The River Blackwater in its autumn glory.
Conundrum solved! I mentioned the mystery of the ‘Withnail and I’ note found by my front (only) door, well I finally discovered who had left it there. It transpired that Hugo and his son Louis had taken a run up the glen to say hello while I was away sailing and had left the slightly enigmatic calling card referred to in the last epistle. I realised roughly which group of my friends had left the note because it was written on the back of a Davidsons (the local vet and farm suppliers) receipt for an olive green dog jacket, so I thought one of my friends with a hunting / shooting sort of leaning was probably responsible, but that was as far as I got with the investigation, until the other day while we were beating on Ashintully, Hugo confessed it was him. So there we have it, my inner Sherlock has been stood down and we can all now relax.
This summer saw record amounts of Swallows in the garden, I love seeing them as long as they can find somewhere outside to nest, this year some managed to get into the big shed and the mess was unbelievable, after the chicks had fledged I swallow proofed the shed and cleared the place out, this did not stop them trying to get back in again but I am happy to say that my efforts proved effective. I think the warm summer gave them the opportunity to raise two sets of chicks because at one point the cottage was swallow central, they swirl and soar round the cottage and while I was coming out of the door to round the corner of the cottage, I narrowly missed a couple of collisions with exuberant young swallows getting used to operating in the third dimension by hurtling round the garden like demented fighter pilots.
The warm summer weather also delivered a huge and rather beautiful wasps nest or Byke, to the coal shed. I have never seen such an impressive nest before, it is about the size of a football and is in the shape of a heart. The construction of the nest is made of a papery substance which the wasps have harvested from the larch boards that the big shed is clad in. They sort of chew the raised grain of the boards, you can see where they have been working away by the clean new wood the wasps expose. I was a bit worried they were going to prove a nuisance as the summer wore on and food became scarce, but this did not really happen, so as they had left me in peace, I respected them by treating them in the same way.
Another happy by-product of the warm summer were the gooseberries and blackcurrants that appeared in abundance in the garden. Normally the birds eat all of the fruit the minute it is ripe, but this year the two bushes produced so much fruit that the birds could not keep up, which meant I had fresh gooseberries on my breakfast cereal for a couple of weeks and had enough blackcurrants to make one and a half jars of jam. Now I know that does not sound a lot, but it will probably be enough for me until next year and I have never made jam before so, another culinary first. The jam actually turned out rather well, and its fresh, fruity sharpness works really well with a Scottish lamb chop, so happy days.
My garden had an aesthetic improvement this year, well two actually, I mentioned back in the spring edition of this blog that the lovely couple who were planning to move into Daldhu, the next cottage up the glen from me, had dropped off some plants for the borders of my garden. Well this summer my garden was a riot of colour, one or two of the plants did not fare too well, but the majority took off and provided a spectacular visual feast and a floral delight for both the bees and humans to enjoy. The other improvement was the diesel tank for the now redundant generator in the small shed was removed by Willie the digger driver, so the back garden no longer has an eyesore in the middle of it. There was some diesel left in the tank and I was also a bit worried that it was going to leak out and cause a problem. Removing the tank has improved the back garden and the views from all of the rear facing windows, the tank used to rather dominate the scene, it was just impossible to ignore.
The transition from summer into autumn this year saw a profusion of mushrooms. The tree where I find the birch boletes provided a good crop and while talking to Ellice and Dave from the Strathardle Inn about the mushroom crop, Dave offered to take me out foraging. He and Ellice have a really good understanding of what to look for, so they came up to the cottage and we wandered around the woods for a few hours trying to find Porcini mushrooms, another member of the bolete family and much tastier that the humble birch variety I have been picking. We struggled to find anything in the woods around me so we decided to go to Dirnanean, the estate that they live on and where they already knew the hotspots. Within an hour we had found maybe two kilograms of porcini which was amazing. On the way there I showed them the tree where I have been collecting mushrooms and Ellice even found a small porcini by my tree, which was a pleasant surprise.
The beating season is now more than half way through and this year has been quite wet and windy, I have managed to get soaked on a fairly regular basis recently, but at least it has not been too cold. When there is a strong wind the flight of the birds can be affected, so it becomes very difficult to plan how to beat them. I suppose however this is the same for everybody and means there will be some birds left for the keepers day, which is the shooting day when the beaters and the people with dogs who pick up the shot birds, get handed a supervised gun and are allowed to have a go at the birds that are left. I think this has historically taken place because the keepers do not want to feed lots of birds over the winter period. One of the good things about beating, apart from being paid to take a walk on a lovely estate, and being fed and watered at lunch time, is that I can help myself to some of the birds from each shoot. I tend to breast them out and leave the carcasses somewhere for the raptors to finish off, I saw a young eagle a couple of weeks ago clearing up a dead pheasant from where I had left it. I make pheasant curry with the breasts, which is cheap, tasty and nutritious. The breasts also freeze very well so I have stocked the freezer in anticipation of being snowed in for a few days this winter. We were beating last Saturday and I spotted a mountain hare in its white winter coat escaping the beaters line on one of the drives. There must be little else that advertises “come and eat me” more than a white hare in a brown landscape, their camouflage works beautifully in the snow but without it they are a bit of a beacon. Apparently the colour change is triggered by temperature, so the hares on the tops of the hills will turn earlier than those on the lower ground.
Autumn has finally delivered the red deer rut, it seemed to start quite late this year but once going I could hear the stags roaring around the cottage, day and night, they must completely exhaust themselves. They get so fixated on breeding that they ignore all of the dangers around them, last year I had two stags fighting just outside the garden fence and my presence went completely unnoticed, I waited for them to stop before I went to the car as they can be dangerously unpredictable. I was late for the dentist as a result, when I explained what had happened I was greeted in the same way that my teachers at school used to regard the “dog ate my homework” excuse, responding with a sort of limp smile which implied that life was just too short.
