Before light, late January, out before anything human has begun. In the sky there is a rare conjunction: the waning moon in crescent, Venus to its left and Jupiter to its right. Aligned like this they invite you to scan them as a sentence. In the past there may have been meaning to this, a story or message, but this has long gone. You plod the road downhill towards the burn, straightened by the maps of the 1850s: a plumb line across the parish. The frost is crumbly and thick and you feel the cold air in your chest when you breathe, take the winter in. Sheep are coughing in the fields either side, lambs swelling in their warm, and they look at you and piss before they wheeze away. Their eyes are eerie in your headtorch beam.
You pass the place where the ruined cottage was – existing now only on Google Streetview. Last night you dropped a small yellow man, clinging to your cursor, onto the Long Road, to show your son what his fading memory recalls: Halloween, four years previous, the conversation about sweets and guising, about thin times and remembering the dead, when he asked to place a candle on a window of the cottage. Ten days later, they tore it down. He scavenged back his tea light, half burned through, from the side of the road. Then lost it from his pocket walking back.
Across from the mess of white stone and sour ground, though, are the remains of a crinkly tin shed. It is full of pram wheels and inexplicable lengths of metal. In the summer, swallows maintain a mud bowl between one wooden joist and another. Last year there were three broods you counted. They are all far away now, but the only writing shows clearly in your lamp. In script the colour of rust, scrawled on a diagonal crossbeam: E. McCredie 19. You have asked, but nobody remembers a McCredie. The tag can have been laid down any time in the last hundred years: there is no clue whether 19 is the year or the century or the writer’s age. That story, whatever, has gone. Your elderly neighbour tells you the place was a ruin even when she was a child, and was known as ‘the murderer’s cottage.’ She laughs, but you check: there is no evidence.
The fields move from greyscale to white as the light does its heavy winter lifting. You walk them gratefully when the cattle are shedded, though you are sorry for their dawn and dusk bugling under a grey roof. You follow the line of fenceposts; just beyond them is a sequence of white poles, hatted like birdboxes with a painted red V. These show the course of a gas pipeline which runs to Northern Ireland. Gas flows south, under the river beyond your home and towards the town, then out west. It has migrated by for 17 years. In the digging of the pipeline, near the place an ash trunk, long dead, fell last winter, they found a pit ‘filled with broken, angular stones and charcoal’, recorded as ‘organic material’, ‘period unassigned’. Whatever story lies there will never be unearthed.
It is the year’s zero point: last year’s growth was flailed from the hedges in the week between Christmas and New Year and they are flat-topped and thin-flanked, pared back as though summer never happened. The stubble fields of September were ploughed red immediately and had time to grow a fixing layer of grass before the light waned low and there was nothing to strive for. Much of the land lies empty. Last year’s lambs left in autumn trucks for festive tables and their story ended elsewhere. You asked the stockman how he felt, having helped so many ewes deliver in the spring, to see them trucked off without ceremony. ‘At least the poor wee fuckers will never see a winter,’ he said.
The riverfield is a difficult place. It is a large field with no clean line of sight across its width. There are low hills and squelchy hummocks, quick descents to boggy hollows, the river’s old courses in mounds and runkles, and features big enough to be glacial but you lack the skill to read them with fluency. All summer you must be careful of bullocks, and so cross from the gate to the nearest point of vantage, among a group of ancient oaks that hold a steep bank together. By one small pot-bellied veteran you can see enough, down into the only flat plain, to gauge if the herd is present or not: through binoculars, scanning for the poached black of hoof marks, any concentration of cowshit. You have been caught out a couple of times and had to scramble for a stick as they thundered meatily around you, all belligerence and headshaking, kicking up their back legs, and you shared their mixture of fear and surprise. You were a novelty, a human not attached to an engine, the most interesting thing all day. Now you duck and avoid, but the field gives access to a portion of the river where an otter hunts and where badgers have a sett whose entrance is at eye-height on the brae bank opposite. Like the fox that crosses the river and trots wetly for the dunghill’s rats, or the boar badger that takes the open ground at a gallop for the cover of the windbreak’s larches, you move between the shortest sightlines without stopping.
