It stands by the forest trail, quite near the shore, porous to all sides. Incongruous red clay pipes line its perforations – modern additions to the grey whinstone and white mortar of the walls. On either side of the door, and occasionally on the other walls, tall, narrow arrowslit windows. I can only imagine this ruin bristling with guns. Were the locals holed up in here, awaiting the Vikings or the Germans? Doesn’t feel right. There’s not even a view of the shore – a ridge of land obscures the sea. And how even to reach those vents high up in the gables?

Vents. OK – perhaps ventilation – but for what? Did they dry or smoke fish here? Was this the storehouse supplying the fort high above on the hill? Perhaps grain from Kilmartin farms was landed below and stored here, guarded from every angle by musketeers.

On return, we scour the internet and find a few photos of this very one, and some similar. A threshing barn. The grain harvest piled up here and stored until winter. Arrowslit windows to allow air circulation and deter mould. Often, a larger, high window to admit owls, to control vermin – and sometimes a lower entrance for cats. At threshing time, the grain flailed and thrown into the air, where the strong through-draft winnowed away the chaff, and goodness fell centrally to the floor, piling up, and held in place by a couple of boards across the door opening – the threshold.


“Look! You can see how it just flickers its wings for a brief moment, and then hovers. It’s a kestrel!”

As the car continues, I twist and crane my neck to keep it in view.

“They’re slightly reddish in colour, though against the light perhaps you can’t see. There it goes!”

Closing its wings, it plummets to the ground. Moments later, it flaps heavily off to a location more distant from the road.

“I think it’s got something! Look how much slower it is now.”

The car rounds the bend, and the kestrel and its prey vanish behind a heather-clad cutting.

Sparrowhawk is something else. Sitting in the living room, face steaming with the healing vapours of thick cocoa, I gaze out at the snow. On the multi-headed bird feeder – more like a tree – they’re busy. Great tits, blue tits, chaffinches. Blackbirds and dunnets on the ground, gathering up the crumbs from under thy table.

Suddenly, a great scatter. They explode in all directions, like a silent, feathery firework.

Bang! Something hits the window glass.

Looking out, I see a pitiful small corpse. A chaffinch, so dusty-grey pink in its fine breast feathers, lies in the snow.

We pull on wellies and go round to the now deserted terrace. Picking up her frail warm form, cradling it in my hands.

“She may be OK still. Bring her inside in the warm.”

Inside, in a shoebox, sentinels warding off the cat, the fragile bird gradually comes round.


To every cat I ever had the honour to know, however unknowably:

Toffle, great ginger hulk who sulked around the corners of a family grouping, immovable as a truculent teenager. Teela, as a young thing springing into the air, tumbling after butterflies with out-stretched paw. Pele, Hawaiian-named night-time yowler of my childhood, stalking the indoor bridge of home outside my door and haunting the misty marshes at dawn. Cassandra, who arrived, itinerant in a cardboard box in the middle of Luke’s cacophonous birthday party and yet stayed until your early death wrenched tears from my face, cradled in my arms at the top of the sloping lawn. Lapsang – you moved in uninvited with Enya and blessed our forest home with claws and corpses and a slight edge of fear, and still I mourn you. Mini and Cooper, adopted from departing neighbours – Miss Fluff and Mr Bully. Shadow and Nettle, another brother and sister duo, Shadow of the morning head butt, Nettle, Lukes’s darling, yet squeezed out by yapping dog and the Big Three.

None of you here, aloft on the third floor. You belong in the wild.


Lapsang was our black and white cat, who left only a month or so before Enya also did. In one sense, he defined the time of her stay with me, as he first materialised at her previous place on the eve on my arrival to collect her belongings. Sitting large and unflappable on the stone steps that led down to the unkempt, canal-side garden, he barely had to lift a paw to secure his future home.

Prone to sudden biting, Lapsang was an edgy companion, but I loved him. As a city-born one, his experience of being parachuted into the real, natural world seemed revelatory. You could almost see his hair stand on end as he first stood out there on the grass, beech trees distantly overhead, sheep baaing and birds flittering and chattering. I guess his sensory envelope had expanded from something cuboid and living-roomy to infinite and universal.

Before long, though, he was fully engaged. More so than Luke would have preferred, stumbling to me in tears many a morning after finding decapitated rabbit corpse adorning the bottom stair. Why he’d choose to crunch through the skull and leave the body, I don’t quite understand. Perhaps less fluff and fur to cough up later?