The slide show

A few weeks ago I was up at my mum’s and we decided to get the slides out. I dragged the old projector and wooden slide box down from the attic. With a bit of fiddling, the initial blur of colour sharpened and there in the sunshine was my brother with a blonde pudding-bowl haircut and hand-knitted jumper, me with rosy cheeks and an enormous nappy, and Pip, the chocolate-coloured dog, tripping around in the flower bed.

Me and my brother

One of my favourite slides: me and my brother, sunshine, dungarees, flowers, camping.

Snapshots from the past sparkled back at us from the living room wall – beaches, birthdays, mountains, buckets, spades and westcoasting weekends. The slides have got muddled over the years, but that adds to the magic, the surprise of what you might see: a fire on the beach at dusk, aunties in shorts, brown-legged and bare-footed, grannies on deck chairs, kids skittering around; mum sitting on a rock, smiling, with me, just a toddler, in her arms; my brother in flowery dungarees and a sailor’s hat; my papa in his bunnet, trousers rolled up, holding my hand as we paddle in the burn; the Good Companion – the trusty orange tent – pitched by the sea, glowing in the evening sunshine; mum, heavy fringed, and dad, with a drooping moustache, camping, climbing and exploring, looking young, carefree and slightly reckless.

The  slide show is a bit of a family tradition, and I’ve always loved it. It captures a period and saves it, unchanging. By the time I was two, mum had upgraded to a normal camera. But the slides, to me, are more vivid and more alive, than photos. Shared, they prompt memories and tales and laughter. They tap into something I can’t put into words. A feeling, a warmth, the comfort of childhood, a time that’s passed, homespun and homemade, a history, a simplicity, a romance, a freedom, an ease of life. The slides wrap me in their arms, whispering stories from the past.

I was listening to Richard Holloway on Radio 4 the other Saturday talking about his inheritance tracks. He said: ‘I’m a happy person, but I’ve a touch of melancholy. I love the autumn, the falling of leaves, the passing of things. This wee song captures for me the loss of Scotland as well as the beauty of Scotland.’ That’s what the slides do for me. They’re tinged with sadness, a sense of lost youth, but mostly they’re a reminder of where I come from, my inheritance, and there’s great beauty in that.

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Tapping the sap

I love seasonal foraging and nothing is more seasonal than tapping silver birch sap. As early spring arrives, the trees wake, stretch their limbs and draw water from the ground up to the waiting buds. You have two weeks, three at the most, to catch this sap, this spring tonic, before nature moves on and the window has passed.

Last week, armed with a drill, a bit of metal pipe and an old tin camping kettle, my friend and I headed into the woods at dusk to set our taps. We chose a large tree, well away from the path, and bored a small hole. The liquid started to gather in the fresh wound straight away, dripping onto the mossy forest floor. I stuck one end of the pipe into the hole and the other into the spout of the kettle and the drips turned to a steady clatter.

I’d imagined a badger bumbling into our rickety set-up during the night, but when we returned the next evening all was well. The kettle was full to the brim. We bunged the holes with corks and toasted our success with a sip of sap. It wasn’t the sticky liqueur of my imaginings. It was cool and refreshing; water with just an afterthought of wood and a hint of milk. Half a glass made me feel like I could live forever.

Tapping birch sap

My second attempt with a demijohn and plastic tubing. I left it a little too late...

Back home, I made a syrup by boiling the sap, reducing it and adding sugar. It was tasty drizzled over crisp bacon and French toast on Sunday morning. On a roll, I set some more taps the next day. I needed, afterall, a gallon of the stuff for my wine. When I returned a few days later, just an inch or so of pale liquid twinkled in the bottom of the jar. The sap, it seems, had been and gone.

Still, foraging, for me at least, is never about the result. It’s about where it takes you, what it shows you and how it connects you with nature. It would, of course, have been much simpler to buy a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from Tesco than attempt birch sap wine. But I wouldn’t have stood in the evening woods feeling the trees drink from the earth or have quenched my own thirst with a shot of spring. Foraging is also about patience and my birch sap wine will have to wait for another year.

A few tips for tapping birch sap…

Apparently, a birch tree can spare about a gallon of sap in the spring without coming to any harm, but you need to plug the hole afterwards. I used a wine cork to plug the first holes (but, on reflection, I think these holes were too big). I whittled a wooden plug for the second, smaller holes. You need to drill your hole to just beyond the inside of the bark as this is where the sap rises. The tube should incline slightly downwards to allow the sap to run easily. You also need to sterilise your tube before you stick it in the tree. I filtered the collected sap through a jelly bag to get rid of the odd beastie or two. I left my tapping a bit late. Birch sap rises in March, normally in the first two weeks. As well as syrup and wine, you can also make birch sap and mint ice cubes. They go nicely with a single malt.

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The sweet smell of spring

There’s a hint, just a whisper, of spring in the air. Finally. It’s been a long winter, sodden and grey with the odd gale thrown in to cut off the electricity and add to the gloom. The soundtrack? The rattle of rain on the window, persistent and mildly irritating. It rarely let up, churning the ground to sludge and seeping through the walls of the cottage leaving yellow stains and spots of mould on the white-washed walls. The firewood was always that little bit damp; the bed that little bit cold. The hens didn’t like it much either, hiding in their hut from the squalls and picking their way through the mud with a look of distaste.

