Morvern Lines with Iain Thornber

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Winged spring arrivals

One of our earliest and most outstanding spring birds is the wheatear, which generally arrives in the Highlands and Islands in late March or early April. This year, however, it appears to be around three weeks late in some places.

A striking and handsome bird in his fine spring suit, the wheatear is a summer visitor, leaving in September for its central African wintering grounds.

It frequents open rocky country, high pastures, moorland and heath where it can be seen running or hopping along in search of grubs and larvae.

The wheatear can be distinguished by its characteristic tail pattern: a black ‘T’ on a white rump, seen when in flight. The male has a blue-grey back and head, black wings, a white eye stripe and a pale orange chest. Females are browner and juveniles speckled. Before their departure for the winter, the males change their plumage into the more sombre hues of the female.

In Appin, there are some interesting and convincing eyewitness accounts of them hibernating in old stone walls and turf banks.

In the Gaelic-speaking west, the wheatear is surrounded by superstition, one being that if it is seen for the first time perched on a stone, a storm is brewing and if on a turf, pray to the Almighty!

The name wheatear is not derived from wheat or any sense of ear, but is
a folk etymology of ‘white’ and ‘arse’, referring to the prominent white rump.

Of course the best known, and most looked-for migrant, is the cuckoo, whose arrival is portrayed so well by Dr John Maclachlan of Rahoy (1804-74) in his famous Gaelic song, Do’n Chuthag – a welcome to the cuckoo and its opening verse: ‘Failt ort fein, a chuthag ghorm, le d’ oran cealmhor, milis; ‘s e seirm do bheoil ‘s a’ Cheitein og, a thogadh bron o m’ chridhe.’ (Welcome to you verdant, blue cuckoo with your melodious song ringing in the early May, lifting the sorrow from my heart.)

From several sources, the first cuckoo appears to have arrived in Morvern this year about the second week of April where it was seen, but not heard, in the fields below Tom na Croiche (Gaelic, the hill of the gallows), between Savary and Fiunary. Not until a week later did it become vocal, which fits in with a fairly well established pattern.

When it comes to seasonal movement, I always think there is not much difference between birds and humans: migrant; vagrant; resident; regular or frequent annual; occasional, or very rare; accidental or wandering!

I was being something of a vagrant myself for a few days last week, exchanging the straths and glens of Morvern for the rolling, limestone Mendip hills of Somerset. What a relief to leave the cold, wet West Coast still in the grip of a long winter, telling friends on the way to Inverness airport that I was going down south to get dried out, leaving them to wonder if I had a drink problem!

Somerset, I thought, was at least three weeks ahead of Argyll. Landing at Bristol, it was uplifting to experience what can only be described as a wall of heat and to see so many friendly, smiling, sun-blessed faces.

Most houses were surrounded by flowers in full bloom and almost every field had new born animals leaping around full of the joys of spring.

Although I was told winter in Somerset had been almost as bad as that in the Highlands this year, it had not deterred the local farmers from ploughing, sowing and mending hedgerows as usual and running a tidy ship.

Why couldn’t the Highland farmers be like this I wondered?

We cannot always blame the weather. Are we in an agricultural rut or too ‘hodden doon’, as they say in Morayshire, for change or is it shades of the
Skyeman’s prayer: ‘Oh that the peats would cut themselves, the fish jump on the shore, and that we in our beds might lie for aye and ever more. Och, ochay, Amen.’

What I did pay particular attention to was the state of the public roads in Somerset. Unlike the Highlands, there is a huge network of lanes and several ways of getting from one village to another, yet I didn’t see one pothole.

The problem here is not only the plurality of the potholes but the road foundations, which are collapsing through too many over-weight commercial vehicles using them.

There is only one solution and that is for Highland and Argyll and Bute councils and BEAR Scotland to petition the Scottish Parliament to reduce the weight limit on every road and provide more weigh-bridges. If this doesn’t happen, we face an imminent and costly major crisis.

Iain Thornber