orb

The sun rises beside Suilven, above the high rough line of moorland on the skyline, beyond the rhododendrons in the garden, behind the alder. It illuminates the leaf-rims and twigs in the path of its round shining which, glistening in the morning frost, appear to spiral sunward. It looks as if the sun is spinning an orb web, netting not just the trees but all the little wings, fluttering bodiless and backlit, at the feeder hanging from the alder.

The wings are so delicate, translucent almost, vanishing as soon as they appear, returning to the sun. Is this what we want? To be drawn sunward, to lean in, to dissolve in this echo of summer warmth, this bare brightness, this love.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
16th November 2023

release

I felt the lift as it flew from my hands; not just the release of its warm weight but an actual lift, as if I too was leaping from a pair of palms held out an upstairs window and swooping swiftly over the steeply terraced rooftops to settle on an outer branch of the great oak tree which rises above the village a couple of streets away. As I watched it land, it was as if the arm of the oak reached out to me too, across the stretching gulf of air, the jackdaw’s sudden flight stitching me to it with an invisible thread.

I don’t know how it had got in but when I came upstairs I heard it beating frantically against the closed window. I opened a pane for it but, not understanding my commands to fly “up” to the opening, it continued to jump and flap energetically against the lower glass, occasionally fixing me with its pale bright eye. Such a smart bird and so self-possessed. As I placed my hands around its back, it folded in its wings and, as I lifted it over the window frame and opened my hands, it flew out in one fluid motion, as if the holding and release were one movement, as if I and the bird – for one mutual moment – were equally graceful, equally light.

Pontycymer, Glamorgan, South Wales
4th April 2023

the birds

The loch is full of birds; multitudes of them; wheeling, diving, scattering, settling. They’re here for the whitebait which are filling the head of the loch this autumn. I don’t know why this autumn and not others but it’s high tide just now and the bay is brimful.

They’re mainly gulls: herring gulls, black-backed gulls, black-headed gulls (in their unhooded winter plumage), common gulls and kittiwakes – gulls of all ages and sizes. A good number of cormorants and shags are here too, snaking in among them. A few razorbills and guillemots hang around at the edges of the melée, and the occasional resident heron stands watch on the shore. The seals are getting in on the action too, poking their noses up here and there and sliding smoothly in and out of the mouth of the River Inver. A gannet wings its way in from the river mouth heading seaward.

The scene is ever-changing. For long spells, the birds sit around calmly, their pale bodies studding the loch’s dark grey surface in a distributed array which at times spans almost the width of the harbour. Then, when the shoals come in, they fly up and swoop down, crowding the water densely, the larger gulls especially, in a great mass of mottled wings. A colony is the usual collective noun for gulls but there’s no systematic colonising here. This is a clamouring of gulls, a noisy mass rising and falling, flocking and dispersing, floating and flyting, and feeding, feeding, feeding. Some of the gulls pluck the sprats from the surface of the water but most dive right in, the kittiwakes plunging with a noisy plop while the cormorants and shags slip neatly beneath with an elegant arching dive.

It’s quite a commotion and one I’ve never seen before, despite living on the loch itself for several years (aboard a boat in the harbour). When I ask around, however, I discover I’m not the only one. No-one’s seen this many birds on the loch for decades and we’re all captivated. Every time I’m in the village, I see someone standing by the shore, gazing out, transfixed: locals, tourists, delivery men, we’re all under the spell. I’m told social media is all a-flutter too, with photos and videos, sightings and observations. For me, it’s not just the sight but the sound which is compelling. When the feeding frenzy starts, the racket is immense: raucous, glaucous; an ear-rattling krilling and clacking, flapping and splashing. As it subsides, the cacophony simplifies, spreading out into distinct calls and cackles which punctuate the air, clarifying its dimensions.

I love watching all the birds, singly and in quantity, but it’s the kittiwakes which fascinate me the most. They congregate at the mouth of the River Inver, drifting about daintily then suddenly dropping into the water and emerging with a slim silver quickly-swallowed fish. They’re the most beautiful of gulls, to my eyes, and it’s a rare privilege to see them in flight so close to shore. The last time I saw kittiwakes was a few years ago when sailing with my partner off the coast of Norway. It was a cool evening in early June and we’d been out in a lumpy sea all day. I was cold and queasy and was lying around listlessly in the cockpit when four small white birds appeared around the top of the mast. They stayed with the boat for about quarter of an hour (though it felt like longer), beating up into the wind then gliding down our lee side, then holding steady, almost hovering, beside us. I didn’t recognise them then – the dark beak and eye, the black trim on the tail and the dark V on the upper side of each wing – but in my sea-weary state, they seemed like a visitation, the maritime equivalent of being called on by doves.

