Clan Macpherson, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized

I see you, Sarah Justina

The Nog is a shooting dog – a Hingarian Vizla dual-purpose point and retrieve.
A shooting dog who is terrified of shooting.
An airline pilot afraid of flying, a mountaineer with vertigo, claustrophic lift attendant – could not be worse.
As we head round the back of the gallows mound towards the old travellers stance bordered by bare larch trees, he hangs back – and then squats. We reached this point a couple of weeks ago, when some distant sportsmen loosed a volley of shots. To me they were barely audible but to the Nog meant imminent destruction demanding instant refuge in the roundhouse. This time I do not intend to to humour him like a Victorian lady with the vapours, so I bark at him to get over himself and come for a walk –

because we are indeed making our customary evening visit to a Victorian lady.

Sarah Justina is waiting. She is patient enough these days, sat on granite on the hill above the farm.
A ten minute climb takes me to the foot of her memorial obelisk – accompanied by a newly resolute Nog.
Her inscription incised in stone is set on the side of the obeslisk facing across the wide river valley towards her husband’s memorial. It is at eye-level –
‘Dedicated to the memory of Sarah Justina Macpherson – wife of Ewan chief of Clan Chattan – She lived at Cluny Castle for upwards of fifty years. She died March 1886 . Much beloved and deeply mourned’
There is some more but this, from memory, is close – I see it several times most weeks.
Today our companionship altered. I received, from the USA, a book commemorating their Golden Wedding three and a half years earlier- with a photo and hand-written inscription- her hand. Reading the plaque I see, behind the words, a plump litle lady seated with a book open, prayer book maybe but more likely a laundry list or other reminder of a life spent maintaining a household.
She is dressed exactly as we are used to seeing Queen Victoria – hair bunched under white lace, otherwise decked in black. Of course, the old queen was still on the throne then – in fact, the coronation was in the same year as Sarah Justina’s wedding. She herself had a coronation of sorts at Dalwhinnie where landowners and tenants turned out to cheer the young couple home, assisted by copious toasts in whisky and mountain dew.
It would be no suprise if she modelled herself on her more elevated sister as they both struggled with the privileges and duties of empire; responsibilities that for one spanned half the globe and-for the other- most of Laggan parish.
I imagine you did your duty Sarah Justina- and your reward?
A fine view shared -looking southward.

highland landscapes, hillwalking, Living with Nature, Uncategorized

Tiring work, this visiting different worlds

There are two worlds here: high and low.
The farm is low, as is all present day human habitation. The river, the roads, bridges, pasture – all low.
The tops, the ridges, the plateaus are high – with deer and grouse and eagles, berries and mosses.
At the current time the difference between the two is very clear: the one variegated, the other pure white. There is a line strung across the landscape, slightly diffused but surprisingly consistent across separate hillsides – almost like the watermargin of an invisible lake, with everything familiar submerged while the pristine summits rise clear from the confused blend of colours, habitats, contrivances.
So the Nog and I visit the second, the high world. Our transportation is ploddery – well, his is more gallivantery, but mine is ploddery for sure: first through the heather stems and ploutery peat cuttings, and increasingly through webs of damp snow caught in dishes and drains; into a new terrain where every footstep is placed on unseen ground, and carries a small burden of snow when lifted. Every step tells – and there are many to the far corner of the ground where three estates march.
Over the ridge, the going levels out. Here snow covers the high hags – deep, black peat where little grows, that now host wormlike white ridges gleaming icily in the winter sun with powder dusted flanks. The Nog is entranced by the glamour of this new world, I place one foot in front of the other. The wind blows a dense front toward us from the west, there is a purple yellow glow to the belly of dark cloud presaging snow. These hags are not a place to be caught out: there is no shelter, and if the snow drops over us in a whiteout – it will fool me. However well I know this ground – I will struggle to guide us out without risk.
For the time being the storm stays on the far side of the valley so we climb to our intended vantage. The weather comes in as we turn – if I can just make it to the corner of the deer fence, slip down the gulley, traverse towards the spy stone. My landmarks are still in view: I am not lost- tired, but not lost.
One foot in front of another will take me there – aiming for the watershed. I talk, ostensibly to the dog, as we trudge the last slope ‘Good boy, good boy – almost there. We’re going to make it – yes we’ll make it, just a bit further.’
And now we’re over the ridge, heading downhill. The snow is thinning. The final half mile sees us crossing clear ground – for the first time I stride out rhythmically.
It is still light as I open the truck door and call the Nog in – but not by much. The day is done, drained.
Heading home, I know how the wind blows across infinite white wastes – in the high world.

