A Galloway Summer

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Looking over the chasm at Clints o’ the Spoot

The summer flies past as I work and paint, and it takes a concerted effort to get out and make time in the cool evenings after the rain. Down the lane below the house, the grass verges are foaming over with brambles in flower, and the bracken is hardening into breadknife blades. Beneath the scaffolding of cow parsley, vetch and birdsfoot trefoil clamber riotously alongside coiling cables of honeysuckle. This mix is alive with small birds; a whitethroat wakes me every morning with the same scratchy phrase and a blackcap wraps up the day, singing under the moon.

Heading uphill, flocks of orchids stand between the grasses in the field where the curlew’s child continues to defy the odds, growing strong and lithe on a diet of spiders. The adult birds squeal and moan overhead, but only under the most pressing provocation. In the early days, even the flicking tail of a magpie would bring them out fighting, but now the chick is large enough to be proof against most comers. The complaints are saved for buzzards, and hearing them call at night suggests that four-footed chancers walk abroad. The grass is now high and the cover is good – the gawky fool will soon be on the wing and safe for now.

The ditches on the hill are filled with flares of flag iris which droops like damp origami after every rain. Bog myrtle reeks wonderfully in the muggy evenings, and the roe pick their way through the brambles to lie in the scented beds below, where broods of young wrens cuddle into mugfuls of fluff and warmth beneath their parents.

The Chayne is dominated by the croak of young ravens and the click of wheatear families bobbing on the short grass. On the burnside, wagtails feed their half-baked youngsters on flies gathered where the water slows and the flopping petals of mimulus sag into the meniscus. Whirligigs whirligig. There has been no sign of blackgame, but I have been staying away.

Walking on the hills around home and then higher to the Knee of Cairnsmore over the past week, I’ve found the blaeberries showing every sign of ripeness. Gathered to fill a palm, there is still a hint of sourness to suggest that another fortnight will see them ready. On the forest edge, mounds of fresh pigeon feathers show where a goshawk has been working, gathering up berry-obsessed doos who walk between the heather, laying themselves bare to ambush in the red-rank leggy heather. I found a beak at one pile of feathers, and a folded streak of gut at another. On a third, I found the remains of a crop, holding a dozen mushy berries stuck to the blue-grey down.

At Cairnsmore, the asphodel glows in galaxies between the heather. Left unattended, myrtle grows into waist-high fortresses which provide a structure for honeysuckle and brambles, but on the hill and beneath the pressure of hungry mouths, it grows like a dwarf shrub, scattered like cuttings between the heather. As you walk, you can stir up the scent and breathe in the warmth of the grass and the liquorice tang of asphodel, the “bone-breaker”. The bell heather is absurdly purple, and the water gurgles beneath the peat. This is the best place I know for dragonflies, but these are still early days and the sky has not yet filled with clockwork aircraft. Rows of white buds are growing on the heather, ready to flower in a few weeks’ time, and a single swift coursed by as I climbed, hunting away from home like a raptor without a moment for second thoughts.

Spying from the Nick of Clashneach into the bowl of Cairnsmore, the height is dizzying. Drab, hellish crags drip their juice from mossy seams. The unseen water trickles into oblivion beneath a landslide tumble of fallen stone and heather. These cliffs were home to a pair of eagles before the foresters came and spoiled the hunting. Their absence is like an unfinished sentence on ground that was designed to play host. Goats chuckle on the edge of hearing; nannies leading their budding kids carefully between the seedheads. A party of stags lay in the bracken at the foot of the cliffs and flicked their ears to dispel the flies, never realizing that I was almost vertically above them and could almost have spat on their broad red shoulders. Further out amongst the haggs, spotty calves gambol and kick their heels, just specks of red between the rolling windows of shading cloud and sun.

Bleary and black, the rains come rushing in at night. We stand up to our knees in the garden, cutting kale and digging potatoes as bats and woodcock rush between the elders. When it is still and clear, Mars hangs in the South.

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