The birds

A very disturbing story doing the rounds of the Scottish media this week – the unlawful killing of various Scottish birds of prey, from hen harriers to one of the nation’s symbols, the magnificent Golden Eagle, are at a twenty year high despite legal protection. And gee, isn’t it just a coincidence that the geographical distribution of the cases often matches the location of major ‘sporting’ estates where fat businessmen shoot flocks of tame pheasants scared into the line of their shotguns by beaters? (I put ‘sporting’ in commas because I don’t see anything sporting in killing animals for kicks, especially when it involves practically tame creatures and almost no skill from the so-called ‘hunter’) Yes, I’m sure that’s just coincidence and not gamekeepers and landowners poisoning, trapping and shooting raptors on the side to make sure they don’t interfere with with their game birds.

Or maybe there are just a lot of scumbags out there who don’t give a damn about our wildlife and environment (or law) as long as they can exploit it for money – a double irony some of the people in these sorts of jobs who are probably doing this vile act like to tell the rest of us that they are ‘the guardians of the countryside’ No, you’re not, you condescending, tweed-clad twats, you’re vicious, amoral bastards. I’m sure there are plenty of gamekeepers who do adhere to the law and try to protect species including raptors, but from the evidence there are obviously a hell of a lot of them who are only to happy to kill even endangered animals. The answer? Well these feckers all love hunting and complain we’ve restricted so much of that, so let’s have some more hunting – open season on hunting anyone in tweeds or Barbour jackets and Deerstalker hat, anyone? Tally ho and give ’em both barrels – don’t worry, its a humane way to kill ’em, you know, otherwise they ruin the environment…

Blue, green, gold

Suddenly after a depressingly bad summer (even for someone like me who is allergic to strong sunlight) we’ve had a sudden burst of sunny, warm weather, very summer like; the beaches by North Berwick were packed at the weekend. Ironically as we have this sudden splash of warmth and sun as we move into September and autumn – instead of light until late into the night the darkness is falling earlier each night and as soon as that sun goes down its cool, a coolness that whispers of the change of seasons and the autumn and winter knocking on the door.

Looking up from my book on the way home this evening the sky was the most beautiful shade of blue, glowing with light, the trees in Princes Street Gardens and the side of Castle Hill still a deep, lush myriad of green hues, a brilliant contrast against the blue, long, long shadows stretching out as the slow autumnal sunset drifts into golden beams. When we do get dry, sunny days at this time of year it really is a golden time in Scotland, the sun moving further round the horizon from its position of summer dominance so that now its light is stretched out to softer, more golden-copper tones. And here and there among the still-emerald foliage the odd leaf slowly turning brown; within a few weeks they will all being to turn, crisp, brown and red, fluttering to the ground and I’ll go running through the piles of leaves and kick them in the air because you’re never too old to enjoy that.

And just a few more weeks on from that it will be dark by the time I come home, the deep darkness of winter as the wheel of the seasons turns. My breath will mist in the frigid air and frost will sparkle on the bare branches. And again I’m not sad as some are when summer turns to autumn to winter because I love the seemingly eternal cycle of the seasons; each has its own transitory beauty and each connects us to nature and our world. When the long darkness falls it also means watching my cats contentedly sleeping in front of the fire’s flickering flames, the lights of the Winter Wonderland, the wonderful warmth of a friendly pub after walking in from a cold, dark night, the simple delight of hot, homemade soup after a cold walk. Then the spring will dawn again behind that, then back to summer and Festivals once more. How quickly they seem to go past and yet how everlasting they feel. Goodybe to another summer, welcome to another autumn in its golden crown.

When Penguins Ruled the Earth

For years I’ve made jokes about gigantic prehistoric penguins, from millions of years ago – Penguinosaurus Rex, tall, with a huge, long, sharp and deadly beak, from the Time When Penguins Ruled The Earth and Doug McClure had to rescue buxom women in fur bikinis from them. Then today I read that actually there is a little truth to my penguin-obsessed nonsense. I just love it when real life is almost as weird as fantasy.

Walking in the glen

I went off with Gordon and Bruce the greyhound (with his head stuck out the car window as usual) to Roslyn, just outside Edinburgh, for a good wander around the woodland walk around the glen, then up to the remains of Roslyn Castle and finally a walk past Roslyn Chapel.

Starting from the carpark down in the glen, we crossed the river and started up the steep slopes. The greenery you can see all over the hillside is not grass – it’s wild garlic, masses and masses of wild garlic. The entire area is virtually carpeted with garlic plants and even early in the year like now you can smell the pungent aroma – another month or two and it will be much stronger. There’s more garlic here than every Italian and French restaurant in the whole of Edinburgh combined.

