The good thing about walking alone is that you have time to stop and see and take note. The bad thing is there is no one to enjoy it with. I write this for you, and I walk with you. Come with me.
I’m cutting up the side of London Road Gardens. Cow parsley sways in blooms, sending out late-evening, wordless messages. Last year’s seed heads mix with new growth reminding me of life’s ebb and flow: all shall be well.
The horse chestnut has self-seeded into the hedge. Forget-me-nots are faded almost to white. The evening air speckles with midges mixed with confetti seeds of elm. Rock dove, wood pigeon, blackbird: songs and hoots mix in a tree cloistered compline.
Under the railway bridge, leading into Holyrood Park, a thug of buddleia clamours from a graffitied wall. It’s the gloaming hour, when Arthur’s Seat turns Ayers-Rock-clay-red, patches tarnished with faded gorse. Delicate, tracing paper poppies stud the top of the palace wall where a magpie tilts and tips its too-long tail like a high-wire walker about to fall. He won’t, of course.
On the green, a group of young men play cricket. The squawk of the herring gull mimics the crack of the willow as it strikes the ball. The bowler’s body rolls and shapes an elegant arc, his curve aligned with that of the rising moon. From here, I can see the criss-cross of newly worn paths up and through the Crags, worn deep by lockdown ramblers – a network veins on the back of a thin, wizened hand.
There he is, the grey heron of St. Margaret’s Loch: monochrome head, neck pulled long like soft putty. The swans finish their conference and take off as one. Their beating wings shake the evening stillness and clatter on the water like horses’ hooves on cobblestones.
A girl passes, riding a man’s racing bike; her frame small, its frame big. She plays classical music on her phone and I lean in to smell the white hedge roses that have been breathed on by pink. Eyes closed, I drink a fragranced orchestra.
I’m on the east side of the Seat now. Fife is close tonight. The classical music fades. Two jackdaws worry in a hawthorn bush. They are silent bookends or solemn pallbearers waiting to lift the deceased. East Lothian is a charcoal drawing smudged by the artist’s thumb: Bass Rock (blister), Berwick Law (witch’s hat), Traprian Law (coffin). Brittle, dry stumps of elder are choked with brambles and clamped with fungus. My ears follow the birdsong. It’s easy, on these bare branches, to see the performing whitethroat, its throat feathers opening and closing like a lady’s fan at the opera.
Duddingston Loch blooms green with algae coaxed forth by the heat. An anxious, urgent cry of a hidden pheasant scatters the silence. Summer is pitching a tent of thistles, nettles, dock leaves. Beacons of white and purple foxgloves soften the barren hill. Prickles of viper’s bugloss huddles in purple-blue spikes at the foot of the stone wall; grotesquely appealing both in name and appearance.
Above, the sky darkens in uneven scrapes and tears revealing a collage of patterns, colours and shapes. Mis-matched skies pieced together: patch of blue with high cirrus; dark, muscular clouds, glowering low over the Pentlands; a garrison of darkness crowding and pushing and bullying its way down onto Edinburgh Castle.
The swallows, little double-headed battle axes, are black against the sky as they plunge and wield through, stuntman-style. But look! A shimmer, a quiver: the kestrel. It hangs high: hunting, holding, waiting. It swoops, dips, then aborts. Nothing to show for his sport. Not this time.
I cut through a cleave in the rock along a low, sheltered hollow on the inside flank of the Crags. In just twelve weeks, a network of new paths has been carved into this landscape. Underfoot the earth is soft, porous, peaty. It gives beneath my feet like a sprung dancefloor, each tread sounding a light thud. Here, the landscape is all long grass and rock but for the occasional bolt of buttercups, long-stemmed daisies and a film of tiny white flowers suckling the ground like moss.
The kestrel lands on a nearby rock and I become as still as basalt to watch him watching me. Before long, he’s off, rising and gliding into dusk. In twenty minutes, night will have fallen. I make my way home.
The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.