Gilbert White’s Swallows, by Tim Dee.

Last year, moving from England to South Africa in June, I had two springs. This year it looks like I’ll have two autumns – I am unlikely to be leaving Cape Town before the European fall at the earliest.  Though there are still swallows outside today, it is autumn here now. Time then to take medicine from my books. I have made a transcription of the entries on spring swallows from Gilbert White’s Journals. They make a season-song or a reverdie – a poem of regreening –  as good as any I know.

Eric Ravilious, The Tortoise in the Kitchen Garden from ‘The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne’, 1938

Eric Ravilious, The Tortoise in the Kitchen Garden from ‘The Writings of Gilbert White of Selborne’, 1938

It is striking how often White used the word appears to describe the return of the swallows to Selborne. It doesn’t necessarily mean more than it says but it does carry some sense of the birds materialising and the suddenness of their arrival. The word begs the question – From where? There can be magic in appearances. White was challenged right up until his death by what he saw and what he could deduce and what he could know about migration. He wavered in his opinions and never totally gave up on the idea that the hirundines were hiding, were birds that hibernated like Timothy, his inherited tortoise.

The word appear trips up time. It arrives without coming. Its now is all. Hey presto!  There it is – this instant ­­­– a swallow. In this it is good for all sorts of spring action. Swifts appear even more than swallows. Blossom appears. Ezra Pound saw something of the ecstatic time-collapse or compression that is suggested by appearance, and he twisted his words sometimes to capture it.  His archaism in his version of The Seafarer does this: ‘bosque taketh blossom’; and in his poem ‘The Spring’ he has this: ‘every branch have back what last year lost’.  That sounds like a translation from some other time and somewhere else and that is good because it describes a translation in life too.

These are Gilbert’s swallows (and house and sand martins, called bank by him) on loan from his Journals, on loan from Africa, on loan from the mud at the bottom of the pond at the edge of his village, on loan from within the thatch of an empty house, on loan. . .


13 April 1768. Hirundo domestica!!!


11 April 1769. Hirundo domestica!


11 April 1770. Hirundo domestica Swallows amidst frost & snow.


14 April 1771. Hirundo domestica Swallow appears as last year amidst frost & snow.


6 April 1772. Hirundo domestica! Swallow comes early.


6 April 1773. I am informed that three swallows appeared over a mill-pond at Bramshot on Sunday March 28. They were seen over the paper-mill pond by Mr Pym.

12 April 1773. Hirundo domestica Swallow appears.


4 April 1774. Hirundo domestica. Two swallows appear at Faringdon.


9 April 1775. Hirundo domestica. Swallow appears.


28 March 1776. Hirundo domestica! On the 28: Farmer Tredgold saw five hirundines at Willey-mill near Farnham playing about briskly over the mill-pond: four, he says, were house-swallows, & the fifth an house-martin, with a white rump. These birds are very early.

9 April 1776. Four swallows at Alton.

10 April 1776. One swallow at Wallingford.

13 April 1776. Two swallows at Shillingford-bridge.

15 April 1776. Swallow appears at Selborne.


26 and 27 March 1777. Two sultry days: Mr Snooke’s tortoise came forth out of the ground; but retired again to its hibernaculum in a day or two, & did not appear any more for near a fortnight. Swallows appeared also on the same days, & withdrew again: a strong proof this of their hiding.

