Short story: ‘An Oologist’s Orkney Journal’

The hunter after solitude will find what he seeks on the moor of Windbreck. Here the tumultuous sky towers over the land. The green of the coastal lowlands yields to the bruised majesty of spring heather and the murmur of the breaking waves can no longer be heard over the song of the wind. The rude settlements of the crofters recede from view, and soon there is no sign whatever that man has ever set foot here, save perhaps for in those silent spaces on the moor where ancient stones stand half-consumed by moss and age, mortified by the salt-winds, placed there by Orcadians long-dead, and sacred to their island souls.

Hector, I’m stretching a point somewhat here, it’s true there wasn’t a soul in sight and why would there be, and I was damn glad of it after that awkward business with the keeper on Glimpsholm, but there’s a distillery just the other side of the hill and there’s no getting away from the dirty great plume of peatsmoke going up from it, I haven’t mentioned it because it doesn’t seem in keeping, also if ‘rude settlements’ strikes a disrespectful note do scratch it out, one doesn’t want to cause a stir.

Through the rustling heather bents I beat a way up Effra Dale to the precipitous bank of South Rusky and Russa Dale beyond. Twite call overhead. These little finches build their delicate nests, twined from roots and twigs and lined with sheep’s wool, in the shelter of the ling. A clutch may number four, five or six eggs, each the size of a finger-end, much like a linnet’s but with a richer base colour and the markings more broadly ranged.

One must tread carefully on Orkney: here, even the kestrels, keen-winged daughters of the air, lay their eggs on the ground. But the oologist who walks with care, knows his business and keeps a sharp eye may unearth the most prized treasures of the feathered tribe.

I might have done well to take my own advice here, Hector, I only trod on a bloody kestrel nest, it was the bloody woman’s fault, I’ll tell you the story some time, broke two of the five, yolk all over my good brogues, don’t tell the Society I’ll never live it down.

On this bright bold day in May I stood alone in a sea of swaying heather and watched the aerial sport of a hen harrier pair as they swooped and skimmed against a sky of dazzling silver-blue. The cock, splendid in stormcloud grey, his wingtips dipped in black ink, dropped dizzyingly through the air, a prize – a meadow pipit – held in his talons. At his approach, his hen rose from the heather. The cock dropped the pipit. I watched with bated breath as the hen folded her wings, banked sharply against the wind, and with a deft plunge earthward caught the bird before it hit the ground. Then, away to her nest – and I followed, as fast as ever I could through the snatching ling.

I should never have found them had I not been watching, triangulating, calculating with an eye and a mind trained since boyhood in the demands of such fieldwork. Ringed closely about with heather and bracken, deep in the dewy moss, sat three eggs. They were almost round in shape, the colour of fresh cream, marked here and there with the murky green of the herbage. In the hand one felt almost like a golf-ball.

The hen bird chittered in anger and made a close pass at my head as I knelt over the nest. The oologist must be bold as well as cunning. But today, in any case, her eggs were safe from me. The hen harrier lays four eggs, never three. She was not yet done. The clutch was incomplete. I resolved to return the next day, to claim the prize in full. I marked the spot with my stick and strode onward, my eye now fixed on the summit of Braemore.

Hector I am paltering again, truth be told I saw the harriers but I never found the blasted eggs, though I searched the hillside for an hour or more, but I’ve checked the details against Boraston’s Birds And Their Eggs, no-one need know.

Only the lonely call of the grouse. Only the shadow of the short-eared owl, quartering the moor in the translucent light of dawn. Amid such wild solitude a man’s may be driven to dwell on the fearful precariousness of life in such a landscape. The harrier preys upon the pipit, the owl upon the vole, the eagle upon the hare. The frost bites and the rain drives and the cold bogs draw down the dead. Ravens pick over the skeleton of a lost sheep.          

To take a clutch of eggs, I have been told, is a cruel thing. But those who love the wild places do not speak so lightly of cruelty.

From the heart, this, Hector, rather much from the heart, for you do see some hard things, nature red in tooth and claw shrieks against the creed and so on, it’s a mean life for wild things and not only for wild things, I speak as one who should know Hector, one comes to see death as rather a mercy, though I shall tell you, I was brought up rather sharply on this point, there was this young woman you see, I was standing by the dead sheep I mentioned, smoothing out a raven’s feather, and all of a sudden there she was, from the distillery it transpired, and we spoke of this and that and wasn’t it a pity about the poor sheep, and I said that same thing, about death being rather a mercy, given I mean what a bloody trial life can be, and what she said rather gave me pause, I shall tell you about it another time, anyway if this is all a bit on the morbid side for the book do let me know Hector and I shall write a bit of comic business instead.

The world turns. Life endures. Life proceeds, though the thoughtful man might at times wonder to what end.

