Spring again in the Glen.

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A bright crisp Glenshee morning.

Well Spring has finally arrived after what has felt like a long and protracted winter. This year we have had more snow than I have previously experienced since moving here and all of the salt the council has been spreading on the roads has caused chaos with the bodywork of my car, it is really corrosive stuff.

As I mentioned in the last update, I had applied for work as a lift operator at Glenshee for the ski season, considering the season last year lasted about 12 days I thought the idea sounded worth a try and finally received a call to go up and start work. This year the season lasted about four months and getting up at the cold and dark crack of dawn, to get to Glenshee for 8 soon lost some of its initial charm. The job however proved to be quite fun, I am a chatty person and enjoyed the banter the job allowed with members of the public who were in essence there to have a nice time. This year because of all of the snow, the fun was plentiful and by default the public largely enjoyed themselves, in the entire four months I was only moaned at once and that was first thing in the morning because all of the runs were not quite up and running, so as a random customer satisfaction survey goes we were not doing too badly. The holy grail of Glenshee is the Glas Maol area and we were frequently asked if, or when that area was going to open, Glas Maol is right up the back of the Sunnyside at Glenshee, it is quite a difficult place to prepare and maintain as far as the pisters are concerned and it usually opens later on in the season, but it is a spectacular place to be after a good dump of snow. The snow usually fills in first on the Cairnwell side for some reason, and only really spreads up towards Glas Maol later in the season, in the case of this year it was after January. I am not sure what drives this, it could be weather patterns. This season the “beast from the east” did a great job of delivering snow all over the hill and because it came from the east it filled in areas that are often ignored by the more common westerly weather earlier in the season. I mentioned the customers earlier, some of them were amazing, I spent some time chatting to an old boy in his eighties, he was a season ticket holder and turned up whenever the conditions looked good, so quite frequently this season. If things looked really good he would book himself into the Youth hostel in Breamar for a week. As I got to know him I became more and more impressed by him. Last year he did the North Coast 500, a 500 mile road trip round the north coast of Scotland, usually undertaken by people on motorbikes or sports cars, he did it on his bicycle, previous to that he has climbed all of the Munroe’s (hills over 3000 feet) and has now started on the Corbett’s (hills over 2500 feet) which is a challenge few people would consider and this year he plans to cycle from John ‘o groats to Lands’ end. I asked him what was driving him in his eighties to do all of these things and it turned out that he had lost his wife to cancer five years earlier and had a brush with it himself recently so he was rushing to complete his bucket list before he no longer could. I spoke to another lady who had had a stroke and she had been told to take things easy, the stroke had impaired her ability to walk and her sense of balance and the medical advice was in essence to sit it out. She became rather bored with that, so she started walking as much as she was able and quite quickly improved to the point where she could get back on her bicycle. While attending one of the many routine doctors’ visits the doctor expressed his surprised at the speed of her recovery and asked what she had been up to, she told him that she had progressed from walking to some cycling, she was severely reprimanded, the doctor explained that the condition was caused by thin arteries in her brain and the exertion could have caused another stroke. She went home and considered this advice and then went for a bicycle ride. This was five years ago and when I met her at Glenshee she had got her skiing back and was doing some quite serious rides in the summer months. I asked her why she had decided not to heed the doctor’s advice, her response was, that if she had been sitting at home watching day time TV she would now be on antidepressants and that her life style might be shortened by her activities but had also been greatly enhanced.

Having described some of the customers it would be unfair not to mention a few of the staff at Glenshee, there were quite a few characters working there this season, the first one I met was Paul, he works in the various Cafes of which there are three around the site. He comes from Alyth and I met him because initially I was driving to a place where I could catch a lift with the Alyth staff bus as it passed. Paul is quite a gregarious chap and has an extraordinary use of Perthshire vocabulary, a bit like Billy Connolly does with his native Glaswegian, Paul has an Alyth way of explaining things which is nearly always funny, sometimes incite full and generally blasphemous. He was telling me that he had a daughter with a previous girlfriend, he had met her on the Isle of Harris where her family lived while he was working there. The child was born in the hospital on Stornoway as is the case for most of the island children. Paul was by his girlfriend’s side and was staying at the rather basic hospital accommodation laid on for partners and family. He was telling me he was having difficulty sleeping at night because something out side was making a racket. Finally he had had enough and went outside to see if he could shoo away the culprit, he heard the noise and threw some stones in the general direction it came from. Unknown to him, his nocturnal operations had been witnessed and he had a visit from the Police. It transpired the noise was being made by a corncrake, a nocturnally noisy, rather rare and very much protected migratory member of the coot family. He promised not to throw any more stones and was let off with a very stern warning. (The corncake is a key species in the world of the RSPB and they have been using this bird to gain political power and control over the residents of the Hebrides for some time now, they are not endangered in Europe but are getting increasingly rare in the Hebrides despite the public expenditure and legislative protection. See Ian Mitchell ‘Isles of the West’.) Another character was Zoe, she had a quirky mid north sea sort of accent, she had grown up in Aberdeen but following the breakup of her parents’ marriage she had moved to Sweden via Ireland, the ensuing collaboration of all of these accentual influences gave the diminutive Zoe a slightly beguiling pronunciation. She was pretty firmly of the young hippy type, I would place her in her thirties and she too worked in the cafes, she was very keen on herbal remedies and I was fairly regularly given infusions of ginger or herbs and honey to sort out anything from a ticklish cough to stomach trouble or occasionally a hangover. She was a tough little thing but I could tell that her parents splitting up had shaken her as a kid and probably drove her fierce sense of independence. This did not stop her having fun, If there was a party anywhere she seemed to be in the thick of it wherever possible and over the ski season she broke at least a couple of hearts. She took off for Sweden just after the season finished and is probably causing more trouble over there than can be fixed with an herbal infusion. Most of the staff range from old timers who have done the season for years to young school leaver’s, people who are struggling to find their place in things and all of those in-between like me who like the idea of a paid adventure. Quite a few of the old timers came from the oil industry when it was in its hay day and most of them don’t really seem to need the money, some of them being very well off. Rather, they are there for the comradery and to give the day a purpose and to keep their hand in, on what is quite a hands on operation. Peter, one of the latter had worked in the oil industry all over the world and has had more adventures (some rather dangerous) than the rest of us will ever experience. He has taken his quad bike all the way up one side of South America and Africa, he had special caterpillar tracks fitted so it could cope with lots of sand and mud etc. He had stories of derring do amongst gun toting Russians and had explored large tracts of the arctic and Antarctic both with work and out of personal interest. I liked him, but he was very much his own man and things had to pretty much go his way despite logic suggesting occasionally an alternative route. There were only a couple of people I did not really get on with, one was a fellow liftie who had a rather aggressive attitude with the public and who seemed always to be trying to dictate from above which does not wash with me, he was ex-army and was a bit of a bully. There was also a ski patroller, the function of a ski patroller is to check the ’up’ runs on the ski tow lifts and then ski the pisted runs looking for and marking hazards before allowing the slopes to open, then they become the centres’ first aid people who are called to deal with injuries on the slopes. The one who I struggled with had been fine for a few weeks then one morning gave me a full and comprehensive shouting at. It turned out that I was running a lift where he had been the operator for ten years and I got the brunt of his ire with the lifties who had been there ever since. I don’t quite know why I got it, perhaps the wrong face, or accent or whatever, but from that point onwards he was always a bit of a pain. Finally a week before I left, I challenged him by asking what the problem was and he claimed there wasn’t one, so he was either very odd or lying.

Glenshee is an extremely photogenic location and the name means ‘Glen of the fairies’ in Gaelic, it does have a bit of an inexplicable atmosphere, difficult to pin down but the area is definitely somewhere slightly special. Each day I ended up filling my phone with pictures from the various lifts where I had been posted, I just couldn’t help myself, if the weather was crisp and the sun out, the place takes on a sheen of sparkling purity which is slightly irresistible. There is also some interesting wildlife that you will only find that far up a Scottish mountain, there were Snow buntings, which are pretty rare apart from the car park at Glenshee where they thrive on crumbs left by the visitors and the feed left out by one of the lift operators. Then there are the beautiful Pidgeon sized pure white Ptarmigan, you would need to go to Coire Fionn or Glas Maol to find them, they are pretty reclusive little things and don’t like too much human interference. There are also the seasonally white mountain Hares dashing about on the slopes in their winter camouflage. There is a huge resident population of Grouse, they seem slightly incapable of spotting a ski lift wire and over the season I took a few home for the pot, that had died flying into the wires. The deer are generally a bit lower down while the snow is about, as their food becomes difficult to access. We used to see big herds every morning on the lower foot hills grazing on whatever they could find. I don’t imagine there is much nutrition in anything at that time of year for them and they can lose condition quite quickly despite all of their natural adaptions to life in this environment, they can also die if they get caught in the snow. Five roe deer died by the woods on the other side of the river from me, they were all in-calf females, so were probably not strong enough for the wild conditions, a few of them were curled up and looked like they had just given up where they sat.

When the ‘Beast’ arrived we had so much snow that the centre was closed for a couple of days and I was stuck up the estate track for four days before the weather relented enough to enable the snow plough to get up the track. Being snowed in is quite fun to start off with, then rapidly becomes pretty boring, four days was enough for me.

The arrival of spring is lovely up here, the first indication this year that things were about to get better was the arrival of the wag tails, quickly followed by the Swallows. We had some Oyster Catchers, Lapwings and Curlew but they arrived much earlier when there was still a bit of snow around. I was woken up one night while still working at Glenshee by something clawing at the window followed by a sort of cooing noise. When I went to investigate there were a couple of Little Owls on my bedroom window sill cooing at one another, this then happened a few days later and I realised that the little light on my toothbrush which flashes while it is charging seemed to attract them. This spring I also had a pair of Cuckoo’s in the garden, they are pretty noisy close up, I think the call is designed to ring through the woods, the ones in the garden ring round my bedroom at the crack of dawn.  The estate track has become quite busy which is another indicator of Spring, the snow further up which was preventing the folks at Fealar from getting off their estate to mingle with civilisation for the first time in about 4 months, had finally melted, well to be precise they dug it out with a digger, so they contributed to the track traffic, along with the usual comings and goings of the estate and the keepers. Another announcer of the arrival of spring are the lambs which suddenly make an appearance all over the place, they are amazing and seem to double in size for the first few days. The young males grow horns within a week of being born. The ewe’s milk that is driving this accelerated development must be incredibly rich.

It looks like I will be getting some new neighbours, who are keen to take Daldhu, the cottage two and a half miles up the track from me as a full time let, and they have dropped by a couple of times to see how I manage. John is a policeman from Perth and his wife Nicky is a gardener, they dropped in today while ferrying some logs from their current residence up to Daldhu and Nicky gave me some plants for the borders of my garden which was very kind of her, she knows what is likely to survive up here and so I have planted and watered them and am now impatiently looking forward to seeing what floral delights are going to arrive.

I was told by my friend Graeme that the estate are going to be felling some of the tree plantations in August, which I have to confess, I am slightly concerned about. I think it will change my environment massively, but apparently once the Forestry Commission tells you to go, the land owner has little choice about when the trees are harvested. My feelings are that as long as the contractors do a clean job then it won’t be too bad. There is a clear fell on the way to Pitlochry that looks pretty tidy from the road. I have however seen some appalling messes made by forestry contractors with the site looking more post-apocalyptic than agricultural, with shattered trees, dismembered limbs and tall stumps all over the place and the ground dug up and scarred by the machinery used to remove the crop from a hillside. So hey ho, my landlord has said that he wants to replace the pines with broad leaved hardwoods which would actually be much better in the long run, but I think the area might look slightly scarred for a few years before nature repairs the mess.

My landlords youngest daughter is getting married this year which will provide some excitement on the estate, I have offered to house some of the guests and it looks like I may have a minister in residence for the event. I have also offered to help out on the day, I hope I don’t have to wear a tie! I am not good with ties and don’t really understand their purpose or function, perhaps to keep soup off your shirt buttons? Who knows?

I was invited to a party just outside Edinburgh by my previously mentioned friend Jen, whom I met last year at the ‘Feis Na Mara’ in Mallaig. The ethos of the event was to deliver a party at no cost, she did an amazing job and the party was great, featuring such diverse entertainment as Jen and Sharon King,  Cera Impala and the New prohibition, a great band who played at the Feis na Mara and the Dj ‘Dolphinboy’ on the stage. There were some acrobats who did a sort of balletic pole dancing routine. There was a free shop where people left the things they no longer had a use for and which could then be adopted by those who could see a productive future for the articles that they found in the shop. There was also a free shot bar, the way it worked was that there were six shots set up on the little bar and a dice (a large paper one made by a guest) was thrown and that decided which shot you got, then you threw the dice and the bar person had to drink a corresponding shot, the net result of all this dicing was some pretty drunk people, myself included. I was a barman for about half an hour. There was also a hot tub, to be more precise it was Jen and Tommy’s take on one. It was a cast iron bath filled with water and set on bricks with a fire underneath it, Tommy and Sharon spent quite a lot of time in it, completely naked in the middle of the party and were not, contrary to expectation,  boiled alive, I was asked while passing them on my way to a fresh can of beer if I could throw a couple of logs on the under the bath fire,  not a request I have ever previously had before, with the topping up of the fire by passers-by they kept warm for over an hour. My party contribution was to arrive on Friday and help Tommy set up the composting loos, a wash hand basin and the bar shelf and help Jen set up the PA. It was quite hands on to begin with and guests were arriving as we were putting the finishing touches to everything. It was a great night and so successful that I think Jen is already planning next year’s event. I can see it being as big as Glastonbury in about three years’ time.

On the subject of parties, I had a School reunion in Edinburgh last weekend which was also great, I caught up with some old friends, some that I had not seen for about forty years, it was initially quite hard work trying to put faces to names, but gradually the mannerisms and particular oddities that makes us, well, us began to shine through and I was transported back in time. It was lovely to see everyone and the whole event would not have happened without the tenacious Ruth who was relentless in pushing things along. So, thank you Ruth, it was lovely.

I dropped in to the pub on the way back from Tesco’s a couple of days ago to drop off a bicycle pump for Ellice and to quench my post shopping thirst with a pint of ‘Head east’ before heading north. Just after I arrived, a visiting Dutch tourist came in and asked if anyone knew how to remove a tick. I keep a tick removing thing in the camper which is a sort of plastic credit card with a V cut in it, so we improvised with a thick cardboard calling card, cutting a V out of it and I managed to extract the rather large tick to everyone’s satisfaction, my efforts were rewarded with a pint, so perhaps there is a role here for a tick whisperer, one pint per tick, roll up roll up..

Today is the Royal wedding and I have been celebrating by touching up (steady!) the salt ravaged metal work of my car and by building a sort of dry stone folly by the river, I don’t quite know what brought that about, but I was lying in bed this morning and just though it a good idea. It is not finished yet so I won’t bore you with a picture, but I will post something when I get round to finishing it.

 

Well that has proved quite a long catch up, sorry about that, I will try and keep it shorter next time.

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Happy New Year…

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The back of the cottage from a very chilly river.

 

Well it is now 2018 and looking at my last post I am somewhat overdue for a new one and as the weather outside is officially dreich, today is as good a day as any to give you news from the last four months activities.

