Sheep dogs and lobster.

Sheep dog
The trials and tribulations of a sheep dog

 

Three or four weeks ago I promised to follow Dougie to Pitlochry, it seemed that the brake pads needed to be replaced on his bosses 4X4 and the plan was just to kill the time while they replaced the pads in a café or somewhere soaking up the Pitlochry delights and some cholesterol. The intention was that if it was going to take too long I could drive him back home. Now, I know I did say that I did not really want to spend much more time in Pitlochry waiting for a phone call from the garage but this task seemed so simple nothing could really go wrong. Well, we were sitting in the café when the Dougie got a call from the garage who said that they had discovered that the car was going to need an MOT and they could do it there and then and that hopefully it would not take very long. Apparently this piece of organisation should have been looked after by the house keeper at the lodge, so he was less than amused, the effect however that this had on me and indeed Dougie, was another day wandering round Pitlochry, although on this occasion at least, I did have someone to talk to and we found a different route round the loch and also found the window to the salmon ladder where we were able to see a couple of young salmon on their way up stream, to the huge delight of some small boys and me.

Talking of rivers, we had another very impressive thunderstorm which did not last all that long but which delivered biblical quantities of water in a very short space of time. Rivers were running off the hillsides where I have never seen rivers run before and yet again the river at the bottom of the garden rose by about two feet in half an hour. I was contemplating the weather in this region this morning and essentially it is just the same as Sussex but there is more of it. It is frequently not really that much colder in the Summer and we had a very dry Spring and beginning to the Summer, being more on the Eastern side of Scotland, we do not tend to get the wet weather that the West coast is often faced with. When it does rain in the glen though there is nowhere for the run off to go so the rivers rise very quickly but conversely can also fall quite quickly. We get more wind here than I used to notice in Sussex which at the moment is not a bad thing as we have also had an occasional midge make an appearance. Midges are only a pest however, if the wind drops to less than three miles an hour, which does not happen very often thankfully. The midges at the cottage are not really a problem, they do not seem to occur in anything like the same sort of quantity that I have previously experienced on the West coast, but maybe I have just been lucky. The estate manager, John, apparently threatened to tie someone to a tree at Daldhu dressed only in his pants, (British rather than American understanding of the word) during the midge season, I am not sure what this chap had done, but it served to confirm for me two things, the existence of midges at Daldhu and a somewhat renegade attitude on John’s behalf to punishment of people who have incurred his ire.

I have been given a new driveway! When I first moved in to the cottage last November the driveway from the perimeter fence was covered with grass which looked good and had been mown but on first use it became obvious that the drive had not seen any vehicles during the wet season and the van I moved in with cut up the drive quite badly. I mentioned this to John and asked if I could fill in the tracks with gravel from the side of the road. He mentioned that there was hard standing under the grass but at some point he would get the digger up to sort it out. Well, John was right there was some hard core and after the mud washed off the twin tracks that I used on the drive it all settled down to a rather charming `Beatrix Potter cottage` sort of look. I mowed a strip either side of the tracks and the green bit in the middle and grew fond of its appearance. A couple of weeks ago however I was woken to some commotion and the sound of a diesel engine, looking out of my bedroom window to see what was going on I noticed Willie, the friendly contract digger driver the estate seems to use for all digger based activities, scraping off the manicured green on the driveway, I rushed out to say that I actually quite liked it as it was, but Willie said that John had asked him just to do it and we both know that if John has said “do it” then there is no longer any debate, lest we want to spend some time at Daldhu, in the company of midges, dressed only in our underwear. So I now have a new track, Willie has done such a good job you could play snooker on it, it is level and smooth and looks like tarmac. It will probably allow the water to run off better and be easier to clear when the snow arrives but Beatrix Potter it currently, isn’t. I might paint it with yoghurt to encourage moss, or is that just an old wives tale?

A couple of Sundays ago my traditional Sunday roast was exchanged for something rather more up market. Abi had been to Arbroath and bought some lobsters and as a result the pub had a special `lobster menu` for that weekend. As I got to the pub some friends, Neil and Sarah were just ordering so, oh well, sod it, I thought I would join them. I have had lobster before and always enjoy it even if it is a bit fiddly, but the Lobster Thermidor I had at the Strathardle was a thing of wonder. I have never had a Thermidor before and if this was representative of the genre, then there will be more in my life. Incidentally there are some locals who call the Strathardle Inn ‘The Clappy’. It seems that this was the old name for the pub and one which came from its proximity to the Clappy burn (the small stream) next door, so a locals length of stay in Kirkmichael can be dated by the name they call the pub. Anyway, back to Lobster Sunday (Oh dear, the spell checker just tried to correct that to Lobster Sundae, a rather nauseating pudding prospect),when I got home from the lobster night and made it up the track to the gate of the cottage the entrance was surrounded by about seventy Red deer, mainly hinds but with some young stags with velvet covered antlers accompanying them. I have seen Red deer nearby, but never as close as that before. Their presence served to prove that the deer fence which surrounds the cottage and garden works well to keep them out. Maybe they just came to look at the new drive?

Talking of pubs, as I occasionally seem to do, I was in the Moulin Inn a week or so ago having paid a visit to the CoOp for fresh supplies and there was a member of Moulin staff enjoying a half of cider with the locals. She was Spanish and quite a character. She was fond of opera and was asking where she could go on her night off to see a performance. Edinburgh we all thought, but I don’t think it was a question any of us had addressed before in relation to this area. She went on to tell me she was from an area in Spain where cork is grown and in trying to explain what cork was she typed, I presume, ”Cork” into her translation app on her phone and it came up with ‘Blockhead’, she then asked me what a ‘Blockhead’ was, so I tried to explain it is a term used for someone who might be considered ignorant, she suddenly burst into a fit of giggles, it seems that in Spain the word ‘Cork head’ has the same connotation and her app had faithfully translated the local Spanish meaning, proving that some of these Apps are getting too clever for their own good. This also brought about some rather uninhibited renditions of Ian Dury lyrics by those in the bar of a certain age.

The track up the glen has become rather busy recently with at times, one car an hour passing by, I believe there was a family party at Fealar Lodge, which has caused much of this congestion, that and the proximity of the ‘Glorious twelfth’ of August, the day on which the grouse season starts and one which is nearly always celebrated by the estate owners and their friends, taking to the moor in search of a fresh, beginning of season, grouse. According to Willie the digger driver, another one of his jobs on our estate, is to level the track to the grouse moor before the Twelfth. I had not quite realised how many people had been up the track, until I went to get my final three loads of logs out of the woods behind Daldhu. The spot where I usually leave the track and drive off across a paddock in my pickup had been used as a parking place for some very smart cars. Cars that presumably were left there to preserve their exhausts from the ravages that the track to Fealar would wreak upon them. Fealar estate sends Land rovers down to Daldhu to pick up people who don’t want to risk the track. I did hear a small car, probably owned by a cook or house keeper come back down the track yesterday with an obvious need for an urgent visit to Kwik-fit.

Last weekend was a busy one, the Estate was hosting sheep dog trials so that was keeping the farm workers from their normal duties and I had been rung up by the estate owner who hoped I would be there at 2:00 ish so I could meet his wife. The sheep dog trials were organised by a friend of mine, Alex Smith, a lovely chap from The isle of Jura and his daughter Katy was doing the time keeping for the event, she did offer me the `Time keeping` position, promising a bottle of whiskey for my efforts, but I declined. I realised that if I got anything wrong on the timekeeping or protocol front I would have slipped down the rankings in the glen from my current “quirky and mostly harmless” status to “unspeakable and ignorant in infinite measure”, so not wishing to risk such a lowering of grade, I opted for the safer role of `interested observer`. I don’t know how many of you have been to a sheep dog trial before, but they are in their way very impressive, there is a wooden post from which the shepherd conducts most of his / her business, with two pairs of posts set up to form two sets of gates, some hundred yards or so either side of the control post and somewhere near the control post there is also a small ‘sheep pen’ with a field gate. The sheep are released four at a time, usually some way off and the shepherd has to use the dog to guide the sheep towards himself and the crowd, then through each of the two sets of gates and then into the pen, shutting the gate behind them (the keeper that is, not the sheep or indeed the dog) and finally the sheep are let out of the pen and must be divided into two sets of pairs in a controlled sort of way. The first thing that struck me was the distance at which the sheep were released and at which the dog was still expected to hear and respond to commands. Alex told me that on one occasion, while he was working sheep on Jura, he could not actually see the dog or the sheep, but a colleague on a hill with a radio was able to describe the scene, allowing Alex to round up and drive the sheep back over the hill towards him, somehow the dog was still able to hear and respond to the instructions from over the hill, which I thought was very impressive. The second thing which surprised me, was how intuitive, controlling sheep is to these dogs, this role is so bred and trained into them that a good dog seemed almost to need no real instruction. I have seen the estate dogs working on the hill opposite the cottage and from the seat of a quad bike the shepherds, with minimal instruction coax the dogs into rounding up the sheep into one group and encouraging  them to move the entire herd gently to the track and down the glen to the Fank (local word for pen), where the sheep are wormed, sheared or graded depending on what is required. At the trials not all of the sheep behaved, a young shepherdess had a group of four sheep which were unruly in the extreme, they jumped a fence separating them from the crowd and nearly ended up on the barbecue which was being run by Abi and her team from the Strathardle Inn. The young shepherdess looked to the heavens, smiled and threw in the towel. The shepherd who appeared to win was a rather solidly constructed alpha male sort of chap, from another estate who either had a fantastic dog or some relaxed sheep or possibly both and who managed to muster the sheep around the course with ease and without recourse to some of the more exotic language that a small selection of the other shepherds, seemed to share with their dogs and which often brought about the cupping of the ears of young children. It was quite a thing to witness and left me rather in awe of the relationship between these men and women and their dogs. There was also a sheep shearing contest where scruffily shawn sheep were marked down as were any sheep with any sort of clipper induced wound, mortal or otherwise.

While at the dog trials, I did catch up with David and Linda, on whose estate I live and we had a nice and easy chat for a couple of hours or so about our previous lives in Pilton and Somerset where we had both previously lived, which was something of a coincidence and then I remembered that David had said on his last visit that he was going to do the round the Island (Isle of Wight) sailing race. I asked him how it had gone and he explained that he had done it on a lovely old sailing gaffer which was built in 1889 and which was called Thalia. Another extraordinary coincidence, Thalia is the boat I sailed across the Atlantic on to St Lucia in 2007 when it was owned by my friends Ivan and Fe Jefferis. There are about 3,500 boats of various forms and vintages which are entered for this race, so the odds of David being on Thalia were pretty small. On the basis of all of this lucky coincidence stuff, I bought a lottery ticket later and won! Ok, only £10 but you never look a gift sheep in the mouth.

The other local event which defined last weekend as busy was the Strathardle Inn beer festival. I don’t quite know how Abi does it, but she was running the barbecue and bar at the dog trials, the beer festival in the garden of the Inn and the Inn it’s self which is pretty busy with guests and holidaying passers-by, dropping in for food and drink. I kept my powder dry while at the dog trials, but in the evening I made my way by bicycle to the beer festival for music, laughter, some beer, ‘of course’, and there may have even been some dancing. There were about twelve fine examples of craft Scottish beer to try and honestly, I did my best to try all of them, I had to go back the next day for the inevitable Sunday lunch and to tick off the ones I had not managed to get round to the night before. The combined effect of all of this fun was to leave the beginning of this week somewhat sombre in character. So with the weather matching my mood, indoor tasks have been achieved, easy comfortable ones like, scribbling blogs and doing some tidying. I have a school friend, who is coming over from Hobart to catch up with her British family and introduce her son and daughter to Edinburgh festival. We get on well and I have booked my camper into a campsite in Edinburgh for three days so we can catch up. She said she would like to visit the West coast and my cottage so I have been sweeping out spiders and any other wildlife which has made its way into the cottage in an attempt to try and present a slightly less bachelor like existence.

Talking of which, the wildlife update is currently, two partridge, I don’t think the chicks survived unfortunately, but they have been replaced by a mature mountain hare and a young hare which takes great delight in chasing the pheasant round the lawn. These hares have evolved the most extraordinarily long and powerful back legs. Yesterday, I think I found a semi fledged cuckoo chick in the garden, which ironically looked like it had rather prematurely, fallen out of a nest designed for a much smaller bird. I was keeping a slight eye on it, but it had completely vanished by yesterday evening, probably picked up by a raptor or some other health risk to small fallen birds. While on the subject of birds of prey, I also think I have spotted an Osprey reasonably nearby which is really exciting, as they are quite rare even in this neck of the woods, but that is as yet unconfirmed. When I went back with a camera there was no sign of it, rather typically. Oh yes, there are also, four very noisy Jay’s that can consume a fat ball in about twenty minutes without any intervention from me. If they continue the intervention may become permanent. Am I beginning to sound like John? “One more fat ball and I’ll tie them to a midgy tree in their underpants when the wind is less than three miles an hour!”

Well I can’t stay here chatting, there are one or two more spiders to dust and a camper to clean….

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Midsummer muse

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Soft summer light down the track.

Well, summer has arrived and on the longest day it was still twilight until about 1:00 in the morning, getting light again at about 3 am, so not much darkness in the glen. I don’t get a sunset at the cottage because it all happens behind the surrounding hills, the most I can generally see is a pink flamingo hue to the clouds and sometimes the tops of the hills to the east are lit up with red light before the summer semi darkness takes control of the scenery. As the days grow longer the sun sets further to the North which allows for a low light angle at sun down to skip across the surface of the hills and hollows along the glen, providing a contrast to the countryside, illuminating and emphasising the contours and delivering a different view. On a walk up the track yesterday evening I could see, where at some point in the past, probably during the Bronze Age, small areas had been levelled for the growing of crops, this was something that I had not noticed before and which was made apparent by the low light angle. The moorland and hills are now a dazzling fresh green, which makes a change to the dry brown heather and dead grass heath that I had become used to being surrounded by. This fresh growth is bringing herds of deer into the glen and I have also recently heard the barking call of a couple of stags. They are not rutting yet but maybe the sight of large herds of hinds and calves is motivating them to make themselves known. The verdant grass has also fattened the lambs, in the two months or so since their birth they have put on so much growth that the young males are now nearly the same size as their mothers, I did not realise until moving here how quickly they develop. As I see them around the cottage and on the track I have been in a prime position to observe their behaviour. I have noticed that bravery seems to be inherited by the lambs. If I drive past a ewe who is jumpy and nervous she will be accompanied by a similarly nervous lamb, likewise if I drive past a ewe who is feeding close to the track and which is un-phased by my presence, her lamb will regard me casually and carry on feeding without concern. This observation caused me to wonder if the same is true of humans, is being nervous genetic?.

