Every drop of water drawn from the taps this summer I have hauled into place.
I fill the bowser from the tap at the barn, pull it round to the basement at the west end of the bunkhouse, hook up to the alkythene pipe inserted into a hole drilled in the water tank enclosure and let it fill the system by gravity.
So every cup of tea, every toilet flush, hair/hand wash was made possible. Every shower prolonged pleasurably – was paid for in effort.
Every pot filled, garment washed, crock cleaned – was, in a sense, my artefact.
A pain in the water butt, in truth.
When the borehole pump failed first – I pulled it out for maintenance.
When the time came to replace it in the well with electrical connections reassembled, I tested it before dropping it down the 200ft shaft.
It didn’t work –
well, it worked if I stood in the dark basement like a cave-dwelling caryatid with my finger glued to it,
but it didn’t flow at the command of the float switch as it should.
So I run the quad up to the yard several times a day to handcraft the precious resource.
It has become a duty, like feeding the cattle in winter – a chore, literally, but one with a similar gift of routine. When I drive the quad round in the morning I take the measure of the day ahead, and, at night, take stock. While waiting on the twenty minute fill, I look for eggs, watch the ducklings, chop thistles and dockans, pull ragwort.
The Nog comes with me, joins the routine, noses through the silage pastures for pheasants, hares and partridge, also hunts out any hen’s eggs available for breakfast-(his breakfast)- races the quad, eats the chicken feed.
So this improvisation, born from failure and incomprehension,
has become embedded, a part of my day, of me
like a limp.
I must address this inertia.
Each day I aim by elimination to do some one thing to arrive closer to understanding the fault
One by one I have broken the electrical connections, and remade them, wired the pump to the switch in the basement, connected the dry run probe.
I suffer a teasing hiatus after clicking the trip switch – a moment of imminence- and then the light-
always red: always the stop light.
I had filled the pump with water when testing, but today I insert the heavy cylinder into the aperture used to fill the upper tank and submerge it – just in case there is some requirement for the pump casing to be immersed.
Flick the switch,
wait a half breath for the light to come on-
And this evening the heather has broken into full flower on the south facing slopes.
We use the same path most nights, the Nog and I: he has come to expect it.
We leave the yard by the blacksmith’s gate behind the sheds.
Passing along the old highway dominated by Tom na Cruachan, where the hanging tree stood, use broken down field dykes to negotiate the wet ground , ending at the little lift stile that, sluicelike, permits me over and the Nog beneath.
He sits waiting for the evening traffic to clear when we can cross the road into the braes and birches of the overgrown granite workings.
The tracks that used to carry carts and slow sledges loaded with stone, now trace a single thin line though chesthigh bracken. The Nog precedes me on the path, branching onto invisible scent trails between concealing fronds that tremble and sway as markers of his busyness.
Yesterday’s evening sun lay gently on the thickets of thin trees scrambling up grey rockfaces.
It was pleasant to amble with my face turned upwards-
so I tripped over the Nog rigid on the path, intent on something higher up.
After a time I saw his immobility mirrored by a doe, plain to view but indistinct against a background of branches, leaves and lichens. The Nog looked in my direction, moving his eyes only, questioning:
as clearly as I could I signalled:
‘You go for it if you like but you know you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of catching a full grown roe deer so if I were you don’t even think of it, but if you want make an idiot of yourself &c &c-‘
-or thoughts to that effect.
And he listened!
– and trotted comfortably off down the path;
while the doe gathered herself to vault a fallen trunk
and eased herself
silently from sight.
Yellow is being worn today.
Slow draining rivulets along the margins of the farm sport finery.
Peaty and filled with black mud that has clarted my boots many times on my way up the hill, these semi stagnant waterways obstruct hard paths around the farm.
I think sometimes there must have been stone bridges- there are old roads after all, winding their way around and between the townships that dotted the drier slopes above the river’s floodplain.
Today’s road shortcircuits the connecting loops that wander between habitations – at walking pace, at cart pace. The routes describe the journeys, mostly short and where longer, diversionary, topographic – one had to keep one’s boots dry after all.
The new road is far from arrow straight; the cliffs of Creag Dhubh are as unyielding as ever, the low ground as liable to flood as at any time, but the cars fly past on their way to somewhere else.
Watching them as I walk parallel to the road, I am looking not just from these woods separated by a few metres from the facilitating ribbon, but from an old time as if through an opening in a rotting stump.
Here hanged felons swing beside the highway as a warning,
and kingcups blaze above the slow movement of dark water.
I tag the last calf this morning –
old white Moira’s bull calf,
I coral him in a tight pen at the entrance to the race.
It confines him nicely, but the hurdle closing the entrance has no chain
to close it: being strong he could force it open by charging the bars
the way they do when frightened,
while I seek a tie.
I use my trousers,
restoring my dignity once the lad is released.