The autumn was productive in the garden this year and I managed to get quite a reasonably good crop of blackcurrants and gooseberries before the birds got to them. I think this might have been due to some pruning back in the winter which encouraged vigour and fruit. This is Perthshire however and home of the soft fruit, so I should not really have been too surprised. The mild autumn also brought out a particularly vivid purple flowering of the heather, which was really spectacular for a few weeks, the surrounding hills were more vibrant than I have seen for a while, but still in a muted, slightly tasteful way. Much more of a delight than the brash gaudiness of the flowering oil seed rape that used to envelope us in the spring in Sussex.

Quite a few years ago I bought a fishing rod in Dulverton on Exmoor, it was a handmade salmon spinning rod and looked very well put together. Well, I offered to take a friend up to Loch Loch on the estate, where we decided we would spend the morning fly fishing for trout and the afternoon spinning for arctic char, or at least that was the plan. We made our way to the Loch and the first part of the plan went reasonably well with both of us catching small wild trout on the fly. We stopped for lunch, a bacon roll on my camping stove and then swapped the fly rods for spinning rods. I have a very light spinning rod that I have used to good effect in the Shetlands and the lochans of the Hebrides and so started with that and a light spinning lure. After about an hour my spinner became entangled on the bottom of the loch and in trying to free it I managed to snap the rod. Oh well, I had brought the stouter rod that was as previously mentioned bought in Exmoor and attempted to use that, but I could not manage to mount the reel properly, so, long story short, I took the rod to the fishing shop in Blairgowrie where it was confirmed that my rod was fitted with a fly reel seat, therefore a spinning reel would never have fitted. This made me a little grumpy as the rod was not cheap and when I contacted the Exmoor shop they said they would fix it at cost. This also annoyed me as the thing was never actually usable, so after some pontification and looking up of my human rights etc., I decided the best course of action would be to just fix it myself. I used to build the occasional rod when I was a youngster so am reasonably familiar with the process. I ordered the parts and have now managed to fix it, it still cost me about £60 but at least now I have a very handsome and fully functioning salmon rod, ready for the next adventure.

The tail end of summer was a bit on the damp side which is the perfect condition for the most annoying of Scottish insects, ‘the infamous midge’, and last autumn saw them make an appearance in larger numbers than I have previously seen here in Perthshire. We are on the eastern side of the country and as such it is generally drier and less prone to the nuisance than the west but autumn was quite a bad season and my ‘Smidge’ midge repellent was moved from the camper to the car for easier access.

August heralds in the Strathardle highland gathering which was yet another triumph for the tug of war team who have gone from strength to strength in 2017. I really enjoy this event it is a bit of a party for the village and where I bump into people who are less likely to be out at other times of the year, it is a really good family event. Attending the games however needs to be managed as it is another local event where things can get slightly out of hand on the social front. The games are also a venue for the farmers to display their stock and compete for prizes, I enjoy walking round the stock pens to see which farm has done well and what constitutes a good beast. A number of my friends are farmers so I am slightly connected with the competition. Hot on the heels of the Kirky games are the Pitlochry Highland Games. This year, it was the competition at Pitlochry which saw the Strathardle tug of war team become not just Scottish, but British champions. They have worked long and hard to get to this level and deserve everything they have achieved. The downside of all of this success is that the trophy shelf in the Strathardle Inn is now a little too small to display all of the silverware and trophies they have accumulated over the season.

Back in September last year I was making my way to the village shop for some supplies, when I saw a badger rooting about on the verge, I slowed down and it wandered out in front of me for 20 or 30 meters then walked to the other side of the road and off into a field. I used to live in the West Country and we saw badgers all the time, but after mentioning this to a few friends up here it sounds like badgers are very much rarer in Perthshire, one of my friends has lived here all of his life and has still not seen one. At the time I wished it had been something more exotic, like an otter or a wild cat or something, only to discover that badgers trump (in a sensible way) all other wild life here.

On the subject of wild life something has been predating on the pheasant chicks, out of the original four I think there is now only one left. I am not sure if the stoat is to blame as I have not seen it until very recently and it also seems to be missing the black tip of its tail. When we had some snow I went for a wander around as the snow is a good indicator of which wild life is about and apart from some Pine marten tracks which came close to the gate way on the drive there were also some very big cat paw prints by the river, the area does have wild cats and that could easily explain where the pheasants chicks ended up.

At the end of September I was invited by my friend Carol to come over and house sit her lovely home in Arisaig while she and the family were away. She keeps chickens and she asked if I could stay for the weekend and look after the cats and the chickens. The weekend coincided with the “Feis (pronounced faish) Na Mara” music festival which takes place in Mallaig town hall, the music is on for Friday and Saturday and there is usually music in the pub in Arisaig on Friday evenings. So while there, I thought I would have a relatively quiet night in Arisaig with the local musicians and then spend Saturday night at the “Feis” in Mallaig. After some of the delicious food Carol had left in the fridge for me, I pottered along to the ‘Crofters bar’ in the Arisaig hotel only to discover that all of the local musicians were in Mallaig. I probably should have guessed that would happen. I did however have a really nice evening talking to the staff and other bar users who came and went throughout the evening and had a pleasant and reasonably quiet night which was probably a good plan before going to the festival in Mallaig on Saturday evening. The next day I fed the cats and went to feed the chickens only to discover that there had been some sort of massacre in the chicken run. Carol had mentioned before that the Pine martens are fond of a chicken but this was just a killing spree on their behalf. I felt very guilty as I had promised myself the chickens would be safe on my watch. One chicken was left limping around the pen with a sort of faraway look in its eyes. The poor thing had obviously been severely traumatised.  I wrapped up the dead chickens and disposed of them in a council bin, then to console myself. went for a drive round, and a walk taking some pictures on the way of the very picturesque Lock Morar. That evening I buffed myself up and ventured into the village to find the bus stop. I had been there for about 10 minutes when quite a noisy group of people turned up at the other end of the car park, one of them came over and asked “was I waiting for the bus”, I said I was but according to the schedule on the “Feis” website it should have already come and was either running late or not at all. The girl said she would enquire in the shop, as there was no timetable at the stop where I was standing. It seemed that the general consensus was that the bus times were different on a Saturday evening, so she asked me if I was going to the ‘Feis’ in Mallaig. I said I was and she kindly offered to give me a lift. The car was quite full with her boyfriend and a couple of other friends who were staying with her at the time, but we all crammed in and made our way to Mallaig. We were a bit early and decided to have a drink in one of the bars, the rather amusingly named “Steam Inn” to be precise. When we were inside it was obvious that the Mallaig party had already started, there was quite a wild contemporary Scottish band playing in the corner with all of the girls in the place dancing around the bar. I was not quite up to speed with the rest of the place and found it fun but slightly exhausting before we had even started. The girls in Mallaig are a very strong bunch which I found quite refreshing, they behaved more like men than the men did and I had a slight suspicion they had been partying since the festival finished on Friday night. Once into the festival, the situation was quite calm and civilised, the girl who gave me the lift and her friends were all very friendly and invited me to stay with their group for the evening. Jen Macneill, the girl who came to my rescue at the bus stop had come from a musical family on Colonsay and as it turned out was to be the compere for the evening at the festival introducing bands and amusing us with anecdotes, which she proved very good at. We were entertained By Cera Impala and her band, she was an American, who was very unusual, playing a sort of cross between folk and jazz, two musical styles which do not normally appear in the same sentence. We then moved all of the seats away from the centre of the hall before a band called O.B.T fired up lifting the pace and tempo a bit, next were the wonderful Poozies, a great band and quite local to Arisaig, the lead singer organises the event and then finally the last act was Esperanza which are the sort of band which will get, even shy people with two left feet abandoning all of their inhibitions on the dance floor. Jen and her group had moved on, as they had to get back to Fort William and I had found a new friend called Jen Crook who dragged me on to the dance floor more than once. We clicked more or less instantly and spent the evening drinking, dancing and talking. After the gig finished I tried to persuade Jen to come back to the pub in Arisaig but she had a camper in Mallaig and some friends there, so having exchanged contact details I jumped in to a random van which seemed to be heading in the right direction and discovered once crammed in, that a few of the bands were already on board and that the next stop was to be the bar in Arisaig. The evening finished for me at about 4:30 in the morning but the bands were still all playing and I think the merriment went on for quite a bit longer than that. I love this aspect of the West Coast and the music was of the highest quality, there were classical Scottish instruments, pipes, drums, fiddles, accordions and there was also a double bass, a trombone, a trumpet and I think a keyboard so the music was pretty eclectic.

The next morning rather later than planned I stumbled out of bed to feed the chicken only to discover that it had not made it through the night, which did not entirely surprise me, the poor thing had obviously had an emotional battering. I packed my things, drove to the village to leave the chicken in its council grave with the others and wandered home. I love Arisaig, every time I go there something nice happens (apart of course from the slaughter of chickens), I am very lucky to have a kind friend living there.

In the Autumn here, the shooting season kicks off in August and I have been doing some beating which is a good way of getting access to some of the other estates in the area, meeting some characters, being fed and paid. What could be better? This year I have been beating on Ashintully, which is a beautiful estate quite local to Kirkmichael, it has some very attractive clumps of ancient Caledonian woodland on the flanks of the hillsides which is quite rare these days. The keeper is Bob Connelly, who to my untrained eye and by reputation, runs a very good shoot. He is interesting in that he believes that the overall health of all of the fauna and flora on the estate is to be properly managed and encouraged, not just the birds which are there for the shoot. Looking after this symbiosis is not all that common and reading his interesting posts on Facebook and having enjoyed some of the discussions we have had, his knowledge of his environment is encyclopaedic and closely observed.

The wet autumn has had one benefit in that the mushroom season up here was bountiful. Jen Crook who I met at the “Feis” is a keen and educated mushroom collector. I have been playing around with trying to identify edible mushrooms that I come across on the estate and had thought I had discovered a birch tree which had a regular supply of ‘penny bun’ mushrooms, I had been eating them and enjoying them, but when Jen came to stay for a couple of days she identified my mushrooms as brown birch boletes, these are quite edible but apparently nowhere near as good as orange birch boletes, which she thought she had found only 100 meters away, my mushrooms were not as it happened ‘penny buns’ either. She found all sorts of interesting fungal specimens and my dining room table was briefly reconfigured into an identification lab. This has now spawned (sorry about that) an interest and I am going to go into the season next autumn much better prepared.

I mentioned the snow earlier as a guide to which creatures are around, but in truth we have not had much this year. The hills to the north of me have snow over about 2500 feet and on a bright night I can clearly see their ghostly white slopes illuminated by the moon. I think most of the snow this year has been delivered further South, we have had lots of cold, dry, clear weather which, while lovely to look at has produced quite a bit of ice. I have sent in an application form to Glenshee hoping to do some work on the ski lifts, but so far I have not heard from them. The lifts are not all in operation yet and apparently they have a fairly good collection of local regulars who get the first jobs, although I think a couple of good snowy days might change that.

Talking of the ice, I tried to drive down the track a couple of weeks ago and it had rained after a cold spell. The track was so slippery that even on a straight, flat section the car had a mind of its own, so I abandoned my mission, turned round and wobbled back home. One of the reasons I am sitting down writing this is because I slipped up on some black ice recently and have cracked a couple of ribs which, for the uninitiated, is not very comfortable. Just filling the coal scuttle is a painful business and sleeping has been rather intermittent, the upside is that my paperwork is up to date and you have the opportunity to read this instalment, assuming you have not given up before this point and gone to worm the cat or do something more interesting.

 

On that tablet laden note, is that the time? 400 mg of Ibuprofen coming my way, happy days… And relax.

 

 

Summer nights and days!

straight Ferry road

The narrow road to the Glenelg ferry.

 

Well it is mid-August and I am not quite sure where the time has gone, I finished the carved woodcock which was discussed in the last round up, just before the friend who commissioned it moved south. I am happy to announce that both he and I were happy with the way it turned out. I would love to find some more bog oak, it is amazing stuff but quite hard to carve and very unpredictable due to its extreme age.

I spent a week or so painting the tin house on the estate, I dislike painting but seem to keep being asked to paint things, despite some minor protestation. These small jobs do however pay for my electricity and allow me to fish freely on the estate as they elevate my position from mere tenant to ‘estate worker’.

I was in the pub a couple of months back and a chap who had been sitting in the corner came over and introduced himself, he had just moved into the village and was keen to meet some locals. The first person I introduced him to was Dunc, the chap whose house he had just bought which was a slightly surreal coincidence. They had not met due to the estate agents handling everything. Hugh, my new friend and I then discussed our previous lives and it turned out he had moved up from Petersfield, some ten miles North of Bosham where I had moved from, so another uncanny coincidence. He has a Scottish accent so I asked him where he came from initially and he said Fife, he said “If you come over the Forth road bridge and turn left”, I said you’re not going to say Charleston, he confirmed that was where he grew up. This is also the village I grew up in and we discovered we both knew each other’s houses and that he was a couple of years my senior but that we had some shared friends and memories from the village.

Hot on the heels of this coincidence I was taking an evening stroll up the glen when I bumped into a couple coming down the track, I got chatting as is the norm and discovered that they were from the forestry management team of the estate management company, they said they had been looking at the woodland with a view to harvesting some of it. We chatted for half an hour as I was concerned how this might affect my immediate surroundings, I became aware that I had met the girl before. I asked if her name was Georgia, she confirmed it was and I reminded her that we had met in  a pub (unsurprisingly) in Rothiemurcus near Aviemore and had chatted for a couple of evenings while I was there exploring the area on a mountain bike. She was doing some research for her forestry degree. So another extraordinary coincidence.

An annual reminder that summer has arrived are the swallows which come to nest around the cottage, they are great little characters constantly on the move and they enjoy chasing each other around the cottage and trees like small fighter pilots in a dog fight. This summer I noticed a behaviour I have not seen before, I witnessed what I assumed was a male swallow teasing his partner with a small bit of cast off sheep’s wool, he dropped it in front of her while they were flying around, when she did not respond he caught it in the air again and released it in front of her, repeating the is process for about fifteen minutes before giving up. I don’t know the outcome of this flirtation but she didn’t look that impressed. She had probably had a bad experience in the past with another wool juggler.

My Sussex friend Alison was in Edinburgh for a weekend, attending a bell ringing convention and she invited me to come down to stay, they had the use of a flat near Salisbury crags, so quite central. I took up the offer and while they were convening meetings and ringing bells, I went walk-about round Edinburgh joining them in the evening for drinks and food. Edinburgh is great, I love its vibrancy and eclectic mixture of inhabitants. I spent my early years in Edinburgh and went to school there before we moved south when I was sixteen, so I am quite comfortable there. While I was staying with Alison I had an e-mail from a school friend who I had reconnected with, inviting me to a spontaneous get together that same weekend. So I managed to catch up with some folk who I have not seen for probably thirty years or so, which was great. No one had really changed that much over the years our mannerisms seem to be quite ageless.