It was only later, on consulting my bird book, that I realised they were young kittiwakes. There are many of these here too, as well as the adults with their black ink-dipped wingtips, and all with that beguiling dark eye. In among all these kittiwakes though is another gull, dark-eyed too yet more petite and self-possessed – almost demure. I follow it with my binoculars for a while. Like the kittiwakes, it has a white head and body, pale grey wings, and a pure white fanned tail. However, its wings are more rounded and flappy, reminding me a little of a peewit, and underneath are a dark tapering grey. This dark underwing is unusually beautiful, particularly as the wings are bordered in white, making the bird appear translucent at its edges, as if it’s not fully of this world. Indeed, in the graceful lift of its flight, it seems almost holy.

There’s certainly something profoundly appealing about it. Yet it’s not just the kittiwakes and this little gull which are precious, it’s all the birds, the whole assemblage of them, and the way they have come to us now, unbidden. To me, returning from a difficult time away, they’re a welcome surprise, yet as I listen to people speak about them it seems that we all feel the same way: that this coming of the birds is a blessing, a benediction. After everything we’ve been through, with lockdowns and illness, extortionate inflation and a damp squib of a summer, we find ourselves surrounded by these clouds of white feathers, drifting and banking and at times filling the sky; as if – for a moment – we’re living inside a lightly shaken snow globe.

29th November 2022
Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland

for a friend

Rain hammering yellow on the siskins, and the finches, golden as your August fields. I watch them from the kitchen window as I run in to shelter from another downpour, finding it hard to believe that just this morning I was sitting in a sun-drenched garden in Aberdeenshire.

It was a flying visit – a rare opportunity to meet you and your family during your own visit back from the Basque country. It’s not an area I’ve ever been to but I hadn’t been to Aberdeenshire before yesterday and it seemed foreign enough. All these years thinking we were both just Scottish and I hadn’t realised you came from such different land – so yellow and broad, and so smooth compared to the volcanic upthrusts of Edinburgh where I grew up or the rough highland coast I now call home.

Our birds would have overlapped though, and I watch the birds to re-orientate myself now. They crowd the feeder intently, sharp-faced and focused, flitting back and forward between the swinging plastic tube and the lower branches of the ash tree. I love the deftness of the siskins but it’s the goldfinches that draw my eye – the flash of yellow in the wing, the jewel-red face. I’ve never seen such ruby on a bird, at least not in this country. There were, however, the hummingbirds that came to the garden when I lived in rural Québec. I’d thought they were insects at first, some kind of massive bees zooming back and forth by the wild apple tree, until they slowed down enough to come into clear view. And what a view: metallic emerald plumage with white breasts and an iridescent red plating on their throats, they were beautifully dainty but also surprisingly fierce, circling each other aggressively in tight spirals of defence and desire.

They seemed impossibly exotic, and were the only species of hummingbird to come to Eastern Canada, but almost all the birds were brighter there. The goldfinches were pure canary yellow – the whole bird the colour of our goldfinch’s wing flash, except for a small black cap and wings. Even the blackbirds had vivid wing-stripes of red and yellow; and then there were the cardinals, crested and clothed almost entirely in crimson. I got compared to a cardinal once, when I lived in Montréal, and we spoke about them when you visited me there (didn’t they appear in Lowry’s Under the Volcano?). However, it wasn’t until after you left that I started seeing – and hearing – them in the city parks, their jaunty presence announced by their distinctive pyew pyew call, a cross between a wolf-whistle and the noise we made as kids pretending to shoot each other.

We’re not used to such vivacity here in Scotland and, after years back here again, my eye has been recalibrated. When I look at the siskins – which are like drabber versions of the North American goldfinch – I think their colour looks unnatural, as if they’ve fallen into a tin of yellow paint. And for all that I admire our goldfinches, I can’t help being suspicious – that dramatic yellow splash, that fancy face mask – as if they’re pretending, dressing up; as if they’re not really from here.

The birds you describe seeing in the Basque country are bright too: lurid yellowhammers and smart black kites and redstarts, birds I’m not familiar with. But you still see sparrows and robins and it makes you feel nearer to know that we’re looking at some of the same creatures despite the space between us.

Because this is the way of it. You’ll return to the Basque country and I’ll remain in the Highlands, places that neither of us are from, but then we always were migrants or vagrants, never quite feeling that we belonged. Though I suspect it’s in that distance that we feel most at home, and perhaps with each other too, in our continuing correspondence, our lives separated as they’ve always been, stitched together by feathers and flights.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
2nd August 2022