Glorious Normality

We observed the Twelfth and killed birds because their time had come. How normal it was to see the hill grass thrown and churning in the wind; how like this month to feel rain and clouds gouging the tops like a sound of crumbled pumice.

When I was a child, I’d look forward to this day above all others. Grouse were the whole and brimful year, but I know them now and the heat’s gone out of our love. They’re comfortable friends, and I’m as glad to watch the cocks fight in March as I am to see their infants killed with the dying summer. The more I look, the less sense it makes to turn upon the birds suddenly because some change in the calendar permits it. Some of the grouse we saw have been ready for a month; others will take another month, and there is something unhinged about that midnight transition into the season. I’d hate to be the one who tried to explain it to the birds.

Most grouse are shot by busy visitors who lead their lives in a flux of motion. They come to the hills in August and each year serves a fresh chance to recall seasons gone by in a place that is always summer; always fragrant with dried flowers and the novelty of dogs. On dud days, they’ll say “it’s just nice to be out”, and I envy that. I’m not so easily satisfied because the stink of that heather is too like my life to slacken me. The bracken smells like a knapsack sprayer; I can feel as short tempered shooting grouse as I would be gathering cattle, and there’s nothing new or calming in the hills. Shooting is a fine observance and the year would feel slim without it, but it’s begun to carry the taint of work. It lies on the list between speaning lambs and gathering berries; fine as part of something bigger, but layered in a thousand related tasks.

When all the guns had gone, I sat for half an hour to watch the hill repair itself. A young cuckoo dropped down from the stones above me. It fluttered in the ragwort, picking caterpillars from the stripped-off stems. Most young cuckoos are gone by now; this is the latest bird I’ve ever seen here. That was fine, and then the engineer rang to say that work on the baler’s slipclutch is more complex than he feared and would I come and see. I’ve standing oats and I’ll soon have straw to bale, so I went to see, and the year rode on.

Here’s To Us, Sir Walter

I share my birthday with Sir Walter Scott. Having recently passed the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Scott’s birth, it’s been fascinating to see one of my favourite writers under the microscope in the media, particularly as we try to reassess his cultural and literary significance for modern Scotland.

In the BBC documentary In Search of Scott, the author Damian Barr attempted to pinpoint an explanation for why Sir Walter has fallen off the map. With a sense of growing exasperation, he concluded that he had never met any writer who cited Scott as an inspiration. That’s a fair sign of the times; Scott has never seemed more distant, but even if we can’t trace a direct influence from the man himself, it’s hard to think of a single nineteenth century writer who was not somehow influenced by Scott’s work. The man was a giant, and while it’s easy to make modern comparisons to big names in today’s literary scene, I’m not convinced that any of them really capture the scale of Scott’s celebrity. So if nobody wants to claim a connection Sir Walter Scott these days, I’ll happily step forward to fill the gap. He’s been a massive presence in my life for twenty years.

I will never get over the experience of reading Waverley. That book laid the foundations for my understanding of Scotland, not only from the enormity and breadth of that narrative but also in the creative potential of narrative itself. Scott was born within living memory of Culloden and the shadow of rebellion. By repatterning the all-too-fresh sense of discord and conflict in Scotland, he was able to work a tale which espoused a national myth; a story which offered the possibility of reconciliation between warring factions. Embracing the inherent diversity of Scotland across boundaries of religion, politics, language and geography, Scott was able to think about what a healed nation might look like. It’s not too much to say that Scott’s writing made Scotland, and it’s crucial to understand that as he undertook this task, he showed his working.

Scottish history never figured when I was at school, but the fag-ends I found as a child seemed to suggest that Culloden had been a battle between Scotland and England. Instead of this, Waverley describes a disaster which could easily be seen as a civil war between north and south; highland and lowland. Of course my heart went out to the shattered clans, but I was a lowlander from a place that despises the memory of Jacobitism. Scott freed me from my frustrated sense that Galloway is merely a dilution of the “real Scotland” you find in the north. Many of us in the south are irritated by that idea, but Scott allowed me to feel like I was entitled to be Scottish too. It’s ironic that his work is often despised for creating an overly simplified Scotland full of tartan and terriers – my take is that he espouses unity by reflecting complexity.

Since Waverley, I’ve consumed more than fifteen of Scott’s novels. Some are excellent, but others were pretty heavy-going. It’s certainly true that his prose calls for a serious investment of time and concentration. The words do not slip easily from the page, and his introductory set-pieces can feel madly cumbersome and verbose. If you’d like to try reading Waverley, be aware that nothing whatsoever happens for the first one hundred pages. That’s all bound to the style of the day, but it’s also worth saying that when the plot kicks in, you’ll be glad of the investment.