Alison also looked after me later on when I was invited to go sailing to France with some Bosham friends, I ventured south a few days early so I could catch up with everyone and Alison kindly lent me her bicycle so I was able to travel around. The landscape and environment had not changed much but it was quite surprising how some of the people had moved on in a year and a half, children had been born, people had got together and split up and some had moved away. It was great to catch up with as many as I could in the time I had. Note to self, go for longer next time…

The main reason for going south was a sailing trip I had been invited to join, I was sailing with some of the friends I cruised the West coast of Scotland with in 2013. This trip in principle was going to be much less challenging.  We started our cruise from Chichester harbour and sailed to Alderney where we picked up more crew and then went straight on to Guernsey where we caught up with the other boats from the RYS who were taking part in the cruise. We had left Chichester a day early because some weather was coming in and I am glad we did, the weather front brought some strong winds but Guernsey is a pretty safe place to be and is home to some very nice restaurants. I used some of the time there to fix one or two minor cosmetic problems with the boat. A couple of days later and with some still quite large seas we made our way to St Cast marina which is new and fully featured. This proved to be a good place to go and investigate the surroundings from, we took a mini bus from the marina to Fort La Latte, there was some slight confusion and we ended up walking quite a way back looking for somewhere to have lunch. I stopped and asked a local in my Pidgeon French if there were any restaurants nearby and he confirmed they were all shut or too far to walk to, so we had to walk another mile or so to get a signal on a phone in order to ask the mini bus to come and collect us. That evening we had drinks on board a couple of other boats, something which is common on a RYS cruise, everyone is always very friendly and hospitable. The next day we sailed round the corner to Des Ebihens a Saint Jacut De La Mer. These were private islands owned by a French RYS member who treated us all to lunch on his extraordinary island home. The group of small islands reminded me very much of the Scillies with fine white beaches and sculptural weathered granite formations. After lunch we all upped anchor and sailed round to St Malo where we tied up at the marina in Quay St Vincent. That evening we had a good meal in St Malo and the next day we dropped off my friend Merrick who had made my trip possible, so he could get the ferry back home. We made our way to a small port where we jumped on a tourist boat which took us gently up the river Rance with a rose or two to keep the spirits up.  We disembarked at Dinan and walked up quite a steep hill to a restaurant at the top which was our lunch venue for the day. It was a very hot day and quite a steep climb and I was not too sure our French guide was up to it but with lots of stopping to get some breath back she made it to the top. We had a good lunch, some cheery speeches were delivered and we all caught a bus back to St Malo. There was another drinks party on board a rather spectacular power boat with enough grunt and fuel storage to get across the Atlantic, I was particularly impressed with the engine room which had an immaculate workshop equipped for any eventuality. The next day I had to fly back to Edinburgh so, said goodbye to everyone and attempted to get a taxi from the rank by the tourist office. After a long wait no Taxi’s arrived so luckily I was given a lift to the airport by one of the very kind and highly efficient RYS ground team just in time to check in. I got back to the glen at 1:30 in the morning. When I got back from my sailing trip I was sitting outside the cottage absorbing my environment with a glass of ‘welcome home’ whisky and listening to the soft noise of the wind in the larch trees, it can be almost musical. I mentioned this to Michelle at the Inn a couple of days later and she said, oh “A woodwind instrument then.” I suppose you can’t really argue with that.

While I was at the Inn another local friend turned up, his name is Craig, he works in forestry, driving the harvester which is an enormous and complicated combination of digger and saw mill all in one, the drivers are paid by the ton so they do long hours and can afford a good break every now and then. Craig had just got back from Florida where he had hoped to go fishing for Bonefish and Tarpon on the saltwater flats, the weather however had other ideas. So he hired a Ford Mustang and went for a drive. His driving style is best described as enthusiastic, so much so that he got caught by the police doing 130 Mph, which is a bypass all of your human rights and go straight to prison sort of offence in America. I think he was there for a few days before he was able to get back, sharing a cell with some fairly hardened criminal types. Not really my idea of a quiet break away from it all.

I was invited to go and visit my friend Carol in Arisaig, her brother is an old school friend and was going to be around for a week or so, so I fitted the camper to the pickup and drove to Arisaig where we spent a couple of days catching up, fishing and walking. It was great to see yet another old school friend from my Scottish days and to catch up on what life has thrown at us since. As I had the camper I decided to carry on to Skye on the excellent Mallaig ferry, I went to Carbost to catch up with my friends at the Old Inn. There is a camp site nearby and I was planning to park there for the night but I was greeted by some rather snooty Caravan club members who told me the place was full and that there was nowhere for me. Luckily I know the guys at the Inn, so I managed to squeeze the camper into their carpark and there it stayed. No booking or overnight fee, happy days. Unfortunately all of the musicians I wanted to see were over at Glenelg, which bizarrely was where I was planning to go to next. There was some music though and myself and another chap I had been talking to sat and enjoyed the young band that were there. The next day I took the winding road from Broadford to the Glenelg ferry at Khylrea. Unfortunately I left early and the weather had stopped the ferry from running, I had taken the small single track road before anyone had got round to putting the ‘ferry cancelled’ sign up so had to go back up the narrow road and over the bridge, this added about an hour to the journey, but I made it in time for a pint and to ask for permission to leave the camper in the car park. I had hoped the musicians were going to still be at Glenelg but it turned out that they had moved on. That evening there was some music however, there was a musician who I had met before called Scott McDonald and it turned out he plays in Pitlochry from time to time, so I promised to see him there.  Scott was at Glenelg to provide a musical backdrop for Channel 4 or ITV who were filming in the bar, they were doing a program which featured two celebs driving round Scotland in a Morgan sports car and chatting to each other in different pubs with some atmospheric music in the background. One of the celebs was Peter Davidson from ‘All creatures’ and Doctor Who, the other one was Welsh, sorry I am not good with celebs. I love Glenelg and the people that live there. That evening I managed to end up at a house party until 2:30 in the morning, which is always fun. There may have been a whisky and a mouth organ might have been played.

When I got back from my road trip, I was just drawing up to the road bridge at bridge end near the bottom of the track when I saw an elegantly attired lady looking into the river from the parapet of the bridge, she was slender and wearing a black skirt high heels and a smart black top, just as I got to the bridge she turned to look at me and I noticed she had a full grey beard! Not quite what I was anticipating and by any measure quite an odd combination. Hey ho, each to their own.

I was invited to a christening for Lawrence and Becca’s lovely son Leo, this meant a fairly early appearance in the village Kirk on a Sunday morning. I felt very honoured to be asked to attend this event and it is testimony to the friendliness of everyone up here that they feel the need to be so inclusive. It was a lovely informal affair with good words and advice from the lady minister and some hearty singing thrown in. Once the formalities were over we repaired to the pub for the more secular part of the occasion. This lead to some rather early banter and some unbridled drinking, apparently I finally left at about 10pm, I tried to leave earlier but had been prevented from going by Leo’s dad and some of the other friends. I frankly can’t quite remember that bit of the evening, but still managed to get back on the bicycle somehow.

I mention fairly frequently in these updates that I have a number of game birds around the cottage, this year they have bred quite well and there are four pheasant chicks, three of which are nearly fully grown and one rather runty specimen. I don’t know why they have managed to breed so well this year, but spring was quite mild and I have been feeding them which has probably helped. On the subject of wild life I was cycling back from the pub a couple of weeks ago and I spotted an animal emerging from the undergrowth on my side of the road, it stood in the road watching me approach. It was quite brazen and I could see it clearly in the light of my bicycle torch, it was a large male pine marten and completely unflustered about my appearance until I got to within a few meters away when it slid back into the undergrowth. It is the first one I have seen since being up here, I have seen their tracks in the snow on the garden but never encountered one face to face. I also saw a couple of salmon in the river yesterday, so they are on the move, we have had quite a lot of rain recently which they need in these spate rivers to get up to the spawning grounds. I dug out a fly rod but they weren’t interested, I am investigating how to build a smoker and am currently on the lookout for a couple of oil drums if anyone knows of any.

Well I think that is probably enough for the time being, I apologise if you got bored before reading this apology.

Fair thee well for now.

The Springtime metamorphosis.

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Stream sculpture on the Fealar track.

 

Looking in my note book, I notice that I have observed that on the 3rd of March, the first Curlew arrived in the glen, followed shortly afterwards by an Oyster catcher. These birds are pretty much the first signs of change after winter has begun to loosen its grip on the area. Bob, one of the game keepers I beat for from time to time and a chap who seems to be very connected to his environment also mentioned that he had heard Snipe drumming. Snipe produce a drumming or humming sound with modified tail feathers which vibrate in the slipstream of a high speed aerial dive towards the ground. This is part of their courtship routine and is another clue that Spring is nearly upon us. One piece of slightly odd animal behaviour I have noticed recently was being carried out by a female pheasant which likes to roam the lawn. She has taken recently to raking up the moss amongst the grass, presumably to find insects and other small food items which lurk in the luscious depths of moss that make up much of the lawn, the side effect of this is that she is providing a useful service to me in scarifying out the moss, which is giving the grass a better chance of survival, she has inadvertently improved quite a large area of lawn now, long may it last.

The first visible signs of Spring in my garden are the snow drops which had delivered a bountiful display this year, probably due to the mild winter. Spring does not necessarily imply an end to the snow, we had quite a dump at the beginning and towards the end of April, but it does not tend to last. Snow at this time of the year is known locally as ‘Lambing snow’, this snow can be a disaster if it hangs around, happily this year it didn’t.

The secondary signs that Spring has really arrived are the needles appearing on the larch trees, they are beautiful soft filigree things, like a delicate squirrels tail, the needles seem to just quietly appear. Another clue are the daffodils finally fading out of bloom and the arrival of Pied wagtails and Swallows, these are all indications that things are about to get greener. The Swallows are little dare devils, flying like fighter planes round the cottage narrowly missing trees and chimneys and on a few occasions, me. Challenging the Swallows for evening aerial supremacy is the bat colony, they too enjoy skipping through the air in and around the trees and out-buildings, hopefully hoovering any airborne insect nuisances. The pheasants and partridge are all in a frenzy of courtship which seems to make them impervious to any nearby dangers, at least one of the resident Partridges has been killed by something. I have only seen a hare a couple of times, the second time it was being attacked by the stoat, so that probably explains why my herbs have not been eaten. Since that event I have not seen the stoat and I am assuming that with the warmer weather there will be mice and shrews in abundance for it to feed on. All of these migratory visitors are also attracting more birds of prey, a friend of mine who is working up the track at Daldhu happened to mention that he had seen the Golden eagle yesterday, so the glen has suddenly become a rich and diverse place to live unless you are a sparrow, in which case it’s time to get life insurance. There is a cherry tree to one side of the cottage which burst into flower about a week ago, yesterday I looked out of the sitting room window and initially thought it was snowing, until I realised that it was the blossom blowing off the tree in the breeze. An easy mistake to make, we generally get more snow than blossom up here!

I looked after my landlords dog ‘Ella’ for about ten days, which was fun and gave me an excuse to get out every day for a walk or a bike ride up the track. Ella is a black Lab and has a nose which is finely tuned to this part of the world, she can sniff out a sheep or fox carcass, or perhaps a deer’s shin discarded by one of the stalkers from miles away. It was Ella who found the dead Partridge just on the other side of the deer fence which surrounds the garden. This ‘super nose’ makes walking a fairly stop and go event, we strolled most of the hills round the cottage and walked to loch Loch from Daldhu which is a return journey of around seven miles, give or take the occasional Ella derived off piste snack diversion. Ella also managed to find a pheasant’s nest in the garden, I think the eggs were laid before the cold snap and probably wouldn’t have survived. It was fun having a dog for a short period but I don’t think I would want one full time, they are good company but they need looking after and owning one would restrict my ability to jump in a train to visit Edinburgh or go sailing for a week without having to make arrangements, so for the time being I am happy to enjoy other people’s dogs on a part time basis.

Apart from the occasional snow flurry it has been very dry here, so much so that there have been some quite out of control wild fires in the area. My fire brigade friends recently spent three days putting out a large fire just outside Pitlochry, which it is believed was started by an irresponsible camper. The fire threatened to overwhelm a farm and was finally controlled with the combined force of all of the local fire appliances and some from further afield. There was also a helicopter which was bucketing water out of the nearby lochs to dump on the fire. The land around me is largely woodland, heather and grass and if a spark had made its way onto any of the surrounding hillside it would have caught very easily, possibly spreading into the woodland which would have done hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage to the forestry, farm stock and the wildlife. This dry weather has also been keeping the river levels very low and until recently there has been no sign of trout in the pools by the cottage. The last couple of days has brought some wet and drizzly weather and the river levels have risen a bit, but probably not for long. The water levels are reliant on the hillside peat becoming waterlogged during the winter months, which then operate like a reservoir, gradually releasing water into the burns and river systems. This year however has been so dry that I don’t think the peat has had a proper soak.

The track past me has been very busy recently, with machinery and building supplies going to the Fealar Estate at the end of the track. They are building a hydro scheme up there in order to be less reliant on the diesel generators which are currently their only supply of electricity. They are miles from anywhere and even once their Hydro scheme is up and running they will not be able to connect it to the National grid, which is the usual way of recouping some of the cost of a hydro installation. I understand that they will be able to obtain some grants to help with the scheme because of the renewable nature of their power generation, but I think it is still a pretty costly enterprise.

I took a bike ride to Fealar last week, the first time I have actually made it to the lodge. I was intending to go and introduce myself to my up track neighbours. While on the way up I remembered that I was wearing a Scottish and Southern Energy T’ shirt from my days working with SSE and thought it might be an amusing icebreaker to say that I cycled all the way up the track to read the meter. When I finally got to the lodge and knocked on the door, there was nobody at home, so my gag went un-tested. Probably a good thing in hindsight. Nobody wants to have a lunatic for a neighbour even if they are nine and a half miles down the track. The ride up the track takes the weary rider 1125 feet uphill from my cottage to the top of the pass in about four and a half miles, so it’s quite hard work, but it is beautiful and once over the crest of the pass, another glen and the countryside opens up, all of these glens seem to have their own personality and presence. There are limitless views to the North and grouse and deer to keep you company all the way, there is a beautiful river which has over thousands of years eroded and sculpted the igneous rocks that it passes through by the bridge on the track. I have not used my good mountain bike much recently and it rather annoyingly sprung a leak in one of the seals on the front suspension on the way home, which tamed an otherwise exhilarating, high speed roller coaster ride from the top of the ridge.

Last Sunday I went fishing for a few hours with Graham on Loch Crannach, another small loch on the estate. Graham is a naturally gifted fisherman and caught a couple of small brown trout and a rainbow which was duly returned as the rainbow trout are stocked in the loch. I only managed one small but very feisty wild brown trout, it was a great way to spend a few hours on Sunday morning but I won’t be getting fat (fatter) on my catch. On the way down the track to the pub later in the day, I bumped into a group of teenage girls and their mentors who were doing a Duke of Edinburgh award of some sort, and when I asked the team leader where they had been, she said the girls had camped up at Loch Loch. On hearing that and with fishing still on my mind I mentioned that there were some Arctic Char in the Loch. The team leader then said that they had seen an Osprey take a large fish from the surface of the Loch and fly off with it, which they had all agreed was quite a privilege to witness.

I managed to sell the bog oak grouse I carved, the one mentioned in the previous blog to Bob the keeper and in the process I have a new commission from another keen shot to carve a woodcock. So that is what is currently taking shape in the shed. Woodcock are interesting birds it seems. They come to Scotland and the west coast of England, Ireland and Wales when they are driven off mainland Europe by the cold weather. They have long straight beaks which they use to probe the soft ground for worms and other invertebrates, so when the land freezes they have to move to softer ground to feed. This weather driven migration can make them pretty unpredictable. The long beak is going to give me some design headaches with this project. I have considered making the beak out of red deer antler scavenged from the hills, which should hopefully make it less brittle than trying to carve the beak from the bog oak wood. Fingers crossed!

