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Posts from the ‘Photography’ Category

First frost

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Reminiscing about the Ridge on a dreich Scottish day

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I never tire of looking up to sharp mountain ridges but I’m nervous of exposure so New Zealand’s Kepler Track is well outwith my comfort zone. But with a bit of brutal encouragement from my son, I did it. The memories – which we shared last night via Skype – will last a lifetime. And they brighten the bleakest of Scotland’s November days.

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Too sweet to eat?

“I simply must touch it’s curly wool and give it a cuddle,” the woman cooed, pushing past me. “They’re sooooo beautiful.” Her wide-eyed husband appeared equally besotted. “Like teddy bears,” he murmured, as he joined the stampede. “Adorable.”

And that appeared to be the universal reaction to the sheep breed dubbed the “cutest in the world” when I went to record radio interviews at an agricultural show  yesterday. Even the dyed-in-the-wood (no pun IMG_2205intended) Scottish farmer who’d imported them from Switzerland admitted that he’d fallen in love with them. And if the attention at the show  was an example of the public’s reaction to his new enterprise, he’s on to a real winner. But for sale as pets, not pies.

They’re called Valais Blacknoses, they look like giant cuddly toys, they wear giant tinkling bells round their curly necks  and the spectators who hung around desperate for a cuddle (with the lambs, not me) were so carried away they made fabulous interviewees.

Never work with children or animals, they say, but the latter sure works for me. And yeah, I can’t deny it, they are pretty cute.

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A taste of the Kyle of Tongue

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Like escapees from an unruly chess board, the march of death climbs up and over the hill. They’re grandiose tombstones in an elemental place ; oversized queens, bishops and knights heading for the shallow, sandy waters of Tongue Bay.  Next stop the Atlantic Ocean.

Our day was long and unhurried. We’d no heavy packs on our backs and no transport south until tomorrow. Misty views to the hills beyond the Kyle meant walking across the long causeway was slow, and I pitied the cars and vans their flashes of scenery while we paused every few steps to breathe in ever changing Ben Loyal. Ahead of us all the time was the stark cemetery on the hill.

No insects pestered us today but still I itched. New red blotches had burst into life. And just above my knee this morning I discovered a tick already swelling, its jaws firmly clamped in my flesh. I wielded  my new tick-tweezers and twisted then squashed the parasite, watching my blood seep out and wondering if this one carried Lyme’s Disease.

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The graveyard was a haven of heather and mosses, wild flowers and a strong rusty lichen that was stark against the cool grey stone; Caloplaca marina, I think. Calos in Greek means nice, placa  is shield, so Caloplaca ‘beautiful patches’. And so they are.

Slowly the tide emptied, leaving vast sandy flats, exposing acres of seaweed and racks of farmed mussel beds. Tractors and trailers crept over the soft sand, seagulls called on them for scraps  and the clear northern light bounced against the beach.

I had just a few hours of wandering, watching and listening while, up on the hill, the tombstones maintained a much longer vigil. A hundred years, and counting…

Insect Endurance on the Sutherland Trail

We pitched our tents in the lonely Pass of the Thieves, the Bealach nam Meirleach.

It’s a bit off piste of the “official” trail because erudite Donald-who-drives-the-Durness-minibus told us when we jumped aboard it was the better route in to Gobernuisgach, the remote shooting lodge we were headed for, five miles away in the hills. And the old lady sitting beside him in the front nodded knowledgeably in agreement as the bus sped up the single track road. We took their advice and somewhere in the wilderness of Sutherland’s lochs and hills he pulled up in a layby, unloaded our packs and pointed out the track through the heather.

“Good luck with the clegs,” were his last words as he revved the engine and quickly rolled up his window.

The first of the legions of insects had silently settled on my forearm even before his van had turned the bend, but I didn’t notice until I felt the needle prick my skin. It was a foretaste of the carnage that was to follow.

I’d forgotten about clegs (or horse flies). I certainly didn’t know they’d be able to penetrate my thin clothing, or that they’d be impervious to the thick later of insecticide I’d plastered over every exposed inch of skin. They’re lazy, sneaky insects with a heavy-duty impact – as my red and swelling wrist was demonstrating.

