The taxi driver, he reveals as we turn off the main road, grew up at Glenacopaig, just up the hill from the house. He’s been meaning, he says, to go along the track and see it again some day. I go a bit quiet at this, because the last time I was along, even more of the roof had fallen in and the window frames had given up any pretence at keeping out the weather.
With the effortless banality that can always be suffered in a taxi late at night, I say that the landscape must look a bit different now. “No trees”, he said, which dates him, for the whole north end of the glen is napped with spruce that just this winter has come to its due date on the felling plan. There are tempting piles of logs stacked like party snacks all down a roadside that has recently been slicked with mud from the lorries that uplift the timber and restack it at the pier, from where it goes to Ireland to be processed and then brought back here for building use. It’s as flat and soulless an operation as that.
It does, of course, leave behind a great deal of firewood, which is a recognised currency round these parts. Many jobs will be done in exchange for a bit of reasonably dry wood, but scavenging has become a restricted practice. If you’re lucky enough to find a few clean sticks – a felled tree is always a “stick”, never a “trunk” – that aren’t mashed into the mud by caterpillar tracks or locked in with others like a mad game of Jenga, they can be heaved into the trailer or wedged into the boot for the short drive down to the house. However, any attempt to take a chainsaw up the hill invariably results in a crabbit man with hard hat appearing out of nowhere to chase us off. The reason given is always health and safety. They don’t want the inconvenience of someone bleeding out on their hillside. The real reason seems to be that scavenging timber is now semi-commercialised and restricted to a few discreetly chosen friends.
Late though it is, the taxi is halted by a giant forwarder, blazing with lights, inching out of the planting, presumably en route to the next patch to fall. These guys start at five a.m., a distant rumble and crack in the last hour or so of sleep, strange lights over the hill. I thought I was having a Rendlesham Forest moment the other day, when two intense bluish lights seem to emerge out of the trees and bob about mysteriously, winking on and off as they descended towards me. The dog didn’t like them, but sat close and shaking.
The lights, I suddenly realised, were speaking with strong Glasgow accents and so were of approximately terrestrial origin. Head torches. Their machine had broken down and they’d discovered that despite being high enough to see water on three sides they still couldn’t get a phone signal. I was left wondering after they’d gone what grade of Close Encounter “Can we use your phone, pal?” counted as. Of the ET Kind, perhaps.
As the taxi idled, the driver began to describe the landscape that we’d never seen. Another deserted farm, apparently just yards from the road. Sheep folds – locally known as “Davie’s old fanks” – across one hillside. And, he said, standing stones that were casually tipped over when the hill was ditched. None are marked on the OS map which might mean anything, or nothing. There are dozens of Neolithic remains in the area that remain unmapped. And he points to a flattish area, a little raised, where apparently two unmarried sisters and their brother had once lived in eccentric splendour. Which suddenly makes sense, for we’ve often noticed that at that turn in the road there are always unexpected plants: two handsome cotoneasters, plus a sprinkle of smaller seedlings leading away; ‘Lucifer’ crocosmia; unusual strains of narcissus in the spring. I’d always assumed that someone had used the spot for dumping garden waste, but a closer look a few days later reveals the outline of a foundation and a small amount of shaped stone. The rest was presumably cannibalised when the house was deserted. It looks like good local stone, hard and red, and willing to give a good edge.
Predictably, perhaps, it was easier to conjure up the old landscape in the dark, with just car and tractor lights for atmosphere. Daytime reveals the same drab monoculture patina. Clear felling is a crude and destructive business, leaving behind rows of brash that are virtually impossible to walk over. I’m excited to learn that a stone axehead, porcellanite and presumably from a group of artefacts provenanced to Rathlin Island, was found near the house in 1972. I scour accessible ditch-faces for anything that looks anomalously shaped and possibly manufactured, but wishful thinking is no substitute for expertise. Our side of the hill has its beauties, as it segues out of forestry and into grazing land. We’re on the cusp of two different approaches to land use by humans. I’m reading Dieter Helm’s Green and Prosperous Land, his blueprint for a sustainable and survivable future for the countryside. I’m feeling evangelical, or maybe even apostolic.