On hearing the first gowk*

Loch Aineort, South Uist
Loch Aineort, South Uist

Year of Natural Scotland

Capricious – whimsical – wayward – fickle – freakish – crotchety, northern springs will either delight or drive you to despair. The last week of May and only now are we seeing the tender pale green leaves of the birch, willow and rowan. In the cool air the buzz of the bees and hoverflies is muted and the flight of the green-veined white butterflies is languid.

Whatever the spring weather I know that summer is not far away when I hear the first cuckoo. According to the old rhyme in England they arrive in April and sing in May, but here I have yet to hear even a single cuck-oo, never mind an abandonment of cuckoos, before mid-May. To search for my summer harbinger I have to abandon my usual haunts and go to the east coast of the island where the evocative call echoes around the rugged hills and shores of the sea lochs.

O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

William Wordsworth captures the wandering echo call of the male cuckoo perfectly, but somehow the music of Delius will always come to mind when I hear the first gowk even though this rugged landscape is a hardly reminiscent of the soft green of the English or French countryside.

*Gowk is the Scots word for cuckoo; also a simpleton or fool. A gowk storm is one that is over quickly and usually refers to a is an untimely fall of snow in early Spring hence “the advent of the cuckoo calls forth the old season’s spite, and in consequence is a gowk storm”.

3 thoughts on “On hearing the first gowk*

  1. Beautiful picture, Chris – but isn’t a lot of South Uist quite flat? Interesting to hear about gowks and gowk storms. We were pleased to hear a cuckoo while we were in Orkney

    • The east coast of the Uists is rugged and although the highest point is just above 600m it is a long walk when starting at sea level.
      I am fascinated by the local names for plants and animals and the etymology of gowk is amazing and linked to the sound of the cuckoos call. Too nerdy for words!

      • Thanks for the topographical info – once a geographer, always a geographer! I love words too and my Desert Island book would definitely be a good dictionary – would keep me amused for weeks if the island was too sandy to garden!

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