On that sunny note, it’s off to the shed for me.

Sikh and ye shall find!

dsc_4103January snaw, according to a study by the University of Glasgow, Scots have 421 words and expressions for snow.

Well it’s been a couple of months or so and largely little has happened, I suppose that is pretty normal for the time of year, these are the hibernation months. As Scotland is still in the UK and because the weather is a British fixation, I will start by saying this winter so far has been pretty bizarre. We have had very little snow and what we have had did not stay for long. The weather has been very warm up here, frequently being warmer than the South coast which is not how it should be. We did have one night which dipped down to -6 but in general we have not had that many frosts and the garden is pretty confused. I noticed today that the birds look like they are trying to attract mates and are building nests which is also a little premature. I believe we might have some snow this week but at this time of the year I don’t think it will hang around, Glenshee Ski Centre has not had an easy time of it so far, I think they opened for a week or so before some very mild weather brought the fun on the slopes to a soggy end.

I celebrated Christmas day at the pub which was fun, I joined in with a group of chaps who have houses in the village and with whom entertainment and laughter was had, along with far too much to eat and drink. Most of us went home with a doggy bag containing puddings, sweets and fine cheeses. The cycle trip home was probably a wobbly affair but did me lots of good in the same way as a good walk after the Christmas meal seems to. There is a family who take over the whole Inn for Christmas and they always seem to have a  good time, I remembered most of them from last year, they had had a meal in the restaurant together and when they had finished they came through to the bar and started opening presents which had been placed under the tree, my friend Graham and I were sitting at the bar taking in the scene when they brought over presents for us as well, which was a sweet gesture and one I did not expect. Mine was a beautifully wrapped bottle of beer, very appropriate.

I have probably mentioned this before, but the big event in Scotland is Hogmanay and this year rather excelled itself. My friends Kenny and Fiona who live in the village had a pre pub party which I was invited to and which was a very chatty event and one that introduced me to more locals, which was great. Kenny and Fiona also put me up for the night which saved a tricky bike ride home. After the warm up party Kenny, Fiona, the remnants of the party and I went to the pub and saw in the New Year, it was very busy and there may have been some slightly restricted dancing and some of the usual new year exchanges with fellow revellers, after that Kenny, Fiona and I headed back, Kenny mentioned that there was a party going on at Dunc’s so without too much encouragement Kenny and I headed up there. I have no idea what time we left but I did wake up at K and F’s so must have made it back somehow. We had a very late breakfast and Kenny said, “Do you fancy a pint”? “Maybe just the one” I said, which drew a laugh from Fiona, who knew what was likely to happen better than me. We went to the pub and after ‘a few pints’ Kenny announced that there was another party, by this time I was more or less functioning again, so why not, and off we went. This party was also a lively affair and food was taken which probably saved the day, some beer was consumed and maybe even a small whiskey. At some point Kenny decided it would be a good idea to visit the pub again and by this time I was not in a condition to argue, so off we went. I don’t really remember much about it but apparently we had fun. I don’t know where everyone gets the energy from, it took me a couple of days to recover.

Talking of the pub, I was there for Sunday lunch which is something I often do and the place was very quiet due to the village taking it easy after the New year festivities, there had been some snow and everything was peaceful, I was having a relaxed time at the bar with Ian and Michelle, both of whom work at the Inn. We were joined at the bar by four residents who had heard there was snow and had jumped in their cars and driven up from London. They were a group of Sikhs who as the evening wore on became more and more rowdy. One thing led seamlessly to another and I was delivered of another surreal Strathardle evening. We had an impromptu whiskey tasting which frankly got slightly out of hand. Indians, do not as a nation love dogs in the same way as the average Brit, so I spent about 40 minutes introducing one of the bolder Sikhs to ‘Rocky’, Michele’s Rottweiler. It took some doing but we got there in the end and I have an enduring mental image of this chap, who had at this point lost his turban, lying on the floor with his arm cradled round Rocky. The Indians also managed to connect their phones to the bar’s Bluetooth music system and we were treated to some rather Bollywood influenced tunes with the appropriate dancing to match. I found a bit of video of one of them on my phone a couple of days later which confirmed my suspicion that the evening had taken a somewhat bonkers twist.

The following day I was supposed to be beating, I managed to get to the start just in time for the first beat and joined the line driving birds into a wood, as I mentioned before we had some lying snow which prevented me from noticing a small river which within minutes of the start I ended up in, a hangover and soaking from the thighs down was not my preferred start to the day. Any fun had will always be paid for it seems.

I had some very sad news just after New Year, the estate owner rang me to say that John, the estate manager had had a stroke and died rather suddenly. I really had not seen that coming and it came as a bit of a shock. He was something of a character, some people found him rather hard work, you either did things his way or not at all. I got on quite well with him, I had a very strict grandfather which may have prepared me for people like John. His death has left a palpable gap in the fabric of the place somehow.

A couple of weeks ago my car needed an MOT so I booked it in to the garage in Pitlochry and this time decided to catch a bus to somewhere else. I have spent too many days wandering round Pitlochry while the garage attends to my car and was in the mood for adventures in pastures new. Having dropped the car off I made my way to the bus stop just in time to get a bus to Aberfeldy. The journey is about ten miles and to get to Aberfeldy you have to change busses in Ballinluig, which is not as bad as it sounds as the connecting bus is usually either already there or nearby. Having arrived at Aberfeldy I decided to take a wander around the town, Aberfeldy, it turns out is smaller than Pitlochry and I had covered the whole town in about an hour, taking a tour of the centre, some of the Birks of Aberfeldy a walk made popular by Burns and lunch in a rather nice wee café which specialised in very good coffee, very good can usually also be substituted as a definition with the word ‘expensive’ and this was the case in the café. They had three different ways of serving the chosen brew and did seem to take the whole thing very seriously. After lunch I decided to see what was on at the little community cinema. The cinema is a great wee place enthusiastically manned by local volunteers and with a nice foyer and café to enjoy as well. The film that was showing just after lunch was ‘The Assassins creed’, a film I may not have chosen if there was a choice, but I thought not a bad way to kill a few hours, the garage had been in touch and the car had failed the MOT, but they were hopeful that they could get the parts and fix it before the end of the day. Good news but it did mean more time to kill, so The Assassins creed it was. Now I am not a video gaming sort of person which is the background of this film but I thought that should not make any difference to the enjoyment of the film and in I went. There were two other people in the cinema, a couple in their mid-sixties I would guess and that was it. The lights went low and after the mandatory adverts for other cinematic offerings, the film started with a context explaining narrative which rather rapidly became so action filled and fraught that I was pinned to the back of my seat for the next two hours and twenty minutes. It was a full speed and frantic visual and auditory journey which left the two other viewers and myself in a sort of shell shocked torpor after the film had finally gone quiet and the lights had come back on. With glazed eyes the other couple and I left the cinema and burst into the peaceful normality of Aberfeldy high street. I looked for something calmer to do and found myself browsing the walls and shelves of the Aberfeldy watermill, a bookshop and gallery with some nice calming things to look at. After half an hour or so it was time to get the bus so back I went and after waiting for ten minutes for a bus which did not appear, I questioned the driver of a bus that seemed to be sitting at the stop going nowhere. He explained the complexities of the timetable to me and I realised I had another hour to kill. I bought a paper and had a coffee in the cinema café next to the bus stop. I was now panicking slightly as it was looking a bit like I was not going to get back to the garage in time. After a short call to the garage my mind was put to rest, they kindly said they would keep the place open until I arrived, thank heavens! This exceeded the levels of service I had been used to in Sussex. Once on the bus it transpired, that the bus I was on was the school bus and it gradually filled up with what appeared to be junior cast members of The Assassins creed, they had similar noise levels and frantic amounts of energy. It was chaos, I mentioned to the driver when changing busses at Ballinluig that I felt like I had been travelling with a zoo, he responded with the type of weary smile that suggested that enduring this on a twice daily basis was not good for the mind and soul. The second bus dropped me off by the garage despite the fact that the stop is miles up the road, another random act of kindness which did not have to be delivered and I was in the car and up the road for a quiet pint in the Moulin to calm the mind and restore some sense of peace after the day’s rowdy events.

As I have probably mentioned before, shooting is big business up here and the pub is often host to shooting parties, A few weeks ago there were a group from England who were deer stalking and who were all attired in the ‘de rigour’ uniform of checked shirt, red sleeveless jumper and mole skin trousers of the type always worn by these folk. This group were particularly noisy and I remembered them from a visit last year. I think too much exposure to firearms has left them with impaired hearing so shouting is the only form of communication they can enjoy between each other. In my book of notes, written in a slightly unsteady hand which indicates a post pub observation is the phrase, “projectile disquiet”. It took me a couple of days to decipher the meaning of this until I remembered the shooting party, and “projectile disquiet” just about summed them up. They were so noisy that I had downloaded a decibel reader app on to my phone to discover they were pushing over 95 Db which is the same as a small jet taking off at 300 meters. They calmed down a little once I had pointed this out, which sort of proved they were also rather annoyingly, enjoying the sound of their own company.

I tend to pick up on what people are up to by their Facebook posts, now I am tucked up the glen and I have recently noticed a slight blurring of the traditional pass times of the two sexes. The girls all seem to be doing weights and boxing while the boys are enjoying yoga in the woods and going to mindfulness weekends, what is going on? It has also to be said that these trends don’t seem to have reached Scotland yet. Changes of behaviour do seem to take longer to establish themselves in Scotland, I think this is a good thing as it means any new behaviour has been tried and tested elsewhere before it can make an impact up here. The downside is that positive changes can take some time to arrive.

I encourage wildlife in the garden by feeding the birds and have a few pheasants which drop by from time to time. They tend to get quite tame very quickly if you are feeding them, I have one that has been a regular visitor for about six months, I can distinguish it by its rather oversized (compared to the others) golden cap of feathers on top of its head. It is so tame that when I whistle for them, it comes running up the lawn to greet me and is happy to get to within a few feet of me. I was gazing down the glen the other evening and I noticed something white flash through my field of vision. Initially I was not too sure what I had seen, it looked a bit like a rabbit but we don’t get them at the cottage and then I suddenly realised it was the stoat, they go white in the winter up here to camouflage themselves in the snow. I hadn’t seen it for a while so was quite pleased to get a fleeting glimpse. The next morning I went out to feed the birds and whistled in the pheasants, only one turned up. There was no sign of ‘gold cap’ which was pretty unusual. After feeding the birds I noticed something under a bush in the garden and on closer inspection found the carcass of a pheasant, I could not identify it as gold cap because the head was missing, the carcass had been partially devoured so presumably whatever killed the bird was hungry. I have no doubt that the appearance of the stoat and death of the pheasant are connected. While on the subject of the stoat we had some snow courtesy of storm Doris, snow on the lawn is a great aid to help determine what wildlife is in the area and I founds some tracks which lead across the lawn to the side of the cottage which were from a Pine martin, I haven’t seen one in the raw yet but now have proof they are about. It could also have accounted for the pheasant, as Pine martins are also ruthless killers of anything they can get hold of.

Yesterday I sat in and finished my wood carving, I have been carving a grouse out of a piece of bog oak which came from Islay apparently. I am quite pleased with the outcome, the grain of the oak is lovely and the fact that it is probably a couple of thousand years old just adds to the character of the object. Carving this little bird has taken quite a long time due in the main to all of the distractions and the occasional lack of clemency in the temperature of the shed. I have some more bog oak and a piece of lime which is a classic woodcarver’s material due to the regular and  tight grain, but lacks some of the character of grain pattern that other more difficult woods can provide. So I have been doodling and inspiration is yet to pounce.

Tonight is Friday so I will be cycling to the pub for a catch up with the friends, the forecast is for 1 degree centigrade and a ninety percent chance of snow, so the mud bike with the snow tyres will be taken for an outing this evening.

On that chilly note I’m off to check the tyre pressures and find a warm coat. Oh and it’s already snowing I see…

Also, should anyone be interested I am setting up a service for describing Scottish property for overseas and long distance purchasers. For more information go and have a look at https://www.propport.co.uk/ 

Hot tubs and Lederhosen.

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Sunset over Pitlochry.

 

Well it has now been about thirteen months since I moved to the cottage and those months have been fun and adventure filled, thanks largely to the friendliness and generosity all of the nice people I have met since moving up here. I think that because the lifestyle up here is less stressful than down on the South Coast people are easier to meet, they don’t have to contend with traffic jams or train strikes or tired angry people who work in London, therefore they are more open and have more energy to greet new people. The cottage has opened a door to a quieter, slightly more serene life style and the area in general has proved to be an exciting and beautiful environment to explore.

I have had a number of visitors recently which has been great, Karen, an old friend from Salisbury and Alison, Dave and Ann from Sussex have all been to stay. The weekend that Ann, Dave and Alison chose to visit was the same weekend as my friend Fiona’s birthday party in the village hall, I had been invited and was keen to go because she and her husband Graham are such nice people, I mentioned to Fiona that unfortunately I had friends staying that weekend, her response was to invite them all as well, which was typically kind of her and so we all descended on the village hall. Ann and Dave were staying at the Strathardle which is a gentle stroll from the hall and Alison was staying with me, so she and I cycled. A great night was had, there was a disco playing age appropriate music for a 50th birthday, plenty of nice food and a well-stocked bar. As the evening went on there might even have been some dancing, there was a bit of a Scottish country theme to the music towards the end of the  evening and Ann who seemed to know all of the correct steps was seen on the dance floor for a reel or two. The music finished off at about midnight with the ‘crossed arms and holding hands with your neighbours’ sort of dance which is usually associated with ’Auld Lang Syne’ at Hogmanay. The dance did, as this type of dance is prone to do and became a slightly uncontrollable bundle at the end. It was a great night, I met some more friendly people and my visitors enjoyed themselves. What could be better? We all went home with a warm rosy hue, apart from Alison and myself who had the ride back up the glen to endure before hues, rosy or otherwise might be enjoyed.

There are a number of touristy things I can do with visitors but they all shut after October which means we do more walking and driving to places, not that those are bad things to do. With Dave, Ann and Alison, I drove up to Glenshee which is always slightly interesting even if there is no snow. While we were up there I noticed a number of dead mountain hares that had been run over on the road, their coats had turned white as they do on the hills in winter and I should imagine that the camouflage was so good that the drivers had not seen them when we had some snow in November. We drove over the hill down to Braemar, catching sight of a large herd of red deer stags on the way and ended up, rather randomly in a carpark on the Invercauld Estate which had a map with a number of marked walks, we opted for the shortest one, a walk of about three miles that took us along the edge of Craig Leek hill where there were some rather superior views over the top of the ancient Caledonian forest which still survives on this estate, I have never been there before but it was a good stroll and one that does not require extreme levels of physical fitness to enjoy. On the way back we attempted to get a late lunch at the Glen Isla Hotel, a funny little place in the middle of nowhere with good food and ales and which always seem to be surprisingly full, on the occasion we were there they did not have any spare tables, so we had a pint and made our way back to the ever reliable Strathardle Inn. On Sunday Alison wanted to do a more serious walk, so I left Ann and Dave at the cottage to relax or go for a stroll while Alison and I went up three hills on the western side of the Glen North of the cottage. We did Druim Cul, Meall Daimheidh and Creag Uisge (don’t ask me how to pronounce those), we then walked back down the track where we bumped into team Stamp (Ann and Dave), who had ventured out to take a walk along by the river.