Logging the birth online,
filling Billy’s tag number as sire
for the last time
I see the animals in the field below the window
alert to something in the wood.
From the balcony I spot Moira being harrassed by the bullocks,
circling to escape their attempts to mount her.
She has come into season-
the first time after George’s birth.
She could be injured by these crude suitors,
incapable but only too willing.
I run down, divide them and shepherd her and George through the gate.
The boys watch her forlornly as they amble toward the other animals
She and her halfcalf are once more part of the herd-
and Angus Halfhorn is waiting.
is his now.
The void between the buildings is spanned by an oaken bridge.
The bunkhouse sits below the roundhouse so that the bridge leaves the roundhouse deck to strike the first floor at the other end,
10 foot off the ground,
and level with the bunkhouse eaves where the swallows dart.
I make the crossing to my office at the westen end of the bunkhouse
The prevailing westerlies hit the gable end of the office to curl round the mouth of the bridge and down its length.
Swallows make their homes here, housemartens adopt the round walls of my home.
This natural specificity is dictated by the respective build systems; mud and grass for materials –
but while swallows prop their nests on a ledge – maybe a downpipe elbow-
martens bracket their nests to a vertical.
They need purchase – choosing the dry head of my rough lime rendered wall.
Today I walk out onto the bridge and across to the wide platform
overlooking the bright growth of upper Strathspey.
A swallow brushes past my shoulder using the air as I use the timber deck.
The wind is strong enough for the birds to hold themselves up,
feathers fluttering, with a litany of chirrups and washboard clicks.
There must be a couple of dozen surrounding me,
within inches of my head,
A muted complaint alerts me to a mallard couple
splootering contentedly in the roadside ditch;
they watch cautiously as the Nog and I pass.
Higher up the hill roe deer twins
delicate and angular
are not so sanguine, ears pricked intently
as the Nog settles on the crag while I descend.
I keep his attention until calling him down to
chase me beyond the fence,
freeing the calves to bound back to shelter.
A curlew slides past, as if following an invisible aerial contour
and settles ahead of us yammering its liquid call:
challenging by serenade.
Returned to the farm, I can find no threat:
George, deprived of milk and too small for the trough, is watered,
and noses the Nog without concern.
The cattle are at the new grass,
and the housemartens dart among the eaves.
Billy’s last journey is simple to trace.
Not for him quiet retirement under the trees.
He has his place – as master.
First he must cross the field.
He sets his head against the closed gate, hooking his horns under the bottom bar.
The metal buckles but the ropes hold and the hinges are strapped down.
No matter- he knows all the ways round the farm that he has owned contentedly for a decade.
He sashays along the fence seeking access to the wooded hollow.
This gate too is tied: a rope looped round a securely braced corner post.
He brings his horns down on the timber bars of the short ladder at the side, smashing them from the post.
The gap is too small for him to pass through.
His way lies through the marsh.
The wired gate swings open under his weight.
He moves purposefully through the bog created by the blocked drainage channel.
His wide hooves carry his body weight squarely punching pockets in the soft ground that fill at once with water.
Where the land dries again, he skirts the fence bordering the vacant hay pasture.
The gate bulges and gives.
He is now on sweet new grass but his mind is not on grazing.
At last he reaches the paddock with the high fence where his females wander in the company of his son.
Angus stands there, responding to his challenge.
Billy tears at the grass with his front hooves, revealing black dirt that he grinds to paste with the front ridge of his skull, snorting and groaning as he does so.
He lifts his head to the sky.
At his trumpeting, rivals will quail, trees split, the earth will shake and walls tumble.
Mastery is his-
just one more gate.
He is ready
to break through.
I prepared the field last night, hauling the chain harrow to spread dung and molehills.
This morning is perfect for rolling.
A heavy mist covers the house allowing a luminous glow through the windows-
assurance of a cloudless sky.
then green again.
The mist lifts as I progress, revealing sunshine on the upper part of Creag Dubh,
its lower slopes still veiled as if for modesty.
By the time I finish my skin is chilled,
the smell of crushed grass fills my nostrils;
small rainbows hide in thinning vapour.
The day is opening.
Little Jess is delighted: the ducklings have hatched.
Mother duck is sitting still. There are eggs under her and three ducklings poking out from under her downy breastfeathers.
The long grass and stems on the island have been flattened by frost and rain, so the female mallard has no cover apart from her colouring that blends with the wintry vegetation.
She attempts to look like rock.
Once the rest of her eggs have hatched: her frenetic soot balls will find their true element on the water, and safety from predators.
For now she must sit- and wait –
while Jess and I hope for a good morning.
There is another young survivor on the farm road this evening –
Moira’s half calf, a quasi autonomous republic,
population of one
who watches his mother up to the yard to be fed and penned
and stays cropping the sweet grass at the base of the birches
for a good hour
up to the bucket of nuts I had placed there for him.
With just a litre of mother’s milk coaxed down his reluctant gullet,
he has made it up the road