Monday, 24 March 2014

I have many excuses.

Pardon? I’m half deaf you see. Discovered Led Zeppelin too young. And I’m more of a visual person anyway. It’s sort of like I'm audio-dyslexic or something — the melody never sticks but the words do.

And so on.

Birds don’t sing with subtitles and I struggle to remember the identifying features of any birdsong for more than about five minutes. I’m deeply envious of the birders with a xeno-canto of the mind, as I can just about manage to hold twenty five species or so in my head at any time. For me there’s a reason why birder is a contraction of birdwatcher and not bird-listener. And yet…

March baked. The trees shook through the haze over heath. A Stonechat perched in a stunted Silver Birch, not quite in the brightest orange and black of its breeding plumage. Buzzards spiral high into the wind, surveying their territory over the Surrey commons; a fragment of the old English landscape. In the bones of a tree a lark sat. Not your typical lark. Through the haze of the telescope I could make out the salient details: black and white coverts on the edge of the wing interrupting the dull brown plumage, and a longer bolder stripe over the eye. A Woodlark. It is a classic boring bird. Important too: only 3000 or so pairs left breeding on the southern and eastern heathlands. And then it started to sing.
Photo by Stephen Menzie

'Teevo cheevo cheevio chee'

Initially tremulous - as if still warming up for the spring ahead - notes shaded the air. Then a torrent. At this distance the bill doesn't appear to move, but stuck open directing its aria, descending through notes as blue as the sky, echoing.

Echoing. That's what flicks the switch in my mind and it's 2007 again. I am 15 and wandering the sanderling heaths of coastal Suffolk by myself. Cautiously, it's spring, there might be Adders about. I found the heath by accident, following a track round from the adjacent estuary. It looked good habitat for Dartford Warblers, but I don't see them. Instead, I enter a glade of pines and am struck by birdsong. The most intensely delicate, beautiful melody I had heard from a bird. And the volume! It seems like the exaggeration of memory, or of youthful exuberance but it filled the glade like a soloist in an opera hall. Volume and beauty. It moved that cold teenager — shy, and not much given to displays of emotions — to a moment of rapture. I never saw that Woodlark well, but I knew I would never experience one like it again.

The song from the bare tree fades, the lark flies to the ground and lands out of sight, but never out of mind.

It is a typical boring bird. One of my favourites.
Photo by Stephen Menzie

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The first slope is always the steepest. Motivational slogan turned muscle-straining reality on the road up past Logie Kirk. It was my favourite old walk, last done nine months ago when I had by feeling, not thought, developed the habit of jogging up and running down 'my' mountain. With the intervening nine months spent with my legs furled under a desk in London, that idea felt practically lethal...


It was a delicate Scottish morning. Silver sky and smirr and Blackbirds softly singing. I'd been back in my adopted home of Stirling for a couple of days. Long enough to reacquaint myself with the murmurations of daffodils and the neat borders of Starlings, Goosanders surfing the muddy Forth, and the amount of rain the sky above Scotland holds. While London sweltered (21 degrees!) Stirling was chilly and overcast with breaks of torrential rain, hail and the occasional flurry of snow. Smirr was a relatively clear break and I headed for the hills with Mareike. She’s from the flatlands too — the East Anglian part of Germany — and also feels drawn to the north and to mountains, and to walking quietly in each other's shy company.

I set an asthmatic pace, but one at which I made it up the first slope without pausing, until the sheep replaced the trees. The smirr was dissipating and the first hazy view down the valley emerged. I take a glug of water. I don't feel as bad as I had expected. The road hits the path, a broad and well trodden track over long brown grass, damp green moss and squidgy black peat. It feels good to have it under foot, as if the tread of my boots feels at home here too. Four Ravens cackle and tumble through the sky. Sheep bleat and Stirling gets rained upon. We peer down glens to the hillfoot villages and Forth valley sprawl, clouded in the hazy air of mild wet March. Menstrie, Alloa, Kincardine. Defiant patches of blue appear in the sky.

Pushing on. Each thigh stretching step up seemed to slough off the dust from desk bound muscles. A stirring in the sinews that says that hills should really be taken at a canter and with a manic grin. Towards the summit the moss and the grass get gradually replaced by heather, then rock. Sometimes there are grouse here but only Skylarks sung between the ground and the sky.

From the south these mountains appear suddenly out of the Forth valley like a doorstop, keeping the highlands out of Southern Scotland. Up close they are mostly smooth lumps with the exception of this one. Dumyat is rough and ragged, craggy and the only one with significant patches of bare rock. It is the most visibly volcanic of them all, and the most dramatic, despite being a domestic 418 metres high. The wee pet. A mountain in geographer's definition only. But its character defies its height. When I was at university here I walked it religiously in a physical counterpart to the austere pews and psalms of the church in the next village along. I didn’t, couldn’t, get bored of it. Brooding or benevolent. Golden still afternoons or mornings lashed by weather. The lamb and the Raven.


You can take this mountain far too gently. It can still spring surprises.

Three quarters of the way up I turn to Mareike and remark on the kind weather. She smiles. I scramble up the next outcrop of bare rock and turn onto the final rocky slope to the summit, and a slap of wind takes the breathe from me. We double over and carry on, hands on the rock for extra grip. From the summit cairn we can view from the Braes of Doune to the Forth rail bridge and beyond, the firth disappearing into hazy sky that reaches around to the Lammermuirs and loses half of Fife to flat nothing. Moors ripple away over outcrops of rock to the valley, or to the rest of the Ochils to the north and east. The rest of the Ochils are the land of hill farmers and their flocks, an off brown baize stained with bracken and gorse where the sheep can't reach, the odd crumbling shieling and one thin reservoir carved into the contours. A Raven skims the summit, low and flexing its body to sail across the wind. It turns back and flies once again low over us, to check if we were dead — I assume — and it flies away disappointed. I hadn’t felt this alive in months.

And the wind buffets us again, in the space of half of a minute going from mild inconvenience to shivering cold, pulling on new layers and trying not to be caught like a parachute. Mareike leans back into it, gleeful. I give up attempting to stand straight, and the joy of irresistible wind catches me too.


On the way down I would slip over twice. Mareike didn’t, so covered herself in mud out of sympathy, and then slapped me around the face with a little more, to weird looks from other walkers. Exhausted and covered in mud: my childhood requirements for fun still exist. I hope I never let them leave.