On the wings of love

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Joe Gibbs Joe Gibbs lives at Bel­ladrum in the Highlands and is the founder of the Tar­tan Heart Fes­ti­val (Au­gust 3–5, www. tar­tan­heart­fes­ti­val.co.uk)

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

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