm based in Dallas, Texas. Nobody in Galloway can compete with that, and it turns out the bigwigs are buying up land to offset their carbon emissions; everything will be turned to spruce trees in the next year or two. I gather there’s money to be made, but none of it’s local. It goes instead to pension funds and global investment groups based in Denmark and Austria. If you want to meet your new neighbours for a welcoming drink, they’ll send a rep to greet you “on site”, but you’ll need a hard hat and a high-viz coat. And when they realise that you have nothing material to say, they’ll mark you down as a time waster.

The investors have begun to build fences and they’re killing out the hares and the roe deer. I told him I’d heard that a contractor drove up from Lancashire and killed eighty hares in three nights at Carsphairn. I was impressed by that because I didn’t think there were eighty hares left in those hills. It’s surprising what you can do with a thermal scope on your rifle. The Government says that feats like these will guarantee a brighter and more sustainable future for Scotland, but there’s a difference between killing a hare for the pot and being sure that you’ll never see another hare again. 

There was a long silence after that. The dogs barked in the close again, but all of us were inside and it was only for the wind. Then Nobody gives a shit about this place, he said. And it’s you I feel bad for, son; you and your boy. At least I’ve seen the best of it here. 

Of course we neighbours worked better as a threesome. In previous years, if one or two of us strayed and began to slip towards gloom, the third would be ready with some blast or caper to fetch the downers up again. We had our own self-righting mechanism, but two’s uneven. We didn’t speak of our missing leg as we tumbled into the quiet, and we didn’t lay plans as we usually do. When talk began again, it was only for things that we’d already done. I felt tired. There was an Olympiad of Lang’s Banana rings on the table. I tried to turn us round with that story I told you about the bull in the burn, but he’d already heard it. That’s when I knew that he was my First Foot only because he’d come too late to be the last. 

He gripped a new fag in his lips, then he pulled his jacket on and went outside for a piss. He didn’t come back, and later I looked across the burn in the darkness and saw that his bedroom light had clicked off. Only ash twigs flickered in the mile-wide gap between us, and a space suddenly big enough to drive a whole year through without touching the sides.

New Year

I find it helpful to tell myself that nobody reads this blog. If I worried too much about reaching an audience or following figures, I’d start to break from my own line and the cart would be set before the horse. I’m also aware that if I became fixated on publishing pitch-perfect material, I’d never produce anything at all. “Perfect is the enemy of good”, and in the pursuit of that final polish, things fall apart. I’ve found it more productive to punch as hard as I can and then stand back to let the dust settle. I sometimes look over old articles here and think how glad I am to have tried in whatever direction I made for, even if I fell short of the mark. And very occasionally I look back and find something that hit the mark or even exceeded it. That’s a great feeling, but this note could easily become a slippery slope towards navel-gazing.

So it’s for these reasons and several more which lean towards self-obsession and insecurity that I treat this blog as if nobody was reading it. Even after more than a decade, I’m still not wholly sold on the blog format, but I certainly find it useful to measure and manage ideas as they arise and review them in retrospect. I tell myself that it’s a project that I undertake “for me”, because the idea of writing “for you” as an audience makes the hair stand up on my head with terror. I’m not sure what it says about my character that I’d rather be selfish than presumptuous, but the timing rings a bell here on New Year’s Day.

It’s my ambition to write more frequently and better this coming year. And it seems a very sensible moment to turn away from the text and thank everybody who reads, shares or comments upon this blog. Some of you have been here all along, while others have joined since the book Native was published in 2020. I tell myself that you’re not reading along with me, but how grateful I am to know you’re there

A Year’s Work

I made the walk on the hill’s face to the shoulder and the boulder’s lair. I worked hard at the walking; found hares for the running as the ravens rocked and roiled in the shelled-up corries below. There were sunny days, but more often the cloud came cool to my collar like a twist of tissue. Once there was snow which fell without warning, and once there was a warning of stars.

If I had to put my hand on the work of this year, I’d reach for those weeks spent watching on the tall hills, searching for plovers in the scree. They were golden plovers, a bird that nobody sees and most have never heard mentioned. And that was May, but even now I recall the birds calling at dawn, in the first grey souring of light a bird-shape standing in the black wreckage of stones. And long before light the birds unveiled display songs sung against the night sky; curious courtships pursued in the moss with a view of eighty moonlit miles beyond them.

You know I set cameras to record these birds. I told you how they came back to their nest when I found it, and how they sat through the snow when it came. Thanks to that technology, I have video footage of a bird which stands up as if from nowhere in the settling drift. There is nothing, and then a bird climbs out of the snow like a plant and the powder shakes away. I’ll show you that video sometime, but it’s small beside its own unspeakable reality.

In walking out and watching, I came to know the hill foxes; the hinds and the billy goats. I learned how the forest wood sweats in the rain, and winds fling the steam to the crags above. Standing on the highest ground before the weather turned, I sometimes felt I could fling a stone across fifteen miles of bog and lochan to Minnigaff. And when the weather turned, I couldn’t even catch enough breath to say the name of that town.

