I was supposed to be looking for golden eagles. That’s why I go to the glen in the first place. That’s why I have always gone there, several times a year and for nearer 40 years than 30 now.
But one of the added benefits of going back to the same place again and again to watch the same thing with a view to writing it down, is that you cannot help coming across the other natives, the eagles’ neighbours and fellow travellers. No landscape in which nature holds sway is ever the same two days in a row.
The American writer and naturalist John Burrows wrote it better than anyone: “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
That’s pretty much what I was doing. There is a forest track up through the trees on the lower slopes, then an intermittent path more or less following the burn, and which peters out at the foot of the glen’s rough and tumble headwall.
It’s simple enough to cross the burn high up where it leaps two or three little waterfalls, and fashion a route up to the watershed, where a vast tract of central Highlands sprawls all across the northern horizon. So that was my plan, to walk up through the glen, up the headwall to the watershed where I would sit still for a couple of hours and see what I could learn. I assumed it would be something new about golden eagles – it usually is – but this time, it would be about one of the neighbours.
I was about 10 minutes up the forest track when a dog fox soft-shoed out of the spruces, looked both ways as if he was checking for traffic and, in the course of the looking, he saw me.
I was about 100 yards back down the track as far as he was concerned and, although I was moving, I was more or less tree-coloured in my clothing, and I wasn’t making any noise. And because the light wind was in my face, I didn’t smell of anything as far as he was concerned.
The wind at my back,
My scent and sound,
Blown before me,
And Nature a locked door.
The wind in my face,
My scent and sound,
A shredded wake,
And Nature an open gate.
I enter, I ask,
For owl eyes,
I make what I can,
Of her secrets.
I wrote that 14 years ago for a book that honoured the memory of one of the finest naturalists and nature photographers Scotland ever produced, Don MacCaskill. Don and his wife Bridget were a fixture in The Scots Magazine for many years. After Don died in 2000, Bridget set about compiling a book from his thousands of colour slides. She asked me to contribute some poetry. The book was called The Wind In My Face, so I wrote a poem with the same title.
It was Don who introduced me to the eagle glen. He and Bridget had worked with the glen’s eagles for years. Don had been Forestry Commission head forester for Strathyre, and this was part of his fiefdom.
He was, it should be said, a highly unusual chief forester, and his passion for wildlife frequently brought him into conflict with his superiors. Not the least of the reasons was because he loved foxes.
Now a fox was looking at me from 100 yards up the track to the eagle glen and the wind was in my face and I sent an appreciative thought out into the cool mountain air for the MacCaskills, for their work and their friendship. Then the fox turned its back on me and began walking up the track. So I followed.
It stopped, looked back at me down the length of its spine, then walked on. It disappeared round a bend in the track. That’s it, I thought, but how nice to get such a fine view of a fine beast in his prime, and for it to recall Don. He’d be pleased to be recalled that way.
The fox stepped from the upper glen on to a bank of shingle where the burn swept through a 90-degree bend. The fox stepped into shallows, lay down and started to drink. The day was warm for early autumn.
Then he pushed himself forward on his belly into deeper water and then he swam. He did not swim to cross the river, he swam to cool off or to bathe, or perhaps because he liked to swim.
He swam for perhaps two minutes, returned to the same bank of shingle and shook himself. I had never seen a full-size dog fox do this before, and the volume of water he dispelled was impressive. Had this been a television documentary, the director would have insisted on a slo-mo sequence and a piece of incidental music.
The reality is better. The power of it, the fast arc up through space and down against the sunlight so that it fell as burning rain. And the sound of it, as thousands of water drops clattered on to the stones and the edge of the water. And the spectacle of it, the raw muscular twisting of the fox’s torso, the slashing of the tail, the shivering of the head. And the beauty of it. There is no more beautiful animal in Highland Scotland than a dog fox in his prime.
And then there was the drying sequence. The grass was shorter near the burn, and it was there that he began slithering and twisting, first on his belly, then on his back, legs bent and feet in the air, then slowly he edged into the long grass where he just rolled and rolled.
Then he stood. His head was just clear of the long grass, his spine level with the tips of the tallest grass. His brush curved out beyond the edge of the long grass and swung a few times, then fell still in its natural position.
I watched the fox. I realised that his head had not moved in perhaps half a minute, and his gaze had not shifted, nor had any other muscle. Its gaze appeared to be directed towards a stand of birch trees on the headwall, about a quarter of a mile away. They were in their autumn pomp, although mountain winds had thinned the foliage a little, so that here and there the limbs of the tree showed.
I focused the glasses on the trees. Perched among the uppermost branches, partly obscured by splashes of golden silver birch, was a young golden eagle. It was staring straight at us – for that moment we three were aligned along a single axis – and I wondered how much it had seen of what I had been watching, and I imagine that the fox might well have been thinking the same thing.
The fox dipped its head, withdrew its brush into the long grass and began to move away, and in an instant there was no inkling that there was a fox within a mile of that place. When I saw him again, he was crossing a small patch of open ground before he disappeared among the highest trees.
A quarter of a mile back down the glen there is a rock which has a cushion of heather and a tolerable slab for a backrest. I would go there and write it all down, the touch of the moment, the touch of the daylight on the dream.
As I began, the eagle was still watching.