Tractors, tracks and dams.



Well once again some time has passed since the last update, this reflects how busy life seems to have been in the last five or six months.

So looking at my notes following the last update, the weather warmed up just in time for me to get my car back so I did not need a 4×4 after it was fixed rather typically. This always seems to happen, the weather always plays up at exactly the same time as the car, meaning I usually have to navigate a very slippery track in a completely unworthy courtesy car, I think I may have found one of the mechanical issues which has plagued me and am looking for an automotive electrician to re wire my ABS sensor. I am sorry, that may well have been too much tech info for an audience which probably is not that bothered. 🙂

A friend from up here who has since moved south, Katie Purdie was up visiting with her boyfriend so I asked them if they would like to come up to the cottage for lunch, she and her boyfriend turned up on a quad bike which I thought was pretty cool and we had ham, egg and chips for lunch because her father had mentioned that that was one of her favourite meals. I am obviously a male because I can’t multi task and because I was chatting as I served the food, I forgot the eggs. Everyone was too polite to mention it, I found them keeping warm in the oven.

After the warmer weather arrived the surrounding hillsides thawed out with the accompanying fragrant peaty aroma which I always love to smell, it is the smell of Spring for me and usually heralds some generally better conditions which can however still surprise us with a fall of snow well into May, the snow never lasts but you have to expect that it will happen. It’s called ‘Teuchter snow’ up here, which means farmer snow, or lambing snow. Teucht can also mean hard or difficult.

Well Spring finally did arrive (as it sometimes does), it seemed to be about two weeks later at the cottage than in Kirkmichael just six miles away, I am quite a bit higher and my daffodils were barely out while the ones in the village had bloomed and died, my snow drops were a spectacle this year, I think they quite like a cold winter, I prefer them on the whole to the daffodils, they come and go in a tidy sort of way, but the daffs add colour for a bit at a drab time of year, even if they are a little gaudy but then they hang around in messy clumps until everything dies and you can finally tidy them up with the strimmer. I have some normal crocuses which come out in the spring, they are beautiful delicate pale blue things and rather lovely, I also have some weird crocuses which throw out a huge bunch of green leaves in late Spring which sit on the lawn until they die, I thought they were tulips the first time I saw them, they do nothing other than produce leaves until the Autumn when suddenly long after the leaves have gone they produce a bunch of unaccompanied flowers, very odd, I have never seen anything like them before. Further floral delights this year are the plants that my new neighbour Nicky gave me last year, I was worried that they would not like the winter, but they have all come up and are preparing to add colour, texture and floral delight to my little garden, amongst these plants I have also found some mint this year, so a mojito might be on the cards. I have never really been a gardener before but I am rather enjoying trying to make my surroundings nicer. I noticed another harbinger of spring buzzing around the sitting room window, it was an enormous dopey dust covered wasp, I think it was a queen, just because of its size. I have found their nests before in one of the sheds, they over winter on their own in a small papery nest and emerge in the spring to find a good place to raise a colony and presumably advertise for a mate on the “Plenty of wasps” dating website. Apparently there is a dating website called “Bumble” which might be more appropriate for an amorous queen wasp.

Another Spring advertiser is the male Pheasant who starts to get rather vocal once the weather warms up, he wanders around the garden squawking to attract a mate or repel other males, I am not quite sure which. I think his behaviour is triggered by the lengthening daylight hours. He is prone to make a bit of a racket until I feed the birds when I get up, which usually shuts him up for a few hours. I also had a big White Mountain hare in the garden again this winter, this year the hare was not predated upon by the stoat which I have not seen recently, so maybe the stoat has been eaten by something more ferocious. The hare is still a regular guest and has now changed into its summer attire of a more traditional blue / brown. The first time I saw one of these in the garden I thought it was a wallaby, they have massive back legs and look more marsupial than mammal. They are also known as Palearctic hares due to the climate that they have evolved to cope with. Up here I think they are the main meal for the Golden Eagles as well, so when they go white in the winter and we have no snow, they stick out like an eagle’s meal. They are I believe also the only indigenous hares in the country the more common brown hares having been introduced by the Romans. A couple of months ago I was on my way up the track and a few hundred meters from the cottage when I spotted my first Pine Marten, they are pretty big and may account for the stoat having gone missing. I have seen evidence of their scats in the garden before but never actually seen one of these rather reclusive animals.

