March Hares and Muddy Boots

By Linda Brown

On a clear day, the striking view of the Ayrshire landscape from Gallowlaw Cairn, outside Newmilns, can take your breath away, as can the walk to reach it. It is an uphill pech for over two miles.

I set out from the town on a bright but cold morning. Wrapped up warm, with my camera bag over my shoulder, I tramp up Windyhill Road into the countryside. This is a route I walk often and the steep start never fails but catches out my auld legs. However, today I have my new monopod/hiking stick to help propel me up the hills.

There is always something to spot on Windyhill – sometimes deer at the faraway side of a field, or a pheasant racing like Roadrunner along the road, or buzzards circling and swooping overhead. This morning, it is two brown hares. They are chasing each other, zigzagging across a field. Steely determination glints from big brown eyes as powerful hind legs help them bound through the long grass.

Of course, as soon as I see them, I stop and whip out my camera. But these guys are not up for a photoshoot. They have clocked me too and they stop, drop to the ground and lie low. All I can spy are ebony tipped ears twitching above the grass. I wait awhile, willing the hares to restart their race, but they dour me out and eventually, concerned my presence is interrupting a romantic liaison (perhaps the chase is a mating ritual?), I carry on walking.

After a dreich winter, the hedges and trees along the road are showing signs of new life – green shoots and fresh buds. Fluffy catkins, bursts of vibrant yellow broom and hardy wee snowdrops lift my spirits, as does the excited twitter of shy sparrows who pop in and out of the hedgerow, gathering twigs and planning nests.

As I climb higher up the road, a charm of goldfinches act as my pace makers. Their distinctive high-pitched ‘whup whup’ chatter encourages me to quicken my step as they zip ahead, skimming the hedgerows.

Just as the road finally levels out and before it drops downhill to Galston, I turn at the junction of the ‘mast road’ (so called as it’s the location of the Darvel TV transmitter). Behind me, to the west, the snow-capped hills of Arran are visible in the distance, although grey clouds are gathering already and I still have a mile to yomp uphill to reach my destination and hopefully enjoy an even better view.

The cairn is accessed via a farm track and a public right of way across a hillocky field. Last time I’d tried to pay it a visit, I’d discovered the field occupied by bullocks and cows. They’d eyed me suspiciously while I wavered at the kissing gate, then one of the boisterous bullocks made his way over to investigate the potential ‘trespasser’ on to his territory. Needless to say, having never been much of a sprinter when I was young (always last in school races), there was no way this auld slowcoach was going to test her bull running skills inside a field of lively livestock! So, despite frustration and disappointment, I’d made the sensible decision to about-turn and walk home.

However, today the field looks empty – very muddy, but no sign of cows. Fantastic. I slip through the gate and squelch through muck. Three-quarters of the way up the uneven slope, up to my ankles in glaur, I suddenly become aware of several big hairy brown cows (Galloways, I think) grazing in the far corner.

They are almost camouflaged against the backdrop of trees. My heart and stomach flip. Should I turn back? Try to run? Take refuge behind the kissing gate? But what if I slip? Fall splat in the mud? Or should I stay calm and carry on? To be fair, the cows are ignoring me; they are too busy filling their bellies. So, using my hiking stick for leverage, I stumble the last few yards towards the second gate which leads to the safety of the cairn’s fenced-off enclosure.

Gallowlaw Cairn was built by local miners during the General Strike of 1926 to honour the memory of James Smith, a farmer and Covenanter, who, way back in 1684, was shot and killed on this hillside by the King’s dragoons while he was assisting Covenanter prisoners escaped from Newmilns Keep. Rumour has it, a prehistoric stone circle and an ancient cairn both stood on this site, but there are no visible remains of either. The whitewashed cairn with its weather vane and direction finder, a metal disc fitted around the column, is looking good for having stood for almost one hundred years on this exposed spot with its panoramic view over Ayrshire and Arran, although I believe there has been some restoration in the past.

Sadly, the scenery today is not as spectacular or as photogenic as I’d hoped. The weather has changed, a fresh wind has picked up and heavy clouds have moved in from the coast – Arran has completely vanished, towards Ayr is shrouded in mist. It looks like rain is on its way. However, I can still see as far as Dundonald Hill and the chimneys of the paper mill at Irvine. I take some photographs, and then, while I stand soaking up the atmosphere and reflecting on the history of the cairn, I hear the shrill call of a kestrel. Scanning the sky, I spot him hovering over the adjoining field, his sharp eyes fixed firmly on the ground, before he drops swiftly to earth to pounce on some poor unsuspecting mouse or vole for his lunch.

Which reminds me, it must be time to head back for my own lunch – a guid bowl of homemade tattie soup awaits me. First, I just need to brace myself to run the gauntlet of Galloways on the other side of the fence.

Turns out, there is no need to worry – the laid-back cows don’t ‘gee their ginger’ and never even glance in my direction as I trudge and slither (thank God for that hiking stick) back through the muck then squeeze through the kissing-gate.

Back out on the tarmac road, I stamp my feet, showing off my Flamenco dancing skills, to try and dislodge clumps of mud from my boots. Then with a spring in my step, I march off, smug in the knowledge that it is downhill all the way to Newmilns. Halfway home, a pheasant overtakes me… he’s obviously heard about my soup.