A New Book – perhaps

Would anyone like to read chapter one of something that has been in the wings for many years? There are 20 chapters written and I’d really like to know if anyone thinks I should finish it. It’s been hanging around for so long I really need to finish or press delete. Comments very welcome. Please note, this is un-edited, warts and all, oh, and this one is a book aimed more for adults than YA, which is my usual audience…

First light has always been my time. Crepuscular I suppose you could call me. Perhaps being abroad at first light carries with it a certain self-righteous smugness, a sense of being different to the slumbering portion of the population and a feeling of ‘belonging’ to the natural order of things.
This particular July dawn was possessed of a stillness and clarity that so rarely occurs these days, even here in rural Devon. In moments of frustration with the modern world, I ponder whether there are any truly remote areas of the planet left, it seems there is always a con-trail in the sky or the sound of a distant forage harvester, railway or road.
I was sitting in one of my usual early summer morning positions, which is to say, 10 feet above the ground, overlooking a lush grassy clearing in the middle of Hallet Wood. I had been in the high seat since before dawn that morning awaiting the appearance of a certain roebuck. The poor chap had what is known as a peruque head. This malformation of the antlers causes them to grow over the head in an amorphous blob, looking something like an 18th century wig. In advanced cases can actually grow right over the eyes, from there the animal then falls into rapid decline and dies a distinctly unpleasant death. It usually occurs as a result of injury to the testes.
In my capacity as what is rather grandly called a wildlife manager, it is my responsibility to ensure that such animals are removed from the herd in order to keep the population in good heart. Not to mention preventing the rambling public from discovering deer in advanced states of distress wherever possible. My annual cull also serves to maintain the population at a level where food remains abundant for all and reduces the possibility of disease, famine and crop raiding.
It had been little over an hour and a half since I had climbed the lichen covered pine pole ladder into the high seat and settled to wait on the bare board that served as a platform for ones rear. I had seen the buck the previous evening browsing on some hazel coppice not far from the clearing and was confident of him putting in an appearance. The grazing in the clearing was especially verdant and palatable, especially managed to provide a tasty bite for the deer.
The roe is a magical creature. An animal that to me conjures images of a time before our modern world, a time of myths, in which the roe buck is Pan himself. They seem to have an almost ethereal ability to appear in front of ones eyes. Perhaps I may have dozed for a few seconds but when I next scanned the clearing, there he was. Foxy red and looking rather healthier than he had a right to. The buck’s head was submerged in a pool of lush growth, the dewy cobwebs bejewelling his grotesque antlers.
The buck was around ninety metres away, a nice range for the shot and standing in a perfect broadside attitude. There was no vegetation to hamper my view or deflect the bullet and there was a good backdrop to prevent a stray bullet escaping. In all, I had the perfect conditions for a quick, safe and humane kill.
Very gently I began to bring the rifle to bear on the buck, centring him in the lens of the big Zeiss telescopic sight. The power and light gathering ability of the ‘scope allowed me to double check that this was indeed my buck. In fact I had not truly appreciated just how advanced his condition was. Any final doubts about his suitability for culling were dispelled, he had to go. I reduced the magnification of the sight down to six power and placed the cross hairs just behind the foreleg, over the point where I knew his heart lay.
It does not matter how many times you have performed this ritual, there is always a frisson of excitement, a breathlessness and increase in the heart rate. In fact, I challenge even the most staunch vegetarian not to feel the timeless hunters urge at this moment. It is the stalkers duty to overcome this adrenaline surge and place the bullet as precisely as possible. A wounded deer is an awful thing.
I breathed in slowly, let out a little and took up the initial pressure of the trigger. As I reached the point of no return I let out a little more breath and began to take up the final pressure.
At the very moment of release the buck plunged into headlong flight. Not the normal bouncing along, stopping to look around retreat of the roe, but an all out headlong dash, as if the very hounds of hell were in pursuit of him.
