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 different kettle of Sheriffs

May 19th, 2018

THE NORTH-EAST of Scotland has had its share of nasty historical characters who displayed a spine-chilling lack of social accountability even for the lawless times in which they lived.

I drove from Laurencekirk over Garvock Hill and parked near the infamous Sheriff’s Kettle, or Shirra’s Pot, the site of the particularly gruesome murder in 1420 of the high-handed and autocratic Sheriff John Melville of Glenbervie.

His neighbouring lairds repeatedly complained about his behaviour to Robert, Duke of Albany, Governor of Scotland while the uncrowned James I was a hostage of the English King Henry V.  Eventually, in exasperation, Albany ill-advisedly burst out, “Sorrow gin that the Sheriff were sodden and suppit in broo.”  In other words, for all he cared they could boil the Sheriff up for soup.

Acting on that doubtful authority, Barclay of Mathers, as ringleader, along with the lairds of Lauriston, Arbuthnott, Pitarrow and Halkerton invited the Sheriff to join them on a hunting party in the Forest of Garvock on the east side of the Hill of Garvock.

In the fifteenth century the area was heavily wooded and the Sheriff was lured to a secluded spot in the forest – “a retired place” – where he was struck down, stripped naked and thrown into a huge boiling cauldron, or “kettle”.

After he was boiled, or “sodden”, it is said that each of the conspirators compounded the barbarity of their deed and “suppit” a spoonful of the “broo”.  Or, as a later historian described it, the conspirators “concluded the scene of abomination by actually partaking of the hell broth” – they knew how to add colourful embellishment to a story in those days.

However, I wasn’t there to brood over man’s inhumanity to man but to take a walk I first took with Inka’s grandfather.

The broad view

It was a lovely morning, clouds high in the sky and a brisk wind which had dried off the early morning haze.  A pair of teal – our prettiest little ducks – sitting on a wee pond, swam behind the shelter of an island.

We carried on down to the point of a field of spring barley.  Inka stuck his nose between two strands of fencing wire and a hen pheasant exploded into the air.  I counted seven eggs in the nest and hurried Inka away.  In that isolated spot it’s probably the only disturbance she’ll have and I have no doubts she returned to her eggs with little delay.

The broad valley of the Mearns was looking its spring best.  Mearns red clay, splashes of golden gorse, green of the spring growing crops, the yellow of the fields of daffodils replaced by ripening oil seed rape.

And what a grand place for a crop of wind turbines – I lost count after about four dozen.  I don’t know why they call them wind farms – nobody ploughs the fields and scatters wind seeds and you can’t combine wind.  Why not call them what they are – electricity generating stations.

I was really up there to hear the song of skylarks and disappointed not to hear them.  But the wind died away and almost immediately I was standing in the mid-morning sun listening to the full-throated song of larks showering the earth with ‘a rain of melody’.  It was something to lift the spirit – a delicious cascade of joy.

As we walked back to the car a roe deer trotted unconcernedly ahead of us, gracefully jumping the fence and disappearing into the cover of a thicket of scrubby bushes.

On the way home I stopped briefly at the viewpoint on the summit of Garvock Hill, remembering my father reading me Violet Jacob’s poems there which sowed the seeds of my love of Scottish vernacular poetry.

Nothing stays the same

Earlier in the week I walked with Inka to one of my secret ponds where I expect to see bogbean.  Its somewhat unprepossessing name doesn’t do justice to this pretty flower – star-shaped, five petalled, pinkish outside and white within and with a ragged white fringe.

I’ve seen it in the Highlands but I can’t think where else I’ve seen it in the north -east.  The pond, hidden amongst trees, is known locally as the Teal Pond because teal used to flight into it in early autumn.  Perhaps a passing teal brought seeds on its legs or feet from some distant wetland, which took root.

Teal hardly seem to visit the pond now – I’ve never seen more than five on it – and this year I’m disappointed to find that the bogbean, which used to cover the whole surface, has died back considerably.

By contrast pink and white purslane, described by Mary McMurtrie in her informative  Scottish Wild Flowers as a North American introduction, has spread from isolated patches six years ago, to covering the ground in the damp, shaded parts of the woods behind the house.

The story of the Sheriff’s Kettle is no Brothers Grimm fairy tale – it really happened and the site, near Brownieleys Farm, can be found on and click on Canmore ID 36496.

Written on Saturday, May 19th, 2018 at 2:40 pm for Weekly.