The Slow Down

My right foot is almost fatal.

I was not paying attention. I was elsewhere. Deep in my head and thinking of how the bracken has grown so high over the month and a half since my last visit, and how it was that the pearl-bordered fritillaries were skimming the ground then, whereas the later small pearls are raised a little higher; and now the dark green fritillaries of June after the solstice fly metres up over the dense greenery, faster than I struggle up the slope that never used to be this steep until my snack count caught up with my step count and how redstarts do not cross my path the way they haven’t crossed my path all year and this year is racing on and am I being a good parent to take this afternoon off alone and oh damn –

I take evasive action. Throw myself forward and stumble just beyond, the wavering bronze body zigzagging across the path like a broken bracken stem. The slow worm turns to look at me, the way you’d glare at a bad driver. I crouch down. Whisper an apology. Take its picture as it slithers to safety.

The picture is a reminder.

I haven’t been out much recently because responsibility turns you into an accountant of time. On the balance sheet of life, being outside is a luxury that I can’t always afford. When I do get outside I feel a pressure to make it profitable, to apply my knowledge to a place and search for what I think I should find, instead of letting it come to me; of thinking the big thoughts instead of being present. It’s hard to remember that all that is required is to look where you are going and hang your head like a penitent.

It works. I swap track for boardwalk. Tadpoles form a thick soup in the shallow edges of the water. An orchid has risen from the bog like a firework frozen in time. Lizards skitter – blue and green, one thick and sluggish (pregnant, I presume) – scales glittering in the sunlight, down the edges of the boards.

I swap boardwalk for forest path. And something else glitters in the sunlight. A feather. Split down the shaft, the left side a mucky grey-brown, fading at the worn tip. The right side is a series of black lines bleeding colour, an auroral shimmer of blues into white. A jay has passed this way, shedding one of its coverts. I pick it up. In the sunlight, it looks like the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, a thing unpredicted, found by letting my eyes just run across the path with no set ideas.

In Mabie Forest

It moves like a spark at first. A flash, disappearing, as if cast up from the stones underfoot. The fourth spark catches on the dead bracken by the trackside, pausing, growing wings, burning orange, shivering with movement, its thick body flexing. Off – past the bluebell to the bugle. Descending to the blue and purple spike. Off – restless, fidgeting from flower to flight.

If spring is a series of shocks – Light! Warmth! Swallows! – then nothing quite hits the way that colour does. Above, the bright leaves of new beech, trembling with chlorophyll, filter the light. Welsh poppy stands like a lightbulb by the path, growing opposite the white-spangled stitchwort and ramsons that bracket the dull shimmer of bluebells. Water avens hangs its head as if in shame. Green tiger beetles scuttle over stone. Colt’s-foot breaks through the track, the sun seen through a periscope, next to the shaggy heads of dandelions. It’s on a dandelion I see it better. The pearl-bordered fritillary perches, its wings of amber and black fretwork absorbing the meagre sunshine. Meagre but enough. Both butterfly and flower glow.

This wasn’t the given it might have appeared to be on paper. Flight periods are a vague suggestion, prone to individual variation; variation in region; variation in weather. This disordered spring: chiffchaff and willow warbler early. Sand martins only a day before house martin; over a fortnight before swallow. Bud and bloom side by side. March warm and April cold and May wet. Prediction is increasingly futile. Half the wood’s birds are back, the rest missing, status unknown.

Winter lingers in the rust of dead bracken. The oak leaves still unfurling like a hand held half-beckoning.

A passing walker asks what I’m looking at.

‘Pearl-bordered fritillary’, I say, ‘one of Scotland’s rarest butterflies.’

She nods wisely. ‘We are lucky to have such things’.

And I can’t disagree.


You fooled me for that first instant, curled up in the same tussock of reeds as the otter had, three weeks ago. But your size gives your identity away, between stoat and otter, similar to the cat curled up on the sofa at home. After your size, your shade: sandy, paler than expected, as if the strong sunshine this afternoon has bleached you like the dead grasses the river has strewn across your tussock. You don’t care about any of this, or us, stood a few metres away, almost directly above you by the wall that separates roadside from riverbank. You’re only bothered by the kayaker paddling in the middle of the river, raising your head over the tussock to see, watching and waiting for the kayak to turn towards you and –

Off. The mink shoots through the water between the tussock and the wall, below the algae and floating plastic bottles, hidden by the over-hanging greenery growing from the cracks in the sandstone.

