F e a t u r e s /
M o r t o n
The other signature bird in the glen is the woodcock. With no one to shoot them, they thrive. At dusk on damp nights they sit on the verges looking for easy invertebrates, exploding into the air at the last moment of approach. In spring, they go on moth-like ‘roding’ flights down forest fire-breaks. Only special birds have their very own verb. You could come within feet of one in daylight and not notice it among the leaf-litter. One of the cats brought one in last summer, unhurt but disoriented and unsure whether it should continue playing dead. It sat forlornly on a window sill like a wad of camouflage with only the eyes animated before we let it out and watched it disappear into the bracken. The following week, the same cat – a mighty hunter before God – brought in a jack snipe, the smallest of that family and not recorded here, perhaps because they only flush when you are more or less standing on them. This one failed to play dead and ended up such.
Having eight doors and six chimneys, three of them not used, means that inside and outside are blurred. Two tawnies, presumably looking for somewhere to breed, came down the library flue one night and perched on chair backs, shitting meditatively and looking perfectly at ease. The larger, and thus more likely the female, flew out as soon as the door was opened, but her partner was determined to stay and spent a happy hour on the little curtained hatch into the oratory through which Sr Therese took Holy Communion from her anchor. Tawnies are unpredictable blighters. They can go for a face if threatened. That is why the great wildlife photographer Eric Hosking’s autobiography is called An Eye For A Bird, a painful double meaning. Our bird came into hand without fuss and was carried out with as much dignity as can be mustered when processing past excited children on the heavily wrapped wrist of an elderly man wearing a chainsaw visor.
Three nights later I walked into the library and immediately experienced that unfailing sense of being watched. The room was absolutely still but a faint movement at eye level made me turn and there, perched on the frame of a tiny Eric Gill engraving of the Crucifixion was a perplexed barn owl. As soon as eye contact was made, he was off, a straight, silent flight into the big plate window at the end. We thought he was dead at first, but after five minutes he was perching on a wrist, then on the bench outside. He sat there till the stars stopped spinning, then ghosted off into the night, a retreating white bow.
It was, we concluded, too much like Hogwarts. Our predecessor the priest had rigorous views on Harry Potter, shared in long, handwritten letters, alongside condemnations of the Curia, all attempts to normalise LGBTQ relationships, and Lord Krishna, but he admitted that there had been strange phenomena in the oratory, lights and other manifestations associated with the Eucharist. We have watched the skylights glow briefly when no one was in there, with a bluish, marshy luminescence.
The other strange phenomenon associated with the place is more generic. Stories abound of a large cat, described as being the size and colour of a golden labrador but capable of climbing trees. This one seems to have some basis in reality. Some claim that an American officer on the nearby airforce base, now closed, kept a pair of lynx or cougar in his quarters, but turned the animals loose when his tour of duty came to an end. Some say the cage was dumped on the forestry road above the house. We’ve only ever found a couple of rusting mangers.
I was watching the local merlin one afternoon when a lithe golden shape rushed towards me out of the bracken. I flinched, imagining the headlines: ELDERLY LOCAL MAN MAULED TO DEATH. BIG CAT SUSPECTED. It turned out to be a labrador called Roddy, non-treeclimbing, but a serial escapee, who’d evaded a holidaying couple from Wolverhampton. They admired the binoculars. ‘Merlin? You mean the wizard?’
There is a big cat in the area, a remnant of Scotland’s wild cat population, easily distinguished from your fireside tabby by the huge tail, flattened head and foreshortened ears. Also by the glare she delivers – we assume it’s a she – as she flips over a drystone wall and disappears. Time was, Scotland’s wild cats were protected by keeping distant from habitation and having no truck with domestic animals. Now, though, they hybridise freely with feral and farmyard cats, which has changed its habits and threatened the species’ future existence. We can’t tell if ‘ours’ is as pure as she looks, or a hybrid.
It’s hard land to cross on foot, which is why the Irish saints preferred to go coasting. Bracken gives way to heather, which leads into un-navigable forestry planting. Sudden ditches can cause jarring falls. You don’t want to put your hand down on the rocks that have to be scrambled. Adders bask on them on warm days, diamond-backed in warning, but hard to see with sweat in the eyes. They won’t kill you, but they can make you Covid-sick. Twin puncture scars on the ball of my thumb bring back a nauseous, headachey day in the local A&E.
The Irish saints didn’t have the option of metalled roads, but they had the right idea anyway. Navigation by water makes more sense. We apply a similar principle at home. The house is so narrow and cluttered – piles of books and papers sigh and slip sideways at regular intervals – that it would give a feng shui practitioner an instant migraine. Often, to go from one room to another, we step outside and enter by the next door. It reminds me sometimes of Mass at an Orthodox cathedral, with deacons and subdeacons flitting in and out, but more often it’s like bad farce as we chase one another round the house to say the phone is ringing or there’s a man at the (front) door with the real name of God.
Underlying the comedy is a deep sense of loss. This is, after all, our place of exile. Ten years ago, we were forced to up sticks and move, leaving behind la bonne vaux, the only place that will ever seem absolutely like home. It was the Clearances in all too personal miniature and duly updated. Ever since, I have looked like a piece of minor staffage from Lochaber No More. I speak of ‘then’ and ‘there’ constantly .