July 2018


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Thank you for seeing me, your holiness, I know what a busy person you are after more than 1400 years of trying to clear your name, but  I hope you don’t mind me asking you a few questions.  The thing is, there’s a few things I just don’t quite get, and I wonder if you can help me. 

Sure t’ing. Oi’ll do what Oi can for you. And who knows, it might even help me a tad or two. 

Aw, thanks, your saintliness.  Now wait a minute, let me just find my note book.  And I’ve got a pen in here somewhere.  OK, here were are.  Now, what I don’t understand is, with you being such an important saint and all that and doing all those great things, is how you got away with it.  

Oi’m nod at all sure what you mean boi dat.   

No, no, I’m sorry, your sanctimoniousness. I didn’t mean to offend. I can be a bit clumsy at times.  So let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  I’ll start at the beginning.  You left your home in Ireland or was it called Scotland at that time?  It’s all very confusing.  Anyway, you left your home under a bit of a cloud if you don’t mind me saying so.  And I’m not just talking about the weather – though it can be a bit rough in The North Channel especially when your boat is just a basket covered in skin. Could you not fly, you being an angel and all that?  Or have I misrepresented your saintly powers?  Sorry, your beatitude, I’m going off track.  But it was awesome how you and twelve others crossed over the North Channel in what was little more than a bathtub covered in skin. it sounds like Bonnie Prince Charlie without a sail or a prayer, but I dare say you had lots of prayers. No, what I wanted to know is how you caused so much hell back in the home country that you had to get out.  After all, you were a Bishop and a grandson of Kings.  

Oi know, Oi know. But you do go on something chronic. De fact is d’ basterds had it in for me.  Oi guess dey were jealous.  But you know, I never really left.  Back den, it was the same country on eider side.  De islands to the west o’ Pictland were a kind of colony.  Dere were loads of us up dere.  Besides, Oi didn’t stay on Kintyre. Oi just planted me footsteps – for de tourists, don’t y’know.  Then Oi had a drink at de holy well and sailed off up de coast to Iona – where I couldn’t see de old country an’ get homesick   

But the indictment was you infringed copyright law.  Now why would you want to do that?.  And why was it such a serious offence they threatened to excommunicate you. 

Well, you need to understand; we never had xeroxes back den.  De bastards asked me to copy dis enormous document, covered in letters in all different colours, wid pictures all down de soide.   It took me de best part of haf a year in doese freezin’ cloisters.  Dey’d promised me a great fat fee, but when it was all done, dey didn’t give me a bean. Well, Oi was so pissed off, Oi pinched it – so Oi did.  Serves dem roit.  But how was Oi to know it would start a war.  It was moi uncle; he’s a gran’ fierce man.  An de O’Neills look after der own.  But den dat bastard King Diamairt, no more than a jumped up swoine herd, so he is, moirdered de Prince moi cousin, who was recovering from a sports injury.  An’ in moi own church, moind you. Anyway dey framed me; so Oi had to get out pretty damn quick.  But Oi was innocent, so Oi was.  Oi never did it, so help me God.  An’ didn’t yer man make me a saint just loik St Paddy before me, who, by de way, was also no angel eider?  Well, no one was.  It was a case of dog eat dog back den .  

But, you’re a holy man, your honour.  What are you doing meddling in wars and politics?  Not even Rowan Williams did that.  Shouldn’t you leave it to the military. 

Oi feel bad about all de people dat got killed. Dat’s why oi thought oi should go.  But de truth is de kings were hopeless, not quoit as bad as de British government is now, but hopeless, none the less.  Oi had to do something.  Besoides, God sent me a message.   

A message. 

Yes, dis whale came up to me in de boat an’ told me Oi would rescue a man from de fiersome Loch Ness Monster.  So Oi went up there, made the sign of the cross and your timorous beastie ran away. I reckoned Oi’d squared things up wid God.  