After walking up the steep, wooded slopes, ducking low branches and clambering over roots and moss-covered rocks and fallen trees we came to the bass of Roslyn Castle and decided to do a circuit. This is the approach to the stone bridge linking the road to the castle.

Looking up towards the bridge above us; this doesn’t really do the sense of scale justice, it is a fair old drop from up there, then on the far side yet another drop down to a low river valley where you can see walls of stone eaten out by millennia of water erosion.

On the other side of the stone bridge, looking up; I love the way some of the base stones are just huge boulders with the edges trimmed by stonemasons, then higher up the structure is of more conventional stone blocks cut to shape. Looks several stories up on the left and you will see glass and curtains – this part is still occupied and we’ll come round to it in a moment

Roslyn has quite a history, including being attacked by Oliver Cromwell; old warty face stabled his horses in nearby Roslyn Chapel to show his disregard, although at least he didn’t destroy the chapel. Much further back Sir William Wallace has associations with the castle and further along the forest walk than we went today is Wallace’s Cave. All across Scotland there are sites named for Wallace and associated with folk tales of our hero – I grew up near Wallace’s Well on the outskirts of Glasgow and used to cycle to it, it’s supposedly the spot where he was betrayed to the English and finally captured to meet a gruesome end. There are far fewer such places now, but they still number in their hundreds, probably a hangover from a pre-literate time when the common folk wanted to remember their hero and so named spots for them and associated them forever after with a tree, a rock, a cave, a well… It may also derive from a deeper, older Celtic heritage and the association of the hero with the land itself.

Reached the summit now and this looks very much like a lovely old Scottish rural cottage, doesn’t it? Actually this is the top of the building you saw earlier – the back of this drops down several stories as you saw two pictures back; quite deceiving from this angle though, isn’t it?

Another view of the still habited remains of the castle; between the location and the fact it is surrounded by great swathes of wild garlic growing all over the hill and glen it must be the single home most protected against vampire attack in the entire kingdom.

On top of the stone bridge pictured earlier, leading up to the remains of the castle.

Just walking past Roslyn Chapel, which as you can see is still covered in scaffolding and a temporary roof as it is repaired and renovated. As Wallace is associated with the nearby castle so the Bruce is with this building, with a stone carving within said to be a death mask of the greatest of King of Scots. Of course the Chapel is also associated with the Knights Templar, several of whom pledged their service to the Bruce and fought for him at Bannockburn in 1314, where a vastly outnumbered Scottish army shattered a vast, well-armed English army and secured the independence of the nation, changing the future shape of Great Britain as they did so, although they would not have known it at the time. Far distant ancestors of my own clan, the Gordons, also fought alongside Bruce at Bannockburn and this is thought to be where they started their rise to prominence in later Scotland, being granted extensive lands by the Bruce for their services.

Another view of Roslyn Chapel, covered in its repair structure. Somewhere deep within this small structure is said to lie the Holy Grail itself; certainly one of the functions on my new camera was set off today, the special function which lights up in the display to warn you that you are close to an ancient and mythological device (it also works on Arthur’s sword and other ancient relics, but I don’t use the function much). Seriously though, I have no idea if the Grail is buried within the Chapel at all (Dan Brown includes Roslyn in his pile of second-hand nonsense in the Da Vinci Code) but the carvings within it are of astonishing quality and intricacy.

It is also linked with another mystery, that of early visitors to what we now call America; the Sinclair family who were instrumental in building it were also known as sailors and they hired navigators to sail from the Orkneys westwards. Some local traditions from native tribes in Canada and eastern America tell of their visit, long before that idiot Columbus took a wrong turn. On the roof of the chapel is carved the ‘bounty of God’s Earth’ and among the fruits and vegetables is a representation of the crop of maize, then unknown here, being a New World crop. Does it mean they made their voyage and came back? No-one knows for absolutely certain, although some circumstancial evidence leans in their favour; I’d like to think they did. Next to the chapel is a fine old house which used to be an inn, which saw visits from Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Boswell and Doctor Johnson and Dorothy and William Wordsworth. However, lest we get carried away with mythology, history and nostalgia, I loved this advert one of the local farmers had placed, cashing on on the Dan Brown associations while also pretty much showing what he thinks of it all:

Killer Whales

Workers on that mighty piece of Victorian engineering, the Forth Rail Bridge, have spotted a pod of Orcas swimming past them in the River Forth, right up past Edinburgh. There are seals on some of the islands in the Forth, which may be attracting them, although it is remarkable to see them swimming so far upriver. That would be a sight to cheer you up on the commute from Fife to Edinburgh, wouldn’t it? How cool is it that a couple of miles from my door there are killer whales swimming in the river?? And why couldn’t those darned Orcas arrive over the weekend when I could get out there with my camera?!?!? Mind you, I suspect the local seals have a somewhat different view on this.