My bullet must have missed the deer by a whisker, it ploughed harmlessly into the bole of an ancient forest oak (although I did not know it). The rooks and jackdaws took to the air to wheal and cavort in a raucous protest at the disturbance. As my ears cleared from the assault of the shot I became aware of another, softer sound from beneath the high seat.
It was Dexter. The poor little fellow was standing slightly in front of the access ladder, plainly in some distress. Every hair on his little body was erect and there is an awful lot of hair on a Teckel. He was taut, as if straining on an invisible cord and issuing a sort of sobbing growl unlike any noise I had heard him make before. He was quite obviously terrified. But being from a proud and fearless line of Teckels, he was bravely standing his ground.
The Teckel, a breed of wirehaired dachshund, is an invaluable companion to the woodland deer stalker. He will wait patiently until called for and then plunge at his masters bidding into the thickest, prickliest cover to follow up a wounded deer, some will even hold a deer until the boss arrives to administer the coup-de-grace. Dexter is just such a dog. He had recovered his purchase price in venison many times over, but to be perfectly honest, he was more friend than employee.
I could not understand the flight of the deer, nor yet Dexter’s obvious terror. I scanned the clearing with my binoculars, annoyed at losing the buck, probably due to someone who should not have been there. Seeing nothing that had not been there before I took the shot I began to feel a little uneasy about where my bullet may have finished its journey. As I began to build a scenario involving flashing lights and body bags in my always over active imagination, I became aware of another sensation.
I soon became aware of the source of Dexter’s distress. There was a definite odour of something out of place. A musky tang of urine was drifting across the clearing. This was obviously what had moved my buck into desperate flight. It was a smell I knew well, but could not immediately place. It was not supposed to be there.
It is odd how our least used sense – smell, often evokes far stronger memories and responses than do sight or sound. It was a slow process, but my mind slipped back to the thick brush country of Botswana and came up with a solution I discounted immediately, cat, big cat. I had once spent an extended busman’s holiday with the Botswana Wildlife Service and had come to know well the sign of the large felids. But now, in the early morning peace of Hallet wood, it was inconceivable that a big cat lurked.
Of course, like the rest of the population, I had heard tales of various beasts of assorted moors, but I was apt to take them with a rather large pinch of salt. The true wildlife professional that I am.
My mind was whirling and eventually settled on the possibility that the damn thing, if it were actually there at all, might be dangerous. With a little more thought I decided that what we must have here was a zoo escapee. This would mean that it would perhaps not be too nervous of people and that could possibly make it more dangerous than a truly wild animal. If this was the case I should think very carefully about how Dexter and I should leave the wood.
I felt that the shot would most likely have sent any animal running for cover and that there would be a long distance between me and it by now….but. I slowly drew back the slick bolt of my 6.5, taking care not to let the spent case tinkle to the ground. I withdrew the magazine of 120 grain round nose cartridges from the rifle and replaced them with the magazine of heavier 156 grain soft point loads. I slid the bolt forward, locking one of the bright cartridges into the chamber of the Sako. I always kept the heavier loads in my pocket in case of an itinerant fallow buck or red stag, both much sturdier beasts than the sylph like roe. The heavier bullets shot to a slightly different point of aim, but at close range the difference was negligible. Should the need arise, I would put my faith in the stopping power of the heavier load. The 6.5×55 was a lovely calibre to shoot, smooth, efficient and with little recoil. But as a stopper for a charging big cat. No. Not the best option.
I cautiously climbed down the ladder, breaking my own first rule of safety by not unloading the rifle. At the bottom Dexter was waiting and leaped straight into my arms, burrowing into my fleece jacket. I tucked the quivering little dog right into the jacket so that just his comical little head was poking out.