Ok, let’s put all that to one side, your graciousness. There’s something else that happened on Iona that bothers me,  

Oi know, it’s about all dose women and de cows on moi holy island of Iona, but God told me to banish dem. 

No, it wasn’t that.

Well, de frogs and the snakes, den.   

No, it wasn’t them either, though I don’t know how you managed to round them all up and get them off the island.    

God works in such mysterious ways; his wonders to behold! (holds up two fingers and makes the sign of the cross, him being such a holy man) 

That’s as maybe. But I was thinking about your best friend.

Aw, you’re meaning Oran the moron.  He was no friend of’ moine; he just did what I told him.  But he had a lovely wife – such a waste!   Anyway, what happened to Oran was’na moi fault.  Yer man had a hand in dat, too. God told me that he would not consecrate moi chapel until Oi’d buried a man aloive in de foundations.  And Oran volunteered, so he did.   

And so you used your grace to console his wife. 

Well (stroked his beard wistfully) you could put it loik dat, but wasn’t it the least Oi could do for a friend who had made the ultimate sacrifice?  

 But he was still alive when they dug him up. 

Yes, but he’d lost his moind, God rest his soul – blaspheming against me, the church and his God.  

So you killed him.

Oi had to.  Oi put a stake through his chest to drive out de devil.  But you know dat wasn’t truly me.  As a saint of the holy catholic church, Oi’m only the instrument of the Almighty.  But surely Oi’ve paid moi price by now.  Although I departed this mortal coil way back in 593, Oi’ve never entered dose holy gates to heaven. Oi coudn’t even foind them. An’ Oi’m still lookin’  

So you admit you committed homicide, but if it was God’s will,  why, being a saint and all,  are you not up on a cloud singing with the angels? Sounds like God’s still got it in for you.  

But Oi was innocent, Oi tell you.  All Oi did was do His will.  Oi’ve got letters to prove it, and dey’ve taken me ages to wroite. 

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corncrake

Crex crex: the corncrake or landrail, the fast running rasper, the nutty noisemaker, the long legged bird of the cornfield, the rooster of the corn, is the strangest and most elusive of British birds. Once a common summer visitor throughout the British Isles, it has been in steep decline for the last hundred years  Now there are just about 500 breeding pairs, confined to the far western fringes of Ireland and the Scottish islands.  

It was 50 years ago when I last heard a Corncrake.  I was staying in the observatory on Cape Clear,  a magical island just 4 miles in length and less than a mile wide off the coast of County Cork in Southern Ireland.  During the day, I took part in sea watches, counted Puffins on their burrows on top of the cliffs and recorded the migrants that flopped down exhausted in the fields around the island overnight.  One memorable morning I awoke to the sound of about 20 Cuckoos.  Each was perched on a fence post and calling in vain for a mate.  It was like being in a cuckoo clock shop in Titisee.  But at night, Corncrakes called from the wildflower meadows – a strange regular mechanical sound, like scraping a credit card across the teeth of a comb.   One night, as it was getting dark, I persuaded my friend to come out and track down a Corncrake.  We borrowed a pair of cow rib bones from the observatory, one with a serrated edge and the other with a straight edge, which, when scraped against each other, mimicked the call of the Corncrake.  Arriving by a bank at the edge of a field, we scraped our bones together.  Almost immediately, we had a response that seemed to come from just beyond the corner at the end of the bank.  Cautiously we edged our way up the side of the bank, scraping our bones all the while and were thrilled to hear the responding call approaching us from around the corner.  Eventually, it was so close, it could only be a few feet away, so we tiptoed to the corner and peered round.  There, crouched by the bank were two other guys equipped with a second pair of bones; so we all collapsed laughing and retreated to O’Driscoll’s pub for a beer. 

