YESTER EVEN, about six o'clock, was a sharp downpour,
sharply defined alike in its beginning and end. It came from a cloud that
blotted out the sunshine, and left a tail of sunshine behind. The earlier
drops made marks the size of a pennypiece. Thicker and faster they came,
darkening the grey surface, and gathering into little runlets down the road;
sweet and pure was the light after the cloud ; infinitely fresh the air.
The birds sang as birds only sing after such a rain. Like
the green of the field and wood the sounds were washed purer. It is so with
some birds more than others. It seems as though one heard the blackbird for
the first time when the bush is dripping, and the chaffinch when the beech
is glistening. The rain gave a fresh scene with other voices, new heavens
and a new earth.
A few drops had fallen on the thrush's song: it was
delightfully clear. In a short avenue, where the trees close over the road,
quite a dozen were singing. Scarce had one song time to die into silence
than another awoke.
Only to the shallow do all birds sing alike. So much came
clearly out. There is character, accent, tone, and choice of notes, so that
it were possible to know each thrush from all other thrushes of the wood. No
one supposes that the sitter on the blue eggs with the black spots does not
know the voice of her lord, and care for it more than for the rest. Ay, and
she knows the song of the thrushes that came to court her, and, when she
would have none of them, won other mates. The rivals, too, can tell each
other's song, and each knows all the voices as though this corner of
thrushland were some suburban society.
Nor does the same bird sing the one song. In the free
wild play of sound which the thrush pours out on the air, this is more
apparent than in the repeated lay of the chaffinch. There is imitation. A
lazy blackbird note finds its way in. There is also rivalry. On such a
night, when all are doing so well, it pitches higher or adds an octave to
If the birds of the same wood do not sing alike, still
less do those of different woods. The birds of the south do not sing as the
birds of the north, any more than the Somerset people talk as the Fife folk.
The air, the scene, the voice of other birds all mould and weave at the
song. There is local colouring, a hint at dialect.
Sounds may not be carried so far. The birds themselves
must be made to sing in the same wood. Even then the sense must be trained
to birds' song. The so-called musical ear is limited to sounds made by men
and women. It knows nothing of the concert of the grove. Only birds are
critics there. A parrot reared in Yorkshire came along with its owners to
settle in Fife. When the daughter of the house entered the room it announced
the fact by saying, "Mina's coomed!" If not so broad, thrush dialect is
appreciable, at least, among themselves. Local names mean something. There
is such a thing as a mavis.
So, too, and more so, with distance in time. The thrushes
of Malcolm Canmore and his Saxon Margaret sang not as our thrushes. If we
could hear the talk of olden men it would be hard to know the sound. So of
olden songs. Were the thrushes to appear in the woods, dull as we are, we
would know the difference, and the modern songsters would listen as to
strange birds. And ere time has measured itself as far into the future, will
have arisen a fresh song, like and yet unlike, with as marked a change as in
the talk of men. Nothing is fixed; there is no single point of rest. The old
order changeth, giving place to new. Song is unfolding.
Musing so far away from the thrushes of that particular
evening, I reached the end of the avenue and emerged on the open. It was a
Scots lane, ruder, more elemental than those of the south, and wrought out
of rougher material. Perhaps the main difference is in the want of climbing
plants, whose flowing lines, like graceful garments, hide so much away.
Withal it had the charm of a lint-locked, bare-footed, country lass.
Deep-rutted by the passing wheels of the farmcart,
broad-margined with grass; on one side a hedgerow, on the other a sunken
fence. The rain had been freshening there also. The white blossoms were very
pure; the yellow blossoms as pure. The scents, too, were washed purer-the
may of the hedge; and that of many lowly plants, only scented after rain.
The songs were low and sweet, not the songs of the high
woods. From the tinkling of linnets, and trilling of greenfinches with a
woof of other songs, one might know that he was in Scotland, and might even
gather that he was on the east coast, if not in Fife.
At the very entrance a little idyll was being enacted. It
looked rather silly. Are not all idylls silly to the cold-blooded and
unimaginative looker-on ? A hen chaffinch was sitting in the rut. The
blue-capped, russet-breasted cock was making a complete fool of himself. At
all times, a chaffinch on the ground has a short, mincing step, as though
suffering from rheumatism. With his short step, he minced round the arc of a
circle and back, over and over again, in front of the hen. It was a somewhat
belated courtship on this early June day. Perhaps he had not found a mate,
or she had lost one. Tell it not in Gath. For a second marriage takes the
rose out of the romance.