I may have mentioned before that my landlord and estate owner drops in for tea from time to time and on his first visit he mentioned that if I wanted to fish on the estate, I really needed to do some work for the estate, as free fishing was only really available to estate workers. I think this is the first time this rule has been thought of and implemented and I don’t really have a problem with it. I did think though, once a politician, always a politician and that the rule was there to somehow tie me to the estate and perhaps to him a little more. It also has to be said however, that the jobs are offered and he did say I only need to do the ones I want to do. Well, I was given a job painting some fences which surround the electrical transformers on the estate which manage the power output from the Hydro scheme. Not very exciting I am afraid and confirmed for me how little I enjoy painting. I had bought a lawnmower and strimmer / brush cutter to keep my garden in shape and with a view to helping pay for their cost, I mentioned that I could do some strimming. Note: Be very cautious what you ask for in this life, I was asked if I could strim the grass either side of the track from the farm down towards the road. Two days of strimming later and a slight case of vibration related white finger or in my case white thumb nerve damage leaving my thumb numb, (sorry, couldn’t resist). I measured the distance on my digital map and it transpired that I had strimmed 1.25 miles of track. I had to do an oil change on the new strimmer half way down. On my way down the track I thought about trying to define strimming for those that know nothing about it. My definition of strimming is as follows. “Strimming is a cross between a gentle ramble and ballroom dancing”. There you go… Strimming.

Having arrived at my newly found estate worker status, I was taking a stroll down to the river at the bottom of the garden and noticed some trout activity, so I went back to the cottage, dug out a rod and a fly and tried a cast on the river. I caught three of the smallest, but most perfect trout imaginable in three casts and then nothing else. Now enthused, I drove to the fishing loch on the estate, Loch Crannach, where an hour or so was wasted in stately fashion, but no fish were caught. There was no sign of any fish on the surface of the loch so maybe they were gorging themselves on some hatching insect life in the deep and out of sight. So I made my way to a beautiful pool on the river where I caught three small brown trout and a salmon parr (baby salmon before it has left the river it had hatched in). Not a great start, and poor reward for the hours of painting. The good news is that the work is paying my electricity bill, so happy days and come the winter I will be a little more relaxed about the occasional use of a fan heater. Talking of work, I have also helped Abi from the Strathardle Inn with a couple of outside bars. We did a very nice wedding and a retirement party for a local in the village hall. I used to do bar work in Edinburgh years ago and had forgotten how much fun it is and what hard work it can be. It was a great way to get to know more people and reduce my bar bill at the same time.

The weather last month was generally good so I decided to go and get another couple of loads of logs, which went well, but they were sods to split and two loads left me with some fairly large blisters. I have stacked the split logs in the shed and in doing so seem to have spread woodworm into the wooden floor boards of the shed. The shed floor is in a pretty poor condition but the woodworm is frankly not helping, so I might need to treat it with something at some point. I am biding my time to get another couple of loads of logs and I should then have enough wood to keep my sitting room fire going throughout the winter, which cheers the place up and helps keep everything dry.

About four weeks ago we had a thunder storm, it did not rain much at the cottage but I could see the tall, dark clouds all around and heard peals of thunder for a couple of hours. There must have been a torrential down pour over the mountains, because I noticed the level of the river rise maybe two feet in about twenty minutes, which is by any measure extraordinary. When I mentioned this to my landlord, he said that the rain may have caused a landslide up the glen which blocked the river temporarily with a muddy dam, which once the pressure had built up behind it, then burst causing a cascade of muddy water to charge down the glen. That was a scenario which seemed to fit the evidence. It does make you think though, if I had been wading in the river I would have struggled to get out before it became dangerous.

One of the things I don’t miss from Sussex was the constant noise from the air, with light aircraft and aerobatic practice sessions looping the loop in the sky above, day after day. The noise used to really wind me up, particularly as we lived on the coast and they could have flown off over the sea where their antics would have bothered no one. I think I sort of tuned into the noise and then it just used to annoy me. I noticed looking through my notes, that I had written, probably after a visit to the pub, that “The real value of peace and quiet is aesthetic and is a non-tangible asset”, a quirky statement perhaps, but one I still very much adhere to, even if I am not quite sure what it means. The silence here is a very welcome backdrop, there is a depth to the peace which you can almost bath in. The sounds which can be heard are gentle ones, the wind in the trees, the flow of the river, cattle and lambs calling, the Oyster catchers and Curlews, all soothing somehow. Occasionally however the glen reverberates to the shriek and howl of a low level Typhoon (Euro-fighter, can we still call it that?) fighter aircraft. The sound they make is extraordinary and would strike fear into the heart of any one who did not know what was happening. They make a sound like the sky is being torn apart. I have only seen them three times in the eight months since I moved here and they are exciting. They dog fight each other, hugging the glens and hill sides as though they are magnetically connected, sometimes so low I can see the pilot. I don’t mind this, they are so impressive and hammer the senses in the short time they are above you, they charge you with adrenaline, but they are also quite rare, if they were an everyday occurrence, I would not be so impressed.  The other day we also had an extremely low level Hercules aircraft, I thought they were going to take the chimneys off the roof, it seemed to take ages to pass overhead. They were flying so low I thought something was wrong and was partially waiting for an explosion and a cloud of smoke and then I remembered that on the same day in 1993 a Hercules had crashed on the estate and so what I had seen had been a memorial fly past to remember that sad event. When I mentioned it in the pub, I was told they do a fly past every year.

My little menagerie of Red legged partridge seemed to drop in number from two to one, I was rather saddened by this as I have become quite fond and rather protective of them, when I moved in there were three of them. I was told by a game keeper that they are not really hardy enough for this environment, so I assumed another one had succumbed to a Pine martin or a bird of prey. However last week I was looking out of the sitting room window with a mug of coffee in hand, I had just filled the bird feeder and noticed two partridges feeding underneath. I was quietly very pleased then I noticed two fluffy little things accompanying them. I dug out the binoculars and there were two partridge chicks! So presumably the bird I thought was missing in action had actually been sitting on a nest for the last month or so. Happy days indeed.

The weather has been a bit drizzly here for the last couple of weeks, which is always dull. Putting out the washing or getting on a bike always seems to bring it on, which is slightly tiresome, but it is not cold and the drizzle has driven me into the shed where I have been working on a wood carving of a female grouse. I am using some of the bog oak I bought for this project and so far so good, things seem to be going quite well. I am, at this phase of the operation, quietly confident. The work did slip out of the vice and land on its beak, (of course,) but it has glued back so well you would never know it had suffered a beakectomy. Bog oak is not the easiest material to carve, it is pretty hard and while in the bog seems to have absorbed some of the surrounding grains of sand and silt which means that much sharpening of tools has to take place. It also has splits and shakes in the wood, making it technically difficult to work with and around but I am now fairly confident that the finished result will be quite good and the fact that the wood could be two thousand years or more old and is from the Isle of Isla where all of the peaty whiskies come from, hopefully just adds to its unique appeal. I will try and find a suitable lump of local granite or something similar to set it on when finished.

Another task I have undertaken, perhaps slightly reluctantly, is to replace a component on my car which had been causing some problems. I did not really notice any issues with it in Sussex apart from it going into emergency limp mode from time to time. A mode designed to save the engine from damage when something extreme happens, but in the case of my car a faulty electronic valve was causing the problem and which was exacerbated with the cold weather of last winter in Scotland. When I got out of the car to open a gate on the track the engine would stall and it would then be reluctant to start again, running very roughly until the engine warmed up. I became quite concerned at one point, I was worried it might let me down half way up the track in the snow and cold wind, so I did some research on the Nissan Navara owners web forum, I found other owners who had experienced the same problem and having established which component was faulty, I ordered the new part. It has to be said as well that my car has been to the Nissan garage in Sussex twice to have this fault fixed and on both occasions they had failed to identify the issue. Well, a couple of weeks ago I went through the very fiddly process of fitting the new valve and bingo, with a bit of wood touching it all seems to be good. Since then I have searched the forum for some of the other more minor issues that my car has had and have fixed the driver’s window switch and repaired a funny clicking noise which was a part of the heater system which needed stripping down, cleaning and greasing. My semi trusty 4X4 Nissan pickup is now like a new car, so I am very pleased. Thank heavens for web forums and the characters that make them so useful. The quoted Nissan cost of just replacing the valve was £600 so I have saved myself £550, some of which was spent in the pub celebrating the improvement. Most importantly, I am now more confident about the cars performance when the cold weather comes.

I have just realised that quite a lot of this blog has been dedicated subconsciously to preparations for the next winter, wood, electricity and now the car and we have only just celebrated mid-summer, oh well at least I am ready for it.

Well on that happy note, the drizzle has started so it’s off to the shed for me. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to the shed I go, with my oak and chisel I’ll avoid the drizzle. Hi ho, hi ho, etc….

Ben Earb or bust.

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Alison with the antlers in the snow with Beinn A Ghlo in the background.

It’s been a while!

I noticed reading through my last update that I had mentioned what I did to kill a day in Pitlochry while the car was being serviced, all very exciting stuff I’m sure you will agree, but I am afraid to report that since then there has been more Pitlochry boredom. When I took the car back to have the brakes checked as the final part of the service I was told it would take about an hour, so did not even bother to take a bicycle to help pass the time, I just thought I would stroll up to town from the garage and have a coffee while the finishing touches of the service were performed on my car. I was into the second cup of flat white when the phone rang, it was the garage informing me that the discs on the front needed replacing as did the brake pads, “Ah ok”. They could do it for me the same day but the parts would not arrive before 3:00 and it would take a couple of hours to do the work and test the brakes before I could take the car away. “Ok, that would be fine”, I said slightly reluctantly and in that manner was delivered of another day wandering aimlessly around Pitlochry. This time without a bicycle to at least get me to a fresh view. I took a stroll round Loch Faskally along a track on the edge of the loch which took me past the very expensive and rather spectacular looking Fonab Castle hotel, resisting the temptation to see how much a coffee or orange and soda might cost in there I marched onwards with no clear goal in sight. I had killed a couple of hours in the towns cafes reading a news paper and it was heading gently towards lunch so as I strolled past Pitlochry’s famous salmon ladder and the Festival theatre on the banks of the river Tummel I thought I would pop in to the Port Na Craig Inn. The Port Na Craig is quite a historic little Inn, it was built at the point on the River Tummel where a ferry was set up in the 12th Century to take monks from the Abby at Fonab across the river so they could make their way to Moulin. The Inn was established in 1650, nearly a hundred years before the battle of Culloden. This little place is really more restaurant than Inn, but it has a nice cheery atmosphere and when I was there, there was a pretty but perhaps rather daffy waitress who I took probably wrongly, to be the owner’s daughter. I opted for the lunchtime bowl of soup and salmon and cream cheese ciabatta which looked tasty, was home made and reasonably cheap, so had everything to recommend it. The waitress it turned out was a chatty one, so we discussed what to do in Pitlochry, she did not really come up with any fresh Pitlochry ideas, but she did suggest something of complete brilliance which I will do next time and her suggestion was to get on a train and go to Perth. We also discussed the weather, of course and salmon fishing in the famous salmon pool in the river just outside the Inn where there were two or three wading fishermen in heron like vigil, all very nice. A bell rang to announce my food was ready and the girl brought the soup and ciabatta to my table along with a knife and fork. She pottered off before I could ask for a spoon and was away for five minutes or so, when she came back, with a smile I gently pointed out that eating the soup with a fork had not really worked and could I try with a spoon. She went bright red, briefly matching the colour of her Celtic red hair and dashed off to get a spoon. After about ten minutes a couple and child came and sat down, they too looked at the menu and decided that the soup and ciabatta was the sensible choice, so orders taken, drinks delivered, the waitress wandered off to another room to tend to some customers who wanted to pay their bill. The bell rang again and she reappeared with the couple’s soup. The waitress then went to clear a table in the next room and on her way back asked the couple if everything was OK, the lady said, “Do you think we could have some spoons?” I tried to restrain myself and just caught the waitress’ eye as she looked briefly at me to gauge my reaction, she then looked everywhere apart from at me, in case it sent both of us in to an unbecoming fit of the giggles. The meal was great and the Inn is lovely. I thanked the girl paid and left. Close to the Inn there is a suspended foot bridge which is quite old judging by the amazing quality of its construction, I think probably Victorian in keeping with the rest of Pitlochry. This bridge takes the casual time waster across the river and back to Pitlochry high street. While crossing the bridge I noticed that it had been adorned with the now ‘de rigour’ locked padlocks of those love struck couples who feel the only way to celebrate their unwavering loyalty and fondness for one another is to clamp some cheap hardware to a bridge. Some were shaped like hearts, some were engraved with secret messages and some were scribbled on with a felt tip pens. Call me old fashioned but I just don’t really get it as a gesture. There is a bridge in Paris where I believe this whole silly thing began, which became so weighed down with padlocks that the council or Parisian municipal equivalent had to cut the locks off to avoid a structural failure. I wondered if all of those relationships came crashing back to earth the minute the padlocks were removed from the bridge? Probably unlikely. The little bridge in Pitlochry also has other adornments which the architect probably did not quite envisage, being across a river, as many a good bridge often is and in particular a salmon river, there will be lots of people with fishing rods, so the bridge is also draped in snagged salmon fishing lures. The most common of these is the now famous and effective ‘flying condom’ lure. This lure has a shiny disc of metal which spins round as the lure is pulled through the water and it has a sort of rubber tail which is presumably where the condom name comes from, needless to say the bridge is also covered in those. Somehow fitting, I thought, tokens from star crossed lovers and condoms all hanging from the same bridge. Nature always finds a balance.

Last month I decided to go exploring up the track to Fealar Estate I have made previous attempts to cycle up there but they were all pretty much thwarted by the conditions. They do get some snow up there. On this occasion I made it about six and a half miles up the nine mile track to the lodge, the reason why I did not go any further is because the night before at the Strathardle Inn there had been some partying for a member of staff who was leaving and the highlight of the evening, or to be more precise one of the highlights of the evening  was a beer mat fight of epic proportions, so I was feeling somewhat jaded and did not want to present myself to my neighbours looking like I had not quite made it to bed. The ride was in essence an attempt to rid myself of the post party headache. The other reason why I did not go any further was because I could see the lodge from where I had stopped and it was all downhill, meaning the return trip would be about two and a half miles of uphill, having just done six and a half miles of uphill I was happy to retreat back down the glen. Meeting the neighbours can wait for another day. I have just looked up the elevation profile of the ride and the reason why it all seems to be up hill from me is because it largely is. The highest point on the track is 2205 feet above sea level which also explains the snow, I am a mere 1000 above sea level. There was a strong headwind working against me as well as I cycled up the track, so it took me about three quarters of an hour to get to the point where I stopped, absorbed the view and turned back and it took me just under twenty minutes to ride home. The return journey was hill and wind assisted and was fast, furious and fraught with sheep related danger, they just don’t hear you coming and when they spot you travelling at speed on a bicycle, they panic and run around in an unpredictable and unnecessary fashion. Jamming on the brakes on a gravel track does not result in an immediate slowing of pace it usually results in a temporary loss of control which could end unkindly. It was a great ride though and provided the desired result of clearing my party fog. I love exploring round here either by cycling the tracks or climbing a new hill, the scenery changes with every new viewpoint in an infinite way which is difficult to predict before you have done the ride or walk. Getting a view of the next glen is always rewarding, they are alike and unalike at the same time, each glen has its own presence and atmosphere which gives them all a personality, some kinder than others as is often the case with unique personalities.

