On the wings of love
AMBLING through Highland glens, the piles of stones that make up the site of a long-lost Clearance village have often given me pause to sit and reflect. Now, I no longer need to go to the hills—we have our own clearance village. For 10 years, since we dug out a borrow pit for road materials, its sandy walls have been a summer home to an expanding high-rise colony of troglodyte sand martins.
Generations of these little brown visitors have returned year on year from the sub-sahara to raise their two broods, but, this spring… nothing. Not a single bird—a sudden and completely unexplained absence. Had he been here, Gilbert White, the 18thcentury naturalist who famously believed that swallows hibernated underwater during winter, would have taken a spade and excavated a sand-martin tunnel to check the little blighters weren’t still hiding in there.
It’s possible that a drought in their wintering grounds could have wiped out our colony, but that, and the reappearance of only one pair of nesting house martins this year, had me mired in an avian slough of despond until my daughter’s wedding day dawned.
Such an occasion, of course, was reason alone to be of good cheer, but my co-father-in-law came back from delivering a picnic lunch to the ushers in a state of more-than-average father-of-the-bridegroom joie de vivre. A keen naturalist, he had been startled by the beating of heavy wings near the picnic spot. Looking down to the burn below, he spied, to his astonishment, a crane taking off.
In 2013, the first time since some moment in the Middle Ages when a princely tummy received the last crane in Scotland, the birds began to reappear. Some tentative breeding started at a secret site in north-east Scotland. Our visitor was probably just a passenger, but we have, nonetheless, decided to take it as a good omen.
The Celtic deity Ogma is said to have invented the ogham alphabet carved into as yet undeciphered inscriptions on Pictish stones after watching how cranes’ legs crossed and bent to form patterns. In the Celtic world and in the Far East, the crane is associated with longevity, so long life to our young couple—and prosperity!
LIKE many of its ilk, the livestock mart in Dingwall is a hub for the local farming community. They meet there weekly to buy and sell beasts of the hill and field and to exchange news.
Last week, they gathered there to say goodbye to one of their number. My neighbour Ducky, a farmer and local legend, had chosen the mart for his final farewell. It was his second home and, long after he retired from active farming, he continued to see friends there and give vent to famously trenchant views.
Built as an amphitheatre, the sale ring made for a convivial and dramatic funeral setting. The coffin was carried in under an electronic sign reading: ‘No of beasts 1. Total weight of beasts 535kg.’
I hadn’t seen Ducky for a while before his untimely death, but either he’d been at the Dunkin’ Donuts big time or, more likely, perhaps, the sign was still registering the last lot from a recent cattle sale.
The place was stacked to the rafters with friends and rela-
Gilbert White would have taken a spade to check the little blighters weren’t hiding in there
tives, many of whom had settled in early to get ringside seats.
As the minister approached the microphone, some speculated whether he might slip into the distinctive rapid patois of the Highland auctioneer, in which words elide into a sort of chanted refrain based on the last amount bid: ‘Twenty twenty twenty twenty, come on folks, twenty twenty twenty and [pause to draw breath] twenty twenty twenty, who’s going to help me out here, folks?’
One thing was certain: there were only two bidders for Ducky’s soul and we could but hope the right one would go highest. Knowing the quality of the man, I am sure He did.
In the days when the expression ‘one for the road’ still existed, Ducky took a ‘wrong turning’ into a field when motoring into Inverness one fine evening. A passing ambulance crew spotted his predicament and stretchered him aboard.
During the journey into the Highland capital, he obligingly allowed the medics to practise CPR technique on him, dab him with cotton wool and cover him with Elastoplast, but when they stopped at what was then the only set of traffic lights, he popped upright and hopped out, thanking them for the ride.
The bemused crew watched him swing into the pub to meet his parents for a refresher, his car radio under his arm. He was always a man for make do and mend.
Next week: Ysenda Maxtone Graham