The North, Circular

Affairs of the stomach much on my mind these days, so it was with rising interest that I noted a factoid from the appendices to one of my favourite books, The Poetry of Birds*.   The noble bird the gannet derives its name from the Scottish word gant or gaunt which means to yawn by opening the mouth.   “Eh?” I first thought, but then realised that some of us still say “I’m gantin’ on a cup o’ tea”.   If you’ve never seen a gannet dive for fish,  it forms a W shape with its body and enters the water like a missile.  The old Norse name for gannet is Sula, from which the name Solan Goose is obtained and that brings us full circle to the the Sula Mhor which is, of course, you are ahead of me here, Calum McKenzie’s boat in Plockton, and we now all know that means Big Gannet.   And lastly, Gannet was the nickname for Paul’s friend Richard who introduced him to the Edinburgh Players drama group….the rest is history.

not taken by me, nicked it offy Google
not taken by me, nicked it offy Google

Seabirds always prove to me that they are so closely related to fish, they’re all just doing the same things but in a different medium.  Look at a cormorant and tell me that’s not a fish with feathers.

Yesterday was to be all about clearing the loft, but a delay at the hairdresser meant it was time for lunch once I was released from that perfum’d hell,  and after a frankly bizarre salad at Dobbie’s** (why bother to advertise food you do not sell???) the weather moved briskly from shocking to glorious, so we managed to invent a reason for tootling,  dropped by a potential Astro dark site, in a beautiful Perthshire glen, then pointed the car at Vane Farm.  The fields were covered with huge groups of geese and one huge group of curlew.  Large flocks of mallard roosted in the field beside flocks of mute swans, wigeon and two cormorants.  The last of these confused some viewers, as indeed they confused me the first time I saw them there, but they are fresh water as well as sea water birds, they’re not fussy, a fish is a fish.

Not many birds on the wee garden feeders, the hedgerows are stuffed with free food just now and the birds disappear for a bit, but greenfinches were spotted. Incidentally, it is now waxwing time, if you see or hear of any flocks, please let me know, I’ll be there in my pyjamas, I don’t care.  The day ended with thick golden sun light, and squally showers;  we had a high-up view of the Fife and Perthshire skies, so we could see the thunderplumps as they roamed eastern Scotland.

I was chatting with a similarly obsessed colleague who regularly sees flocks of up to 40 waxwings, but has never seen a flock of house sparrows.  We are fortunate to have one in our front garden and also, if you happen to be in Dobbie’s Dunfermline, you may see a large flock of this bird outside in the hen house.   The chook-chooks happily share their food with these wee importunate rascals.  After that you may view the aquarium section and ponder on the glories of evolution.

Anyway, back to the beginning and gannets, and a poem by Norman MacCaig.

Rhu Mor

Gannets fall like the heads of tridents

bombarding the green silk water

off Rhu Mor.  A salt seabeast of a timber

pushes its long snout

up on the sand, where a seal,

struggling in the straightjacket of its own skin ,

violently shuffles towards the frayed wave,

the spinning sandgrains, the

caves of green.


I sit in the dunes – the wind

has moulded the sand in pastry frills

and cornices:  flights of grass

are stuck in it – their smooth shafts shiver

with trickling drops of light


Space opens and from the heart of the matter

sheds a descending grace that makes,

for a moment, that naked thing, being,

a thing to understand.


I look out from it

at the grave and simple elements

gathered round a barrage of gannets

whose detonations

explode the green into white.

* ed.  Simon Armitage & Tim Dee, Penguin 2011.  Strangely absent from my top nine books.   Well, there’s a moveable feast for you.

** I only wanted a salad that I had picked by myself.  It’s about all I can eat in public just now so I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request. Yes, I am a grumpy cow.

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