Friday, 13 May 2011

THE MONTHS of May and September are when Scotland looks her best, I've always thought. The countryside at this time grows into its annual full maturity. Trees are fully clothed and walks with the dogs are beneath a canopy that has grown thick enough to effectively keep me dry from everything other than the worst downpours. And we had some of those a week ago when the overdue rain brought that long dry spell to an end. It rained steadily round here for three days. What was good was that it was a gentle precipitation, which seems to be the sexy new word the weather presenters use these days. That meant it sank into the ground and watered the growing plants rather than coming coming down in stair rods and flowing straight off the dry land into the watercourses.

Salmon in the rivers welcomed the rise in the river levels for it meant they could complete their annual migration back to the spawning grounds at the headwaters of their mother rivers and get on with the important job of reproducing future generations of the King of Fish. The River North Esk has seen loads of fish caught in pools, unable to move further upstream. Fishermen have reported seeing a lot of them suffering from disease. In recent days I've seen a 16pounder and an 8pounder taken from the river.

My wife Liz and I enjoy fishing together. We've fished for salmon, but really prefer taking a boat onto a loch and fishing for trout. My father taught me to fish when I was a youngster in short pants and I've fished all my life. Liz came to fishing about ten years ago and so often, to my considerable chagrin and frustration, she comes home with a bigger basket than me. This theory about pheronomes must have some truth in it. However I took the prize last Wednesday. Fishing Loch Tillypronie in Aberdeenshire she caught a very acceptable 1lb brown trout but, almost with my last cast when I was ready to throw the rod in the loch in disgust, I hooked a two pounder. It was the biggest trout I've ever caught - the size of a small sea trout. And, as she would with a small sea trout, Liz baked it. And very tasty it was too. We're not ones to use masses of herbs, preferring the sweet taste of the unadulterated meat. We'll be out together again several times before the season ends.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A good place to live

FIVE ROE deer, two red squirrels and a great spotted woodpecker, not to mention the tits and finches waiting in the wings to start their own breakfast when the big boys finish feeding on the peanut nets - not a bad haul when I rolled up the kitchen window blind first thing in the morning. I can't always expect such numbers of interesting visitors but none of them are so unusual that it's a special event.

We're lucky living where we do, on the edge of woodland at the foot of a glen, beside a river and sufficiently far away from any major urban centres for there to be little light pollution of our skies either daytime or night time. It all means that wildlife treats are relatively commonplace.

It's the time of year for much bird activity. Some, such as the mistle thrush and robin, are nesting already. We've a good population of thrushes spread throughout the woods around the house. I can't miss them when out with the dogs - perched on the very topmost branches of the tall old beech and fir trees, their ringing song challenging the world. Because they nest so early, when there is no foliage on the trees to camouflage them, they can get pretty aggressive if they have to defend their nest. A pair nested in the fork of an exposed gean (Scottish wild cherry) tree scarcely six feet off the ground and if I or the dogs went too close they became very agitated and scolded us loud and long until we cleared off.

There's an interesting range of birds of prey. I've watched a merlin take a blackbird that was feeding off the scraps that fell from the bird table, and strip off the breast feathers in preparation for lunch. Buzzards are so commonplace now I hardly bother to mention them. I'm certain there are more sparrowhawks in the woods than ever I see. The bird table is a happy hunting ground for them and from time to time I'm aware of a flash of barred fury making a dash at some unsuspecting song bird which has been singled out for tea. They are by no means always successful and will fly on if their prey escapes, but on one occasion I watched a sparrowhawk fly twice round the bird table in vain pursuit of I'm not too sure what - it all happened at what seemed the speed of light, and by the time the action was finished there wasn't a bird to be seen.

But the most exciting sightings were last year, of a pair of red kites that nested a quarter of a mile from the house. I hope they return this year. And I have to travel only about a dozen miles to see an osprey fishing on our local loch.

A sure sign that the sap is rising and young love is not far round the corner is the tap-tapping of the green and great spotted woodpeckers. We have so many elderly trees of different species for neighbours and no two sound the same, so that when the birds are engaged in a lively woodpecker paradiddle it sounds like a primitive woody xylophone. Most mornings I hear the strange yaffle of the green woodpeckers - the name for their call which which sounds like manic, barking laughter.

We regularly see four red squirrels fighting over the three peanut feeding stations. They give us possibly more pleasure than any of our other woodland visitors. I can't think of a better way to waste time usefully than sitting at our kitchen window, nursing a cup of coffee, watching the bird tables.

It's easy to forget that the world doesn't grind to a halt when the lights have gone out. I take my dogs out every night last thing and as often as not there's something of interest to report to my wife when we get back. Oyster catchers are essentially coastal birds which have been attracted inland during the spring and summer months to feed and to breed. They are active throughout the whole twenty four hours and the night time walks are always accompanied by their sharp "kleep, kleep" cries.