With exaggerated wariness I slowly made may way over the clearing to where my buck had been standing. Sure enough, here the smell was even stronger. Turning to face the early breeze that eddied and swirled through the ash poles I was able to follow the scent easily. Even had I no sense of smell, it would have been easy to follow. Dexter’s reaction was more than enough evidence that we were going in the right direction. I slipped the rifle from my shoulder and carried it at the ready across my chest, safety catch off.
We managed to follow the scent right to its source. Less than a hundred metres up wind of the clearing the smell became almost nauseating. The cat tang was supplemented by the familiar odour of rotting flesh. When you work in the woods and on farms, dead animals are fairly commonplace, the smell of their corruption becomes very recognisable.
Under a low patch of sparse brambles was the carcass of a yearling roe doe, dead probably two to three days. Much of the meat had been stripped from the bones, with enough being left to create the odour. Near the body was a pile of droppings, dark coloured and soft looking, it was quite evident that they contained hair. The droppings were similar in size to a large dog’s, perhaps a Rottweiler or big Labrador. I selected a suitably long stick from the undergrowth and prodded the pile. A thin wisp of steam escaped into the morning air. I probed further into the noisome heap.
The pile of faecal matter revealed no further clues to the identity of it’s originator. It did however show that the principal food animal of this predator was probably roe deer.
It seemed that the dung was not the source of the smell. It was rather a more general odour that pervaded the whole area. I had not really noticed before as there was a heavy dew, but the bramble leaves in the area of the carcass looked rather shiny. I gently touched one of the leaves and immediately wished I hadn’t. The concentrated liquid reeked, the odour clinging to my finger. Dexter retreated further into my jacket in terror. The undergrowth had been liberally sprayed with what I could only assume was urine. Presumably whatever had left this prey under the bramble bush had not intended another of it’s species to hijack the meal…or possibly the reverse.
All the evidence pointed towards a cat loose in my woods, one that was quite capable of looking after itself. One that was eating my deer. I became illogically angry with the cat, or rather with the idiot who had obviously become bored with his fancy pet and turned it out, or the idiot who had left the cage door open while the cat pen was cleaned or some such scenario.
I began the half mile trip back to the Land Rover, planning my assault on the likely sources of a lost big cat. The walk was uneventful and by the time we reached the parking place I was starting to feel a little foolish for taking more precautions than were strictly necessary. At the sight of the Land Rover Dexter began to regain his confidence, squirming and wriggling inside my jacket until he emerged like a grub from an apple to flop on to the ground at my feet. As I opened the door the little dog flew in and assumed his favourite travelling position – on top of the centre seat back rest. From this commanding position he could scan the road ahead to warn me of any cats, squirrels or postmen, whilst still retaining the ability to lick my left ear should the fancy take him. With a final look around, I fastened the rifle into its canvas and leather slip and climbed into the Land Rover.
The drive back to the cottage was much the same as every other drive back to the cottage, a pleasant motor through the woods. Parking the Land Rover on the packed earth that served me for a drive I hurried for the house, intent on regaling my wife with tales of derring doo and escapes from the jaws of death. Not to mention Dexter’s bravery in the face of terror.
I had not got as far as the kitchen door when the cry came,
“Robert, get this bloody excuse for a dog off my clean floor”.
I knew it was serious when I got the full Robert and not one of the variety of abbreviations that Sally used. I called for Dexter, who had leaped from the Land Rover window as we coasted on to the drive. It was a practice that I suppose I should have discouraged. The dog had then darted into the house through the open kitchen door in search of Jake, our two year old. Jake had been located in front of a Pingu video and the usual mutual worship routine began. I suspected this was due, on Dexters part, to the wide clowns’ smile of yoghurt, chocolate, jam or marmite that usually adorned my son’s face.
Dexter appeared from the doorway looking slightly sheepish and was promptly locked into his kennel, where his co-resident, a chocolate cocker spaniel called Godiva (Iva for short, not God!), proceeded to interrogate him. Sally emerged, the look of the wronged woman writ large upon her face and a besom clutched to her breast. She informed me in no uncertain terms of the fate that would befall my mongrels should I fail to instill some discipline in them within the very near future.