I was watching the TV a few months ago and I found myself watching Top gear, I am not particularly fond of the new format, but there was nothing else on, so that is what I was watching. They were doing a bit of the program which explored the merits of small 4×4 cars. I was not really concentrating until I noticed that they were driving through Pitlochry, they then turned up through Moulin and came over the moor towards Enochdhu, my nearest village. This is not unusual, they love Glenshee and are often up that way, blasting along the great and winding ‘snow road’. I was watching the program with a little more interest by this point and noticed that they had come up my track! What, ‘Top gear’ up the track? When did that happen, I imagine that any Top gear filming is usually accompanied by a circus of attending vehicles, food vans, make up girls, film crew and sound recordists, and anyone else who might be needed. So all of this came up my little track and past the cottage without me even noticing! I imagine I was away, or asleep, or writing a blog (probably not), who knows.

There was a young keeper helping Tom up at the Fealar estate, up the track whose name was also Tom, he was a nice lad who I used to bump into from time to time on the track. He was telling me that he had handed in his notice because he wanted to work closer to his girlfriend, I asked where his girlfriend lived and he said “you would not know it, she lives in a little village called Elphin”. As it happens I do know the village, I have been to the Elphin music festival more by random accident than premeditated planning, but I have been there and it is a lovely little place, so I am sure he is happy. I am thinking of taking the little camper to the festival again this year, so hope to bump into him again in his new environment.

I hung out some washing a few months back and just after I did, a neighbouring estate started heather burning, the net result was that my clothes smelled a little like smoked salmon by the time I brought them back in. A couple of days later a friend of mine who is the keeper at Pitcarmick estate rang and asked if I would be interested in helping them burn some heather, I had nothing else going on so readily agreed. I have never done this before so was not quite sure what to expect. The process is basically to go up to the grouse moors and determine which way the wind is likely to drive the flames then light a strip of heather with a back pack sprayer full of diesel, in such a way that it will burn its self out when it comes to a track or a bog, or a bit of young heather burned in a previous year. The flames can get very hot and heather burning is not for the feint hearted. The point of heather burning is to burn back the ‘rank’ (old and woody) heather and to promote the growth of young fresh shoots of heather which will be much enjoyed by the grouse. There are also some other positive benefits with heather burning, it can reduce the number of deer and sheep ticks on the moor which is good for everything. The burning takes place before the ground nesting birds arrive and there is a finish by date which varies according to the altitude of the moor, this is because the ground nesting birds will nest lower down to start off with. This is only one of the things that Game keepers do to improve the health of the grouse population and with the tick reduction everything which lives and breeds on the moor will be improved. Mark was telling me how they test the grouse for parasites. He was explaining that he goes out at night with a lamp and a net and dazzles a grouse so it can be caught in the net, he then places the grouse in a pen where it can be monitored for a few days. Grouse, it turns out, have two digestive tracts and produce two types of poo, (I bet you never knew that) they produce little pellets from one tract and from a different tract they produce a ‘cecal pat’ which is a runny sort of poo, the keepers collect these from the pen and send them off to a lab to be tested for worm infestation, the lab provides a traffic light sort of measure where if the pat tests as green no action needs to be taken, but if the pat returns a red sample then the keepers will use medicated grit in little heaps on the moor to try and combat the parasitic worms, if the sample is amber the keeper might use medicated grit or leave it until the next testing cycle. The grouse will eat the grit to aid digestion, medicated or otherwise.

More recently I was contacted by my friend Willy Manning, who asked if I would like to do some tractor driving on his estate, I was pleased to be asked and have cleared out some slurry and rolled all of his fields, I used to work for an agricultural contractor after I left school so this was all work I have done before. I rather enjoy it. I have more recently been extremely busy working on the track on our estate. We have been widening some of the track to make life easier for the timber Lorries which will be working here when they start to harvest to woodland. We have been working seven days a week which is a little too much for me these days, I like at least one day to myself to go shopping and do the washing etcetera. In the middle of all of this I was also asked if I would drive a tractor and dumper trailer for the contractor who came to resurface one of our forestry roads, we did about a mile of track in nine days, the contractor’s hours were 7am to 7pm with half an hour for lunch. So life has been very busy, another reason why this blog is so late. Bizarrely I have been applying for IT jobs with local businesses, ‘Castle water’ to name but one and never even get to the interview stage, so I am beginning to think that I am probably now considered too old for IT work, but still young enough to bounce up and down a track in a huge tractor and trailer for twelve hours a day. At least someone thinks I am useful! The beauty of working on the estate is that I can cycle to work, which is amazing, given that I live miles up the track.

