Wednesday, 24 August 2016

A hazel nut in every bite!

The barley is ripening, the harvesting has begun, summer's course is almost run.  Autumn is hiding round the corner waiting to... 
"... fill all fruit with
ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd,
and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel" *


It has just been St Philibert's day, so I bicycled up to the dean to see if the filberts were ready. We are a bit far north so they are usually a week or so later than the due date.

Hazel trees in the dean

St Philibert of Jumieges doesn't seem to have any connection with the hazelnut tree or its fruit other than having his feast day around the time when they appear. He seems to have been a fairly unexciting seventh century abbot (608-684) in what is now France at the time of the Meringovian kings.
Much more exciting was Fionn mac Cumhaill or Finn Mac Coul or Fingal

The young Fionn met the druid and poet Finnegas near the river Boyne and studied under him. Finnegas had spent seven years trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge which lived in a pool on the river and had became all-knowing through its diet of hazelnuts dropped from a holy tree: whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Eventually, the old man caught it and told the boy to cook it for him. While cooking it, Fionn burned his thumb, and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth. This imbued him with the salmon's wisdom, and when Finnegas saw that he had gained wisdom, he gave young Fionn the whole salmon to eat.

Finn Mac Coul became a giant figure, sometimes literally, in Celtic - Irish, Scottish and Manx - legend creating the Giant's Causeway and Fingal's cave.

Eating the filberts has never had much effect on my mental or physical stature but following the path of the stream down the dean to the shore looking for hazel nuts and sloes has always been a pleasure so thanks to good old Philibert for the reminder.

The dean - a wildlife haven

Eventually, it reaches the shore
* From 'To Autumn' by John Keats

Monday, 25 July 2016

Evolution before my eyes

Dog minding has its advantages. It gets you out to the beach in the early hours when it's empty apart from a very few other dog lovers.
The sea was calm, the sun was warm but had yet to get hot enough to make exercise an effort.

Terns were fishing out on the bay, too far out to distinguish species. It was the same with a group of divers – birds that is, not sub aqua enthusiasts though we get plenty of those as well.
The fact that there were four together made me think they were black-throated divers which do sometimes gather in groups in the summer but, without binoculars, they were just divers.
These summer visitors are a welcome sight especially in a year when we have had so few swallows and house martins.

Common, Arctic, sandwich, little, or roseate terns must have all had a common ancestor before they evolved into their specialised species and so with great northern, red-throated and black-throated divers. or swallows, sand-martins and house-martins.
Darwin went to the Galapagos and studied the finches on the different islands before the penny dropped that they all arose from one original stock and yet it is plain to see, all around us, once the idea of evolution of species is accepted.

Following the burn up from the beach, I came across another visitor that has made its home here.
The monkey flower. Mimulus guttatus, which apparently started off as a wild flower in North America.

With one hundred and sixty different variants from annuals to woody-stemmed small shrubs, the mimulus species has become a leading model system for studying ecological and evolutionary genetics in nature.

A marmalade hover fly follows the "landing strip"  of red markers leading to the nectar and the pollen

There is to be an expedition to The Cradle of Storms, the remote Aleutian Islands off Alaska, to try and prove that the ancestor of the Scottish variety of monkey flower arose there and was brought back to Europe by a Russian -German explorer, Grigori von Langsdorff, in the nineteenth century.
There they were, growing in our burn, apparently a master of adaptation.
Evolution on our doorstep.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Bridges and castles

Under the bridges up the river path

The lap-top had to go to the local computer expert to get some glitches fixed. Computers are a bit like modern cars. Most of us use them daily to make all sorts of digital journeys to the shops, the bank, the library, even to the doctor's sometimes, but we haven't much idea what makes them tick so when they stop, it pays to get an expert opinion rather than tinker by yourself.

Waiting to collect the item, I spent a pleasant hour strolling along the banks of the Tweed from the Old Bridge built in the early seventeenth century to the Royal Tweed Bridge, which replaced it in the early twentieth century.

Looking up from the path, I could see the looming walls of the splendidly intact Elizabethan walls around the town.
 The great swan herd that gathers on the tweed estuary in the autumn was diminished presumably by the availability of food and nest sites upriver but some remained to glide seamlessly beneath the arches with the flow of the current.

The Royal Border Rail Bridge from the gun slit of the riverside guard-house

Further up the river the East Coast mainline crosses on the Royal Border Bridge, a magnificent viaduct carrying the railway to and from Berwick station.

The railway skirts the ramparts of Berwick's fortifications but the castle built by King David in the thirteenth century to protect what was then the major Scottish port, was in the way so it was demolished. The Great Hall where fate of the Scottish crown was decided is now a platform with an information board. 