While cycling up the track I had gone maybe half a mile from home when I spotted a bird gliding in a thermal on the left hand side of the glen. This was a big bird, it had broad deep wings with out stretched fingers of feathers at the wing tips and a purposeful tail. I remember talking to someone on the West coast on one of my earlier Scottish trips and he had mentioned to me that most people confuse Buzzards for Eagles. “How do you know it’s an Eagle” I asked, he just said “if it looks like a barn door, it’s an Eagle”. The bird which was gracefully playing in the air currents to the left of me was shaped like a good old fashioned imperial (pre metric) oak barn door, one with a handmade blacksmiths bolt on it and hinges of wrought iron, a solid type of barn door. Unmistakably a Golden Eagle, I have seen them on the West Coast and in the Hebrides before but in the six months or so that I have lived here this is the first one I have seen and so close to the cottage. When I took the ride up the track the lambing season had just started and I think it was probably no coincidence that the Eagle showed up at this particular time of the year. A Lambing season is probably irresistible to a hungry Eagle with possibly its own young to feed.

Talking of birds, my garden collection has increased and so has their bird food consumption, I saw a lesser spotted Woodpecker for about three days which discovered there were peanuts on offer and would not leave them alone. It became quite tame, then no sooner had it arrived, when it vanished. These birds are amazing when you get a chance to see them up close, I have some binoculars which are an advantage and up close many of our wild and visiting birds look like they should be more at home in the tropics. The woodpecker was a bright white with black spots and flashes of red. The peanuts are currently being eaten by the resident Siskin population a small yellow bird, the males of which are a dazzling yellow. They are feisty little things and there is often a food related aerial dog fight between two or three of them around the feeder. I now also have a Pheasant which comes to visit regularly, about four Wood Pigeons and of course the Red legged partridges are still here. I keep surprising the Partridges around the garden and almost without fail they will panic, take to the air and fly straight into a wall, fence, tree or shed roof. I honestly don’t quite know how they survive all of that battery.

The bird feeder has been feeding a large group of brash and rather noisy Tree sparrows, I think they account for most of the food consumption, so I was slightly amused the other day when I caught a glimpse of a fresh and unusual bird perched on a garden fence post just to the left of the house. I could only just see it from the corner my sitting room window. I had never seen anything like it before, it was a raptor, a very small thrush sized one but unmistakably a bird of prey, it was beautiful in a discrete blue grey sort of way, with a light brown chest and with what looked like little ermine tails down its apron, it was stately and had a sort of house of lords look to it. I did some research and it turned out to be a Merlin. The bird book described it to a tee and informed me that the Merlin’s favourite dish is Tree Sparrow, happy days, a fat Merlin and less bird feed to pay for, a ‘win win’ outcome unless of course,  you are fond of the Sparrows.

The birds here seem to come and go in waves, driven presumably by migration cycles and the onset of spring. When I moved here from Sussex, living as I did in a beautiful location right next to Chichester harbour, I really thought I would miss the Curlews and Oyster catchers which make up so much of the harbour sound scape, then about two weeks ago I was lying in bed and I thought I heard the plaintive cry of a distant Curlew. I remember thinking it odd to hear a Curlew all this way inland but I have subsequently discovered that they are ground nesting birds along with Oyster catchers and Lapwings or Peewits as they call them up here and the moors and glens must provide a pretty good reasonably predator free environment for them to raise chicks. I am now surrounded by Curlews which has added another dimension to the more usual sheep and cattle noises I usually hear around the cottage.

Spring is beginning to take hold finally. I went to Wiltshire for a friend’s wedding a couple of weeks ago and while I was away we had about six to eight inches of snow on the garden according to my local chums, I think that was winters last blast and the following week saw the temperature rise to a heady 25 degrees Centigrade at one point. I did not quite know what to make of that and a few of my friends got quite burnt in the unexpected heat of those unusual conditions. Being new to this place, life here  is a constant learning curve, as each season unfolds so do different aspects of my immediate landscape and the surrounding countryside. I have no idea what has been planted in the garden and it is only once things start to bud or bloom that I am beginning to get a picture of what might have been hidden for all of those winter months. It’s like opening presents, more or less every day something else makes its self-known which I am really enjoying. One or two surprises have been of the nettle and dock variety so a strimmer will have to be obtained, the lawn mower is already on its way and I hope it hurries up as I can more or less hear the lawn growing around me. Last night we had the first rain in months and the river levels are so far down I am beginning to wonder whether the fishing potential in the river by the cottage is going to live up to its earlier spate driven promise. The spring rain seemed to turn on the smell of the moorland and woods which are either side of the cottage, the air was full of fresh meadow and pine this morning which managed to blast its way through the final nasal restrictions of the man cold I am now more or less rid of. The larch trees that I have only known as dark and rather austere, looking down from their raised hillock by the big shed, they are now showing fresh green needles which has given them warmth and substance. I have a weeping birch tree which similarly is beginning to show tiny filigree leaves in miniature which look lace like in the spring light. I have a number of cherry or plum trees all of which are in blossom at the moment, there is a broom bush which is about to explode in a burst of yellow and I was very pleased to discover a number of those quintessentially Scottish trees, the Rowans in the garden. I am not good at spotting tree types by shape and bark but once the leaves come out, the identification process becomes much clearer.

Alison, a friend from Sussex, came to stay for a few days. She was taking part in the ETAPE Caledonia which is an 81 mile cycling challenge. The ETAPE is a big event and according to the chap in the bike shop in Pitlochry about 5000 people take part every year, the council shut roads and infrastructure is setup to accommodate all of the extra people. Pitlochry as you can probably imagine has a love hate relationship with the event. Alison was joining a number of her friends from the ‘Biking Belles’ cycle group she is a member of in Sussex. I think eleven of them made their way to Pitlochry for the event which I thought was a pretty good turnout. Alison came and stayed with me for three days before I handed her back to the Belles. The first day I thought we should go up a hill. Now I know this sounds slightly selfish but I have done most of the hills which surround the cottage so I decided upon Ben Earb. Ben Earb is sort of on the way to the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel in the Spittal of Glenshee and while the Hotel is at least a good half an hour’s drive away, it is as the crow flies only about four miles walk across the hills. I have always thought it would be a good place to walk to for Sunday lunch once the weather is better, so I am afraid I used Alison’s first walk as a sort of scouting trip for lunch at the Dalmunzie at some future point. The walk went well and we were kept on our toes looking for discarded antlers of which Alison finally found three. Ben Earb is 2631 feet high and is therefore a mountain described in Scotland as a Corbett. We made good steady progress over the lower hills and braes, aiming for the trig point which we could see in silhouette on the top of the mountain. We stopped from time to time to look at the view, or point out a deer, or notice some other feature, or just to take a mental note of what to aim for on the way home. We found a route which skirted to the right hand side avoiding the steeper scree and rocky slopes of the more direct route. We finally made it to the top and were rewarded with the most astounding three hundred and sixty degree view that I have seen since moving here. It was a reasonably clear day with a bit of cloud just under three thousand feet. I knew that because I could not see the top of Beinn A Ghlo our nearest Munro (mountain over 3000 feet). But we could see the Gairngorms proper to the North still very much with snow and Schiehallion and the Grampian mountains to the west and with Glen Shee and perhaps little glimpses of Lochnagar to the East. It was stunning. I could not quite see the Dalmunzie Hotel which should have been quite obvious and which was sort of, one of the founding reasons for the exploration. We strolled along a ridge which dipped down and looked like it would deliver us back down the mountain to the lower valley before the ridge climbed once again to the next mountain top of Lairig Charnach , as we were coming down the ridge Alison pointed at a building, asking “what’s that”, ah ha, the Dalmunzie Castle Hotel, with its turrets glistening in the light. I had been looking slightly in the wrong direction and now I know where it is, lunch is a definite possibility. On the way back we wandered through what I believe was probably a ‘Lek’. A Lek is a spot where Black grouse males advertise themselves to females and fend off other males. I didn’t know this while we were doing the walk but was educated by a nature program on the TV and now recognise what we had walked through. There were a large number of Black grouse males concentrated in one fairly small area and at least one was doing a sort of jump into the air display which I took to be a ‘push off and leave us alone’ sort of message but now know to be fairly typical ‘lekking’ behaviour. The next day Alison and I embarked on a road trip to visit some old family friends of hers who live in Lairg. I like Lairg and so was happy to go for a drive, the journey also gave Alison an insight into other bits of the Highlands which she otherwise would not have seen. We had a lovely lunch in a very pretty little croft house up a track just outside town with her friends and an uneventful drive home, “in a good way”. The following day I delivered Alison back to the ‘Belles’ in time for their 9:45 training ride. I was hoping that the walk had not ruined her too much, I think she took it all in her stride. She completed the ETAPE course in good time and there were no dramas so all’s well that ends well.

Oh no it’s drizzling, sorry must go and get the washing in…

Hot ash and dead sheep.

Arisaig bay from Rhu
Arisaig bay from Rhu.

Since the last update the first thing on my list was to help Dougie fill his horse box with the stuff which no longer had a purpose in his life, old cookers and comfy chairs that were past their prime, that sort of thing and hitch the horse box to my pick-up and tow it all to the council dump in Pitlochry. I am quite surprised that the dump is in Pitlochry as I would have thought that the towns’ entry in the ‘twee’ list of Scottish towns would have more or less ensured that the dump ended up in Blairgowrie. Perhaps the planning department did not think of that, or maybe the Victorian Hotel and Café lined Pitlochry high street have a dump requirement that out strips that needed by the rather ‘utilitarian’ Blairgowrie. Who knows, and who cares I hear you say ‘en masse’. The tip in Pitlochry, come to think of it is a rather ‘twee’ example of a municipal dump zone, it has special little areas for specific things, it is orderly and neat, almost tidy as these places go, so it still lives up to the Pitlochry ethos.

The other night I was informed by Brian, the head chef at the Strathardle that he had recently witnessed the Northern lights, I have an app on my phone which is supposed to notify me of any reasonable likely hood of seeing the Northern lights and for some reason it failed to register that evening’s solar activity. I can’t explain how disappointed I was. Brian is a smoker and as a result he spends more time than I do outside in the dark, so it seems that being a smoker predisposes you to a better chance of viewing the Northern lights. I may have to take up smoking again, where is my pipe?

The Scottish trout fishing season started on the fifteenth of March and so I thought I would dig out a rod and give the river a cursory flick of a fly. The water level was down due to the good weather we have recently been having, honestly, we have had about a month of really nice sunny weather, it still gets a bit chilly at night but all the same the weather has been really quite good. Unfortunately I have subsequently discovered that the fish don’t like, 1) Bright, sunny weather, 2) Low water, 3) Cold water, all of which we had on the day and which is why, rather unsurprisingly I did not even get a nibble. Apparently it is not really worth fishing the river until things have warmed up a bit, but none of that interfered with my enjoyment of walking along the river bank casting a fly which was probably the wrong one into a pool here and there, which probably had no fish on a lovely crisp bright day. Apparently the Lochs are a little more forgiving.

There were a couple of bicycles suitable for teenagers in the back of the big shed so I gave them a bit of a service and mentioned to Ann my landlady that they were being wasted where they were and asked her if there were any youngsters on the estate who might appreciate a bicycle. She said they should have been at Daldhu and were there for the folk who rent the holiday cottage, so I said I would take them up to the cottage on the back of my truck. While driving up the track, out of the corner of my eye I spotted something splashing about in the river and when I gave the subject more scrutiny, I noticed that a sheep was on its back in one of the burns that run off the hill on the other side of the main river, there is a bridge nearby so I parked the truck and ran across the bridge and along the bank by the time I got there the sheep had stopped struggling and its head was under water. I got in the stream and dragged it out on to the bank and grabbed the wool on the side of its chest with both hands and started pushing and pulling in an attempt to bring it back to life, I am not quite sure what I thought I was doing, my treatment was pretty much instinctive rather than educated. I managed to get it breathing again and it seemed to be looking like it might recover. The sheep are in lamb at the moment and I think this one had twins because it was very wide which is probably why it ended up on its back and could not right its self. The ewe was breathing but very softly so I stayed with it for about 20 minutes, it seemed to be getting slightly stronger and I thought if it tried to struggle to its feet where it was, it would end up in the stream again, so I moved it further up the bank, unfortunately that seemed to be too much for it and it died soon after, probably of a heart attack. I mentioned this to Ann and she charitably said that it probably was not quite right in the first place if it had ended up in the stream. I hope this was true. Her husband John apparently says that “After being born, a lambs only ambition is to die”.

There is a Prunus tree next to the cottage, either a plum or a cherry of some sort and over the years it has grown to rather obscure the light from the front of the cottage, it was noticeable even before the leaves came out so I can only imagine how dark the sitting room and guest room would be in mid-Summer. When I bumped in to the owner of the estate a month or so ago, he mentioned that he had asked for the tree to be taken down because he thought it was via this tree, that the Pine Martin that ruined the cottage carpets had gained entry. I thought it a shame to take the whole tree down and also thought that any severe pruning ought to happen before the tree was in bud, so a couple of weeks ago I dug out the chainsaw and took down a large bough which was shading the cottage. Even without the leaves it has made a huge difference to the amount of light and has had a widening effect on the available view. It’s weird but I feel slightly more vulnerable without it there, it somehow used to provide some sense of shelter, all of which was purely psychological of course. I have left two smaller trunks which do not interfere with the view and which hopefully will not encourage Pine martins back in to the cottage. The down side is that the satellite dish is now rather more obvious on the lawn, so I will have to visit a garden centre and find some fast growing greenery to plant round it. One job successfully completed always seems to lead to another for some reason.

Talking of the estate owner, I was pottering about the other day when I noticed him coming up the drive, I had just put the kettle on so his timing was perfect. I invited him in for a cup of tea and we sat and chatted in the dining room. It was the estate owner who mentioned that my fishing attempts were futile because of the conditions. He did however mention that the fishing on the estate is really only free for guests and workers, he then asked me if I would be happy to do some odd jobs around the estate, one of the workers is due to be off work for a month or so and I think he was keen to see if I would step in and help if need be. I told him I would be happy to help if required, but have yet to be asked, so am not quite sure what may be involved. The estate owner as I may have mentioned before was a cabinet minister and it amused me slightly that the fishing rule had been amended slightly, in order to encourage me to help out on the estate, once a politician, always I imagine, a politician. I had already cleared the rights to some fishing with the manager who said it was not a problem. The estate owner was pleased to see that I had in part, already dealt with the tree and asked me if I wanted the two big pine trees taking down as well. I thought not, they are a bit of a feature of the cottage and I think the place would be very stark without them. They do also hide some of the view and will have an impact of the amount of light, but I feel their presence is part of the whole feel of the place and told him I would rather keep the big trees for the time being. I was not really expecting to have to make those sorts of decisions but I am very pleased he did not just cut them down.

