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 stroll in solitude is no folly

June 2nd, 2018

It’s been such good weather I’ve almost forgotten the wet, cold days at the beginning of May.

I popped up to the Glenesk Retreat for a bowl of soup and then to take Inka a walk, and got talking with one of the participants on the annual Great Outdoors Challenge, the demanding, self-supporting, back-packing trek across Scotland from west to east, now in its 38th year.

It requires navigation skills and survival techniques and hillcraft to deal with the natural obstacles the walkers meet in remote parts of the Highlands, crossing several mountain ranges and conquering Munros (mountains above 3000 feet).

It’s not a race and the prize is the satisfaction of completing the 180/200 mile journey within fifteen days.  That’s around twelve miles a day which doesn’t seem a lot but it’s an indication of just how wild and rugged parts of Scotland are.

He told me that in his thirteen day walk he had experienced only 20 minutes rain.  We listened to a cuckoo calling across the glen.  He had heard plenty of them along the way, and peewits and curlews too, especially in Glen Orchy and Glen Lyon, which is encouraging because all three species have suffered population decline in recent years.

French creation

After lunch I drove back down the glen to the lay-by marking the start of the Rocks of Solitude walk down the east bank of the River North Esk.  The river funnels through a high-walled gorge carved out of the rocks over millennia by the action of the water.

The channel narrows into a succession of pools – deep, black pots – and rapids.  In spate conditions it can quickly turn into a ranting cauldron of white water – which may provide an explanation for the name Rocks of Solitude.  They say that the noise of the water plunging through the canyon drowns out all other sounds so that walkers experience a sense of great solitude.  Aye – maybe!

This is the upper end of the well-known Blue Door river walk starting at Gannochy Bridge, near Edzell.  It was created by French prisoners of war around the end of the eighteenth century who cut the riverbank path out of jasper-veined rock – “…hewn with immense labour out of the living rock” was a contemporary description.

In 1780 General Lord Adam Gordon, 4th son of the 2nd Duke of Gordon, bought 2000 acres of moorland described as “in the wildest state of barrenness” – perhaps a more likely explanation for the Rocks of Solitude – and set about improving it.  Lord Adam was General Officer Commanding the British Army in Scotland and used his position to bring POWs held in camps at Perth and Penicuik to work on improvements to his estate.

Inka and I took a higher track to the strange Doulie Tower which sits on a wooded prominence overlooking the riverside walk.  Because of the estate’s military connection some think the tower had a military purpose.  I don’t buy that – I reckon it was an architectural folly from whose castellated rooftop Lord Adam could survey his estate’s “agreeable prospects”.

Kaleidoscopic spring

Dogs need walked and Inka and I walk three times a day, so I am seeing that after a slow start the countryside is bursting into colour.

I look out for sparks of blue, pink, white in the hedgerows and undergrowth – shepherd’s purse and forget-me-not, little blue violas and creeping vetch – plants regarded as weeds in the garden but which gladden the heart on a walk.  Drifts of king cups or marsh marigolds bring splashes of yellow to ditches and burn sides.

It’s the time of year hungry country bairns used to dig for Lucy Arnots, the edible tubers of pignuts or earthnuts.  Like sooky soorocks or common sorrel, another edible but bitter plant, they staved off the pangs of hunger until they got home for their tea.

But you need to look up as well as looking down.  The trees are flowering too – the roadside hedges are awash with hawthorn’s frothy, lace-coloured blossom.  Look out for rowans’ white blossom, and geans – our Scottish wild cherry – in woodland margins.  A gean tree we pass on the morning walk already has green fruit forming.  In a corner of a wood a solitary elm has fruited, oval discs like lime-green fried eggs with a seed in the middle.

Sticky-leaved sycamores produce clusters of greeny-yellow hanging flowers which develop into the familiar winged or boomerang-shaped keys which spiral earthwards like mini-helicopters when they have ripened. The local horse chestnut tree is covered with white candelabra that transform into conkers.

A row of whitebeam close to the house is smothered in domed clusters of frothy ivory which metamorphose into bright red berries in the autumn.  I’ve read that they are edible and can be boiled up into jelly to accompany venison, but I’ve never quite had the courage to try them.

You just have to get out there if you want to see it and enjoy it.

Written on Saturday, June 2nd, 2018 at 5:56 pm for Weekly.