That’s what everyone told me it would be like. When I first moved here, in the first flush of summer, a neighbour warned me that by February most people have gone half-mad with the dark and the drizzle. I listened, nodded politely and dreamt of being snowed in, my cosy cottage surrounding by a vast, soft, silent, white landscape. Alas, this part of the west coast is pretty balmy and you don’t get the proper snowy winters of the north and the east. You get rain. Lots of it.

Kilfinan Bay

And the sun shines on Kilfinan Bay.

But now we’re in March and finally I’m emerging from my damp cocoon and unfurling. For the last few days the sun has shone in a baby-blue sky, bringing light and colour to the land and a sparkle to the sea. The grass is beginning to grow and the first sorrel and dandelion leaves have appeared, miniature and tender. The gorse is in bloom, the bursting lemon-yellow petals defying the winter that’s still nipping the air. The birds are flitting between bare branches and the hens are clucking contentedly, pecking the warming soil. I opened my windows wide and felt spring on my face.

Later, as I sat by the window writing this, the light dipped a few notches, the sky darkened and the rattle began. It turned to a hammer as the rain turned to hail, as if to remind me, loud and clear, that it’s not spring – just yet.

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March 8, 2012 · 10:21 pm

Wood from the woods

Broken tree in woods

The recent storm raged through the wintry wood, blowing down trees and boughs.

There’s timber everywhere at the moment. The storm that tore through Scotland a few weeks ago wrenched thousands of trees from the ground – rich pickings for anyone with a chainsaw. The other afternoon I took a walk up to the old forest to see how it had fared and to scout out the firewood situation.

The casualties lay like sleeping giants, their roots dangling indecently in mid air, exposed, for the first time, to the elements. One Goliath had snapped and twisted, forming a perfect archway. Another had fallen into a dell, taking its siblings down with it. In front of me an ancient oak was on its side, creamy-white innards spilling out from the gash in its trunk. I could almost hear its life, its sap, seeping out. I sat down on a stone and listened to the muted mossy quiet of the wood, thinking how different it must have sounded on the night of the storm when the wind howled and the trees thrashed and crashed in the darkness.

Tree with regrowth

New shoots grow from a tree that had been blown down many moons ago.

There was a note of sadness in the air, of resignation. But stronger than this was the sense of endurance – the trunks of the trees that stood were like solid fists punched deep into the ground. The sun came out for a moment, shining on the silver of a birch that had fallen into its neighbour’s arms. The dishevelled wood glowed and the whisper of warmth was a reminder of regeneration, of the spring that will come.

I’d brought my little hand saw along with me and I worked away at a fallen bough. It felt timeless, almost magical, to be deep in the wild wood carrying out the age-old tradition of foraging for fuel. I gathered an ikea-bagful – just a gesture really – to store and season for next winter. When I got home I did a quick Google into the legality of collecting dead wood from forests. If it’s private land you need to ask the owner’s permission and if it’s Forestry Commission you apply, in some cases, for a scavenger’s licence. But I can’t imagine that collecting a handful of sticks and twigs and fallen logs to put in your fire is going to bother anyone, as long as there’s plenty left for the forest beasties to live in.

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Keeping the home fire burning

When I moved to the cottage I fancied I’d collect my own firewood, driftwood from the beach and fallen branches from the woods, to keep me toasty through the winter. Ha! Not a chance. As the nights drew in and the air sharpened, I was burning what seemed like half a small forest a day. So, first lesson learnt, I ordered a load of logs. Now they’re sitting outside soaking up the rain because my wood store’s a shoogly thrown-together thing, nothing more than a discarded door resting on my compost heap. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t keep the wood dry in this drenched place. So my next job (when it stops raining) is to build a proper wood store – one that lets the air in and keeps the water out and can store a tonne of logs. Any tips welcome.

My wood-burning stove

My wee wood-burning stove serves as a kettle, cooker, heater and light when the leccy goes off.

I’m learning though. I’ve become pretty nifty at slicing logs into satisfying piles of kindling with my trusty axe. And I’m finding out about different woods – how they season, the heat they give off and the smell of their smoke. My neighbour felled a few birch trees last spring. It burns longer and brighter than the lemony spruce and the smell is on the edge of sweet, like a smoked oyster. Throw in a few bits of driftwood and you get a whisper of the sea. The oak that I dragged up from the beach in the summer has a fierce, unstoppable heat and the old telephone pole burns like a demon (what was it treated with?). Every now and then my auntie brings a bag of off-cuts from my uncle’s days as a joiner; the little bits of plywood and pine are as dry as a bone and never fail to stoke a damp squib of a fire.

Once the fire gets to a certain state – its heart roaring and red – nothing can resist it, not even damp logs. I can’t resist it either, this gentle warmth that holds me in its purring glow. I unwind, sink deeper into my chair, maybe have a little snooze. Now, what was I saying about building a wood store?

