The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Neil McKil­li­gan Re­view thislife@theaus­tralian.com.au

It was in the au­tumn of 1977 and I was strolling along a rough ve­hi­cle track in a pine for­est bor­der­ing the fast-flow­ing River Dee in the north­east of Scot­land. The for­est lies be­tween Bal­moral Cas­tle and the High­land vil­lage of Bal­later.

The so-called Glo­ri­ous Twelfth (of Au­gust) had passed, so mem­bers of the Bri­tish royal fam­ily would have been gath­ered at the cas­tle for the start of the shoot­ing sea­son.

I was in the vicin­ity study­ing a com­mon bird species, the rook. This bird is like a crow but with a white fore­head.

I was in­ter­ested in its sea­sonal move­ments and the en­vi­ron­men­tal de­ter­mi­nants of these move­ments. As it turned out, the large flocks of rooks, af­ter much vo­cal­is­ing and wheel­ing in the air, de­serted the up­per reaches of this high­land val­ley to spend the win­ter months on the low­land coastal plains.

The rook feeds on pas­ture and stub­ble, and in­land these are more of­ten cov­ered in win­ter snow than are the fields at lower al­ti­tudes. Ad­di­tion­ally, since on some morn­ings of my vis­its in­land the tem­per­a­ture dipped to mi­nus 20C, the sea­sonal de­ser­tion of these high fields was hardly sur­pris­ing.

As I me­an­dered along, scan­ning the tree tops for colonies of nest­ing rooks, binoc­u­lars at the ready, a large black car ap­proached slowly and stopped about 10m away. A youngish woman got out, as did the dark-suited driver and they as­sisted an el­derly lady from the ve­hi­cle.

The two younger per­sons looked at me in a hos­tile man­ner but the old lady, who was pe­tite and el­e­gantly dressed, ap­proached to within a few me­tres of where I was stand­ing and re­garded me with some cu­rios­ity and a pleas­ant smile.

Not be­ing very quick off the mark, it took me sev­eral sec­onds to recog­nise the lady who stood be­fore me as the Queen Mother.

This was a lady who had suf­fered so much trauma in her life that a chance en­counter with an Aussie bird­watcher was hardly going to faze her.

I would like to de­scribe her at­tire in full de­tail as pro­fes­sional com­men­ta­tors do, but I lack such pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion and de­scrip­tion. She wore a hat (of course) and her dress was of a sub­dued laven­der colour (I think).

Re­gret­tably, I can­not re­mem­ber her ex­act words to me but she showed an ap­par­ent in­ter­est as I ex­plained I was on sab­bat­i­cal leave from my univer­sity in Aus­tralia and spend­ing some of my time study­ing this bird.

We chat­ted for sev­eral min­utes be­fore she gra­ciously took her leave, her at­ten­dants still glow­er­ing at me. Her car took her in one di­rec­tion and I, in a some­what dazed con­di­tion, took the other.

wel­comes sub­mis­sions to This Life. To be con­sid­ered for pub­li­ca­tion, the work must be orig­i­nal and be­tween 450 and 500 words. Sub­mis­sions may be edited for clar­ity. Send emails to Who wrote the well-known 1930 play What type of nuts are used to make tra­di­tional Ital­ian brutti-boni? Who was named Aus­tralian of the Year for 2017? Greg “Hol­ly­wood” Hart­ley is best known for his in­volve­ment in which sport? Who cre­ated the char­ac­ter Shane Michael Schofield, also known as Scare­crow?

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