Oh my, that got me…

No, I’m not weeping, I just got some fluff in my eye. Came across this from many years ago…

I only went in to turn and vacuum the mattress. It seemed like a useful thing to do during my enforced holiday from the world of woodlands. On every available surface in the room was the ephemera of childhood. Tractors of every make, size and colour, implements to match. Books, magazines, drawings. The games, both favourite and unplayed were piled on shelves. Keepsakes and treasures, dust covered and seemingly forgotten. The soft toys still piled on the bed looked forlorn and lonely. Over this was spread the occasional newer item. A climbing magazine, a pair of hiking socks, the tag from his new tent. A stick of deodorant, a photograph of a bunch of friends at school, all wearing ties and smart jackets. A single shin pad, a pack of new mackerel lures and a used iTunes card lay on the carpet.

I sat down on the bed and looked at the scene, feeling despair at the passing of a childhood, a sadness at this small death. As I looked though, something changed in me. He was my little boy and always will be, now he’s my big boy and he’ll always be that too. We should embrace the change we see in our children, we must help and guide them on their next steps on the journey to adulthood, just as we did with those first faltering steps all those years ago. Now as I look I see hope for the future, bright, engaged, intelligent hope.

He’ll be home from school in just a few short weeks, his first year complete and then the page will turn, the next chapter will start and we will walk into it together.

The School Car…

This is from many years ago….

It’s only 500 meters to the end of the drive. The spot under the hill where the school car meets us. This morning it might as well be 500 miles for all the enthusiasm a 5 year old shows for the few minutes walk. In 6 short months he has learned about the weather, about how here it is so fickle, so intense. About how your fingers can be frozen within seconds of leaving the door, about how the salt wind can whip the moisture from your lips before you have taken ten steps, causing them to crack at the slightest smile.

We shrug ourselves into fleeces, down jackets, waterproofs, hats with ear flaps, neoprene lined rubber boots, anything to prevent egress to the wind. Today it’s a southerly. It’s not that cold, probably 6 degrees but it blows up the loch, a good five miles from the open sea but pushing waves before it, not high but full of power. The wind rips the tops off the waves in streamers of pure white, stark against the dark waters.

At the top of the steps it hits us, almost knocking the boy from his feet. The second sensation is, strangely, taste. The salt and iodine tang fill your mouth as soon as you open it to speak. The dog is unconcerned, he’s lower to the ground and has twice as many legs.

We hold hands and grit our teeth, our conversation torn from our lips and tossed over our shoulders the moment a word forms. The journey takes twice as long as on a still day. The end of the drive is unsheltered from a southerly, so we merely submit and turn our backs to the wind. We wait. The school car pulls up, the cheery face of the mum driver emerges. “A bit draughty this morning” we yell at each other. A frantic collie barks from the rear of the car, it’s the same every morning, you’d think he would get bored with it. The boy is soon ensconced with the other children in the warm interior of the car, already lost to me, absorbed into the cocoon small boys draw round themselves when two or more are gathered, entering into a private world with a private language and secret signs.

I cannot help but smile as I yell ‘bye love’ and get the merest reaction, a slight flicker of the hand. I need not worry, these people, hewn from the rock of the island and shaped by the wind and the sea, truly care. Any child in the community is their child. I watch the car until it goes over the hill and I turn towards the house.

The dog takes himself off on private dog business amongst the rushes. I wait. A pair of hoodie crows turn the seaweed on the strand line, hoping for a marooned crab or a mussel tossed loose from it mooring by the gale. A black backed gull, massive in the half light slips effortlessly into the wind. The dog emerges, satisfied. Ahead, a pure white eiderdown of cloud slips over the summit of Beinn Dearg Mhor, the rounded peak hidden under the dense layer. A blue pick-up rumbles towards us from our little harbour. We get a cheery wave from the ruddy faced scallop diver in the cab. At the top of the steps a robin waits to greet us. How does he manage to perch on the gatepost in this wind? He hasn’t had a warm sitting room in which to spend the previous evening, a cosy bed to see him through the long northern night. All he has are the broom bushes, the buffeting wind and the fear of a nocturnal visit from the stoat which lives in our roof. But here he is, bright and perky in the strengthening light. I’ll put some food out for him shortly and hope he spots it before those hoodies.

A World up There

I asked my neighbour’s son ‘so, have you been to the top?’ indicating the hill behind our houses.

‘Yeah’ he answered with all the certainty of a 14 year old, ‘but there was nothing up there’. I didn’t answer, the conversation not worth pursuing.

The first few hundred feet is heart breaking, lung stretching toil. Your mind can think of little but the heave of your chest and flexing of your ankles…and then it becomes a little steeper. The grass gives way to a jumble of rocks interspersed with tortured, stunted birch trees. Small streams cut through, making steps in the rock, although steep, the going here is slightly easier, just watch for the loose rocks, their coating of algae making them all the more treacherous.

