Stonechats

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 24/3/20

There is a scratchy little voice in the stillness before daylight. It’s a song of sorts, drier than most but happy in its way. I down tools and pick through memories of times when I have heard this before. The song is repeated as if to help me. There is a dull, spherical shape on the dyketop or the rowan twig, the scaffolding of bracken or the scree. It is a stonechat.

There are curlews in some of the places I work, but they are not everywhere. There are black grouse and golden plover on the hill, but they do not come near the house. But stonechats are found from the furthest crag to the window-ledge above my bed – they are one of only a few unifying threads which bring all my work together. They buzz singly through the deep grass, and each one is a subtle treat.

Drifting through MacMillan’s Gallovidian Encyclopaedia (1824), it was fun to spot a very comprehensive (if somewhat fanciful) definition given for this small, utterly inoffensive bird:

Stane-chacker- The bird stone-chatter, for why, it keeps chattering about rocks, and old stone walls. This bird is much detested in the country because it is said to be “hatched by the toad”. The tade clocks the stane-chacker’s eggs, is the phrase, which may be partly true, as the toad is often found in its nest, for they make their nests both in one hole. It is singular such a beautiful bird should be naturally fond of the toad’s dirty mansion; but so it is… Though the toad may often be found in this bird’s nest, yet its body is of too cold a nature to hatch its eggs. In the country they look at this bird with the same sensations, almost, that they do at a female prostitute; they imagine it chatters the following rhyme, and its injunctions are obeyed :-

“Stane Chack, devil tak’

“They what herrie my nest,

“Will never rest, will meet the pest,

“Devil break their lang back,

“Wha my eggs would tak, tak”.

Perhaps these are improbable and unfounded accusations, but I maintain that it’s important to recall them. Work long enough in the silence and the middle distance, and it sometimes becomes possible to believe old stories again.

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