One of the jobs we have coming up is to replace the water pipe to the big house and farm, we did some of this last November in the snow which was less than pleasant and have the rest to do now that an area of fir trees has been harvested. The water for the farm and the lodge (big house) comes straight from a burn, so we will also have to setup the rose where the water enters the pipe and bury a tank near the rose. We have also recently concreted in some fixed surveying points on the dam at Loch Crannach on the estate. This is due to a new rule from SEPA (the Scottish environmental protection agency) which dictates that any dammed loch larger than two Olympic swimming pools has to be surveyed every year to ensure that there is no movement in the dam wall. This is on the face of it is a safety thing which would highlight any dam walls that were in danger of collapse, but the reality seems to be more that this is generating income for SEPA, who are not government funded and who are under constant pressure to find funding, so I think we can expect more of these sort of interventions. The fact the dam was built by the Victorians and has lasted over a hundred years seems to have passed them by. They apparently want to ensure that a once in a thousand years event will not collapse the dam, whatever that sort of event might be is anyone’s guess.

While on the subject of work, (“outrageous publicity alert”) I have finally had my little book published, it is called ‘Campers, ceilidhs and occasional cramp’ and is available in a number of formats  in most online bookshops. It describes a couple of trips to Scotland in the little camper while I was supposed to be looking for somewhere to move to. The book proved to be a good winter project, with all of the proof reading and repeated re reading of the publishers versions I now, more or less, know it off by heart. The whole process was quite fun though.

Because of all of this busyness I have not been anywhere recently other than the estate and the village. I have had to turn down the offer of some sailing in the West Country and have missed a couple of weddings I would dearly have liked to have gone to. I am hoping to take the little camper to the West coast at some point after the school kids have all gone back to school, things will be a little noisy at the moment, bah humbug.

So, the weather this spring was unseasonably warm for a couple of weeks, unfortunately this did not last and it has been generally wet and cold so far this year. I had to put some soft cheese in the enclosed porch the other day because the kitchen was not warm enough to ripen it, and it’s nearly the middle of July. My landlord was up last weekend and he said, in all the time he has known the estate (70 years or so) the hills are as green as he has ever seen them. The farm has started making silage and the crops this year have been ‘bumper’, so there should be no feed shortage come the winter unless it is a long and cold one. I have been gathering more wood, some ash and sycamore trees were trimmed on the estate so I asked for and took the wood and now have a really good supply of high quality logs in the shed. So I should survive a once in a thousand years event, even if the dam doesn’t. Lambing went without hitch this year and the estate is full of very fat and healthy black faced lambs. I learned the other day that apparently the male lambs are born with horns, which would not make the birthing process any more comfortable for the ewes, I would imagine.


So on that cheery note, it is time for a pint as we have officially been rained off. There is thunder on its way apparently, that will annoy the pheasant!



The seasonal spraffle.

frosty rosehip

A very frosty rosehip.


You can thank the Poozies. A rather great, Scottish West coast band for the loan of the word spraffle, I have done some research and I think Spraff means to waffle or gossip idly about something, so quite pertinent in my chapter heading.