One of my staple visitor attractions when it is open is the Scottish Crannog centre on Loch Tay. A Crannog is an Iron Age dwelling for a small community or an extended family which is built on wooden posts or piles which are sunk into the mud of the loch bed and which suspend the main construction of the Crannog above the water. The floor plan is circular with a thatched cone roof and would have originally housed people and animals. The Crannog centre is always a good place to visit with those who have never been before and as a result I have now done it three times. The archaeologists think that placing the structure above the water of the Loch was done to make the Crannog more difficult to attack. They guides who show us round are all very knowledgeable and often amusing. On my last visit with Michelle from the pub, her son and his girlfriend, we were asked to look up to the top of the roof from the inside and describe what was missing. The correct answer was a chimney, but on one occasion apparently, a tourist with a surreal sense of humour had suggested that a chandelier should have been hanging from the ceiling. I rather liked that.

Talking of surreal, we had a rather surreal weekend in October when the pub played host to a friendly final, end of season tug of war competition. A team from Elgin came and there were a number of members of other teams the boys and girls had been competing against over the year. This involved quite a lot of post season drinking and merriment. There was also a group of five girls who had rented a house in the village for the weekend, they had been at university together and had booked the house for a catch-up weekend, and what a weekend they chose. Myself and a number of the tug of war team were invited to join them in what was a rather girly drinking game, which involved the singing of pop songs when a card was drawn or the sipping or downing of a drink when another card was drawn, I never did quite know what was going on, but the merriment continued and we all somehow ended up in their hot tub back at the house they had rented, which was not quite how I saw the day playing out as I awoke that morning. The next afternoon I went back to the pub for my now customary Sunday roast and got chatting to some German deer stalkers who were frankly equally surreal and who treated those of us at the bar to a number of rather serious Bavarian hunting songs while dressed in their shooting uniforms of lederhosen and hats with what looked like shaving brushes stuck to the side of them. The moon must have been in a quirky phase or something. I went home wandering if I had gone through some sort of ‘Alice in wonderland’, portal and vowed never to drink from a bottle marked ‘Drink me’ ever again.

The weather has been unseasonably warm up here, we had a bit of snow in November and a week or so of frosty weather but that has all gone and it has been generally mild and dry, certainly by comparison with the weather I had last year. I am slightly weary of that and wondering when, not ‘if’ but when, it is going to get cold.

The stags have more or less stopped rutting now, I haven’t heard one for a week or two so I should imagine they have gone off to lick their wounds and gargle something to sooth a sore throat after all of that roaring in the glen. I have spotted some salmon in the pool under the bridge at the bottom of the garden and when Alison, Dave and Ann were here we startled one of about ten pounds which took off up the river like a torpedo. I think they have more or less stopped spawning now, when we had the cold snap the river became quite frozen, there is not much water in it at the moment so the freezing process takes place a lot quicker. While Karen was here we spotted the stoat chasing the young hare which has been living in the garden since it was small. The next morning Karen mentioned that it looked like the hare had been killed in the back garden, I went to investigate and sure enough there it was barely marked lying on its side on the grass. I have no doubt that it was the stoat that killed it, apparently they are territorial and just don’t like sharing their environment with anything else, so it was not killed for food, which slightly annoyed me. Don’t these stoats have any morals?

I have been doing some beating for a couple of the nearby estates, there is a lot of game shooting in this area and it accounts for quite a bit of the money brought into this part of Scotland, a situation not reflected by the pay I hasten to add, beating rates are from £30 – £50 per day, so the day is usually a series of organised rambles with a bit of flag waving and shouting, to be presented with a small envelope containing enough cash for a few drinks and supper on the way home. I quite like it though, I enjoy the beaters banter and it gives me a chance to look round some of the other estates in the area. I have also met some interesting people who have come for the shooting, some of whom knew my old stomping ground and with one group I even discovered that we had a few friends in common. Apparently I also qualify for the keeper’s day, where if I can borrow a gun, we beaters get the chance to rid the countryside of surplus pheasants etc. Not that I think I will prove to be too much of a threat. On one of the Estates, bizarrely the one with the better daily rate we get fed at elevenses and then get a lunch with cans of beer and on my first day there last week, I was also served a largish slice of 12 year old ‘Old Park’ whisky to enjoy, what a delight to the senses!

Well we have Christmas fast approaching, Alison left me some battery powered fairy lights which I shall drape over something seasonal by way of appeasing the elves. Ellice at the Strathardle is getting quite excited because we can once again practice singing Alma Cogan’s hit song, ‘Never do a tango with an Eskimo’ a tune deemed suitably festive and one we both enjoy when not entirely sober. My plan will be the same as last year and I will go to the Strathardle Inn for something delicious to eat and maybe a glass of spirit lifter to celebrate the end of the two month long commercial ordeal we all have to sit through at this time of the year. Bah humbug! Hogmanay, always a better evening for me will also be enjoyed at the pub and I have been invited to a pre party, party, so things are looking good.

So on that festive note, wishing everybody seasonal mirth and merriment in large measure and the Happiest of New years.

 

Highland gatherings and roaring stags!

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The boys dug in for the long term.

Well it has been about two months since the last update so this one is I suppose rather overdue. Batten down the hatches and get a cup of tea, this could be a long one. Sorry..

In my last blog I mentioned that I was planning to catch up with Corran, an old school friend who had journeyed all the way over from Hobart in Tasmania with her daughter to the Edinburgh fringe festival, where she was going to reconnect with most of her family and enjoy the festivities for a month or so. I went down to Edinburgh for a week with my camper, the camper was taken because Edinburgh becomes a very expensive place to stay during the festival. Even the campsites were trying to charge £30 per night which is rather rich, but still much cheaper that the £140 per night being asked by the usually reasonably cheap Premier Inn. I booked into the campsite at Morton hall which is about three quarters of an hour by bus from the city centre. There is a night bus which runs (as the name suggests,) all night so there is very little excuse for getting stuck anywhere. I setup the camper and made myself comfortable, water, electricity, food, beer, that sort of thing, checked my computer and after testing most of the messaging options available to us in the 21st century, I managed to get in touch with Corran. She was meeting her three sisters, her daughter and her niece in a pub/venue where her niece was going to sing. Corran’s daughter and niece are both gifted musicians and the venues we visited were usually chosen by which girl was singing where and when. This was fun and made me at least, feel instantly connected with the proceedings. The ‘Bootleggers Bar’ was relaxed and had a sort of ‘run by students’ feel to it, it was all very informal and when I walked in Corran and the girls had all made themselves comfortable on the bales of straw which were arranged about the place for seating, Corran’s niece was singing a rather haunting welsh song on the stage and everybody had that sort of glow about them that indicates this was the first night of a months’ worth of fun. The next day I organised a bus pass for £20 which gave me travel on all of the buses and the tram network for a week and which proved to be pretty good value. The general pattern of each day was that I would get into town early afternoon, catch up with Corran and maybe have a bite to eat and a glass of something, then we would either wander round finding random things to look at or catch up with the extended family at some prearranged location. There are some brilliant free acts which take place all over the city centre and whole days can be taken up grazing on these offerings. Corran’s sister Kirsty cooked a couple of delicious meals during the week and we were usually steered to a venue in the evening by the musical girls. Our usual final end of evening arrangement was a sharpener or two in ‘Sandy Bells’, world famous Scottish folk bar, before meandering back across the meadows with Corran and her daughter to their flat, where I carried on across to Bruntsfield and where I might have a pint of something exotic in Montpelier’s Bar, while waiting for the night bus which runs every hour. One evening I got things a little wrong as a result of an impromptu whisky tasting with a young architect I found myself chatting to in Montpelier’s and managed to miss the bus and then when the pub shut, I had nearly an hour to kill until the next one. I decided to start walking and ended up near the Hermitage in Morningside, when I noticed on the clever digital sign at a bus stop that I had a quarter of an hour until the next bus, so I decided to wait there. While I was there, some youngsters of sixteen or seventeen years old came and occupied the bus stop. They had been taking drugs at a party from what I overheard and were being quite funny, anyway, they regrouped, sorted themselves out and started walking down the street when one of the girls looked at me and asked, “did I have a problem with them” I said, “no, I had found them entertaining”, she then asked me what I was doing there, “well, hoping to catch a bus” I said. “Oh ok”, she muttered, then she said “which one?” Presumably just to corroborate my story, “the number 11 which is due in about three minutes time”, I responded, pointing at the sign. God knows what was going on in her head but she got quite aggressive quite quickly, anyway my answer seemed to stack up, so with one final, slightly paranoid glance in my direction they shuffled off down the road. I had not really intended to get myself into a scene from train spotting, but that was slightly what it felt like.

I did the festival for seven days before heading back home, to be honest a week of all of those people is about as much as I can cope with, the population of Edinburgh doubles over the festival apparently, so I was quite glad to get back to the peace and tranquillity of the cottage.

I had promised to take Corran off to the West coast to visit Arisaig which is a place she has a personal connection with, so I met her in Pitlochry with her cousin Brian, from Dunkeld and after lunch at the Port Na Craig Inn, we set off for the west coast. We arrived at Arisaig and visited the places Corran wanted to see, where we were descended upon by a cloud of hungry midges the minute we got out of the car. We stayed with Carol, a school friend of mine from my Edinburgh days, who lives there and who is always a good and kind host. After Arisaig I thought I would throw in a small cruise for good measure and booked the ferry from Mallaig to Armadale on Skye, yes, all thirty minutes of it, we were hoping to see dolphins or whales but neither made themselves available, the weather was good though and the view from the top deck was just as rewarding. The initial plan was to stay at Glenbrittle, but we opted instead for a small site near Carbost which was a gentle walk to the ‘Old Inn’. The Inn is a long term favourite of mine. I had done some sneaky research and knew that there would be some live music in the pub, which is always good. I know most of the musicians there now and have never had a bad night, so I was hoping Corran would also enjoy the pub and the music. My friend Farquhar MacDonald was playing and that always means it’s going to get lively, he is a well known Skye based fiddle player and plays all over the world. On the night we were there he was playing alongside a nine year old coloured French girl who was on holiday on Skye, she had a precocious talent and seemed to be giving Farquhar a run for his money in the duelling fiddles department. We ended up having a rather wild night and the next day my plan was to take the lovely, community owned and operated, Kylerhea (pronounced kyleray) ferry to Glenelg and drive along the coast through Arnisdale to Corran, a charming little village with a very relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. Corran village is rather dominated by its surrounding Munroe sized mountains, the beautiful sparkling river and Loch Hourn along the edge of which, the little village nestles. I don’t know if Corran was named after this lovely village, but I had promised to take her there and knew she would like it, we stopped for a rather eccentric tea and cake at the ‘Tea shed’ and then had a stroll along the edge of Loch Hourn. On the way back we stopped off to look at the ancient Brochs near Glenelg, we also spotted a good sized salmon resting in a pool under the road bridge, which was waiting for some rain water in the river to help it upstream. We were both feeling slightly ropey after the fun at the Old Inn the night before, so we wandered back to the Glenelg Inn for a small glass of something remedial and a chat with the friends I know there. We walked in and were greeted by the owner, Sheila. I had a bit of a catch up and mentioned I had moved to Pitlochry, she suggested that we introduced ourselves to two chaps who were on holiday and sitting in the garden, so we did. The two chaps turned out to be Roman Catholic priests who had hired a cottage in Glenelg for a week’s peace and quiet, one of whom came from Pitlochry. The two guys proved to be great company, they were both very entertaining and also at times, thought provoking. Their company was very easy, one drink led to another and in this way another slightly wild night was delivered. I was intending to introduce Corran to some good places and interesting people, but I hoped I had not overdone it.

The next day we drove over the amazing Ratagan pass and made our way gently back to Pitlochry. We got back to the cottage and had a very quiet night. The following day was the 135th Strathardle highland gathering at Kirkmichael. Corran was keen for her kids to come up but it didn’t quite happen, they had been with their father on Arran and the logistics proved too difficult. We met up with Brian, her cousin and watched the various entertainments, including a rather emotionally involved tug o’ war during which our team were only just beaten by two ends to one by their main rivals ‘Mount Blair’. The proceedings were brought to a close by a slightly bonkers musical cars event, where cars drive in a circle round the ring and when the music stops a passenger has to jump out and collect a coloured ball from the centre of the ring, after each time one of the balls is removed and those without a coloured ball have to leave the ring. This went on until there was only one car left presumably. I couldn’t be sure however, as we had made our way back to the pub where we had pre booked accommodation, which saved Corran a bike ride back up the Glen at the end of the night. There was more music and a beer festival going on in the marquee on the pub lawn and so another rowdy night was had, there may have even been some dancing. The next day I took Corran to the station for her journey back to Edinburgh and I had a slight feeling she was looking forward to some peace and quiet. Whenever I go somewhere with Corran my car seems to play up, last time it was a cracked chassis, on this occasion it was rather less serious, a wheel bearing had started to complain, I turned up the music so as not to be made constantly aware of it and had it changed a week or so after we got back, we were not at any risk, but it did not make the drive home any more relaxed.

I offered to take a fellow ‘Pitcarmick Angling Club’ member, Gilmour, up to Loch Loch for some fishing in my pickup, Willy the estate digger driver had said that he had levelled and bottomed (placed big stones in the boggy areas) the worst bits of the track, so I thought it worth a try. From the cottage it takes about three quarters of an hour to bump up to the loch. We had taken some wine and beer, my small camping stove and a frying pan for a bacon roll. So we were both looking forward to what we might find. Our plan was to kick off in style with a glass of wine and a bacon roll on the sandy beach at the southern end of the Loch, then fly fish through to lunchtime when we would have more wine and another bacon roll and then spin for the arctic char which are reputedly in the Loch, neither of us have caught char before, so we were rather looking forward to this. While the bacon was being fried we noticed a rather pungent smell which we eventually traced to a dead sheep directly up wind, which added nothing to the appetite. The day was overcast and very blustery and the fly fishing was not easy, we managed a number of very small brown trout and so having had our lunch break we set off again for the main event, a chance of catching a char. This proved to be about as successful as the fly fishing and another couple of small trout were caught and returned, but no Arctic char. We gave up and bumped back down the track to the cottage. I was quite red after this event, a cosmetic arrangement delivered by extended exposure to the elements. During the spinning phase of this trip I managed to snap my very light telescopic rod, luckily I had brought a spare, the very smart handmade rod I had bought in Dulverton, on the edge of Exmoor for salmon fishing, I wandered back to the car to swap over the rods only to find that my big spinning reel would not fit on the rod, I bought it some years ago for a salmon fishing trip in Ireland which never quite materialised, so the rod had never had a proper trial. I managed to sort of jamb on the little reel from my broken rod which allowed me to carry on fishing. The next week I took the rod to the fishing shop in Blairgowrie to see if they could resolve the problem, the owner took one look and said they had fitted a fly reel seat, so a spinning reel would never fit. Oh well, that was an expensive mistake, because it was so long ago, the shop were not really interested in resolving the issue.

There have been a number of fishing parties staying at the Strathardle Inn recently who have been fishing nearby for salmon on the River Ericht, a tributary of the Tay, one of Scotland’s premier salmon rivers. They have all been catching very well with a minimum of a fish per day for each fisherman, which is a very good average for a Scottish salmon river.

