The fire destroyed everything south of the railway line. Miles of moor lay streaked in cinders, and the devastation was a sight to behold. But my new ground lies to the north of the old railway…
Huge flames came down on the darkening, and I heard that fire was heading north towards my summer grazing. Night came, and at last it was confirmed that the railway embankments were burning and the flames would cross the tracks at any moment. I could feel the coming certainty of collapse; everything I have worked for these last eight weeks would soon be vanishing in smoke, along with more than a thousand pounds of hardware and woodwork. Until that moment, the fire had been a mad adventure; scary and foul for all of us in equal measure. Then it clenched into a fist and prepared to punch me personally in the stomach. I went to bed and watched a red glow swarm gloating across my wall.
The following morning, I went to see what I could salvage. The last mile of railway line before the hill is through forest, scrub and deep railway cuttings. It’s an indoor feeling, which has always made the final emergence into open country all the more exciting. I crept out into daylight and found the hill split starkly in two halves as if carved by a knife. To the south, a scorched lunar landscape ran to the far horizon. To the north, my patch was completely untouched. The fire had run to the railway line and died with an abruptness that was hard to fathom. I had already begun to think about what I would do next, pondering alternative places to run my calves for the summer. There is a man near Dumfries who buys store cattle and grazes them on nature reserves along the coast – I had been on the verge of calling him. Now I realised that, for me, nothing had changed – my plans remained magically intact.
I have the foresters to thank for my salvation. They refurbished the railway line in February in order to run timber out from a newly felled forest. In so doing, they felled the scrub woodland which grows in the verges and laid a new hardcore track almost fourteen feet wide. The fire had been unable to reach across this barrier, and it was compelling to compare the fate of my ground with another piece of moorland beyond the forest where the old railway line is thick, weedy and overhung with willows. Here, the fire danced all over the line and crossed it back and forth a number of times.
So despite the turmoil and upset of a wild weekend of smoke and bursting trees, now I find that I am back into a week of “business as usual”, with the final few lengths of electric wire to strain and insulate before the calves can go out. It’s a crazy salvation.
A snake in the hayshed hunting, and the warm walls around him. This is no idle sunlounger, spooled out on a tump of grass to recharge and consider – here is the man at work – fifteen inches of silver and black chequering, and lips like a grinning skull. Perhaps he lay still in the morning to warm and be ready, but now he is charged and the fumes of his engine run clear and quiet. He crosses a square of daylight, but the tank is full and he has all the heat he needs.
He’s come to this shed on the offchance of a mouse, and I step back to see him go, quartering and sliding like a long-pulled chain. Into the haystack and round its back, coiling and pausing with his black tongue dipped with excitement. He covers ground like a spaniel, pausing now and then to ponder the scents on this black floor where the old bales have lain.
Here is a moment of madly small intensity. Pity the mouse who doesn’t see him coming, because who would choose to come nose to nose with a devil like this? I shrink myself to a vole’s eye view and find his head is bigger than mine – his body far thicker than I can hug or hold back. I know that his movements are driven by a muscular wave in his belly, but that knowledge does not help me. I challenge you to watch a snake move and tell me that a scientific explanation adds anything to the ghoulish magic of it.
Failing to find live game, he moves far to the back of the barn to bide his time. Perhaps he will spring an ambush in the dusty evening when the swallows come in around the rafters and some rat rises to mooch among the twine. Whatever he does next, I will not see it – I have already seen more than enough.
The fire rolled and gathered pace greedily. It turned and was bolder in a shifting wind; it ate the land as if there was no more of it to come and every stick had to be taken at once. Smoke rose to be seen in Cumbria and the Inner Hebrides, and the flames broke the darkness of two nights. At last it shrank into green fields and was harried out from the trees by men and helicopters. Having eaten everything that was eatable, it slumped and was done.
Then there was a stillness which consumed all sound. I spoke and my voice was flat and the echo of my boots was lost in the whumping ash-mat which sprawled across six square miles. I went alone to the high ground and stared down across Grobdale and Culreoch where the wind played games on the ruined hill. Twisters rose a hundred feet high to die and leave bent columns of soot standing foolish in the sunshine. A swirl of the breeze came near and hissed like an adder and fragments of moss like shot linen rose and landed again somewhere new. Stones which had lain for decades beneath grass and myrtle lifted their heads and breathed again; clean and fresh as the rubbledump from a withered glacier.
