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.

Transience and tragedy

August 8th, 2015

DSC02774VIOLET JACOB in her novel, The Interloper, called it Garviekirk. All my life I’ve called it Beattie’s Grave. Its historic name is the Nether (Lower) Kirkyard, sitting in the bents at the foot of St Cyrus cliffs.

There’s a history, too, of fishing for white fish with the sma’ lines all along this part of the north-east coast. Stake, or fly nets, to catch migrating salmon, were a feature of St Cyrus Bay and provided seasonal employment for many local men.

A story from earlier times tells of a local landowner who resented paying tithes to the Church. He ordered his servants to throw back every tenth fish they caught and told the monks they could collect their tithes from the sea. Disrespect for authority took creative and brazen forms in those distant days.

Transient life
Lichen-covered headstones in the kirkyard dating back to 1771, 1801, 1829, are difficult to read now. Embellished with skulls, crossed bones, winged souls and hourglasses, they reflect the transient nature of life.

One headstone marks the grave of a ‘salmond’ fisher. The epitaph on another reads – “As runs the glass, man’s life doth pass” – the sands of time, like life, run out. Wheatsheafs, scissors, square and dividers identify the occupations of farmer, tailor, wright.

An imposing memorial to General Sir Joseph Straton, links the little kirkyard with a hero of the Battle of Waterloo, 1815, who, still a colonel, assumed command of the 2nd British Cavalry, or Union Brigade, and played his part in the victory we are celebrating this year.

A stone-slated watch house built in the corner of the enclosing wall sheltered relatives keeping watch to stop grave robbers exhuming newly buried bodies and carrying them off to Aberdeen University’s medical school. The nineteenth century body-snatching likes of Burke and Hare didn’t restrict their operations just to Edinburgh.

Frailty of life
1823 and George Beattie was a Montrose Writer or solicitor – a lad o’ pairts they would have called him – who overcame a humble background to advance himself. But ability and success counted for nothing when he courted the daughter of a wealthy local laird.

Social convention stood in his way, denying him her hand in marriage in favour of a more socially advantaged suitor. In his distraction he blew out his brains in the old Nether Kirkyard. A memorial, erected by his mourning friends, stands on the spot where it is said his body fell.

The following are the last lines of a poem he wrote in anticipation of taking his own life – Gloomy grave, you’ll soon receive me, / All my sorrows here shall close; / Here no fickle fair shall grieve me; / Here my heart shall find repose.

I parked at the St Cyrus Nature Reserve visitor centre and popped in for a word with Thérèse Alampo, the SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) Reserve warden. I got a noisy welcome from her Dalmatian, Ella.

Last week I mentioned the hummingbird hawkmoths I had seen on a lavender hedge in France. By way of another war story Thérèse told me of the Royal Navy ships involved in Operation Neptune, carrying troops for the Allied invasion of occupied Europe in June 1944, meeting swarms of hawkmoths flying across the Channel on their annual migration to the south coast of England.

I set out with Inka along the track that runs behind the former Tay Salmon Fishers’ bothy, which goes back to the days when the salmon netting in St Cyrus Bay was leased partly by that company and partly by Joseph Johnston & Sons of Montrose.

St Cyrus beach was always a great place for youngsters. Perishing cold as often as not, but when you’re young and looking for adventure you don’t notice – anyway, making a fire from driftwood was an essential part of every picnic. It was good, too, for beachcombing for floats from fishing nets – cork and galvanised metal or, if you were in luck, an old glass one.

New life
The reserve is a botanist’s dream and an abundant range of wild flowers flourishes year round.

I walked past swathes of frothy meadowsweet; mayweed which looks like ox-eye daisies but is identified by its lacy leaves. Umbrella heads of pink valerian; yellow hawkweed could be mistaken for ragwort at a distance but there’s no mistaking when you are close to. Yarrow, used traditionally in the brewing of beer; deep purple bellflowers and cornflower-blue harebells hanging on threadlike stalks, all nodding in the breeze.

High above, a fearful racket of wild cries broke out and three large birds flew out from the top of the cliffs. Thinking it was a buzzard being mobbed by a couple of gulls, I didn’t pay too much attention. But it was soon clear from their scimitar-shaped wings and narrow, squared-off tails that they were all the same species.

A quick check with Thérèse confirmed that they were three young peregrine falcons hatched this season, playing in the wind thermals and learning their flying skills. A classic example of waiting ages for one peregrine falcon, and three come along all at once.

Written on Saturday, August 8th, 2015 at 8:40 am for Weekly.