I decided that it might be prudent to delay telling Sally about my supposed cat until after breakfast, or perhaps even until I was completely sure of its existence but my excitement got the better of me. Of course, my revelation was met with the same incredulity that had been my initial reaction, but underneath I could detect the first shoots of fascination.
“If this thing is in the woods Rob” Probed Sally “what do you plan to do about it?”
“I’m going to get on to every bloody cheapskate wildlife park and tear them off a strip, not to mention getting a list of locals licensed to keep big cats”. I replied with perhaps more zeal than I was feeling.
“Is that wise Rob? Can people actually keep big cats as pets these days?” asked Sally, always the one to stand back and take stock of a situation, preventing me from running in and making a fool of myself. “Just supposing that this is not an escapee, perhaps there’s another reason for whatever it is being there”. I heard what she was saying but could not accept the implication.
“You’re saying that it could be one of these mystery cats, aren’t you?” I asked her.
“Well, yes” she answered, somewhat taken aback by my apparent hostility to the notion. It was not that I hadn’t considered the possibility, perhaps I was even secretly hoping for it to be something beyond the rational. It was more that I did not want to be exposed to ridicule and humiliation should I proclaim the existence of a British big cat and then be disproved.
“Perhaps we should just sit on it for now darling, try to find out a bit more about it perhaps, but tell no one”, Sally moderated.
She was quite right of course. why should we tell anyone, at least at this stage. It would only result in the animal and ourselves being hounded and pestered by officials, the media and the great British public. Some of whom would insist that the animal should be preserved at all costs, while others would claim danger to life and limb and demand the animal be slain.
I began to feel a sort of proprietary duty towards the animal, which of course, I had not even glimpsed, let alone put an identity to. If the thing did exist I felt sure it would turn out to be a leopard, a species of which I had fair measure in Africa. I have tremendous respect for the leopard, having seen one climb 15 feet into a tree with most of a wildebeest clamped in its jaws. An awesome sight, not to mention more than a little scary. If this were a leopard, we would have to be extremely cautious. Not merely because of the personal danger involved, but also because the leopard is such a secretive beast there was a real danger of it being badgered into moving on.
“Breakfast” said Sally, extracting a sizzling tray of sausages and bacon from the Raeburn and cracking a couple of eggs into the fat in the corner of the tray. I snapped back from my deliberations into the present.
“Sal, if this thing’s a leopard, you realise that we won’t be able to let Jake wander around outside anymore”. Our cottage, in the centre of Hallet wood, was a wonderland for a small boy. No traffic, lots of mud and a host of small furry things. Until we had proved the existence or non-existence of this animal we simply could not afford the risk of allowing Jake his liberty.
“Of course” agreed Sally pragmatically. “Have to be careful about the dogs too”.
We fell into our usual pattern of simply chatting around a situation until we came up with a sensible course of action. Through mouthfuls of sausage, egg, toast and last years bramble jam we added our observations and feelings to the pot until Sally voiced our joint conclusion.
“Rob, you have to spend all the time you can in the wood, no offence, but you could be mistaken”.
“I know what I smelt and saw, but yes, you’re right. I’ll get back out there with the camera as soon as I finish here”.
The animal would probably be lying up in dense cover through the long, hot summer day, but it would be worth having a prod around the deer lawn, scene of that mornings disturbance. I slung the camera and a packet of sharp cheese and green tomato chutney sandwiches into the Land Rover, decided against taking a dog and was about to climb in when Sally called out.
“Rob” and more quietly “take a rifle”.
Retracing my steps from that morning, I once more climbed into the high seat and settled down for a couple of hours observation. The morning was building into one of those rare and special summer days. Not too hot, just the right amount of cloud and a gentle breeze. As I sat amid the drowsy drone of the myriad insects of the clearing my thoughts began to drift towards other matters. An evenings trout fishing perhaps or an afternoon on the beach, Jake splashing in the shallows and Sally’s lean browned body clad only in a few scraps of bright cloth. My reverie was shattered by the echoing crash of a shotgun.

