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The Curlews of Galloway


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Frank Southgate, Autumn. Waders on the Breydon muds–little stint, curlew, dunlin and curlew-sandpiper, 1904, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Galloway is unheard of. This southwestern corner of Scotland has been overlooked for so long that we have fallen off the map. People don’t know what to make of us anymore and shrug when we try and explain. When my school rugby team traveled to Perthshire for a match, our opponents thumped us for being English. When we went for a game in England, we were thumped again for being Scottish. That was child’s play, but now I realize that even grown-ups struggle to place us.

There was a time when Galloway was a powerful and independent kingdom. We had our own Gaelic language, and strangers trod carefully around this place. The Romans got a battering when they came here, and the Viking lord Magnus Barefoot had nightmares about us. In the days when longboats stirred the shallow broth of the Irish Sea, we were the center of a busy world. We took a slice of trade from the Irish and sold it on to the English and the Manxmen who loom over the sea on a clear day. We spurned the mainstream and we only lost our independence when Scotland invaded us in the year 1236. Then came the new Lords of Galloway and the wild times of Archibald the Grim, and he could fill a whole book himself.

The frontier of Galloway was always open for discussion. Some of the old kings ruled everything from Glasgow to the Solway Firth, but Galloway finally settled back on a rough and tumbling core, the broken country which lies between tall mountains and the open sea. This was not an easy place to live in, but we clung to it like moss and we excelled on rocks and saltwater both. We threw up standing stones to celebrate our paganism, then laid the groundwork for Christianity in Scotland. History made us famous for noble knights and black-hearted cannibals. You might not know what Galloway stands for, but it’s plain as day to us.

We never became a county in the way that other places did. Galloway fell into two halves: Wigtownshire in the west and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright in the east. There are some fine legal distinctions between a “shire” and a “stewartry,” but that hardly matters anymore because both of them were deleted from the map in 1975 when the local government was overhauled. The remnants of Galloway were yoked to Dumfries, and the result is a mess because Dumfries and Galloway are two very different things.

Dumfriesshire folk mistake their glens for dales and fail to keep Carlisle at arm’s length. They’re jealous of our wilderness and beauty, but we forgive them because it’s unfair to gloat. Besides, they have the bones of Robert Burns to console them, and don’t we all know it. Perhaps Dumfriesshire is a decent enough place, but we’ve been pulled in different directions for too long to make an easy team. Imagine a county called “Perth and Fife” or “Carlisle and Northumberland.” Both would be smaller and more coherent than “Dumfries and Galloway.” Now there are trendy councillors who abbreviate this clunky mouthful to “D ’n’ G,” as if three small letters were enough to describe the 120 miles of detail and diversity which lie between Langholm and Portpatrick. Tourism operators say we are “Scotland’s best-kept secret,” and tourists support that claim by ignoring us.

It’s easy to see why visitors rarely come. They think we’re just an obstacle between England and the Highlands. They can’t imagine that there’s much to see in the far southwest, and tell us that “Scotland begins at Perth.” Maybe it’s because we don’t wear much tartan, or maybe it’s because we laugh at the memory of Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Left to our own devices, we prefer the accordion to the pipes and we’d sooner race a gird than toss a caber. If you really want to see “Scotland,” you’ll find it further north.

When Galloway folk speak of home, we don’t talk of heather in bloom or the mist upon sea-lochs and mountains. Our place is broad and blue and it smells of rain. Perhaps we can’t match the extravagant pibroch scenery of the north, but we’re anchored to this place by a sure and lasting bond. There are no wobbling lips or tears of pride around these parts; we’ll leave that sort of carry-on to the Highlanders. We’ll nod and make light of it, but we know that life away from Galloway is unthinkable.

My ancestors have been in this place for generations. I imagine them in a string of dour, solid Lowlanders that snakes out of sight into the low clouds. These were farming folk with southern names like Laidlaw and Mundell, Reid and Gilroy, and they worked the soil in quiet, hidden corners without celebrity or fame. Lauries don’t have an ancestral castle to concentrate any feeling of heredity. We’ve worked in a grand sweep between Dunscore and Wigtown and now all of Galloway feels like it might’ve been home at one time or another. I was born to feel that there is only one place in this world, and I can hardly bear to spend a day away from it. Satisfaction alternates between quiet peace and raging gouts of dizzy joy.