The plovers sat in turns and I counted the days. They crouched and I recorded, and one day when the sky was fine as film, I went to the nest. The male bird stood nearby with his black breast scowling. Four eggs splayed apart from their points like clover, and each shell was differently damaged in the sun. I saw the ruptures with my own eyes; cracks and the heaving churn of internal movement. I heard the shrill, early-birth noises of calling from chicks on the brink of beginning. You might expect to hear some passive drone or chirp from unborn birds, but instead I heard the adult’s song as they’d fused in the darkness above me a month before; the same ecstatic sound replayed by a new generation distantly coming without forethought or rehearsal.

So I claim that as the work of this year. That, even though it took less than a tick of the year’s true time. I claim that work as a link to the grand ulterior plan of hills which teem to the blue horizon. What came before was precursor; what followed is afterglow and God knows that nine tenths of my life is meaningless. The final share is only reaching, but to lie beside those hatching eggs and hear the same eternal song at the height of its own unfindable privacy is to have no fear of dying after all.

Roofer

I spent the greatest part of this day on the roof, palming the boards and patching the damage caused by a storm. The missing slates had not fallen far from the walls, but most had burst on the back step and the yard setts. I only found six which could be reused; seven if you count the one standing upright on its end like a guillotine’s blade in the kale.

I didn’t want to do this work, and I didn’t think I’d have to. But every roof in Galloway seems to have lost a plateful of slates in that same storm which came down from the north last month. I called the roofers twenty times, but in this weather they hardly bother to call you back. It’s a feeding frenzy for them, and I’m not bleeding hard enough to turn their heads in the clot-red water.

So hooking ladders together like paperclips, I built myself a gangway onto the roof. I carried a litter of tacks and replacement slates to the chimney’s height, then crept back for extra sheets of tin and a packet of self-tapping screws with washers already built into them. I didn’t even know they existed, but there’s a nice woman in the shop. She talked me through it, and it turns out we were at school together. 

Yes, it was fine to be up there on a cold day with the hills about me. I was hooked by the work, which at first felt daunting. A roofer is a full-time person, not some curious amateur. But I loved it before I’d even parted the first gap and explored the rotten line where the slates had clattered themselves to pieces. 

It’s an old roof, and the tacks all waisted like pawns with rubbing. Between the slates and the pine there was felt which I recognised as horse hair. The worst hit bits had blown away, but even the best stuff crumbled like moth-wings in the wind. There cannot be any insulation in that horse hair lining. I daresay it’s there as padding to protect the slates when they rattle like bones in the wind, but when it comes to your Energy Efficiency Rating, you can hardly hang your winter’s hat on a quarter inch of fur.

Plus it was fine to see my world from a new angle. I looked down from a dish-moon to the yard and the garden; from the moor to the sea. I saw the sheepstains on the inbye and the order in which mowdie hills were made, with the last and most recent the darkest. Geese came by in the morning; a rowdy clan of eighty greylags. I laughed at them for jokers, and then for six whole hours they stayed in the grass and the rushes at the hill-foot. A low sun often caught them turning and spoiled their creams to amber. 

The work pleased me most for being neat. By the time the slates were shaken back to a pattern, you could hardly see where I’d been at them. And even in the patches where I’d snipped tin to fit the gaps, there was a sense of care and order restored. It looks like I knew what I was doing in those distracted hours as the world turned and the moon rolled over upon itself like a dog in its bed. The tin’s a short-term fix, but now I’m keen to return and finish the work for good.

I’d been worried that repairing this roof would distract me from paid work. I talk a good game about the nourishment of Doing It Yourself, but I’m also a hypocrite. If I pass too long at my desk, I begin to believe the lie that “time is money”, and I develop an over-inflated sense of my own importance. I look out of my window and tell myself that there is no other way, so forced to this job against my best financial judgement, I twisted and moaned like a pudgy baby. And now chilled to the bone by a stone-cold wind, I could hardly care less about income foregone. In fact when the geese began to roil and batter at the hill-foot, heading back to the flats, I thought how easily I would pay to make full use of a day like this again. And it was only when the birds rose and turned above the ash trees that I found I could not see. An unseen darkness had fallen around me as I worked, close to home again, smiling all the while at my slates.

Storm Passing

I was shelled with brick bits and the fragments of mortar. I was turned about and the hills roared to break like waves in the darkness. Wet wraps of black plastic slapped on the windows, and always on with the moaning pound of heavy seas. Now and then a moon loomed smiling above the wreckage, no friend of mine as the tin roof became a sail and departed, trailing my cash and time like petrels in the spume. 

It was the worst storm I’ve ever heard. But if This House Had Been Far Out At Sea All Night, the morning made landfall in perfect peace. Sheep rose from the rushes. Cattle stood and trod the bellows. Stepping round the busted hull of my shed, I watched gulls streaming out to the Firth below me; gulls above the boneyard and the kirk steeple. And down in the town in the porter brown water, salmon lay headwards to the leaves and the hill solution. Trust me – I saw them from the stone bridge; even as the storm raged, they’d sipped at the ripples and slept like kennelled dogs.

It’s only now with two days of snow behind me that I can feel the settlement. Two days of cold weather and now a snipe lies in the lump of every cundy. I’ve never seen them in such numbers, and the haws are raked and hammered by thrushes. Then in the backless spray of Sunday’s failing, I watched woodcock teem from the carrs and the river’s edge in turns of ten and twelve. You’d have liked to’ve seen them go, man; flying to the snow and the sloe-back sludge where the beasts were feeding in the stars. 

You’d have said That was fine, and perhaps it made you feel alive.

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.