The Silence of the Birds

In June, 1960, a group of Moray House students from Edinburgh University went on a week’s field trip to Glenmore Lodge. Our first day of activities was scrapped so that we could assist with fighting a forest fire that had broken out in the ancient woods of Rothiemurchus. Besides the unscheduled fire-fighting, later we saw the osprey chicks the day they hatched. That was the first public announcement of the fact that Osprey were breeding here in Scotland again. A memorable time in the Cairngorms, of life lost and life reborn.


A sniff of wood smoke and I'm there again.
All of sixty years does not diminish
the horror of that time...
the Caledonian Forest ravaged
by the careless toss of a cigarette.
We were not there while Fire Brigade
and Army fought a great battle,
made war on the flames
of devastating spears of fire
that rampaged through these ancient trees.
The worst was over when our help
was sought to dampen down smoking
ashes on the reeking, forest floor.
Fashioned from discarded
pine-needle drop, huge, heaped anthills
still puffed smoke.
Kick apart those hours of ant toil,
spray from the nozzle and hose
fed by the gallon water canisters
strapped to our backs.
A few survivors crippled 
from their broken haven,
with nowhere to go.
Refill, repeat; refill, repeat;
drench the few defiant flames
rekindled when they got a second wind.
    Charred birds;
          charred rabbits;
                charred unrecognisables
littered our still hot pathway
as we moved among coal black,
charcoaled stumps which once were trees.
The weary day ended.  Only then
did we feel the draining of it.
But just as all the gear was packed away,
we stopped.  A forester appeared.
Cradled, alive in his arms, a singed fawn.
Smiles creased over tired, sooty faces.
Later that week, quitting
Glenmore Lodge to tackle Cairngorm,
tho rested, washed,  and breathing in
the pure clear air of the summit,
our nostrils still held echoes of wood smoke.

Rothiemurchus Forest Fire from Achnahatnich, June 1960. Image credit Pauline Collie

2 thoughts on “The Silence of the Birds

  1. The poem adds great immediacy to the prose account of the facts and extinguishes (!) the passage of 60 years. I particularly love “spears of fire” and the uplift at the end of the rescue of the “singed fawn”.


  2. A superb evocation of a human-induced tragedy branded indelibly in the poet’s memory. ‘A sniff of wood smoke and I’m there again . . .’

    Liked by 1 person

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