Last weekend I was invited by an old school friend from my Edinburgh days to go and stay with her and her family in Arisaig. It was Carol’s birthday and we enjoyed a barbecue in her barbecue shelter. Talking as I was of Dougie earlier, he has one as well, so these little hexagonal shelters surrounding a fire pit and barbecue seem to be quite popular in Scotland. They certainly extend the barbecue season, making a smoky meal available pretty much all year round. I was very taken with Carol’s shelter it was beautifully built and had enough room for about twelve of us to pile in and sit in comfort and warmth around the fire. Carol also has a gypsy caravan in the garden called Zelda which she uses as a money earner on Air B+B. Zelda was to be my bedroom for a couple of nights and was also very comfortable and beautifully made. There was in essence a large double bed which utilised the far end from the door and the center of the room was taken up with some comfy chairs and a heater. There was a composting loo just outside which I have to confess I had not encountered before but which seemed to work very well, being both an easy and fragrant way of dealing with what could otherwise be something of a problem. Having said that I did not have to deal with the compost.

Arisaig is a beautiful little West coast village which is on a bay, the entrance to which is protected from the ravages of the sea by a reef of skerries, the Scottish word for rocky outcrops. I should imagine navigating into the bay could be awkward in tricky conditions. There is a very tidy little yacht haven and boat yard there, some lovely waterside properties and a very healthy community spirit which was obvious from the friends I met at Carols party. The bay its self is a little rocky but if you follow the old coast road to Mallaig there are some beautiful white sandy beaches of the sort often copied by the Caribbean. I took a drive on Sunday down the old coast road to Mallaig where Carol was reading peoples palms at the Mallaig community hall which was playing host to a craft fair of sorts. My hand reading went well and I learnt a bit about myself and had other aspects of my life confirmed in a surprisingly accurate way. Carol did say however that she could see no evidence of writing amongst my skill set as defined by my palms. You may have already arrived at that conclusion without access to, or knowledge of my hands. Carol and her husband Rory had to go South on Sunday evening, but I was invited to stay and so treated their daughter Louise to supper at the local pub. The pub is in my opinion the social heart of a village and its health is a good indicator of the wellbeing of the village. A bad pub probably indicates an unhappy and dysfunctional village. The pub in Arisaig seemed a very nice place, the beer was great, the one I was drinking was ‘Cowabunga’ from the Cromarty brewery in case you are interested and the meal was of the finest quality. The prawns I had for my main course were the freshest I have had for quite some time and probably came straight off a trawler in the rather workmanlike fishing town of Mallaig, just along the coast. Louise and I wandered home and settled down in front of a film on the TV, Louise is studying film and media and we spent some time going through the huge amount of films available to download from Sky, we finally settled on Mrs Doubtfire, which I have not seen for many years and with Louise’s assistance, I was given a complete understanding of how the film had been constructed and how the music was used to create pathos or emphasise a turning point in the plot and how a camera angle can change the viewpoint and encourage empathy with a character. I really enjoyed my media education and will never watch a film in quite the same way again.

Today I have started to do a small carving of a grouse. I have been doing some drawings to give me an idea of the nature of grouses or is it grice, I’m not sure. Anyway, I have discovered a small wood yard just outside Pitlochry that sells naturally dried bits of wood for carving and wood turning. I bought a bit of lime wood, the quintessential carvers’ wood and bizarrely a wood I have never carved before. There was a very famous English carver called Grinling Gibbons who won many religious carving commissions and lime was his favourite. I have some stoats in their white ermine coats planned for the lime. I also bought a couple of bits of bog oak which were dug out of the peat on Orkney or maybe Isla, the chap could not quite remember where it had come from. Bog oak is a wood I have always wanted to try and carve if for no other reason than it is probably about a couple of thousand years old, which should add interest, history and hopefully value to the finished product. I also bought a small oak burr, a burr is a sort of cancerous lump which forms on the side of a tree, the grain is all over the place and frequently dappled in little swirls making this little bit of wood a good one for a grouse, it is also quite forgiving to carve, so a good one to get started with. I have been putting this off for some reason, perhaps because I am hoping to supplement my income with my carvings and if they turn out to be rubbish I will have to rethink the plan. Having done every possible other thing that might need doing about the place and quite a few that didn’t, I finally got started today and so far so good. There is still huge scope to chip its head off with a poorly aimed tap with a hammer and chisel, but so far it’s not going too badly. As a confidence builder it’s fulfilling its role quite well, there is though, I am very aware still some possibility for chaos to take over. It’s never over until the fat grouse is mounted. That somehow did not sound quite right.

Last Tuesday I had to take my car for a service, which is all good, but it does mean hanging around in Pitlochry for rather a long time. I took a bicycle and cycled round the sights and then enjoyed a full fat Scottish all day breakfast, followed by more wandering around. I cycled to the Loch to look at the ducks, then off to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre for a very expensive orange and soda. After reading the paper end to end I cycled down to Dunfallandy to visit the stone. Dunfallandy stone looks like a fairly standard grave stone but was very impressively carved, probably around 700AD by the Picts. It is in amazingly good condition considering the history it must have witnessed. Finally I cycled back down to Pitlochry and up the other side to the previously mentioned Moulin Inn where I drank some less expensive orange and soda and re read the paper for a couple of hours, I was also enjoying some banter with the barmen and the people who came and went, to fend off my boredom. Finally the car was ready and I was able to free wheel from the Moulin all the way back down to the garage about a mile away. Unfortunately they did not quite finish it so I have to take it back next week for an hour or so, now it’s getting boring.

Last Saturday before going to Arisaig I decided to empty the ash bin into the hole in the field and as it was blowing a gale I paid much more attention to where the ash was going to end up, checking wind speed and angle and making sure I was up wind when the bin was emptied. Unfortunately I was less concentrated on where my feet were and managed to tip hot ash down the top of my unlaced boot giving myself quite a nasty burn on the top of my foot. You would never have seen a boot so quickly ejected. Foul language was delivered as I hopped around the field on one foot. I am here to tell you that a burn on the top of a foot is not a good thing, it is still restricting my excursions up a hill or on the bike. On that cheery note I must check my bandage…

Spring time is here, hopefully.

Crocus
My Crocus!

 

A couple of weeks has passed since my last catch-up and in that time spring seems to have taken hold of the glen. The sun is now making its way higher into the sky we are getting noticeably more daylight day by day. The last couple of weeks have been snow free, largely dry and generally sunny. If we have a few days of sun, the moorland heats up which releases water vapour which the evening’s cold air condenses into fog or low cloud that hangs in the valleys. This is not every night, usually only after a particularly warm day. According to my thermometer, the temperature is still dropping to minus one or two at night but we have seen daytime temperatures recently of nearly 14 degrees Centigrade, which is positively balmy compared to the winter months. I have snowdrops in the garden which seem to be about a week behind those in the village bizarrely, perhaps the difference in elevation accounts for that, who knows. I have also discovered a drift of crocuses under the fir tree which are beautiful and pale and look very delicate, luckily the conditions here have been fairly benign so they continue to survive. The recent warm weather, particularly if we have had a couple of days of sun without any fog, releases the aroma of the surrounding country side, the other day I opened the door to be greeted on the warm Spring morning air with an aromatic peaty fragrance, I could also smell the fir tree which gave a gentle bathroom cleaner sort of ambience to the proceedings. All very pleasing to the nose.

I went to Pitlochry last week to replenish the larder from the ever reliable Co-Op, where incidentally I discovered lurking, on a shelf in a plastic container, advertising it’s self as, ‘The taste of Scotland’, a brace of pre battered sausages. So I suppose, you bung these tasty heart stopping delicacies into a microwave and the arteries are treated to a hardening in under two minutes, all good stuff, heart disease for the culinary challenged! Any way I digress, on the way back up the hill coming out of Pitlochry I decided to try a refreshing early March sharpener at the Moulin Inn. The Moulin is a great place, it is basically an old Victorian Hotel of the standard Scottish mini castle type of design with an Inn attached at one end, where fine ales of the establishments own making are dispensed, produced by the microbrewery, which can be found at the back of the Hotel. It is also quite a good place to eat but it is the bar and the beer which I enjoy from time to time. I amuse myself by making little quips to the bar staff, telling them how well their beer travels. They usually either choose to ignore me, or perhaps don’t get the joke, such as it is. Anyway, I was in there after the shopping and I got chatting to Ian, a retired RAF forces doctor and quite a local character. He was an effusively friendly fellow who was able to educate me on all matters Moulin. Moulin it seems has some impressive standing stones and evidence of Neolithic settlement for a period of around 2000 years, it is thought that an increase in cold weather around 700 Ad drove the settlements down the hill to a slightly warmer and less exposed location. At about that time the church in Moulin was founded and dedicated to St Colm or St Colman. I think probably the latter as there is modern evidence on the road back to Enochdhu (my village) of a new, rather architecturally industrial, holiday type of home, albeit on a rather grand scale owned by Colmans’, the mustard people. So a tenuous link and one which can probably be ignored. Moulin it seems was located at a cross roads of droving and trading routes and a market naturally formed there which brought some prosperity and some nuisance to the area. Robert Louis Stevenson stayed in a cottage in Moulin where he wrote “Thrawn Janet” and perhaps more famously “The body snatchers”. There is some evidence of monarchy including Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, James the 6th of Scots and 1st of England, King George 1st, Queen Victoria, to name but a few, having strayed through the village at various points in history. There is also rich, historical evidence of the Picts and Vikings running up against each other, so historically a busy place it would seem. This bustle has largely all gone now, leaving the sleepy village of Moulin to enjoy its brewery off the beaten track, a mile or two to the East of where the A9 takes folk North and South in equal measure. I have summarised Ian’s potted history of Moulin and probably added some translation here and there, but that was the gist of it. While I was being tutored in the local story, people started to gather at the bar and it appeared that I had inadvertently found myself gently absorbed into the Moulin Five O’clock club. A great bunch of people who gather at the end of the day for a verbal catch up, there was talk of lost sheep, things to do near my house, bad tourist driving, musical events which could not be missed, my contribution was to start a discussion based on which beer travelled best (a poorly judged ‘Bon mot’ which nearly started a fight). All very nice. So I intend to go to the Co-Op at about 4:30 next time, specifically, so I can catch up with the Moulin five O’clock Possy once again, now I know what to expect and what not to say.

The Thursday before last saw me donning my salopettes etcetera and taking to the sunny slopes of Glenshee. My friend Ian, who I have mentioned before is a ski instructor at the ‘Shee and we had discussed my “going for a slide” as Ian refers to skiing. He sent me a text suggesting Thursday would be a good day, due in the main to the weather forecast showing sunny conditions, it was not a weekend or a school holiday and so in short, it should be optimal conditions for un-hindered sliding. I rather nervously went to the ski hire place, which incidentally smelled rather overwhelmingly of stale socks. Was measured, weighed and fitted for some skis’, boots and poles. I then even more nervously set off up the hill to Glenshee. I found the Fresh Tracks ski school building where I had agreed to meet Ian, only to discover that he had gone for a jolly up the hill. I chatted to his colleague who had radioed Ian and who informed me that I was expected. Once we caught up, Ian took me up the drag lift to a piste on Sunnyside, where he analysed my technique for a couple of runs. He gave me some very good advice and some exercises to try in order to break some of the bad habits which have been with me since my very early skiing days. His assistance helped considerably and after an hour or so my method had become slightly more graceful and flowing. My confidence had been helped as well, so we decided to go and try some of the other runs. The highlight for me was Coire Fionn and then on to Glas Maol. The snow was perfect if a little powdery at the top of Glas Maol. Ian and I skied for about four hours, covering pretty much all of the runs at Glenshee, so I could get a feel for the place. I was completely exhausted by the end of it. The conditions could not have been better and there were no queues for any of the lifts. A great day out and something I want to do again, unfortunately with all of the good weather we have been having recently I think the season is now over, so I may have to wait until next year. I really enjoyed it though and Glenshee is a wonderful resource to have on the doorstep. I really do not know why I had not gone earlier and am very grateful to Ian for persuading me as he did, otherwise I doubt I would have made it this year.

Thursday seems to be adventure day, for this week’s Thursday adventure I cycled up to loch Loch. Hurrah! I have been banging on in this blog about cycling to Loch Loch and yesterday I finally made it. It is an eleven mile round trip from my back door but it has to be said they were eleven Scottish miles and it was quite hard. The day was beautiful, getting quite warm in the afternoon, so much so that I overheated on the way up and had to take my shirt off having completely overdressed for the occasion. Normally I am quite shy about stripping off but as there was no one else for miles up or down the glen, it made no difference. So I was mountain biking topless in the glorious sunshine, probably not a good look. I could sort of see where the Naturists are coming from, any way enough of that chat. I have noticed recently that we are in ‘frog on the move’ season. I think at this time of year they all migrate to other ponds to mate, whether this is driven by pheromones or the phase of the moon or what, I really don’t know, but I had also noticed this phenomenon when I was living in Sussex, where there would be frogs all over the road around about March time and because they are generally small they are unnoticed and therefore get driven over in their millions. Here luckily there are fewer cars so the survival rate is probably much greater. So while I was cycling up the track I noticed what I first thought were small fish in the ponds and pools along the way. It was only after some close inspection I found the place to be awash with frogs, every ditch, every stream and every puddle. It was like a froggy night club or Glastofrog or something similar. Having puffed my way over the hill I could see the glint of sunlight on water. I had made it. What a place, Loch Loch is, a long thin Loch with pinches in two places and the end I arrived at slopes away from a white sandy quartzite beach, very gently into some crystal clear, slightly deeper water. At the other end according to the OS map the Loch achieves a depth of around twenty meters so quite deep and it is at the deep end apparently where all the big fish are so you have to walk to find them. The Loch is over a mile long and was, I should imagine, originally sculpted by glacial erosion which usually gives a landscape a soft rounded look and feel and the Loch is no exception. At the shallow end I could see clumps of lilies under the water getting ready to break the surface and put on a floral display. These water lilies are very common in the Scottish lochs and Lochans (a small Loch) and when in flower can produce a spectacular splash of bright yellow flowers surrounded by lily pads floating on the surface tension of the Loch water. I will go back with a decent camera in a month or two when hopefully the lilies will be in full bloom. I put up a dozen or so grouse on the way to the Loch, none of which seemed to have witnessed a half-naked middle aged man on a bicycle before and which took to the air in all directions.