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A blast from the past

Calm Loch Fyne

Yesterday the loch was calm, the only trace left by Hurricane Bawbag was a smattering of snow on the hills.

All’s quiet in the west today, but on Thursday Portavadie was pummelled to within an inch of its life by Hurricane Bawbag. It screamed its arrival, roaring and howling, unleashed and wild. Mighty gusts brought belts of rain and hail that hammered at the door. I watched from the window, jumping as gravel, whipped up and hurled at the cottage, smacked the glass. Telephone wires swung in giant loops, shuddering and straining to break free from their poles. One lone tree stood in the field, brittle branches waving, crazed, to the skies. Two small firs, just babies, seemed less bothered. They were pliant in the onslaught, supple limbs bowing until their tips touched the ground. Bits of plastic – a dustbin lid and a couple of plants pots – clattered up the lane, hurtling along like they were heading into town for the night.

And the sea. I’ve never seen it so furious. Giant waves, row upon row, pushed onshore, relentless, crashing over the pier and smashing onto the rocks.  Birch Isle was being sucked under. A low mist whirled and danced over the surf. As the sky darkened and the sun set, this mad, boiling loch turned a menacing pink.

View of the cottage

The cottage is small and squat – perfect for the wild and windy west coast.

Later that evening the electricity went off, so I went to bed. I lay in the dark as the hurricane raged on and thought of the people who’d lived here over the years. They too must have listened to the winds howling outside, safe and protected by these four walls. Then, as suddenly as it came, the hurricane went. But it left behind (along with a smashed back fence and two bemused chickens) a sense of how enduring the cottage is; just what it’s stood up to over time. This squat little home (close to the ground like all proper Highland things are) with its thick walls, is so perfectly formed for this weather-beaten place, this wind-battered land.

In the silence after the storm all I could hear was the creak of a floorboard and the sigh of a beam – the cottage settling, relaxing its flexed muscles. I almost caught it mutter under its breath ‘another one taken care of’. Hurricane Bawbag was, after all, just an awful lot of wind, and there’s nothing new about that around here.

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Minn the magnificent chicken

Minn in her favourite place – my veg patch.

A couple of weeks ago my favourite chicken, Minn, came to a sticky end. I was inside when I heard a blood-curdling squawk and saw something flash past the window. I raced out to see a spaniel trotting down the field towards the shore, a bundle in its mouth and a trail of downy feathers in its wake. Ginger feathers. My heart sank. ‘Not Minn’, I heard myself say. ‘Not ginger Minn.’ I watched as a man, the owner, wrestled Minn from his dog’s mouth and quickly, professionally, twisted her neck. He trudged up the field towards me, the dog slinking behind. Clearly mortified, he apologised and – in a show of manly practicality – offered to pluck her. My bottom lip trembled. ‘No! I couldn’t eat her. She was a pet’, I cried, my voice breaking. The man looked uncomfortable.

Back at the cottage Marilyn was running in circles crowing wildly and Martha, the nervous one, was nowhere to be seen. I eventually found her shivering under a bush. Reunited, they soon got over their fright and the loss of Minn (it took all of about, oh, five minutes), I didn’t though. I really missed her.

Bereft seems a dramatic word to use – she is, or was, only a hen after all – but that’s how I felt. I missed her bounding out of the hen hut in the morning, first to the food, waiting patiently at the back door for a snack,  clucking contentedly as she nibbled on a strawberry or two. Yes, Minn had a healthy appetite. She was also the boldest of the bunch. The trusty trio went everywhere together, exploring further afield (they were spotted on the beach one day) with Minn out front like an intrepid tour guide. Nothing seemed to scare her. Mum reckons that’s why the dog got her instead of the other chickens – she stood up to (maybe even took on?) the attacking mutt. Martha and Marilyn stick closer to home these days.

Minn was a great layer. One speckled brown egg a day without fail. I like to think this is because she was a happy chicken. Although her life was short, it was a sweet. She ranged free, taking dust baths in the vegetable plot, scratching on the road, visiting my neighbours’ gardens for a change of scene. It allowed her to shine. I’m quite a carnivore, but I haven’t been able to eat meat since Minn died (apart from one chicken sandwich when I forgot). I think of her face, cocked sideways, intelligent little eyes looking up at me – a personality.

Big egg and little egg

One of Minn's monster double-yolker eggs.

As well as uncovering my inner vegetarian, I’ve one other thing to thank Minn for – home-made lemon curd. I tried making it one day when I was over-run with eggs. It’s the most delicious thing in the world: creamy, silky, tart and probably not very good for cholesterol levels. So in memory of Minn the magnificent chicken, here’s the recipe.

It’s dead simple to make. You’ll need the zest and juice of four lemons, four large eggs, 350g caster sugar, 200g unsalted butter and I dessertspoon of cornflower. Whisk the eggs in a saucepan, then add the rest of the ingredients and place over a medium heat. You now need to whisk continuously until you feel the mixture thicken – it’ll take about eight minutes. Give it another minute, then remove from the heat and pour into your jars, cover and store in the fridge. It only keeps for two weeks, so you’ll need  to scoff it quickly (Minn would have).

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