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.

Letterhead had me foxed

October 20th, 2018

I wonder how many visitors to Edzell drive through the high Gothic arch with its crowstepped gables at the entrance to the village and assume it was erected to commemorate a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

It’s a perfectly rational assumption as the royal couple did indeed briefly visit Edzell in 1881, shortly before Albert’s sudden and untimely death.  The grander arch in neighbouring Fettercairn was built in 1864, commemorating their one night stay in the Ramsay Arms Hotel.

There’s a story that as the royal couple took an evening stroll through the village, where they were largely unrecognised, the village band struck up a rousing march.  The delighted Queen expressed her pleasure at the welcome the village was giving to the visitors and was slightly miffed to be told it was just the usual band practise.

Edzell’s arch is the Dalhousie Memorial Arch, erected in memory of the 13th Earl of Dalhousie and Lady Dalhousie, who died within twenty-four hours of each other in November 1887, he aged 40 and Lady Dalhousie aged only 30.

This architectural reflection was prompted by my coming across a letter dated March 1845 sent from Brechin Castle (the family seat of the Dalhousie family since the 12th century) to a Mr Robert Taylor who I believe owned the Kirktonhill estate at Marykirk, about illegal fishing – presumably poaching – at the mouth of the North Water or River North Esk.

But the real point of interest, if you’ll forgive me for taking so long to get there, is the letterheading which is an embossed impression of two mounted huntsmen with a pack of hounds in hot pursuit of a fox that looks as though it might be making good its escape.

I have long been under the impression that, historically, the only pack of foxhounds north of the River Forth was the Fife Hunt pack.  I’ve never come across any reference to a pack based at Brechin but there may be readers who can advise otherwise.  It’s on such obscure snippets of local history that this column thrives.

What I have learned is that the 14th Earl was a keen rider to hounds and never travelled without his hunting kit on the chance of a day out with the hunt.  However the letter predates his birth in 1878 and still leaves the question of a Brechin Castle pack of foxhounds hanging tantalisingly in the air.  And now I wonder if the unusual and impressive letterpress might not be lying in the corner of a forgotten cupboard under the accumulated dust of several centuries – that would be a find.

Ripping yarn

Directions to what is locally known as the Pensioners Hall in Chapel Street in Forfar, where I was to give a talk, ended with an instruction that it was just round the corner from The Osnaburg (Bar). Without wishing to give the impression of a misspent youth I didn’t have to ask further, but it reminded me of another piece of social history.

In the mid-eighteenth century Forfar was a centre in the north-east of the linen and weaving industries, employing around 20,000 weavers producing “ordinary” linen work such as sheets and coarse linens known dowlas and osnaburgs.

Osnaburg – the name derives from the city of Osnabruck, in Germany – was a coarse, durable, plain linen that was exported in great quantities all over the world, particularly to the southern states of America to clothe the plantation slaves.

The conditions of the piece-work cottage weavers who produced it may not have been much better than the plantation workers who wore it.  The weavers were free men and women but they were thirled to working practices and conditions that allowed them freedom of thought but little opportunity to live the lives they might otherwise have chosen. So the Osnaburg is a reminder of Forfar’s manufacturing past and may have been the howff where the weavers spent whatever few coppers they had left after paying for their daily necessities.  I wouldn’t know – I’m too young.

Light and colour

Inka and I have taken advantage of the brief Indian summer, walking through the woods at The Burn, near Edzell, enjoying the autumn glory of browns and yellows and raw umber of the dying leaves.

The light has been good, clouds high in the sky, heat in the sun and I was quickly lost in my thoughts, cocooned in the embracing sound of the ever-present river. The Burn estate was developed by Lord Adam Gordon in the 1790s.  He was a pioneering agricultural improver of his day with a passion for planting trees, mostly beeches, some of which still survive.

Like others of the time he had the vision to see in his mind’s eye the mature trees occupying their place in the landscape in the full knowledge that it would be long after his demise.  I’ve never forgotten the comment of a walker who said – “They knew what it meant to lift the soul just by looking at nature”.

Written on Saturday, October 20th, 2018 at 8:33 am for Weekly.