The field undulates and tilts, a pond at its wet centre sends up mallards or forces fallow deer crackling through the reeds until they become invisible. They seem to be able to teleport, the deer. One hungover Sunday you saw a group of twenty startle and run noisily, then camber and simply vanish. For fifteen minutes you worked with yourself, both doubting and believing in cantering deer.
The field is an uncomfortable place. It funnels sound and bevels it, so a muscle car on the main road contracts four miles to close at hand. A tractor on the other side of the river may seem about to appear over a ridge. It is a place to be on guard, and you visit often but do not linger. Always in your stomach the urge to move on. You do not believe in ghosts and furrow your brow at talk of a place’s energy, but nevertheless are careful in a field you cannot fathom. There are many stories of the agency of time in this field, of water’s coursing mind, but no research yields human stories: no names or events. Any mention to neighbours returns the same reply: it is ‘a bugger of a field.’ The many downed fences beyond the modern ones, the fallen walls among riparian bracken, attest that it does not keep its boundaries well. The river itself does not in any case acknowledge them.
You have looked at the field on maps from the eighteenth century to the present, and nothing seems to change. There are no attempts at improvement, no records of buildings. Estate plans show rivershingle and alder banks, the river shrugging a couple of times, the pond scripted in a few different shapes and shades. Otherwise it is a blank space at the bottom of which is a single place, marked ‘alder pool’ over centuries, an amber pot in the river’s course my children bomb into in summer, spinning in the current, and which they call the jacuzzi.
The field is rich with abundance of growing scarcity. There are whitethroats and yellowhammers in its summer tangle. A neighbour’s swifts slip from under rooftiles to circle as insects blow invisibly across the open. Pipistrelles and swallows share the same congested air at purple hour of dusk. Even in winter, hares nip in and out of treelines. Jays flash white rumps and argue. Herons stand like miserable old men, damp coats drying in the wind. There are newts and frogs the herons have come to find. The field’s relative uselessness – beyond pasturegrass and always-broken boundaries – keeps it out of human narrative, its accidents of topography and hydrology draw a congregation from the margins of elsewhere. The field cannot be improved upon. It is a white waste in the records of improvers.
You are an outsider here, a blow-in living in a cottage you rent like those before you. Nobody remembers longer than two rents back. You walk the place and try to know something of it, but it does not know itself. You do not have a farmer’s eye, or a farmer’s work. You wish only to find a place you can think along with, raise a family in. You cannot predict when you might be asked to leave. In this, you realise, you share commons with those whose stories you cannot trace. You go back to the maps in search of something or nothing. The wheelruts that end abruptly – and which the quadbikes avoid – are the worn movements to a ford that stopped being a route in the late nineteenth century. The stump above the river’s curve was once topped by a 1950s wind pump, perhaps drawing water for the cattle uphill. There is a site called in various editions of the map ‘earthwork’ or ‘fort’ (period unassigned) but this has gone under plantation, and a long afternoon gives up nothing but badger latrines and slimy green shoulders to your coat as you slide sideways between close-planted conifers. The description in the records of a thatched cottage (‘a building of two compartments’) leads to a pile of bales, pink wrap holed. There are no designed landscapes, no heritage sites, no conservation areas, no battlefields.
The boundaries of the parish changed along with land ownership in the mid-seventeenth century. One church was abandoned for another, but residents were still laid in the old graveyard for two hundred years more. It is the twentieth century, though, which split the place up. The main road from the town – north to the cities – runs through the centre, cuts the parish church off from the hamlets and farms on the other side. On the far side of the road, they look towards the town. On this side, towards the nearest village. Each side of the parish faces a different direction. Neighbours on this side talk of farms further east; on the other side, the movements of those living west. Moving from single track to main drag is often to join a road in spate. It happens on corners where there is little view of what is coming, or how fast. In winter you try to judge the intensity of headlights and convert it into distance. The road, like the burns, has been straightened, and the increased flow moves everything through at speed.