A grouse stood and blinked in the blackness, with his breeks a mess and his brain deep-fried. I saw a mountain hare; the first to be seen on this hill for twenty years or more. He ran and the rush of his running threw soot in his tail. He’d have to run a long way to leave this mess behind him.
And there were cauterised caterpillars, and frazzled lizards curly as the hair which fried on my forearms; pipit nests with all the eggs gone hard and the shells split and the white in bubbles like meringue. Deer had crossed in the dawn, and now they milled along the forest edge with black bellies and the stags among them stumped.
Silence, and a gentle intake of breath. There will be no rain for days to come, but rain is the only remedy for a place that has been rocked back on its heels.
Wildfire, and the black stink of boiling sap. Smoke rose in a veil, but as we fought the flames and trod them down, they slipped away like soap and made off for the west, senseless and craven and searching for an “out”. Then fire found the forest, and that’s when our drama seemed small by comparison because the flames leaped fully forty feet into the air, and the trees burst and boomed and the sky swarmed with the ash of burning needles. I fought a big fire once before, and that memory came back to me; a battlefield sense of cinema and widescreen bigness; watching more fire engines come piling down the track from five miles distant; television crews and Incident Control in a trailer wagon as far again in the opposite direction.
It’s hard to resist the stunning majesty of work that runs across miles of big country, playing some small part in a vast engagement. Try knowing that as you sweat and battle the flames, help is coming from every station and available hand in Southern Scotland; it’s a sense of urgent convergence that is almost impossible to imagine in peacetime. So when your hands are raw and the skin slips off them, there are folk from Ayr and Kilmarnock to pick up the slack and push on. In a moment’s rest, I climbed to the highest point on the hill and watched the loops of fire rage away towards Gatehouse like a mess of red cables. Where the trees had begun to burn, smoke climbed in a yellow pall so dense and broad that the whole hill lay in shade for as far as the eye could see. And everywhere the tingle tang of sap and soot and the smell of land leaving.
But for all the grand enormities, an event like this is the sum total of a million little snapshots – slapping a palm across your well-stung face and realising that your eyebrows are crispy – looking down to the black, well-polished boots on the new arriving firemen – a moment’s take of a snake well roasted and white as a rib in the cinders – each coil of hose is heavy enough to feel like it’ll help, but we need more and where’s another pump?
And the helicopter came in a straight line from Glasgow, and it turned and the smoke span and the engine exhausts were sharp and lifty as we marked a landing pad with aerosol paints. Then grit in your face and a smell of aftershave from the air-conditioned pilot with a parting and a cleft chin as he jabbed a map and frowned. Somebody asked if they could come up and he never even bothered to say no, of course you can’t. The sun set across him scooping water in a bag and dumping it a ton a time on the hill in glittery streaks and the loch was plumbed and there was never an end to the hoses chunting in the burn, pushing and pulling water like hawsers on the black moss.
The fuel for this fire grew in long years of stillness and abandonment. Crackling grass piled high in bales and the trees rose like empty straws waiting for a spark to let them go. Our backs were turned, and there was something vast and humbling in that unexplained moment of release; far bigger than anything we could ever hope to contain, no matter how cleverly we swarmed around it and hatched our plans. Then in darkness, I parked almost twenty miles away and looked back to a red horizon and the glow of light in smoke, knowing that more and worse was coming.
Long-weathered readers of Working for Grouse will know that I am eternally tickled by the parochial and arcane. Despite my best efforts, I continue to amass a grand collection of objects which relate to local history and wildlife, and my office becomes ever-more laden with wondrous “findings” and curios every year.
And so you will easily grasp how staggered I was to uncover two “new” artefacts which fell into my lap this morning as if their uncovering had been preordained.
Creeping up the bottom of long-dry burn shortly before sunrise, I imagined myself as far from any nudge of humanity as was geographically possible. This was black grouse country, ten miles North of Gatehouse of Fleet and a fair step to the nearest piece of tarmac. I’d been lulled far away from my work by the bubble and hiss of a fine blackcock, and taking a bearing from the wind and the sway of scanty birches, I dropped down over a burn-bank and began to stalk towards the sound in the icy stillness of dawn. It was easy work to creep along the bed of that steep, trenchy burn, but soon it broadened and left me dangerously exposed. Blackgame are surprisingly vigilant birds, and I didn’t want to disturb anything without good reason at a sensitive time of year – I merely wanted to see how the morning was playing out for the fan-tailed wonder, and so I dropped down on all fours and began to wiggle on my belly over rocks and the dregs of scorchingly cold peat water. I was glad of the recent dry weather then; this burn runs deep and briskly after a wet night.