Oh my, that got me…

No, I’m not weeping, I just got some fluff in my eye. Came across this from many years ago…

I only went in to turn and vacuum the mattress. It seemed like a useful thing to do during my enforced holiday from the world of woodlands. On every available surface in the room was the ephemera of childhood. Tractors of every make, size and colour, implements to match. Books, magazines, drawings. The games, both favourite and unplayed were piled on shelves. Keepsakes and treasures, dust covered and seemingly forgotten. The soft toys still piled on the bed looked forlorn and lonely. Over this was spread the occasional newer item. A climbing magazine, a pair of hiking socks, the tag from his new tent. A stick of deodorant, a photograph of a bunch of friends at school, all wearing ties and smart jackets. A single shin pad, a pack of new mackerel lures and a used iTunes card lay on the carpet.

I sat down on the bed and looked at the scene, feeling despair at the passing of a childhood, a sadness at this small death. As I looked though, something changed in me. He was my little boy and always will be, now he’s my big boy and he’ll always be that too. We should embrace the change we see in our children, we must help and guide them on their next steps on the journey to adulthood, just as we did with those first faltering steps all those years ago. Now as I look I see hope for the future, bright, engaged, intelligent hope.

He’ll be home from school in just a few short weeks, his first year complete and then the page will turn, the next chapter will start and we will walk into it together.

The School Car…

This is from many years ago….

It’s only 500 meters to the end of the drive. The spot under the hill where the school car meets us. This morning it might as well be 500 miles for all the enthusiasm a 5 year old shows for the few minutes walk. In 6 short months he has learned about the weather, about how here it is so fickle, so intense. About how your fingers can be frozen within seconds of leaving the door, about how the salt wind can whip the moisture from your lips before you have taken ten steps, causing them to crack at the slightest smile.

We shrug ourselves into fleeces, down jackets, waterproofs, hats with ear flaps, neoprene lined rubber boots, anything to prevent egress to the wind. Today it’s a southerly. It’s not that cold, probably 6 degrees but it blows up the loch, a good five miles from the open sea but pushing waves before it, not high but full of power. The wind rips the tops off the waves in streamers of pure white, stark against the dark waters.

At the top of the steps it hits us, almost knocking the boy from his feet. The second sensation is, strangely, taste. The salt and iodine tang fill your mouth as soon as you open it to speak. The dog is unconcerned, he’s lower to the ground and has twice as many legs.

We hold hands and grit our teeth, our conversation torn from our lips and tossed over our shoulders the moment a word forms. The journey takes twice as long as on a still day. The end of the drive is unsheltered from a southerly, so we merely submit and turn our backs to the wind. We wait. The school car pulls up, the cheery face of the mum driver emerges. “A bit draughty this morning” we yell at each other. A frantic collie barks from the rear of the car, it’s the same every morning, you’d think he would get bored with it. The boy is soon ensconced with the other children in the warm interior of the car, already lost to me, absorbed into the cocoon small boys draw round themselves when two or more are gathered, entering into a private world with a private language and secret signs.

I cannot help but smile as I yell ‘bye love’ and get the merest reaction, a slight flicker of the hand. I need not worry, these people, hewn from the rock of the island and shaped by the wind and the sea, truly care. Any child in the community is their child. I watch the car until it goes over the hill and I turn towards the house.

The dog takes himself off on private dog business amongst the rushes. I wait. A pair of hoodie crows turn the seaweed on the strand line, hoping for a marooned crab or a mussel tossed loose from it mooring by the gale. A black backed gull, massive in the half light slips effortlessly into the wind. The dog emerges, satisfied. Ahead, a pure white eiderdown of cloud slips over the summit of Beinn Dearg Mhor, the rounded peak hidden under the dense layer. A blue pick-up rumbles towards us from our little harbour. We get a cheery wave from the ruddy faced scallop diver in the cab. At the top of the steps a robin waits to greet us. How does he manage to perch on the gatepost in this wind? He hasn’t had a warm sitting room in which to spend the previous evening, a cosy bed to see him through the long northern night. All he has are the broom bushes, the buffeting wind and the fear of a nocturnal visit from the stoat which lives in our roof. But here he is, bright and perky in the strengthening light. I’ll put some food out for him shortly and hope he spots it before those hoodies.

A World up There

I asked my neighbour’s son ‘so, have you been to the top?’ indicating the hill behind our houses.

‘Yeah’ he answered with all the certainty of a 14 year old, ‘but there was nothing up there’. I didn’t answer, the conversation not worth pursuing.

The first few hundred feet is heart breaking, lung stretching toil. Your mind can think of little but the heave of your chest and flexing of your ankles…and then it becomes a little steeper. The grass gives way to a jumble of rocks interspersed with tortured, stunted birch trees. Small streams cut through, making steps in the rock, although steep, the going here is slightly easier, just watch for the loose rocks, their coating of algae making them all the more treacherous.