Wild birds fly over Galloway. They move between the shore and the hills, and that journey brings them close at hand. I was brought up on a seaside farm where curlews spent their winter days in noisy gangs of a hundred and more. My father ran a mixed business based on sheep and beef cattle, and curlews flowed alongside him in rich furrows by the shore. When spring comes, curlews are blown uphill on warming winds to breed on the moors, and we followed them a few miles inland to pass many hours at work on my grandfather’s hill farm. I heard the birds crying on busy days when the sheep were clipped and the peat was cut.

Unremarkable in flight, obscure in plumage, and secretive to the point of rumor, curlews are unlikely heroes. But then they call over the shore and sing beneath the high-stacked clouds and there is nothing else of value. No other wild bird has that power to convey a sense of place through song. It’s a grasping belly-roll of belonging in the space between rough grass and tall skies, and you never forget it. The curlew’s call became the yearlong sound of my childhood. I hear that liquid, loving lilt and I’m lying in the warm, sheepy grass again, a small boy in too-big wellies, hugged by old familiar hills.

So I thought that curlews were mine. The connection was a live wire, but then I found that the birds had a place in all of us. My entire family would rush to the kitchen door at night to hear curlews passing between our chimney and the wide, dusty moon. We all loved them, so I began to think that the birds belonged only to Galloway. In time I’d grow up and go elsewhere, and that’s when I learned that curlews are loved by anybody who’ll take the time to listen to them. People are devoted to curlews in Wales and Ireland, on Shetland and Exmoor; the birds have starred in heraldry, tradition, and folklore for thousands of years. Everybody is tempted to claim the curlew, and no other bird can boast of such universal popularity.

I wrote about curlews as a teenager when my friends were smoking and chatting up girls. I hunted for more information about the birds through old school encyclopedias, but all I found were dry, papery sentences dull as windblown sinew. I went back to those words again and again, hoping that I could read some flesh onto the bare bones—

Curlew: any of numerous medium-sized or large shorebirds belonging to the genus Numenius (family Scolopacidae) and having a bill that is decurved, or sickle-shaped, curving downward at the tip. Curlews are streaked, grey or brown birds with long necks and fairly long legs. They probe in soft mud for worms and insects, and they breed inland in temperate and sub-Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

The common, or Eurasian, curlew (N. arquata), almost 60 cm (24 inches) long including the bill, is the largest European shorebird. This species breeds from Britain to Central Asia.

There was so little to go on. I began to write my own encyclopedia entries in the form of short descriptions and reports of encounters with the birds on the hill and the sea shore. I don’t know what became of these projects—perhaps they have survived in jotters and folded pages stowed in the attic. It hardly matters, but the birds called me to stretch my legs and draw lines between known and unknown. Curlews were both, and I clung to them through adolescence and early adulthood. Their calls began to feature in tales of fumbling romance and the pressing growth of responsibility. They grew to fill more than just a blue-remembered childhood. I began to think they were an ever-present fact of life, as dependable as rain and moonlight.

Young people don’t stay in Galloway. They go to Glasgow, and I went with them for a four-year stint at the university. The city was a clashing novelty, but then I graduated and found summer work on a Hebridean fishing boat. It was a dark morning on the bus from Buchanan Street to Uig, and rain lashed against the sweaty windows. An old Hebridean lady had made a fruitcake for the journey and passed it around to the passengers as we slashed our way through Glen Coe. The work was a lunge at something different, and soon I was watching killer whales pass our small boat at dawn against the silhouette of Skye. Here was a fine place, but I was nagged by the knowledge that this was not my home. I didn’t have the Gaelic, and I watched my friends at arm’s length. They were born and raised on the Outer Isles, and I wondered how it would feel to have roots in that shallow, turquoise water. I was just paddling my toes in their world and I began to feel like a fraud. I envied the Dutch and German tourists who gawked at us on the jetty because they had nothing to prove.

