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.

A merry ‘Black’ Christmas

January 2nd, 2016

Christmas 2016 046 (2)OUR CHRISTMAS was spent with son Robert and his family on the Black Isle. Inka came too as he and the two house dogs socialise well together.

In place of the traditional Christmas turkey we ate roe deer fillets. They are small cuts of meat which were pan fried and they were tender and succulent and quite delicious. Most definitely a meal worth travelling for.

A small tortoiseshell joined the Christmas festivities. These common butterflies have a habit of coming indoors in autumn to hibernate but can become active in the warmth of the central heating and fly around the house.

Even though the temperature outside was an unseasonal 11°C, the answer was not to put the insect outdoors. First, the temperature can drop quite suddenly, which will be fatal. Secondly, they lose the energy which they had stored to see them through their hibernation and there is little or no nectar in winter time for them to feed on and build it up again.

Butterfly rescue
The best solution I know in these circumstances is to trap it in a jam jar or a glass, so as not to handle it, and pop it in a box with a lid, like a shoebox. You can put in the moulded bottom of an eggbox for it to cling to. Punch some holes in the lid to let in air and put the box in a dry, cool shed or garage where the butterfly can resume hibernation as soon as possible. Once you are sure it has fallen asleep again you can remove the lid.

It will re-emerge in the spring when catkins are flowering on the hazels and willows, providing the nectar the butterflies depend on.

There were several family outings to work off the Christmas excesses. Rosemarkie beach, on the Moray Firth, is a favourite destination and the dogs had a good gallop. We hoped to see leaping dolphins which are a regular sight off Chanonry Point. No luck, but we watched seals hunting just off the shore, quite close in.

True wilderness country
By contrast we drove up Strathconon. The road follows the course of the River Conon for more than twenty miles into true wilderness country. When the road stops there are only old drovers’ roads and stalkers tracks to guide you. Just the place to find peace and escape from the tyranny of the mobile phone.

It’s a narrow glen, high-sided, remote and mountainous but has a thriving community supporting the sporting estates. There’s a school – almost unheard of in a glen these days – church, village hall. The glen newsletter, Strathconon Voice, advertises a busy diary of events over the winter months.

Inevitably the colours were mostly the grey of the rocks and the rust of dead bracken. We’d like to see the glen again in April or May when the sun is higher in the sky and penetrates the deeper corries and gullies and we can see the spring colours. Later in the year you can face battalions of the Highland midge. Granddaughter Cecily has painful memories of doing a Duke of Edinburgh Award expedition in Strathconon and being almost eaten alive.

Several groups of red deer stags were feeding on the flats by the riverside. Grandson Fergus pointed out two separate stags standing four square on the lip of high cliffs, outlined against the afternoon sky, which rounded off the day with a touch of Highland romance

With so much else going on there weren’t many opportunities for birdwatching but, out with the dogs first thing I heard, before I saw them, a pair of ravens calling to each other. They are not a common bird on the east coast but there’s never any mistaking their deep, barking call. As they briefly circled round us I was aware just how imposing they are – I could clearly hear the sound of their strong, measured wingbeats in the still morning air.

Writer’s soup
“I live on good soup, and not on fine words” – wrote Moliere, the 17th century French playwright and actor. He wrote it in French, of course, but the benefits of a classical education have at last paid off and I was able to translate it.

I can empathise with the good wordsmith because the Doyenne goes off to her own office most days leaving me a pot of sustaining soup for lunch that my mother would have described as soup that sticks to your ribs. My Orkney granny, who was notable for putting six course lunches on the table, would hopefully have approved too, awarding the Doyenne her highest compliment, not easily earned, for soup ‘thick enough to trot a mouse on’.

As for fine words – I can’t eat them, of course, although there have been times in my life when I have wondered if I should have to! What I’m getting round to in a circuitous way, at the start of this New Year, is to raise my hat to the Doyenne’s soup making artistry and express the hope that, like the soup itself, it is sustained in the coming months. It all helps with the fine words.

Written on Saturday, January 2nd, 2016 at 1:56 pm for Weekly.