Look here Hector she said it was a sin, this woman, her father runs the distillery you see, she said it was a sin to talk in such a way, and I said I suppose you believe that life is a gift madam and she said no I believe life is a covenant, we have it like it or not and what it is is a promise to be kept, and she said I made no promise and she said you made it with your first breath, and she said it all with such a smile Hector old man, such a smile, and her soft blue eyes in her plain face, she had brought me a bottle of whisky you see, her father had seen me coming over the hill and thought I might care for a warming drop, I have it here now you see Hector, it’s the real stuff you know, not the thin stuff they sell on to the bottling plants, it’s all peat and smoke and fire, I’ll tell you old man this stuff would show those snobs at the Society a thing or two.

Philosophy is blown away when the dauntless hunter mounts Braemore and a wild lamenting wind rushes upon him from all sides at once. Buffeted this way and that, he is liable to lose his hat if not his bearings, but if he can keep his wits about him he may yet come to his just deserts, for in the peaty marshland just north of the slope there may be found the most splendid of all Orkney’s riches.

Hector I should say that all of this part is the unembroidered truth save for a minor sin of omission, that is I mean the girl, her name was Grace, she accompanied me up the hill and down to the mire, it was more or less on the way back to the distillery you see, there was always that smell of peatsmoke, the peat you see they burn it to malt the barley, it got right into my tweeds, I’m sure it won’t ever wash out.                                 

The red-necked phalarope nowadays breeds only rarely anywhere in the British Isles. Even here, where so often our notion of what is common and what rare is turned topsy-turvy, it is uncommonly found as a breeding species. A clutch of phalarope eggs would ornament any collection. What would the committed oologist not give, not do, to possess such a prize?         

Well Hector we have seen what he might do, haven’t we, he might by train and bicycle and farmer’s cart and Shanks’s bloody pony make a lonely way from Suffolk to the end of the bloody earth, he might be fleeced blind by a ferryman for a ferry across the firth, he might spend his nights shuddering beneath cheap canvas and his days knee-deep in peat bog, he might spoil his brogues and lose his hat, all for for a clutch of bloody phalarope eggs, Phalaropus bloody lobatus, and when he has them, why he’ll show the bloody Society, old man, he’ll show those laughing amateurs, his father was in trade you know, he didn’t finish Sandhurst you know, well look here gentlemen, Phalaropus bloody lobatus, what do you think of that, what do you think of your shrike’s egg now, where’s your peregrine clutch now, their keepers find them all for them anyway, an honest man doesn’t have a chance, but I’ll show them Hector, that’s what I thought.            

The phalarope being to most an unfamiliar bird, a few general points about the species may at this point be helpful. It is one of our smaller wading birds, somewhat pot-bellied, with a needle-like bill and feet that are lobed like those of a coot. The bird is unusual among our avifauna in that is the hen, rather than the cock, who sports the showier colours. Moreover, it is the cock, and not the hen, who sits the eggs, and thereafter cares for the young.

She took my arm Hector as we crossed the deeper part of the bog though of course she knew the way and I did not, she showed me the spot among a swath of celandines where the phalaropes had made their nest, she is a damn clever girl Hector, and we sat and watched and talked, quietly of course, her voice unlike mine is by nature soft, about this and that and the other and her father’s distillery and my father and a little about the war and all that and I told her quite freely about the egg collecting, do you know it never occurred to me not to, not even after what that keeper on Glimpsholm said he’d do to me, you know I believe I’d have told her anything, and I said I suppose you think that’s a sin too, and she said I don’t think it’s a sin I just think it’s rather sad.

Phalaropes of both sexes enjoy the water, and when they swim they can look rather like small gulls.                   

Hector I might as well finish, I’ve come this far, it’s the whisky of course, although actually of course it’s not just the whisky is it, I said to her do you know I think it’s rather sad too, but I do it anyway, and she said why, and I said because I don’t know what isn’t sad, I think everything’s sad, and she said they’re not sad, and I looked and there they were, the phalaropes, at the water’s edge not six yards from our feet, they were poking for insects, and then the hen got in and did some swimming around, and then the cock followed her, and I said how do you know, how do you know they’re not sad, and she said just look, they’re keeping their promise, and I said yes but how does that make them happy and she took my hand Hector and she said you don’t know anything, do you, that’s what happiness is.       

The oologist who knows his craft may, if he is stealthful and observant and has fortune on his side, find a hollow among the wildflowers, farther from the water than he might expect. He may, on inspection, find within a clutch of four eggs, each small and quite sharply pointed, olive in colour, richly speckled or smeared in patterns of brown and grey, with a preponderance of markings toward the blunt end. He may hold them in his hand merely to feel their warmth, for there is in them not just life but the promise of life. There is in them, he may see, not just beauty but the promise of beauty.

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