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….


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