Lockdown has left many frustrated at not being able to get out and about – for me it is the mountains and glens I miss most, as well as the coast, and lochs, and Caledonian forest, and, well, you get the point.
However, spending most of my time in he back garden, thanks to the glorious weather, has meant the chance to watch and hear the development of a family of blue tits in a bird box.
The parents were a bit timid a few weeks ago, waiting ages before deciding it was safe to fly into the box. Now, however, with a host of chicks tweeting like crazy inside they are dashing to and fro with food faster than Usain Bolt, or Alan Wells at least.
With all this activity, the day of fledging cannot be far away but the activity of magpies has left me neurotic; they seem to be on the prowl (if birds can prowl), waiting for the little birds to appear. I’m not sure if they will gobble them up but to make sure they don’t get the chance I have been shooing them off.
Sitting out with camera in hand has meant work has been neglected on some days but the pleasure is worth it, especially when a tiny head peeks out. We made the bird box with the children at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Jupiter Urban Wildlife Centre in Grangemouth a few years ago – it has been a good success each spring since and it’s worth trying to make your own, try the RSPB’s guide
One thing from experience, you do genuinely get a sad feeling after the chicks fledge and the sound of frantic cheeping has gone, at least for another year.
Why choose to walk in a town or city, rather than the
wonderful Scottish countryside?
It isn’t as weird a decision as it might sound. As gales
lash Scotland at this time of year, plans to get up on the high mountains are ruined
but that doesn’t mean walking is ruled out completely.
Urban walks are not only more sheltered than a ridge in
Glencoe or the Cairngorms, they can also throw up a few surprises.
The delights of the Water of Leith in Edinburgh are a prime example. Here, there are otters (yes, really), kingfishers and heron. I’ve seen them and if you pop into the Water of Leith visitor centre the nice people in there will confirm regular sightings of all sorts of wildlife.
A walk from Roseburn to the visitor centre gives the counter-intuitive feeling of being out of the city even though you are right next to it. While bustling streets, offices and houses are all around it is the trees, shrubs and river which envelop you.
The peace and tranquillity was enjoyed by more than 40 folk
on a Scots Mag Hike at the weekend. This was one of the most popular outings of
the year, I think because of the good conditions underfoot.
Some run the route we took (returning to the city centre by
the Union Canal towpath) but the idea of charging through the scenery, while
good for fitness, makes me think much of nature in the city would be missed.
So, if you look out of the window and don’t fancy a trip to
the wilds, or even semi-wilds, think about what might be on your doorstep.
Foraging is cool – it used to be the preserve of
hippy-ish PHD students or high end chefs looking for poncey mushrooms and weird
Now it seems it is for everyone from those looking to improve
their spag bol (use the water you soak dried mushrooms in, according to cookery
guru Wendy Barrie) to people wanting to find sea capers on the shoreline
(go and find Jayson at East Neuk Seaweed).
All things foraging are being brought together at Foraging Fortnight which
begins next week (Saturday, August 31) across Scotland. I went for taster session
yesterday – and there was a lot of great food to try as well as interesting
people to meet
The festival programme has been designed to encourage all
ages to get out and forage in beautiful locations from woodlands to seashores,
hedgerows to back garden plants (Cambo Gardens in Fife are good for this).
There are loads of sessions on offer – free and paid for – and they are going
to repeat it in May next year.
Yesterday, I went to Bowhouse in Fife, a great place
for foodies who like things natural and local, and there were the familiar
things you would expect at this kind of event – lots of smiling people and great
food. But there also a genuine vibe of positively looking at what Scotland has
to offer for the dinner plate.
And that doesn’t mean spending a fortune in expensive
delis – you can grab a feast of salad from hedgerows as you make your way to
the seashore to find seaweed and molluscs. Add in a few berries and you have a
really posh dinner which food snobs in north London would admire.
Don’t be snob though, just go out and give it a try –
people have been doing it for years and much of it has its origins in the way
the less well-off gathered their food down the centuries.
And, for any cynics out there: I wasn’t paid to write
It is the time of year when hillwalkers, mountaineers and climbers need to batten down the hatches as the “ban this sort of thing” brigade take to the airwaves and newspapers.
As snow descends on the mountains and rescues are highlighted it unfortunately leads some (often in offices in towns and cities far removed from the outdoors) to call for a reduction in access to the hills at a time when conditions are potentially dangerous.
This is wrong for many reasons, not least because it falls against the now widely accepted principle of land access and also that mountains are always risky for the unaware or ill-prepared. Equally, we don’t ban Sunday morning football because players sometimes break their legs, or drinking in case someone gets dangerously drunk and needs and ambulance.