Lunging and wheezing my way up the river bed, I finally came close enough to see the blackcock in question, almost three hundred yards uphill and completely obsessed with his own affairs. Shuffling round for a better look, I found myself staring into a black, hollow glass tube jutting out of the burn-bottom just inches from my face.
Perhaps I labour the point, but it’s hard to overstate the remoteness of that place – not just “a bit of a quiet spot”, but the kind of landscape where months could pass without even a distant glimpse of another human being. Yet here was what seemed to be a bottle, sitting upright in the pooly grit. I lifted it up and found that it was not only intact, but also bore the trademark of the Dumfries brewer “Bryson” of Midsteeple Dumfries. I didn’t realise it at the time, but these bottles were standard fare in the 1930s – I knew I’d found something old and rather special, but this relic had been discarded almost ninety years ago by somebody who probably thought it would vanish forever.
Baffled (and thrilled) beyond all reckoning, I crouched over my “find” and realised that it had been lying beside a peculiar white shell. That also warranted a closer look, and I soon recognised a badly worn but instantly recognisable object of similar intrigue and perhaps even greater delight; it was an otter’s skull, complete with five molars.
There is an otter’s skull in the museum at Kirkcudbright – I used to draw pictures of it when I was a kid, and there was no doubting the identity of what I’d found. Perhaps most strikingly, you could’ve walked this burn a thousand times and never found either of these gems, which had been stranded here together for who-knows-how-long, waiting to be discovered or shatter and be lost. It seemed a near miracle that they should align just inches from my face in a quiet moment before daylight.
And so I have more to add to my miscellany, alongside a growing sense that there is far more in these hills than ever meets the casual glance. Of course I hugged myself with glee to the tune of that gaudy old blackcock, but I had found more to please me in the mouldy remains of an old burn-bottom than any shopping mall or marketplace on the planet.
Grass seed is so light that it swirls in the wind. It’s designed to blow around and disperse, but that lightness leaves it ill-suited to sowing from a broadcaster. A Northerly breeze has come down from Moniaive and the Shinnel for a week, and if I tried to sow grass now it would splay and tumble in the wind. A good sowing leaves the crop to lie evenly, but this wind would play silly buggers and the seed would tumble in eddies and cracks along the field margins.
At times like this, they say you should sow grass at dawn when the wind drops and the air is still enough for an even spread. But I’ve been up at five since Easter, and the dew’s so heavy that another problem arises. Grass seed is light and flossy and it sticks in the dew. So I would sow the grass in perfect stillness and when I came to roll it flat, the seed would gum to the roller and come up in clods.
Instead, I sit and wait for my chance to sow the summer grass, trying to ignore the dryness and the cracked sod. Swallows course in the yard, and now there is a cuckoo on the moss. He is the first of the season, but he works at half strength in the wind and the chill of early morning.
Restoring the long-defunct boundaries at Low Airie is a big piece of work. And being totally frank, it’s a far bigger piece of work than I ever could’ve reckoned when I began.
In recent days, the problem has not so much been the legwork of fencing, but rather the rediscovery of the fenceline itself. Large sections of the old fence have been swallowed up and consumed by trees, and the wreckage is so dense that it takes hours to cut it back with a chainsaw. It’s testament to old fashioned wood treatment techniques that almost all of the fenceposts are fit to be reused – they’ve stood in place since the 1960s, and aside from a few which have snapped or withered, ninety nine percent simply need to be nudged back into position. The old plain wire has not fared so well, and it takes a good deal of labour to cut this into sections so that it can be dumped and disposed of.
But for all the exhausting labour of the job, I’m quite proud to have done all this work entirely unaided. I had a list of family and friends who were willing to lend a hand when I set out in the middle of March, but the current lockdown has meant that it has fallen to me alone. At first I was downcast by this isolation and the enormity of the challenge ahead of me. It seemed like I had been absurdly over-ambitious, but as I passed the halfway mark, I began to feel oddly protective of the job. Even if help was available now, I would probably turn it down because I feel a perverse sense of pleasure at having done something on my own which most people would have said required a team.
