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 high time at tea

April 28th, 2018

A MONSTROUS regiment of women invaded the house – the members of the Doyenne’s book club.  I did what any other brave man would have done and bundled Inka into the car and ran away.

We drove to Inveriscandye steading and a favourite walk up the bank of the River North Esk.  I’ve almost always found it worth while stopping to talk to people I meet in the countryside.  This time it was a man from Poland who was on a salmon fishing holiday to Scotland with his two young sons and another friend.

I watched him casting a beautifully straight line but nothing had taken his offerings.  We got talking.  Plenty of fish were moving, waving an impudent fin as they passed upstream to the headwaters where they will scoop out their redds and lay their eggs.

It is a fact of life that fishermen always have a ready explanation for their lack of success – water too high, water too low, wrong temperature, fish haven’t settled.  Fishing is like an infection for which there is no remedy.  Fishers will thrash the water from dawn to dusk in a state of abandoned optimism that they will make the perfect cast and catch the perfect fish.  I wished my fisherman ‘tight lines’ and Inka and I carried on up the bank.

It took just a couple of days of warm weather to bring on the spring flowers.  I was greeted by the annual show of white, star-like wood anemones carpeting the ground amongst the trees at the farm steading.  Known as wind flowers, because their thin, pliant stems seem able to withstand the wildest winds.

I miss the yellow primroses which used to grow in great profusion along the riverbank; but they have mostly disappeared – died off or perhaps been swept away in the winter spates.

Walking back down the river to the car I found a newly hatched bird’s egg on the track which hadn’t been there on the way up.  Albumen lying in the bottom of the egg confirmed how recently its occupant – a mallard duckling – had emerged into the world.  The canny parent bird had removed the empty shell and deposited it a safe distance from the nest so as not to draw predators’ attention to it.

High tea revival

Friends came up from Edinburgh to join us for the afternoon.  It was too late to give them lunch and too early for supper, so we compromised with High Tea, that wonderful staple of Scottish entertaining which has largely dropped out of popularity.

The Doyenne and I couldn’t think when we last had the meal.  It used to be an essential on restaurant menus.  Going back half a century, two hotels stand out in my memory for the quality of their high teas – the George Hotel in Montrose and The Northern Hotel in Brechin.

There would usually be fish on the menu and variations on bacon, sausage, black pudding and eggs accompanied by toast, which would be followed by scones and pancakes, cakes and pastries and lashings of tea.  If you wanted, it could be the biggest meal of the day and guaranteed you wouldn’t need to eat another bite until breakfast.

Dundonians who are smooth enough in the tooth will remember the Val d’Or restaurant which was upstairs and entered, I think, from City Square.  It was a popular place to go for high tea before a concert at the Caird Hall.  It had an outstanding cake trolley with too much choice for a small boy who couldn’t make up his mind.

But the best belt-busting high teas were served at Dundee’s old ice rink on Kingsway West which closed in 1989.  Head waitress Grace ruled over the restaurant with a light but firm touch, standing no nonsense from any curler who got over excited.  She knew all the regular curlers who rarely varied from their regular choice on the menu, which never changed.  “Steak for you, Mr Reid – with an egg on top, or is it two tonight?” – she could have sold sand to the Arabs.  Just memories now.

Moveable feast

It all brings to mind the marvellous poem The Boy in the Train which tells the story of a wee boy travelling by train with his parents to stay with his Granny in Kirkcaldy.  He has been brought up on high teas and the second verse finds him wondering what his Granny will cook for him that evening – What’ll I hae for my tea the nicht ? / A herrin’, or maybe a haddie ?

The Doyenne cooked a ham for our friends which we gave them with salad and sautéed potatoes.  The secret is home baking and she had baked fruit scones accompanied by her home made bramble jelly and raspberry jam, finishing with coffee and walnut cake – home baked – and lashings of tea, of course.  Modest fare by our parents’ and grandparents’ standards, but we’re thinking it is something that could catch on and we’re giving some thought to future events.

Written on Saturday, April 28th, 2018 at 2:10 pm for Weekly.