The remains of the curtain wall - the White Wall - and a tower with gun-loops to guard access to the river are all that remains. After three hundred years of warfare between the Scots and the English when it changed hands many times and three hundred years of united peace, the castle had to make way for the railway.

The castle as it was with the guard house on the riverside

In the nineteenth century the impact of the railways must have been as encompassing as that of the internet today. Isolated villages where things had changed little since Jamie the Saxth of Scotland went south across the Tweed to become James I of the United Kingdom, now had access to and information about the wider world.

The internet has connected people all over the world in the way that the railways connected everyone in the country.

I can just carry it about on a phone or a laptop and ancient piles are safe.

 Someone created this whimsical boat from driftwood

Friday, 1 July 2016

... and there in a wood a piggywig stood

Beech trees and pignuts in the Dell

The Dell is one of my favourite spots. A little wood along the banks of a burn, mostly beech and ash trees, it was almost certainly planted in times when the estate and farms surrounding it would have been self sufficient in raw materials. Ash for tool handles, building and fuel, beech for pannage, fodder for pigs.

Others appreciate the quietude of the Dell

 Pigs thrive in woodland especially on beech mast. I've no doubt that the wood was planted more than a century ago with pigs in mind.

The reason I'm so sure is the abundance of pig-nut, conpodium majus, growing on the woodland floor.

Conopodium majus

 They are a fairly common plant, an indicator of long established grasslands.

The delicate leaf fronds and the creamy white flower heads are not what the pigs like. It is the nut or tuber at the end of the long root that is so attractive. At one time country folk especially children would dig up the nuts to eat. They are a bit like hazel nuts or sweet chestnuts to eat but, as they aren't nuts, they have no hard shell. They seem to be a sort of tuber

The  pig nut or the earth nut

Their presence was probably the reason for the planting of beech trees in the Dell. Unlike ash, beech don't spread seed easily and are usually a deliberate planting. Someone thought, "add the beech to the pig nuts and we've got a great place for pigs to forage and fatten for free"

Pig-nuts or earth-nuts are sometimes called St Anthony's nuts after the patron saint of swineherds!

Now the local pigs have a much more organised lifestyle. They still live out with their offspring in amenable surroundings but they have a diet of concentrated food pellets from hoppers to ensure a predictable end product.

There is one little day-flying moth that relies entirely on the pig-nut for food for its caterpillars. The chimney sweeper moth is black with white edges to its wings. There were none flying the day I was there but they do prefer bright sunshine, a commodity in short supply of late.

There are no pigs rooting about in the Dell now but that does leave more pignuts for the chimney sweepers

 Shakespeare must have grubbed up pig nuts as a child for he understood the difficulty of finding them at the end of the long, easily broken root

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; and I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts"*

Crab apples or scrogs as the Scots would call them were also planted where the pig-nuts grew to provide food for pigs.

*  Caliban in The Tempest.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Lay of the Last Minstrel

Riding the Marches, Selkirk

This has been the month of the Riding of the Marches in the Scottish Border towns commemorating the need in historic times to protect the town lands against the warlords that were the clan chiefs in pursuit of land and influence.

At the Selkirk Common Riding, there is also the remembrance of the tragedy of the battle of Flodden when the town lost all its young men save one.

In the aftermath of that ill-fated encounter and the death of King James IV, the powerful families vied for control of the kingdom.

Skirmish Hill near Melrose which has been added to the list of Scottish battlefields, was the result of the clash of ambitions in the power vacuum that was 16th century Scotland nearly five hundred years ago.

On 29th July 1526, a cavalry encounter between horsemen, the reivers, of the Border clans, took place near  Darnick where the Waverley Castle hotel stands.

All the troops were mounted and would have been armed with lances, swords and dirks. They would have carried small shields and worn padded jackets and steel helmets.

Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, was one of the most influential of the Scottish nobles of the sixteenth century.

He first came to prominence on 6 August 1514 when he married Margaret, the Dowager Queen, widow of James IV, mother of James V and elder sister of Henry VIII of England.

Acting as guardian to the young king, he sought to control the kingdom.

Becoming irked by his virtual imprisonment by the Douglas clan, James had
  "wrote a quiet and secret writing with his own hand, and sent it to the laird of Buccleugh, beseeking him, that he would come with his kin and friends, and all the force that he might be, and meet him at Melrose at his home passing and there to take him out of the Douglasses hands and to put him to liberty, to use himself among the lave of his lords, as he thinks expedient."
(Pitscottie, 1899: 209-10).


With a long history of blood feuds and clan rivalries, the Scotts needed no excuse.

"Wicked Wat", Walter Scott of Buccleuch summoned his men and their allies, the Elliots to intercept the Douglases and Maxwells accompanying the young king.

Darnick Tower

It is said that young James watched the battle from the ramparts of nearby Darnick Tower.

