Monthly Archives: June 2011

Mountain man

I haven’t been up a mountain for a long time, and I’ve missed it. I hadn’t realised how much until Tuesday last week as I stood at the summit of Lochnagar listening to the immense silence and thinking – what am I in comparison to all this?

My brother and I had come to scatter my dad’s ashes. It’s probably fair to say that dad was his happiest at the top of a mountain. The bigger, wilder and harsher the landscape and wider the view, the happier he was. Lochnagar is one of dad’s old haunts, and he used to climb it on summer solstice to watch the sunrise. My brother and I planned to do the same – spend the night on the peak, watch the sun rise on the longest day and say goodbye to our dad. But I was feeling a bit fragile (too much cider at the Insider Festival – dad wouldn’t mind) and the nice woman on BBC Radio Scotland forecast heavy rains and high winds, so we set off in the early morning drizzle instead.

Stags on Lochnagar

Stags on the way up. The summit is somewhere in the mist...

We followed the path from Loch Muick up through the silent Scots Pine wood and into the dark mass of hills. A group of stags stood their ground to the right, watching and chewing, as we passed. A couple of grouse shrieked and jumped out of the heather. The burn, full and fast with the rain, crashed its way through the glen, as brown and frothy as real ale. The wet gravel crunched underfoot, a familiar sound and a trigger of memories. I’ve walked up this mountain many times with dad – him in front with his hands clasped behind his back – the only sound the steady crunch, crunch of our footsteps.

As we neared the top the temperature dropped and sent an icy breath down my back. The wind picked up and swirls of low clouds, smoky and sinister, chased up the mountainside, tendrils clinging to the bulk. We picked our way through the boulder field and scrambled up the final leg, happy to see the rough pyramid of stones, the cairn, that marks the top. To the right the crag drops vertically, steep and long. Today it was masked by the mist. Mum’s last words to us as we set off this morning rang in my ears: ‘Don’t walk over the edge’. We stood on a rocky outcrop and hurled the ashes off into infinite space, and dad became part of the mountain.

Scattering the ashes on Lochnagar

Dad's ashes join the mist and the mountains

Afterwards, as we hunkered by a rock drinking coffee, my brother said: ‘Bloody hell, coffee tastes so much better at the top of the mountain’, which is exactly what dad would have said. We looked at each other for a moment and then rolled around laughing. ‘You’ve swallowed some of dad’s ashes – he’s possessed you!’ But then aren’t we all possessed in some way by our parents, good and bad. My dad’s love of mountains was passed on to me and remains there, set as hard and immovable as a chock stone. Quite what it’s about I don’t know (mountains are, after all, just lumps of rock and ice), but it’s there and it’s real even if some of it’s unexplainable. Mountains balanced dad, and they do the same for me. They speak of a durability that puts my tiny life in perspective: how fleeting and insignificant I am in this vast vista of time and space. In day-to-day life I can ignore this thought, but up here it hits me like a shot in the arm. And this, I think, is a good thing.

Three chickens in a run

Meet Martha, Minn and Marilyn

Finally I’ve bitten the bullet (or should that be pullet) and three chickens and a hen house have arrived today. I was slightly nervous about being responsible for three fluffy lives, but they seem quite happy clucking around their new home. They’ve to stay in their house until Saturday and then they’ll be ‘homed’, so I can let them run free during the day and they’ll settle themselves back into the house at night. I’ve talked to a few neighbours who keep poultry and apparently I need to watch out for pinemartins and mink. The hardest decision was – which hen house? I’d been warned against anything off the internet (fine for down south but not tough enough for our west coast winds). I didn’t want to spend a fortune, but I didn’t want something knocked up out of two old pallets and a sieve either. I visited a few poultry centres locally to get an idea of what’s on offer and immediately liked the people at Doune Traditional and Rare Breed Poultry. John, who runs it, gave me lots of good advice and put together a simple package – three point-of-lay pullets (hybrids – one orange, one black, one grey), one solid hen house, a run, a bag of feed, a bag of wood chips, a feeder and a water dish all delivered to my door and erected for a grand total of £290. John specialises in breeding Scots Dumpies, a cute stumpy-legged rare breed of hen that I rather fancied, but he recommended starting out with a few nice hybrids – they’re better layers, friendly beasts and easier to look after. I’d also been after two hens, but John will sell a minimum of three. They’re sociable creatures, you see, and if you only have two and one dies, the one left alone will be miserable. And that’s always a risk with pinemartins on the prowl.

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Into the woods and off the map

Dappled wood at Glenan

Sunlight dapples the wood on the way round to Glenan Bay

Most evenings I take a walk through an ancient oak wood that hugs the shoreline along to Glenan Bay. When you scramble up the rocks from the beach into the trees you enter a slightly darkened world; a hushed one. Stop and listen, though, and you hear it. The leaves whisper to one another and the boughs gasp and groan. The undergrowth chatters. Wasps buzz like zippers and flies hum as they dance slow, sleepy waltzes. The smell is as mulchy and fragrant as a botanical garden, heavy with myrtle and bracken. You can’t avoid the boggy patches that, even in the driest of summers, suck at your boots then release you with a satisfying squelch and a niff of compost.