A pause. I assume it has absconded, performed the sudden silent vanishing act of which all animals are capable. But then it bursts up through the greenery, vanishing into a hole in the wall below our feet.

A few seconds later a head, neck and shoulders emerge.

It is now at its least otter-like. The head is triangular, topped by a pair of rugby-players ears, tapering to a fine button snout, not the broad-jawed, luxuriously-whiskered face of an otter. Its two shining round black eyes are ringed with paler markings, which are also smudged around its snout. The fur should be uniformly dark brown, but this a genetic throwback; a clue to its origins as an animal bred for fur, its pelage valuable, skin fashionable, bred by degrees away from the norm. I reach for new comparisons: cat, stoat, red panda, each one slightly more ridiculous than the last. Then it vanishes, dives into the water, swimming away with a jerky front crawl, each limb paddling, working the water, as awkward as I would be.

It is electrifying. The combination of the surprise encounter, the view close enough to see its nose sniffing the air, its body thrumming with breath, its lack of fear of us. The encounter has all the wild magic of any with a muscular mustelid, that fleetingness, as if it is up to them whether they grace your day with their presence. The sliding-doors timing: if not now, then perhaps not for another few years.

And yet this is tempered. Nuance descends.

I’m not supposed to like mink. The wild qualities I see in the animal are not the wild qualities of the River Nith. Ecologically speaking they are a murderous square peg in the round hole of the British ecosystem. The rap sheet reads: destroyer of the water vole, the salmon-run, and the ground nesting birds on the river’s gravel islands (or, potentially, with their wall-climbing skills, the sand martins that exploit old pipes in the built sandstone banks). The local Facebook group of wildlife enthusiasts dissolves into vitriol and invective whenever a picture of a mink is posted without an outraged caption. But nuance works both ways. They belong in American ecosystems, not ours: it is not their fault that they were put here by the forces of farming and money-making that we wrought across the world, when we spread British species across the globe with similar effects as this mink.

It is hypothesised that the resurgence of otters in British rivers is having a negative effect on the mink, that otters out compete mink for food and territory. Yet here was one basking on the same tussock on which I saw an otter spend an hour eating a lamprey a handful of weeks ago. This is not evidence to disprove that theory, of course. It’s not evidence of anything at all other than existence. It is just an observation that further heightens the division in my mind: that I can be thrilled by the encounter, and at the same afraid of what it means.

‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (Carsethorn, 11/04/21)

I took it as evidence of a peregrine’s presence. Fresh evidence. The redshank’s head resting in the strandline, nestled between seaweed and sea-washed grasses and shingle. Its body was nowhere to be found below the delicate pink of its viscera, spilling out just below the line between the throat and the nape. Its slight, half-orange, half-black beak still open, as if stopped mid-sentence.

Like that line of Housman’s that has been orbiting my brain in these early spring days, after March’s burst of summer, and April’s reversion to frost. We had drifted east along the coast, our first destination hailed off in a storm of pea-sized chunks of ice, the temperature plummeting, the sand martins circling ever-lower over the water in search of the insects, everything stunned into dormancy, silence or shelter.

After the hail, thick white flakes of snow were slowly falling from a flat grey sky that hung low, stifling the light. We drove out of it, to the other side of the headland, to a deep blue break in the weather, surrounded east and west by thick clouds, simultaneously fluffy and monolithic. The firth had just peaked at high tide, the time when the water appears to have paused, its energy spent, the waves now mere ripples lapping at the shingle. The Solway seems to shine at times like this: a mix of green and blue and grey, with a string of shelducks in the bay, and four red-breasted mergansers, smaller, not quite as white in the sun, patterned with the same rippling lines as the water.

The air is cold, growing colder here too. Along the shoreline, redshanks walk between the rocks and the water, jerky-limbed, calling as if nervous, as if in reassurance to each other, that what has happened has happened, is past not present. And at my feet the severed redshank head says: that springs can be long and slow and cold, but that new life inevitably takes over from old.

