In one of Robert Burns’s letters written to a Mrs Dunlop on New Year’s Day, 1789, Burns speculates on matters spiritual: “We know nothing or next to nothing of the substance or structure of our souls”, and he says later that he is a sincere believer in the Bible. He goes on to talk about his favourite flowers in spring, and the sounds of nature, and wonders why those sights and sounds elevate the soul, and why, as he says, “Minds of a different cast” may not be equally impressed with such pleasurable things.
Well, I agree that we can never know exactly what the soul is, and each individual has different degrees of appreciation, their own favourite flowers, colours, etc. I’m not sure that the feelings we might have about nature have anything to do with spiritual matters, but there are wonderful visual effects to be seen in the universe that greatly impress the mind. Somehow they capture certain feelings that are difficult to explain; sometimes simple, little things like the daisy, quite apart from the great vistas of sea and sky that do make one stop and consider. Just think about the dark expanse of the heavens on a winter’s night when the stars are ablaze, or when the ‘merry dancers’ sweep across the sky.
So, like Burns, and everybody else, I too have some favourite sights, and sounds, or colours for that matter. One colour, for instance, that never ceases to give me a special pleasure, is the pinkish red that tips the white petals of the daisy – Burns, too talks about the “crimson-tipped” daisy as being one of his favourite flowers. Why I particularly like this colour I do not know. Perhaps it has something to do with its purity. It has a freshness and cleanness that is particularly pleasing to the eye. Maybe it links up with some pleasant, forgotten memory from the past.
Then, there is that wonderful pale, powder blue colour of the starling’s egg that just pleases me greatly. Would one call it a calm colour or a peaceful colour? Does it maybe extend away back to one of those beautiful windless days of summers long ago? Certainly, in that respect, colours can create a link with memorable events. For example, I remember one day at the fishing some years ago when the sea was like silk and it was this same blue colour. So smooth and flat was the sea that the ripple of the ‘praam’ stretched undisturbed in two long lines far behind the moving boat. I remember it was in the evening, and earlier in the day there had been the ‘punding’ of the native sheep for clipping.
The third colour is the yellow of the birdsfoot trefoil – or as it is more commonly known – ‘cocks and hens’. It is a colour of such intensity and brilliance that one simply cannot but stop and enjoy it. On a shallow and mossy part of the roadside as one travels to the West Beach, at this time of year (early June), there is a display of this flower. When we were young we used to like to imagine that the fairies would play there in the moonlight or secretly in the warmth of a summer’s day when dull mortals were elsewhere.
With regard to the sounds of nature, Burns singles out two birds which he never hears without, as he says, ‘an elevation of the soul’. They were the curlew and the grey plover. If I were to choose the cry or song of only three birds which are special favourites they would be the curlew, blackbird and the lapwing. Mostly they have some connection with days of long ago, quite apart from the continuing pleasure of hearing them sing or call. For instance, the blackbird’s song takes me back to childhood times and makes me think of summer nights and the setting sun. For, at the age of five or six when it was bedtime around eight in the evening, often a blackbird would be singing outside the bedroom window. Everybody will agree his song is a delight to the ear. There he perches, frequently on a chimney, dressed in black with his yellowish beak, singing away, and just when one is beginning to enjoy the performance, away he flies skimming the roofs and dykes.
And then there is the call of the curlew as he pipes away. Sometimes a long single or double note, sometimes a series of warbling, bubbling notes. You will hear the call through the season, in the early morning, day or night, and without this rather dignified, carefully alert bird North Ronaldsay would lose a little of its magic.
The curlew also reminds me of Iceland which I visited about this time of year in 1970. When I was in the north of that spectacular country, all of a sudden the wind came blowing from the North Pole. It was very cold and some snow fell. Yet, the next day the wind changed direction and blew from the south and it became very warm. The change was so sudden, and I recall especially the vivid emerald green of a grassy field nearby, where a curlew was calling. No doubt the bird was as pleased as I was at the change of weather. One day it was summer, then winter, and then next day back to summer.
But possibly the saddest, and the most nostalgic, is the cry of the lapwing or the ‘teewup’ as we say locally. The cry of this attractive bird with its little head plume takes me back to early schooldays and reminds me of a piece of land shining with marsh marigolds at this time of year. ‘Teeweep, Teeweep’, goes the call as the spring and summer pass. Sometimes a flock of lapwings goes ‘wup, wup, wupping’ away, but it is the solitary individual that I think of mostly and associate with memories of the passing years. When walking past a field, in the summer twilight or a winter’s night, up will fly this bird of the plover family with a surprised cry. The thought of its lonely unseen presence in some dark field is a little sad. Maybe the moon is up casting the lapwing’s little shadow across the damp ground, or maybe just the cold starlight flickers upon the bird’s iridescent plumage as I pass by. But I always think – though I cannot explain the feeling – that its cry, as it fades away in the night, seems to remind me of old times, and folk that have long since gone.
Well, those are my three favourite colours and the bird sounds that I especially like to hear. But there are others: the sharp penetrating voice of the little wren with its musical singing; the skylark with its song of the sky; the sound of that gentle bird, the kittiwake, in the summer time, when clouds of them would fly up crying from Seal Skerry, Summer Ayre, or the Green Skerry; the whirring of the snipe, or the loud calling of the black-headed gull as great numbers of this smart looking bird would follow the plough on a spring day. By the way, the little wren never, as far as I remember, used to nest on the island though now they do so in fairly large numbers, and their singing is a familiar part of our lives. But the sound of the kittiwake’s call takes me back to early days at the lobster fishing where, in Garso Wick, on the north side of the island, on a summer’s day when we were hauling creels, the sight and sound of hundreds of wheeling birds will not be forgotten. And the black-headed gull will remind me of spring and the smell of the petrol-paraffin tractor’s exhaust on a windy day; the sight of tractors ploughing or harrowing here and there and the general busyness of the island at that time of year. I’m thinking of course of 40 to 50 or more years ago. Almost all those ploughmen that I remember now lie west of Holland where cold granite head stones mark their final resting-places.
Here I am sitting outside, for the fun of it, finishing this letter. It’s a splendid, windy, sunny, and inspiring sort of day and as fresh as fresh can be. Our large fuchsia tree is beginning to display its crimson and purple flowers, and little sparrows are flitting here and there among the branches, chirping and chattering as they always do. I can hear an oystercatcher or ‘sheldar’ far away, and a single tern has just flown past uttering an angry ‘skraek’ – despite the graceful elegance of this bird it’s my opinion that they are rather impudent and short of temper.
Before me, in our rather tousled, somewhat neglected, garden, there is a profusion of sweet rocket which is a delight to the senses. A few years ago, I remember an invasion of red admiral butterflies that were greatly taken with this flower. They are such spectacular creatures. So far this year I have seen one or two and also the odd painted lady – do you not think they are rather aptly named? Well, that’s about it. The skylarks are singing and the ‘Wast Sea’ is sounding bravely in the background and I’ve just heard the curlew, or the ‘whaap’ (as we know them), calling somewhere in the distance. I must say I do like that bird.