With surprising suddenness you are though and on to a more level patch, although level is a relative term up here. A small flat area with a patch of dead bracken, red gold in the early light provides a place to take a breather. The dog however is still keen so you press on. As you turn a woodcock flushes from beneath your feet, the only sound the sharp flit of its wings as it falls over the edge of the hill into the safety of the birches. Before long another ridge rears before you, not so steep but covered in rank, knee deep heather and tussocks of moor grass. From a distance the high lifting gait you adopt must appear comical, but there is no one to see you. Another hundred feet sees you to the top of this bank, as soon as you hit the crest, there is the heartbreaking sight of yet another ridge blocking your way. This one is unassailable without some climbing, not being in the mood for this you stroll along the foot of the ridge until it starts to come down to meet you. Here at the foot of the ridge the vegetation is more sparse, huge rocks emerge like the backs of fossilised whales, complete with a crusting of lichen barnacles.

Some call this landscape colourless; to you it’s a blazing cacophony of shades and hues. Every tone of brown, grey, green, yellow and red is here. From a lichen so improbably lime green to a pure white lump of quartz. From the black, black peaty pools to the violet hues of the moor grass in the distance…and that’s before the sun has come out to gild the tops of the nearby mountains with a rich orange glow.

You are nearing the place where the ridge has dropped to meet your level, you can take a step up and then walk back along the top, parallel to the path you just walked but higher. Another five minutes walk up the steady incline of this hogs-back ridge and you come to a perfect view point. Face east, the direction you came from and the ground drops away sharply, a voice in your head asks ‘did I really just come up there?’ The view is simply stunning. You can see most of the loch from here, all the way to the open sea some five miles away to the south. A fishing boat is carving the water, getting out to his grounds before the weather turns. Look north and you may see the post bus in the distance making its way around the head of the loch, just a small red smudge against the huge conical hills beyond the road. Look to the west and try not to feel daunted by the sheer cliffs rising behind you, their outcrops of icicles looking like something from another world. Above the cliffs you can just see the peaks of the mountains beyond, a dusting of snow contrasting sharply with the elephant grey of the ancient weather riven rock.

As you stand and stare an odd ‘cronk’ sounds from the distance, a pair of ravens are dancing, the sky their ballroom. Their intricate moves cement the bonds of the pair, another clutch of eggs will soon follow. A shape moves into view beyond them, massive, dwarfing even the ravens. A little shiver of anticipation runs through you. Is it a golden? No. The wing shape is not quite right, the neck too short, the build too massive. Yes! It is! Your first Sea Eagle. You watch its perfect mastery of the air for fully five minutes until it dwindles to speck in the distance.

The dog is becoming impatient so you walk on, day dreaming a little, perhaps about the ancient Gaels whose land this was, perhaps saying a quiet word of greeting as you pass a small circle of jumbled stones, all that remains of one of their hill shelters. You cannot help but marvel at their hardiness, no Goretex or fleece then, no central heating or hot water. A commotion ahead stops you dead…a red deer hind with last year’s calf at foot has been dosing behind a rock. They gallop off, hooves beating a tattoo on the peaty soil, pausing to look back before they cross a ridge and vanish into the vastness of the hill. The dog stays at heel, she knows not to chase them.

Coffee is calling so you turn for home, descending quickly, much more quickly than the walk up. As you go down, the sounds of the sea begin to reach you, half a dozen oystercatchers bicker over ownership of a small section of beach, an outboard motor whirrs. The ground becomes a little less steep, less heathery. You think back to the autumn when this area was covered with the perfect white flowers of grass of parnasus. Each a perfect miniature bell.

The dog noses a wisp of snipe into the air as we pass the rushy field, their sharp ‘scaarp’ giving them away.

You’ve only been out for half an hour, not nearly long enough to experience everything the hill can offer to the keen observer but certainly long enough to feel justified in taking that last muffin.

No, there is nothing up there, at least, nothing that matters to that young boy. But for you, a world is there.

A New Name and a New Cover

It’s been a long time coming but I was never happy with the name Windigo for the tale of Archie’s first adventure. So, we talked, Archie, Seq (by Skype from Vancouver) and myself and decided on The River of Bones. You’ll see why when you read it.

