Battleship

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.

Natural History Museum at Tring

I

There’s glass between us, and sometimes I must squint past the reflections to see you. But I feel a softly increasing sense of wonder, sadness, bewilderment as I encounter each of seemingly thousands of British birds. Resident. Seasonal migrant. Vagrant. I imagine your calls and the rustlings, flutterings, hissings of your movement. A vast community that co-exists with mine, doubtless exceeds mine, and which somehow I’m daily almost oblivious of. What societies and histories and great sadnesses are part of each of your worlds?

Here’s the Great Northern, oddly chosen star of the eponymous novel. Perhaps Ransome met with you here.

I move on to the photography exhibition and the scent of blood and snow, the red fox with hunted arctic fox dangling from its jaws.

II

Imagining the squelch of mud and the rattling wheels of the zebra-drawn carriage. The odours of peculiar and exotic poos from around the world, concentrated in an English park. The odd spectacle of an elegantly dressed gentleman attempting to ride a giant tortoise.

In the dingy cafe, the what’s-that-called, the chocolate “biscuit” that’s full of cherries and candied peel and raisins, chews sweetly. I have to rip off morsels with my teeth, almost twisting my neck to achieve it – perhaps like an animal gnawing at its prey. The smell of coffee signals a welcome boost to a hungover morning.

Indoors is full of mundane shuffles of museum-goers visiting each exhibit, and fragmentary conversations as adult excessively interprets for child.

I look through the glass into a bewildering, awe-inspiring multitude of British birds, and a quiet disquiet, a gentle sadness, a long sigh, begin to be felt. How is it possible to have lived on these islands so long, without any real meeting, knowledge, appreciation?

Tomboy

I’m not sure the word has much meaning any more, based as it is in gender stereotyping. But in any case, Alice comes to mind.

With my father, hacking through the sheep carcasses with cleaver and club hammer. The smell of butchery in the kitchen on my return from school. Great piles of segmented body parts processed into plastic freezer bags and ultimately stowed away in the disguised chest freezer in the shed.

Once, thieves broke in and cleared it out. Ready-meal Reivers.

Curing deer and sheep skins, pinned out onto boards like impaled bat wings. Scraping off the remaining flesh and fat with a razor, then rubbing in salt – handfuls of crystalline, abrasive ooze. The boards stacked against the wall like work-in-progress masterpieces in an artist’s studio.

Soay sheep, uniquely, do not flock. Try to round them up, and you will fail. Essentially, you need to apply Rugby tactics. It’s all very tiring and undignified – wrestling wayward escapees to the ground, grasping the great ripple-textured horns, and the tup tugging his head, twisting, in efforts to escape.

Mostly it was to a new pasture – only rarely their impending final hour.

Loch Ness ladle

There’s a cast iron swing arm that suspends the stew pot over the peat fire. Blackened, and rough to the touch. You can vary the height by removing a tapered pin and replacing it in the next hole.

Smoke and succulent steam. Firelight. The unique, highland smell of peat. The roof beams are low and blackened, and the door stands partly open to the wilds outside.

I’m mourning the real wildness that was once here. Wide tarmac intrudes on the water’s edge, and the hills are barren and sheep-scarred. When they said Highland Clearances, they weren’t joking. It’s shorn to the bone.

Still, the cloud-flecked light ripples across muscular hills, and rich browns of autumnal bracken blend with ageing purple heathers. The sun explodes from behind briefly broken cloud.

Why is it that we wish for cellophane-wrapped, ready-meal lives, when wildness and wet and muck and mud and misery still survive at the corners of our concrete creations?

I sip the steaming stew from the ladle’s bowl, and look out over dark water where no mythical monster is needed, where awe already resides.