Coming down from the Eildon Hills, the Scotts clashed with the king's retinue and, at first, seemed to prevail but the arrival of Lord Hume with the Douglas allies, the Kerrs, swung the battle against Buccleuch.

The Eildons

The Scotts and Elliots retreated, pursued by the Kerrs. The Elliots turned and made a stand and Andrew Kerr of Cessford was killed.

The site is supposedly at the Turn-Again Stone though on inspection, the stone is obviously an ancient standing stone that has been renamed.

The Turn-Again Stone

Douglas won the day but not for long. His wife divorced him, the king escaped his clutches, he lost power, was imprisoned in France, escaped, fled to England, returned with armies to Scotland and during all his, for his times, long life, he strove to advance the power of the Douglases.

Walter Scott of Buccleuch led raids into England in subsequent years, and fought in the battles of Ancrum Moor and Pinkie during the Rough Wooing. He was eventually killed in the street in Edinburgh in 1552 by a group of Kerrs taking revenge for the death of Andrew Kerr of Cessford.
Such was the land of Scotland in the sixteenth century, a land of ruthless, power hungry chiefs where violence was the chosen means of advancement. It was little wonder that the folk of the Border towns felt the need to patrol their boundaries.

Today, these are holidays and a chance to ride the in the cavalcades of up to three hundred horses through the Border hills but once they were deadly serious affairs.

For on his soul the slaughter red

Of that unhallowed morn arose, 

When first the Scott and Car were foes, 

When royal James beheld the fray, 

Prize to the victor of the day ; 

When Home and Douglas, in the van, 

Bore down Buccleuch's retiring clan, 

Till gallant Cessford's heart-blood dear

Reeked on dark Elliot's  border spear

(The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott)

Friday, 24 June 2016

The Sun and the Moon


The summer solstice saw an early rising to be at the Knowe above the beach to see day break.
As the end of what must have been a prehistoric processional way, it is an ideal site for a view of the eastern horizon
A low bank of cloud hid the actual sunrise. but the magenta sky was an augur of good weather.

The sun just breaking over the cloud bank

It was also a full moon.
This was the Flower Moon or the Honey Moon or, by association, the Mead Moon for each is dependent on the previous.The bees go to the flowers to make honey for us to make mead.
It is the Strawberry Moon in America

A Honey Coloured Moon

In the U.K. it is the Flower Moon or, in the Celtic calendar, the Moon of the Horses or the Oak Moon.
'Full moons come,
Full moons go,
softening nights
with their silver glow.
They pass in silence
all untamed,
but as they travel
they are named.

The bees have been slow to forage this year with the cold wet weather not to their liking but the cotoneaster against the south facing wall of the garden was buzzing with an assembly of mason bees, white-tailed and carder bees with a good representation from the honey bees as well. The cold weather seems to have inhibited the swallows as there are far fewer this year.
When we first came to this house, many years ago, the huge gean or bird cherry in the garden would be humming with bees when in flower but they are no longer heard.
Let's hope the Honey Moon will bring them out again.

Rhyme from 'When the Moon is Full' a book for young children by Penny Pollack

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Seascapes and sunsets

The Lewis trip was no more successful for sea eagles than the Iona trip but a little loch between two beaches on the Braighe connecting the Eye peninsula to the main island provided some compensation as it was the resting place for hundreds of long tailed duck presumably on migration.

The beaches and the loch margins were patrolled by a mixture of waders. Oyster-catchers, sanderling and knot but also some dunlin in their handsome summer plumage and little ringed plovers.

Some odd ducks appeared on a loch near Tiumpan head lighthouse. At first glance I thought they were shoveller duck but close to, I guessed they were some mallard cross-breeds, especially when they waddled up to be fed.

The trip to Bernera across the "bridge across the Atlantic" was equally unsuccessful erne-wise but provided some spectacular views and a sight of the tidal bell at Bosta beach. 

A bronze bell that sounds different notes as the tide ebbs and flows. We really ought to make an effort to install such a splendid piece of art locally. We have the coastline for it here.
A scramble out onto the promontory at Crothair brought me close up to the remains of a small broch, Dun Stuigh, only a few feet of walls remain but it still commands the headland. Beneath it, in the bay was what seemed to be an ancient fish trap with a low wall allowing the fish to swim in at high tide but preventing their escape as it ebbed.

Dun Stuigh

Ancient fish trap

I have been trying to capture the Green Flash at sunset for years.

Best seen over the sea, with a flat horizon, I have watched many sunsets from our Lewis base. They are spectacularly beautiful like a Rothko painting but, without a sea horizon, the green flash has always eluded me.
This year I think I captured, at least the green ray, on video, or maybe I'm kidding myself.

I think there was a green element to those rays

I'll try again next year and maybe the sea eagles will be less camera shy.