Only with a heavy sigh can I cast my mind back to precisely this day last summer when I arrived on the Isle of Tiree. It turned out to be the best holiday I’ve ever had, and the four days spent prowling over the beaches and through the hayfields with binoculars, sketchbook and camera rank as one of the most satisfying and wholly peaceful periods of my life.
The stars of the show were inevitably the corncrakes, which haunted the knapweed and lurked beneath the lolling docks as a mild Atlantic breeze came combing through the beached wracks of meadowsweet and cow parsley. The promise of these unassuming birds was enough to draw me off the mainland to this arable slab, ringed by a shark infested moat of turquoise water.
Despite the corncrake’s long absence from much of mainland Britain, the scraping sound is hardwired into our congenital experience of the seasons. Even if you have never heard it before, that distant scrape soon wins you over like an old friend.
The loss of these birds has not been final. As the countryside changes and once familiar birds grow strange and exotic, their contribution seems not to vanish. It lies latent; inactive in our brains. In the case of the corncrake, it seems possible that the incessant, powerful throb of sound has been forcibly drummed into the very psyche of Northern Europe, so that we still know them after generations of absence.
When you hear a corncrake for the first time, the novelty is quite arresting. You wonder aloud “what kind of extraordinary creature could be responsible for such a racket?” The sound inspires mental images of a dull, monstrous insect, crenelated with serrated edges and sharp, exoskeletal fins. At close hand, the scrape becomes an threatening roar which raps on your lugs and makes your chest rumble. The beast is sinister in his lair.
After a few minutes of intermittent calling, the noise becomes familiar; assumed into the repertoire of the “known”. On Tiree, it provides a welcome structure to the chaotic throb of drumming snipe and squeaking redshanks; as reliable as a clock in a train station. When the blue dusk gathers over the swirling grasses and the birds begin to call, your mind accepts this extraordinary sound as if nothing in the world were more appropriate or fitting to hear. Safe inside a darkening stockade of toothy iris leaves, the corncrake noisily pursues his objectives, stalking beneath the heraldic origami of fist-sized yellow flowers.
Visitors to the Hebrides joke that corncrakes are a beautiful novelty which quickly fades once the bedside light goes off. As a teenager working on the Hebridean island of Scalpay, I would curse the sound which came to life for the few short hours of rest between long shifts on the boats. After all, these birds will call throughout the night, with a sonorous peak between midnight and dawn. For many, the sound precludes relaxation. On Tiree, it haunted the borderland between consciousness and sleep, and bound itself to the silence. When a corncrake stopped calling, I woke with a start, appalled by its absence.
The sound is not consistent enough to be peaceful. It varies, pauses and changes its rhythm. Usually delivered in pairs, the doubled calls periodically shift to become raking monosyllables, broken by pulses of silence. Perhaps there is a pause before the double calls return again, or the blend can be seamless. As the bird turns and scrapes, the pitch and volume alters slightly, forming phrases and sentences which are countered by brief full-stops. The human brain longs to find patterns within the relentless quotation, and the bird teasingly offers them time and again, always defying the listener with a change on the very moment of understanding.
You probably didn’t hear a corncrake calling in the darkness as a child when you woke up sweating from a nightmare to find that you had tossed the covers angrily off the bed. There was probably no sound and a dull, pallid glow of dusk or dawn, and although you longed for sleep, you felt your eyes blink easily in the stuffy mirk. But if there had been sound, it would have been this; this timeless, instinctive monologue delivered from bird to man for as long as either have existed; a panting file on a stone as the stars silently twist and fade into dawn.