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.

Melanistic in its magnificence

April 29th, 2017

DSCN1040MY AUSTRALIAN cousin – his family emigrated to Australia from Shetland – and his wife, currently back in Scotland on holiday, e-mailed me a photo of a black pheasant-like bird which they spotted confidently striding along an Ayrshire roadside verge. Was it, he wondered, a cross between a black grouse (blackcock) and a pheasant?

That was an easy one. It was a melanistic cock pheasant and the birds are so-called because they have an abnormally high level of black pigment in their feathers.

Their plumage has a dark, burnished sheen shot through with iridescent green, rather like a starling. Scarlet wattles round the eyes and forehead stand out against the dark head and the collar of white feathers round the neck of the widespread common pheasant which readers will see in fields and woods when driving round the countryside, is absent.

Hen pheasants can also display melanistic characteristics. Instead of the light and dark brown markings which are such good camouflage in their woodland surroundings, their plumage is a much deeper chestnut colouration.

There was an element of coincidence in my cousin’s enquiry as I had seen a melanistic cock pheasant perched on a dyke near the village of Ballogie, between Aboyne and Finzean, just the previous week. They are not especially common but I can usually expect to see at least one each season.

Less common, in my experience, are so-called albino pheasants although these are generally birds with the natural pigments missing from their feathers. To be true albino their eyes should be pink. I know of a stuffed white pheasant hanging on a plaque on a study wall but it is too late now to know whether it was a true albino before it suffered its premature demise.

There’s an old Orkney saying that “as the day lengthens, the caald strengthens.” I had an Orkney granny – more north islands ancestry – and though I never heard her say it, it’s an appropriate comment on the weather we’ve endured this week with perishing winds and snow lying overnight on Monday. Walks with Inka have been in the shelter of the woods.

With our preoccupation with climate change it’s easy to forget that even in April winter may not be ready to yield to spring though there are lambs in the fields and seed is in the earth.

I think I have found the explanation for the dancing blue tit which I wrote about last week. In a true spirit of research I sat out in our summer house to watch its behaviour.

It was reacting to its reflection in the window. I am less certain whether it was aggression against an apparent intruder on its territory or a courtship ritual to attract an apparent mate. Whichever it was the wee bird persevered for the best part of a week but has given up in despair now.

Poetical glens
Another coincidence was an enquiry from a reader on behalf of her sister, now living in Australia, regarding a poem their father recited to them describing how the hand of God made the Angus glens. Her recollection was that God’s thumb formed Glenesk.

It was another easy one to answer. The poem is Genesis which appears in Glenesk, The Collected Poems of John Angus, a Montrosian who loved Glenesk and knew its furthest recesses.

God’s thumb is the River Tay, the palm is Strathmore and above it the four fingers fan out as Glen Isla, Prosen, Clova and Esk.

I had to point out to her that, in fact, it was God’s little finger that left the mark of heaven i.e. Glenesk. She made the perceptive reply that, of course, it had to be God’s pinkie that represented Glenesk – otherwise God would have been a southpaw. I had never thought about it that way.

Refuge cave
John Angus’ poems and his novel Balnamoon – The Rebel Laird, which is based on historical fact and true events following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, were republished in 2006. The ‘Rebel Laird’ was James Carnegy of Balnamoon, the house and estate of that name lying west of Brechin.

James held a commission as Captain in Ogilvy’s, or the Forfarshire, Regiment which was raised and commanded by Lord David Ogilvy and fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

After Culloden, many who fought on the Jacobite side fled to the Continent but James took his chances and came home. He slipped across the hills to neighbouring Glenesk where he took refuge in Balnamoon’s (Bonnymoon, locally) Cave which is actually in Glen Mark, a tributary glen of Esk, and is marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

The story traces Bonnymoon’s fugitive months in and around Glenesk, sheltered from Government troops by sympathetic glen folk. Eventually captured and taken to London for trial, his political transgressions were happily pardoned in a neat legal twist at the end of the story.

I’ve walked to lonely Bonnymoon’s Cave. In reality it could only have been a bolt hole in times of extreme danger because it is quite one of the most uncomfortable places of refuge you can imagine.

Written on Saturday, April 29th, 2017 at 11:06 am for Weekly.