Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Exotic visitor

September 22nd, 2012

“THEIR CRYIN’ voices trailed ahint them on the air”.

I could hear the geese but was looking for them in altogether the wrong place. My companion pointed out the skein far above our heads in the sweep of the corn-flower blue sky, beating down the line of the coast – so high they seemed scarcely the size of starlings.

I hazarded that they were likely heading for the Montrose Basin and his reply surprised me. At the height they were flying he reckoned their destination could be as far away as Norfolk. If it was Montrose Basin, they’d be on a much lower flight path and losing height.

I was in Johnshaven to find out about the rosy starling which had appeared in the village several weeks back. Much the same size as our indigenous starling, in the dusk they can be mistaken for a small magpie, but they have pink plumage instead of the magpie’s white.

More at home on mainland Europe, my Book of British Birds, published in 1969 by the Readers Digest and the AA, describes it as a “very irregular visitor, recorded especially in north-east Scotland….” So it had certainly pitched up in the right place.

It’s gone now, back to from whence it came, but perhaps another will come avisiting next year, and I’ll see it.

The rosy starling isn’t Johnshaven’s first exotic visitor. In 1969, my predecessor, Colin Gibson wrote in his Nature Diary about a hoopoe which was sighted by Mr Edward McBay, sitting on a dyke – the bird I mean, not Mr McBay!

For two hours we sat on a bench overlooking Johnshaven harbour, warmed by the sun, and armadas of fleecy cumulus clouds sailed high overhead.
Beyond the guardian rocks at the harbour entrance the sun bounced off a placid sea. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Red Head’s snout curving out from the south horn of Lunan Bay.

The creaky call drew our attention to a heron feeding in the shallows at the harbour mouth as the ebbing tide turned and started washing small fish and crustaceans back into the flooding harbour.

It does you good to sit and just talk without any sort of an agenda, ranging over every subject that comes to mind and recalling stories of friends.

The bracken’s green is fading and there are tan crotal patches where it has already died, and it’s easy to track Inka crashing noisily amongst the crackly dead stalks.

Crotal is a natural vegetable dye – rusty reddish-brown – boiled up from rock lichens and traditionally used in the tweed industry to dye wool. I remember, at one time, it was a bit of a signature colour for Cheviot tweed.

My prep school headmaster wore a plus-four suit in crotal tweed. He was tall and the colour made him rather conspicuous, and gave us early warning of potential trouble when we were up to mischief.

He was an impatient, irascible man with a short fuse and inclined to bung the chalk box at you if he thought you were being particularly obtuse in your answers. Mind you, it helped develop your reactions; a bit like a cerebral slipcatch – and I apologise if that only really means something to cricketing readers.

To produce a similar tan colour, the Irish use saffron extracted from crocus flowers to dye their cloth. Since it could only be afforded by the wealthy, wearing saffron-dyed garments was regarded as a sign of nobility among the ancient Celts. However, nowadays, pipers of the Royal Irish Rangers and some other regiments with Irish honours perpetuate the wearing of the saffron in their kilts.

A mordant, or fixing agent, was used to set the dye in the cloth and prevent it from washing out. It’s not altogether breakfast table conversation, and forgive me again if it curdles your cornflakes, but the traditional mordant for Harris tweed was urine. Harris menfolk filled a tub kept, for decency, behind their heather-thatched blackhouses and the tweed was soaked in it as part of the finishing process.

It was said that the lounges of Edwardian Highland hotels smelled like dirty stables when tweed-suited gentlemen returned, soaked to the skin, from a day on the hill or from fishing. The damp revived the aroma of the mordant which percolated through the hotel.

Written on Saturday, September 22nd, 2012 at 11:54 am for Weekly.