It's excellent habitat too for tawny owls. One calls "hoo hoo hoo" and its mate replies "keewick, keewick". They're keeping an eye on the intruders and letting the wood know the state of play.

We live not far from the River North Esk which is one of Scotland's best salmon rivers. Soon the spring run of fish will be making their way upriver to the headwaters where they will spawn and provide future generations of the King of Fish. I'll see them leaping the falls in their instinctive, traditional journey. They are at the end of an extraordinary life cycle which has taken them from their mother river to the waters around the Faroe Islands and Greenland where they have matured. They then make another mighty migration back to their mother river, having moved from fresh water to sea water and back again to fresh water, in order to breed.

One of the most exciting sights of nature is to see the fish fighting the watery element, single-mindedly determined to overcome waterfalls, rushing currents, anglers, otters, ospreys (in the River Tay) and whatever else nature throws at them so that continuation of their species is assured. If they didn't taste so good on the plate we'd never give them a second thought. Nowadays wild salmon is something of a rare treat compared with the farmed version, and we're prepared to pay a premium to buy one for the table. A couple of hundred years ago they were so plentiful that agricultural workers complained if they were fed salmon more than twice a week.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Waking up at night

IT'S EASY to make the mistake, and I suspect that a lot of people do, of thinking that nature and the countryside are a daytime experience. It's like thinking of the sky as a daylight phenomenon only.

Another world comes alive when the sun goes down. There's a world of animals, birds, insects, plants - even human beings - for whom night time is their time of day. It's not as diverse a world as the daytime world, I grant you, but the countryside is a busy place when most of us have gone to bed.

I take my dogs out last thing before they settle down for the night and, as often as not, there's something to catch my interest. We live in a well-wooded area and with spring around the corner (provided there isn't any more snow!) tawny owls keep us company. They're warning each other about intruders, of course, but at this time of year if I stand at the back door in the dark for ten minutes and just listen, it's their courtship calls I hear. The females will be laying their eggs soon so the nuptials must be nearly complete.

A bird which is almost as active at night as in the daytime is the oyster catcher. From spring until the end of October the dogs and I hear their piping “kleep, kleep” calls on the night time walk. Some never seem to rest at all at night and if I wake up I listen for their sharp cries. Sometimes a small pack of them swoop over our rooftops all calling together and the noise is loud enough to wake me up.

They are really birds of the sea shore and cliff tops but have adapted their lifestyle, expanding inland into new breeding habitats. They feed in the soft mud of river banks and lochs and ponds, probing with their long orange beaks for worms and molluscs, and returning to the milder temperatures of the sea shore in winter when the prospect of frost means they can no longer forage in the frozen ground inland.

It's one of the few birds - ducks and geese are some of the others - that can be as active at night as they are during the day.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Don't muck about with words

My working world is encompassed by words - individual words and how we use them, linking words to make phrases and how this appears to change the inherent meaning of the constituent words, how time and day-to-day usage change words. I like words, I enjoy using them. I like puns - witty plays on words; and similes and metaphors which are figures of speech - indeed perhaps 'figure of speech' is a metaphor in itself. But this blog is about idioms, or about one idiom in particular -

A narrow squeak - It's an interesting concept. How narrow must a squeak be before it can truly be said to be narrow? For purposes of comparison is there a regular or standard squeak and a broad squeak – and if so how can you identify them? Are we so accustomed to narrow squeaks that we can no longer recognise the regular and broad varieties?

Where can we find a narrow squeak? Are they scattered about like dead leaves or do we need to poke about in dark places. The phrase means "a disaster only just avoided" but if the disaster had been really terribly easily avoided would it then be a broad squeak, or perhaps a diminished squeak.

You see, nobody teaches you these things in school. They cram your head full of figures of speech and think they've done a good job. In reality they've left you ill prepared for the wider problems - you see, there we go again - that you'll encounter in life. Now I'm going to worry myself sick about where I can find one of those thin problems.

Friday, 11 February 2011

CEILIDHS ARE a deeply ingrained part of Scotland's traditional culture but, like so many things, their character has largely changed from the what is sentimentally described as the genuine, couthy, fireside gatherings of times long past. Old men told tales, wives and mothers sang the working songs of the district and, as pipers piped, young warriors danced over two crossed swords in a display of victory. It was the way local culture cascaded down generations, the way youngsters learnt their culture at their elders' knees and, in turn, handed it on to succeeding generations.

As often as not, what are billed today as ceilidhs are stage managed affairs with little of the spontanaity that we associate with impromptu gatherings in smoke-filled blackhouses with the cattle in the byre at one end of the building. However the spirit of such parties most definitely lives on.