But there is “mony a slip twixt cup and lip” – perhaps I am speaking too soon, and with four hundred yards of fenceline left to build, I am certainly not out of the woods yet. I live in constant fear that the next bend will reveal some hidden obstacle or challenge which scuppers the entire job…
I’ve meant to learn Gaelic for several years, but always lacked the impetus. In my defence, Gaelic has been dead in Galloway for three centuries; it’s hard to find people who study the language and make use of it here.
I spent many happy months in the Western Isles listening to Gaelic being spoken as a first language, but I always knew that my lowland heritage went back to something different. Scotland is far too big and complex to be thought of as a single entity, and while my crofting pals in Harris taught me a great deal about their culture, I would have felt the same in Wales or Eire. I’m drawn to learn Gaelic because I know it will tell me something about Galloway, but that direct connection has grown fuzzy and obscure with misuse. And it’s hard to pick up a language from the dry pages of a textbook, particularly when your interest is grounded in life and nature.
But I was nudged back towards Gaelic again last week while pondering a map of Low Airie and the surrounding landscape. I’m always drawn to the riddle of place-names, particularly in Galloway where centuries of languages have overlapped to create a quilt of words from Pictish to Norse via Gaelic and into Scots. We have some thrilling place-names in Galloway, from Curlywee to Mulwarchar – and we also have some really dull names too. Without being deliberately provocative, the most boring names are often the English ones – try “Mid Hill” for example – it’s surely better that a hill should have no name than bear such a boring title. I only hope that “Mid Hill” did not replace something older and more interesting, and that the name was given only because the hill in question was found to be nameless.
I find myself fiddling at place-names all the time. There are a few generic terms like achad (field), dun (fort), bar (farm) which crop up all over the place, and once you have half a key, it’s hard to stop yourself puzzling at the rest.
There is a farm which lies on the old road to Low Airie. It’s called Slogarie (pronounced with emphasis on second syllable – sl’GAIRie), and I began to wonder if the name meant something like “road to the Airie”. But place-names are famously inconsistent, and the words are often corrupted in different ways. My family’s farm Slongaber seems to originate from the Gaelic Sron Ghabair (goat ridge). That’s quite a shift in spelling, but I’m also aware that the pronunciation of Slongaber has even changed in the last seventy years. I say slon-GAY-buh, but there are still people living in the village who call it slon-GAR-bah, which is probably closer to the original Gaelic.
Either way, I began to wonder if Slogarie had been similarly corrupted from “Sron garie”, which would leave me to puzzle out what “garie” meant. There are lots of garies and gairys in Galloway, the most famous being the Black Gairies at the back of the Merrick – those gairies are vast, desperate cliffs which tumble down for hundreds of feet beyond the mountain summit and are filled with ravens and bones.
For some reason, this puzzle began to gnaw away at me during long, quiet hours at work on the hill. Even when I got home to bed, the thought remained with me. In the end, a quick google search took me to The Journal of Scottish Place Names, which flagged up an analysis of the Gaelic word sliabh (pronounced “slew”). I’ve seen variants of this word before in Irish place-names which denote a mountain (slieve) and also on the Isle of Man, where there are several hills called Slieau.
The Journal of Scottish Place Names confirmed that the Gaelic word sliabh is often used to describe mountains in Irish Gaelic and Manx, but there was an important distinction when the word was used in Scotland. Here, sliabh often referred to rough moorland grazing, and there is a thrilling reason why – sliabh is also an ancient name for purple moor grass – the thick, tussocky vegetation which dominates the landscape across large areas of the Galloway hills. In a national context, this grass has many names, from “flying bent” in Yorkshire and Northern England (derived from the German/Saxon “beont” meaning stiff grass) to ribbon grass, whitings and purple moor grass (so called because the seed heads are purplish). Purple moor grass often acts like an invasive species which can easily dominate a landscape and is often implicated in the loss of heather coverage. The fact that it has so many names and has meant such a great deal to rural cultures across the UK implies that it has always been a significant plant.
The discussions around sliabh in place-names get very technical, but it’s clear that in Scottish Gaelic, sliabh was often an agricultural term used to denote rough, seasonal grazing – it was used in direct contrast to achad (field or cultivatable land) – and so the word for hill grazing was almost interchangeable with the name given to the species of grass which dominated that kind of land.
