Kirsteen Bell

Kirsteen Bell

The Kinship of Ravens

“Did you see anything interesting?” I ask my husband. He has come in from taking the dog through the wee woodland at the back of the croft. 

“Just loads of ravens.” Not unusual. “One didn’t move from its branch when I walked right underneath it.” More unusual.

Once decimated in the Scottish Highlands as vermin, the common raven now lives up to its name here around Loch Eil. Where other people might draw bluetits or goldfinch to their bird-tables, the landfill behind us attracts the shining dark of Corvus corax. Their deep percussive song and whipping wingbeats are a steady presence in my life and they have become as dear to me as any companion pet might – but I wouldn’t say we are pals.

I have walked and waved under the ravens for years. Even when I’m not looking, their constant conversations draw my attention out and up. At any given time of day, I can glance from a window, maybe see a pair in one of the east oaks, weighty against the southern sky. Their bodies tilt and stretch with each coarse krrk; their conversation might pick up pace, modulating in tone as they become more agitated, just as two others might tumble with the same noisy croaks right across my eyeline. Ravens provide the constant soundtrack to my days.

I know they must see me. Corvids are known to recognise and remember human faces. And if they can spot an immobile grasshopper while in flight, they can see the detail of my face, possibly even know my expressions. Never though have they given any indication that my presence might be accepted: rather the opposite.

Were I to walk up the hill at dusk now, in February, I would find a group of about ten lifting and falling under the grey-blue skyline and blending into the darkening western mountains. They come to roost in amongst the tips of the birch and oak, their continuous calls fading to quiet as the light leaves the woods. I have sat waiting in a low mossy crook until I could barely make out the black forms settling above, before tentatively taking steps towards the ravens’ chosen trees. Always I hope to get a little closer. Always they sense my movement, breaking off from their branches one by one and whomping their way along the tree belt away from me.

So I am slightly offended by this raven that does not fly away when my husband walks beneath it.

Perhaps they are like cats and can sense when someone is trying too hard. Like ancient peoples who regarded ravens as a bird of omen, I am watchful for any change in the birds’ behaviour that might indicate they want to talk to me too. On reflection, maybe I just creep them out.

On one occasion I find a child’s plastic shoe underneath a regular raven perch. The birds often discard cleaned bones and plastic tubs scavenged from the dump, and so I assume that this shoe has been mistaken for food. An over-optimistic voice in my head recalls that corvids are known to bring gifts to humans they feel gratitude to; I look up to a trio hovering in the trees a little way above, looking twitchy and ready to hop if I come any closer.

Is this a gift? I whisper “Thank you,” and add a gentle krrk. Just in case.

While it could be argued that they might be grateful as I do feed them – through the circuitous route of my own bin-waste reaching the landfill – it seems quite a leap that the ravens could see this connection. I have considered putting food out for them deliberately and waiting with a scope to be able to see their expressions at close quarters. My fear of attracting rats has so far stopped me from doing so, demonstrating the selectiveness of my attention and regard. I admire the ravens’ synanthropic nature, that they retain their wildness even as their lives are intertwined with ours, but the same could be said of rats.

Our relationship with ravenkind is long, and equally selective. In his 1997 book The Raven, Derek Ratcliffe traces raven fortunes alongside humans from the last ice age and beyond. Their perceived value waxes and wanes with human societies’ need and regard.

Leaving aside for a moment ravens’ oft-mythological status, in the Middle Ages they were welcomed as cleansers of middens and providers of urban sanitation. That life travels in circles and habits die hard is evidenced by ‘my’ ravens here now. I have counted over 100 flying north over the loch towards Glen Sulaig at night and have heard that the same number fly south. The few that roost in our trees are a tiny fraction of those that are attracted daily to the dump.

Until the 1600s there were fines for the killing of a raven, partly because of their usefulness. However, as sanitation improved in the UK’s cities, the ravens’ protected status declined. In rural areas, where they scavenged on dead livestock, corvid royalty became even less welcome. By the mid-1700s they had a bounty on their heads. Ratcliffe notes that between 1837 and 1840 Glengarry Estate paid rewards for no less than 475 raven deaths.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 returned a level of protection – notwithstanding special license requests to NatureScot – and raven numbers have recovered across Scotland. Still, I fret about what will happen to the ravens here when the landfill no longer accepts food waste.

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gases and move towards sustainable waste disposal, the Scottish Government have set a target to cease the disposal of biodegradable waste into municipal landfill by 2025. Just as we once cleaned up our towns, we are ostensibly taking steps to clean up our planet. Whether or not the target is met remains to be seen, and I feel the ravens are a hidden weight hanging in the balance. Lest I be misunderstood, I know this is in the best interest of all lives here, on this croft, on this Earth. I will not miss the clouds of methane that roll down the hill and out over the loch on cold days. Within that knowledge though, I don’t know what to do with my worry over the ravens. Will they leave when there is no longer food waste for them to scavenge? This fear is what drives me up the hill most days, calling pointlessly to these birds that ignore me, as they rightly should.

It is likely that a few ravens might stay, but the flocks of juveniles will begin to travel further afield in search of food. They will play in skies far from my eyes, birling and skiting through different air with their future mates, find crags far beyond the reach of my scope in which to build their winter nests: if they endure at all. History has demonstrated that protection can change, and what protection can we afford them from the inward-looking vagaries of human culture? From the choices we make in this shared landscape?

I do what I can, which is to say, I watch them while they are here. I peer and I worry and I try to notice, try to know the ravens before our actions force them to leave again.

A few days after my husband’s close encounter, near where I found the shoe, I pick up the plastic disembodied head of one of Disney’s seven dwarves. I place it reverently on a nearby fencepost. Regardless of whether ravens choose to be associated with us or not, whether they deserve to be ennobled or censured, their lives and fortunes are inescapably entwined with our own. I thank them, my ravens who are not mine at all, for bringing me Happy’s head. 

Kirsteen Bell
Kirsteen Bell

Kirsteen Bell lives and writes on a croft in Lochaber. She can also be found at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre, where she is Projects Manager and Highland Book Prize Co-ordinator.