For the past four years kind friends have filled their house with like-minded souls for "a night with the grand". If they don't call the event a ceilidh, it surely meets most of the criteria. So successful has it become that the event now extends to two evenings of singing and recitation. Dancing is not possible as only those with the most urgent and pressing alternative arrangements would dream of turning down their invitation, and the house is bursting at the seams both nights.

My wife is resident pianist which means I get to go both evenings
. It also means I have to have two party pieces but this has made me explore the songs and poetry of Scotland. My special love are the cornkisters and bothy ballads of the north east of Scotland and the work of poets like Violet Jacob, WD Cocker and Helen Cruickshank.

It has been surprising what a range of
talents has emerged from these evenings. Fine singers, memories of childhood in poems learned in the nursery and recalled with surprising clarity - and, of course, a piper. What fun these evenings are, and how they draw people together. No one is shy about performing and if they hit a bum note or have to refer to a crib to remind them of the next line of a poem, nobody thinks anything of it, and applause is no less sincere.

Such evenings benefit from food and drink and our hosts are generous in the provision of both. In the spirit of community other wives help out with contributions of puddings and the like and the performing is interspersed with breaks to restore our strength for the next session.

Gilbert & Sullivan songs were popular this year. Fifty years ago their songs were regularly sung at all sorts of entertainment but, as is the way of things, they grew less fashionable and fell out of fashion. Gilbert was the librettist and wrote clever, witty songs which were so well complemented by composer Sullivan's tuneful music. Three of this years company company had been ill and we came together to sing "When you find you're a broken-down critter" from "The Grand Duke" which is probably the least well-known of G&S's operettas. Our performance was masterly and we finished with a flourish to wild acclamation and demands for no more!

Must go, going out for supper - more will follow.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Philosophy of keeping dogs

HEY! LOOK at this - another blog so soon. My principal daily activity is walking the two dogs. It matters little how active or idle I may feel, the dogs need exercise and it's either me or my dear wife as has to do it. In many respects our animals are little different from us humans - they have needs and preferences and some of them have to be met or we humans must accept the consequences. So if I don't want smelly offerings on the carpet the dogs must have the opportunity to dispose of them outside.

Dogs have been part of my life all of my life - so much so that it is hard to imagine life without one. I complain about the onus, the millstone of keeping animals, the self-imposed burden of answering their daily needs. I groan when I think of taking them on holiday and not being able to lie-in every morning like normal people.

They take up room in the car, we must remember their beds and bowls and food, leads, the whistle - there's nearly as much fuss ensuring we leave nothing of theirs' behind as there is about our own packing. I swear at them, I shout. If it all ends up no fun for me, the dogs make it clear it's no fun for them.

Macbeth (white West Highland terrier), with his wee sawn-off legs is forever falling behind when we're out walking: Inka (black Labrador) is hyperactive and thrusts ahead. Our walks are punctuated with my bellows to Macbeth to catch up, and threats of hideous repurcussions if Inka gets too far ahead. You'd wonder why I keep them, indeed sometimes I do too. But they become part of life and provide someone like me with a focus to certain parts of the day. If I didn't have dogs I'd be fatter and lazier than I am already. And despite all the abrasive language and occasional ill will - because they have distinct minds of their own and are not frightened to try and exert them - they seem to think I'm just the sort of alpha dog they need to complete their circle of happiness. If they have to endure my ill-nature - well that goes with the territory.

Would I change things? Get rid of the dogs? Naah! Mostly we live together in comfortable harmony with only the occasional spat - much like the rest of life really.

So there's my philosophical rant for today. perhaps I'll be a bit more practical and down-to-earth next time.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Rising from the ashes of good intentions

IT'S EMBARRASSING to realise how long it's been since last I blogged. Good intentions expressed last year, for goodness sake, came to nothing but I'm awash with New Year purpose and 2011 is my year of the blog - so watch this space.

The purpose of this blog is to share my experiences of the countryside and the outdoors and to supplement my other, now, long term blog and hopefully direct other traffic to it. manwithtwodogs is in its ninth year now and appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper. Writing my weekly article gives me the greatest pleasure which I believe is shared by a wide readership. I can't claim to be a great expert on all country matters but I know I know a lot more than some and that others know a great deal more than me. That doesn't matter really - what counts is protecting our countryside from our own human depredations so that we leave a legacy for future generations worth having. We humans are the only species on this earth who are capable of doing this and if we don't care about the world we live in we'll all come back in our afterlives as slimy, ugly creatures.

It isn't always necessary to do positive things. As often as not we can be effective by avoiding negative acts - the main thing is to care that whatever we do, or decide not to do, is undertaken with well-informed intentions.