Almost a decade ago, I found a complete set of the Waverley novels in a junk shop on Byres road. It was published shortly before Scott’s death in 1832, and I brought the whole lot home for £10. It seemed extraordinary that I should be allowed to own books which properly deserved shelf-space in a museum, but the reality is that Scott’s work is far out of fashion. Even during a visit to Scott’s former home at Abbotsford last week, I searched long and hard through the gift shop before I found a slim rack of his novels tucked in a back corner. These were partly concealed by “modern retellings” of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy; shinily designed hardback books with unabashed assurances that the stuffiness had been stripped from them. It seemed to confirm my feeling that while Abbotsford is an international tourist destination, it hasn’t quite decided what to do about the collapse of Scott’s literary legacy.

Scott’s castle at Abbotsford is a strange, confected folly, and experts say that you can’t understand the man without visiting the home he built for himself. I agree with that, but refuting any sense of co-dependency, Abbotsford’s current incarnation is oddly light on Scott. The house floats slightly outside the context of its creator, presented as the home of a lovely, rather eccentric old man who spent a lot of time doing unspecified things in his office. The new visitor centre might almost have the slogan “Welcome to Abbotsford – don’t worry, we won’t make you read the books”. I think that’s a missed opportunity; what better location than Scott’s own home to place his literary legacy front and centre?

It’s also interesting to learn that Scott’s use of language has become an obstacle for modern audiences. Many of his Scottish novels are full of Scots dialogue, and people find that hard to stomach. Writing about Scott in the 1940s, the critic VS Pritchett glibly remarked that “at some time in the last thirty years feeling against dialect especially the Scottish dialect has hardened into dislike. It is troublesome to the eye, it is a language which nags and clatters; one would as soon read phonetics”. I dislike Pritchett and I enjoy the fact that he failed to foresee that the prim intellectualism of his own language had a shelf-life of its own, but while Scott’s Scots is difficult, it’s no worse than some of Dickens’ awful cockney patois. You get used to it. I recognise parts of Scott’s language from my own life, but of course I can see how it would stand as an abatis to readers from elsewhere in the world.

And it was doubly interesting to see the Scots poet Len Pennie stumble over reading a two hundred year old piece of Scott’s dialogue in the BBC’s In Search of Scott. If anyone should be able to handle a mouthful of Scots, it’s Pennie, but she seemed embarrassed by the trickiness and afterwards excused it by saying “that’s not my Scots”. Scots was and is a language, but many modern expressions of the leid are closely intertwined with the reclamation of national or class pride; some are so fluid and irregular that it’s more accurate to think of them as an unstandardized patchwork of dialects. I think that’s natural, but if we concede that “my Scots” might not be “your Scots”, we come back to that exciting sense of intranational diversity.

Scott’s nation-building work required him to gather and blend a wide variety of people and ideas and correlate them into one vibrant, outward-facing Scotland. The man was a unionist and a Tory, but he took lairds, calvinists, drunks and pirates from Wigtown to Orkney and showed them off to the world with a flair that would leave modern Scottish nationalists gasping with envy. Time has changed the meaning of the word Tory, but Scott would find it hard to reconcile the modern idea that “Tories Out” has become an acceptable political mission statement in this country. Scottish identity has become so heavily bound up with left wing politics that that “Scottish Tory” is almost considered to be an oxymoron. I have no great love for Tories, but “Tories Out” worries me. It’s the thin end of a political purge which goes further than denying power to the opposition; it attempts to usurp its very existence.

It’s no surprise that many modern Scottish nationalists regard the old Tory Sir Walter as a mild embarrassment, and some will find it convenient that he has been sidelined. His creative and political existence has even been made to feel like an aberrance, much as some Scottish historians have attempted to unpick Scotland’s complicity in empire and slavery. But you could say that controversies which arise from Scott’s life and work are more interesting and useful today than they’ve ever been; his legacy generates an entire world of conversations, but we aren’t having them. I think that’s a real concern at a time when nationalism has begun to reduce and narrow many of the ideas that Scott embraced.

It’s sadly ironic that a writer who often expressed such a giddy, credulous lust for life has been allowed to go down in history as a dust-coloured dullard. As a gift to myself on the night before our shared birthday, I stayed up late to read Alan Massie’s novel “The Ragged Lion”, a fictionalised biography of Scott’s life. It’s less than Scott himself, but it’s a clear, accessible expression of an astonishing, complex and dearly lovable human being. Two hundred and fifty years after he was born, discover Scott at full stretch on the subject of ghosts, faeries and ancient battles. Go to Abbotsford and be baffled by it. Reckon with the man on the nature of being Scottish, even if he makes your blood boil. Just please don’t say that he’s not for you.


Did you ever hear of such a year for swallows? The yard is loud with them now in the early days of autumn, and the second broods have begun to join the first on the wires between the house and the telegraph poles. Pity the sparrowhawk who comes here hunting in the buchts and the pigsty rafters. He is doomed to fail and the sky darkens with fury above him. The adult swallows run a screen of interference, and even the new fledglings are safe when they bum around at waist-height above the cobbles like dor beetles and could be killed by any passing child. Nothing dares touch them.

