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.

Rook pie and bothy ballads

May 26th, 2018

A COUNTRY reader contacted me looking for the answer to a problem.  An unidentified animal has been snipping off her tulips near the foot of the stalk, leaving the flower but digging up the bulbs and carrying them off, presumably to eat.

I don’t think rabbits are the culprits and my first thoughts are that it may be voles or field mice, but a tulip bulb seems a large object for a fairly small animal to manhandle out of the garden.  Daffodils and other bulbs have not been touched.

If any reader has had a similar experience or can provide an answer to the reader’s devastated flower beds, please contact features@thecourier.co.uk – I would like to know the answer too.

Tragic first flight

A large rookery in the beech wood across a couple of fields from the house is noisy most times of the day and most times of the year.  It’s particularly noisy right now as the young rooks develop from nestlings to fledglings but are still dependent on the parent birds and their incessant, demanding cries for food carry across to the garden.

You will see them, sitting on the rim of their nests or cautiously edging along branches, vigorously flapping their wings in preparation for their first flight.  Sometimes they get over confident scrambling about the swaying branches and fall to the ground.  When that happens the parent birds seem to desert them and leave them to die.

Two young rooks, fully three hundred yards from the security of the rookery, lying dead on the track to the beech wood, posed another question.  One was headless and the head was nowhere to be seen.  As Inka and I walked further on another fledgling rook rose from the side of a ditch flying crabwise and low and made a clumsy landing in the middle of the field.

The two dead rooks began to make sense.  They had taken maybe their first flight, landing disoriented and tired well away from the security of the rookery, and been surprised by a fox.  Along with stoats and weasels, foxes will kill for the sake of it – one of the few exceptions to the rule of the wild that the death of one animal by another is in the cause of survival.  And a fox will often snap off the head of a small victim in the speed of its attack.

My mother used to make rook pie for my father, using the breasts of the fledgling branchers.  Young crows never seem to have been part of the Scotsman’s plain fare.  Their carrion-based diet was said by the old greybeards to taint the flesh, making it unpalatable.  Young rooks’ more organic diet, mostly of grains and seeds and worms and insects, produces more appetising meat.

And the four and twenty black birds baked in a pie of the children’s nursery rhyme weren’t our garden blackbirds which lead the dawn chorus with their mellow, fluting song, but four and twenty young rooks.

A song in the heart

From the earliest clan bards song has been in the very marrow of our Scottish DNA.  In our own north-east many of the best examples are the bothy ballads and cornkisters which provide a living record of Scottish rural life telling stories of work and play, love and tragedy, of generous and mean farmers, of soldiers, sailors and war (for they were mostly composed before men took to the air), all of life – good, bad and downright bloody awful.

So, it was a great pleasure to meet Hector Riddell, retired now after thirty years as farm grieve on Finzean Estate, in Royal Deeside, who has been five times Bothy Ballads Champion of Champions.  After six regional qualifying competitions the six winners meet in Elgin Town Hall to decide who, effectively, shall be King of the Bothy Ballads for the ensuing year.

Hector’s early years were spent on a croft near the Aberdeenshire village of Leochel Cushnie, one of a family of eight.  The family moved to a bigger farm where Hector learnt his farming hands-on – he was still working Clydesdale horses in the 1950s.

It was a musical family with musical evenings with fiddle, accordion and piano.  Hector was encouraged to sing the bothy ballads, the folk songs of everyday life sung to the folk tunes whistled and hummed every day.

He sang in his church choir and had a stab at singing Country music but the bothy ballads were always in the background.  Twelve years ago he was persuaded to enter the competition, singing The Moss o’ Burreldale and he has competed since, even being nominated for traditional singer of the year.

Now Hector is passing on his knowledge and skills to a younger generation and is coaching a young lassie of ten who will keep alive the tradition that he has so well represented.

I asked him to sing for me and drove home with Hector’s strong voice, singing The Moss o’ Burreldale, still ringing in my ears.

Written on Saturday, May 26th, 2018 at 2:56 pm for Weekly.