Animal stories, Farm Life, heroic ambition, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Why would the wren fly higher than the eagle?

I leave the feeding to the end of the day. It has been snowing on and off with bright skies between showers. The JCB doesn’t start, so it’s a race to the pumps for fuel and back for putting out hay and silage before dark.
When I return from Newtonmore, the stotts are bellowing: with reason, their feeder was close on empty when I checked this morning.
‘Fee-ee-e-ed us: you–uuu–re laa-a-ate!’ the big guy bellows from across the field; they are gathered at the gate the way they do every morning waiting for me to appear with the nuts.
‘I—iii-m ooo—ooo—n iiii-iit! No–oo–tt l—-ooong gu-uys’ I yell back before filling and powering up the old machine.
I’m taking the silage from inside the enclosure with the two little girls, Holly and Alice, so I let them into the yard. They come out dancing – and set to scratching on all the novel protuberances suddenly made available.

The old yellow machine thunders down the farm road past the pond where the mallard pair have recently taken up residence, nudges the gate open with the front wheels, drops the bale in the feeder and lurches back up the road.
It’s Billy and the girls in the calving paddock next. The bale catches on the forks and needs a shunt: the plastic wrap drops with it requiring removal  in case of ingestion, fatal in the case of a calf. Billy is sidling round the feeder as I hack at the plastic caught by the weight of the sodden grass. He catches up to me before I manage to release it, and bashes me with his giant horns.
As it happens I know this manoeuvre: I have to tickle him before completing the task. Toll extracted in the currency of contact, Billy permits me to haul out the remains of the wrap and remove it from danger.
The moon is shining clear on the snow-peppered mire of the yard. There is a single star riding above, like a wren above an eagle. As the story goes, we need a lift to fly high.

highland landscapes, hillwalking, History of the Highlands, Uncategorized, village life

Old voices whispering as we bring in the greater world

Al & I quad up  the south slope of the Monadhlaith plateau, with equipment and tools for the wind turbine halfway up looking over the village and the roads that lead in and out.

The plateau is a piece of old Scotland, pre Scotland, preglacial – very old, in fact. There are signs of human intervention up there. The long march fence sunk with molten lead into sockets painstakingly drilled into the granite: it lasted two winters before the wind in the wires drummed the labour to gaptoothed irrelevance. The old shooting box on the march lying open to the weather where men and ponies could overnight to wait on the deer crossing the high passes. There are signs of summer shielings from the middle period of occupation, and before that round houses and even, on one hillside, a small stone circle.

These are the signs from many centuries- but they don’t belong. People are visitors here: as I do when the evenings lengthen.
Al and I are working on a rock platform where the broadband is relayed to the houses on the far side of the strath. The face of the plateau rises behind us: I know the snow grouse will be scratching among the stones scattered on the snowclad upper slopes.  The patches of white start just above our position and grow rapidly as the eye is drawn to the higher snowbanks.
This harsh proffer of the land is not simply geographic, not just beckoning to the higher ground and adventure beyond the horizon; it also summons from a timeworn reality shadowing all human activity such as that undertaken today.
I huddle into my collar against the mountain’s chill breath: focus on the task in hand.