The Seafarers Paperback

It feels like only recently my April events were being cancelled. It feels like a lifetime ago that I sat down in the spare room to record the readings I would have given anyway for people who would have attended.

And now it’s June, and I should be in a bookshop somewhere in Scotland reading from the newly published paperback edition of The Seafarers. Only I’m in England, still locked down, but with the benefit of a garden and a rose bush and a pile of books to prop my phone up on…

If you wish to buy a copy of the paperback, here’s a link to Mainstreet Trading, an Independent in the Borders, or Fox Lane Books, a Yorkshire Independent.

Self-Isolated Literary Event

So my Scottish events this April have been cancelled – and in the absence of a miracle, it’s safe to assume that my Suffolk event will be too – and I feel really gutted about this. Giving readings and answering questions is something I greatly enjoy. So while in self-isolation, beating the boundaries of my small flat and trying to keep Morag the cat at the appropriate self-distancing distance, I recorded some passages of the book on my phone, to make up for those cancelled events. I hope you enjoy them. To make it more like an event, if you have any questions, try tweeting me @steverutt, leaving a comment or by using the contact form.

And because no event is complete without me trying to flog a book…

The Seafarers can be bought from Hive, Waterstones, Amazon.
Wintering can be bought from Hive, Waterstones, Amazon.

Eagle Stories (On Lewis & Harris)

“Eagles? When I saw my first eagle,” Cate says, “it was on the single-track road to Ullapool. We startled it as we drove around the corner and it flew off, wings as wide as the road. And my memories of it” – Cate’s eyes widen – “are as if it happened in slow motion.”

Cate is right. Eagles, for those of us who lack the fortune to see them regularly, seem to have this quality. Of crystal clarity and a slowing down of time. It becomes all about the moment.


The sky is a conjurer. Its sleight of hand is to reveal and hide in plain sight.

“I’m sure that was an eagle,” I say. Miranda pulls the car over by the side of the road, twenty minutes’ drive out of Stornoway. A scattering of roadside houses and heathery bog to our right. To our left a loch and a smooth brown moor, suede-like, rolling to the black hills of south Lewis.

The seconds stretch by. I become increasingly frantic. And then it pops out beyond the roof of a house.

A big bird, black against the bright sky, in a lazy-flapping flight. A buzzard is harassing it, diving at a wing bigger than the whole of itself.

A young white-tailed eagle. It drifts for thirty seconds, unbothered by the buzzard before it vanishes over the fold in the moor that hides the rest of the island from us.

And then we turn around.

It’s sometimes impossible to say what first draws your eye. It must have been the slow movement, of a dark shape against those dark hills. Or of the sun catching on the soft-edges of feathers, ringing slow wings with a halo of light, throwing the bird into relief against the landscape as it flies directly towards us. An adult white-tailed eagle. Pale head, white-tail, body the colour of the island of Lewis.

It carries on coming towards us. A wingspan of 7 foot is the salient detail but it is not the whole story. It is the details that the angle throws up that surprise me more. It is the depth. The breast and legs that give it a primordial bulk, that you don’t see when they are high in the sky.

And it carries on coming towards us until it gains height, gliding, disappearing over the moorland fold, a threshold between our world and its own. And in that moment I realise I can say nothing at all. My thoughts trumped by thrill. My language dissolved.


The wind rakes the island like a reckoning.

Overnight Harris has been painted with snow and now it is alternating sunshine and hail. There’s not much to do this February day other than drive and walk and sit and stare.

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At Luskentyre the sand is as soft and powdery as fresh snowfall. We watch waves roll in past Taransay and to the north, the clouds scud over white peaks reflected on wet beach, and the hills to the south turn black as the snow rolls in. We invent new gauges for visibility. We decide it’s ok when the distant headland reappears, even if the hilltops are still shrouded, the sea’s horizon still smudged with blizzards.

We drive through the landscape to the lochanscape, then the rockscape, then the lunarscape.  Along the south coast of Harris the valley walls have a lace-curtain of snow and ice. A raven reverberates around them, the sound like a distant rock movement. It draws my eyes to another black speck, a winged glitch in vision. And I know what it is immediately. I can tell by the way my breath-catches in my throat and the way that my fingers tremble on the focus wheel of my binoculars.