With surprising suddenness you are though and on to a more level patch, although level is a relative term up here. A small flat area with a patch of dead bracken, red gold in the early light provides a place to take a breather. The dog however is still keen so you press on. As you turn a woodcock flushes from beneath your feet, the only sound the sharp flit of its wings as it falls over the edge of the hill into the safety of the birches. Before long another ridge rears before you, not so steep but covered in rank, knee deep heather and tussocks of moor grass. From a distance the high lifting gait you adopt must appear comical, but there is no one to see you. Another hundred feet sees you to the top of this bank, as soon as you hit the crest, there is the heartbreaking sight of yet another ridge blocking your way. This one is unassailable without some climbing, not being in the mood for this you stroll along the foot of the ridge until it starts to come down to meet you. Here at the foot of the ridge the vegetation is more sparse, huge rocks emerge like the backs of fossilised whales, complete with a crusting of lichen barnacles.

Some call this landscape colourless; to you it’s a blazing cacophony of shades and hues. Every tone of brown, grey, green, yellow and red is here. From a lichen so improbably lime green to a pure white lump of quartz. From the black, black peaty pools to the violet hues of the moor grass in the distance…and that’s before the sun has come out to gild the tops of the nearby mountains with a rich orange glow.

You are nearing the place where the ridge has dropped to meet your level, you can take a step up and then walk back along the top, parallel to the path you just walked but higher. Another five minutes walk up the steady incline of this hogs-back ridge and you come to a perfect view point. Face east, the direction you came from and the ground drops away sharply, a voice in your head asks ‘did I really just come up there?’ The view is simply stunning. You can see most of the loch from here, all the way to the open sea some five miles away to the south. A fishing boat is carving the water, getting out to his grounds before the weather turns. Look north and you may see the post bus in the distance making its way around the head of the loch, just a small red smudge against the huge conical hills beyond the road. Look to the west and try not to feel daunted by the sheer cliffs rising behind you, their outcrops of icicles looking like something from another world. Above the cliffs you can just see the peaks of the mountains beyond, a dusting of snow contrasting sharply with the elephant grey of the ancient weather riven rock.

As you stand and stare an odd ‘cronk’ sounds from the distance, a pair of ravens are dancing, the sky their ballroom. Their intricate moves cement the bonds of the pair, another clutch of eggs will soon follow. A shape moves into view beyond them, massive, dwarfing even the ravens. A little shiver of anticipation runs through you. Is it a golden? No. The wing shape is not quite right, the neck too short, the build too massive. Yes! It is! Your first Sea Eagle. You watch its perfect mastery of the air for fully five minutes until it dwindles to speck in the distance.

The dog is becoming impatient so you walk on, day dreaming a little, perhaps about the ancient Gaels whose land this was, perhaps saying a quiet word of greeting as you pass a small circle of jumbled stones, all that remains of one of their hill shelters. You cannot help but marvel at their hardiness, no Goretex or fleece then, no central heating or hot water. A commotion ahead stops you dead…a red deer hind with last year’s calf at foot has been dosing behind a rock. They gallop off, hooves beating a tattoo on the peaty soil, pausing to look back before they cross a ridge and vanish into the vastness of the hill. The dog stays at heel, she knows not to chase them.

Coffee is calling so you turn for home, descending quickly, much more quickly than the walk up. As you go down, the sounds of the sea begin to reach you, half a dozen oystercatchers bicker over ownership of a small section of beach, an outboard motor whirrs. The ground becomes a little less steep, less heathery. You think back to the autumn when this area was covered with the perfect white flowers of grass of parnasus. Each a perfect miniature bell.

The dog noses a wisp of snipe into the air as we pass the rushy field, their sharp ‘scaarp’ giving them away.

You’ve only been out for half an hour, not nearly long enough to experience everything the hill can offer to the keen observer but certainly long enough to feel justified in taking that last muffin.

No, there is nothing up there, at least, nothing that matters to that young boy. But for you, a world is there.

An New Name and a New Cover

It’s been a long time coming but I was never happy with the name Windigo for the tale of Archie’s first adventure. So, we talked, Archie, Seq (by Skype from Vancouver) and myself and decided on The River of Bones. You’ll see why when you read it.

We gave the cover a bit of an overhaul too, now it in-yer-face orange so you can’t loose it if you take it on an adventure.

Not only that but Seq told us that she is not going by her proper name of Milledow (which means hummingbird) but that most people call her Milly. So we have changed it for her…thank goodness for ‘Search and Replace’!

Here’s the Amazon link for the UK page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00D3RCBKE

I’m sure Amazon will sort it out if you are in another country.

Here is the Smashwords link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/404405

Look out for The Owl Memory and The Monster Factory soon!

Ed.

A Slightly Odd Day

Yesterday was odd, not in the major way that some of my days are odd but unsettling nonetheless. I was spending the day in the library up at the ‘big house’. I don’t go there often now Magnus is no longer about as it’s too upsetting and the house is mostly let out for private groups much of the time. Where is Archie living I hear you ask?….More of that soon.