Since the last update the first block of woodland has now been harvested on the estate and I have to say that on the face of it the contractors did a pretty tidy job. The missing trees have left quite a scar on the hillside but the woodland harvested was not really that visible from my cottage, therefore the impact on my immediate surroundings has not changed dramatically. The woodland was always there as a harvestable crop and the time is right at the moment to start extracting the wood, prices are good and demand is up for building materials and wood pulp so the commercial reasons for extracting the timber are very compelling. But, there is it seems, always a but, the trees soften the countryside, they give cover to wild and farmed animals and can also shelter dwellings and farm yards from the ravages of a Scottish winter. I think my cottage would be much more exposed once the surrounding woodland has been removed. The harvested area will always look a bit “post nuclear disaster” but I am reliably informed it will regenerate after five to six years. The estate also has a replanting program which will probably speed up the process and they plan to replant with indigenous broad leaved hardwoods which will be much better in the long run but in the short term I may be living in a bit of an unsightly mess. I am reserving judgment until the logging gets closer to home. Another slightly negative thing which has happened recently is a change to the way the fuses work with my power supply. Now if the power goes down from the national grid, our hydro scheme shuts down and a fuse is tripped in a shed at the farm. This in essence means that the trip switch for the cottage is three miles down the track and without power I have no phone or any other means of communication. So I have to drive down the track to see if the switch needs to be reset or whether we are all in the grip of a long term power cut. This new innovation has led to my freezer defrosting a couple of times this year which was not so good. I made a bit of a fuss at the time, so hopefully that has been resolved. It seems to me a shame that, as we have our own electricity generation plant in the form of the hydro scheme, we can’t disconnect from the grid and use our own power when the rest of the world is in darkness, but maybe there are good reasons for this current arrangement (sorry about the unintended pun).

I mentioned in the last update that my television satellite dish was being plagued by a small owl, the problem went away for a couple of weeks then came back with a vengeance, the owl it seems had become quite at home on this man made perch and after too many trips to the garden with a torch to discourage it, I finally decided to make an anti-owl cover for the satellite. I cut the ends off an old plastic bottle and cut down one side so it could be slid over the arm and then reassembled the bottle with some tape so that it formed a rotating sleeve over the satellite arm. This seems to have done the job, time will tell, but so far so good. Life here is a constant battle with the wildlife. Another recent, slightly more common nuisance, has been the mice who have been making their way into the cottage in the cold weather. I can see why they might want to come indoors and they would be welcome if they were house trained and kept themselves to themselves, but they aren’t and they don’t! So the traps have been re-deployed and I have been round the base of the external cottage walls stuffing any small gaps with wire wool, this procedure kept them out for about eighteen months but recently they have obviously found another little weakness in my mouse defences. Hopefully the Owl will take out its annoyance at the lack of a perch on the mouse population and then we can all be happy, well, apart from the mice obviously!

I was lucky enough to be asked by my friend Carol to house sit their lovely home in Arisaig again, I happened to be there when storm Deidre hit Scotland, covering my cottage with snow and bringing down trees, power and phone lines with its combination of strong winds and heavy wet snow. I was sitting snugly in Arisaig while all the chaos was going on. The West Coast did have some very strong winds and lots of rain but missed the snow. Last time I was house sitting for Carol, the family chickens were murdered by Pine Martens and on my recent visit I vowed not to let that happen again. So I went out on Friday evening to put the chickens into their roosting box, I had been reassured they would put themselves away and all I had to do was close the door. However the entrance to their run had blown shut in the wind, so while two chickens had made it to their box another two were missing. This discovery led to a little panic and with my trusty head torch I set off around the garden to find them, the first one I found quite easily, it was roosting on the rotary clothes dryer and was being blown slowly round and round, like a very slow fairground ride for poultry and with a rather terrified look in its little black eye. The other I finally found in a huddle under a shrub, so once returned to the box they were all safely home. I was glad to find the last one as it would definitely have been on the Pine marten’s snack list that evening. I was hoping to do some exploring while at Arisaig, but the weather was so wild I abandoned that for a comfy chair and a book. I went to the pub on Friday evening for the open mic music which is usually to be found there and to catch up with my friend Jen, who has moved from Fort William to Arisaig and is now on the verge of moving back to the Isle of Colonsay where she grew up, to take up the life of a crofter, lucky girl. Apart from the Friday musical adventure, after my duties were over I travelled home via the Moydart peninsula and the rather remote and storm bashed Ardnamurchan point. I had been meaning to explore the peninsula for ages. My plan was to stay at a B+B in Strontian rather than travel home, but as the weather was being foul and Strontian looked decidedly miserable, I decided to take the Corran ferry shortcut to Fort William and make my way home to the destruction and candles that Deidre had left behind.

