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.

The real black bird in a pie

May 16th, 2015

Sing a song of sixpence / A pocketful of rye / Four and twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie …

The origins of the old nursery rhyme are said to go back to the start of the eighteenth century and are supposed to be drawn from social history, folklore and allegorical symbolism. I’m not sure I know what allegorical symbolism means but my Loanhead auntie had a much simpler explanation anyway.

During WW2 my father shot young rooks and my mother cut off the breasts and cooked them into Rookie Pie. It was a source of fresh, tender meat and, like most wives, Mother was a resourceful cook during the times of wartime shortage.

My Loanhead auntie said that the blackbirds in the nursery rhyme were not blackbirds i.e. cousins of our song thrushes – but black birds i.e. young rooks. Hence their leading role in the pie.

Young crows, on the other hand, never seem to have been part of the Scotsman’s plain fare. Their diet is carrion-based, which folk always said tainted the meat, making it unpalatable. Young rooks’ diet is more organic, consisting mostly of grain and seeds, worms and the larvae of agricultural pests like leatherjackets. And thus, their flesh is more appetising.

Rooks lay up to six greeny, brown flecked eggs which hatch around mid-April and I’ve been watching the young ones at several of the rookeries Inka and I pass on our walks. Before they can fly the chicks often clamber out of their high-rise nests and sit raucously bawling for their parents to feed them.

Sometimes a chick gets over confident scrambling about the swaying branches and falls to the ground. When that happens the parent birds seem to desert it and leave it to die.

I wondered how traditional a dish Rook Pie really is but could find no mention of it in Marion Lochhead’s, The Scots Household in the Eighteenth Century. Nothing either in F. Marion McNeill’s, The Scots Kitchen (1929), which the author wrote to “preserve the recipes of our old national dishes, many of which,….., are in danger of falling into underserved oblivion.”

Take One Glen, a compilation by Pat Thomson of recipes from nearby Glenesk, didn’t provide an answer. I even drew a blank in Mrs. Arthur Webb’s Farmhouse Cookery, although I did find a recipe for Angus Toffee which sounds rather sinful!

A blank stare
It was buying a rabbit at a farm shop – a deid one to put in a casserole – that brought back other memories of what some country folk thought was acceptable to eat and what was not. I was assured that I was buying a wild rabbit and when I asked, jokingly, whether it had been a milky doe I was met with a blank stare and had to explain.

When I was a youngster the numbers of wild rabbits in some places reached almost epidemic proportions. Farmers regarded them as a major pest for the damage they did to growing crops and were happy to see them trapped.

I used to go ferreting with an elderly and knowledgeable countryman and we usually came home with several dozen rabbits which had been bolted from their burrows by the ferrets and caught in nets.

A male rabbit is called a buck, the female is a doe and spring and summer is their main breeding season. A doe that is feeding young and has milk in her teats was – certainly in those days – referred to as a milky doe.

My old mentor wouldn’t eat them, saying that the does’ condition spoiled the meat. As a result I never ate a milky doe either, so I don’t know how true it is.

A pair of collared doves is building a nest in the hawthorn tree at the foot of the garden. Typical of all pigeons, it’ll be just a loosely woven platform of twigs and you’d wonder that the eggs don’t fall through it – which I have seen happen with woodpigeons.

Walking dogs is rewarding
Time spent walking dogs is usually rewarding. I wandered off a familiar track and found a bank of rich blue periwinkle which I hadn’t known was there. It’s just the flower to plant next spring in a shady corner of the garden we’ve been at a loss to know what to do with.

Walks with Macbeth are leisurely events these days. The Doyenne and I took both dogs up to the small loch at the foot of Glenesk which is one of the few walks we can take them together. The going is flat and easy on Macbeth’s old joints and it’s a walk he always enjoys. Inka exercises himself through the woods and we don’t have to worry about him.

We stopped for a while to watch the waterfowl. A snipe, a real stranger up there as far as I am concerned, flew across us and dropped into bracken at the fringe of the wood, where I suspect I’d find a nest if I looked. In all the years I’ve been visiting the lochan it’s the first snipe that I can recall seeing there.

Written on Saturday, May 16th, 2015 at 10:11 pm for Weekly.