11 April 1777. Hirundo domestica. One swallow seen at Farnham, & three at Selborne.


4 April 1778. A swallow was seen this morning near Ripley.

15 April 1778. No swallow yet at Selborne.

16 April 1778. No swallow.

17 April 1778. No swallows appear.

18 April 1778. Swallows at Selborne.


6 April 1779. Hirundo domestica. Two swallows at Selborne.


15 April 1780. Swallow appears.


4 April 1781. Swallow appears.


7 April 1782. Some swallows, or bank-martins over Bins-pond.

10 April 1782. Swallow appears over the streams near Alresford.

19 April 1782. Two swallows.

20 April 1782. Swallows in the village.


8 April 1783. Swallow appeared at Liss.

13 April 1783. Three swallows at Goleigh.

18 April 1783. Swallows at Faringdon.

22 April 1783. No hirundines.

23 April 1783. No hirundines.

24 April 1783. No hirundines.

25 April 1783. No hirundines.

26 April 1783. Several swallows on the road.

27 April 1783. Many swallows Selborne.


7 April 1784. A farmer told Mr Yalden that he saw two swallows on this day at Hawkley!!

9 April 1784. Swallow seen near the forest.

16 April 1784. Many swallows seen at Oak-hanger ponds: perhaps they were bank-martins.

22 April 1784. Some swallows are come but I see no insects except bees, & some phalaenae in the evenings.

21 April 1784. Two swallows about the street.


12 April 1785. Swallow seen at Petersfield. Swallow at Selborne.

6 April 1786. Swallow appears near the forest.


15 April 1786. Three swallows at Rood. Three swallows at Candovers


Swallows were first seen this year at Messina in Sicily. 27 March 1787

On March 29th some swallows were seen over the lake of Geneva, & at Rolle. On March 30 several were seen at the same place.

1 April 1787. Three swallows appear Selborne.


16 April 1788. Swallow seen at Selborne; one yesterday at Faringdon.


13 April 1789. Swallow seen at Candovers.

20 April 1789. Several swallows, h:martins, & bank-martins play over Oakhanger ponds.

24 April 1789. Swallows at Oakhanger ponds: none yet frequent the village.

29 April 1789. Scarce an hirundo has been seen about this village.

30 April 1789. Several swallows, & martins around the village.


14 April 1790. First swallow seen at Fyfield

22 April 1790. Some swallows about the village.


7 April 1791. Swallow returns, & is seen over the village

19 April 1791. Tho’ a swallow or two were seen in the village as long ago as the 7th yet they have absconded for some time past. The house-martin is also withdrawn…


17 April 1792. Saw a pair of swallows at Alton.

21 April 1792. No swallows yet seen here, & the martins have withdrawn themselves.

26 April 1792. Few swallows yet.

7 May 1792. No swifts, & only one or two swallows, & Martins.


6 March 1793. On the 6th of last October I saw many swallows hawking for flies around the Plestor, & a row of young ones, with square tales, sitting on spar of the old ragged thatch of the empty house. This morning Dr Chandler, & I caused the roof to be examined, hoping to have found some of those birds in their winter retreat: but we did not meet with any success, tho’ Benham searched every hole, & every breach in the decayed roof.

April 9 1793.Thomas Knight, a sober kind, assures us, that this day on Wish-hanger common between Hedleigh & Frinsham he saw several Bank-martins playing in & out, & hanging before so nest-holes in the sand-hill, where these birds usually nestle. This incident confirms my suspicions, that this species of Hirundo is to be seen first of any; & gives great reason to suppose that they do not leave their wild haunts at all, but are secreted amidst the clefts, & caverns of those abrupt cliffs where they usually spend their summers. The late severe weather considered, it is not very probable that these birds should have migrated so early from a tropical region thro’ all these cutting winds, & pinching frosts: but it is easy to suppose that they may, like bats & flies, have been awakened by the influence of the Sun, amidst their secret labebrae [lairs], where they have spent the uncomfortable foodless months in a torpid state, & the profoundest of slumbers.

21 April 1793. Two swallows seen at forest-side.

23 April 1793. A swallow over my meadow.

29 April 1793. I have seen no hirundo yet myself.

30 April 1793. Saw two swallows at Gracious street.

11 May 1793. Swallows begin to build.

27 May 1793. The season is so cold, that no species of Hirundines make any advances towards building, & breeding.

4 June 1793. Many martins are gathering loam down at Gracious street, & beginning to build.


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