Man alone, it is said, lifts the relation of the sexes
into the region of the ideal, clothes it round with beauty and a ritual.
Whereas, to the observant, man seems but a sorry imitator, and not always a
sincere one. It is certainly not in human records, nor in man's progenitors,
that we look for moods of romance or lessons of chivalry. Why, the birds
sought favour by such gentle arts, and so gave a meaning to love, and beauty
to mating ; wove the delicate texture of romance when men were savages. I f
we add their loyalty to their early love, the lifelong fellowship till death
do them part, never so much as once repented of nor broken, we know nothing
in man loftier nor lovelier ; certainly nothing so old. Methinks, sometimes,
that the song of birds, of many seasons' mating, shapes itself into the lay
of "John Anderson my Jo."
In a crumbling part of the fence, where the stones did
not quite meet, a blackbird had built. The hole was not deep; but it chanced
that from the same gap a bush grew, whose exposed roots lent a sufficient
amount of stability. It was mainly balance, and needed the eye of an
engineer. At the sound of a footstep the sitter slipped out, and passed up
the ditch like a shadow. Such care was there for the safety of the eggs;
such prescience for the future of the species. The sentiment deepened, the
idyll of the lane became graver.
Hard by in a whin bush, was the nest of a rose linnet.
The rose is on the male's breast. More fitly is the hen known as the grey
linnet. She sat so very, very quietly, that no passing country lad could
have told she was there. In the grey of the bush she was hard, indeed, to
make out, with her feathers puffed out to keep her charge warm, and her grey
head turned a little to one side to command the intruder.
The sitting had lasted a fortnight. With the advent at
hand, the care for self was at its minimum; that was why she remained with
my hand holding aside the prickles within two inches of the nest. Only a
vandal, with no regard for the sacred care and deep joy of motherhood, could
have disturbed her. So the idyll-begun in semi-comedy with the mincing
chaffinch, increasing in interest with the drifting shadow down the
ditch-came toward its charming and somewhat pathetic close in the brooding
Not a detail, but has some suggestion. Nor one that is
altogether new. The boy is father to the naturalist and the philosopher. So
the olden shilfas acted on the Saturday afternoon, when, from a week's
crawling like snail unwillingly to school, one was free to go at large. So
the blackbird drifted down the shadowy ditch. The exile sees it in visions
over half the globe, and sighs.
Migrants are in the lane. They are not altogether our own
birds. They stay not with us through good and evil report. Through the
blustering days, when the snell wind blows and the slant rain falls, when
the linnet's flight note is over the adjoining field and the greenfinches
gather to the stackyard, they are absent. They come in summer, and every
summer. So that the summer would not be itself without them. Chief among
them is the whitethroat. He is the migrant of the Scots lane. Seems as
though the brambles had woven the elastic yet forbidding network across the
ditch for a nesting area, that the grass grew long for shelter and the
nettles for protection. By the time he comes, plant life is on the rush, the
growth is bewildering, and the nester is at fault. The mate dances half
mockingly. Half in spite the boy calls him a "bletherer." Several nests are
in the lane; two deep in the bramble cushion behind a
chevaux de frise of prickles; one in the long grass.
None of the characteristic birds of English lanes are
there. One scarcely misses them. One wants everything to be itself. It is
among those negative characters which make a Scots lane. If one were to
come, it would be like having a singing bird in a house. Or as though one's
mother were suddenly to talk English, when her homely doric was part of
herself, and woven in with our earliest recollections. All the poetry would
The man who sought to introduce the nightingale to the
north made an experiment doubtful in taste and futile in result. He put the
eggs in the nest of a northern bird. He wished to enrich Scots lanes with
the "joug joug," the glorious crescendo. Say he did it here; put them under
a hedge-warbler. The young birds would imitate the hedge-warbler's lay and
never sing the nightingale's song. As the foster-parents would not migrate,
the brood would stay along with them and perish. Were the eggs put in the
whitethroat's nest, the young would imitate the comic ditty, instead of
singing its own tragic lay. It might migrate then, as a nightingale, with
the song of a whitethroat. Enough that there are no nightingales nor other
English warblers in the Scots lanes.
The remoteness of this no-man's-land, between highway and
highway, is the atmosphere of nomad life. Tramps swarm-from the aristocracy
with van and horse, through the philistines with cart and donkey, to the
plebs with a low dark creepie. Yea, to the outcasts, who owe to nature their
board, and by sheer weight of body make a depression in the elastic bush,
and sleep on a scented pallet under the nodding broom flowers.
