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.

My Viking past

May 18th, 2013

IT WAS only last week I told you that I hadn’t seen siskins or goldfinches in our own garden for ages. Well, nature comes up trumps again. We now have at least one pair of each coming to feed daily. The siskins, with black crown feathers, are both males; the females are less colourful and should be sitting on eggs right now.

Perhaps introducing sunflower hearts into the feed mix has helped attract the new visitors. We humans enjoy a change of diet – no reason why our garden songbirds shouldn’t too.

A single greenfinch makes occasional appearances but it’s the siskins which are a bit unexpected. I associate them very much with conifers and we are surrounded mainly by beech woods. However, nature continually confounds me and I’ve long stopped questioning apparently uncharacteristic behaviour in our wildlife – I might even include some of my human acquaintances in that observation!

Regular readers know I’m a fan of train travel. Last Saturday I took the train to Edinburgh to join son James and Alfie and Mathilda at the Viking exhibition in the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street, just round the corner from my alma mater, Edinburgh University.

The family tradition is that all Scottish Whitsons sprang from the loins of three Viking brothers who sailed here in their longboats, landing at Fitdee (Footdee) at Aberdeen. I wanted to see what sort of people these ancestors were and I was encouraged by the story the exhibition told.

Despite all the tales of killing and rapine (that’s plundering and robbery) I got the impression that the average Viking could be a sensitive sort of chap, more interested in meeting the locals and getting on with a bit of trading . Many settled here, married local girls and stayed to help on the family farm.

I was surprised how small their war axes were, but they clearly used them with brutal effect. And their swords were short, stabbing weapons for close quarter fighting.

Silver jewellery was well represented and the Vikings were imaginative and artistic silversmiths. Modern designs from Orkney and Ireland reflect Viking influence. They were lettered too as their runic alphabet and sagas demonstrate.

I discovered the truth about the belief that the Vikings attached cow horns to their war helmets to make them scarier. Strangely enough it originates from the first performance in 1870 of Die Walkure (The Valkyries) from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

Brunnhilde, the Valkyrie queen (the Valkyries are part of Norse mythology) fell in love with the hero Siegfried who deceived her; she had him killed and then committed suicide. Doubtless, for romantic effect, on stage Brunnhilde was depicted as a spear-wielding, cow-horn-helmeted warrior maiden.

A mistaken connection was made between Wagner’s mythical heroine’s headgear and the reality of the Vikings’ unadorned iron helmets. It likely made a good story for the newspaper columnists at the time and the legend has stuck.

It may have been a late spring for most of the countryside but along the sides of the railway great patches of yellow gorse is in full bloom. Of course the line sides aren’t treated with agricultural sprays and are largely left to grow wild.

A cheerful sight greeting us each morning when I go out with the dogs is the planter at the front door overflowing with primroses which have flowered continually for the past month and look set to continue for another.

I love the big splashes of colour that illuminate the countryside but I get greatest pleasure walking through woods and along the margins looking for the small flowers that don’t make such an impact.

Look out for wood sorrel. Delicate white flowers and clover shaped leaves hugging ground level, for the slender stems look as though they might snap in the lightest breeze.

Wild pansies, or heartsease, are flowering too, usually in shades of violet and blue. Occasionally you’ll find variations with white and yellow petals.

Walking the dogs near Fettercairn I came on a pink flowering plant I didn’t recognise, carpeting the wood floor. My Mary McMurtrie, Scottish Wild Flowers came to the rescue again. It was purslane, originally a North American plant which has become naturalised here and favours damp woods – just where I found it.

Written on Saturday, May 18th, 2013 at 9:26 am for Weekly.