Salvation

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Looking up to a black hill from my patch where it’s “business as usual”

Low Airie, Glenkens – 26/4/20

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.

 

Hunting

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 25/4/20

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.

Reprise

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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

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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.

Curios

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A rubbing from the old “Bryson” bottle

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.

Sowing

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Home, Parish of Kirkgunzeon – 20/4/20

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.

Fencing Labours

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Low Airie, Glenkens – 17/4/20

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…