It is the beginning of April and, here in the Cairngorms, the beginning of lambing. Everyone up here knows about the notorious ‘lambing snows’: that no matter how lovely the weather before-hand, the moment the next generation of sheep start to emerge, skinny and vulnerable, the snow will return.
In my research for my second novel, Colvin’s Walk, I was privileged to accompany several local shepherds on their rounds through the year including lambing. Most of my outings were quite pleasant, but the central character in my story had a much more brutal experience, starting with his birth. That passage is below, to whet your appetite for the whole novel, if not a job as a Highland shepherd!
He was born on the farm, in the shed, on a cruel night in April 1955. Aye, without a doubt the cruelest month, April, wooing you with her bright face and warm breath till you are in her arms, puckering for a kiss, and she slaps you. Hard. Never more cruel than in the Highlands, neither, where our daffodils can be slashed by hail or our Easter eggs buried in snow. A Pentecostal month, if ever there was one, swinging from ecstasy to exorcism at the spirit’s whim.
The night of Colvin’s birth was wild with sleet as his mother, Agnes, struggled out in the field with a bulky jacket over her nightie and a torch strapped to her head, helping a ewe. The wretched beast was caught in a barbed-wire fence and bleating into the storm. Agnes pulled her father’s knife from her pocket, cut away the tangled fleece and guided the ewe into the shed, laying her on her side. Pushing a hand into the tight wet of the birth canal she came at once on the hooves of a lamb and drew them down slowly, feeling for the head, tugging and twisting, till the slimy creature squeezed forth, trailing afterbirth. Pulling a scruff of fleece from the ewe’s side, she wiped his black face, put him to the mother’s nose and with pain surging up her own belly, reached in again. The second one came quicker, sliding onto the straw with a sneeze and a dribble of bloody waters, his useless legs tucked under him, face smooshed to the floor. As the ewe lumbered to her feet for the first lamb to suckle, Agnes rubbed and prodded the second one till he tottered to his mother’s face and also got a welcome slurp. Our shepherdess then lumbered to her own feet, stomach tightening like a belt of steel, and after washing her hands in the freezing water at the corner tap, she made a cut in the ewe’s horn. The storm outside was a blizzard by now, blocking any return to the house, so she lit a fire in an iron trough and stomped around to keep warm and fight the pain.
She was a practical woman, Agnes; Traveller’s daughter, shepherd’s wife, angel unawares. Her jacket pockets held not just the knife and matches, but also twine, a fresh hanky, work gloves, some pegs, hair pins, a couple of nails, a pen that didn’t work, one that did, shop receipts, scraps of paper, a small telescope, a letter from the council, coins, a dog whistle, dried up sprigs of heather, a mouth organ and a crumbling bit of flapjack. While waiting for the baby, she cut a length of twine, sterilised the knife in the fire and set them down on the hanky. Her own family had never gone to hospital for anything and she had helped with several of her mother’s deliveries, as well as years of lambing, so was calm and breathed deep, groaning through her teeth, till she finally brought our Colvin into the world on a bed of straw. There were no singing angels or visiting kings, and the only shepherd – apart from herself – was snoring in his bed, pickled in liquor and dead to the world.
Ahh, Colvin, what a time to be born.
When he slithered forth head first and howling, she cut his cord and tied it off with the twine, struggling with frozen white fingers, then rubbed the hanky over his face and burrowed him inside her layers of clothes. He was slippery warm and wriggly, snuffling as his jaw worked the ripe swell of her breast. Touching her finger from her tongue to the top of his head, she murmured in Gaelic. A small drop of water to encompass my beloved, Meet for Father, Son and Spirit. The rhythmic tug of his feeding and the sounds of fire and suckling lambs finally pulled her into sleep, where she dreamed of a Traveller’s tent with rain pelting the canvas and her father singing.
It was the cold that woke her: the sharp iciness of her feet in their wellies, the draft around her head, the ache of her limbs. Breathing in Colvin’s womb-dark smell, she wound him in her scarf and tucked him beside the lambs, then scooping the straw and afterbirth into the trough, she re-kindled the fire. Warming her hands on the blaze as the wind scuttled the roof, she wondered how on earth she would manage lambing, a newborn and a drunken husband.