A Year’s Work

I made the walk on the hill’s face to the shoulder and the boulder’s lair. I worked hard at the walking; found hares for the running as the ravens rocked and roiled in the shelled-up corries below. There were sunny days, but more often the cloud came cool to my collar like a twist of tissue. Once there was snow which fell without warning, and once there was a warning of stars.

If I had to put my hand on the work of this year, I’d reach for those weeks spent watching on the tall hills, searching for plovers in the scree. They were golden plovers, a bird that nobody sees and most have never heard mentioned. And that was May, but even now I recall the birds calling at dawn, in the first grey souring of light a bird-shape standing in the black wreckage of stones. And long before light the birds unveiled display songs sung against the night sky; curious courtships pursued in the moss with a view of eighty moonlit miles beyond them.

You know I set cameras to record these birds. I told you how they came back to their nest when I found it, and how they sat through the snow when it came. Thanks to that technology, I have video footage of a bird which stands up as if from nowhere in the settling drift. There is nothing, and then a bird climbs out of the snow like a plant and the powder shakes away. I’ll show you that video sometime, but it’s small beside its own unspeakable reality.

In walking out and watching, I came to know the hill foxes; the hinds and the billy goats. I learned how the forest wood sweats in the rain, and winds fling the steam to the crags above. Standing on the highest ground before the weather turned, I sometimes felt I could fling a stone across fifteen miles of bog and lochan to Minnigaff. And when the weather turned, I couldn’t even catch enough breath to say the name of that town.

The plovers sat in turns and I counted the days. They crouched and I recorded, and one day when the sky was fine as film, I went to the nest. The male bird stood nearby with his black breast scowling. Four eggs splayed apart from their points like clover, and each shell was differently damaged in the sun. I saw the ruptures with my own eyes; cracks and the heaving churn of internal movement. I heard the shrill, early-birth noises of calling from chicks on the brink of beginning. You might expect to hear some passive drone or chirp from unborn birds, but instead I heard the adult’s song as they’d fused in the darkness above me a month before; the same ecstatic sound replayed by a new generation distantly coming without forethought or rehearsal.

So I claim that as the work of this year. That, even though it took less than a tick of the year’s true time. I claim that work as a link to the grand ulterior plan of hills which teem to the blue horizon. What came before was precursor; what followed is afterglow and God knows that nine tenths of my life is meaningless. The final share is only reaching, but to lie beside those hatching eggs and hear the same eternal song at the height of its own unfindable privacy is to have no fear of dying after all.


I spent the greatest part of this day on the roof, palming the boards and patching the damage caused by a storm. The missing slates had not fallen far from the walls, but most had burst on the back step and the yard setts. I only found six which could be reused; seven if you count the one standing upright on its end like a guillotine’s blade in the kale.

I didn’t want to do this work, and I didn’t think I’d have to. But every roof in Galloway seems to have lost a plateful of slates in that same storm which came down from the north last month. I called the roofers twenty times, but in this weather they hardly bother to call you back. It’s a feeding frenzy for them, and I’m not bleeding hard enough to turn their heads in the clot-red water.

So hooking ladders together like paperclips, I built myself a gangway onto the roof. I carried a litter of tacks and replacement slates to the chimney’s height, then crept back for extra sheets of tin and a packet of self-tapping screws with washers already built into them. I didn’t even know they existed, but there’s a nice woman in the shop. She talked me through it, and it turns out we were at school together. 

Yes, it was fine to be up there on a cold day with the hills about me. I was hooked by the work, which at first felt daunting. A roofer is a full-time person, not some curious amateur. But I loved it before I’d even parted the first gap and explored the rotten line where the slates had clattered themselves to pieces. 

It’s an old roof, and the tacks all waisted like pawns with rubbing. Between the slates and the pine there was felt which I recognised as horse hair. The worst hit bits had blown away, but even the best stuff crumbled like moth-wings in the wind. There cannot be any insulation in that horse hair lining. I daresay it’s there as padding to protect the slates when they rattle like bones in the wind, but when it comes to your Energy Efficiency Rating, you can hardly hang your winter’s hat on a quarter inch of fur.

Plus it was fine to see my world from a new angle. I looked down from a dish-moon to the yard and the garden; from the moor to the sea. I saw the sheepstains on the inbye and the order in which mowdie hills were made, with the last and most recent the darkest. Geese came by in the morning; a rowdy clan of eighty greylags. I laughed at them for jokers, and then for six whole hours they stayed in the grass and the rushes at the hill-foot. A low sun often caught them turning and spoiled their creams to amber. 

The work pleased me most for being neat. By the time the slates were shaken back to a pattern, you could hardly see where I’d been at them. And even in the patches where I’d snipped tin to fit the gaps, there was a sense of care and order restored. It looks like I knew what I was doing in those distracted hours as the world turned and the moon rolled over upon itself like a dog in its bed. The tin’s a short-term fix, but now I’m keen to return and finish the work for good.

I’d been worried that repairing this roof would distract me from paid work. I talk a good game about the nourishment of Doing It Yourself, but I’m also a hypocrite. If I pass too long at my desk, I begin to believe the lie that “time is money”, and I develop an over-inflated sense of my own importance. I look out of my window and tell myself that there is no other way, so forced to this job against my best financial judgement, I twisted and moaned like a pudgy baby. And now chilled to the bone by a stone-cold wind, I could hardly care less about income foregone. In fact when the geese began to roil and batter at the hill-foot, heading back to the flats, I thought how easily I would pay to make full use of a day like this again. And it was only when the birds rose and turned above the ash trees that I found I could not see. An unseen darkness had fallen around me as I worked, close to home again, smiling all the while at my slates.