THE hills in spring. The liquid bubbling song of a displaying male curlew as he rises and falls in the air on slow beating wings is one of the most emotive sounds of the season.
It is a call that rings and echoes throughout our hills and glens, and one which so enchanted the poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson that he penned the lines:
“That note – that note! Comes there so clear a call from any throat.”
The call has also been immortalised in “The Seafarer”, one of the oldest poems in the English language, dating to Anglo Saxon times: “I took myself as pleasure… the voice of the curlew instead of the laughter of men.”
In Gaelic folklore the cry of the curlew has long been associated with sorrow, and while it does have mournful and haunting qualities, for me it is an overwhelmingly warm and welcoming sound. Sometimes known as the “whaup” or “great whaup” in Scots, the curlew is one of our most mesmerising birds and this is a great time of year to watch them.
Only a few weeks previously the moors and damp pastures on which these curlews are now displaying may have been rather bleak places and covered in snow. But now it is a very different story and there is real vibrancy in the air, not just from curlews but also from other wading birds that have moved into our upland areas to breed. These new arrivals include redshanks in the boggy areas and oystercatchers on the pebbly shores of our lochs and rivers, to be joined by common sandpipers over the coming weeks. Dunlins and golden plovers may also be found on the higher ground in some areas.
Another spring arrival – the skylark – also fills the air with song in our upland and other rough, open grassy spaces. The whole body of the cock bird shivers with vigour as he rises higher and higher in the sky, delivering a rich cascade of notes and sometimes hanging in the air for as long as three or four minutes before rapidly plummeting to the ground again. Often the male skylark will sing just before sunrise.
Spring is also a good time to see adders in our hills, especially in the morning when, having recently emerged from hibernation, they are keen to bask in the sun to gain warmth. I’ve always found adders in Scotland to have a very patchy distribution, but where they do occur numbers can be quite high.
I know of two glens in eastern Scotland where I’m virtually guaranteed to see an adder if I visit during sunny weather in April.
Spring brings other dramatic changes to our upland areas, most notably the emergence of a wide range of wildflowers. One of the first to appear is the cuckooflower, a wonderful plant with pastel-coloured blooms that particularly favours damper margins. The 16th- century herbalist John Gerard explained that the plant was so named because it flowers “for the most part in April and May, when the cuckoo begins to sing her pleasant note”. Cuckooflower is also known as lady’s smock, a reference from folklore to associations with milkmaids.
In May, tormentil, one of our most ubiquitous upland plants, begins to flower. Their attractive small yellow flowers dot across the landscape. In the past, its woody roots were the source of a red dye, and in Scotland they were also used for tanning hides as an effective substitute for oak bark.