One glitch becomes two. A pair of golden eagles rise above the valley walls and now the raven is nowhere to be seen. They drift against the snow-cloud grey sky. The smaller male folds his wings in, drops briefly, unfurls them and rises up again. The female repeats. They undulate through the sky until they too have drifted over the ridgeline. And then the hail begins again and the sky closes in.

Kirkconnel Flow 24/01/20

Cranberries lie by my feet, in the sodden skin of the bog’s sphagnum moss. I pick one up, rub the moisture from its shiny red skin and eat it. Bitterness bursts into my mouth.

I am accompanying Andy, the reserve officer, on his data-logger rounds of Kirkconnel Flow. We are on top of ten metres of peat that shakes with each step, pooling glossy water around the soles of our wellies in a way that feels like a threat. Kirkconnel Flow is a solid wetland, an uneasy truce between water held stationary like soil and peat that moves like liquid. It feels like one careless step could undo this truce.

It is more productive to walk over the heather, though it is misleading to experience the flow drily walking from heather clump to heather clump. It is called a flow for a reason. Water gurgles around us, the wet ground sucks at our feet. Andy’s data-loggers are recording the water level of the flow. He gets a laptop out of his rucksack, plugs it into the data-logger and kneels in the heather while the technology reveals whether the peatland restoration – their attempt at fixing a leaky bog – has done its work. Whether the flow is full with water again, whether it is flowing with life. And while he looks at the screen, I look around at the warmth of the winter vegetation. The heather is twiggy, bony in its winter bareness. It sits over a layer of dark-green blueberry bushes and light green reindeer moss. Sodden sphagnum is a green in-between. Like the cranberries, it is only through looking down that this world is revealed.

To look up: through the bare heather a wren fidgets, flicking from clump to clump, its tail cocked, its voice irritable, scolding our presence. It is a warmer brown than the heather, but not as warm as the tawny colour of the bog, that I can’t fathom. The brown and green at my feet becomes richer, warmer when seen at distance, not dissimilar to the warm brown of the Scots pine bark that is our horizon. Distantly there are ponds the colour of coffee. But this is not as distant as its possible to see in a peat bog. Peat bogs accrete dead matter that doesn’t decay, instead without oxygen materials are preserved in their state of death. This is to say that peat bogs grow at a measurable rate. One millimetre a year. The ten metres below me has steadily accumulated over the past 10,000 years. And if I was to sink below the surface – which always feels possible on this weird ground – it wouldn’t be long before I was closer to the last ice age than the current day. The wren that flicks through the bones of winter heather, could be only metres from an Irish elk skull.

And it makes me feel weird, like vertigo. Here I become as small, young, and inconsequential as a cranberry in the bog of time.

Caerlaverock 09/01/20

I know the Solway empties like a sink with the plug pulled out. But still it surprises me. When we pulled up, the car windscreen looked south over sea to the frost-glazed fields of Cumbria. We were here for a low-tide bird count but the sea didn’t bother us. We would sit, have lunch, talk, and soon enough the sea would metamorphose to mud and an alternate, avian tide would flow back instead, flocking on the freshly revealed land.

Between bites of my sandwich, I watch a goldcrest shimmy along the blue-green branches of a fir tree, its bill a tweezer, delicately picking out the insect food that I cannot see. It flits away and I turn back to the Solway and the sea is less. There are stones and sandbanks appearing. Against the flow of water, waders fly up the firth. Curlew come first, then oystercatchers, then dunlin. Before they can spread themselves out, while the water still drains away, they bunch together. We give each other directions to the flocks based on radio masts, wind turbines, the modern landmarks of the Cumbrian coast. It is between two masts that I see it first. I see it as a rolling ripple. Dunlin turning silver, grey, white in the sunlight. A flock oscillating. Then a wave of oystercatchers, a ribbon of lapwings.

The thought dawns on me so late that if I were a wader I would be dead. This is not a pre-roost display, a murmuration of convenience, a flaunting of avian skill. This is the motion of fear. Predator. I catch its shape a second later. A familiar shape, a familiar thrill. The peregrine curves up, high above the Solway. It levels out for a second, flying onwards. Then it flips.