The cottage jobs I have undertaken in the last couple of weeks have gradually dwindled to some fairly insignificant chores, I applied some silicon sealant to the roof of the big shed with mixed results. I have raked up the copious pine cones from the lawn which served to illustrate that the lawn is mainly composed of moss and that pine cones in a gale can travel quite some distance. I did have a slight disaster with a radiator. Last time I was in Pitlochry one of my favourite shops is the hardware shop. It is a proper old fashioned sort of place with little pots of screws and nails and bird food and paint and fire lighters’, all manner of things designed to ensnare a casual peruser. Well I was perusing the other day and I discovered radiator paint and as the cottage has three rather old, rather rusty radiators amongst its collection I thought I would give them a face lift with the appropriate paint. So last Monday after reading the instructions I got out a wire brush and tackling the bathroom radiator gave it a vigorous brushing which resulted in a pin prick leak which sprung out from the bottom of the radiator. Ah blast, I thought quietly to myself. I managed to turn it off and covering the hole with my thumb and then with my spare hand I distributed toilet paper on the floor to catch the escaping black liquid, I shot down stairs to turn the heating pump off. I managed to temporarily fix the leak with two screws, two rubber washers and some mastic type stuff called ‘Sticks like..’ probably also procured from the Pitlochry hardware shop. So I had to ‘fess up to the estate manageress that there was a leak in one of the radiators. Actually I think the only thing stopping the leak from arriving earlier was the paint it left the factory in. Another thing which I had a go at, while we are on a shed based handy man topic, was an arty attempt on a piece of quartz crystal rock that I may have mentioned before. Well my new tungsten tipped chisel arrived and so I had another go at shaping my bit of hard rock. That chisel lasted about half an hour, quite impressive considering the outcome of the previous attempts but still pretty much a non-starter. I have officially given up with that bit of rock and can now see why shiny white sculptures made of the stuff do not adorn the shelves of the galleries and museums around Scotland. There is other rock around though, so I will find something a little more malleable to play with. Or maybe just go back to making things from wood. Talking of the hardware shop, as we were, I also bought some bird seed, I am currently filling the bird feeder every day. Is that normal? They are even getting fussy, discarding grains that they don’t like onto the ground, which I got slightly annoyed about, in a parental, eat your greens sort of way, until that is I noticed that there are other birds which are only attracted to the discarded grains, amongst those less fussy birds have been the two red legged partridge, yes two. From the foot prints in the last snow I thought I was down to one, but this morning they were both clearing up the mess that the other birds had discarded. They are becoming close friends and I like to see them about the place. Talking of the wild life I have not caught a mouse for weeks now, but yesterday I saw one emerge from the garden wall by the gate and sort of bask in the sunshine, so they are around but just not in the cottage. I did wonder whether, with all of the spilled grain under the bird feeder, they have no need of a dangerous cottage when they have the option of heaps of delicious corn based nibbles on their door step.

Last Sunday I was led astray by the characterful Ellice, who works as a doer of everything and is also the trainee manager at the Strathardle Inn. I usually drop in for a Sunday lunch and Ellice had the afternoon off and so decided to join me. We ate and chatted for an hour or so then she left and cycled off to see her boyfriend Dave, who is one of the Chefs at the Strathardle. I was just about to drink up and go home an hour or so later when she got back and re-joined me for another drink. Ellice at this point got the bit between her teeth and rang Richard and Linda, some mutual Kirkmichael friends to encourage them to join us at the pub, so the four of us enjoyed a chat and some increasingly lively banter at the bar. At some point it was decided, I am not too sure why or indeed when, that we de-camp to Richard and Linda’s lovely house just round the corner from the pub and carry on. I think Ellis brought along a bottle of something fizzy which we celebrated, um, something with. Richard had recently bottled some whisky on a small commercial basis, so at a later point that evening, some whisky was also consumed and that was more or less the last thing I remembered… I awoke on Monday morning to the sound of a dog barking, I remember lying in bed with my head under the sheets trying to avoid daylight and thinking, that’s odd, I don’t have a dog, when gradually I began to realise that I was not at the cottage but still at Richard and Linda’s house. They kindly filled me with coffee and we discussed their new house in Arisaig, which will be their next home destination. Their departure will be considered a shame and they will be missed locally, Richard is also a fellow Pitcarmik Angling club member. I have an old school friend in Arisaig who I will introduce them to so they can get a social jump start in their new community in the same way that they helped me when I first arrived here. This was the second time in three days that I had ended up at someone else’s house after the pub, on Friday however I was still able to peddle a bicycle despite the Port and Brandy shots that we had been experimenting with.

When I awake in the morning my daily routine is usually tending to the stove, after which I have breakfast, a mug of coffee and a bowl of muesli to kick start the day. There is a spoon, and this observation will surprise no one who knows me very well, I am interested in and have a small collection of spoons, but there is a spoon which seems to find its self on top of all of the other spoons in the cutlery draw and which every morning offers its self somehow, for selection as the spoon for the daily morning muesli. I tend to always use the same one, it is a comfortable spoon and its ergonomics suite my hand. Anyway, the other day I happened to be reading something over breakfast and therefore had my reading glasses on and as a result of which, a small inscription on the spoons handle caught my eye. On closer inspection the legend “Somerset School meals” could be seen embossed on the spoon. Now I have lived in Somerset, but I did not bring this particular spoon with me, it was already resident in the cottage before I arrived. My landlord however, was at one point the Conservative member of parliament for Wells in Somerset, so I can only assume that while meeting and greeting the dinner ladies in a school in Wells he must have inadvertently pocketed the spoon which then found its way over the border and up the road to Perthshire and finally, up the glen to my cottage where its past life lay hidden until it was forensically uncovered by me over breakfast. I started that day with a sense of how Conan Doyle’s mind may have worked, albeit briefly.

On that note, is that the time?

 

Bonzai

Fence post bonzai
Bonzai fence post pine tree!

I spotted this little tree on the way to the stone circle and I imagine it is much older that its size suggests. I believe that lichen takes at least ten years to establish it’s self on anything, so this little tree is at least ten years old.

Last week I decided to take a bike ride up the track towards the Fealar estate, I got about 3 miles up beyond ‘Daldhu’ the next estate cottage up the glen, when I arrived at the snow line and gave up due to having the right bike but the wrong tyres, i.e. not the snow tyres. That part of the track is not very frequently used and I therefore decided, it would not be a great place to fall off a bike on the ice, so it will have to wait for another day, a bit like the ride I attempted to Loch Loch. I am building a list of failed cycle attempts, oh well. Fealar Lodge at the end of the track is reputed to be Britain’s most remote, inhabited house and is according to the ordnance survey map 9.35 miles up the track from me, so they are about 12.5 miles from the public road. Apparently it takes them an hour to drive down the track due to the poor condition of the track surface. I quite like remote, but that is way too far from the village for me. Talking of Loch Loch, I was doing some perusal of the map and there is a Munroe (a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet in height) on the edge of Loch Loch called Beinn A’Ghlo, and looking at the map, the sandy shores of the loch would make quite a good camping spot for a climb up the Beinn, a sort of base camp type of thing. Beinn A’ Ghlo is listed as the twelfth highest mountain in Scotland at 1129 Meters. So I have been hatching a plan for when the weather gets better, to cycle to the loch with a tent and a fishing rod as there are also Arctic Charr, a species of fish related to salmon and brown trout, in Loch Loch. Arctic Charr are not unique in Scotland but still quite unusual. So the plan will be a Ray Mears type summit of the Beinn with a night at Loch Loch and a barbecued supper feast of increasingly fashionable,  freshly caught wild Arctic Charr. I can’t see any flaws in that plan, apart perhaps from foul weather up and down the hill, a freezing night in a tent after a fishing fail, providing no supper.

The previously mentioned ‘Daldhu’ is still largely operated by the estate as a holiday cottage, it is a couple of miles up the track from me, so about five miles up the track from the road, if any one fancies a nice, out of the way place to spend a week or two with, or even without, the kids. The power is supplied by a generator in a shed in the garden and there is a trouty river nearby, a stand of Larch and Sitka spruce behind the cottage for foraging barbeque materials and the walk to Loch Loch is about three and a half miles. I believe that temporary estate staff, like deer stalkers and shepherds who are brought in for lambing and shearing use the cottage from time to time but that is about it. It is a beautiful spot, providing a remote and peaceful idyll.

Last week I got out the chain saw, I had a dead tree at the cottage which I had decided to take down and a reasonably small, dry, dead tree in the garden, I thought would probably be quite a good starting point in getting used to my new saw and re acquainting myself with the whole wood cutting process in general. Something that I have not done for years. It all went well I managed to take down the tree which was overhanging the fence without destroying anything and I am pleased with the new saw, which seems to do all of the things it should, efficiently and without fuss. It is a bit smaller than the chain saws I used to use, so it is light enough for an old boy to use all day. Cutting down the tree got me thinking of filling the shed with logs and whilst on the bike trip up the Fealar track the other day, I noticed a whole load of blown down trees at the edge of the small wood at the back of Daldhu. I went and found John, the manager of the estate, principally to borrow a sledge hammer to drive in the steel stakes I had, had made by the blacksmith to fasten down the camper and while chatting I casually asked if I could log up the fallen timber in the woods. He gave me one of his looks which indicate I might be slightly mad and said I was free to cut up anything on the ground. Happy days! So this week I have been quite busy, I have nailed the camper to the Grampian Mountains and put about two tons of split logs into the shed. Bizarrely cutting and splitting the logs seems to have helped the tennis elbow, don’t ask me why, but I don’t imagine for a second that a physiotherapist would recommend such activity. The shed, now clean and tidy and with a good supply of smartly stacked logs has become somewhere where I like to sit with a cup of tea and gaze at the view from. It is now one of my favourite places, out of the wind with the sun shining through the open doors, it’s all a bit sad I know. Is a fondness for sheds one of those things that defines a person as being over 50?

Talking of the tennis elbow, I put a boiler suite on the other day to do something mucky and nearly got stuck in it. The tennis elbow would not let my arm bend enough to get out of the damned thing, I probably looked like a stranded beetle on its back wrestling with its arms and legs, trying to get out of the suite. Not a good look and luckily I don’t think anyone saw me.

Last Sunday I decided to go for a walk to look for a stone circle which according to the OS map is on the estate. The round trip was about four miles which generally is not much, unless you are yomping about in a bog for most of it. I set off from the cottage and followed a direct route up the hill and over towards a saddle between two higher peaks, this led onto a moor and I could see a wood once at the moor which marked the way to the stone circle which was according to the map located at the most Northerly point of the wood. Once there I plodded about for about an hour looking for the stone circle, finally I found it. The problem with finding the circle was in essence that I had a picture in my mind’s eye of a circle of rather obvious standing stones, a small Avebury rings or Callanish, the very impressive stone circle on the Isle of Lewis, something obvious. This stone circle once found, was not in any way obvious, in fact the only way I found it, was that someone who had been cutting the heather had left a circle uncut on top of a small knoll, which on very close inspection had some rather diminutive and low lying stones loosely arranged in a circle. Callanish had, when first discovered also looked like a circle of small stones but after some excavation of the surrounding peat the true majesty of what was under the surface was discovered. Perhaps it is the same with the little circle I walked to, I doubt it somehow. While there I spotted a huge herd of hinds on a nearby hill, which was good to see, there were forty or fifty of them and they seemed to be pretty relaxed with my presence, which surprised me given the large population of gun owners in this part of the world. My walking plan was to return via some hut circles but I ran out of time, bizarrely however, on the way back I stumbled upon some hut circles which were not even marked on the map. I think this area was at one time, probably around the Iron Age period, much more inhabited than it is now, which is slightly unusual and more or less the opposite of what has happened to the population density everywhere else in Britain.

I was at the pub last week and was sitting at the bar ‘enjoying’ an alcohol free lager, as one does when it is a booze free February, when Dougy called out “Steve, come quick” he was having a cigarette outside the front door of the pub, so I rushed out to see what had caught his eye and what might induce him to engage me so eagerly. He was looking up at the sky and he said, “now what can you see”? I looked and I have to confess, could not instantly see anything out of the ordinary, once however he pointed out a star, I noticed that it seemed to be moving in a sort of spiral motion, another friend Graham, came and joined us to see what the fuss was about and he too noticed that the star seemed to moving strangely. I have no idea what caused this and have tried to Google an answer but without any success. I have a slight feeling that it was a sort of optical illusion, who knows, but we did all seem to see it. Talking of Graham, chatting to him last week he casually mentioned that he had been born in my cottage, his father was a shepherd on the Glenfernate estate and they were given my cottage to live in, as often happens up here. So another coincidence. Grahams sister was up for a visit which is why they were in the pub and after he told me they had lived at the cottage I suggested that next time she was up they should come up for a barbecue and a tin or two. Well, any excuse for a knees up. I did suggest however that perhaps they should avoid February.

One evening while sitting at the bar in the Strathardle, I got chatting to couple of guys who came in, one was a deer stalker and the other a game keeper. We discussed the deer population and the fishing season and all things in general to do with the country side. They asked me where I lived and when I told them Creagloisk Cottage, they both said they knew it well. The keeper had been working at the previously mentioned Fealar Lodge up the track and one winter the cottage he had been staying in had caught fire in the middle of the night. There had been a fault with the diesel generator which had set alight to the fuel oil tank and which then caught the cottage and the whole thing went up quite quickly, apparently it set fire to the river so there was quite a blaze. He had been offered my cottage to stay in while his cottage was being repaired, so he knew it very well. He asked me if the frost still comes out of the walls. I explained that it hadn’t while I had been there, but that I tend to keep the stove lit so the cottage stays reasonably warm. My cottage had, at that time been used as a holiday cottage, so I imagine that when he moved in the stove had not been lit for some time and as his cottage burnt down in mid-winter there probably was frost in the walls of my cottage. Incidentally, I have been here for about three and a half months now and have still only lit the stove once, it has not gone out in all of that time, which I find quite remarkable. I asked the two if they had always been locals and the game keeper happened to mention that he had worked all over the place, his last job was on the Elgin estate in a place called Charleston, near Dunfermline in Fife. I mentioned to him that I had grown up in Charleston and asked if he had been the keeper there. He said he had been, so at that point I came clean and mentioned that my brother and I used to poach the odd trout from the hidden lake on the Elgin estate, he would have been there long after me, but nevertheless it was proof of the small world in which we all live, and I still felt slightly guilty, discussing my poaching past life, especially with a game keeper.

Talking as we were of stoves, Ann my landlady mentioned the other day that they had a guest who had stayed at the big Lodge who was very well to do and who bizarrely had a passion for chimney cleaning, now I know it all sounds a bit unlikely, but when a chap has a fondness for a chimney it is best just to accept the situation and move gently on. Anyway this gent had a tip for a well-groomed chimney, you can spend good money on chemicals which when burnt help to clear the flue, or, and I tell you this in a “don’t sue me” sort of way if it all goes horribly wrong, you can apparently, also put an empty beer can on the fire and it will have the same flue cleaning effect. How’s that for a hot tip? Sorry just couldn’t resist the pun.

I went for a haircut the other day in Blairgowrie and the girl that cut my hair asked me if I wanted my eyebrows trimming, I mentioned that I thought they were fine and paid her and left. This did however unnerve me slightly, as she had asked the question perhaps they did need a tidy up. Once home I put on some reading glasses and gave my eye brows some close scrutiny in the mirror and low and behold, they were quite hirsute. So I gave them a cursory trim. Why do eyebrows suddenly put on a spurt of growth just at the point in life where the eyes need glasses to notice, I wondered. Another one of gods pranks no doubt.