We gave the cover a bit of an overhaul too, now it in-yer-face orange so you can’t loose it if you take it on an adventure.

Not only that but Seq told us that she is now going by her proper name of Milledow (which means hummingbird) but that most people call her Milly. So we have changed it for her…thank goodness for ‘Search and Replace’!

Here’s the Amazon link for the UK page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00D3RCBKE

I’m sure Amazon will sort it out if you are in another country.

Here is the Smashwords link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/404405

Look out for The Owl Memory and The Monster Factory soon!


A Slightly Odd Day

Yesterday was odd, not in the major way that some of my days are odd but unsettling nonetheless. I was spending the day in the library up at the ‘big house’. I don’t go there often now Magnus is no longer about as it’s too upsetting and the house is mostly let out for private groups much of the time. Where is Archie living I hear you ask?….More of that soon.

Anyway, I was in the company of two black Labradors. Midge and Mango, my two lovely girls. I had lit the fire and settled in, a pot of tea and a slice or two of Mrs. Urquhart’s famous lemon drizzle cake to hand I continued cataloguing some of the older volumes. The dogs were flat out in front of the fire in the way Labradors always seem to manage, Mango snoring loudly, Midge letting off the odd waft of tripe scented vapour.

Probably fifteen or twenty minutes had passed when there was a creak from the library steps – a short moveable ladder for accessing the high shelves. The dogs and I all jumped slightly and looked across the room. Nothing. We settled back to our respective jobs – cataloguing, snoring and farting. The noise came again around ten minutes later. This time a double creak, a short pause between each, almost as though someone took two steps on the ladder.

Again, the dogs and I jumped. This time Mango took a few tentative steps towards the source of the noise then stood, hackles raised. Midge joined her and the two took another couple of steps forward, shoulder to shoulder. They stood again, apparently watching. Suddenly both tails started to thrash madly as though they had seen a familiar person. They took a few more paces forward and milled around, much as they would if they were greeting an old friend. I watched bemused.

A minute or two passed as they got it out of their systems and they returned to the hearth rug. I continued to stare across the library. Nothing moved, nothing changed. We settled once more.

Then it happened, with an amazing suddenness one of the volumes crashed to the floor. The dogs rushed over to it, sniffing madly, tails wagging crazily. I walked over, shaken but curious. There on the Persian rug was a copy of Alien Animals by Janet and Colin Bord. This book had been the foundation of Magnus’s passion for cryptozoology, I remember him reading me snippets at the breakfast table and showing me the picture of the ‘Skyclad Witches’ which seemed terribly dangerous to a thirteen year old.

I stood and looked down at the book. Shyly peeking from between two pages was a piece of paper. I pulled it out and saw that, in Magnus’s youthful hand, was written ‘I Will Find You’. I put the book back on the shelf, the piece of paper carefully put back into the page where I found it. Page 147.

Spain, Again.