highland landscapes, Uncategorized, village life

The view is better without snowstorms

Its not the best day for taking in the scenery from the Glen Truim viewpoint. The wind is blowing hard: this slope catches the brunt, looking straight up to the Corrieayrack pass due west of here. This ridge is the first obstruction to the weather’s force driving unimpeded down the open breadth of the strath – the wide, glacier-carved valley that supports the village of Lagganbridge and all the outlying settlements and farms such as mine at Uvie.
Oh – and it is snowing.
I have driven 10 miles to achieve half a mile. This point looks down directly on the farm-but separated by the river Spey. The roundhouse is clear, the metalclad bunkhouse. I observe the west wall of my tool shed dark with saturated moisture, how the animals are collected on drier ground, apart from the pregnant mothers who stand squarely in the mud with their heads rammed deep into the silage dropped for them yesterday – there is always goodness to be mined in the first day or so before the fermented grass starts to stale.
But this is not what I came for – I have further to climb. The wind helps me up the slope as if with a dancer’s hand on my elbow, but driven shards force me to walk with a hand sheltering the side of my face.
At the top I find what I came for- not the traditional cairn- but a haphazard looking assembly of scaffolding poles bolted to the granite, supporting some modest electrical apparatus. This is part of the relay system for the village broadband system, developed and maintained by volunteers like myself. We have 70-odd subscribers now – but have vouchsafed to provide the service to any locals frustrated enough with the big providers to want it. It is relayed wirelessly from tops such as this, like a yodel perhaps, and I am scanning for a clear view to other village homes from this point

If the weather will permit me.

I see clear to Cluny and Craig Dhubh, Balgowan and Laggan are supplied from another mast, but Glen Truim and Breakachy, candidates for the better service, are invisible, masked by rock or trees.
Another flurry hits as I pack away the binos – time to head back down. The rounded contours of the Nog are distorted by the wind so that he looks angular at times – a thing of facets like a stealth fighter.
It is quieter among the pines – not far to the truck along the forest road.

Job done: another one begun.

highland landscapes, hillwalking, Uncategorized

Straight up the quarry wall this time

It is a dreich day, fit to watch the Rugby but the cattle need fed and the Nog walked – and besides, I’ll enjoy it more with a gulp of air in my lungs. I drag myself to the tinker’s stance by the Nog liftgate. Here we cross the road to the gate that breaches the perimeter deer fence to Cluny Estate, once run by Sarah Justina.
Her obelisk is in clear view from here, imposing, but beckoning  upwards. So we choose to the direct route, not the quarry path round the crags climbing beside the burn. The Nog reacts excitedly to the change in routine attacking the slope with sudden energy and turning to jump jigs as we climb. It is raining lightly so the slope is slick but I traverse safely across flows of moss and blaberry plants between dripping rockfaces.

Immediately below the summit supporting the monument, the Nog and I strike into a valley-end scooped from the rock as if from a feedsack. The floor is green and kind while the walls are sheer on three sides. The cliff is stacked in seams of granite folded on each other like damp towels petrified by ancient forces. Filling cracks between courses of black, seams of aggregated quartz and silica curl.
At the apex there is a hollow under jutting crags, creating a small dry space. Dung of sheep and deer testify that I am not the first to use it. Sitting here, the little steep gulley funnels away on either side opening out to the east where the wind blows from today.
The jagged sheltering stone is close around my head like a hood, or rather like the beaten metal turrets of a crown.
It feels like sitting in a cockpit – or an entrance beyond the rock.

highland landscapes, hillwalking, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

The Nogument

Sarah Justina’s monument disappears below the rocks forming the near horizon at my back, to be replaced by a new one, a Nogument. The dog sits neatly at the highest point, tapering from his hunkered rear to his alert ears. He waits as I play a game of my own: approaching the angled stob braced against a post set as a turner interrupting the fenceline, I step onto it ready to walk up it and over. The frost has melted but the wood holds moisture causing my boot to slip – not today then. On a good dry day I walk up the narrow bar without breaking stride, perch on the flat post-top and jump down the far side. Each time achieved is a small triumph of resolve and fluency. Unwilling to adopt an ungainly scramble over the line wire, I place my stick with my right hand, my left on the post and swing my legs over with my weight on my arms.
The Nog watches this manoeuvre impassively, as if dissociating himself from my antics: he has his own agenda. I stretch the top wires apart and call to him- once- twice, at the third call the stone dog melts and charges down the hill, suddenly recalled to vibrant life. He pauses, gathers and launches between the separated wires, turning immediately on landing to receive the expected congratulations.
Thus primed with a warming glow of joint achievement we step briskly down the hill with early stars starting out while the light wind cools from brilliant white summits.

Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Pedalling to turn the world – (but not very fast)

The reason I blog about life on a small farm in a sparsely populated, economically marginal, culturally deprived part of a scatter of small islands to the north of continental Europe is that I believe it to be full of natural drama, endlessly varied, diverse and stunningly beautiful – but not today.
Can’t help it – not today. The day is mild and still, there are patches of snow on the hills clinging without conviction. The cows are declining to calve – just eat what I supply them with.
The computer is sluggish, the laundry damp, the Nog doesn’t get a hill walk, and I struggle to anchor heavy woodworking machines singlehanded.
The ailing hornbeam growing in the doorway of the tumbledown ruin of the old farmhouse provides perches for a gang of jackdaws suggestive of Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ but (thankfully) failing to deliver.


Sometimes the world provides a ride: sometimes you have to pedal.

Farm Accommodation, Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Warmth at the core

The fire is ticking – something to do with constant heating and cooling: constant because this is the only heat source in the house. It is a Jotul woodburner, a monopod – beast with a single foot around which it can be made to rotate so that the lit logs are always seen. Nice idea, but little used.
It is a companion in much the way of the Nog – though quieter. I light it first thing and stock it last. It supplies warmth and cheer. The underfloor heating is expensive and dehydrating : I use it if temperatures drop- at the moment they hardly fall below freezing. The winter before last we had ten weeks sub zero – approaching minus twenty and the heating system failed – the woodburner sufficed.
It provides an axis for living in winter months. Functional tasks are made more pleasant by proximity and almost any domestic or social interaction occurs under its presidency.
This morning I leave the house after ensuring a sustainable flame. I take the quad from the garage to the west, travel in a wide loop south of the house due north to the yard. Feeding the grumbling stotts and placid Angus Halfhorn and his two girls takes me out east. All points covered.
Returning up the hill, the house is elevated on the skyline like a rock grown mushroom, the cupola umbrella-like opened under low cloud. Drifting between the roof green and sky is the thin plume of white smoke. It tells me which way the wind blows and how hard; what I may expect from the weather.
But this wisp also tells of continuity, a connection between outward manifestation and the life indoors. Its offer of comfort increases in direct proportion to the harshness of the winter weather.
It is the banner of ephemeral life in the dead time.

Animal stories, Farm Life, Highland cattle, highland landscapes, Uncategorized

Winter quiet

The dark vegetation at the top of Creag Dhub is dusted with snow while the grey granite remains unchanged. It is the summer plumage of a ptarmigan, reminiscent of warmer days on the high tops where the wind cuts still. Now the mild morning is greeted as though the season had turned and I listen hatless to the full throated song of an unknown bird in the branches above the shed roof. It is easy to visualise the sound falling like water, or a blessing.
Snow swirls again around the house as I look out from breakfast preparations. The flakes are small and round, light enough to be lifted and carried on the breezes that eddy in the lee of the planes of the roundhouse and its segmented roof. The flakes reveal the architecture of the westerlies – some which swoop from the roof above, some swirling round the walls, some shooting out across the fields with only the briefest reference to the temporary obstruction of my home.
The cattle are watchful, healthy, unperturbed – no new calves are born, no crises undergone by the older animals. .
Six long-winged birds fly westward – swans probably – I follow them with my eyes but can’t identify them for sure. A mob of jackdaws-always activist- has occupied the perimeter of the kitchen garden.
We are suspended in a kind of uncertainty.
I will put out two bales of silage.