There are some highland cattle on the estate and from time to time I encounter them on the track down by the farm. They are real characters and are not flighty or jumpy or indeed dangerous in any way, I have John’s reassurance, he does not and would not have dangerous or temperamental animals on the estate. Apart, that is from the rams which according to little John (Ann’s nephew) are head butting bruisers, when confined. The estates’ highland cattle are in fact so laid back that when I come down the track they tend to stand and stare at me, giving me a sort of blank look suggesting that I might be in the wrong place. Last Sunday after lunch at the pub I had to actually engage 4 wheel drive and take to the edge of a field to get round one who showed absolutely no sign or intention of thinking it appropriate to get out of the way. Well I suppose it is their estate and home as much as it is mine and perhaps there is an unwritten local law or indeed their pure physical bulk which dictates that it is always their right of way.

I am beginning to appreciate the lengthening of the days, the cottage is tucked down in the glen and the sun in December made a very shallow arc of the horizon, rising slowly above the hills to the East and setting prematurely, behind a hill on the Western side of the glen. So now the suns arc is beginning to make its way up, I am getting more sunlight on the cottage which is a good thing, lifting the spirits and providing, perhaps falsely a sense of warmth. These little one and a half story stone cottages have a bit of a shortage of windows. At the back of the cottage only the kitchen and the bathroom above it have small windows looking up the glen, while the front of the house has rather small South facing windows for the sitting room and the dining room and the bedrooms above, the windows are set into the deep recesses of the thick cottage walls which tend to focus the available light into quite a narrow pattern. The bedrooms upstairs benefit from small side widows which look out to the hills either side of the glen but which do not at this time of year, add much to the quality of the light coming in to the rooms.

Tuesday was the first of March and its arrival heralded the end of my alcohol free month. So I had a couple of pints in the pub early on Tuesday evening and a whiskey at home and woke up on Wednesday with the mother of all hangovers. My body was really not ready for the new month and as a result I have not been out this week, preferring instead to light the fire in the sitting room and enjoy a can of beer and the TV, (I put the empty can on the fire to freshen up the chimney of course). Tonight however, is Friday night and therefore I will be preparing some warm fleeces, a bicycle and a freshly charged light and will make my way to the pub for a proper celebration of the beginning of March. I will prime myself for the evening with the fillet steak that I bought in the butcher in Pitlochry on Tuesday and which I had been saving to celebrate the logs in the shed with. I know it all sounds daft, but if you are knackered and your back hurts and you are splitting logs in a blizzard in your T’ shirt as I was this morning, just knowing there is a lump of steak for supper is all the inducement needed to see the job through.

Righty ho, fine Angus fillet steak eaten, fleeces donned, cottage tidied, temperature check, 3 degrees so not too cold. Look out Kirkmichael, here I come…

 

Dodgy cabinet, not political.

P1120416
Spirit level any one?.

 

In wandering around the bits of the estate which are reasonably close to the cottage, I have noticed that there is evidence of historic human habitation. Some of the visible remains of previous buildings are square and are therefore probably more likely to have been cleared settlements or old shielings (Scottish farm buildings), some however are round which indicate a much earlier Iron Age origin. On the Ordnance survey map there are hut circles shown near Loch Crannach on the estate and there is even a stone circle nearby. Bizarrely the square building remains do not seem to get a mention on the map, this may be due to the fact that my map is 1:50,000 rather than the better 1:25,000 which has more detail. I have tried to do some Google research on this topic but any searches have not really returned much relevant information. There was apparently a battle in 903AD near the estate at Tulloch, the battle was fought between the Danes and the Picts, a punch up which according to the-glens.org.uk website, the Picts won. Near to the location of the battle a rather up market six meter long grave can be found with a two meter high standing stone at the head and a smaller stone marking the foot of the grave. There is some speculation that the grave owner was possibly a Pictish prince “Ard-fhuil” (‘of noble blood’) who probably gave his name to Strathardle. The area before the battle was apparently known as “Strath na muc riabach”, the meaning of which was is reported to be the ‘strath of the brindled sow’. I am not surprised they felt the need to rename the area, I have been here for about three months and I have not seen a single brindled sow in all the time.

Last Wednesday I went to the Doctor in Pitlochry. After moving in to the cottage my elbow has been quite painful, I think this may have been something to do with lugging heavy boxes and furniture up the stairs on my own. The pain comes and goes and I think the cold might have some impact on it. Anyway it seems, following the sort of in-depth surgical analysis that the NHS allocated ten minutes of chatting to an unfamiliar doctor can afford, that I have ‘Tennis elbow’! What, where has that come from all of a sudden? I have certainly not been filling in my spare time with lengthy games of tennis. I haven’t played tennis since I was fifteen and at School in Edinburgh. Perhaps, while asleep, I spend every restless night relentlessly serving for an imaginary grand slam championship. Who knows, the human body apparently moves in mysterious ways. I have wondered whether tennis elbow is a side effect of too much Popcorn. The only reason I mention this is that I have discovered microwave popcorn, a fluffy, salty and somewhat tasteless snack which for some inexplicable reason I have found rather irresistible recently. I don’t know why, perhaps it’s something to do with being off the booze. In the interest of science I will report whether this salty indulgence returns to the darker recesses of the snack cupboard on the first of March, by which date I will be back on the sauce.

Last Thursday I ticked off another of the jobs on the cottage ‘to do’ list. The estate joiner had fitted some kitchen cabinets and a work top to the cottage cheffing area, some of which are frankly less than plumb. I have a kitchen cabinet that rather humorously has a perfectly level, square, door fitted over a rather un-level, un-square, rather rhomboid cabinet carcass. The door serves to emphasise the lack of the use of a set square in the installation of the cupboard. Anyway, there is also a very narrow opening to a corner cupboard by the cooker, which did not even have the door fitted. This is because with the cooker in place the cupboard door, if fitted would not have opened. So I have been thinking about this dilemma for a while, do I fit the door and forgo the use of the cupboard, or do I fit a curtain, or maybe just do without. Too many options, finally, after much mulling, I fitted the door on magnetic catches which means the door shuts and opens albeit in a pull the thing off sort of way, but at least it looks right, so function and aesthetics all bundled into one rather unorthodox solution.

The Estate Ewes are getting close to lambing and running up to this busy time of the year the shepherds and farm workers have been corralling the sheep into groups presumably arranged by their ‘due to lamb by’ date. So in order to enclose and contain the sheep new gates have been setup closing off parts of the track up to the cottage. On Saturday to put out the rubbish, I went through five gates just to get to the public road where the bins are. This is a nuisance especially in bad weather as I drive up to a gate, park, get out of the truck, open the gate get back in to the truck, drive forward, park, get out of the truck, close the gate behind me, get back in to the truck and proceed down the track to the next gate where the whole boring process is repeated. I of course, have then to do the whole thing in reverse returning back up the track. So five gates equals in and out of the truck ten times, then ten more times coming back. So it took me about an hour just to dump the rubbish, it’s like a pickup based aerobics class. Very dull and to make it duller some of these gates are nothing more that sheep hurdles tied loosely to each other, which once untied, tend to throw themselves on to the track. The hurdle nearest me was such a nuisance, especially with my newly diagnosed tennis elbow that I tied it top and bottom to its adjacent post, allowing it to swing, which has enhanced the whole experience beyond measure. The estates sheep were, when I went through the farm the other day, emerging one by one from the side of a farm building, as the track was blocked with a temporary hurdle fence, I parked up and wandered into the shed to see what was going on. They were processing the sheep through sort of small, sheep’s length, fenced in area with a gate at either end, Known to those that know these things as a sheep crush. This crush had been fitted with some high end electronic wizardry, which it turned out was essentially an ultrasound pregnancy tester. So they were doing pregnancy testing on an industrial scale, jolly clever stuff. I don’t quite know what they would have done in days of yore. Stick them in a field I suppose and see what happens. I did, perhaps rather contentiously think they could have used something similar to the sheep crush pregnancy test on the young girls in Shepton Mallet in Somerset, who leave school at 15 in their droves and then engage in a life of pregnancy and handouts as part of their life enhancing long term strategy.

On Friday I decided to go to Perth and visit B+Q. The purpose of this visit was to get something which I could use to carve, grind or file a piece of quartz crystal that I found on what I euphemistically call ‘my beach’, the small gravel sand bank alongside the river at the bottom of the garden. I have tackled this lump of rock, firstly with a grinder, this just did not seem to touch the ‘diamond tough’ quartz, I then bought a chisel bit to go in my SDS hammer drill. The chisel seemed to work well until I noticed that it was being worn away very quickly, the end of the chisel was vanishing before my very, ‘protection spectacled’ eyes. So this stone it seems, is pretty tough. While at B+Q I bought some heavy duty stone cutting disks, which I have subsequently proved don’t seem to scratch the surface and a flappy abrasive thing which works quite well for about two minutes, by which time it needs replacing. So, I am essentially back to square one. I am now looking at Tungsten carbide tipped comb chisels with replacement tips on E-bay. Sorry to drag your mood down with all of this grinding nonsense. I will let you know when I have cracked it, or if indeed, it has cracked me. On the way home I had noticed on a previous Perth trip, the presence of a blacksmith in a place called Bankfoot. Another thing on my ‘to do’ list and which I may have mentioned before, is the popularity in Scotland of nailing your camper or caravan to the garden to prevent the pride and joy being blown into the next county. Well discussion of this with the estate manager had left me feeling slightly insecure and in need of some sizable tent pegs to fasten the camper down with. So I popped into the blacksmith on my way home on Friday to discuss the possibility of getting some steel pegs made up. Half an hour later I found myself the proud possessor of 4 huge meter long pegs with nice rounded tent peg type ends to stop the chain hopping off and sharpened to a point at the other end to assist with getting them through the permafrost and into the lawn. All for the marvellous price of £10. Yes £10, that’s £2.50 each, very good value for money I thought and a very nice chap to boot. I will definitely be back when I can think of something else metallic he might be able to help me with. I have already checked with the farm manager that there is nothing which might be damaged under the camper, a water pipe or something similar. I can just imagine the mirth with which I would be greeted, on reporting to John, the rather serious estate manager, that I had driven a long spike through the septic tank.

I have mentioned in previous posts the red legged partridges, well, the weather recently has been quite warm and bright, interspersed with falls of snow which usually fall at night and have been laying to a depth of a couple of centimeters. This fresh snow provides a canvas for me to look at the footprints of the various animals which roam around the cottage and to help me get a bit of a feel as to their movements. The prints left by the pair of partridges are very individual and bless them it looks like they do everything together, like a slightly neurotic married couple. I can tell by observing the prints that the two birds have a very regular route which they take round the garden and along the edge of the surrounding fields every day. They are like a couple of fat policemen doing their rounds with their thumbs tucked into their waist coats. The same daily routine, stopping every now and then to inspect a hedge or peck at the ground for the dropped corn beneath the bird feeder. There is also evidence of mice, I can see where they seem to come and go into little holes which appear to lead into the foundations of the cottage. I am sure these holes do not actually lead inside the cottage because I have not caught a mouse for a couple of weeks now, perhaps because I have pushed appropriately sized pebbles into some of these little holes.

On Sunday I decided to do something that I think I may have been subconsciously putting off. I inherited some pictures and paintings from my parents and they had been wrapped up and kept in storage after we sold my mother’s house six years or so ago. The pictures have up until Sunday been sitting under the guest bed, waiting to be unpacked and arranged about the cottage. Paintings and pictures are a bit like smells and music they seem to be invested with emotional content and memories and I think it was the unearthing of these memories that I have been inadvertently delaying. Once out however, they were so out of context that they did not quite have the heavy duty emotional impact that I had been slightly afraid of. After setting these memories about the place the cottage now resembles a small tucked away, rather difficult to find art gallery. After curating the ‘Anderson’ collection at the Creagloisk Tate on Sunday, I did my usual thing and made my way to the pub for Sunday lunch. Recently I have been going to the pub a little earlier as I am still enduring my February prohibition, therefore I tend not to get quite so involved in the early evening bar side banter. I came back at about six on Sunday evening having extricated myself from the members of the Pitcarmick Angling Club who had arrived late in the afternoon. Once home I stoked the stove and settled down in front of the rather sparse entertainments on offer via the TV. By the time early evening arrived I had become rather peckish, so I tucked into some cheese and biscuits. I did not really think much more about this and in due course climbed (in the words of a Sussex chum) the ‘wooden hill to Bedfordshire’. I settled down and slept well. This morning however (Monday morning) I remembered that I had at some point in the night been engaged in a rather vivid dream involving the catching of mice in the traps under the kitchen sink. So, if cheese induces dreams, does cheddar induce a mouse trap related dream? I don’t know, it’s just a thought.

I have been putting off a visit to the ski center at Glenshee, mainly on the basis that last week was half term for the schools and as a result the slopes were very crowded with huge queues of goblins waiting for the lifts. Not my idea of fun frankly, the weather was rather windy and cold as well, which compounded my lack of enthusiasm. Glenshee has had some quite good falls of snow recently so at least that should not be a problem. When the slopes are very busy, I am informed that the snow gets swept off the pistes just by the action of so many people skiing and snowboarding on them, this movement of snow from the pistes has the effect that the slopes become very icy, which unless the edges of you skis are sharpened to perfection, produces conditions which are rather difficult to ski on with any degree of grace or control. The forecast is looking quite good for the coming week, so I might go and brave it when the sun comes out. Ian, a friend and one of the barmen at the Strathardle is also a ski instructor and he has very kindly offered to take some time off when I come up, so he can give me some private instruction. God knows I need it. I am not sure what to wear, probably everything, would be the obvious choice. It often feels colder here than the thermometer would suggest, I am not quite sure why, perhaps it is wet cold, or an unfortunate effect of the often accompanying wind. I don’t know, but I think thermals might be on my appropriate clothing list for Glenshee, or ‘The Shee’ as we locals casually refer to it up here.

Facebook is for me, a thing which is both ‘good and bad’ in equal measure, a digital curate’s egg if you like. It is obviously a good way for me to keep up with friends from all over the world and to be able to enjoy their conversation, entertainment and wisdom and in turn for me to connect from my remote location. I do however, have to  ensure that my Facebook filter is securely fitted before immersing myself into the tepid pool of day to day inconsequentiality that Facebook often delivers. I have to maintain a rigid approach to Facebook to avoid being dragged into gossip and discussion which at times verges on the scurrilous. There has, I have noticed recently, been a change in the way people interact on Facebook. One of the things that Facebook provides is a mechanism for people with a heartfelt message, point of view, cause or concern, Facebook can empower these people by offering a very wide public stage. We can, as recipients, accept these offerings in various ways, we can ignore them, we can ‘like’ them, we can ‘share’ them and more recently, I am being beseeched to copy and past these views and comments onto my ‘wall’ or personal space. This is usually delivered with a message telling me “It is not good enough” just to ‘like’. I ‘have to’, I am instructed, copy and paste. Now I am afraid I don’t function well under pressure, if the cause is a good one then it’s profile will be raised organically, that is after all one of the things that Facebook does quite well. If people like it, they will ‘like’ it. There we go, that was this week’s whinge of the week. I feel better now I have got that off my chest.

Perhaps I should have posted that on Facebook!

Frozen Chickens

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Down the track.

