ALLT A’ BHONNAICH: A Stirlingshire Burn by Chris Powici

‘Such tiny, tiny sounds’ said Elisabetta, looking from the heat-hazed sky to the wet earth at her feet for their source.

We were standing on a patch of boggy moor between a swathe of plantation conifers and the quick water of the Allt a’ Bhonnaich shimmering darkly in the gorge below us.

The sounds she had in mind were the faint squelch of our shoes in the wet moss, the ethereal song of a curlew, and the more robust call of a cuckoo somewhere higher up the moor. All of this played out to the piccolo cries of meadow pipits as they flittered over the heather and grass. Even the steady, distant whump of three wind turbines on the summit of Hart Hill, away to the west, brought to mind the booming call of a wild bird claiming its territory. A bittern perhaps.

The sound of the burn itself was all but lost on the breeze, but I could just make out its cold, incessant rush. This close to its source on Touchadam Muir the Allt a’ Bonnaich was no wider than the wingspan of a buzzard, but just as fierce, as wild.

I didn’t reply to Elisabetta, nor did she want me to. It felt good to stay quiet for a while, listening and watching. We weren’t following a plan, just acting on a whim to follow a burn and see where it took us. If it didn’t lie on an official walking route or come with Trip Advisor recommendations, so much the better.

The view north was blocked by a crowd of Sitka spruce, but to the east we could make out the hazy blur of the Ochil Hills beyond Stirling. To the south and west,  the Touch Hills rose in a series of graceful undulations, leaving plenty of space for sunlight and air – the first ‘proper’ sunlight of spring, or so it felt after the unseasonably cool days of April and early May.

We were ready for a bit of warmth, and so it seemed were the birds. Ornithologists tell us that birdsong is all about territory and mating, about passing on genes, but up on the moor they sang as if the sky was their very own cathedral ceiling, perfectly designed for every warble and chirp, no matter how faint, to find its perfect resonance.

Things had been a lot noisier earlier in our walk, and not just because of the occasional car and van rumbling up the Fintry road into the hills. Blackbirds and chaffinches sang from their hideouts in the trees, wood pigeons flew up from the branches in a rough clatter of wings, and the Allt a’ Bhonnaich had sung a different song downstream – louder and deeper perhaps, but not as wild, not as quick. More lullaby than cry.

Up here, on the open moor, there wasn’t even the gossipy bleating of ewes and lambs. The ground was, I supposed, too rough and wet for lambs, and the Sitka too densely packed to attract blackbirds. No light. No food.

So we stood, more or less still, taking in the hills and sky, and listening. Just listening. Though whether we were absorbing the landscape, or it was absorbing us, seemed a very debatable point. The ground beneath our feet barely bore our weight. My shoes had sunk to their laces in the brown-black peaty water oozing from the moss.

Though the burn ran a good fifty feet beneath us, I had the feeling that, with every step we took, the separation of earth and water was becoming an increasingly fine distinction. Everything flowed, everything moved. Moss is so often described as a ‘carpet’, or even a ‘pillow’, it’s practically a cliché; to me it seemed more like a slow, green tide flowing between islands of wiry heather.

But paying such close attention to what was close at hand had its compensations. Neither of us cared much for the swarms of newly risen midges, or the probably harmless big-legged flies that hung in the air, nonchalant as street corner heavies, but butterflies flying up from the heather, and caterpillars creeping silently though the moss, brought a splash of technicolor. And then there was the moss itself, glistening in the noonday light.

For Elisabetta, a Renaissance art historian by profession and by passion, its colour reminded her of the intense, rich green of a dress worn by a young woman in a portrait by Jacometto Veneziano. And it wasn’t just the colour that impressed. The dress was so intricately embroidered and densely woven, so designed, it had, Elisabetta said, cost her husband more than the painting itself; you could practically feel the weight of all that wealth against her skin.

