The Yorlin’s Sang

One of the wonders of the Hirsel is the growing population of birds that are attending upon us through all the seasons.

Through the decades, Mum had made a habit of planting trees and bushes, here and there, to encourage our feathered neighbours and visitors. It was a part of her life that entertained her lately, as she became more housebound, watching them feed outside her windows, looking them up in the bird books to check identity.

It’s a practice we have continued, in fact we have extended the practice by actively farming towards “Bird and Bee” friendly environment.

A surprise visitor this morning, brightly standing out on the bare branches, apart from the rime of snow, ice, and our feeder “hanging decorations”, was a cock Yellowhammer. He was gamely standing his ground among the aggressive wee Robins and the multitude of Tits – Blue, Coal and Great – as they jump from branch to feeder and back.

No sign today of our invasion of Long Tailed Tits, that mob fed on the hanging fatballs, prompting us to stock up on that commodity when we visited the feed store for another supply for our sheep. The snow is sticking around yet again, promises of an imminent thaw still hanging on the weather reports and frosty air, yet with blue sky after the first light snowfall, the air is clear and beautiful, the blue reflected in the waters of the Dornoch Firth as it meets the Kyle of Sutherland.

I knew we had a grand growing population of the little “Yorlin” as their sweeping swirls, acrobatic in the air, swooping from the flowering broom and gorse where they hid their nests, down onto the reseeded field we cry “Middle Earth”! Their song filled the air, morning and evening through the summer, especially along the “bog walk” as it runs by the open drain, between arable field and the peat moss, reed and heather of the wetlands in the middle of the farm.

Yet it’s not such a common bird around here in winter, preferring to winter south, indeed according to some sources, the little bunting is less often to be found even in UK as a whole because of “modern“ agricultural practices.

Fortunately, that’s not so much something we can be accused of around here, our way lends itself back to a time before petroleum based fertilisers became popular, and our land is so diverse in habitat, we can allow the growth of the seeds and berries that supplement the diet of all our birds, resident and visiting!

Aye, we can worry about our fruit bushes, but we also need the birds to help control the insects, and for visiting swallows and swifts, the summer feasting of these visitors may just help reduce the midge population.

“Yorlins” will feed on caterpillars and other small insects while nursing their young, all we need to do is encourage them to protect the brassicas, though the timing and mild winters of the last few years haven’t helped protect us from the Diamond Back Moth and its hungry offspring!

Donna sits watching the “Tree of Life” as she refers to the wee Goat Willow with its multiple offshoots, as if it was a tropical fish tank, the birds coming and going, feeding and squabbling, yet totally ignoring her as she sits in communion.

That Willow brings another connection to my mind, as I hum the wee tune, one of my favourite songs, as recited by many friends in the musical fraternity through the years, my good friends Gaberlunzie , Gordon and Robin, among others, as they cover Adam McNaughton’s beautiful musical tribute to Betsy Whyte’s tale of life in the Travelling Folk between the wars!

It’s hard to ken whether in these days, we could comfortably exist in the way they did – the land, the people, the attitude, has changed so much. Yet when the Planting or Harvesting was on, so many farms would have once relied on the “ gang aboot fowk” knocking on the door!

I’m young enough to remember stopping at the roadside, at Spean Bridge, where Mum and Dad bought a picnic basket and a dog basket, from the wee encampment there, on the hill below the Commando Memorial.

Woven from willow, that picnic basket lasted a long time, sadly I think it was left behind by accident during one of my own many moves before I returned to the place I call home!

And I well remember how so many folk I was raised alongside once, would look down disparagingly at those that preferred the hooped tent to a brick and mortar house! Yet once this parish of Kincardine would have seen them passing as often as the drovers and shepherds taking their beasts to market, along the main route south which runs at the foot of our land.

Indeed, once when the glens all carried a far higher population than they now do, the visit from these craftsmen, visiting craftsmen, would have been the moment that the pots would be repaired, the knives sharpened, and much more besides.

One often forgets the old Highland name for the Travelling Folk, indeed the word we use disparagingly now is derived from the Gaelic sound, like so many words that the Scots/Saxon dialects have robbed from a language of poetry, the word tinker itself comes from the Gaelic “tinceard” or tinsmith, but the even older word was Ceàrdannan (“the Craftsmen”).

So, as we watched the brightly coloured wee bird feed, and my mind turns to thoughts of the snows departing and fewer worries for the feeding of our flock of sheep, I am humming to myself about how we are so lucky here, to be able to hear “the Yorlins sang”, see “the Flax in bloom” and look forwards to the time when winter is over and “The Yellow’s on the Broom”.

-Donald Gillies


Looking toward the hill known as Cnoc na Quaiche, and the farm’s single remaining Noble Fir. The gorse and broom on the left is preferred nesting for the Yellowhammers that share the farm with us. Photo by DFGillies.
View from the cottage door of the office trailer, and some idle equipment. An idle Donna, too, as she enjoys the community of birds sharing brunch at the Tree of Life…or, as others call it: the Goat Willow. Photo by DFGillies.

For more information about the Yorlin, visit the RSPB’s website.

For more information about how to encourage the Yorlin to set up house on your farm, vist the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The handsome Yorlin. photo credit: the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust

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