While on the subject of game, I was sitting in bed the other day and I could hear some sort of commotion going on outside, when I looked out of the window there were about 30 partridge on the lawn, I had no idea where they had suddenly come from. Perhaps, I thought they had flown over from a neighbouring estate. I happened to mention this to Graham, my friend who grew up at the cottage and he informed me that our estate had stocked about 30 partridge a week or so earlier, so it would seem that the whole lot have discovered my garden. I don’t often see them all together but there are usually ten or so pecking about. I don’t know if they have also stocked pheasants, because my pheasant population has also increased to four males and a couple of females who seem to be about most of the time. They pick up the larger grains from the bird feeder which the smaller birds seem to discard onto the lawn. That afternoon I happened to look out of the dining room window and spotted the teenage (it’s not really a baby any more) rabbit just under the cottage window. I was enjoying the opportunity to admire the rabbit close up when its ears pricked up and it suddenly took off across the lawn followed in hot pursuit by the stoat. There then followed a scene which should have played out to the Benny Hill chase music as the pair bounded round the lawn out under the fence and into the field at the bottom of the garden, I could still see the little rabbit bouncing along with the stoat standing on its back legs to see where its quarry had gone. They chased round for a few minutes coming back through the garden then out of the gate and down the drive and out of sight. As they were disappearing down the drive I was not confident I would see the little rabbit again. This morning though as I drew back the curtains there he/she was, trimming the grass in the middle of the lawn. I would have missed the rabbit, it is pretty tame as far as I am concerned and it barely stops grazing if it sees me getting some wood or going in and out of the shed and I can walk within a metre of it without it displaying any sense of concern.

My brother, Phil came up for a visit for a week or so which was nice. We went for a stroll round Pitlochry, to the salmon ladder where no salmon were seen but about forty Korean students had gathered, followed by lunch in the beer garden next to the salmon fishing pool on the river at the Port Na Craig Inn and then a trip round the Edradour distillery. I can’t recommend highly enough a wander rounds this, Scotland’s smallest distillery. The guide was very knowledgeable and the tour took us for a tasting and a modest video to watch, then we went to look at the distillery proper. The tour led us through the bonded warehouse and onto the workings of the Mash Tuns and Wash Backs, we were actually taken through the Still house while the distillers were going about their day. Most distillery visits I have done before have usually been heavy on multimedia presentations with lots of piping in the glen and poetic discussion of how the smell of the heather infuses the finished unrivalled product. Mostly PR claptrap in other words. This visit though, was much more honest and educational. Phil and I spent the next day with a hike up Ben Earb, this is the second time I have been up Ben Earb. The first time was reported here when Alison and I went up in the spring. This occasion was somewhat warmer and there were fewer deer and antlers to be found. Phil and I sustained our walk by feasting on the Blaeberries that were ripe and found all over the hill. Phil spotted a digger on the ridge between Ben Earb and Lairig Charnach. I have no idea how it got there. When we got to the top of the hill however, we could see that the purpose of the digger was to help with the installation of a new sheep fence, presumably to keep our sheep out of the Dalmunzie estate on the other side of the Ben Earb ridge. The view was unfortunately rather compromised by a bit of foggy cloud which was a shame as it is usually spectacular and was the main reason for going up in the first place.

Phil was going on to stay with Carol, our friend in Arisaig and on the day he was due to travel we looked into what was involved, it seems that from Pitlochry to get to the West coast you have to get a train to Inverness and then all the way back down to fort William and then finally the Mallaig train jumping off at Arisaig. This process would have taken five to six hours, so I took him to Fort William by car which saved him about three and a half hours bumping round the country. This drive goes through Laggan which is lovely, but I seem to have done it quite a lot recently and am now getting slightly bored with the forty mile drive behind an inevitable caravan with very little chance of overtaking (…and relax!).

There have been a group of deer stalkers staying at the Glenfernate Lodge last week, these are the same group who came and had coffee with me a couple of times when they were stalking in the spring, they have been coming up for about 25 years and love the place. The stalking at the moment is for stags and I don’t think they have been having an easy time of it. Their group this time was much larger and included some wives, sons and daughters. They kindly invited me to join them for dinner. I went to Pitlochry for a decent bottle of wine which I hoped would not let the side down. They had a chef for the week and we had a superb meal with some very nice wines and a whiskey or two to wash it all down with. I felt very lucky to have been invited and very much enjoyed the evening which was easy, fun and relaxed. Peter, who had invited me was also the acting disk jockey and it seemed, he has the same taste in music as me. He played three cd’s which are currently being listened to in my cars cd player. This was the first time I have been in the big house and it is a wonderfully appointed place with a full complement of location appropriate furnishings, textiles and paintings, all of which leave you in no doubt that you are sitting cosily by the huge fireplace in a big estate house in Scotland.

I have a chum from the pub who plays a big part in the Atlantic Salmon Alliance organisation and who had a friend staying with him last week. His friend came up to try for a ‘Macnab challenge’. This is where an attempt is made to bag a salmon, a stag and a brace of grouse within one day between dawn and dusk. He caught the salmon in the first hour or so, the salmon is usually considered the difficult part of the challenge. He then spent most of the day trying for and eventually getting a stag, finally he was let down at dusk without the brace of grouse. The grouse are generally thought to be the easy part of the challenge, so he did pretty well. This is a good place to try for a Macnab as the salmon are reasonably plentiful and are within easy reach of the stalking and grouse moors. I am beginning to hear the stags roaring on the hill, as they are coming into the rutting season and as their testosterone levels rise they become very noisy and much braver, I have seen them by the cottage for the first time since moving here.

Finally the weather, what blog of mine does not mention the weather! It’s been bright but quite chilly at night recently, I have relit the stove over the last couple of days and it is taking me a little time to get used to the regime, I have a ton of coal arriving at the crack of dawn tomorrow and I have already enjoyed a couple of nice evenings by the sitting room fire where the logs I have filled the sheds with burn beautifully, much better that the ones I was burning in the spring which had not really had a chance to dry out. The trees are now beginning to show their autumn colours, probably triggered by the colder nights. There is a field maple on the way to Blairgowrie which is just astounding in the autumn, I remember it from last year when I came to view the cottage on a bright sunny day and it was a blaze of golden glory. Another measure of the colder nights is that the mouse count in the traps has been building. They want to come in when it’s chilly and unfortunately I don’t want to share my tidy space with them. I know where they come in and so that is where the traps are, I have been catching one per night for the last couple of weeks. It should slow down once the population has been reduced.Last Saturday when I cycled back from the pub and got to the car there was quite a bit of frost already on the windscreen of the car which had to be scraped for the run back up the track. I have started using my thick duvet and spent some time fitting glazing film. This is basically thin clear film which is fixed over the inside of the whole window frame and when fixed and shrunk until it is taught with a hair dryer, forms a draft proof cover. This effort has definitely made the place feel warmer and also slightly quieter. If all of these interventions work, this winter should be reasonably cosy. I do feel quite prepared for it, although that could be famous last words as things can change very quickly up here.

Well on that note it’s off to Pitlochry to stock up the freezer…

Sheep dogs and lobster.

Sheep dog
The trials and tribulations of a sheep dog

 

Three or four weeks ago I promised to follow Dougie to Pitlochry, it seemed that the brake pads needed to be replaced on his bosses 4X4 and the plan was just to kill the time while they replaced the pads in a café or somewhere soaking up the Pitlochry delights and some cholesterol. The intention was that if it was going to take too long I could drive him back home. Now, I know I did say that I did not really want to spend much more time in Pitlochry waiting for a phone call from the garage but this task seemed so simple nothing could really go wrong. Well, we were sitting in the café when the Dougie got a call from the garage who said that they had discovered that the car was going to need an MOT and they could do it there and then and that hopefully it would not take very long. Apparently this piece of organisation should have been looked after by the house keeper at the lodge, so he was less than amused, the effect however that this had on me and indeed Dougie, was another day wandering round Pitlochry, although on this occasion at least, I did have someone to talk to and we found a different route round the loch and also found the window to the salmon ladder where we were able to see a couple of young salmon on their way up stream, to the huge delight of some small boys and me.

Talking of rivers, we had another very impressive thunderstorm which did not last all that long but which delivered biblical quantities of water in a very short space of time. Rivers were running off the hillsides where I have never seen rivers run before and yet again the river at the bottom of the garden rose by about two feet in half an hour. I was contemplating the weather in this region this morning and essentially it is just the same as Sussex but there is more of it. It is frequently not really that much colder in the Summer and we had a very dry Spring and beginning to the Summer, being more on the Eastern side of Scotland, we do not tend to get the wet weather that the West coast is often faced with. When it does rain in the glen though there is nowhere for the run off to go so the rivers rise very quickly but conversely can also fall quite quickly. We get more wind here than I used to notice in Sussex which at the moment is not a bad thing as we have also had an occasional midge make an appearance. Midges are only a pest however, if the wind drops to less than three miles an hour, which does not happen very often thankfully. The midges at the cottage are not really a problem, they do not seem to occur in anything like the same sort of quantity that I have previously experienced on the West coast, but maybe I have just been lucky. The estate manager, John, apparently threatened to tie someone to a tree at Daldhu dressed only in his pants, (British rather than American understanding of the word) during the midge season, I am not sure what this chap had done, but it served to confirm for me two things, the existence of midges at Daldhu and a somewhat renegade attitude on John’s behalf to punishment of people who have incurred his ire.

I have been given a new driveway! When I first moved in to the cottage last November the driveway from the perimeter fence was covered with grass which looked good and had been mown but on first use it became obvious that the drive had not seen any vehicles during the wet season and the van I moved in with cut up the drive quite badly. I mentioned this to John and asked if I could fill in the tracks with gravel from the side of the road. He mentioned that there was hard standing under the grass but at some point he would get the digger up to sort it out. Well, John was right there was some hard core and after the mud washed off the twin tracks that I used on the drive it all settled down to a rather charming `Beatrix Potter cottage` sort of look. I mowed a strip either side of the tracks and the green bit in the middle and grew fond of its appearance. A couple of weeks ago however I was woken to some commotion and the sound of a diesel engine, looking out of my bedroom window to see what was going on I noticed Willie, the friendly contract digger driver the estate seems to use for all digger based activities, scraping off the manicured green on the driveway, I rushed out to say that I actually quite liked it as it was, but Willie said that John had asked him just to do it and we both know that if John has said “do it” then there is no longer any debate, lest we want to spend some time at Daldhu, in the company of midges, dressed only in our underwear. So I now have a new track, Willie has done such a good job you could play snooker on it, it is level and smooth and looks like tarmac. It will probably allow the water to run off better and be easier to clear when the snow arrives but Beatrix Potter it currently, isn’t. I might paint it with yoghurt to encourage moss, or is that just an old wives tale?

A couple of Sundays ago my traditional Sunday roast was exchanged for something rather more up market. Abi had been to Arbroath and bought some lobsters and as a result the pub had a special `lobster menu` for that weekend. As I got to the pub some friends, Neil and Sarah were just ordering so, oh well, sod it, I thought I would join them. I have had lobster before and always enjoy it even if it is a bit fiddly, but the Lobster Thermidor I had at the Strathardle was a thing of wonder. I have never had a Thermidor before and if this was representative of the genre, then there will be more in my life. Incidentally there are some locals who call the Strathardle Inn ‘The Clappy’. It seems that this was the old name for the pub and one which came from its proximity to the Clappy burn (the small stream) next door, so a locals length of stay in Kirkmichael can be dated by the name they call the pub. Anyway, back to Lobster Sunday (Oh dear, the spell checker just tried to correct that to Lobster Sundae, a rather nauseating pudding prospect),when I got home from the lobster night and made it up the track to the gate of the cottage the entrance was surrounded by about seventy Red deer, mainly hinds but with some young stags with velvet covered antlers accompanying them. I have seen Red deer nearby, but never as close as that before. Their presence served to prove that the deer fence which surrounds the cottage and garden works well to keep them out. Maybe they just came to look at the new drive?

Talking of pubs, as I occasionally seem to do, I was in the Moulin Inn a week or so ago having paid a visit to the CoOp for fresh supplies and there was a member of Moulin staff enjoying a half of cider with the locals. She was Spanish and quite a character. She was fond of opera and was asking where she could go on her night off to see a performance. Edinburgh we all thought, but I don’t think it was a question any of us had addressed before in relation to this area. She went on to tell me she was from an area in Spain where cork is grown and in trying to explain what cork was she typed, I presume, ”Cork” into her translation app on her phone and it came up with ‘Blockhead’, she then asked me what a ‘Blockhead’ was, so I tried to explain it is a term used for someone who might be considered ignorant, she suddenly burst into a fit of giggles, it seems that in Spain the word ‘Cork head’ has the same connotation and her app had faithfully translated the local Spanish meaning, proving that some of these Apps are getting too clever for their own good. This also brought about some rather uninhibited renditions of Ian Dury lyrics by those in the bar of a certain age.

The track up the glen has become rather busy recently with at times, one car an hour passing by, I believe there was a family party at Fealar Lodge, which has caused much of this congestion, that and the proximity of the ‘Glorious twelfth’ of August, the day on which the grouse season starts and one which is nearly always celebrated by the estate owners and their friends, taking to the moor in search of a fresh, beginning of season, grouse. According to Willie the digger driver, another one of his jobs on our estate, is to level the track to the grouse moor before the Twelfth. I had not quite realised how many people had been up the track, until I went to get my final three loads of logs out of the woods behind Daldhu. The spot where I usually leave the track and drive off across a paddock in my pickup had been used as a parking place for some very smart cars. Cars that presumably were left there to preserve their exhausts from the ravages that the track to Fealar would wreak upon them. Fealar estate sends Land rovers down to Daldhu to pick up people who don’t want to risk the track. I did hear a small car, probably owned by a cook or house keeper come back down the track yesterday with an obvious need for an urgent visit to Kwik-fit.

