Perched among the manifold cushions of Sir John’s sofa, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d talked myself onto it. It was a most alarming situation.
To my right, a stuffed Ptarmigan stared blankly out from a large bookcase. To my left, a well-doing Jack Russell [called either “Nip” or “Tuck”] met my glance with mute appeal. I had tried to dress smartly and was thus reluctant to allow him onto my knee.
Back through the hall, I could see my coat dangling in front of the Aga and dripping rainwater onto Lady Lucy’s kitchen floor. I eyed the puddle guiltily. It was a horrible afternoon.
Sir John first made his way into my life some years earlier. For my birthday, a friend kindly gifted me a book called “The Birdwatcher’s Companion”. It was a nicely presented volume, with a cover of rough beige paper and an ink sketch of some binoculars. The book was an anthology of facts, poems, excerpts and drawings – all starring birds.
Hidden within was one of my favorite pieces of writing. Even now, sitting by my stove and listening to hailstones battering the slate of my roof, I am at a loss to explain just why it affects me so much.
The extract was about a whooper swan. It described the author’s discovery of a mortally wounded bird that had collided with a power cable. The language was beautiful. Perfect. The sad finality of the words “All it knew was the fear of my presence and that it could not fly away” brought tears springing to my eyes as I read them.
Tactfully, the section finished before events reached their unhappy conclusion. Blinking and staring at the last full-stop, I looked down for a name and a title. John Lister-Kaye. Nature’s Child.
It sounded like the sort of book I had to read.
As I became more familiar with the “who’s who” of conservation in Scotland, I discovered that Sir John – in addition to being a naturalist of terrifying repute – was also the proprietor of the Aigas Field Centre. This institution has connected people with the wild highlands for over thirty years; I hoped that they would teach me to do the same.
Back in the sitting room, “Nip” or “Tuck” had maneuvered skilfully onto the sofa. He regarded me with earnest eyes and a sanguine expression. Sir John was asking shrewd questions about my motives for approaching Aigas. My thoughts had been invaded by swans, and I wasn’t doing a good job of answering.
Three weeks later, I couldn’t find my torch. It was 6am, and I was bumping about in an unfamiliar room, trying not to wake the rest of the house. Peeling up my blind, a clear and twinkling sky peeked through the pine boughs. I shuffled into my wellies and did my best to close the door quietly.
Aigas smells different to my home on Mull. A stiff breeze carried the dawn; laden with the rich-damp smells of river and forest. I couldn’t see them, but it was exciting to imagine the sleek bodies of pine marten flowing along branches overhead. Or the tawny flanks of wildcats, melting seamlessly into the undergrowth and guided by eyes like green marble.
I was heading towards a small loch further up the hill. I had only been there once before, but hoped that I would be able to find the circular trail and follow it along the shoreline.
At first the surface was a dull, frozen cataract. Hard snow crunched underfoot – making quiet progress difficult. I continued past the beaver lodge and recently nibbled trees, towards a shining stand of birch on the farthest shore. Blackbirds clucked and chittered in the forest beyond. I stoped to see what had alarmed them. The grey-brown shape of a sparrowhawk flickered past.
The Aigas Loch looked beautiful that morning
The eye of the loch opened slowly, like an old dog. The rolling clouds warmed and grew pink – blushing over the ice like a bruise on milky skin. Reflected trees stretched ghostly capillaries towards a pupil of dark water. Above, six crossbills chipped and dipped through the cool morning air.
Each path was peppered with deer slots and badger prints. Woodpeckers beat their timber drums as munching larvae beat a hasty retreat. Siskins offered a wheezing harmony; gathering in yellow swarms around branches that sagged under the weight of pine-cones.
As I broke cover from the forest and headed up onto the moor, three roe deer sprung across my path. Each paused, eyeing me with wary curiosity and twitching its black moustache. The moon still lingered above the dun. Beyond, the mountains were rosy with sunlight and snow.
I don’t know what my time at Aigas holds. Standing by the cairn, watching the rising sun skitter across a silver Beauly, it seems full of promise.
…I’ll keep you updated!
Glengorm Wildlife Steward
Breaking Dawn: the moon was still out on the moor above Aigas