It drops like an anchor. Like gravity with anger. The hunger of speed. An action as quick as a flash and it is within the flock. More oscillation, shivering shapes of waders. Within a beat the peregrine is up again. Then down. Tearing through the flock, sifting out the weak, the ill, the slow of thought or fear. It finds nothing.

It exits high, heading further up the firth, panic spread in a handful of seconds.

I first saw a peregrine stoop over the Tesco carpark in Dunblane, almost a decade ago. Since then, I have never seen a peregrine kill another bird. But every year I see one come close, to the point where I am in no doubt that I will witness it in the next few years. I have no idea how I will feel in that moment. If my sympathy lies in the thrill of the chase, or with the life lost. Or with the knowledge that nature will just go on, regardless of my thoughts and feelings.

In the White Mountains

Yannis says, “The locals here are crazy. They have vendettas like the Italians. These farmers –

He takes his hand from the steering wheel and waves it at a ruin.

– had a bomb go off under their house. Crazy.”

He slows down as we pass. Concrete ripped and twisted, walls at wrong angles, metal torn, window frames caved in. And my mind runs in reverse down the tangle of dusty Cretan back roads to the roadside shrine shop on the edge of Chania. Piles of plastic Jesuses, and tiny terracotta chapels, sweating under the holy fire of the Mediterranean summer. These shrines, when bought, are returned to their native habitat, beside the verges of these winding roads. They are like punctuation, hyphens joining chapel to chapel, a network of white-walled, red-tiled roofs in the middle of the countryside. I don’t know if these shrines and chapels were placed here due to a fear of life, or a fear of death, or just a fear of the local driving. Or, as Yannis airily mentions, the darker side to life that can lurk in paradises.

But I stick to what I know. We are far south enough for the Land Rover stereo to blast us with Libyan radio stations. The road rises beyond the Omalos plateau, leaving the flat bowl ringed by shark’s teeth peaks. Yannis knows the route beyond the tarmac. He threads the Land Rover between boulders at the beginning of a rubble track, hairpin turning its way up into the heart of the Lefka Ori: the White Mountains. The lower slopes are grey and green: limestone and mountain herbs, thyme and ironwort, scattered olive and oleander bushes. 

And I stick to what I feel, which is that altitude works like time. It changes things. It makes you feel weird until you acclimatise to minutes that stretch into days; the hairpins that gradually raise you from 1,000 to 1,200, 1,400 metres up, ears popping with the pressure, the light-headedness that comes like a taste of alcohol. Like time, altitude is slow and then you’re almost there: with three griffon vultures circling over the nearest ridge line, one sailing low over the vehicle, a dark presence that seems larger than should be possible, a bird the same width as the Land Rover. It moves without effort. It has a surprising buoyancy for something so large, like a kite on a string circling in the breeze. It casts a black shadow over the grey road. A reminder of the way of all flesh – and what happens after. 

As we get higher time gets slower, until, like my mind on the plateau it begins to run backwards. It dials down the heat and takes you back to a fortnight or further back, when the flower bloomings were just beginning. At sea level the only sound in the bushes is the incessant chirruping of Italian* sparrows and the cicadas. The heat there has stifled everything. Up here – back in time – there is still life to be found. 

We get out of the car at the top. 1,600 metres high. Higher than the vultures still languidly soaring, describing the thermals, the invisible lift of the warm air off the mountain ridges that form the sides of the beginning of the Samarian gorge. There is sea visible to the north and south of us and patches of snow still clinging to the creases of the higher peaks. I expected nothing here but the ubiquitous ringing of goat bells and the stark sunlight and the circling of birds of prey. Instead, above the vultures, there are butterflies. A constant stream, all heading north-west over the mountain ridge. Painted ladies, on their migration that defies logic and reason, a flight subject only to the pull of their biology, that will lead them fluttering over sea and mountain from North Africa to North Europe. We spend half an hour on the mountain ridge with the butterflies that are higher than vultures. Hundreds pass. Thousands will.

*Ornithological note: Italian sparrow, Passer italiae, is the species which the sparrows of Crete most resemble, despite apparently not being taxonomically Italian sparrows. Neither house or Spanish sparrow is found on the island.