Than Whom None More Excellent

Posted on August 11, 2015 by Cape Rebel

From Gods of the Morning - A Bird's Eye View of the Highlands

In the dense shade of the old yew clump there is not just one dog grave, but a line of similar stones. Six, to be exact. Five rough boulders in a row and one cut stone with an inscription: ‘Max, 1968-1981’ and something in Latin underneath. I dropped the woodcock feathers and bent to rub the moss off the stone. I had certainly not forgotten the dog, but I had momentarily forgotten the inscription. I love to come here quietly to remember them all and the decades they span: the Labradors, Max and Jubilee; Hobson, my first Jack Russell; Butch, another Labrador; then Rough and Tumble, two more Jack Russell brothers. The most recent is little Tumble, whose valiant terrier heart finally failed after fifteen years of constant, unwavering loyalty.

We didn’t plan it, but dogs have always been an important ingredient in our Highland lives. My first, Max, a yellow Labrador, was bright, alert, desperate to please and, as a consequence, very easy to train. I learned early that a well-trained dog was a useful adjunct to studying wildlife. Over the thirteen years of his life, Max found hundreds of ground-nesting birds without ever harming one. He would tell me with a glance and a wag of the tail if we were close to deer or foxes, hares or rabbits; he located exciting finds, such as capercaillie, ptarmigan, dotterel and woodcock nests, wildcat dens, otter holts, new-born roe deer fawns and, on one occasion, a woman who had suffered a heart attack and collapsed into deep heather in the dark. Max saved her life; we rushed her to the hospital just in time. On many more occasions, by adopting the ‘set’ position and freezing at a scent, he would warn me that other wildlife had recently passed through.

If you’ve had an exceptional dog, when it dies and you want to replace it, the spectre of invidious comparisons looms up, like a fog. Max was my bachelor dog. He was my only child and loved one, my constant companion through good times and bad, the more cherished because I had nursed him back from puppy distemper at nine weeks old, and because he bridged two great changes in my life: the first, moving from England to forge a home and a career in the Highlands, and the second, marriage and the birth of my children.

Only ten days after collecting him from the breeder Max had become wretched and fevered; a blonde, limp bundle unable even to lift his head. The vets told me there was no hope. Reluctant to give in, and more out of distraction than from expectation, I teased drops of milk and glucose into his throat through a pipette. He clung on. By day he lived inside my shirt and at night I fell asleep with my hand on him in my bed in an attempt to monitor his fluttering heartbeat. After a week he began to rally, and after three weeks, I knew he would pull through. I had a puppy again, but by some unforeseen mutual alchemy a special bond had taken root.

He grew up to be intelligent, intuitive and loyal beyond any definition of absolute dedication I could have imagined. He became my shadow, redefining the expression ‘dogging my heels’, travelling everywhere with me in my car. Pleasing me seemed to be his entire life’s purpose.

Training him was a mutual-adoration process: I was keen to fulfil his soaring ambition to please and he was desperate to succeed. It was as though I could teach him almost anything I wished and he would grasp it as soon as we had begun. I hung tassles onto lever door handles and he quickly learned to pull them open, then push them closed behind him, letting himself in and out of my cottage. He had an excellent nose and could search and retrieve over great distances. His mouth was as soft as jelly; I trained him on hen’s eggs and never once did he break or drop one, delivering them delicately into my hand as if each was a precious gift.

Once, when he was about six years old, I took a group of field centre visitors to the summit of a four thousand-foot mountain in Glen Affric on a fine June day to search for the exquisitely delicate, red- and pink-flowered alpine azalea, Loiseleuria procumbens, which creeps an inch high over the thin tundra summit. It was a long walk in – over four miles – and another mile of steep, breathless haul to the ridge. We found and photographed our azalea and ate our sandwiches at the summit cairn in brilliant sunshine. Max settled down beside me and fell asleep. Then we slowly headed down. At the bottom of the mountain a woman named Kirsty suddenly realised she had left her binoculars at the cairn. She wanted to go back, but I pointed out it would take at least an hour and a half. It was already four in the afternoon with more than four miles still to walk to our vehicle and five other guests all keen to get home for tea. I could not let her go back up the mountain on her own.

I told her not to worry and that I would return for them myself the following day. She wasn’t happy with that, worried that it would rain or the binoculars might be stolen by other climbers. It was a tricky moment. I could feel the others glaring at me, all agitating to get home. I looked at Max. A proposition loomed up that might allow us all to continue walking out. ‘It’s just possible,’ I ventured, not really believing it was, ‘that Max will go back and get them for you.’ There were incredulous looks all round, but over several days they had seen how roundly trained he was and not even Kirsty chose to challenge me.

I took her cardigan and held it to his nose. I rubbed his ears affectionately, pointed back up the trail and called, ‘High lost!’ He set off back up the path at a fast lope. The last we saw of him was his thick otter tail gyrating enthusiastically as he vanished into the grassy contours of the mountain. We started the long walk out.

An hour later the sun had gone and we arrived at our vehicle cold and tired. I kept looking over my shoulder – no sign of Max. Everyone loaded their rucksacks into the Land Rover, some changed their boots, others stood about looking apprehensive. An uneasy silence had descended over us all. It had been a long, arduous day and my guests were getting stiff. No Max. ‘Jump in,’ I urged, as nonchalantly as I could. ‘I’m not worried about Max. I’ll run you home and come straight back for him.’

It was the last thing I wanted to do, an extra thirty-six miles there and back, but I couldn’t really keep them waiting any longer. I fired up the engine and turned the vehicle round. Just as I was about to let the clutch up there was an electrifying gasp from everyone on board, then a cheer as they all tumbled out of the vehicle. Down the track, still fifty yards away, Max was padding towards us with a pair of black binoculars held firmly in his mouth. His tail was wagging energetically; his eyes shone with unfettered canine pride. Kirsty burst into tears.

I hated to be parted from Max even for a day. On the occasions that I had to go away we both pined and I came home to rapturous, whole body-wagging welcomes to the very end of his long life. At the age of thirteen – a good age for a Labrador – he suffered a stroke and a little while later he died, swiftly and painlessly, with his head in my lap. I mourned him then and I mourn him now. I knew in my bones I would never have another dog like Max. Such is the price of love that, whether we resist it or not, some small part of us dies with the beloved so that, as we emerge from the moment, we know in our hearts that nothing can ever be quite the same again. 

I buried Max beside the yew grove and planted thirteen daffodil bulbs on his grave, one for every year of his blessed life. Soon afterwards, honouring a local Highland tradition – many country houses have dog cemetries with walls or railings around them – I erected a small stone carved with a Latin inscription, Quo non praestantior alter, written of loyal Misenus, son of Aeolus, of whom in Virgil’s ‘Æneid’ it is said, ‘Than whom none more excellent’.

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