Monday, 7 August 2017


The ragwort is flourishing along the shoreline. Thanks to the stabilising of the sands by the marram grass, the other hardy specimens are moving in and taking over. ( Blog 09/09/2016)

The bright yellow daisy heads of the ragwort, each a sun in miniature, are home and larder to a great number of insects, grubs, flies, bees and moths. Most spectacular of these is the cinnabar moth.

On a walk along the edge of the foreshore, we found dozens of the black and yellow striped caterpillars feasting on the leaves. They absorb alkaloids from the plant which make them unpleasant to eat and saves them from predation.... and don't they advertise the fact!
Like so many unpleasant youngsters, they hatch into beautiful adults. 

The leaves have an unpleasant smell which accounts for the adjective "stinking" in many of its local names including the label "Mare's fart". Anyone acquainted with horses will recognise the accuracy of that description.
John Clare, that poet of the neglected and overlooked, had a more positive opinion of the plant,
Ragwort thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold...
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.
Ragwort is poisonous to horses but it is unlikely that they would graze on it as it is very bitter, however if the dry leaves get into hay they can cause liver damage. Presumably it is because of this that it is included in the list of Noxious Weeds required to be controlled.
"Noxious Weeds" has connotations of morality and impropriety, as though the ragwort had set out to be wicked and yet it provides a home and food source to more than seventy insect species. Thirty of these species use ragwort exclusively as their food source. 

Jacobaea vulgaris, to give it its full title is a valuable addition to the foreshore as it joins the campions, the thistles and the willow-herbs in colonising the sands

The opposite is true of the gaudily attractive Himalayan Balsam with its orchid like flowers. The seed pods explode to the touch and spray their contents far and wide. It is dreadfully invasive and it is  truly an offence to allow it to grow. It has arrived on our beach via the small burn that trickles down to the sea. 

I only hope the local council, if and when they get round to eradicating it, do not kill off the native species colonising the dunes and providing such a valuable habitat but I am not optimistic.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Macbeth Trail Part III

My intermittent quest for places associated with Macbeth continues. On the return trip from the Western Isles, (Blog 13/07/17) a deviation along the A96 took me on the whisky trail past many famous distilleries but also to a couple of places where the true story of Shakespeare's "man of blood" was played out.

Pitgaveny, near Elgin, was the place where Duncan and Macbeth fought for the kingdom of Alba.
Originally on the shores of a sea-loch, Loch Spynie, a long arm of the North Sea which was accessible by ship, it became the site of Spynie Castle, the residence of the powerful Bishops of Moray.

Spynie Castle
The arms of the Bishop of Moray

Now, the only evidence of the loch side is the steep drop from the road to the palace into the woods below but in August 1040, Macbeth, the warrior " disdaining fortune with his brandished steel" would have watched Duncan's galleys beaching on the shoreline as they prepared to join in battle.

The steep drop from the roadway is the site of the old loch side
Map showing Loch Spynie as it was when Duncan sailed up to do battle

Duncan was wounded in the ensuing engagement and carried from the scene to the site of Elgin cathedral where he died.

Elgin Cathedral

Not the cowardly murder of a sleeping king but the defeat of an inept general by a superior one.
Duncan's death allowed Macbeth to be crowned king at Scone, deep in the heartland of his rival's power base (Blog 28/05/17) Duncan had paid the penalty for attacking Macbeth, the Mormaer of Moray, in his fiefdom.
Macbeth had regained the title of Mormaer held by his father in 1032 and seized by his cousin Gille Comgain after the killing of the older man. In revenging his father's death Macbeth made a widow
of Gille's wife Gruoch, herself a princess of the royal line.
In 1033, Macbeth married Gruoch and adopted her son Lulach. Lulach was destined to reign briefly after his stepfather's death in 1057 but lacking his leadership qualities and martial skill was defeated by Malcolm Canmore.

Birnie Kirk

It is believed that the marriage took place at Birnie Kirk. Parts of the building date to the 12th century though the building of stone churches to replace the wooden ones of the Celtic church was begun by Margaret the wife of Macbeth's nemesis, Malcolm Canmore - Malcolm III.