Autumn this year also delivered a salmon into my freezer from the river at the bottom of the garden. The one I caught this year was not big, coming in at about 7 pounds, but it was fairly freshly run up the river and in good condition. The last salmon I caught was cut up into steaks which was not a good thing to do, as there were many small bones to contend with as a result, so this year I googled how to fillet a salmon and the results have been much more ‘fish shop’ and eater friendly. Honestly what did we do before google? I catch the salmon on an Ally’s shrimp fly which gives them a fighting chance, sometimes I can pass the fly right in front of them and they won’t touch it, on other occasions I can cast it into the river and there will be a bow wave across the river before an explosion of action and a hard fighting fish might, if I am lucky make it into the net. If they don’t go for the fly I leave them to it. I also only take one each year if I am lucky enough to get any, as they have done well to make it up to me, the spawning gravel beds are up towards Daldhu so they have another couple of miles to fight the river current before they can breed. This year the salmon run was late because of the dry summer which left the river water levels very low. The fishermen who come up each year for the salmon season had a very poor time and quite a few of them cancelled which has had an impact on the local Hotels and B+B’s.
A month or so ago I had a friend to stay in the cottage and while changing the sheets in the guest room the next day someone knocked at the door. I shouted that I was on my way but the insistent, slightly frenzied knocking continued. I was not quite sure what was going on. When I got to the door a man had let himself into the porch. I was slightly taken aback, and asked him if he was ok. He said he was a team leader guiding some teenagers on a Duke of Edinburgh trip and had been struck by a migraine, he had been sick all night and could not even hold water down. I asked him to come in and sat him on the comfy chair in my dining room and closed the curtains. I asked how I could help, he said if he could contact a colleague they would come out to the cottage and take over from him. I lent him my phone so the call could be made. During this process I could hear a dog barking in the background, it seemed his dog was left at the gate and was concerned about its owner, so I went and got the dog and brought it inside as well. Once the call had been made we had about an hour to kill before his lift turned up, I made him some hot sweet tea which perked him up a bit and we chatted in the darkened room. He had been in the IT industry like me for a number of years and had become fed up with the rat race, also rather like me, so he had passed all of his leadership tickets and was now a full time outward bound instructor. This was apparently the worst migraine he had ever had while at work. I struggled to think of anything worse! Finally his colleague arrived and he was waived off by his group of youngsters and me. The whole incident did leave me feeling slightly vulnerable in an odd sort of way, because the man was so ill, all of the normal protocols had been ignored with regard to entering someone else’s property and I had found myself a little unsure initially how to deal with the situation. I have never felt lonely or vulnerable up in the cottage, but that experience did make me think about things a little bit more. It’s a good job my first instinct was not to bang him over the head with a frying pan.
I mentioned in a previous blog that the estate was going to harvest some of the woods further down the track, well they waited until after the wedding in August and then the logging started in earnest, shortly after the logging began I saw my first red squirrel in the garden, I can only imagine that the disruption of the squirrels environment had moved it further up the glen to my little group of trees, I have not seen it in the last couple of weeks, so maybe it has hibernated somewhere or moved on to a larger wooded area. Talking of wildlife, I think I have also mentioned that I have some small owls in the garden, well recently one has decided that the best place to perch is on the arm of my TV satellite dish. Now don’t get me wrong, I love being surrounded by wildlife, it is a constant source of joy and delight, but, when the TV signal dies while I am trying to watch a David Attenborough special about owls and I discover while diagnosing the problem, that it was caused by an owl, I had to moderate my initial annoyance. Unfortunately the owl seems to really like the satellite dish and I have had to shoo it off quite a few times since. My plan is to put some pipe around the arm of the dish so the owl will revolve on it the next time it attempts a landing. I will keep you updated. The owl might just regard this modification as some sort of fairground ride, but at least the signal will only be lost each time the owl swings past the LNB sensor.
Recently I decided as the weather was getting colder to start to get some logs in, I can cut up the blown down trees on the estate and in the woods behind Daldhu there is quite a lot of this sort of wood which is accessible with my pickup. The wood is usually dry as long as it has not been sitting too close to the woodland floor. The wood is all either Sitka spruce or Larch so while it burns well albeit quite quickly, it is very difficult to split. This year I was kindly lent a log splitter by my chum Will Manning from Dirnanean estate. This contraption has a sharp wedge on a hydraulic ram which is powered by a petrol engine and which has proven to be able to cope with the most belligerent of unsplittable logs. I logged up and split about six pickup loads which will be more than enough for the winter.
We had the first named storm, namely storm Ali about a month ago and it was pretty wild. There had been quite a bit of rain so the river was in full spate and the gale was blowing up the glen against the run of the river. This had the effect of blowing spray off the river, which from the comfort of my sitting room window looked like the river was on fire. The effect was quite spectacular and one I have not noticed before. The autumn weather has been largely warm and wet so far this year, although on October the first while beating, we noticed some snow on the top of Beinn-a-ghlo and I had a couple of inches of snow lying in the garden one morning a couple of weeks ago, but none of it has lasted. Earlier on in the year a long range forecast suggesting a cold and snowy winter was given, but more recently they seem to think wet and mild might be more likely. Who can say? We get what we are given, I hope for the sake of my new neighbours who have now moved up the glen to Daldhu, that this winter will not be too bad. The track to Daldhu is very exposed and can get pretty covered in snow if the conditions are right.
So on that traditional meteorological note, I will sign off until we arrive at another season, or something exciting happens.