Storm Deidre with its heavy snow also delivered record breaking amounts of water when the snow melt was accompanied by heavy rainfall. The river by the cottage came up five feet during the melt and I was trapped at Glenfernate, as both the Kirkmichael and Pitlochry roads were flooded to the point where they became unusable. I mentioned storm Deidre which brought the snow, but we had an earlier storm, Diana, I believe which brought lots of rain and wind and I was sitting in the comfort of my front room watching Ross and John from the estate replacing some fence posts in a ‘biblical quality’ deluge. I don’t know how they managed not to get washed away, I would have probably given up and found something in the dry to do, but that is probably why I would not survive as a shepherd up here, it is a job which offers little in the form of physical comforts.

All of this windy weather has not been helping our game bird beating season too much either, pheasants seem to enjoy a little bit of a breeze to fly into, but the gales just blow them around, I have seen them narrowly missing trees and flying into each other during this rather wild and windy season.

During my stay at Carol’s house, while looking for something to accompany a cup of mid afternoon tea, I discovered a rather delicious treat in the form of a pack of “Mcvities digestive classic caramel” biscuits. I had never tried this variant before and was amazed by these tasty delights, with the crunch of the biscuit, the rich flavour of the chocolate and finally the luxurious layer of soft unctuous caramel. I was transported into a tea time reverie, which up until now no other biscuit has managed to invoke. So a packet of these biscuits was added to my shopping list and on getting them home I endeavoured to re-live the tea time joy, in my own surroundings. Well, recently the weather has been somewhat frigid, last night was about -8C and the temperature inside the house has been hovering between the eight to ten degree level for the last few days. So, I made a cup of tea and dug out a newly purchased caramel digestive. I had not read the instructions on the side of the pack, well I am a man after all, but the effect was disappointingly, just not the same. With the reduced ambient warmth in the cottage the luxurious caramel layer which had been such a surprise and delight in Arisaig had become brittle, cracking and crunching on the pallet, rather than the silky smooth chewy experience I was hoping for. So I will have to warm them on the stove or pop them in the microwave in future. The cottage always seems to have a way of taking the normal experience and shaking it up slightly.

Christmas this year was lovely and was hosted by my friend VJ at her beautiful cottage in Kirkmichael, she kindly invited me and a few other “waifs and strays” as she described us, to enjoy a Christmas feast with fun and games. We were an eclectic collection of characters and I think we all complimented each other well enough to provide a fun filled, humour packed and entertaining festive event. The main meal was an extra ordinary chunk of fillet of beef, just my sort of thing, no dry turkey for us. New Year was spent with my friend Kenny, he has had a son with his girlfriend recently so we brought the party to his house this year, one which lasted two days in the end. I am always quite glad when it is all over so life can drift back to some sort of gentle norm. I had a school friend who joined the 3rd Battalion Paras after leaving school and his way of dealing with the festive season was to dig himself into a snow hole in the Cairngorms with a slab of beer and a slab of baked beans and survive like a hibernating bear until the second or third of January and then re-emerge after the world had calmed down. I always quite liked that idea, but I am also fond of a party, so a snow hole has not so far happened for me. Maybe next year we should dig a really big one and all share it, in hindsight I might end up on my own.

I mentioned in the last update that I had gone to town in the logging department, well recently I tried to burn some of the harvested wood and it seems the stuff at the front face of the stack is rather damp and does not burn all that well, so the other day I dismantled the log pile and rearranged it so the dry stuff is accessible. So I have moved it all about five times now between the woods and the stack, proving the old saying that cutting logs will warm you a few times before you actually burn them. I am beginning to see the attraction of oil or gas which just warms you the once, when you actually need it!

A couple of weeks ago on my way to an MOT in Alyth I had a rather slow and mostly uneventful collision with a tractor, a rather large John Deere if anyone is interested. This is the first physical contact type of accident I have had in about 30 years, I sank a couple of cars in the sea at Bosham a few years ago, but that’s another story. Happily the tractor did not suffer any damage in the collision but my car ended up with a broken headlight and crumpled wing. The accident happened on a blind bend in some woods where the unsalted road was covered in ice, which due to the shade provided by the woods had not melted in the mid-day sunshine. Because I was on my way to the MOT I could not actually get an MOT until the damage was fixed, the broken headlight would have caused it to fail. So I had to try and get the car through the insurance claims process into an acceptable repairer to be fixed before the MOT ran out, which I only just managed to do. The courtesy car I have been given is a rather elderly Peugeot 308 or something with rather slick summer tyres. So the good news is that I have a car to drive around in, but as the track is now covered with snow, the car is largely useless. I only just got home after our keepers shoot day on Saturday evening. It’s typical, I swan around the countryside all summer in a 4×4 truck and each time it snows I seem to have to get the truck fixed and run the gauntlet of the slippery track in an inappropriate courtesy car. Last year the ABS and the 4 wheel drive packed up just in time for the snow! Thank you Mr Nissan.

