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.

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

Small bites of Highland life

September 12th, 2015

DSC02875MY COUNTRYSIDE sometimes comes in quite small bites, but it’s no less interesting for that. I rarely come home from a walk, accompanied – for the time being – by one dog, without at least one memory to write about.

I spent Monday night with our son Rob at Ardverikie where he is the estate factor. Inka went with me and, on Tuesday morning, before starting for home, I took him a walk over the Gallovie Bridge which crosses the River Pattack.

The previous evening Rob drove us over that same bridge and then, on estate tracks, to the upper reaches of the river where we hoped to fish. We congratulated ourselves on choosing a sublime evening – warm sun, a light breeze, classic Highland weather which is unbeatable when everything goes right. Nothing could go wrong? It could!

The Scottish midge
It is a fact, I am assured, that a Scottish midge cannot fly in wind exceeding 4mph and, as we started out, the wind dropped away completely. Life for the River Pattack midges had taken a turn for the better on two counts. Conditions for midges were ideal and fresh meat had arrived.

They came out in hordes, they texted their chums to come and join the party, and ravening clouds of the little buzzers descended on us, getting up our noses, in our ears and eyes and hair and into our mouths. The last time I experienced midges like it was on holiday in Sutherland, thirty-odd years ago.

Poor Inka was just a moving mass of them.

The situation couldn’t be endured. There are moments when a tactical retreat is the only option and, with mozzie-filled oaths and cusses, we scampered back to the Landrover. But from every disaster something usually can be salvaged and I came home with more than just midges to write about.

We had driven almost to Ardverikie’s boundary where it marches with neighbouring Ben Alder estate. It’s the middle of nowhere, miles from human habitation or roads – isolation. Keep walking and the first outpost of civilisation is lonely Corrour railway station on the West Highland Line.

I have a probably misplaced sense of history in situations like this. As I looked back on Ben Alder’s mountain massif filling the horizon I thought of Cluny’s Cage, a concealed cave high on the mountain’s south face, overlooking Loch Ericht, where Cluny Macpherson took refuge after escaping from the disaster of Culloden in 1746.

Bonnie Prince Charlie joined him briefly before heading for Moidart where he boarded the French privateer, L’Heureux, which carried him to France never to set foot on his native soil again. Robert Louis Stevenson adapted the story in his novel Kidnapped when Cluny offered shelter to the fugitive Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour, on the run from the English Redcoats who, in real life, were scouring the surrounding countryside for Cluny himself.

I thought of the misery the Redcoat troops must have endured, imprisoned in their red tunics of felted broadcloth and heavy linen breeches stiffened with white pipeclay, beating through the deep, tangled heather for a quarry who was laughing at them from his eyrie high on Ben Alder-side. They’d have been driven to distraction by the aerial battalions of a relentless enemy which could call up battalions more of reinforcements to replace their fallen comrades slapped to death by the demented soldiers.

It was a holiday at Ardverikie in 1847, in August – the height of the midge season – that finally decided Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to acquire a Highland holiday home and they subsequently purchased Balmoral.

Perhaps by the cool waters of Loch Laggan, at the foot of Ardverikie’s front lawn, they avoided the worst depredations of the midges, or perhaps the weather was cool and breezy and blew them away. Perhaps, with royal fortitude the Queen decided they were an aggravation worth enduring for the wider benefits of a Highland holiday.

John Everett Millais, painter of large-scale Scottish landscapes was a favourite artist of Queen Victoria. He spent some time at Ardverikie and drew a series of pastels of deer, eagles, grouse and other Highland wildlife on panels in the Black Burn Bothy which Robert parked beside for our abortive fishing expedition.

The drawings were rescued and framed and are held now by members of the extended Ardverikie family. Just as well, because the bothy was destroyed by a disastrous fire.

But I’ve allowed myself to be diverted by these historical asides.

Dipping dipper
I was going to tell you about the dipper I watched as Inka and I crossed the Gallovie Bridge. Delightful birds with dark plumage and a white bib, like plump, little music hall head waiters.

He perched on a submerged stone in the river and I heard his – or, maybe, it was her – thin, sweet whistle, tszit-tszit-tszit, mingled with the sound of the fast running water. It dipped and bobbed and sang to me and then remembering something more important, flew upstream with rapid beats of its short wings.

My countryside sometimes comes in ephemeral bites, but it’s no less interesting for that.

Written on Saturday, September 12th, 2015 at 5:12 pm for Weekly.