The beast takes to the air

Arthur's Seat

– Edinburgh, Scotland, November 2012

From behind one of Edinburgh’s characteristically grey stone buildings comes the indomitable and once volcanic summit of Arthur’s Seat. As if some chunk of another planet had landed here in the heart of a city of world heritage status, the change in terrain is sudden. For all the undoubted beauty of Edinburgh’s old architecture, this lump of wild, unapologetic land is a welcome relief from the rain-drenched busts of cathedrals and church towers. A housing estate has been built on the brink of Holyrood Park, the broad wingspan of a female sparrowhawk appears from a ring of beech, birch and ash woodland marking the way in. A magpie gives chase to the hawk, goldfinch skip across the scene, their merry, glistening calls overheard.

Crows are skating the zenith of Arthur’s Seat, but not merely one kind. Tens of jackdaws are in flight, some barging one another, competing for spots in the flock. At an opening in the landscape the Firth of Forth appears. Two students are painting the scene onto canvases attached to easels. Their demeanour is one of calm, of contentment in observing and being observed: there are plenty of tourists taking to the steps up to the top, stopping to admire the young artists as they come and go. A young woman is sitting on the grass beside them, her hood drawn over her head. She eats morsels of food from an orange carrier bag.

Carrion crows toe the tarmac and paving looping around the old volcano, a road we ignore in trying to reach Duddingston Loch. Instead we follow a path covered with foliose lichens, erupting in small boulders and swathes of prickly gorse. I forgot how easily the needles pass through denim. It appears to be a trail home to a community of jackdaws and white-tailed bunny rabbits. At our feet are the defiant pink and purple flowers of viper’s bugloss, half wilted. Our path leads to a dead end of gorse and a precipice: Duddingston Loch can be seen clearly from here, a white swan moving on the surface of the water.

We turn back, trying not to tread into burrows, slipping on the greasy moss and grass. A flock of jackdaws float overhead. We stop to view the city, the Pentland Hills to the south, a ski slope visible like a mistake. Below us there’s Prestonfield golf course, a solitary golfer dragging his gear across a line of ornamental cherry trees swept to the west by years of pressure from air rushing across from the coast. From the crags of Arthur’s Seat comes the guttural kronk of a raven, scattering the jackdaws like leaves, with one feisty ‘daw attempting to lead a mob in revolt. We return back along the road and encounter the dispute once more, the raven sheltering in the dim fissures of rock, almost invisible, but for its rupturing calls, its black, glossy beard exploding as it calls out. Soon enough another raven arrives and the retired beast takes to the air, its digital wingtips and diamond shaped tail reaching out into the chill wind.

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