I recalled a photograph of the painting from Elisabetta’s book. Its ‘green-ness’ was undeniable, and for a second, I wondered if Jacometto had created his pigment, and Venetian dressmakers their dye, from the moss of their very own Renaissance bog. But what leapt even more clearly to mind, was the expression on the woman’s face, not as coolly enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s, but utterly poised, utterly serene, as she gazed from a backdrop of lake and hills into, I supposed, the interior of the artist’s studio.

There was, as Elisabetta put it, something ‘unhesitating’ about her gaze, but, I reckoned, there was something ‘withheld’ about it as well. A mix of the blatant and the mysterious. Perhaps she had perfect faith in Jacometto to capture her very worldly glamour on canvas, or perhaps he had sensed that beyond the dreams of luxury and status, her heart beat to a different, secret thrill.

But we were a long way from Italy and on that sunny May Saturday, a thousand feet high on a Stirlingshire bog, Elisabetta and I had a decision to make. We could trudge and stumble our way still higher up the moor all the way, if we could find it, to the wellspring of the Allt a’ Bhonnaich. Or we could retrace our steps back to the road and, eventually, Stirling.

The day was turning from warm to hot. Our shirts were sticking to our backs, our shoes were fighting a losing battle with heather and water, midges had gathered about our heads in dense, trembling halos.

She touched my elbow. We turned back, and after an hour or so’s walking down the narrow, potholed road, past sheep fields and farmyards, we came across the Allt a’ Bhonnaich again. Dappled in afternoon sunlight, it swept through woods and flowed on towards the outskirts of Stirling, where it would broaden and deepen. And where practically no one calls it by its Gaelic name.

To the people of Scotland, and the rest of Britain, this was the Bannockburn, the burn that lends its name to the battle of 1314 and Robert the Bruce’s defeat of the English forces led by Edward II. The Allt a’ Bhonnaich had been a mere slither of hill water, but the Bannockburn was history writ large.

We stood for a moment watching the burn run away from us, into the shadows of the trees. If we were prepared to abandon the road and get our feet wet, we could follow its twisting course a few more miles to the Bannockburn Visitor centre with its statues and flags, and where the National Trust for Scotland promises that the latest digital technology will put visitors ‘in the heart of the action’ and so experience the bloody clamour of battle for themselves.

It didn’t take long to reach a decision. We would leave the Bannockburn Centre for another day and continue to the city centre instead. A need for something cool – ice cream or beer or both – had been growing since we’d started walking back from the moor.

Even so, I couldn’t help but think of all the tourists, parties of schoolchildren and assorted heritage and history fans who were, presumably, gathered in the Centre immersing themselves in the big, big sounds of galloping warhorses, the clash and clang of sword blades, the cries of victory and of death, while the Bannockbun flowed quietly on, just a few yards away, beyond the 3D battle simulations and weapon displays, beyond the café and gift shop.

And I realized, with a quiet jolt, a very simple truth. Of the thousands of men killed or wounded during the battle, and of the thousands more, weary and stricken, slaughtered in the aftermath as they tried desperately to flee the field, the Bannockburn remembers nothing at all. Not a single drop of human blood.

Swollen by the rains of the moors, it just flows on, through villages and towns, through parks where kids play football and fields where cattle laze in the sun, until, a few miles east of Stirling, its waters mix with those of the Forth and they move as one, drawn by gravity and tides, under road and railway bridges, past oil refineries and castles, yacht clubs and housing estates, all the way to the firth where maybe – just maybe – a woman from Newhaven or Portobello, her body wrapped in a green dress, is walking the shoreline, when she stops in her tracks and stares at the sky, thrilled by the tiny, tiny song of a bird she can neither see nor name.

About our contributor

Chris Powici lives in Perthshire. He teaches creative writing for the University of Stirling, and writes poems and essays, mainly about how the human and natural worlds overlap. His latest
poetry collection is Look, Breathe (Red Squirrel Press). Chris is one of the people behind the new e-zine Paperboats.

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