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.

Feathering the nest

March 31st, 2018

imagesTHE WIDEOPEN is a secondary road crossing the ridge of hills linking Marykirk in the Howe of the Mearns with St Cyrus on the coastal plain. The Doyenne and I had bought a bag of Inka’s favourite dog meal at the Moorie Kennels and were heading home.

It can be a bleak bit of road – wide open to all weathers – running through a slap, or gap, between the hills. The road has been there a long time. It’s referred to in the First Statistical Account of Scotland which was published between 1791 and 1799, so it must have been one of the original routes between the coast and the hinterland.

But it was one of those clear, sunny mornings that lift the spirits. The spring ploughing was mostly finished and, looking south as we neared the summit of the ridge, and Hospitalfield Farm, it was a patchwork of the red clay of the Mearns and the rich brown earth of Angus stretching all the way to Dundee.

Breasting the summit the broad expanse of the Howe of the Mearns and Strathmore stretched ahead of us to the foothills of the Grampians. There was still snow on the hills giving the impression that they are higher than they really are. A plume of smoke drifted across the brae faces – muirburn – gamekeepers burning off old, rank heather to encourage new growth, nutritious sweet shoots, on which grouse will feed.

Of the four seasons, for me, spring is the time of greatest transition. The countryside and nature are bursting with new life. One day I’ll pass a brown field, the next there’s a gauzy hint of green spring barley shoots breaking through the soil. Partridge are pairing up and I watch them investigating the hedge bottoms for suitable nesting sites. Duck are pairing up too and our garden fence seems to be a favourite spot for courting woodpigeons.

A fortnight ago I reported early activity at our garden nesting boxes. To check how real all the activity was I plucked a couple of handfuls of breast feathers from a dead hit-and-run pheasant lying at the roadside and tossed them onto the grass beside the boxes for birds to line their nests. In less than half an hour they were gone – proof, it seems to me, that nest building is in full swing, not just in the boxes but in the neighbouring hedges and shrubs.

Old remedies and expressions
My past caught up with me last week. At the finish of a talk to a Friendship Group in Montrose a member of the audience reminded me that some years ago I had written that the remedy for night-time cramps was to place a bar of soap in the bed at your feet. She had followed the advice and been free of the discomfort ever since.

She asked if I knew which garden plant was called mappie mou. I had to confess I didn’t but I like a challenge to discover the meanings of our old Scots words and expressions.

I can tell her now that it is “a term used in speaking to or calling to a rabbit”, and, according to the Concise Scots Dictionary is applied in this case to antirrhinums whose flowers are in the shape of a rabbit’s mouth. A strange explanation – I have always called them snapdragons as the flowers are supposed to resemble a dragon’s mouth when you squeeze the sides.

Asked again why the plant, sorrel, is called Soldiers’ Blood I was still no nearer to being able to give a definitive answer. When the plant dies back in autumn it produces rusty-brown seeds which could be taken for a splash of a fallen soldier’s blood, especially if you see a patch of them.

Is the name another colourful descriptive expression that entered our daily conversation and then fell out of use? Or does it originate from a particular battle where many Highland soldiers lost their lives, such as Culloden or Waterloo – I do not know. But if any reader can throw light on the expression, please let me know.

Deer, deer
Red deer and roe deer are our two native breeds of deer but the Victorians had a passion for introducing foreign species to enhance their deer parks or to add to zoo collections. Inevitably there were escapees and some may have been deliberately released and Japanese Sika, and fallow deer (believed to have been introduced by the Normans), are increasingly common in Scotland.

At his last visit our son Robert brought us a fillet of Sika venison which he considers the best venison of all. He cooked it en croute – Sika Wellington -and it was as tender and as delicious as he promised it would be. A generous spoonful of the Doyenne’s rowan and apple jelly added extra zing to the meal.

And then my cousin, who lives in a quiet residential part of Edinburgh, phoned to say he had just seen a wee muntjac deer (Chinese) pass his sittingroom window. Now, where on earth did that pop up from?

Written on Saturday, March 31st, 2018 at 8:39 pm for Weekly.