Despite setting off for a walk along the high hills this morning, a black pall of miserable cloud barred the route at Creetown and forced me back to the security of the bookshop in Gatehouse. While sleet battered the windows, I safely built a stack of natural history books beside the till and waltzed back outdoors with a new shelf-full just as the sunshine returned.
The day having been foreshortened in its prime, I headed instead on an alternate route into the hills near Cairnsmore of Fleet, where I walked in a fleeting wonderland of limpid blue slush, foamed up into a spume by a caustic North Westerly wind. A fine big stag rose up from the dripping bracken by my feet and made the dog jump the height of itself, and this rolling shape began an avalanche of hinds as it coasted off through the heather.
They ran in loose formation and patiently formed a queue to cross the dyke at the bottom of the glen. Rather than bound clear over the stones without touching the tops, the lead hind selected a point where the coping stone was already missing, then jumped up onto the exposed covers and off the other side in a two-part manoeuvre that was apparently calculated to cause maximum damage to the dyke.
Because she had jumped onto the dyke and then off again, the ungainly process was copied by every other stag and hind until I could hear the stones rattling loose and the hearting came oozing out. It is so easy to pass by a missing coping stone and promise yourself that you’ll replace it next time, but once these stones are down, not only is the whole structure weaker but it also serves as a channel for anything and everything trying else to cross. Even if the rest of the dyke is sound, it is soon wobbled and rattled and pulled to pieces via this single chink in the armour. There is probably some dyker’s equivalent to the expression “a stitch in time saves nine”, and while I have never heard it, it is every bit as true for dyking as sewing.
I paused on the high ground as the clouds parted to reveal the hills dusted with snow and the Clints of Dromore like a skeleton’s jaw far below me, but the wind was vile and I turned to get into the shelter. Within a few feet, a blackcock rose up in a mist of pipits. He had found a spot where he was out of the wind but nicely in the sun, and as soon as he was eight feet up, he was caught in a crossfire of flying ice and bitter cold. He also turned back towards shelter and went off diagonally with his tail all akimbo. Further down in the windless white grass, a young harrier kept in to the contours and hunted up a blue shaded myrtle bed that was every bit as still and as cold as a chest freezer.
And back towards the low ground after three hours to find a fox’s footprints running alongside my own in the slush of the sheepwalk. I frowned to wonder if I had noticed them on my way up, then felt my stomach turn to see one beautiful pad print pressed perfectly over the heel mark of one of my footsteps. These tracks were less than two hours old, and I jogged on along this faint trail in the hope of catching up with him. At length his path split off from mine and moved up through a tangle of bracken and rushes. I crept forward to the lip of a bowl in the ground and found myself in the company of the villain himself. He had his back to me and his head down in the white ribbons of blow grass, never looking to see me lying flat in the slush just thirty yards away.
When he finally did turn, the look on his face showed a flash of horrible embarrassment, as if he was trying to remember if he had done anything unseemly that I might have seen. I know that feeling myself, and I sympathised with him. But he need not have been worried – he hadn’t been picking his nose or singing to himself.