Last weekend was a busy one, the Estate was hosting sheep dog trials so that was keeping the farm workers from their normal duties and I had been rung up by the estate owner who hoped I would be there at 2:00 ish so I could meet his wife. The sheep dog trials were organised by a friend of mine, Alex Smith, a lovely chap from The isle of Jura and his daughter Katy was doing the time keeping for the event, she did offer me the `Time keeping` position, promising a bottle of whiskey for my efforts, but I declined. I realised that if I got anything wrong on the timekeeping or protocol front I would have slipped down the rankings in the glen from my current “quirky and mostly harmless” status to “unspeakable and ignorant in infinite measure”, so not wishing to risk such a lowering of grade, I opted for the safer role of `interested observer`. I don’t know how many of you have been to a sheep dog trial before, but they are in their way very impressive, there is a wooden post from which the shepherd conducts most of his / her business, with two pairs of posts set up to form two sets of gates, some hundred yards or so either side of the control post and somewhere near the control post there is also a small ‘sheep pen’ with a field gate. The sheep are released four at a time, usually some way off and the shepherd has to use the dog to guide the sheep towards himself and the crowd, then through each of the two sets of gates and then into the pen, shutting the gate behind them (the keeper that is, not the sheep or indeed the dog) and finally the sheep are let out of the pen and must be divided into two sets of pairs in a controlled sort of way. The first thing that struck me was the distance at which the sheep were released and at which the dog was still expected to hear and respond to commands. Alex told me that on one occasion, while he was working sheep on Jura, he could not actually see the dog or the sheep, but a colleague on a hill with a radio was able to describe the scene, allowing Alex to round up and drive the sheep back over the hill towards him, somehow the dog was still able to hear and respond to the instructions from over the hill, which I thought was very impressive. The second thing which surprised me, was how intuitive, controlling sheep is to these dogs, this role is so bred and trained into them that a good dog seemed almost to need no real instruction. I have seen the estate dogs working on the hill opposite the cottage and from the seat of a quad bike the shepherds, with minimal instruction coax the dogs into rounding up the sheep into one group and encouraging  them to move the entire herd gently to the track and down the glen to the Fank (local word for pen), where the sheep are wormed, sheared or graded depending on what is required. At the trials not all of the sheep behaved, a young shepherdess had a group of four sheep which were unruly in the extreme, they jumped a fence separating them from the crowd and nearly ended up on the barbecue which was being run by Abi and her team from the Strathardle Inn. The young shepherdess looked to the heavens, smiled and threw in the towel. The shepherd who appeared to win was a rather solidly constructed alpha male sort of chap, from another estate who either had a fantastic dog or some relaxed sheep or possibly both and who managed to muster the sheep around the course with ease and without recourse to some of the more exotic language that a small selection of the other shepherds, seemed to share with their dogs and which often brought about the cupping of the ears of young children. It was quite a thing to witness and left me rather in awe of the relationship between these men and women and their dogs. There was also a sheep shearing contest where scruffily shawn sheep were marked down as were any sheep with any sort of clipper induced wound, mortal or otherwise.

While at the dog trials, I did catch up with David and Linda, on whose estate I live and we had a nice and easy chat for a couple of hours or so about our previous lives in Pilton and Somerset where we had both previously lived, which was something of a coincidence and then I remembered that David had said on his last visit that he was going to do the round the Island (Isle of Wight) sailing race. I asked him how it had gone and he explained that he had done it on a lovely old sailing gaffer which was built in 1889 and which was called Thalia. Another extraordinary coincidence, Thalia is the boat I sailed across the Atlantic on to St Lucia in 2007 when it was owned by my friends Ivan and Fe Jefferis. There are about 3,500 boats of various forms and vintages which are entered for this race, so the odds of David being on Thalia were pretty small. On the basis of all of this lucky coincidence stuff, I bought a lottery ticket later and won! Ok, only £10 but you never look a gift sheep in the mouth.

The other local event which defined last weekend as busy was the Strathardle Inn beer festival. I don’t quite know how Abi does it, but she was running the barbecue and bar at the dog trials, the beer festival in the garden of the Inn and the Inn it’s self which is pretty busy with guests and holidaying passers-by, dropping in for food and drink. I kept my powder dry while at the dog trials, but in the evening I made my way by bicycle to the beer festival for music, laughter, some beer, ‘of course’, and there may have even been some dancing. There were about twelve fine examples of craft Scottish beer to try and honestly, I did my best to try all of them, I had to go back the next day for the inevitable Sunday lunch and to tick off the ones I had not managed to get round to the night before. The combined effect of all of this fun was to leave the beginning of this week somewhat sombre in character. So with the weather matching my mood, indoor tasks have been achieved, easy comfortable ones like, scribbling blogs and doing some tidying. I have a school friend, who is coming over from Hobart to catch up with her British family and introduce her son and daughter to Edinburgh festival. We get on well and I have booked my camper into a campsite in Edinburgh for three days so we can catch up. She said she would like to visit the West coast and my cottage so I have been sweeping out spiders and any other wildlife which has made its way into the cottage in an attempt to try and present a slightly less bachelor like existence.

Talking of which, the wildlife update is currently, two partridge, I don’t think the chicks survived unfortunately, but they have been replaced by a mature mountain hare and a young hare which takes great delight in chasing the pheasant round the lawn. These hares have evolved the most extraordinarily long and powerful back legs. Yesterday, I think I found a semi fledged cuckoo chick in the garden, which ironically looked like it had rather prematurely, fallen out of a nest designed for a much smaller bird. I was keeping a slight eye on it, but it had completely vanished by yesterday evening, probably picked up by a raptor or some other health risk to small fallen birds. While on the subject of birds of prey, I also think I have spotted an Osprey reasonably nearby which is really exciting, as they are quite rare even in this neck of the woods, but that is as yet unconfirmed. When I went back with a camera there was no sign of it, rather typically. Oh yes, there are also, four very noisy Jay’s that can consume a fat ball in about twenty minutes without any intervention from me. If they continue the intervention may become permanent. Am I beginning to sound like John? “One more fat ball and I’ll tie them to a midgy tree in their underpants when the wind is less than three miles an hour!”

Well I can’t stay here chatting, there are one or two more spiders to dust and a camper to clean….

Midsummer muse

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Soft summer light down the track.

Well, summer has arrived and on the longest day it was still twilight until about 1:00 in the morning, getting light again at about 3 am, so not much darkness in the glen. I don’t get a sunset at the cottage because it all happens behind the surrounding hills, the most I can generally see is a pink flamingo hue to the clouds and sometimes the tops of the hills to the east are lit up with red light before the summer semi darkness takes control of the scenery. As the days grow longer the sun sets further to the North which allows for a low light angle at sun down to skip across the surface of the hills and hollows along the glen, providing a contrast to the countryside, illuminating and emphasising the contours and delivering a different view. On a walk up the track yesterday evening I could see, where at some point in the past, probably during the Bronze Age, small areas had been levelled for the growing of crops, this was something that I had not noticed before and which was made apparent by the low light angle. The moorland and hills are now a dazzling fresh green, which makes a change to the dry brown heather and dead grass heath that I had become used to being surrounded by. This fresh growth is bringing herds of deer into the glen and I have also recently heard the barking call of a couple of stags. They are not rutting yet but maybe the sight of large herds of hinds and calves is motivating them to make themselves known. The verdant grass has also fattened the lambs, in the two months or so since their birth they have put on so much growth that the young males are now nearly the same size as their mothers, I did not realise until moving here how quickly they develop. As I see them around the cottage and on the track I have been in a prime position to observe their behaviour. I have noticed that bravery seems to be inherited by the lambs. If I drive past a ewe who is jumpy and nervous she will be accompanied by a similarly nervous lamb, likewise if I drive past a ewe who is feeding close to the track and which is un-phased by my presence, her lamb will regard me casually and carry on feeding without concern. This observation caused me to wonder if the same is true of humans, is being nervous genetic?.

I may have mentioned before that my landlord and estate owner drops in for tea from time to time and on his first visit he mentioned that if I wanted to fish on the estate, I really needed to do some work for the estate, as free fishing was only really available to estate workers. I think this is the first time this rule has been thought of and implemented and I don’t really have a problem with it. I did think though, once a politician, always a politician and that the rule was there to somehow tie me to the estate and perhaps to him a little more. It also has to be said however, that the jobs are offered and he did say I only need to do the ones I want to do. Well, I was given a job painting some fences which surround the electrical transformers on the estate which manage the power output from the Hydro scheme. Not very exciting I am afraid and confirmed for me how little I enjoy painting. I had bought a lawnmower and strimmer / brush cutter to keep my garden in shape and with a view to helping pay for their cost, I mentioned that I could do some strimming. Note: Be very cautious what you ask for in this life, I was asked if I could strim the grass either side of the track from the farm down towards the road. Two days of strimming later and a slight case of vibration related white finger or in my case white thumb nerve damage leaving my thumb numb, (sorry, couldn’t resist). I measured the distance on my digital map and it transpired that I had strimmed 1.25 miles of track. I had to do an oil change on the new strimmer half way down. On my way down the track I thought about trying to define strimming for those that know nothing about it. My definition of strimming is as follows. “Strimming is a cross between a gentle ramble and ballroom dancing”. There you go… Strimming.

Having arrived at my newly found estate worker status, I was taking a stroll down to the river at the bottom of the garden and noticed some trout activity, so I went back to the cottage, dug out a rod and a fly and tried a cast on the river. I caught three of the smallest, but most perfect trout imaginable in three casts and then nothing else. Now enthused, I drove to the fishing loch on the estate, Loch Crannach, where an hour or so was wasted in stately fashion, but no fish were caught. There was no sign of any fish on the surface of the loch so maybe they were gorging themselves on some hatching insect life in the deep and out of sight. So I made my way to a beautiful pool on the river where I caught three small brown trout and a salmon parr (baby salmon before it has left the river it had hatched in). Not a great start, and poor reward for the hours of painting. The good news is that the work is paying my electricity bill, so happy days and come the winter I will be a little more relaxed about the occasional use of a fan heater. Talking of work, I have also helped Abi from the Strathardle Inn with a couple of outside bars. We did a very nice wedding and a retirement party for a local in the village hall. I used to do bar work in Edinburgh years ago and had forgotten how much fun it is and what hard work it can be. It was a great way to get to know more people and reduce my bar bill at the same time.

The weather last month was generally good so I decided to go and get another couple of loads of logs, which went well, but they were sods to split and two loads left me with some fairly large blisters. I have stacked the split logs in the shed and in doing so seem to have spread woodworm into the wooden floor boards of the shed. The shed floor is in a pretty poor condition but the woodworm is frankly not helping, so I might need to treat it with something at some point. I am biding my time to get another couple of loads of logs and I should then have enough wood to keep my sitting room fire going throughout the winter, which cheers the place up and helps keep everything dry.

About four weeks ago we had a thunder storm, it did not rain much at the cottage but I could see the tall, dark clouds all around and heard peals of thunder for a couple of hours. There must have been a torrential down pour over the mountains, because I noticed the level of the river rise maybe two feet in about twenty minutes, which is by any measure extraordinary. When I mentioned this to my landlord, he said that the rain may have caused a landslide up the glen which blocked the river temporarily with a muddy dam, which once the pressure had built up behind it, then burst causing a cascade of muddy water to charge down the glen. That was a scenario which seemed to fit the evidence. It does make you think though, if I had been wading in the river I would have struggled to get out before it became dangerous.

One of the things I don’t miss from Sussex was the constant noise from the air, with light aircraft and aerobatic practice sessions looping the loop in the sky above, day after day. The noise used to really wind me up, particularly as we lived on the coast and they could have flown off over the sea where their antics would have bothered no one. I think I sort of tuned into the noise and then it just used to annoy me. I noticed looking through my notes, that I had written, probably after a visit to the pub, that “The real value of peace and quiet is aesthetic and is a non-tangible asset”, a quirky statement perhaps, but one I still very much adhere to, even if I am not quite sure what it means. The silence here is a very welcome backdrop, there is a depth to the peace which you can almost bath in. The sounds which can be heard are gentle ones, the wind in the trees, the flow of the river, cattle and lambs calling, the Oyster catchers and Curlews, all soothing somehow. Occasionally however the glen reverberates to the shriek and howl of a low level Typhoon (Euro-fighter, can we still call it that?) fighter aircraft. The sound they make is extraordinary and would strike fear into the heart of any one who did not know what was happening. They make a sound like the sky is being torn apart. I have only seen them three times in the eight months since I moved here and they are exciting. They dog fight each other, hugging the glens and hill sides as though they are magnetically connected, sometimes so low I can see the pilot. I don’t mind this, they are so impressive and hammer the senses in the short time they are above you, they charge you with adrenaline, but they are also quite rare, if they were an everyday occurrence, I would not be so impressed.  The other day we also had an extremely low level Hercules aircraft, I thought they were going to take the chimneys off the roof, it seemed to take ages to pass overhead. They were flying so low I thought something was wrong and was partially waiting for an explosion and a cloud of smoke and then I remembered that on the same day in 1993 a Hercules had crashed on the estate and so what I had seen had been a memorial fly past to remember that sad event. When I mentioned it in the pub, I was told they do a fly past every year.

My little menagerie of Red legged partridge seemed to drop in number from two to one, I was rather saddened by this as I have become quite fond and rather protective of them, when I moved in there were three of them. I was told by a game keeper that they are not really hardy enough for this environment, so I assumed another one had succumbed to a Pine martin or a bird of prey. However last week I was looking out of the sitting room window with a mug of coffee in hand, I had just filled the bird feeder and noticed two partridges feeding underneath. I was quietly very pleased then I noticed two fluffy little things accompanying them. I dug out the binoculars and there were two partridge chicks! So presumably the bird I thought was missing in action had actually been sitting on a nest for the last month or so. Happy days indeed.

The weather has been a bit drizzly here for the last couple of weeks, which is always dull. Putting out the washing or getting on a bike always seems to bring it on, which is slightly tiresome, but it is not cold and the drizzle has driven me into the shed where I have been working on a wood carving of a female grouse. I am using some of the bog oak I bought for this project and so far so good, things seem to be going quite well. I am, at this phase of the operation, quietly confident. The work did slip out of the vice and land on its beak, (of course,) but it has glued back so well you would never know it had suffered a beakectomy. Bog oak is not the easiest material to carve, it is pretty hard and while in the bog seems to have absorbed some of the surrounding grains of sand and silt which means that much sharpening of tools has to take place. It also has splits and shakes in the wood, making it technically difficult to work with and around but I am now fairly confident that the finished result will be quite good and the fact that the wood could be two thousand years or more old and is from the Isle of Isla where all of the peaty whiskies come from, hopefully just adds to its unique appeal. I will try and find a suitable lump of local granite or something similar to set it on when finished.

Another task I have undertaken, perhaps slightly reluctantly, is to replace a component on my car which had been causing some problems. I did not really notice any issues with it in Sussex apart from it going into emergency limp mode from time to time. A mode designed to save the engine from damage when something extreme happens, but in the case of my car a faulty electronic valve was causing the problem and which was exacerbated with the cold weather of last winter in Scotland. When I got out of the car to open a gate on the track the engine would stall and it would then be reluctant to start again, running very roughly until the engine warmed up. I became quite concerned at one point, I was worried it might let me down half way up the track in the snow and cold wind, so I did some research on the Nissan Navara owners web forum, I found other owners who had experienced the same problem and having established which component was faulty, I ordered the new part. It has to be said as well that my car has been to the Nissan garage in Sussex twice to have this fault fixed and on both occasions they had failed to identify the issue. Well, a couple of weeks ago I went through the very fiddly process of fitting the new valve and bingo, with a bit of wood touching it all seems to be good. Since then I have searched the forum for some of the other more minor issues that my car has had and have fixed the driver’s window switch and repaired a funny clicking noise which was a part of the heater system which needed stripping down, cleaning and greasing. My semi trusty 4X4 Nissan pickup is now like a new car, so I am very pleased. Thank heavens for web forums and the characters that make them so useful. The quoted Nissan cost of just replacing the valve was £600 so I have saved myself £550, some of which was spent in the pub celebrating the improvement. Most importantly, I am now more confident about the cars performance when the cold weather comes.

I have just realised that quite a lot of this blog has been dedicated subconsciously to preparations for the next winter, wood, electricity and now the car and we have only just celebrated mid-summer, oh well at least I am ready for it.

Well on that happy note, the drizzle has started so it’s off to the shed for me. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to the shed I go, with my oak and chisel I’ll avoid the drizzle. Hi ho, hi ho, etc….

Ben Earb or bust.

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Alison with the antlers in the snow with Beinn A Ghlo in the background.

It’s been a while!

