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.

Simple stick has such rich history

February 27th, 2016

DSC03233A chance conversation with Ivan Laird, farmer at Justinhaugh and Chairman of Kirriemuir East Community Council, provided the story for this week’s piece. He told me about his grandfather’s unusually decorated walking stick which was lost but turned up again in unexpected circumstances.

Around the turn of the last century, Ivan’s grandfather, John Laird, farmed the Home Farm of Guthrie, near Forfar. John’s son William, Ivan’s father, was an inquiring young loon and spent much time in the company of John Taylor, his father’s shepherd, who was clearly a talented stickmaker and carver.

Family heirloom
One stick in particular fascinated young William, which John Taylor carved for his employer – and William sat beside the shepherd watching him at work.

It’s an ordinary enough stick at first sight but the quality of the carving on it is quite exceptional. There is basket work and chain work, ferns, ivy and thistles. Two quotations – “nae treasure nor pleasure can mak us happy lang” and “the hert’s aye the pairt aye tae mak us richt or wrang” – taken from Robert Burns’ poem To Davie, A Brother Poet, wind down the shank and are cut with delicate precision.

The workmanship is as fresh today as the day it was carved. John Taylor had an artist’s eye, a steady hand, patience and the vision to see the finished article in the bare branch cut from the tree.

When his father died William hoped to inherit the stick and was sorely disappointed when it apparently went out of the family. Several years before he died he was contacted by a distant cousin who knew something of the stick’s history and felt that it should properly be returned to William – who naturally was overjoyed.

Now it’s kept as a family heirloom, which it surely is – and Ivan is frightened to use it in case he breaks it!

You might wonder what other sticks, carved by John Taylor, are sitting in dusty corners, unappreciated – I’d be thrilled to find one for myself. And how far might the shepherd have gone if he had been able, say, to go to art college and develop his talents.

He was a victim of the age he grew up in, stifled by the social class he found himself in, not able to make the best of his creative abilities but, nonetheless, giving pleasure to those around him.

Unwanted stick
In a small antique shop in the middle of rural Aberdeenshire I found another shepherd’s stick. There was a pathos about it for it had all the signs of a lifetime’s use. I haggled over the price of £8 and managed to knock it down to £6 because, with its years of everyday use, some of the bark had worn off the shank. Looking back, I practically stole it for the price I paid.

I think of the care the shepherd took to choose the right branch for his stick. Of the time needed for the wood to season, the thought put into the shape of the hand piece, the hours spent carving it and the symmetry of its proportions.

Most of all I think of the man who owned the stick – the fields he walked and the hills he climbed; the weathers he endured and the sunrises and sunsets that lifted his spirits. His stick was an old friend – an extra limb almost – the handle worn smooth by his roughened, working hand which fell on it naturally whenever he picked it up.

He died and nobody wanted his stick. I found it thrown in with a bundle of other sticks. But I treasure it for him now.

Moonlit geese
It was a full moon on Monday night when I went out with Inka last thing. There was more than a touch of north in the chill wind chasing the scatters of clouds across the sky. In the pale light there was no need for a torch to see my way and the bare trees cast skeletal shadows on the track.

It had been different the previous evening – quite still, and the near-full moon shining out of a midnight-blue sky.

Geese mostly feed during the daylight hours but it’s not unusual for them to use the light of the moon to move between feeding grounds. I heard the bleak calls of several packs passing nearby. In these conditions the geese are quite invisible even if they pass overhead. You are looking at them against infinity and there have to be clouds for the birds to reflect off to be able to see them.

It’s felt good to be alive taking Inka out for his morning walks this week. Ice on the puddles but sunshine and a breeze with just a whisper of frost to keep me on the move and get the blood circulating.

This is when I hear the woodpeckers’ rattling paradiddle on some old resonant branch. The drumming can be a warning signal produced by either sex but at this time of year it’s more likely to be a mating call from the male bird. Spring is on its way.

Written on Saturday, February 27th, 2016 at 10:34 am for Weekly.