In a roundabout kind of way, I take a small step towards understanding the meaning of Slogarie, which the article in Journal of Scottish Place Names reckoned was probably originally pronounced as slew-GAIRie. The “gairy” still needs to be unpicked, but there’s no doubt that sliabh is a good fit for that rough, moorland place.
Maybe I’ve been piling tangents upon tangents and following my nose to madness. But I am thrilled by the discovery of sliabh, which seems to represent far more than just part of a nearby place-name. Sliabh is a very ancient word used to describe and lend colour to a landscape which English often lumps together under the dull, cover-all expression “moorland”. Sliabh is not just moorland, but rather a specific (and extremely familiar) kind of moorland dominated by white grass and suitable for seasonal grazing. Just as the “eskimos” are said (apocryphally) to have a hundred different words for snow, I’m keen to retain sliabh as a way of adding a little more nuance to my own landscape.
It’s easy to make old connections through agriculture, but having stumbled upon sliabh, I begin to wonder what else I am missing. At first I thought that learning Gaelic was a nice side-project. Now I think it’s unavoidable.
*updated 17/4/20 after helpful comments from readers…
As a gift to myself, I’ve made a leap into the 21st Century. Usually recalcitrant and unwilling to embrace change, I’ve had to confess that the project I’ve undertaken at Low Airie is almost beyond my capacity. My plan to cast a dozen galloways loose in two hundred acres of thoroughly rough, broken country aligns with every value and aspiration I hold dear, but it does present some massive logistical difficulties, particularly when it comes to checking them and making sure that they stay in situ.
Despite having spent just over a month restoring boundaries and making sure that my patch is stockproof, I am horribly aware that if any beasts escape over the dykes, they will essentially fall off the map. Inspecting Google Earth, it became horribly clear that any potentially fugitives have nothing standing between them and Kilmarnock. I think I’m doing a fair job of the fencing, but it would help me to sleep at night if I was a little more confident that if my beasts decide to make an exit, they will at least give me some chance of recovering them.
So I did the unthinkable and ordered a set of GPS satellite collars from a company in Spain. All being well, I will fit the cattle with trackers before they go out, and then I will be able to follow their movements from the comfort of my armchair. Part of me feels a little wimpy for taking an easy option, but even if they remain where I put them, I still have a dull dread of low cloud or fog for days at the height of midsummer. How on earth would I find my cows in two hundred acres without some digital hint? Instead of flogging myself with accusations of cowardice, I tell myself that I am being sensible and making a positive (if somewhat costly) investment in order to make my life easier and more fun.
More by accident than design, the late season silage which came off in November left my best field in a sorry state. It is only now beginning to show signs of life, and that late start hasn’t been helped by several weeks of absurdly dry weather. In planting a new hedge and replacing some old trees which came down over the winter, I took a look at the resurgent grass and found it has been over-run with dandelions.
I don’t know enough to venture an explanation for this abundance, but I like to think that any upsurge in “weeds” might be down to the fact that I withdrew slurry and bagged fertiliser in July 2018. My beautiful hayfield is now a six acre plot of golden flowers, and in a year where the word “unprecedented” has been bandied around far too often, I must admit that I’ve never seen the like.
During a hot, windless hour yesterday afternoon, I was staggered to find that the dandelions were absolutely humming with bumblebees, and the field was a-buzz. I’m late to the party on managing grasslands for pollinators, but I do know that bumblebees depend upon good nectar sources early in the season. Largely as a result of my own dodgy workmanship, a few marginal areas of the field were missed by the mower, and these have grown deep and tussocky over the winter – they should make good nesting sites if the bees choose to hang around. I notice that the bees were largely of the “red-arsed” variety – a common but hearteningly chunky beast with a buzz like a boy-racer.
Drawing an end to the application of fertiliser and slurry on this field was always going to lead to a drop in productivity. I’m lucky that I was able to produce more grass than I needed last winter, but with more cattle coming and diminishing returns from land that I had always “banked upon”, I leaped at the chance to take on a second hayfield for the summer. More on this to come, but needless to say that this is an expensive and slow way to run a farm. On the plus side, having moved away from a regime which depended upon extracting 100% from one field, I can now explore the impact of taking 50% from two.