We it seems recently we have not had as much snow as the rest of the country, rather unusually, we have however had some very cold nights, -12 was about my coldest. There were some beautiful patterns in the ice on the inside of the bathroom window. I am praying for it all to warm up until the end of the week, when I will hopefully get my 4×4 truck back and then the weather can do what it likes. The long term forecast is reportedly still for a cold and snowy winter, but so far the snow has largely evaded us and the Glenshee Ski centre has only just opened to the public, with just a few of the slopes in a useable condition.

So as usual, the weather has brought another episode to an abrupt halt (a bit like the John Deere tractor). So until next time…

Owls, Stags and fresh run salmon


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.

Summer follies and felted fluff.


The hypnagogic folly.


Well, I finished the last blog discussing the river folly, so it seems reasonable to start this one with both a picture and a folly update. As a direct result of a very interesting Radio four program which was mainly about Salvador Dali I am now fully of the opinion the folly might have been the result of a hypnagogic dream. This is a mental transitional state between sleep and wakefulness. A psychological state  where reality can drift into unreality, in Dali’s case a state which provided the inspiration for much of his surreal art, melting clocks, flying tigers (apparently caused by a bee flying around a pomegranate) and the reflected world of ‘The metamorphosis of the narcissus’. Well it seems highly likely that I had my folly idea while in one of these states, well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. I was in bed and I had been drowsing. The full history of the folly is, despite this rather flouncy build up, rather a short one. Folly mk1 was started and then collapsed in mid build. So a week or so later once enthusiasm for the project had re-emerged, folly mk2 was started using the base of mk1 as a foundation and this second version went on to full completion and is the one gracing the top of this article. I don’t know precisely how long it lasted because I went sailing in France and on my return when I bounded eagerly down to the river, to spend time with my creation, it had collapsed. I think the second collapse might have been mainly to do with a flash flood washing at the base of the structure while I was away. I mentioned this to Willy the digger driver on the estate and his only comment was to recommend that I don’t take up dry stone walling for a living. He is probably right, but in my defence all the stones by the river were round and you don’t normally build walls in river flood zones.

Talking of follies, Hugo a friend and co-owner with his wife of the lovely Ashintully estate where I go beating, had decided to have a hill climb on the track leading to the castle. I was sitting in the pub enjoying a pint and a catch up with a few locals when Hugo entered the bar, in a state of what can only be described as high excitement. He had with him a rather oily specimen whose attire suggested its inspiration was taken from an American swamp dweller of the type who occasionally make an appearance on one of the more off beat TV channels. He was wearing a once orange boiler suit which he had slightly outgrown and of which, the cut of the sleeves and trousers had been “improved”, by shortening them with a blunt instrument to just below the elbow and the knee respectively.  This highlighted the well-worn hard toed safety boots he was wearing and gave me the slight feeling I was having another hypnagogic dream! Hugo was very animated and bid me go outside, where he had something which was worth checking out. I rather sceptically got off my bar stool and sauntered outside. There in the car park was a ‘Green goddess’ ex-army fire tender, from probably the late sixties! Hugo and the orange chap had been to a scrap yard, spotted the goddess, spent the morning getting it running and were now at the pub celebrating the fact it had got that far without any major malfunction. Water was running gently out of somewhere under the bonnet, but all in all, I too was quite impressed by this beast of a thing. It turned out that this was to be one of Hugo’s entries into his hill climb. I wasn’t unfortunately able to witness the spectacle because, as mentioned earlier, I had been invited to go sailing and was away for the event, which it turns out was won by somebody in a souped up Subaru Impreza which got up to a very impressive 140mph on the mile long track. It must have been airborne for most of it. Apparently there was also a police car which one of Hugo’s friends had acquired for the hill climb and a number of more day to day entrants. I don’t know how the goddess got on but don’t imagine any records were broken, maybe fires were extinguished, but I am afraid I cannot offer any further enlightenment.

