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.
There are times the cloud seems to drag along the braes, catching in the birches so that I half expect fluffy white deposits like sheepswool on barbed wire.
Other times the hilltops are axed flat, bandaged in dense vapour like fabric, impenetrable and mysterious: a time to avoid walking the high tops for fear of disorientation, however familiar the terrain.
On a good day with a breeze and broken sun, the patterns of shadow pass over hillsides and pastures like fast moving geology, picking out grey rock, a flash of green upland pasture, a blaze of bracken, the gleam of water.
Today the wind has turned from the north (where the weather lurks unseen behind the dark mass of Creag Dhubh) to south east: warm but threatening the unaccustomed.
I haul the mountain bike from the pick-up and drop it over the gate to the hill-road on Catlodge. A Blue-Grey heifer is watching, head-up, ears pricked. As I wobble off down the rocky track the rest of the herd take flight and stampede down the track ahead of me, as if on a strange new steamrailway with me the monstrous locomotive. I curse under my breath, ashamed at the disruption as if a dog was running loose
Finally, the animals turn up the hill and slow, watching me pass.
When the road turns to grass, I prop the bike against the derelict fence of some forgotten environmental scheme, pull my whistlestick from the bungey holding it to my pack, and start the foot climb. I follow the half seen road used by the old peat cutters toward the green saddle that gives onto the far valley with long views to the west.
The first drops hit smartly, and turning I see cloud lowering over Drumochter Hills. Testing the wind I am forced to acknowledge the bank of rain heading for me like vengeance.
I look for the bright broken elements that presage showers, and the chance of drying off between downpours.
This I have learned to be comfortable with. but there is no relief in prospect.
I climb on-
as I walk the wild-
my mind calls up an image of bedsheets left on the line.
That does it!
The Nog obediently turns with me as I head for home –
and a world of duty.
What is to report?
Two Italian lads arrive to help on the farm
and cook pizzas
in the Highlands.
Vapour scarfed the river this morning.
I sold two bullocks:
the boys who make a fuss of the new calves.
I was scammed by a man on the ‘phone
who went shopping in London
on my credit card.
The water still needs tankered round from the barn.
The animals chew summer cud-
sign of contentment
in a small world
The birches vanish progressively
as the plastic is pinned to the inside of the studwork
nominal walls til now,
skeletal rectangles allowing light and wind.
Plasterboard starts to define the interior space
where owls perched and pelleted the rough screed floor
Around the house the birds swoop and soar ceaselessly,
the martens spilling wind, pulling their wings back to flutter briefly in stasis
as they pluck insects from the new hatch
while swallows wheel in the higher air.
I wait in the doorless portal
knowing evening warmth and calm
and the busiest time of opportunity,
the cattle grazing as if at harvest.
The hills are softened in vapour
and mottled with shade
from cloud teased by distant winds
blowing seagulls in from the east.
Young lambs on the hill
demand to suck:
their calls enter the new room
I have two days to renew my electricity contract.
If not my friendly supplier will continue to supply me-
at five times the cost.
A pine marten would, I suppose,
display no less rank predatory opportunism
among my hens.
As I complete the task I notice Holly
lying alone: atypical behaviour triggering a latent alarm.
She watched me head-up this morning as I rode the quad to the yard.
She was watching still at my return.
I put it down to a quest for morning feed,
I kick myself for ignoring a possible signal-
where is her beautiful white heifer calf?
When animals suffer
any stockman takes it on themselves.
Two months ago I saved Demi-Og’s baby by the merest chance,
a matter of seconds,
sometimes I fail.
Season before last Holly’s calf died
for no reason.
I saw her first thing,
by lunch she had stretched out
and expired as I pumelled and exhorted
in the exact same damp spot that April’s newborn had passed
a month earlier.
I will never permit an animal to calve there again-
just in case they are called to follow..
Dear Holly – not again-
I run from the office, coat and boots collected,
run to the field-
The calf, big and white, is easily spotted over the brow,
picking at tufts on the ledges of the rabbit warren.
Relieved, I tickle Holly as she lies in the grass.
Angus Halfhorn, as fickle as any harem master should be,
has forgotten yesterday’s dalliance with Moira:
Demi Og is today’s sweetheart.
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.
Close to a week ago now I heard a great bellow
as I ladled feed
one wet morning.
Flora, my best cow with a great spread of horns and hanging belly
has calved with no trouble
The baby is tall
so cannot find the swollen teats her mother proffers
I bring them in
avoiding Flora’s flailing horns clanging against the metal,
milk her and feed the baby:
2 litres of yellow firstmilk-
she will not sleep hungry in the open field.
Flatflanked next night she takes another bottle
but is not done-
sucking against the metal my arm waterproofs.
staggers into the yard
milk mad berserker
If a pack of wild dogs stood in the way
she would challenge for leadership.
I guide her to Flora in the crate
breaking the year’s seal on each tit in turn
before offering it over my forearm
This one will do, I think,
looking round at the winter deep muck
greening with algae,
as she pulls the swollen cone
to a flaccid hanging scrap.
This will do.