The happy highways

Those of us who have had a country childhood have drunk the milk of paradise. For my brother and sister and me, the burns, moors and meadows of the rain-washed Scottish Lowlands were like a vast granary that we absorbed with all our senses. We listened to birdsong and the barking of foxes, ate raw turnips, brambles, mushrooms and the first unfolding hawthorn leaves, calling them bread and cheese. We sniffed at May blossom and the honey-sweet heather. To the end of our days we would be impregnated with this closeness to the soil, to animals and birds.

We set off on daylong explorations, along the bed of the burn, hunting for the source as if it were the Nile. In the woodlands we skirted past gypsy encampments, uneasily aware of their glinting eyes and whining, wheedling voices: ''Show us your hands, weans, and we'll read your fortune.''

They were too much like the ogres and witches of fairy tales for us to linger.

In spring we walked warily across the fields for fear of treading on larks' or peewees' nests. We collected frog spawn in rushy pools, carrying it home in jam jars. ''We'll fill the house with frogs,'' my brother promised us. Our mother accepted as a matter of course not only invasions of frogs but stray dogs , hedgehogs, a hare rescued from a trap, a fox cub, an owl with a broken wing and other birds that perched along the kitchen pully.

From March onwards I would prod my sister awake to hear the dawn chorus - ''Listen!'' - while from the surrounding woodlands came a fluting that swelled to a full orchestra, then tapered to the single piping of a robin. In April and May we put our ears to the trunk of hollow trees, and when the tree shook with chirruppings we knew that the great tits or willow warblers had nested there again.

We haunted the outlying farms, especially the one belonging to three brothers , Jimmy, Bob, our hero, and the fearless braggart, Willie. When we played around the yard or in the hayloft Willie liked to boast of his exploits. ''Hear the rats! Once they louped out of the corn in their thousands and I caught them in my bare hauns! See yon bull. Once his horns passed clean through my leg and oot the ither side. I flung him ower my heid and that settled him!'' We listened, spellbound, believing every word.

That farm was our paradise, especially in summer at haymaking, when Bob allowed us to help with the haystacks. ''Haud that!'' he would command, or ''Tak' that rope!'' In all our lives we would never have higher praise than his ''Weel done!'' His country voice would echo in memory over the years.

We crammed a whole lifetime into a day then. We returned to the farm in the late July twilight, riding on the hay wain, my brother astride the big Clydesdale, Dick. We were dizzy with the perfume of clover and honeysuckle, the warmth of the horse's flanks and the new-mown hay. We had tea in the farm kitchen, scones hot from the griddle and fresh-made strawberry jam. ''See yon dug, fierce as a lion,'' Willie would begin. ''Wheesht,'' Bob would break in sternly. ''Your talk's no' fit for bairns' ears.''

In the autumn with the first frosts we went nightwalking to look for shooting stars. ''Wish a wish!'' we called as they came slithering down the sky. At this season our father sometimes shook us out of sleep. ''Come and see!'' ''What is it?'' ''The aurora borealis.'' The words gave us shivers of delight. He led us out into the garden to show us the blue and silver northern lights. We imagined that we heard, perhaps we did hear, music playing as the lights danced above us. The mystery of the starry sky and those spinning banners came over us in a rapture.

In winter we watched for the return of the wild swans to our loch, their wings twanging like harps. ''Here they come! Three more than last year.'' We crawled along the bare hedgerows among drifts of beech leaves, listening with all our ears for the faint snoring of hedgehogs in their winter sleep.

In hard frosts we flooded the lawn and skated by moonlight. We prayed for snow and pulled our sledges down from the loft in readiness for the first flake. Above all, winter stood for Christmas, gathering holly for decorations in the woods and returning through a frosty sunset, singing carols all the way home along the deep lanes.

On Christmas Eve we lit candles in the parish kirk and rubbed amazed eyes at the miraculous transformation of the three brothers, in shapeless black suits smelling of mothballs, their tousled hair sleeked flat. Willie sang with loud enthusiasm, and with his own words. ''Awa' in a manger, nae crib for his wee heid . . . .''

Simplify, simplify, says Thoreau, and how little we needed for contentment. We had neither television, radio nor cinema, and what use would they have been to us who had all the real drama of nature around us? Yon far country is re-created for us in a flash by the cry of a whaup, the taste of blaeberries, purpling the mouth, by the rough texture of a calf's tongue against our hands, the sight of hares dancing in March meadows, the fragrance of sweet briar. We see it all, touch it, breathe it into our innermost being and tread again the happy highways of a country childhood.

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