I noticed reading through my last update that I had mentioned what I did to kill a day in Pitlochry while the car was being serviced, all very exciting stuff I’m sure you will agree, but I am afraid to report that since then there has been more Pitlochry boredom. When I took the car back to have the brakes checked as the final part of the service I was told it would take about an hour, so did not even bother to take a bicycle to help pass the time, I just thought I would stroll up to town from the garage and have a coffee while the finishing touches of the service were performed on my car. I was into the second cup of flat white when the phone rang, it was the garage informing me that the discs on the front needed replacing as did the brake pads, “Ah ok”. They could do it for me the same day but the parts would not arrive before 3:00 and it would take a couple of hours to do the work and test the brakes before I could take the car away. “Ok, that would be fine”, I said slightly reluctantly and in that manner was delivered of another day wandering aimlessly around Pitlochry. This time without a bicycle to at least get me to a fresh view. I took a stroll round Loch Faskally along a track on the edge of the loch which took me past the very expensive and rather spectacular looking Fonab Castle hotel, resisting the temptation to see how much a coffee or orange and soda might cost in there I marched onwards with no clear goal in sight. I had killed a couple of hours in the towns cafes reading a news paper and it was heading gently towards lunch so as I strolled past Pitlochry’s famous salmon ladder and the Festival theatre on the banks of the river Tummel I thought I would pop in to the Port Na Craig Inn. The Port Na Craig is quite a historic little Inn, it was built at the point on the River Tummel where a ferry was set up in the 12th Century to take monks from the Abby at Fonab across the river so they could make their way to Moulin. The Inn was established in 1650, nearly a hundred years before the battle of Culloden. This little place is really more restaurant than Inn, but it has a nice cheery atmosphere and when I was there, there was a pretty but perhaps rather daffy waitress who I took probably wrongly, to be the owner’s daughter. I opted for the lunchtime bowl of soup and salmon and cream cheese ciabatta which looked tasty, was home made and reasonably cheap, so had everything to recommend it. The waitress it turned out was a chatty one, so we discussed what to do in Pitlochry, she did not really come up with any fresh Pitlochry ideas, but she did suggest something of complete brilliance which I will do next time and her suggestion was to get on a train and go to Perth. We also discussed the weather, of course and salmon fishing in the famous salmon pool in the river just outside the Inn where there were two or three wading fishermen in heron like vigil, all very nice. A bell rang to announce my food was ready and the girl brought the soup and ciabatta to my table along with a knife and fork. She pottered off before I could ask for a spoon and was away for five minutes or so, when she came back, with a smile I gently pointed out that eating the soup with a fork had not really worked and could I try with a spoon. She went bright red, briefly matching the colour of her Celtic red hair and dashed off to get a spoon. After about ten minutes a couple and child came and sat down, they too looked at the menu and decided that the soup and ciabatta was the sensible choice, so orders taken, drinks delivered, the waitress wandered off to another room to tend to some customers who wanted to pay their bill. The bell rang again and she reappeared with the couple’s soup. The waitress then went to clear a table in the next room and on her way back asked the couple if everything was OK, the lady said, “Do you think we could have some spoons?” I tried to restrain myself and just caught the waitress’ eye as she looked briefly at me to gauge my reaction, she then looked everywhere apart from at me, in case it sent both of us in to an unbecoming fit of the giggles. The meal was great and the Inn is lovely. I thanked the girl paid and left. Close to the Inn there is a suspended foot bridge which is quite old judging by the amazing quality of its construction, I think probably Victorian in keeping with the rest of Pitlochry. This bridge takes the casual time waster across the river and back to Pitlochry high street. While crossing the bridge I noticed that it had been adorned with the now ‘de rigour’ locked padlocks of those love struck couples who feel the only way to celebrate their unwavering loyalty and fondness for one another is to clamp some cheap hardware to a bridge. Some were shaped like hearts, some were engraved with secret messages and some were scribbled on with a felt tip pens. Call me old fashioned but I just don’t really get it as a gesture. There is a bridge in Paris where I believe this whole silly thing began, which became so weighed down with padlocks that the council or Parisian municipal equivalent had to cut the locks off to avoid a structural failure. I wondered if all of those relationships came crashing back to earth the minute the padlocks were removed from the bridge? Probably unlikely. The little bridge in Pitlochry also has other adornments which the architect probably did not quite envisage, being across a river, as many a good bridge often is and in particular a salmon river, there will be lots of people with fishing rods, so the bridge is also draped in snagged salmon fishing lures. The most common of these is the now famous and effective ‘flying condom’ lure. This lure has a shiny disc of metal which spins round as the lure is pulled through the water and it has a sort of rubber tail which is presumably where the condom name comes from, needless to say the bridge is also covered in those. Somehow fitting, I thought, tokens from star crossed lovers and condoms all hanging from the same bridge. Nature always finds a balance.

Last month I decided to go exploring up the track to Fealar Estate I have made previous attempts to cycle up there but they were all pretty much thwarted by the conditions. They do get some snow up there. On this occasion I made it about six and a half miles up the nine mile track to the lodge, the reason why I did not go any further is because the night before at the Strathardle Inn there had been some partying for a member of staff who was leaving and the highlight of the evening, or to be more precise one of the highlights of the evening  was a beer mat fight of epic proportions, so I was feeling somewhat jaded and did not want to present myself to my neighbours looking like I had not quite made it to bed. The ride was in essence an attempt to rid myself of the post party headache. The other reason why I did not go any further was because I could see the lodge from where I had stopped and it was all downhill, meaning the return trip would be about two and a half miles of uphill, having just done six and a half miles of uphill I was happy to retreat back down the glen. Meeting the neighbours can wait for another day. I have just looked up the elevation profile of the ride and the reason why it all seems to be up hill from me is because it largely is. The highest point on the track is 2205 feet above sea level which also explains the snow, I am a mere 1000 above sea level. There was a strong headwind working against me as well as I cycled up the track, so it took me about three quarters of an hour to get to the point where I stopped, absorbed the view and turned back and it took me just under twenty minutes to ride home. The return journey was hill and wind assisted and was fast, furious and fraught with sheep related danger, they just don’t hear you coming and when they spot you travelling at speed on a bicycle, they panic and run around in an unpredictable and unnecessary fashion. Jamming on the brakes on a gravel track does not result in an immediate slowing of pace it usually results in a temporary loss of control which could end unkindly. It was a great ride though and provided the desired result of clearing my party fog. I love exploring round here either by cycling the tracks or climbing a new hill, the scenery changes with every new viewpoint in an infinite way which is difficult to predict before you have done the ride or walk. Getting a view of the next glen is always rewarding, they are alike and unalike at the same time, each glen has its own presence and atmosphere which gives them all a personality, some kinder than others as is often the case with unique personalities.

While cycling up the track I had gone maybe half a mile from home when I spotted a bird gliding in a thermal on the left hand side of the glen. This was a big bird, it had broad deep wings with out stretched fingers of feathers at the wing tips and a purposeful tail. I remember talking to someone on the West coast on one of my earlier Scottish trips and he had mentioned to me that most people confuse Buzzards for Eagles. “How do you know it’s an Eagle” I asked, he just said “if it looks like a barn door, it’s an Eagle”. The bird which was gracefully playing in the air currents to the left of me was shaped like a good old fashioned imperial (pre metric) oak barn door, one with a handmade blacksmiths bolt on it and hinges of wrought iron, a solid type of barn door. Unmistakably a Golden Eagle, I have seen them on the West Coast and in the Hebrides before but in the six months or so that I have lived here this is the first one I have seen and so close to the cottage. When I took the ride up the track the lambing season had just started and I think it was probably no coincidence that the Eagle showed up at this particular time of the year. A Lambing season is probably irresistible to a hungry Eagle with possibly its own young to feed.

Talking of birds, my garden collection has increased and so has their bird food consumption, I saw a lesser spotted Woodpecker for about three days which discovered there were peanuts on offer and would not leave them alone. It became quite tame, then no sooner had it arrived, when it vanished. These birds are amazing when you get a chance to see them up close, I have some binoculars which are an advantage and up close many of our wild and visiting birds look like they should be more at home in the tropics. The woodpecker was a bright white with black spots and flashes of red. The peanuts are currently being eaten by the resident Siskin population a small yellow bird, the males of which are a dazzling yellow. They are feisty little things and there is often a food related aerial dog fight between two or three of them around the feeder. I now also have a Pheasant which comes to visit regularly, about four Wood Pigeons and of course the Red legged partridges are still here. I keep surprising the Partridges around the garden and almost without fail they will panic, take to the air and fly straight into a wall, fence, tree or shed roof. I honestly don’t quite know how they survive all of that battery.

The bird feeder has been feeding a large group of brash and rather noisy Tree sparrows, I think they account for most of the food consumption, so I was slightly amused the other day when I caught a glimpse of a fresh and unusual bird perched on a garden fence post just to the left of the house. I could only just see it from the corner my sitting room window. I had never seen anything like it before, it was a raptor, a very small thrush sized one but unmistakably a bird of prey, it was beautiful in a discrete blue grey sort of way, with a light brown chest and with what looked like little ermine tails down its apron, it was stately and had a sort of house of lords look to it. I did some research and it turned out to be a Merlin. The bird book described it to a tee and informed me that the Merlin’s favourite dish is Tree Sparrow, happy days, a fat Merlin and less bird feed to pay for, a ‘win win’ outcome unless of course,  you are fond of the Sparrows.

The birds here seem to come and go in waves, driven presumably by migration cycles and the onset of spring. When I moved here from Sussex, living as I did in a beautiful location right next to Chichester harbour, I really thought I would miss the Curlews and Oyster catchers which make up so much of the harbour sound scape, then about two weeks ago I was lying in bed and I thought I heard the plaintive cry of a distant Curlew. I remember thinking it odd to hear a Curlew all this way inland but I have subsequently discovered that they are ground nesting birds along with Oyster catchers and Lapwings or Peewits as they call them up here and the moors and glens must provide a pretty good reasonably predator free environment for them to raise chicks. I am now surrounded by Curlews which has added another dimension to the more usual sheep and cattle noises I usually hear around the cottage.

Spring is beginning to take hold finally. I went to Wiltshire for a friend’s wedding a couple of weeks ago and while I was away we had about six to eight inches of snow on the garden according to my local chums, I think that was winters last blast and the following week saw the temperature rise to a heady 25 degrees Centigrade at one point. I did not quite know what to make of that and a few of my friends got quite burnt in the unexpected heat of those unusual conditions. Being new to this place, life here  is a constant learning curve, as each season unfolds so do different aspects of my immediate landscape and the surrounding countryside. I have no idea what has been planted in the garden and it is only once things start to bud or bloom that I am beginning to get a picture of what might have been hidden for all of those winter months. It’s like opening presents, more or less every day something else makes its self-known which I am really enjoying. One or two surprises have been of the nettle and dock variety so a strimmer will have to be obtained, the lawn mower is already on its way and I hope it hurries up as I can more or less hear the lawn growing around me. Last night we had the first rain in months and the river levels are so far down I am beginning to wonder whether the fishing potential in the river by the cottage is going to live up to its earlier spate driven promise. The spring rain seemed to turn on the smell of the moorland and woods which are either side of the cottage, the air was full of fresh meadow and pine this morning which managed to blast its way through the final nasal restrictions of the man cold I am now more or less rid of. The larch trees that I have only known as dark and rather austere, looking down from their raised hillock by the big shed, they are now showing fresh green needles which has given them warmth and substance. I have a weeping birch tree which similarly is beginning to show tiny filigree leaves in miniature which look lace like in the spring light. I have a number of cherry or plum trees all of which are in blossom at the moment, there is a broom bush which is about to explode in a burst of yellow and I was very pleased to discover a number of those quintessentially Scottish trees, the Rowans in the garden. I am not good at spotting tree types by shape and bark but once the leaves come out, the identification process becomes much clearer.

Alison, a friend from Sussex, came to stay for a few days. She was taking part in the ETAPE Caledonia which is an 81 mile cycling challenge. The ETAPE is a big event and according to the chap in the bike shop in Pitlochry about 5000 people take part every year, the council shut roads and infrastructure is setup to accommodate all of the extra people. Pitlochry as you can probably imagine has a love hate relationship with the event. Alison was joining a number of her friends from the ‘Biking Belles’ cycle group she is a member of in Sussex. I think eleven of them made their way to Pitlochry for the event which I thought was a pretty good turnout. Alison came and stayed with me for three days before I handed her back to the Belles. The first day I thought we should go up a hill. Now I know this sounds slightly selfish but I have done most of the hills which surround the cottage so I decided upon Ben Earb. Ben Earb is sort of on the way to the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel in the Spittal of Glenshee and while the Hotel is at least a good half an hour’s drive away, it is as the crow flies only about four miles walk across the hills. I have always thought it would be a good place to walk to for Sunday lunch once the weather is better, so I am afraid I used Alison’s first walk as a sort of scouting trip for lunch at the Dalmunzie at some future point. The walk went well and we were kept on our toes looking for discarded antlers of which Alison finally found three. Ben Earb is 2631 feet high and is therefore a mountain described in Scotland as a Corbett. We made good steady progress over the lower hills and braes, aiming for the trig point which we could see in silhouette on the top of the mountain. We stopped from time to time to look at the view, or point out a deer, or notice some other feature, or just to take a mental note of what to aim for on the way home. We found a route which skirted to the right hand side avoiding the steeper scree and rocky slopes of the more direct route. We finally made it to the top and were rewarded with the most astounding three hundred and sixty degree view that I have seen since moving here. It was a reasonably clear day with a bit of cloud just under three thousand feet. I knew that because I could not see the top of Beinn A Ghlo our nearest Munro (mountain over 3000 feet). But we could see the Gairngorms proper to the North still very much with snow and Schiehallion and the Grampian mountains to the west and with Glen Shee and perhaps little glimpses of Lochnagar to the East. It was stunning. I could not quite see the Dalmunzie Hotel which should have been quite obvious and which was sort of, one of the founding reasons for the exploration. We strolled along a ridge which dipped down and looked like it would deliver us back down the mountain to the lower valley before the ridge climbed once again to the next mountain top of Lairig Charnach , as we were coming down the ridge Alison pointed at a building, asking “what’s that”, ah ha, the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel, with its turrets glistening in the light. I had been looking slightly in the wrong direction and now I know where it is, lunch is a definite possibility. On the way back we wandered through what I believe was probably a ‘Lek’. A Lek is a spot where Black grouse males advertise themselves to females and fend off other males. I didn’t know this while we were doing the walk but was educated by a nature program on the TV and now recognise what we had walked through. There were a large number of Black grouse males concentrated in one fairly small area and at least one was doing a sort of jump into the air display which I took to be a ‘push off and leave us alone’ sort of message but now know to be fairly typical ‘lekking’ behaviour. The next day Alison and I embarked on a road trip to visit some old family friends of hers who live in Lairg. I like Lairg and so was happy to go for a drive, the journey also gave Alison an insight into other bits of the Highlands which she otherwise would not have seen. We had a lovely lunch in a very pretty little croft house up a track just outside town with her friends and an uneventful drive home, “in a good way”. The following day I delivered Alison back to the ‘Belles’ in time for their 9:45 training ride. I was hoping that the walk had not ruined her too much, I think she took it all in her stride. She completed the ETAPE course in good time and there were no dramas so all’s well that ends well.

Oh no it’s drizzling, sorry must go and get the washing in…