A Pictish incised stone, now much worn, showing an eagle. The church stands on any earlier sacred site

A Celtic bell, the Ronnel Bell, in the church is 1000 years old and could well have been rung at the wedding of Macbeth and Gruoch.

I left Moray and headed south with a brief stop at Dunnottar castle so impressive on the skyline above Stonehaven.

 A great fortress, its predecessor would have been one of the "duns" or fortified hills of Macbeth's time - Dun-add in Argyll, Dun-keld, Dun-edin or Edinburgh, Dun-fermline, the site of Malcolm Canmore's tower.
The much maligned monarch still lives in the country he ruled for seventeen years despite the efforts of his detractors.  Next visit must be to the site of his final battle.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Long Island

We've just returned from a trip across the sea to a land where the natives speak an ancient tongue, a place where there are temples to the sun and the moon and tombs of the ancestors, a place of turquoise waters lapping on white sandy beaches, a place where orchids grow wild and dolphins splash in the surf.

 No, not the Spice Islands nor the Grecian archipelago – the Outer Hebrides!

We sailed from Oban up the sound of Mull to Barra. The entrance to Castlebay is dominated by Kisimul Castle. Our hotel room provided us with splendid views of the seat of the MacNeils of Barra. 

No visit to Barra is complete without witnessing the sight of an aeroplane landing and taking off from the beach Traigh Mhor

Sustained with superb local food, we crossed by a small ferry to Eriskay - the island of the Love Lilt and the Eriskay ponies and the original site of the story of "Whisky Galore" and proceeded up "The Long Island". South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist are all joined by causeways with only the ferry to Harris still need to complete the journey to Lewis.

Staying at Langass Lodge, we visited the 5000-year old, Neolithic tomb at Barpa Langas-Barpa Langais- a great mound of stones over a central tomb. The entrance passage is easily found but is partially collapsed. Apparently, cremated remains were found within. Not far away is the fine stone circle of Pobull Fhinn.

On the way to the ferry from Uist to Harris, we stopped at the island fort of Dun An Sitcir - the "fort of the skulker" - a 16th century redoubt built on the remains of an Iron Age broch.  

The dun was inhabited by Hugh MacDonald, one of the MacDonalds of Sleat and son of Hugh the Clerk, until 1602. He sheltered here after plotting to slaughter his kin, but was eventually captured to be starved to death in Duntulm Castle on Trotternish, in Skye. They were tough times in those days !

The ferry to Harris brought us to Tarbert and our stay at the Harris Hotel where again the cuisine was mouth-watering. A visit to the Harris distillery introduced us to Harris Gin with its unique infusion of local sugar kelp. The addition of a few drops of Sugar Kelp Aromatic Water as a bitters to the neat spirit was an experience!

The drive through the rocky landscape of Harris took us across An Clisham, the highest point of Western Isles to the flat moors of Lewis and our last stop at Aignish of the edge of Broad Bay where our old friends, the basking seals waved a flipper of welcome.

The next day a trip to the nearby moorland had us watching the arctic skuas harassing the terns to disgorge their catch, a bit foolish as the terns were heading out to sea. The skuas would have been better waiting until they returned after their fishing trip.

Another Neolithic chambered cairn, An Dursainean, occupied the high ground. It would seem that a stone circle or a tomb is around every corner in this trip up the Hebrides.
It passed only too quickly.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Solstice sunrise

As is my wont, I rose early on the morning of the summer solstice to see the sunrise. There isn't much true night at this time of year so, just after 4 a.m., I settled on the local hill overlooking the sea to watch the sun making its appearance on the longest day. After several days of clear skies, this one tended to be a bit overcast but I was treated to a display of the brilliant reds and oranges of a sort of false dawn which subsided to a pink band. 

It was an odd phenomenon. Was this the blue hour, l'heure bleu, when the sun is still below the horizon, a time beloved of photographers for its unusual light?

The sunrise, when it did occur, was almost a disappointment.