Icelanders talk about seeing little people in their landscape and you can imagine this here among the twisting roots, the lichen-splashed stumps and the boulders that sit, draped in mossy blankets, where the glaciers dumped them that incomprehensible time ago. The oaks have giant girths and gnarled branches. They create a dense canopy, but the evening light seeks out the gaps and dapples the ferny floor.

The path through this wood isn’t on the map. Nor are those places along the way that mean so much to me, like the long, low bough – as strong and supple as a limb – that we’d swing on as kids and the halfway burn with its clear, cool water. In The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes about  people being deepened and dignified by their encounters with particular wild places; not the soaring mountains and vast moors that we associate with wilderness, but rather the small, nameless places, like the halfway burn, that become special to us by acquaintance. He quotes Ishmael in Moby Dick: ‘It is not down on the map; true places never are.’

Vegetable plot

Check out the monster tatties!

My vegetable patch is coming along a treat, and I’ve harvested my first crop: the trusty radish. I should be able to pick some gooseberries soon too – stewed in a little cider, pulped through a sieve and mixed with fennel, honey and mustard, they’ll make a tasty sauce to go with my freshly caught and grilled mackerel. The French and runner beans aren’t doing so well. They took a battering in last month’s gales and haven’t recovered. But – very excitingly – I’ve got a plot in the local community polytunnel where I’ll be able to grow some of the less hardy crops and, fingers crossed, meet some nice hippies.

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To the beach and a fishy tale

Kilbride Bay

Kilbride Bay on the Cowal Peninsula through the sea grass

On a bright blustery day last week I decided to cycle to my favourite beach. I know it well and have seen in all seasons, from sparkling summer days to dark winter ones when the north wind bites at your skin and the rain hits with such force that the sea seems to boil. It’s a couple of miles from the cottage down a back road that winds through rolling farmland. I pedalled along, avoiding the pot holes and wandering sheep, with the warm wind in my hair and a smile on my face. I left my bike by the ‘To the beach’ sign and walked the rest of the way over springy machair – the grassy plain where sand meets peat bog. Buttercups, forget-me-nots and cow pats dotted the path. A new notice told me ‘No camping. No fires. Take your dog poo away.’ Perhaps not the wild place it once was.

Sparkling water

Sparkling water and Arran on the horizon

As I approached I saw the beach through a gap in the golden sea grass. It was as wild as ever and I had it to myself. The tide was low and the sand stretched out to meet glittering water. Arran sat dark and dramatic in a misty nest on the horizon, its jagged peaks and raw ridges clear against the sky – you could almost hear it roar. Sometimes in places like this I feel like my senses aren’t sufficient; that I can’t quite look hard or well enough. I tried to focus on the view and let it settle inside me, but it was almost too big, too exquisite, to take in. Instead, I closed my eyes and let the whisper of the grass and the lazy swish swish of the lapping waves send me into a dreamy doze. I sighed and the sea sighed back.

Yesterday I went out fishing with my neighbour in his boat. We bobbed around, dropping our lines until we felt the weight hit the seabed. A seal popped up and watched us with amused eyes. He snorted and disappeared. A porpoise slowly arched by, its body as sleek and glistening as the surface of the water it carved through. Then I felt a tug on the end of my line. I quickly reeled in to find three shimmering, shiny-eyed, fat mackerel dangling from my feathers: we’d hit a shoal. I unhooked one and it shot brown sludge over me. Next time I’ll point the tail away.

Crab pot with bait

My crab pot baited with a freshly caught mackerel

After a few hours we had plenty of mackerel and a couple of big pollock, so we took off round the coast to lay our crab pots. We found the perfect spot – near rocks, a good depth and a sandy bottom. I put a small mackerel in my pot as bait and lowered it into the depths, tying the rope to an orange buoy I’d found on the beach. Later, when we went back to check it, a fat brown crab sat inside munching on the mackerel, along with a few spider crabs and starfish. As we made our way back across the bay I sat at the stern feeling like a salty sea dog. My hands were covered in translucent scales and my jeans soaked with fish shit, but we’d landed a good catch.

That night we grilled the mackerel with a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of black pepper and ate them in a bun, the skin crisp and the oily flesh sizzling. On the advice of friends, I boiled up the crab shells and fish bones and heads, removing the gills with pliers, to make a fish stock. A savoury smell is filling the cottage as I write. I have a feeling I might have fish coming out of my ears over the next few months, so any other fishy tips or recipes would be very welcome. Bouillabaisse anyone?

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