I step out before dawn and find the sky is thick with snipe. They call in the darkness, and the noise comes to me wetly like wellies pulled from mud. Soon I am climbing over dewy gates and up onto the hill, where grouse cackle and blue day begins to leak between gaps in the heavy cloud.
The hill is wet and the burns clash and rattle away the night’s rain. Our land is surrounded on all sides by commercial spruce plantations, and the rushing growth of trees has thrown up new walls and a sense of dark claustrophobia. Each summer draws the young trees higher, and new thickets blur like stubble in the half light. The spruces bleed a veil of sweaty cloud onto the open ground and the heavy air moves through the dykes like a grey illness. This old moorland world has become a soggy pit in an ocean of treetops. Two pigeons boo and swell in the draughty forest, but the trees are otherwise silent.
Sheep peck through knuckles of granite and blue whinstone on the high ground. Here are more snipe, and the clattering flicker of blackgame like grainy images from a silent movie. The wet hollows are filled with scabious and the grass of parnassus; globes and galaxies of flowers in a flat blue light. There is a swirl among the distant sheep as they see me coming and recoil like wild animals.
I stand for a time and watch the sun rise from the highest point. The cairn is spattered with raven’s shit, and the stones are gritty with beetle wings and splinters of bone. Swallows pass overhead, two thousand feet above sea level and three miles from the nearest nest. They are unmistakably on passage, gathering speed for the vault over Europe and away to safety. They bicker noisily and head south in groups of half a dozen, and I feel a twinge as I remember the brood which only fledged from our byre last week. They left it too late, and the fragile youngsters emerged to a world of rain and cold winds. They scrabble to make up lost time, but now they are dying like flies and I have found two of their bodies in the yard, sloe blue and empty. Their lives would have been very different in June when insects moved like smoke through the sunset and hunting was a mug’s game. One hundred and seventeen new swallows flew away from our sheds this summer, but I cannot help dwelling on these final failures.
Now pipits pass in clouds of fifty and more across the open land. I hear the thin, seeping whine of small birds as the sun comes at last to pour cool, jammy light on the land towards Langholm and Annandale. These birds are impossibly ubiquitous, and the gentle simplicity of their calls has been worn flat by overuse. They are also heading south and I am just in time to relearn the pleasure of their tiny details before they go.