Spring again in the Glen.


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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