I took a moment last week to count the swallows queued on a power line against the sun. I reached one hundred and twelve before my eye was drawn to a host of martins from the town and linnets like down in the breeze. In previous years I have counted similar, but only later when third broods have begun to fly, and it seems like this year will trump all those that came before it. We might make two hundred, but even on the cusp of that new record I am suddenly afraid.

In many parts of Britain, swallows have declined over the past ten years. For all that I whine of decline and collapse of the birds in the hills of old Galloway, I’m keenly aware that my ruins are riches to many who live in tidier places. Vast areas of Europe have been sprayed and pasteurised to a state of pristine sterility, and I need to keep my home in context. The swallows here prosper because they are able to cruise for miles across half-grazed moorland, willow scrub and a thickly souping river. To a swallow’s eye, nothing much has happened in the past century, but they should be aware that change can come in a moment; it can arrive in their midst like a burst carrier bag. It would take no time to spoil this place and reduce my dozen pairs to nothing.

Conservationists have begun to think of biodiversity in financial terms. It’s a necessary shift because nobody can remember how to assign value unless it’s expressed in pounds and pennies. So when it comes to saving species, the new front line is the bottom line; money is the only motivation, and it won’t be long before farmers are paid to conserve birds like swallows; paid because in managing meadows for insects and feeding habitats, swallows are a visible waste, a financial entitlement foregone. You can’t expect farmers to go without and endure the unfunded din of birdsong in the morning.

It all makes sense to me, and in the same breath I’m encouraging people to think of all that swallows do; all the things we never knew we needed.

With nothing to perch upon them, what use would power lines have? With nothing to kill them, a billion midges would die in their beds at home, with all the attendant waste of weeds and winding sheets. And think of the individuated mud particles which have been fetched from the burn to the rafters in the byre to make nests. Selected and loved and shaped to a function, they are more than pottery. With nothing to do that work, the mud would merely ride the next rain and roll down to the sea in a world unthinkable.

The Lorries

When the rain came at last, it found us by chance in the street in the town in a crowd. It came in a shade which rode over the quarry and the river to the kirk and mill in sheets. We stood against it, feeling the hiss and the turning leaves as it rushed through the gardens and gutters like a vandal. There was a cold smell of uneven air, then we were soaked.

We were waiting on a convoy of lorries. Everybody had come to see them, and the pubs poured people onto the street like listing ships. The lorries were cued to pass on a charity run from one corner of Galloway to the other, and people laughed at the rain and one man with blood on his vest stood with his eyes tight shut and his tongue pulled down like a blind over his chin. The rain fell harder and the martins squalled in the eaves as the roads began to flood, bobbing with fag packets and streaks of bark from the sawmill. Somebody said it was a shame that the rain would spoil the show; somebody else said we’ve been needing this.

So we could not have been wetter when they finally came down the Hill Road towards us; forty big engines, nose to tail and belling in the rain. The claxons pealed as they passed the Welcome sign and water rose from the road in a mist which billowed around the massive machines, loud enough to make a small boy cry. Everybody waved and the girls from the bar ran laughing inside because the rain had rendered them suddenly see-through. Kids on too-big bikes yelled like gulls and rode round in circles, giving hidden vees to police cars which had parked to block normal traffic in the High Street.

The lorries boomed through the town, and it was a joy to see them. They were huge and loud and it fairly took your breath away to be near them. All the upstairs windows were open in the houses and folk yelled and waved flags; somebody threw a can of lager which exploded on the kerb and span crazily round upon itself like a cut snake. Each lorry had been polished to a high sheen of pride and perfection; each cab lettered with the livery of haulage firms from Creetown to Lochmaben. The name of the driver himself was stencilled before the wheel; that’s how I know we saw Big Wull and Beady, Simples and The Mole, each one of them with the saltire hung against the cab’s back window.

One truck was painted with a fine design of Sitting Bull against a pack of howling wolves. One had Black Widow stretching her tight breeks tighter in a half-squat. Her hair made for a blaze of colour in the rain and the hiss of heavy tyres in the diesel and petrichor. More claxons rang in the queue behind until every last lorry was cheered for itself and the whole and the blasting horns had passed out of town towards Kirkgunzeon with Tam’s new steers at Dalmannoch running spare up the roadside fence, rolling their eyes and gurning at the shock of it.

Rain fell steadily in the aftermath. Fish nosed the new water in the burn behind the bottlebank, feeling their way upstream like blind men. Clusters of unripe berries felt the rise of new sap and were glad to think they might make a belly after all. And your man with the blood on his vest tried to make it all about himself. Somebody placed him in a headlock and pulled him back to the bar. The rain slipped off him like wax from an old candle.