But In the Coronation Meadow between Treshnish Farm and Huann Cottages on the Island of Mull, where Joan and I recently stayed, there were three separate males calling thought the day.  On Iona, they were more common; an estimated 20 to 30 pairs at several different sites throughout the island.  Although we tried to stalk them and got very close, we never saw one, though locals told us that they would occasionally see them rush across the road.  Not only can they move very quickly through the long grass, they also seem able to ‘throw their voice’ so it is difficult to pinpoint where they are.  So fast on the ground, they are vulnerable in the open and rarely take flight.  With short stubby wings and their long legs dangling down, they are poor flyers. How they manage to fly all the way back to Southern Africa in the winter is difficult to imagine.  

Corncrakes or Landrails are such rare birds.  About the size of a blackbird and related to the Moorhen but with striated brown plumage and ginger flanks, they live in the long grass and wildflowers of summer meadows.  Once widespread throughout the British Isles, but rarely seen, Gilbert White once heard them near Paradise Gardens in Oxford and even ate one. Naturalists of the time frequently shot less common birds, dissected them and ate them.  As White described   “The bird, which weighed seven-and-a-half ounces, was fat and tender and in flavour like the flesh of a woodcock. The liver was very large and delicate.”  Mrs Beeton recommended that four Landrails roasted on a skewer made a very satisfying meal.  In the late eighteenth century, the Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare, always heard then near his cottage in Helpston near Peterborough, but never saw one.   

’Tis like a fancy everywhere

A sort of living doubt

We know ’tis something but it ne’er

Will blab the secret out’

Their food is somewhat varied, consisting mainly of invertebrates and seeds though White recorded that ‘we once took a mouse from the stomach of a Landrail’. Although it is normally an extremely timid bird, which skulks in the long grass and is hardly ever seen in the open, a woman on Tiree once reported that a Corncrake living in her field would walk in through the front door and feed on kitchen scraps, while on Barra a bird that stayed over the winter would come and eat the chicken feed once the hens had finished.  

It is only the male that calls and may continue with scarcely a pause for as long as 6 hours .  Females lay two cliches of about 5 to 8 eggs in a shallow depression on the bare earth.  As soon as she has finished laying, the male will leave her and call for another female. After an incubation period of about 17 days, the eggs hatch and the chicks soon develop a black downy plumage.  The female then abandons her chicks after 12 days, hooks up with another male and lays another clutch of eggs.  At the end of August, Corncrakes migrate to Africa.  Birds from Scotland fly down the western route through France and Spain and the Congo to winter in South-east Africa, while birds that nest in the Ukraine migrate through Egypt and Sudan, but are often decimated by nets put out to catch Quail.  9000 Corncrakes were taken in Egypt in 1993 and 14,000 the following year.   Although Corncrakes are reputed to return to the same field, only about 30% of ringed birds make it back.  Some birds seem to get their navigation wrong and have been caught as far away as Vietnam and New Zealand. 

Corncrake numbers started to decline in in the late nineteenth century when farming became more mechanised and intensive.  More fields were grazed or, if left fallow, cut for silage much earlier in the season before the birds laid their second clutch of eggs.  Also the practice of mowing fields from the outside in ever decreasing rectangles concentrated the birds in the centre of the field where they were killed in the last swathe.  On the far flung islands of Scotland, the RSPB tries to persuade farmers to leave wildflower meadows uncut until the Corncrakes have left late in August and to alter the pattern of mowing to leave refuges and escape routes.  Traditional crofters used to cut hay by hand and used a crop rotation system, where fields were left fallow for two years, encouraging grasses and wildflowers. 

The maintenance of wildflower meadows does not just benefit the Corncrake, it promotes an abundance of inserts which attract a variety of birds and small mammals. Flocks of Twites, Goldfinches, Wheatears, Linnets and Meadow Pipits flew up whenever we passed by the meadows on our way from our cottage to the farm on Treshnish.  One morning we were awakened at 5.30am by a thump on the window and were eye to eye with a young cuckoo, perched on the window sill.  It was soon joined by its a foster mother, a Meadow Pipit, bearing a mouthful of insects; always good for a bird with a sore head!