‘The relationship between her man and the brute beasts he worked amongst becoming intimate.’
She had no need of the lantern. Real darkness never fell down out of the night. It was when it rose up out of the ground that you could lose your bearings, and yourself.
Besides, she liked walking in the dark. There was something nocturnal in her. Atavistic. Something that had never had a chance.
The reflection of Meg’s fire flickered against the window. Enough edge to the nights now for a fire. The time of fires, she remembered, stopping to watch the flames rising up from the burning of the whins, that snapped and crackled in protest to the night. […]
She arrived at the byre in the nick of time. One of the older calves, overcome by curiosity, had got out of its loose box, hell-bent on making the acquaintance of its newly-born kinsman, to the fury of the cow, butting and lashing out at friend, foe, and all inanimate things alike.
‘Hold on to the daft devil,’ her man commanded, ‘till I get the cow settled.’
A safe place the byre, lacking the competitiveness of all other areas of farm work. No ‘knacks’—implying that there were several methods—needed here. There was only one way to milk a cow. And the young woman had mastered it. Only one way to calve a cow, and her man was familiar with it.
A fine place to be born in, the byre. Sweetened by the cows’ breaths, and the tang of newly-sliced turnips. The relationship between her man and the brute beasts he worked amongst becoming intimate, at times like these. A warm ‘mash’ for the cow, a gift for her motherhood with a touch of black treacle added as a treat ‘for a good lass’.
The newly-born calf was beginning to find its balance. Staggering to grope under the cow in search of its udder. Licking her calf from end to end, almost knocking it over in an excess of maternal devotion. A pity, the young woman thought, watching her man guiding the calf to its urgent objective, a pity. It was to be a sucker calf, a pity it was a bull calf. Not well enough bred to enjoy a lifetime of lascivious freedom. ‘You’re a fine calfie,’ she assured it, stroking its damp head. ‘A fine calfie.’ Pity to end up a stirk, for prime beef. But she didn’t mention that to the newly-born calf.
‘It’s lucky in a way though,’ she reflected, as herself and her man made their way home from the byre. ‘It will be left with its mother. Sucking for a long time.’
‘But God help us the day it stops sucking.’
Her man was right, she remembered. The crying of the cow when its calf was weaned would make of the byre a place of lamentation. For endless days.
Darklands is one of Caldwell’s largest farms, its productivity high, its soil fertile, its landscape bleak. The kind of place will cause a Townsman in passing to thank God for the fury of his factory or the fuss of his fishmarket, but to the men who work on Darklands farm, even the two or three isolated landmarks on its landscape become unnecessary at last. Occasionally, they will lift their eyes towards Soutar Hill to verify that the Pictish horse still stands in stone—always aware that it could rear nowhere else. […]
This surely was the bleakest landscape in Scotland. Morayshire now. Ah! But there was a mellow country for you. Hot to the sun and comforted by trees. A lass of a land and comely. Hugh Riddel’s memories of Morayshire were brief, but safe and warm in recollection. Then his people had moved south to work on a farm near Stonehaven. Bleak land there too, with the sea biting always at hand. Still, it was on that farm near Stonehaven that he had grown old enough to realise that all the comings and goings to work on different farms were not for his parents the fine adventures they had been for himself.
‘The First Horseman’s just been asked to bide on. I heard the farmer seeking him in the stable!’
His father banging his fist on the table and shaking the silence in the kitchen.
‘What of it, then? Good God, it’s but early yet. We’re only into Februar’. The farmer’s got till March to seek me to bide on.’
‘But you are the Cattleman, Father.’ He heard his ten-year-old self insist. ‘You are the Cattleman. And the Cattleman is always asked to bide on before the First Horseman.’
Hugh Riddel knew now exactly what his wife Isa meant, when she accused him of not only ‘Baking the cake’ but ‘Icing it as well. And putting on all the decorations, so that there is nothing left for anybody else to do at all, except to admire it and eat it.’
Even at the age of ten he had allowed no loopholes, and could remember how his father had always struggled to find one.
‘What of it, then? There are other farms in Scotland. And I have never yet been feared of bending my back. There are other farms I tell you!’
‘Aye. And we’ve tried a gey few of them,’ had always been his mother’s brief and bitter response.
‘What of it?’ His father had demanded again. ‘We haven’t been happy here. Not a one of us. It’s too near the sea for one thing. And we are inland folk for another thing. Not seafarers. God Almighty, woman. Even Robbie Burns’ father couldna thole this part of the country. That’s why he upped it and made for away down the South, yonder!’
The smile broke into Hugh Riddel’s thoughts. His father had always tried to translate his failings into strengths, through comparison with Burns. A comparison which never moved his mother, for Burns, as she often said, ‘just never won round her at all’. Come to think of it, though, for all Burns’ reputed success with ‘The Lasses’ of his day, it was the women of the countryside who now remained more immune to his ‘Memory’. ‘The men’, as his mother so often remarked, ‘just uses Burns as an excuse for theirselves!’ And that had been another of the times when the excuse hadn’t worked with his mother.
‘I don’t give a tinker’s curse for what Robbie Burns’ father thought of this part of the country,’ she had protested. ‘He’s no concern of mine at all. All I’m concerned with is that you have lost this job too. Just as you’ve lost every job you’ve ever had. I’m sick and tired of it all. And of you and your light fingers! We are no better off than the tinkers. We are always on the top of the road.’
‘Do you imagine, woman,’ his father had flared, ‘Do you imagine for one minute that I am the only man on this farm that helps myself to a pucklie oats for my hens? It’s just that I always happen to get found out.’
‘Shepherd’s book is so close to what Nicholson is searching for: Scotland’s longest-lasting snow.’