A lad was sitting on the grass; he lives much alone. The
wont of the family is to scatter and know where to meet, and the children
fall in with the arrangement. It is a pathetic life, with the breeze and the
shower, the broom and the lane. But it is not all sadness nor loss. He was
happy, if homeless. He mimicked the songs of the birds. It is the language
he knows best, perhaps loves most. A Scots tramp talks the native doric, and
whistles the local birds' songs.
It was a land of lanes; the fields were meshed in them. A
mile on was another. It blazed. Nothing flowers so passionately as broom.
The glow and the passion are on the spirit that looks. In the lane was a
niche set in a bank and overshadowed by trees. They who chose it were
masters of out-of-door life, an art by itself, like woodcraft. Known only to
nomads by profession, through lifelong practice it becomes a second nature,
and in the course of long transmission an instinct. In the niche were two
long, low, dark, cylindrical creepies, an abode common to all the nomads,
and doubtless moulded out of their experience as best suited to the
Beside each creepie sat two nomads, a man and a woman,
grave, and concerned with their own life. There was none of the curiosity at
the intrusion on a quiet scene which brings so many heads to suburban
windows. Save that single touch of nature-the woman's hand raised to
straighten her hair-was no sign of notice. A wild sense of good manners
would have let us pass unobserved. I have ever found it so in the best class
of nomads. A fire burned as though there might be something to cook.
On the far side of the lane a strange, roughly
sugar-loaf-shaped knoll lifted its head above the glowing broom. One would
have thought it a rock standing out from the soil, save for certain outward
marks. Perforated, almost terraced with holes, it resembled nothing so much
as a gigantic field-pigeon house. The rabbits were in possession, and made
of it a teeming warren.
It might have been coincidence, but so it was that the
niche in the lane - which the instinct of the nomads had sought out as the
best shield from the weather - was just over against this picturesque haunt
of rodents. As they lay by the creepies, while the shadows lengthened and
the yellow broom grew golden in the evening light and grey twilight came,
behold the dead knoll came to life. Later on the white scuts, like so many
terrestrial glow-worms, lit up the dimming lane. I know not certainly the
connexion between picturesque nomad and picturesque warren. Something may or
may not have happened in the dark. Beyond grew a wood, through which, at
first, was scant shoulder-rubbing passage. No sunlight penetrated the close
thatch of fir needles. One felt as though he would pull a broom taper to
help him through. The flash of a magpie's wing crossed the gloom. Others
were there, lights of a purer spark.
Where the boles thinned out to give more space, oaks
grew. The blaeberry crept out on the wood floor. Countless pale pink bells
rung round the wiry stem, and under the oval leaves. There was abundant
promise of a table spread in the wilderness. Such woods are common in the
ruder lowland parts and along the lower slopes of hills. Under a rough bush
a robin sat on her three russet-hued eggs. The pink bells rung around her.
The wood softened into a great grove of birches, closely packed as the firs,
not stiff nor dark, but infinitely light and graceful. In its firs and
birches and blaeberry flooring was it a Scots wood. Among the birches sang
many willow warblers. This is our woodland migrant.
Then the wood echoed with lively sounds. Not laughter,
nor telling of lightness of heart, but such sounds as might be made by wild
creatures at play. The voices were young, from the throats of boys, but not
ordinary boys. The sounds broke out again and rung through the wood. Past
the birches and against the light which told of the edge of the wood,
figures were moving among the tree boles. Low down along the ground was a
dark cylinder. The adults looked on while the children were at their evening
play. I repeat it was not gaiety, except in so far as the play of young
foxes may be said to be gay. It was boisterous enough, but it did not add to
the joy of the wood.
Much of the land was of no other use save to look wild,
and in the early summer to cast over itself a garment of dusky blossom, such
as now glowed through the trees. Birds were there -finches and warblers,
flitting from bush to bush and perching on the topmost twigs. The greenfinch
trilled, the whitethroat rollicked, the stonechat clicked. This further end
do the commons serve. Compared with the design of the nest, the creepie was
an artless hovel. The dainty ways and relations of the birds made the nomads
savages; the wild lore made them bunglers. After play the children would
gather a few eggs for supper, ere they turned in for the night.
Nomadic life is abroad in these wild places. Creepies are
dropped everywhere, always where the charm is wildest. I had seen the
wandering unit singing back to the singing birds; the pair of grave adults
in the lane hard by the sugarloafed rabbit warren; the family at play on the
outskirts of the dimming wood and the margin of the glowing common.