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.

Welcome to "Man with two dogs" - the family website for dog owners and dog walkers.

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

It was a hard life

January 26th, 2013

INKA’S DOG meal was running low. I buy it from The Moorie kennels at St Cyrus and my usual route is over The Wide Open which links St Cyrus with the Marykirk/Laurencekirk road, crossing the spine of hills separating the Howe of the Mearns from the coastal plain.

It’s well named for, in this wintery weather, it’s wide open to the worst of the elements. The road runs through a slap, or pass, between the hills. Slap is a fine old Scottish word, rarely if ever heard nowadays in its original context. It survives locally in the Lucky Slap above Monikie, another pass between hills on the road from there to Forfar. It also accounts for the building expression to slap, meaning to knock through, a window or a door in the wall of a building.

Hospital Shields Farm sits on the summit of the Wide Open and likely catches every gust that whistles through that windswept slap. Shortly after you’ve passed the farm road-end you see St Cyrus Bay below you.

On Tuesday the sea was in a nasty frame of mind. The horizon was lost between leaden seas and leaden skies, and surging lines of angry white rollers dissipated themselves on the shore.

I got to thinking how it must have been for fishermen from Ferryden or Johnshaven and Gourdon in the days of sail, caught too far from home and trying to beat back to their home port. In these conditions it’s a bleak coastline for there’s no shelter from the weather driven by an east wind onto the exposed lee shore.

Peter Anson (who lived at Ferryden for a number of years) in his book Fishing Boats and Fisher Folk On the East Coast of Scotland describes the boats built a hundred and fifty years ago as “open boats without any sort of forecastle protection deck.”

They were built as small as twenty feet and up to forty feet in length because, at that time, many of the fishing harbours were unable to accommodate larger vessels. In some places there were no protective harbour walls, not even a natural harbour, and the boats could not be so big that, in stormy conditions, the fishermen could not draw them up the beach to safety above the high water mark.

It was a hard life exposed to the mercy of these blessed elements. One of the few comforts was that the wives carried their menfolk out to the boats on their backs so that their boots didn’t get wet. Seaboots in those days were leather and this was to avoid the men being at sea for a whole day with wet leather drying on their feet.

In many places the women waded out barefoot over rocky and stony beaches. Think on it – who do you think were the hardier?

But then, as now, fishermen led precarious lives as was scathingly illustrated by the Newhaven fishwife in response to a complaint from a well-to-do but parsimonious Edinburgh housewife about the price of her fish – “It’s not fish you’re buying it’s men’s lives.”

The dogs and I took a turn up to the wee lochan. It was frozen over. The resident mallard duck had dispersed to the coast seeking open water and feeding. Their own instinctive weather gauge will tell them when they can return.

Normally there’s a background chatter of jackdaws from the woods round the loch but even they had subsided into moody silence. Only a couple of jays were kicking up a frightful racket about our intrusion. We took the hint and left.

On the way home we passed a corner of a field blue with wood pigeon gorging on oil seed rape. It’s normally the first crop sown after a cereal crop has been harvested. There’s an initial burst of growth and it goes into apparent suspended animation over the winter. The green leaves are a magnet for hungry birds when other food sources are covered in snow.

There’s an old fishermen’s superstition that a change of weather can be expected on a Friday. As you’re tucking into your Saturday morning cornflakes and reading this you’ll know how prophetically weatherwise the ancient greybeards were. Although, as with all good superstitions, it’s left conveniently vague as to which Friday they meant!

Written on Saturday, January 26th, 2013 at 5:30 pm for Weekly.