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.

Patience required

March 7th, 2015

DSC02454FROM THE time he first stood upright man relied on the support of a stout stick as he hirpled through the primaeval forests. Images of sticks appear in prehistoric cave art more than 25,000 years old.

One of the most basic and original tools, it has survived the millennia effectively unchanged. For the past ten years I’ve taken a stick with me when I’ve walked these dogs. Thirty years ago, at the Highland Show, I bought the Doyenne a leg cleek, a shepherd’s crook for catching sheep by the hind leg. She thought I had taken leave of my senses when I presented it to her but she wouldn’t go a walk without it now.

For Christmas, son James and his family gave me a book on stick making, or stick dressing, and paid for a place at a workshop and demonstration of stick making organised by the Scottish Crookmakers Association at Newcastleton, last Sunday.

Newcastleton is in the heart of Liddesdale, not far from the border with England. It’s mostly forgotten now but in the sixteenth century, at the height of the reiving times, this stretch of the country was the most lawless and blood-drenched part of the Borders, known as the Debateable Land. It’s a douce place, by comparison, now.

The village hall was packed with stick making enthusiasts of all ages and I felt – as I was – the complete novice. The demonstrators, all champion stick makers, talked their audiences through shaping ram and buffalo horns into stick handles, carving in wood and horn, straightening shanks – the actual stick bit – from bent branches, and engraving and decorating the handles.

It’s not an occupation for the impatient. As one demonstrator told me, he often pops into his workshop for half an hour and comes out three hours later. Patience is essential, a steady hand desirable, and the vision to see the finished article in a rough ram’s horn or a block of hazel cut from your favourite wood can carry you through the twenty hours and more, depending on the amount of decoration, needed to complete a stick.

The competitions attracted a selection of truly artistic sticks and crooks with plain handles, handles carved with fish and pheasant heads in horn or all in wood, and thumb sticks.

I took a stick with me which I’d sat on and broken (no unseemly laughter, please) and hoped to learn how to remove the horn handle and fit it on a blackthorn shank I was given a year ago. Phillip Roskell, sheep farmer from Wamphray, near Moffat, and current Scottish Champion of Champions, showed me how to straighten out the new shank with a heat gun and a vice. It looked simple in the hands of an expert and I’m hoping the rest of the project will be as straightforward.

It was a thoroughly entertaining and instructive day. Whatever else, I learned that stickmakers get by on troughs of soup and mountains of sandwiches, for which the ladies in the kitchen must be congratulated.

I set off back to Peebles, and my bed for the night, on the B6399 to Hawick. I followed the finger post to dark Hermitage Castle which I’ve wanted to visit for years. It sits in a lonely haugh by the side of Hermitage Water, a malevolent beast at odds with the hallowed associations suggested by its name. And haunted yet, they say, by the tortured shrieks of dying victims.

The narrow road criss-crosses small burns immortalised in JB Selkirk’s evocative poem – Ah Tam! gie me a Border burn / That canna rin without a turn …

One moment you’re plunged into a narrow cleugh where it’s easy to imagine reivers hiding their looted cattle until the pursuing hot trod has passed. The next, the road opens out in long vistas to the Moorfoot Hills and lots of sky.

A shepherd’s crook is a working tool and it was natural for the old-time shepherds, practical men of necessity, to while away long winter’s evenings on their remote hill farms making their own sticks – as they still do. It’s great that the skills of this ancient craft are being preserved and passed onto another generation.

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Written on Saturday, March 7th, 2015 at 1:22 pm for Weekly.