I mentioned my sailing trip, I had been invited to go sailing with some old friends from Sussex.We were part of a cruise organised by the Royal yacht squadron. I have done quite a few of these now and am getting quite good at packing the right amount of ironed shirts, blazers and chinos to see me through a week or so while in the company of the RYS. The squadron is in essence a very smart sailing club, someone like me would not normally be invited to take part but I am very lucky to have a number of friends who are members and who seem happy to smuggle me in. I had to get up at 3:30 in the morning to get ready to drive to Edinburgh, where I flew down to Southampton in order to change planes and meet the wives who were jumping on at Southampton for Nantes. When I got on the plane in Edinburgh the cabin crew had rather smart, slightly Scottish accents of the Morningside variety proffered by Maggie Smith in the classic film, ‘The prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. On arriving at Southampton I disembarked, wandered into the airport rechecked in, met the girls and then climbed straight back onto the plane I had just got off. This time however, the very same cabin crew had polite French accents and greeted us with a cheery ‘bonjour’ which, for me, was slightly unnerving, I had a sort of ‘off focus’ sense of déjà vu. The sailing trip was great, as always, although the weather in Brittany was bizarrely not as good as the weather I had left in Perthshire. We went to la Trinite, where there were some very serious round the world racing trimarans. We did a trip to the beautiful gulf of Morbihan, we were conveyed around the gulf on a smart ferry sort of thing and had a French club member on a microphone giving us a background narrative of the place. We also had a trip to see the Carnac stones, which were completely extraordinary and I felt they had been slightly unexplained, despite the French archaeologist who took our group round. They are so old, (6000 years) that it is very difficult to find clues as to the purpose of the stones. Our guide thought it quite likely that they were placed on the route from the sea to the town and that the point of the stones was to give an impression of strength and unity to any visitor who might have thought of causing trouble. Even so, whatever the reason, over 3,000 stones in their ranks of megalithic alignments were an amazing sight. We all then sailed to Belle Île where we tied up inside the locked inner harbour and where we enjoyed a number of drinks parties, a beer or two was had with other crews and a big meal with speeches was provided for us all in the very impressive Vauban Citadel at the entrance to the harbour (captured by the British for two years under Henry the Eighth, by the way, the French failed to mention that for some reason). We were sharing Belle Île with The Royal air squadron, who had arrived in their light aircraft and helicopters for a joint bash in Brittany. The two clubs have a sort of understanding and I have been to a few events where they have enjoyed a get together. I was treated to a rather fun, fly round Belle Île by a very nice member of the Air squadron along with any other of us boaty types who fancied a low level inspection of the coast line. I learned quite a bit about light aircraft, all of it interesting. We had drinks on an astoundingly lovely ‘Spirit yacht’, I was extremely impressed by the quality of the workmanship, the materials and the design. The next day we all left for home, each yacht largely going their own separate way. On Sundancer we decided to bash back quite hard, with one night at Camaret sur mer, near Brest, where, as we rounded the corner to get into the marina I spotted the lovely ‘Provident’, an old Brixham sailing trawler. I know Provident quite well having sailed on her from the Shetlands down to Oban a few years ago and then I did a week’s further sailing as a sort of unpaid but well fed crew. So it was quite a surprise to bump into her in France, to add to the coincidence Ben, an old friend from Sussex who had been Provident’s skipper in Scotland and who had organised my first trip, was her stand in skipper for their French trip and Stilo who I met on board in the Shetlands was once again on board in France, so happy days, a whisky was shared and stories told. Randomly I had my Provident T’ shirt in my bag which I went and put on as a mark of respect. We had a good sail from there to Alderney during which dolphins were spotted and fine foods eaten. We then sailed back to Chichester harbour where the real hard work began, catching up with all of the old friends from my previous life while I had lived down there. Three days was not really enough.

