Carduelis carduelis

Carduelis carduelis

‘All of life is sacrament.’ I was told this central tenant of Quaker belief by a fellow poet and past pupil of catholic school. ‘I love that,’ I replied, and took a sip of the newly sacramental coffee in the cup before me. I felt glad for this small revelation, it chimed with a growing intuition that far more was sacred in the world than could be embodied in a statue, or water in a stone bowl. A sacrament is defined by catholics as ‘an outward sign of inward grace.’ For me, grace carries a physical sensation of calm, wellness and strength. It engenders connectedness beyond the corporeal. It is a sensation experienced deeply, and sometimes only fleetingly.

As I walked last week, I felt a kindred sensation.

In Orkney, the weather had relented, and was wheedling its way into favour, brightening the stubbornly dark corners where the black mould of winter depression had thrived. I walked with less anger and stubborn resolution; more for positive pleasure than to test my survival.

The ‘loop’ begins with a left turn out of my teal-painted front door and onto Laing Street. In the past the street was called ‘The Long Gutter’ a stretch that flowed down the shallow brae to the edge of the land. The area has been infilled over the centuries, laid with pipes and covered with stone; windowed shops sell their wares above the ghost of the foreshore.

I continue away from the commercial fronts and turn left again onto King Street where a mixture of well-heeled Georgian houses with astragal windows rub coat-tails with the rank and file lower orders, the sideways facing wynds and cramped victorian terraces. If my route was not uphill I would jog. But it is uphill, so I walk. Railings pass briskly, front yards with oddments of statues, quernstones and children’s bicycles flow beside the pavement.

This walk requires only three layers of clothing and the temperature is comparatively mild. The daffodils are finally over. Bluebells decorate the skirt of a fine square house and are bleaching and releasing their blue into the sky above – a little at least, even if the sky stubbornly retains a majority vote of grey.

My gaze remains lowered to the dandelions and their fading glory. It is too grey for higher thoughts. The rude-pink bush honeysuckle flowers nestle in clusters of deep green leaves and cause me to lift my head briefly. What a survivor that plant is – any plant that remains after winter has mettle at its core. I wonder if I am the same? It does not feel so. It feels as if winter wears me away to a sliver, so fragile the lightest touch would cause disintegration.

Still, I walk on. The bittersweet late spring begins to infuse my mind and body with changing sensations. It is only after twenty minutes of walking, when I am out of the town, skirting a field surrounded by stone dykes where an old barn is out to lonely pasture, that I notice the effort of ‘being’ has lifted. I am breathing, walking, observing and sensing without struggle, without the noise of my restless, chattering mind. I am simply being.

In the ditches, I see the first flag irises are blooming. Their yellow pyramids rudely unfurl against waves of lurid green. This is a sign of summer – have I really been so dim as to not notice a whole season passing? There is marsh marigold in the cooler depths, yellow-flowered glossy posies with rounded waxy leaves.

I am reminded of the covid lockdown and how I learned a new plant name on every walk from The Orkney Book of Wildflowers. Why and when did I stop doing that small daily task? The dandelion clocks became so poignant then, their soft grey seeds dispersing, they were there and then suddenly gone. The thought closes, a little healed by time, but I know it will always return this time of year.

My route tracks over the shoulder of a hill and along a single track lane. The view of Kirkwall Bay over to Rendall in West Mainland is crisp and clear. The boat to Shapinsay grooves the water and there may be a cruise liner at Hatston later, but not now. Now, I feel warmth in my body and share the draughts of air with the aroma of elder. I look into and through florets of cow parsley, a froth of white against the climbing sea of green.

I proceed down, down, down to the shore, where a grassy links separates the lane from the stone-strewn inter-tidal zone. I would not call it a beach, just the edge of the land. It is reeky and cluttered with life and death.

My gaze lifts upwards, following the flight of a rook. My captivation with stillness and green had become spent half way down the brae, my gaze unfaithful to the static charms of flowers and plants. There were swallows catching insects on the wing in the lee of a bent-double stand of trees. They moved like spirit birds, so quick, blithe and full of grace. The traveller-sublime compared to their Corvidae cousins. These are the stalwart winter residents of the northern isles, whereas the swallows come and go across continents. How slow I must look to them.

Now, everything I notice is birds. The world above comes swooping down. Glaucous gulls. Starlings. Sparrows.

My attention becomes more intense, senses keen-edged, no longer dulled by the drudge of painted walls and chairs and rooms where nothing moves or grows.

A flicker, and a new bird enters the theatre of my notice. It alights on a lichened dyke land-side of the road. The bird is distinctly patterned, the size of a sparrow, but with movements that are more finessed, as if it is subtly aware of audience. The beak is cream coloured and wedge-shaped and it is surrounded by a rosette of red. There is a veil of white feathers that flow onto the breast and a shallow low hood of black that marks the top of the back where a cloak of delicate russet-beige spreads to the bird’s waist. The wings when extended are resplendent with first black, then bright mustard-yellow and then grey wing feathers.

A goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis – the thistle thrush. Its mate arrives and the pair swap perches, swooping and replacing each other in a brief dance across the dyke and into the field behind.

I cross the lane to watch more clearly. I feel privileged, you could say I feel blessed, to be their audience.

For the remainder of the walk, the kilometre or so to the outskirts of town and harbour, I want to announce to everyone the good news of what I have seen. My heart is full and beating fast. I think my Quaker friend would understand.

But what silences my joy?

What makes me embarrassed to tell everyone about the goldfinches?

I am not sure. But here, at the very least, I have written this, and I am glad.


Gabrielle Barnby



One thought on “Carduelis carduelis”

  1. Janis Talbot says:

    A beautiful homage to an Orkney spring walk Gabrielle. A delight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Gabrielle Barnby