One claim often made is that rescuers’ lives are put at risk helping people trapped in precarious positions. What should be remembered is that most of these rescuers are volunteers who go out because of a love of the outdoors and a desire to help fellow enthusiasts.
However, that does not mean we should ignore the tragedies and near-misses because accidents do happen and it is the responsibility of everyone who enjoys being out in the wild places of Scotland to make sure they are as safe as possible.
Shaun Roberts, the principal of the National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, has told me that if you have a doubt about going out somewhere in the hills you should treat it as a “red flag” and consider your actions.
Planning and preparation is key and courses run by places such as Glenmore Lodge can be invaluable. For example, taking an ice axe and crampons is not enough if you don’t know how to use them and a map and compass are useless in a storm if your navigation skills are not up to scratch.
Common sense also means weather and avalanche forecasts should always be taken account of and turning back if the conditions deteriorate must be an option at the forefront of your mind.
So, rather than talking of bans we should all be doing everything to reduce the risk of going out in the hills and mountains and then get on with the serious business of enjoying it.
In To a Louse, Robert Burns wrote: “Oh, would some Power give us the gift, To see ourselves as others see us”.
But we don’t need a power, spiritual or not, to tell us, we only need look at the tourists who keep flocking to this wonderful country.
Everyone seems to like Skye, we know that – and despite all the doom-mongers, surely it is a bit of investment which is needed to solve the overcrowding (although rural spending is something the Scottish Government seems averse to).
But it is people wanting to visit other parts of Scotland who interest me. A lot come from across the world and want to see Scottish castles and distilleries, as well as the scenery.
One thing that strikes me is the number, especially from the US and China, who still want to go to Loch Ness and hunt for the monster. Now, I’m not knocking it and have done it myself in the past but in this modern of age of being able to tell if a rock has rolled over on the far side of Mars, surely the monster myth should be well and truly burst by now?
Seemingly not, and when it comes to visitors and fiction, the Outlander effect is still going strong. Historic Environment Scotland has said there has been a 27 per cent increase in tourists from North America visiting Scotland’s castles associated with the TV series. And at other locations such as Midhope Castle on the Hopetoun Estate near Linlithgow – Lallybroch in Outlander – there are now visitors where none existed before.
So does fiction mirror history and help shape how others see us?
Steve Spalding, CEO of Timberbush Tours, which takes tourists on trips across Scotland, said: “As much as Outlander is a compelling story, many of Scotland’s castles featured as the backdrop to the television series are steeped in real history and have links to some of the most beguiling tales that are woven into the tapestry of our country. Tourists coming to Scotland from the US and Canada will be amazed at just how much Outlander mirrors our glorious past.”
What is it about children’s boots and dog muck – do they actually have a kind of magnetic attraction which means a lovely walk can be tarnished by the need to clean off the excrement.
The stomach-churning stench is actually the least offensive part – the dog doo can cause blindness in youngsters if they manage to get any on their hands which then come into contact with the face.
Now I know many, many dog owners are fastidious about cleaning up and I am by no means anti-pooch (it is regular family discussion/argument about whether to own one) but the problem is there for all to see.
In pretty much the way it has always been in my 40-odd years, the sides of a path, especially in the first few hundred yards of a walk, are often used as dog toilets with the deposits left behind. Hidden by tufts of grass or small shrubs they become the target for little feet going off to explore.
Many things which were once seen as normal are now rightly seen as anti-social and seriously frowned upon by most members of society – think of drink driving or dropping litter. But dog muck appears to be here to stay.
On a walk the other day I actually saw a black labrador squat above a rock – the sort of path-side rock which is good for humans to sit on and contemplate the scenery. The dog’s owner followed up behind but she had either not noticed or chose not to notice, leaving the mess for others to discover.
This was a seemingly “respectable” looking woman of middle-age, the sort of person who would vociferously complain if a similar pile was left on the pavement outside her house. But as much as I was fuming at her behaviour, I was angered at mine – I didn’t say anything, just made a silent tut to myself and continued walking in very polite sense of outrage.
Should I have said something or is that risking an anti-social confrontation akin to road rage? Or, should I have reported the lady to a council (which would have meant following her to her car and I was out for a walk in the country, not an afternoon of detective role play)?
Maybe there needs to more official campaigning about the problem (like there was for drink driving and dropping litter) and although that would mean pictures of the disgusting mess which can blight the countryside, it could shame the owners who leave their dog’s muck behind.
I am a journalist whose love of the outdoors and all things rural has seen me walking the highest Munros, eating Scottish seafood in Singapore, stalking deer with a camera and just about everything imaginable in between... Find out more...