Running of the Deer

· mumblings ·

I’ve been in Scotland for some of this week at a conference, and the proximity to craggy shorelines and heather-covered hills reminded me again of an experience when I was working on the Isle of Mull ten years ago1.

I was working on the island for a charity running whale-watching tours. In the early part of the summer, I lived on the boat used for the tours, but towards the beginning of autumn, the storms made it… interesting to live aboard full time. So I moved to a static caravan near the owners’ partially constructed house (they were also living in a caravan). It was cosy and perfectly comfortable, but while it had a bathroom with a toilet and shower, the toilet wasn’t actually connected to a sewage pipe. That meant that I had to wander to the nearby portacabin when I wanted to use the toilet.

One memorable night, I woke up in the middle of the night and realised with some irritation that I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep again unless I took a trip to the portacabin. I sleepily pulled on a coat and wellies and left the caravan. It was a pitch black night around the time of a new moon. One of the joys of Mull (and much of the Highlands and Islands) is that there is almost no light pollution. Nights are black unless there is a full moon, and you see star fields that take your breath away if you are used to the pathetically faint glimmerings visible from cities. I had a torch with me, but was trying to let my eyes adapt to the darkness, so I started walking cautiously in the general direction of the portacabin.

The area next to the caravan was an area of marshy bog, with tussocks of grass and rushes alternating with shallow pools and muddy hollows. Suddenly, I heard the thud and splash of what sounded like hundreds of hooves and smelt the herby, aromatic scent of bog myrtle as the leaves were crushed. I could see only a depthless, soft blackness, but the huffing breath and occasional harsh barks told me that a large herd of red deer was passing through.

The memory of that moment raises the hairs on the back of my neck even now, because it felt so ancient and visceral, and because it was completely non-visual. I heard the drumming and plashing of the hooves and the cavernous breath of the deer. I smelt the sweet, humid grassiness of their massed breath, mixed with the herby bog myrtle, and the slight musky odour of their bodies and their dung. I felt the heat of their exertion, the way that they nudged each other’s flanks as they ran, keeping together in the darkness. It was thrilling.

I stood rooted to the spot for several minutes after the herd had passed through, listening to the breeze in the tops of the birches and my own breath and heartbeat. Now, whenever I hear the carol “The Holly and the Ivy”, I experience the phrase “and the running of the deer” in a completely different way. In my mind, I hear the music slow and become darker and older, underscored by the percussion of hooves on tussocks and the rhythm of breath.

  1. Yipes! Ten years! ↩︎