The work also showed up my physical weakness and lack of stamina. I slobbered with tears and exhaustion after eighty-hour weeks, and I was forever shamed by the strength and power of men three times my age. We went over to Portree for a drink and one of the boys got into a fight. I was pathetic and fragile, and I ducked outside. There was crashing and swearing, and I growled on the harbor steps like a dog pretending to strain on its lead. I didn’t want to fight, but it was galling to find that I couldn’t if I tried. Soft-handed people like me often say that manliness doesn’t matter anymore. We make it seem dumb and old-fashioned, but I grew up around capable, bull-necked men and there was no hiding from the shortfall. I said that I came back to Galloway because I had other plans. Weakness is closer to the truth.

And it was good to be home. Galloway poured back into my boots like peaty water, but it was hard to find solid footing in this place. I’d studied language and literature, but there wasn’t much use for either in small towns where most of the shops are boarded up and jobs are hard to find. Our glory days are well behind us, and D ’n’ G has slumped into decay. People say the best chance you’ve got of making money in Galloway is to buy a metal detector and spend your days hunting for your ancestors’ gold.

I spent a few seasons drifting around southwest Scotland. I picked things up and replaced them again, I pulled pints and felled trees, and I finally found some cash in freelance journalism. It paid the bills, but this line of work hardly carries much clout in a place where you’re expected to have a one-word job title and just get on with it. People asked “What do you do these days?” I’d shrug and say “All sorts,” knowing that I’d fail to cut mustard.

My Cornish wife and I were married in the registry office in Glasgow. We’d met at university and we moved to a small cottage by the Solway shore where we could listen to curlews flying in the darkness. We assumed that our children would not be far away, but none came, so I leaned back on married life with a shrug. Work was busy and time swirled past. I didn’t mind the absence, and I felt sure that our family lay just around the corner. Years later, we’d recall this place during brusque interviews with a fertility specialist who asked us when we began “trying” for a baby. It was in those days, but babies were one of many plans we had back then.

I returned to curlews in a loose, half-hearted kind of way. I liked the idea of writing a book about the birds, and the sudden collapse they’ve suffered over the last thirty years gave them a glaring relevance. We hardly need scientists to tell us that curlews have been declining across Britain over the last half century. The birds used to be absurdly common, and now they are nearly gone. We’ve lost three-quarters of our curlews in Galloway since the 1990s, and some parishes have lost them all. I was old enough to have seen this collapse in real time. My nagging worries had become a constant ache; this is the latest disaster in a long and nationwide sequence of decline and collapse, but this one really hurts.

I began to examine curlews beneath a microscope. I gathered up mounds of scientific reports and started out on background reading, but the work was hard and I stumbled over the technical jargon. I’m no scientist; I had to launder ideas of ecosystems and biodiversity into something I could understand. People in Galloway aren’t used to thinking about wild birds in isolation. They’re part of something much bigger, and they hardly warrant anybody’s full attention.

Visitors come and tell us that we live in a fine place to watch birds, but we’ve always taken our wildlife for granted. Problems have only arrived here in the last few decades, and we’ve been spoiled by centuries of surplus. We’ve gorged on wild partridges and salmon for a thousand years, and now we are told to be careful with what we have because nature is fragile. True enough, our salmon have gone and our game is going, but we aren’t sure what to make of bird-watchers and ecologists. They come from somewhere else and they usually tell us we’re wrong.

I began to think that a book about curlews would’ve made no sense to my ancestors who’d farmed here and were preoccupied with soils and rain, beasts and grain. The birds were hardly worth noticing in the days of their prosperity, but now curlews have been transformed by their decline. They’ve become figures of tragedy to be studied in desperate detail. Everybody mourns the loss of curlews, but birds have always come naturally to us and we scratch our heads at this confusing failure.

I was besotted with birds. Curlews were my focus, but I’d often get up before dawn to watch black grouse and lapwings displaying in the rushes above the hill pens. I’m glad I made the time for those birds because they’ve all gone now. I knew the last black grouse by name, and I was there to see the final lapwing’s egg. Curlews are the last of a grand dynasty of hill birds that has crumbled into ash during the short course of my life. My generation has arrived at a party which seems to be ending, and it’s getting harder to recall birds as they were in the days of their plenty.

 

Patrick Laurie is a freelance journalist and author who works on farming and conservation projects in Galloway and the northern part of the UK. Find out more at gallowayfarm.wordpress.com.

Excerpted from Galloway: Life in a Vanishing Landscape by Patrick Laurie, out November 16. Published with permission of Counterpoint Press. Copyright © 2021 by Patrick Laurie.

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