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.

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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.

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Farm Life, History of the Highlands, Living with Nature, Uvie Farm

We walk on the heels of others’ workboots

I follow the Nog uphill on a mild overcast evening.. The snow picks out paths that are barely discernible relics worn by footfall, carts sledges even. Our route takes us up to Sarah Justina Macpherson’s monument behind and above the farm. We skirt the cliffs beneath the rusting enclosure, through birchwoods containing uncanny quiet here in the lee of the westerlies. It is a place of mounds and small valleys, sphagnum moss and blaberry plants with banks of golden chanterelle mushrooms in a moist late summer.
It is also an industrial landscape.
Many of the great houses of the area were built with Creag Dhubh granite. The place would have rung with the sounds of work and activity bouncing from bare granite faces.
So Romanian Mike, come to pick up a site saw that I have no need of, straightens in surprise at the sound of a military jet hammering low down the strath-

‘That’s not what the Highlands is about’-
Maybe not, not now – but sometimes I prefer the noise.

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Highland cattle, Living with Nature, Uncategorized, Uvie Farm

Granite granny & the birds

A covey of french partridges whirr away from bracken at the base of the Aspen paddock. Black Abby and dun Holly are given a cursory tickle just to maintain friendly relations, and I’m headin up the old township road toward breakfast. Watching the birds skim the grass like portly sprinters- a short expletive makes me look up: ‘Tchack’ -just that. Twoscore jackdaws high up head due west from somewhere downriver. I see this every morning: these birds are commuting: I have no idea why or where to. ‘Tchack’ drops like a stick from the beak of one of these sociable intelligent birds – it may be in the old speech of the place- Gaelic. The poetic gaels had a wonderful way of eliding, compressing meaning in musical syllables: the name of the farm, a case in point. Uvie was spelt Ubhaidh – a name that is almost a story: ‘Place of beauty in the lap of fear’. Write it again! ‘Place of beauty in the lap of fear’. This tells how my pastures are suspended between granite outcrops like an apron over bony knees. Follow the knees upwards and your sight fills with the dark granite cliffs of Creag Dubh – again from the Gaelic-‘ the Black Mountain’. A place of fear indeed and yet the crag is a granite matriarch hunkered with her sheltering back to the north wind and her knees spread to catch the warmth of the southern sun, skirts rolled up to her knees. It was her name that the fighters of Clan Macpherson yelled as they ran into battle: feared she may be – and loved.
So the terse call of the jack may be understood as something close to: ‘ No good watching your wellies, look up!Something will be happening in the sky.’
A smaller flock sweeps past the windows of the house, and lower yet a foursome fly so close to the ground they curve into the slight hollow of the Apron pasture. It is often like this – there appear to be set flight paths distinct for each group.
As I watch a flock in middle air steering busily toward the west in their untidy way, a single bird glides close – easily mistaken for one of the same but larger. A solitary raven brushes past angling downwards, as inscrutable in its lone mission as these foragers in their clannish foray. The raven lives and breeds on the cliffs above, a small blackness launched from the crag to patrol the farm.

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