In late summer you go to the centre of the old parish. The road on which it lies is now a dead end. Just beyond the church’s rubble are yellow metal gates. There is a combination lock, a mobile phone number for contractors, a postbox built into one pillar. Beyond, a hardcore track winds up the hillside towards the windfarm. This is not a farm gate you swing over and keep going. Its cultivators are kept closed to curious neighbours, but you can see the blades from the riverfield, turning and glinting, seeming to overlap. A friend who saw this happen called it trysting.
The ruined church is barely ten feet wide. It is unroofed and its walls are waist-high on two sides. Its single entrance is still lintled and the evening sun elbows out. Broken graves make a floor, covered in bramble, and an elder swings green berries where a minister must have stood, but there is no lingering atmosphere of holiness or discipline. In the graveyard you find some of the stories you have been looking for, all late fragments, pick up on them from the names of farms. Surnames rarely repeat: the population seemingly itinerant. They do not match the ones on the war memorial. Thomas, son of John MacLeod, died on the farm where you live in 1864, aged six. Jessie Bryden died there too, aged thirty-eight, in 1894. William (eleven months) and Eliza (nine) – surname effaced – died in the streetview cottage, three years apart. Mary Thompson must have walked the Long Road before the woods ran down one side, and died (year effaced) to be described only as ‘advanced in years’, and ‘40yrs faithful servant of Commander G.F. Lytton RN.’ Janet Johnston has a larger memorial and deeper lettering (the farm she died on still large, its farmhouse three stories of well-kept stone), and in 1829, at sixty-seven, she was described by someone unrecorded as ‘a woman singularly pieos and possessed of a vein of thought amazingly fertile.’ Other graves are more simple, and where topmost lettering has worn away names are gone but places remain faintly. On others script is gone entirely. Their slabs are cut from the same red sandstone as the river’s cliffs, an equatorial seabed laid down in deep time, red as the fields they walked and farmed and the ground they are now sunk in.
The sun is about to meet the hills as you go. You turn the car around having seen and heard nobody, and weave onto the main road and off it again, down the other side. You pass home on a way the names on the stones must have gone. You flip the lights on as pheasants, newly released and bewildered, zig-zag along the road then rise and parachute into the verges. The screen on the satnav scrolls down the road and the names of farms on the graves appear – some up tracks you have never visited, places as rumoured as the characters rendered on stone. It has been a good year for cropping silage, you are told, and forage harvesters and trailered tractors are still working the fields: amber flashing beacons and LED headlights, a floodlit trail of vehicles. There are great chevroned tyretracks of mud which arrow the road where tractors shift from grass to tarmac. You follow them until they turn where Mary Thompson did, some time in the nineteenth century. As you reach your own road-end and swing left uphill, the full beams snag on the black bull we have nicknamed Bowser, copper nose ring glowing, eyeshine glassy and blue.
It is autumn now, but the first frost has not come. It is your sixth here. You have gathered brambles using the knowledge of accreting seasons: where to find what, and when. You have wheelbarrowed a load of crabapples from the tree behind McCredie’s shed. An early skein of pink footed geese passed over yesterday and you wondered if geese note changes to topography, if they alter maps accordingly, if they hold the route in their muscles and their heads. Dusktimes, swallows are gathering and you know they will soon go. The evening constellation of lights in the hills has swung around again. You know the farm each one belongs to, and each resident by name. Some you stop to swap news with, vehicles drawn level on the Long Road: windows down with stories to traffic. Others are fluttered hands behind a windscreen, a particular cap, a brand and colour of vehicle. You share these things in passing.
You will migrate in time, you know, but not yet and not when. You will slide out of this landscape like the sheep and the cattle and the people and the birds. It is not a place that stores memory well, and your kith are the impermanent who rent their nook and move on. The next time you scale down the riverfield, the tendons in your legs will stiffen to the measure of the slopes. You will take the gait of those who walked this place before you. You will record what is present and absent and how this compares to last year. You will take these notes with you when you go.
All images: Dave Borthwick
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.