Having tipped my hat in salute, I returned home for an early breakfast being surprised as always by how many people are on the move even this early in the day...milk, bread and newspaper deliveries, shift workers and maybe some commuters hoping to beat the traffic and parking problems of the city.
The rest of the day was spent strimming the encroaching nettles at the beach hut and watching the terns fishing in the bay.

After my encounter with the Arctic terns on the Isle of May ( Blog 15/06/2017) I was happy to observe them at a distance. These are Sandwich terns...I think. They move so fast it's difficult to keep them in the lens view but from their size, their whiteness and their cries, I reckoned they were Sandwich terns.
They were diving for the fish like miniature gannets rather than skimming and dipping like their Arctic cousins. Arctic terns always remind me of children ducking for Hallowe'en apples in the way they fish. Do children still "dook for aipples" at Hallowe'en? Probably not.

As the sea swallows dived for fish, the true swallows swooped along the shore catching the sand flies. Two truly spectacular aerial acrobats and both long distance migrants. They come back each year to gladden our hearts and think nothing of it.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Isle of the seabirds

Continuing my enjoyment of islands in general and my nearest ones, those in the Firth of Forth, in particular, I took a trip out to the Isle of May.        (Blogs 6/9/2015, 1/5/2017)
The island is so far out in the mouth of the firth that it is part of Fife. The name probably means the Island of Seabirds - ma'a or maw is Scots for a gull. The word is Scandinavian in origin.
It certainly lived up to its eponym. Terns, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, eider duck, fulmars kittiwakes and herring gulls all nesting in their own environmental niche. The black-back gulls patrolled the island looking for prey. Woe betide any inattentive parent or nestling.

Arctic Tern

Terns are very aggressive when nesting. We were advised to hold something up as they attack the highest point of any intruder. Holding my sun-hat on an extended finger was a mistake as tern beaks are very sharp and my cloth- covered finger became the target for a pin-point assault. With their staccato machine-gun calls, it was like being strafed by a squadron of miniature fighter planes.
They also have another weapon. They can bomb you with excrement which is no fun if you are already hatless !
I suppose if you have flown halfway in a 50,000 mile round trip from the Antarctic to Scotland and back, you are entitled to get a bit grumpy with folk gawping at you.

The puffins are altogether more amiable and seem to enjoy posing for visitors with cameras. The Isle of May has the biggest single colony in the UK. They could be seen waddling about near their burrows, their beaks stuffed with small fish. They are the most lovable of birds with their massive parrot beaks and their sad-eyed clown faces.

Razorbill, Shag and Eider Duck

The island has been a place of sanctity since the seventh century when St Ethernan (Adrian), an obscure Irish bishop or possibly a Scot trained in Ireland, died there in 669 A.D.

He is often conflated with Adrian also called St Adrian, the abbot of the monastery killed by Vikings in 875 A.D.

St Adrian's Priory

The Benedictine monastery, endowed by David I in the 13th century, became a place of pilgrimage along the route of holy sites from St Andrews to Holy Island. Many of the topographical features have an ecclesiastical ring to their names - Alterstanes, Bishops Cove, Pilgrim's Haven, rocks called The Angel and The Pilgrim.

The Angel and The Pilgrim

Holy men expelled the demons and wild beasts from the island of the May and there made a place of prayer*

The abbey was built on the site of a massive prehistoric burial mound dating as far back as the Bronze Age which might explain the "demons" but what wild beasts could there be on the island? Seals perhaps?

A carpet of sea campion

The oldest lighthouse in Britain, a coal burning flame called the Beacon was built on the island in 1635 and there is a light-house there to this day though now completely automatic.

The Beacon now undergoing conservation

Monks and pilgrims, royalty and commoners, fishermen and light-house keepers, soldiers and sailors have all lived on the island over the centuries from as far back as the Bronze Age and, in all that time, the puffins and the terns have returned to breed every year. It is somehow satisfying that apart from a few nosey folk like me, they have it all to themselves again.

The return trip included an approach to the Bass Rock, the largest breeding colony of the Northern Gannet in the world - 150,000 birds crammed on to its bare slopes, a truly amazing sight.

Leaving the Bass and the gannets

* Aberdeen Breviary 1510