I love our wildlife in the Highlands but let’s be frank, there isn’t really that much of it, both in terms of diversity and numbers with the obvious exception of deer. Make the relatively short crossing to mainland Europe however and one enters a very different world. France is eternally gorgeous and boy do they know about trees. They really have some wonderful areas of mature woodland, but then I suppose they didn’t have to cut theirs down to fight the French. But a lot of it is quite a bit like Britain. Cross the Pyrenees though and you are in a very different place. It starts pretty much straight away too. There are Lammergeyers around the border. Huge bone breaking vultures, impressive at rest, incredible in flight but they are not the only vulture to be seen. From the smaller white Egyptian, through the Griffon to the Black, the whole set is here. Not in paltry numbers either. There are a lot of them. See them perched on piggery roofs, nesting on the cliffs at Riglos or most impressively a mixed species group circling on a thermal.
It is certainly the birds which impress the most in Iberia. This meeting point between Africa and Europe has points of interest from both directions. Swallows, martins and swifts abound, indeed one wonders why they bother to carry on to the misty, dripping, chilly north of Scotland. There are insects here in profusion thanks to low intensity agriculture and this must have a direct effect on the numbers of swifts here. Their young bomb around in screaming, reckless flocks showing complete mastery of the air. For me they are truly ‘the bird’ so airborne are their lives.
A short walk can yield amazing treasures and a pair of binoculars is essential. Black kites are not unusual, stork’s nests adorn most churches and many electric poles. The birds themselves can be seen in great numbers in the rice paddies. A covey of partridges occupy every corner of stubble and LBJs of every shade flutter away in amazing numbers. Among them are rare jewels. Bee eaters cruise the sandy cliffs in search of their quarry and occasionally one is rewarded by the sight of a golden oriole. This dove sized bird is so improbably bright yellow that it delights the eye even in the brightest sunlight.
There are mammals too, though rarely seen. A night drive will reveal more in a few minutes than all of the poking around in rough areas. Foxes are plentiful, presumably making use of the rather sketchy waste disposal arrangements which exist hereabouts. The major difference from home are the boar of course. Huge, black and rarely seen without the aid of dogs but there, most definitely there. The rivers are lined with dense bush and there are countless areas of rough scrub land for them to vanish into. Towards the mountains huge areas of scrub grows and the cultivated land shrinks until it eventually peters out in favour of pine woods which in this part of the word yield prodigious numbers of delicious pine nuts, favoured by both boar and humans. Higher still montane vegetation takes over and I am told that chamois inhabit the high tops but it is another story that I’d like to find out more about. The mysterious extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex.


It was fully dark by the time I entered the village, small knots of people sat on steps and kitchen chairs outside their doorways and, to my amazement at this late hour, groups of very young children were charging up and down the street. I had been moving for over twenty four hours and my senses were dulled by engine noise and snack food so I was not able to fully understand what I was seeing. My young hosts put me smartly to bed and it was not until the following morning that I was able to see the village and surrounding landscape. Phrases like stark beauty and rugged grandeur are overused so they are out. The word beige did come to mind but that would not be fair. It is a rugged, stark and beige place but it is also so much more.
The houses of the village seem to climb on top of each other, each new one welcomed to share a wall, to shield its older neighbour from the unremitting pounding of the sun. Few of these houses would look out of place in a Roman landscape, indeed, I think it’s a fair bet that some of the founds under these houses go back at least that far. With pan tiles, cypress trees and ancient figs one could easily imagine Maximus Decimus Meridius striding the landscape, running his hands through his crops. Him or Clint Eastwood anyway.
This village and many others like it sit on small patches of high ground, islands in the seas of bare honey-coloured stubble and the odd deep green patch of sunflowers. The farms here are alien to me. In Britain, we sit as kings surrounded by our lands. Here the houses are usually in the villages, farmers commute to their land in the early mornings, work until the heat drives them home and then again in the evenings, even deep into the night at busy times. The farming is less intensive and more varied too. The patches of arable are interspersed with almond orchards and olive groves, small jewel like gardens of vegetables and odd rough areas with black and white signs ‘coto de caza’. The only livestock is housed in buildings, barring a few depressed looking sheep. The pig industry is strong round here but what conditions must be like in those low buildings and in this heat I dread to imagine. One might mistake this dry climate for an almost desert-like condition but there is no shortage of water. A huge construction project has ensured massive amounts of water and hydro power for the area, courtesy of the snow melt and thunder-storms of the Pyrenees.
There is more new construction hereabouts too, somewhat at odds with the tales of doom and gloom in the Spanish economy. A vast road building project is snaking its way down from the mountains, past towns with shopping developments, hi-tech industrial parks and large areas of housing, which actually appears to be occupied. Rather to my amazement I even passed a shiny new Land Rover dealership.
For a resident of the Highlands of Scotland however, all of the landscape and infrastructure becomes insignificant before one crowning feature. The heat of summer. Yes, I know other places get hotter, but not by much. I have seen the temperature gauge here top forty four. It was outside Ikea in Zaragoza, an unlikely place for the traveller I know. It is this kind of heat which bleaches the landscape and bows down the people, causing them to become, crepuscular, even nocturnal. But none the worse for that and why would it be? Just because it is not my norm to see kids (well behaved, polite, friendly ones I might add) scootering at midnight, does not make it weird. Just sensible. Different.