P1040220We ducked, swatted and swiped our way along the old drove route that had been used by generations of farmers to walk their cattle to market hundreds of miles away in the south. Their long journey to Falkirk or Perth from Sutherland took weeks, and on one occasion when the men returned with their annual earnings, they were ambushed and robbed in this isolated place. The gaelic name, Bealach nam Meirleach guarantees the crime will never be forgotten.

The walking was flat, easy and (once the clegs retreated) lazily slow in the burning sunshine. We dawdled, stopped to rest, fill bottles and drink from sparkling waterfalls then by early evening, when the lochs spread out along the strath before us, we set up camp, ate and settled down in our sleeping bags.

A stiff breeze flapped my tent and I lay gazing out at faraway Ben Loyal, listening to the persistent gurgle of water through the rocks below. There were no ruins here, no signs of previous habitation, no stone walls or broken down fences.

As my eyes closed I relished the thought that I was likely to be the first person ever to lay my head down and sleep on this few square feet of remote earth.

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Fashion matters, even at 91

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Jessie’s a remarkably stoical old lady who has had to tolerate some terrible blows in recent years, yet time after time she grits her teeth and picks herself up.

I brought her some new clothes yesterday. It took just ten minutes to run round the shops and choose the cardigans and blouses I guessed she’d like then take them to the care home where she’s staying. I thought she’d smile and be pleased but could never have imagined her pleasure in the prettiness of the patterns or her sheer delight in trying on new clothes.

It usually takes a lot of concentration for her to heave herself up to a standing position then slowly shuffle behind her “zimmer” to the communal areas, but yesterday she was up and out of  her room in a shot, looking for people coming down the corridor, smiling and desperate to show off her favourite new outfit to the other old ladies and carers, then basking in their compliments.

Never believe that fashion doesn’t matter.

Naked hills and empty glens

 

The remoteness was exhilarating, but last week’s hills were lonely and lifeless. I walked away from the wilderness more anxious than ever about the desolation and destruction we’ve imposed on these fragile places.

The brutal beauty of the rocky mountain tops remains stark and true. Up there, beyond 3000ft, where the ice and weather have gnawed and eroded,  it’s harsh and dangerous and there’s a grandeur to the bare crags and peaks. They evoke awe and respect; they’re tougher than us.

It’s the empty, treeless expanse  below the tops that worries me. On the green slopes, in the soft, broad glens,  beside gentle lochs and Highland rivers there should be more than the tattered remnants of ancient Caledonian pines, more than an empty greenness where only deer roam. There should be  animals and  birds. And trees.

Much of the land that stretches across wild Scotland  hosts little wildlife and no natural woodland. It’s often assumed  trees simply won’t grow on the poor soils, but in the bogs you see the roots and remnants of strong trunks and branches preserved in peat. And in steep river ravines or on inaccessible islands – places that the sheep and deer haven’t been able to graze – the birches, rowans, pine and other native species take root and flourish. The photographs of the tiny lush islands against the degraded land that surrounds them tell the story.

These places have been slowly dying from overgrazing for 200 years but we’ve become inured to the desecration. We walk to the echo of boots on paths and the occasional ricochet of a rifle. It’s what we expect to see and hear, along with the burnt strips and squares of heather on grouse moors; the preserve of the game birds, wealthy landowners and their foreign clients.

Scotland has the most concentrated pattern of private land ownership in the developed world. Just 432 families account for half of all non-public land and a handful  – “absentees” who don’t even live there – own hundreds of thousands of acres. Since Victorian times they’ve “managed” this land for their fun; the occasional forays north for “sport” – deer stalking and grouse shooting. All that matters to them are plentiful herds of deer and coveys of grouse. Everything else can wither and die.

There are some enlightened places where natural regeneration is now taking place, and beavers, sea eagles and red kites have been reintroduced to wails of protest. But the efforts of the green owners, which are often conservation groups, are a drop in the ocean and opposed at every turn.

At long last however there’s a glimmer of hope that our Government might be taking the situation in hand. Land reform is on the cards in Scotland and landowners are slowly wakening up to a new world where they no longer hold all the power and the mismanagement of our most precious resource won’t be tolerated.

My new boots won’t last long enough to walk through a more natural order but I’m confident that the monoculture, and the influence of the landed minority that enjoy it, will eventually wither as surely as the Caley Pines and wildlife they condemned to near extinction. Our landscape deserves it.

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