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.