Yesterday was Chicken Day in Elphin, the most easterly of Assynt's crofting townships. I was there attempting to simulate how neolithic people might have fired pottery, which soon turned out to be an exercise in discovery of novel ways to make perfectly innocent-looking ceramics explode on an open fire. There's more about that on Historic Assynt's diary page here.
But I thought it was worth a note here about the Chicken Day itself. Some of it was a conventional country fair - cake stall, raffle, that kind of thing. But everything had a poultry flavour and, as the day went on, it became more and more surreal. The biggest stall was the one selling bird food. Entry to the beautiful pet show was restricted to fowl. In the treasure hunt all the treasure was eggs. The pictures on display were all, you're getting the drift here, of hens. There was an egg and spoon race, naturally.
But the highlight of the day was the Chicken Race. The Elphin folk had been advertising for anyone who wanted to bring their hens and take on the local birds and several birders from north Assynt, Achiltibuie and even Ullapool took up the challenge. There was an Irish bookie running a tote and betting was hot. Even I put a couple of quid on Bluebell the bird from Stoer, and I'm really not the betting sort.
At 4pm, the field consisted of ten hens. Confused Duck had been hot favourite but in the end was too confused to make it to the starting line. The birds were held in check by their owners. There was a breathless silence.
Then the race began. The hens were released onto the course and the watching crowd erupted into shouts of encouragement.
The birds set off up the track, to whoops and bellows from the crowd. A couple of hens kept close to the fence and edged their way along in the right direction. The crowd went wild.
The rest of the hens just wandered about. Some of them started to peck at the grass. Shouting began to dissolve into snorts. Encouragement descended to insult. The hens appeared unconcerned. They didn't get the race thing and the grass was rather good.Was it possible that some of them had a faint blush of shame? No, they made it quite plain - they just weren't into that competitive stuff.
One rather handsome black bird, however, seemed to understand the point of the exercise and, in a leisurely but determined manner, strutted her way to the finishing line. A subset of the crowd brayed with glee. The rest of us were too busy laughing at the remaining birds to worry. Especially once the humans started trying to catch their chickens. Then they showed they could run! The winning chicken, just to outshine them all, found a gap in the fence and was well away out into the peat and rushes before being eventually brought to a standstill and restored to her jubilant, and no doubt greatly enriched, owner.
A fine way to spend an afternoon. Really, I can't wait for next year. I might even have to get a chicken.