I have, as I may have mentioned before, been feeding the local bird population and now they have discovered there is food to be had, I am beginning to understand Hitchcock’s vision, when he produced the film, ‘The Birds’. Their abundance is almost frightening and what’s more the sheer quantity of food they consume on a daily basis is no longer a joke. When I first moved in to the cottage I was delighted to see that three Red Legged Partridge seemed to grace the property, they were timid but could often be seen under the fir tree nibbling up dropped pine seeds or something similar, (do things with beaks nibble, pecking just does not seem right?). Then one day they vanished, I had no idea where and was beginning to think the worst, when last week they made a re appearance, well, when I say they, more accurately only two of them returned. One seems to be missing in action somewhere. Red legged Partridge are not indigenous, they are introduced onto the Scottish estates for game shooting, their country of origin is I believe, France and apparently they struggle with the conditions up here. According to Doogy they get wet and depressed and sit under trees with a disgruntled look, which makes them easy prey to the polecats, mink, foxes and sabre toothed tigers. I was a bit sorry to see one vanish as they are nice to have around and if things get really bad on the snow front, I have an air rifle and they would fit nicely into my slow cooker. Red Legged Partridge are apparently not the only things to suffer from the cold. According to Ellice in the Strathardle, who has kept and reared chickens, it seems they too can during exceptionally cold conditions be found in the morning frozen to a perch. Aren’t chickens derived from jungle fowl? No wonder they find Scotland a challenge! Ellice was telling me that she had even found a squirrel frozen on the road with a sort of teeth clenched grin and posed in a clinging to a branch stance. She surmised that the poor little creature had been exposed to too much overnight chill and mentioned that she had moved it off the road to a place where it would not get run over. Now, I like Ellice but I do feel the main damage had already been done. Maybe this lack of sympathy for dead animals is one of the gender defining properties which separate men from women, a bit like goats cheese.

Talking of game, when I arrived at the cottage and was unpacking boxes of stuff that had been in storage for so long I had more or less forgotten their contents, I found an old Gin trap, a particularly nasty thing which was used by game keepers to catch, or more usually maim foxes. It looks like a small bear trap with two jaws that are forced open and set with a small and delicate latch, the trap is then placed in a run where foxes are known to roam and when trodden on the jaws snap shut catching a leg in their grasp. I think these traps have now been banned and their only use these days is to decorate the walls of country pubs where the locals will regale townie visiting tourists with stories of how they were used to catch ‘children for the pot’ and other spurious yarns. Anyway I dug the thing out and not quite knowing what to do with it I stuck it in the shed. While cleaning the swallow poo off the flat surfaces in the shed the other day as part of phase two of operation ‘’clean the shed’, I spotted the gin trap on a nail where I definitely had not left it. This caused some confusion and I was beginning to wonder whether old age was creeping up on me quicker that I had imagined, or maybe I had a poltergeist, the haunted spectre of a long dead game keeper whose tormented soul’s only manifestation on this mortal pile was the constant moving around of old gin traps. Then I discovered the trap I had placed, which was more or less where I left it and all I had actually done was to unearth another one which was already resident at the cottage, and part of the shed furniture.

Another shed based account I have to recall in this week’s epistle has been the task of waterproofing the roof. The roof of the shed / lean to, at the side of the cottage has always leaked. This is annoying, as the whole point of a shed is to keep things dry. The shed in question failed this simple task to the point that my bicycles which were stored in there were getting rusty without having any use, which is not how it should be. So after some inspection I discovered that for some reason, best known to themselves, a person or persons who have since moved on, nailed the corrugated iron to the wooden rafter in about five places, placing the nail in the trough of the profile of the tin roof. Now everyone knows that you fix a corrugated tin roof through the peak of the profile and seal it with a rubber washer so the water runs off. Well this had not been done, and in any case the roof was already perfectly adequately fixed down. So bizarrely it looked a bit like there had been an attempt to discretely sabotage the roof, or at least compromise its effectiveness, or maybe my imagination is beginning to run away with its self. Either way it is now fixed. I had cut some patches from a sheet of corrugated iron and sealing them with large amounts of silicon sealant, I then riveted the patches in place over the holes and I can now say with some confidence that the roof is no longer leaky and the bikes already look shinier and altogether happier. While on the subject of sheds I spent some time fixing the doors of the big shed which did not shut properly and which always provided a tussle with the bolts when going in and out. I had got bored with this so realigned everything and now the bolts click open and closed with a slick and easy action and life has become easier in a slightly immeasurable way.

While I was being induced into the Pitcarmick angling club last weekend, the owner of the Pitcarmick estate happened to mention that the Loch on the estate was in fact due to its construction technique officially a reservoir. The proper description of a reservoir is a lake (or loch) which is formed with the use of a dam at one end. The original construction had been done by a Victorian land owner in the 1800’s and as a result of this reservoir designation every few years a chappie from the department of ‘something to do with lakes and lochs’ turned up, nodded at it and awarded it a certificate of compliance for leisure pursuits etcetera for another year or so. This was how things had ticked along for years, quite satisfactory to everyone. Recently however we were told things had changed and the responsibility for the safety of such land marks, reservoir or otherwise had been bestowed onto the department known as SEPA which stands for ‘The Scottish Environment Protection Agency’. The way they now do things, is to notify the land lord or owner of the reservoir and explain that the structure is no longer deemed safe until the landowner has, at his own expense had the thing fully investigated by a civil engineer who has to then submit a full report to SEPA’s accepted guidelines. This is apparently a very expensive business and will have to be done for every fishing pond bigger than four Olympic swimming pools, which is probably all of them every year. The one at Pitcarmick has stood without any repair necessary since its initial construction, so why make things so complicated? Sorry, that was a fishing rant and it is now over, I don’t know why I am so bothered, I don’t even own a gold fish pond for god’s sake.

We have here on the estate a couple of Lochs, one of them is called Loch Loch. It is so named because the Glen in which it is found is Glen Loch, so did the loch get or give its name to the Glen, who knows? This Glen is however the site of a tragic accident involving the RAF Hercules XV193 aircraft from RAF Lynham, which crashed on the night of 27th May 1993, this accident resulted in the loss of all of those on board. The Hercules was one of three engaged in a formation and low level navigation exercise. There is a cairn near Loch Loch which marks the spot where the aircraft went down. According to locals the track which runs up to and past my cottage was very much enhanced by the MOD who laid a high quality tarmac road over the existing estate track for the recovery exercise. The clean-up operation was a lengthy and scrupulous affair and the only evidence of this tragic accident is oil residue which permeated the peat and which periodically makes its way back to the surface.

I have bought a chainsaw and all of the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) clobber to go with it, which should in theory prevent me from severing a limb in the search for flammable combustibles to go on the fire. Now, I am not new to the use of a chainsaw but a few years have gone by since my last encounter, so I am taking it very gently. While rambling around the estate, I have discovered quite a few trees along the edge of the woods which have been blown over in various bouts of intemperate weather for which this area seems to be prone. Some of these trees have been lying on their sides for a few years and should therefore be, at least in theory, nice and dry and fireplace ready. I have to confess I haven’t broached the topic of logging this timber with the estate manager, but don’t think it will be a problem. When it gets cold there is nothing better that lighting the sitting room fire and listening to the crack and pop of the flickering flames with a book, a good malt and some gentle music on the noise machine. It actually gets too hot if over stoked, it is quite a big fireplace and rather a little room. I did look into doing a ‘chainsaw awareness course’ or whatever they are called these days, but the cheapest one I could find was about £250, which would buy quite a few logs and therefore I have decided not to bother.

Last night I did the usual Saturday thing and went for a drink at the Strath’, it is still February so the drink was Becks Blue, a rather bland alcohol free lager, it does give a slight beery impression but that is probably as much to do with the glass its served in as the drink its self. I have noticed that two or three of them is about as much as I can take. Bizarrely if the lager had alcohol in I could probably keep going until closing time or the stocks ran out depending on whichever came first. On arrival I noticed that the car park was unusually busy and once inside I discovered that the Strath’ was playing host to the Kirkmichael Tug of War team. This was, as you can probably imagine, quite a rowdy affair, a good mannered and easy going group of youngsters who were enjoying their Christmas meal, at least I think that is what it was all about. Talking to one of them at the bar, I was informed that they are classed as a professional team. There is not a team in mainland Scotland that they have not at one point or another beaten and they did seem to take it very seriously. They travel to every event, usually a highland games where a tug of war is one of the scheduled activities and due to the points based nature of the sport, the team which does most tugs of war, is the team most likely to win. They train twice a week and in the winter they can be seen training in a field by the rived illuminated by the lights of a couple of cars. I had seen this out of the corner of my eye while driving past a couple of time and had wondered quite what was going on.

The last week has seen the cottage more or less on the snow line, the snow had fallen and settled a couple of times but it had melted quite quickly the next day in the morning sunshine. The hills nearby have been getting snow while it was usually falling as rain in the village. The last couple of days however have been quite cold so the snow flurries have not been melting. When I say quite cold it was -6 yesterday on my way to the pub and I think it got colder during the night. This morning was absolutely beautiful with bright sunshine and a clear flawless blue sky, there have been flurries of snow, you can see them coming, they look like fog on the hills until they blow through, the Bright morning sunlight was sparkling on the delicate, filigree snowflakes as they were drifting through the air, the effect was quite magical. I came in this afternoon from wandering around with my camera, to watch the rugby and noticed after a while that it had become quite dark. When I glanced out of the window we were in the middle of a white out and the wind had got up, blowing the snow into drifts around the garden and along the track. It has been quite wild for about three hours now so my late Sunday lunch might not happen. I might pack a snow shovel and a blanket and give it a whirl, if only to add some excitement to the day’s proceedings’. Last night when I got back from the pub, I made a drink and turned on the TV to see what was going on with the world, I settled down in front of the BBC news channel for about fifteen minutes when the TV went on the blink, it could not tune in to any channels , so after checking the cables etcetera I put on some warm clothes and went out to check the satellite dish, to discover that it had become plastered in snow, after dusting it off I returned to the sitting room where the TV had settled back into delivering the news. That is why satellite dishes are so close to the ground up her.

Well on that note my stomach is suggesting that it is roast time, I should hopefully have missed the Valentine’s Day mob by now. Valentine’s Day seems to me to have been hijacked by those folk who are in a relationship and who therefore have no need of St Valentine, there you go, you have just been served with my grumble de jour. If you do not hear from me by this time next week, ring the estate and ask them to check the track for rictus squirrels, frozen Partridges and lost tenants…

Gertrude and Henry

 

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The Sitka spruce with my hill in the background and a guiding moon.

Well, storm Gertrude delivered so much snow last Saturday that I was snowed in for the day, which was not quite what I had planned, I was intending to go and push the boat out in the ‘local’ before the beginning of February and the aforementioned month of self-imposed purgatory. So Saturday evening’s fun was some rather lightweight popular flotsam on TV and a refreshing can of Stella served at just above freezing straight from my front porch pantry. Sunday morning however saw the arrival up my track of the estates snow plough, Halleluiah, my link to the outside world was reinstated.

While wandering down the track with my camera that morning I met a chap in a Land rover who turned out to be my landlord, the estate owner and ex cabinet minister, David Heathcote-Amory. We had met before, some years ago when I was one of his constituents in Somerset, we once ended up on the same tug of war team during Pilton day, the village fete for the small village we both used to live in. What are the odds for that I wonder? He is a very nice and affable sort of chap, easy to talk to and very informative. He mentioned that my cottage had at one point been the temporary home to a polecat. It seemed that the animal had been gaining access to the cottage via the cherry tree growing by the cottage, it had scrambled up over a shed roof and then down the guest room chimney. The animal apparently created such a mess leaving its mark around the place that the carpets had to be replaced and some extensive decorative work needed to be undertaken. How many people can say that the new carpet was thanks to a polecat? Talking of wild life my mouse traps have been making steady progress against the rodent population. I think I have found the place where the mice come in to the cottage and have set a couple of traps that the fluffy intruders more or less have to tip toe through to get inside. I catch one or two then it will go quiet for a week or so, then I will catch another couple. I think this is caused by the mouse population building in the garden to the point where they get brave enough to try and come in. Apart from a couple earlier on this week the traps have been quiet. I don’t particularly like catching them, but if I don’t, I fear the place will be overrun very quickly.

The estate’s deer stalkers are taking hinds at the moment, this is the hind season and apparently the Scottish estates are given a target for culling the deer herds and our estate at the moment, is struggling to hit its quota. My landlord was up at the estate to look things over before some paying guests came up for a week’s stalking. I did think that they had chosen a pretty inclement week, as apart from storm Gertrude, there was another named storm, ‘Henry’ lining up in the wings. When I made my way to the pub for a final January libation and Sunday lunch I met the estate’s guests who were staying at the Strathardle Inn. They were a jolly lot, four chaps who all lived near each other in Gloucestershire, a couple of whom had been coming to Glenfernate for years and knew it well. One of them had a bad back and was planning to go and see ‘Star Wars’ in Perth instead of lying in the mud up a hill with his chums. I casually mentioned that if they were bored while passing, they should drop in for a cup of tea.

The guests mentioned that according to the estate’s keepers there were definitely salmon in the river by my cottage, although I have so far not seen any evidence of them. The verified existence of salmon has caused me to look for them even more, having a salmon river at the bottom of the garden is something that I have dreamt of since I was a small boy.

While on the subject of fishing, this evening is Friday the 5th February and I have been invited to join the Pitcarmick Angling club by one of the club members who I met in the pub a few weeks ago. This evening is their Annual General Meeting and the event where new members are proposed and seconded etc. The event is being held in the Kirkmichael hotel so this will be a first for me, as I have not set foot in there yet. The angling club is as far as I can understand it a very cheap way to fish about five miles of the river Ardle, the river that lends its name to the Strathardle inn, a Strath is a Scottish word for a wide, shallow river valley. According to my new chum there are some very good wild brown trout and salmon in the river, so something to look forward to and more fishing friendly folk to meet.

This area is one of the muddiest places I have ever lived in and considering I have spent large chunks of my life in the agricultural areas of Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset where mud flows unrestricted, that is saying something. Now, I know I am here in the winter months where rain and snow is the norm but still, the sheer quantity of mud around the place is remarkable. Yesterday I washed my car, it had reached a stage of mud encrustation where the next obvious thing to do would have been to plough it and sew a crop. So while in Blairgowrie I found a pressure washer into which I shovelled coinage of the realm and after some scrubbing and spraying, my car’s sparkle was once again made available to the human eye. By the time however that I had driven back from Blairgowrie and up the track the car looked much like it had done when I left earlier that day, with mud plastered up the passenger window and sprayed delicately down either flank, oh well, I tried.