When I finally got back home there was evidence that someone had been to the cottage. The main gate to the drive with the deer fencing was slightly open, I always shut this gate to keep the sheep and deer out of the garden and the little wooden gate by the front door was shut, I always leave this open, partially to show a welcome to visiting friends, but mainly out of sheer laziness. When I approached the front door I noticed a stone had been placed on the ground in front of the door, when I pickup it up there was a note underneath. Letting myself in and unburdening myself of my bags I dug out some reading glasses and under a light I scrutinised the note. It read “Steve, ere air ere”. Now, I knew what this was referring to, I used to share a house in Sussex with a girl whose idea of the best film in the world was ‘Withnail and I’, so I have seen the film enough times to know about the scene where a poacher nails a hare to the front door of Uncle Monty’s country cottage with a note saying “here hare here”. So that bit was reasonably clear, what I have never managed to establish however, despite having put in some effort, was exactly who had left my note and where the hare had gone, if indeed there ever was one. This is not the first time I have had unusual comings and goings at the cottage, last winter while working at Glenshee I got back and there was a single wheel trail witness mark in the snow on the drive that looked like it had been made by a bicycle. I imagined the worst and assumed that my bicycle had made a bid for freedom with a new owner. I made my way to the shed following the trail and my bike was still there, so what was going on? I looked around then realised that my wheelbarrow was not where I had left it, so retracing the steps I could see where the barrow had been wheeled down the track and then brought back via the narrow track I had cleared of snow to walk on. So to recap, someone had made their way three miles up a track, come into my garden, let themselves into the shed and borrowed then returned my barrow! Why, who and what for? Another oddity never resolved.

As I mentioned in the previous missive, my landlord’s daughter got married a couple of weeks ago. The wedding was quite an event, the keeper’s field, a very extensive open grazing area behind the lodge was where the main marquees were set up and they had erected large flags on scaffolding poles, I thought I was back at Glastonbury the first time I saw the arrangement. Quite a spectacle. As I mentioned before I had offered to house some guests and it was confirmed prior to the event that I was hosting the vicar. I thought this pretty brave of Florence, me responsible for looking after the vicar and his wife who also came to stay. They proved to be a lovely couple, I got on very well with them and enjoyed their company. There was only one small hiccup, on the morning of the wedding. They thought it would be nice to go for a walk, so having established that they would like a small hill, I recommended that they cross the river by the very rickety bridge and walk up the hill on the other side. I specifically mentioned that the woodwork of the bridge was not to be trusted and that the safest crossing was achieved by shuffling sideways along the iron work of the frame of the bridge. I was sitting at my desk when, fifteen minutes or so later Jo, the vicar’s wife burst in in a fit of giggles and said if I wanted a laugh to come outside now. You have probably guessed where I am going with this. When I got outside Tom was standing in the garden with his arms outstretched (a crucifixion image has just unnervingly arrived in my mind), he was dripping with fresh river water. He said he was nearly across and things had gone so well, until he had stood on the last wooden board and had fallen straight through. I was mentally running through all of the scenarios which might have caused the flying ambulance to divert to the cottage on the day of the wedding for the third most important person attending the wedding and had not relished any of the possible outcomes. Luckily and rather amazingly, he had not hurt himself, he had stripped off on the lawn and having had a change of clothes they both went back for a second go at the hill. My Facebook friends will know that I made a present for Florence and her new husband. I carved some of the cherry wood from a tree I had pruned in my garden into a pied wagtail, made and dyed a felt nest from the black faced sheep’s wool I had found cast off on the track and had furnished the nest with some polished pebbles taken from the pool in the river where the wedding ceremony was to take place which I shaped into eggs. The symbolism of the bird, the nest and eggs probably needs no explanation. The wagtail was chosen because it is the first bird in spring to arrive in my garden, representing the ‘the springtime’ of this youthful couples lives. I hoped that the sourcing of all of the ingredients from the estate would give them both, a little item with a big connection. I was quite pleased with the outcome and I think Florence liked it.

So on to the weather, I always like to finish up with a little meteorological roundup. After the heatwave which had gripped Scotland for about twelve weeks, even my lawn had gone brown and that doesn’t happen often up here. The weather has now gone back to ‘normal for the time of year’ and has been pretty changeable recently, being both cooler and damper. My lawn has started growing with a vengeance and recently, mowing has been more like an agricultural operation than a simple trim around the place. Ron, a local friend of mine said the other day that “the trouble with here is that, when it starts to rain, it sometimes forgets to stop”.

With that in mind however, today looks lovely so the lawn is going to be harvested. I hope the sun is shining where you are…

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.

Happy New Year…


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.

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…

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Hot tubs and Lederhosen.

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.