I have taken to wearing some booty (not the American rapper meaning of the word, you understand) type of things which have short rubber welly bits where your feet go and a sort of nylon upper, held fast with two strips of Velcro, I think they are known as “Woof boots” or some such thing by the horsey community. I imagine they were probably designed to be worn for mucking out horses. They are not attractive and are an extreme example of function over form, but generally keep my feet warm and dry and are easily mopped down when (not if, but when) I get involved with some mud. To hell with style, I want warm and wipe clean on the boot aptitude list. I was particularly pleased with my boots when as prescribed by the Met office, storm Henry arrived, Henry was warmer and windier than Gertrude. I had in an attempt to keep some of the expensive warm air in the cottage, placed rolled up bundles of bubble wrap up the unused fireplace chimneys around the cottage, but the wind was so strong that it very nearly, via the science of the ‘venturi effect’ sucked the bubble wrap up and out of the top of the chimney. It was wild for about two days. One of the larch trees in the garden lost another couple of branches and it took me two days to work out where they had got to. The branches had been blown over the fence and half way down the field to the river. I was slightly worried about my little camper which I have not yet managed to strap down to the lawn with big steel tent pegs and lorry load straps, which is the standard thing to do with caravans’ etcetera in this neck of the woods, to prevent them from blowing away.

On Thursday I was pottering around in my ‘before the morning bath’ outfit, some warm and fluffy trousers and a slightly scruffy but warm woollen jumper, when there was a loud knock at the door. I nearly leaped out of my skin, I am very used to the quiet here and any loud banging usually only occurs in the middle of a named storm. When I went to the door to see what was up, I discovered a couple of the chaps who were visiting the estate for deer stalking. They had taken up my offer of a cup of tea, I welcomed them in and we sat and chatted for an hour or so, I think they were quite intrigued by the cottage as they had been to the estate many times but had not really explored anywhere other than the big lodge. It was nice to have them round and I enjoyed the chat and the company, I think they had decided that tea with me was going to be somewhat more comfortable that a morning on the hill. The chap with the bad back had been to visit Inverness on Wednesday and they were planning to go and see another film in Perth after tea with me. He was probably having more fun that those more keen on stalking. I am a bit like that, when salmon fishing in Ireland a few years ago I decided that the weather was too bad and went for a drive round in our hired car and had a good lunch and a giggle with some locals in a nice pub instead of thrashing the water in a howling gale with an accompanying down pour.

Speaking of the quiet, the peace here has made my tinnitus all the more obvious which is rather a shame. I probably damaged my ears during my agricultural years when machinery was very poorly silenced. I used to drive a Hymac digger which had a six cylinder ford diesel engine which roared away behind my head at full revs and with a largely unvaried sound wave frequency. While digging and landscaping a fish farm in Mere, Wilts, I was probably in the digger constantly for about 8 weeks, during this time I developed a sort of industrial immunity to the noise, which was it seemed, more or less at the same frequency as my girlfriend’s voice, I really could not hear her properly for a couple of months after the job finished and I think that sowed the seeds of the tinnitus that I am now experiencing. I was aware of a high pitched whistle which comes and goes when I was in Sussex, but at the cottage I can hear it all of the time and have since discovered that there is also a sort of low level diesel engine noise that I get as well. This was particularly annoying while I was waiting for BT engineers to arrive in a diesel van. I kept thinking I could hear them coming up the track. At first when there was no sign of an elusive engineer, I went round the cottage looking for the source of the noise, I thought it might be a water pump or the boiler or something to do with the stove, only to finally realise that it was in my head. I read an article on the internet which explained that scientists are experimenting with high level magnetic energy (transcranial magnetic stimulation) to retrain the brain into tuning out the background noise that tinnitus sufferers have to live with. I hope they crack it soon, it’s getting a bit dull. “Sorry did somebody whistle?”

Yesterday I went for a walk through the rather overgrown woodland on the other side of the track by the cottage and on emerging at the top of the woods walked up on to the grass and rush covered hill, I pushed on to a small summit to get a glimpse of a new horizon, once there I spotted another summit not far away as is often the case and in this way was led summit by blind summit up to the top of a hill which I had not yet explored. The view from the top was spectacular and gave me a fresh appreciation of some of the larger peaks in and around the estate. This part of Scotland is really not that often visited unless you are a deer stalker, fisherman or bagger of Scottish hills over 3000 feet (Munroe’s), and I really don’t understand why. The countryside here, matches in terms of rugged untamed beauty any of the more popular destinations in the Cairngorms and on the West Coast. This area is something of a hidden gem it would seem, I did not really know this part of Scotland before coming to look at the cottage, I did what most other tourists probably do and plug on up the A9 to the highlands further north and on to Aviemore and Inverness. This area has the benefit of stunning, undiscovered and therefore peaceful countryside providing an easy proximity to the rest of Scotland with Glasgow and Edinburgh both about an hour and a half away and Inverness and Oban on the West coast manageable within the hour. The A9 seems to be the artery that delivers tourism to the North, a few minutes in Pitlochry (on or just off the A9) will reward you with more shops designed to ensnare a tourist than Blairgowrie for instance which is much bigger and which panders very much more to the needs of the local population.

While talking to my landlord, he mentioned that the stand of woodland that I had walked through was mainly Sitka spruce planted in the seventies, he was not it seemed, a fan and explained that his preference would be to cut it down and replace it all with a more interesting and diverse indigenous broad leafed tree stock. There are however SEPA (Scottish environment protection agency) rules for the replacement of woodland after logging has taken place and they incur large cost and responsibility, so he did not have any plans to do anything with the woodland immediately. The woods do at least provide a habitat for the wildlife with deer, red squirrels, polecats and a wide variety of bird life found locally, so on that basis at least, the woods do have a function. I was secretly quite pleased, living next to a clear fell woodland area would make the cottage seem very exposed. Clear felling of woodland leaves a scar on the landscape which takes some years to blend back in.

Well after last night’s Pitcarmick Angling club AGM, I am addressing you as a new member, having been proposed, seconded and voted in. I have paid my £10 joining fee and my £2 annual membership fee and spent a few hours last night chatting to my fellow members on the virtues of the club. There is apart from some very good fishing on the river Ardle and Pitcarmick Loch to be had, the club secretary has also arranged a season studded with fishing events around the area, mainly loch fishing from boats all organised by the club. What great value for money and a very friendly bunch of people. This year we voted for a social event which the ‘Chair’ of the meeting and owner of Pitcarmick estate, Sir Michael Nairn agreed would be a good idea and offered his bothy as a venue. The bothy has been done up recently for meetings etc. and boasts a beautiful location with enchanting views and a kitchen, log fire and other basic amenities, so something to look forward to, frankly I would be happy to pay my £2 just for that!

Tonight is Saturday so it’s off to the pub for me and the challenge of thinking of a good alcohol free, beer replacement which will induce good humour and encourage relaxed and easy conversation. I think I might have my work cut out..

 

 

Burns night and other things.

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A hind spotted on my wander up the hill behind the cottage and an interesting insect in the river ice.

The last weekend went by in a slightly non-descript way due in the main to some paperwork which needed to be done and the rather uninspiring weather. I enjoyed a couple of pints in the Strathardle on Friday night chatting to locals and guests at the bar, this was followed by much the same on Saturday. While in there on Saturday I got talking to a couple of lads with unfeasibly strong liverpudlian accents, their brogue was so rich that I had to translate for the waitress when they were ordering food. They had come up to the area for a weekends skiing at Glenshee together before one of them became a father and the other marked his place as a best friend by going travelling round Nepal and Thailand, making himself unavailable for any best friend baby related assistance for about a year. A bit selfish perhaps, but I could see his point. The pair had arrived after being chucked out of the rather posh Dalmunzie Castle (pronounced Dalmungy, I know your guess is as good as mine) which is in The Spittle of Glenshee. Their removal was based upon a manager’s perception that they smelled rather like they had been smoking skunk cannabis, it was probably just their aftershave or some out of date midge repellent. I did notice however that the dad to be was almost asleep for most of the evening while the other one was rather animated beyond the normal influence of a pint of brown ale. Either way they were happily ensconced in the Strath for the remainder of the weekend.

I have installed an app on my phone which will notify me of any Aurora borealis activity and as yet, the only two notifications I have had have been during a cloudy sky so there is still an unticked Northern lights box on my to do list, but you will be the first to know when it happens!

The social week was started off rather prematurely by the unruly arrival on Monday of Burns night, this is another uniquely Scottish celebration which happens all over the world and once again I was encouraged to celebrate my fondness and appreciation of ‘the bard of Ayreshire’s’ poetry at the Strathardle. Now I know that this blog is beginning to sound like a running advert for the Strathardle but apart from being a fine and friendly place the alternatives in Kirkmichael are not great and there is no bar at all in Enochdhu, my nearest village. So I booked myself in for the Burns supper and cycled to the pub on Monday evening in time for the 7:00 kick off. The event was not particularly busy, partly because January the 25th was a Monday evening and partly because, what with the completion of her year-end accounts and the general running of the Inn, Abbi did not get a chance to advertise the event very widely. In a weird way this made the whole thing better, it was a small, cosy and easy group made up with a few locals, Abbi, Colin and Kailyn their young daughter, Ellice who works in every area around the Inn and Brian, one of the chefs whose birthday it also was, which probably meant his head hurt more than mine did on Tuesday morning. My menu choice was the ever popular ‘Cullen Skink’ a thick and creamy smoked haddock, potato and onion soup made famous by the fishing folk who work from the pretty little harbour at Cullen on the Moray firth and who probably rely on such rich and tasty fare just to keep them from freezing to the deck of a storm bound trawler. My next course was Haggis, neeps and tatties, of course, there is no other choice, unless you include the veggy haggis which was on offer at the Strath’ both are considered acceptable. The haggis has to be piped in (that’s bag pipes, not squeezed in through the corner of a plastic bag like mash in a posh restaurant), it is then addressed (subjected to some poetry) and finally consumed, traditionally there will be also a Selkirk grace recited at some point. Once this course had been consumed we pudding’d on a choice of chocolate mousse or the more traditional ‘Cranachan’ which was my choice of post haggis fattener. Cranachan is a traditional Scottish pudding which is probably best described as a Whisky trifle, apparently it’s also known as Tipsy Laird for reasons which probably need no further explanation. We then all wandered back to the bar for, well some…. research, yes that’s the word, an in depth examination into the produce of some of Scotland’s finest distilleries. The evening was banter filled and fun and when we were all done I walked down to the village, pushing my bike with Ellice and Brian, whereupon I jumped on the trusty ‘Treader Rusticata’ and peddled silently and serenely home.

My next morning was a premature affair, driven by the necessity to get my car to its MOT in Pitlochry on time and the start to the day was marred with slight regret over the previous night’s unbridled social activities. The car passed its test but while waiting for it to do so I spent a rather unhappy hour and a half trudging round Pitlochry in the rain, finally I capitulated to one of the rather expensive cafés and sat with a paper for half an hour or so before walking the couple of miles back to the Garage.

On Tuesday I was invited to visit Dougie’s house (pronounced Doogie), Dougie’s home is like many of the houses round here, it is to be found at the end of a long track which leads up a hill from the main road. His house is much bigger than mine but probably built at about the same time by the Victorians whose fascination for all things Scottish prompted massive development in the form of farms and estates all over Scotland at about the same point in history, therefore they all look rather similar, they have a vernacular in the words of Kevin McLeod. My cottage is described as a traditional one and a half storey cottage and there are literally thousands of them with the same design, footprint and window arrangement around Scotland.

At Dougie’s I had a coffee and a chat and was shown round his man cave, essentially a converted garage with a full sized billiard table and bar and full of drinking and billiard memorabilia, some fishing equipment and the huge scull and antlers from an Elk which had lived on the Isle of Egg for a while and which developed a fondness for the local hinds with some interesting results, there are now apparently some very big deer on Egg and the surrounding Islands. I had noticed when on the Isle of Jura a few years ago that the red deer were absolutely massive so maybe some of the cross breeds made their way as far as Jura. Dougie also had a superb cast iron barbeque, bricked in and with a five sided wooden shed providing cover over the pit, he had run some copper pipe round the cast iron fire pit container through which water at one time flowed into a swimming pool to provide extra warmth to the water, I thought this a brilliant idea but it did not really work apparently, due to the sheer quantity of water in the inflatable pool, a good effort though. The wood for the shed reportedly came from the dismantled Santa land in Aviemore. Dougie, like many people round here has about 4 jobs and is constantly on the lookout for things he can do, he was in the process of making some deer antler candle sticks while I was there, they looked really good and would I am sure go down well in any boutique in the country. The antlers came free with one of his jobs, he does some stalking for a local estate in his spare time.

While I was in Pitlochry on Monday I decided to do some shopping at the CoOp. (For those of my chums who live abroad a CoOp is a cooperatively owned not for profit grocery shop with outlets all over the country, bizarrely their produce is more expensive than the definitely in it for the profit Lidle, so I am not quite sure what is happening to the excess cash at the CoOp.) The CoOp is where most of my groceries are gathered and the format of the CoOp is basically the same as any other CoOp in the UK Having said that there are one or two Scottish variations when you examine things more closely. The meat counter probably is the biggest giveaway that you are in a shop north of the border. Sausages are called ‘links’ up here, sausage also comes in a format described as ‘square’ which looks a bit like a slice of spam but is apparently sausage meat, there are also a number of puddings available, black obviously but also white and fruit pudding and also haggis which is by proper definition also a pudding. In the CoOp you can but a heart attack inducing selection called a breakfast pack which has pretty much all of the above in a cling film wrapped carton. The cereals section also displays more type and variety of oats than is the norm down south and the drinks shelf has much more Whisky choice than many off licence drink shops in England, so a few pointers to look for if you are blindfolded and taken to a CoOp, you will, with the above information be able to deduce the you are somewhere North of Hadrian’s wall.

During the week I have been watching the very informative “Winterwatch” provided by the BBC, this program at the moment has particular pertinence to me as it is all based in Scotland on a National Trust estate in the Cairngorms with the winter hill sequences being filmed at Glenshee which is as the hooded crow (a Scottish variant) flies, about four or five miles from my cottage, so I am learning about my countryside without having to leave the comfort of the cottage. I have seen some of the animals they have been describing on my wanderings and am particularly taken with the mountain hares which are in abundance on the hills around me, wearing their white winter coats.

Talking of wildlife I have been feeding the birds and am building a catalogue of some of the visitors to the feeders so I am being dragged reluctantly into the gentle world of the twitcher.

This weekend will be the last one to be enhanced by alcohol for 4 weeks, I have decided to take to the wagon for February, I have done this before and I think for me it is quite a good thing to do from time to time, I do get rather bored of orange juice and the like after four weeks though. It does however mean I can drive to the pub.

Storm Gertrude arrived here this morning and did so with some ferocity, I did the usual thing, I got up and riddled the stove and then with the tray of ash, ventured outside to the steel bin where ash goes, the minute I opened the door I was instantly converted from a sort of bland pink colour to a grit blasted grey. Gertrude accelerated the hot ash out of the tray and onto the front of me. Not a good look and I will, in accordance with the Brussels health and safety executive rules wear a snorkel, grinding goggles, welding gloves and a boiler suit next time I attempt something similar.

While writing this note it has become rather dark in my study/sitting room multipurpose space and so I went to switch the light on only to discover that storm Gertrude is currently delivering snow in large quantities. We have been on the edge of the snow line for about a week now and any snow that has arrived overnight tends to melt quite quickly in the morning. Today however the flurries are rather more active and look like they might settle.