Anyway, I was in the company of two black Labradors. Midge and Mango, my two lovely girls. I had lit the fire and settled in, a pot of tea and a slice or two of Mrs. Urquhart’s famous lemon drizzle cake to hand I continued cataloguing some of the older volumes. The dogs were flat out in front of the fire in the way Labradors always seem to manage, Mango snoring loudly, Midge letting off the odd waft of tripe scented vapour.

Probably fifteen or twenty minutes had passed when there was a creak from the library steps – a short moveable ladder for accessing the high shelves. The dogs and I all jumped slightly and looked across the room. Nothing. We settled back to our respective jobs – cataloguing, snoring and farting. The noise came again around ten minutes later. This time a double creak, a short pause between each, almost as though someone took two steps on the ladder.

Again, the dogs and I jumped. This time Mango took a few tentative steps towards the source of the noise then stood, hackles raised. Midge joined her and the two took another couple of steps forward, shoulder to shoulder. They stood again, apparently watching. Suddenly both tails started to thrash madly as though they had seen a familiar person. They took a few more paces forward and milled around, much as they would if they were greeting an old friend. I watched bemused.

A minute or two passed as they got it out of their systems and they returned to the hearth rug. I continued to stare across the library. Nothing moved, nothing changed. We settled once more.

Then it happened, with an amazing suddenness one of the volumes crashed to the floor. The dogs rushed over to it, sniffing madly, tails wagging crazily. I walked over, shaken but curious. There on the Persian rug was a copy of Alien Animals by Janet and Colin Bord. This book had been the foundation of Magnus’s passion for cryptozoology, I remember him reading me snippets at the breakfast table and showing me the picture of the ‘Skyclad Witches’ which seemed terribly dangerous to a thirteen year old.

I stood and looked down at the book. Shyly peeking from between two pages was a piece of paper. I pulled it out and saw that, in Magnus’s youthful hand, was written ‘I Will Find You’. I put the book back on the shelf, the piece of paper carefully put back into the page where I found it. Page 147.

Spain, Again.

I love our wildlife in the Highlands but let’s be frank, there isn’t really that much of it, both in terms of diversity and numbers with the obvious exception of deer. Make the relatively short crossing to mainland Europe however and one enters a very different world. France is eternally gorgeous and boy do they know about trees. They really have some wonderful areas of mature woodland, but then I suppose they didn’t have to cut theirs down to fight the French. But a lot of it is quite a bit like Britain. Cross the Pyrenees though and you are in a very different place. It starts pretty much straight away too. There are Lammergeyers around the border. Huge bone breaking vultures, impressive at rest, incredible in flight but they are not the only vulture to be seen. From the smaller white Egyptian, through the Griffon to the Black, the whole set is here. Not in paltry numbers either. There are a lot of them. See them perched on piggery roofs, nesting on the cliffs at Riglos or most impressively a mixed species group circling on a thermal.
It is certainly the birds which impress the most in Iberia. This meeting point between Africa and Europe has points of interest from both directions. Swallows, martins and swifts abound, indeed one wonders why they bother to carry on to the misty, dripping, chilly north of Scotland. There are insects here in profusion thanks to low intensity agriculture and this must have a direct effect on the numbers of swifts here. Their young bomb around in screaming, reckless flocks showing complete mastery of the air. For me they are truly ‘the bird’ so airborne are their lives.
A short walk can yield amazing treasures and a pair of binoculars is essential. Black kites are not unusual, stork’s nests adorn most churches and many electric poles. The birds themselves can be seen in great numbers in the rice paddies. A covey of partridges occupy every corner of stubble and LBJs of every shade flutter away in amazing numbers. Among them are rare jewels. Bee eaters cruise the sandy cliffs in search of their quarry and occasionally one is rewarded by the sight of a golden oriole. This dove sized bird is so improbably bright yellow that it delights the eye even in the brightest sunlight.
There are mammals too, though rarely seen. A night drive will reveal more in a few minutes than all of the poking around in rough areas. Foxes are plentiful, presumably making use of the rather sketchy waste disposal arrangements which exist hereabouts. The major difference from home are the boar of course. Huge, black and rarely seen without the aid of dogs but there, most definitely there. The rivers are lined with dense bush and there are countless areas of rough scrub land for them to vanish into. Towards the mountains huge areas of scrub grows and the cultivated land shrinks until it eventually peters out in favour of pine woods which in this part of the word yield prodigious numbers of delicious pine nuts, favoured by both boar and humans. Higher still montane vegetation takes over and I am told that chamois inhabit the high tops but it is another story that I’d like to find out more about. The mysterious extinction of the Pyrenean Ibex.

Spain

It was fully dark by the time I entered the village, small knots of people sat on steps and kitchen chairs outside their doorways and, to my amazement at this late hour, groups of very young children were charging up and down the street. I had been moving for over twenty four hours and my senses were dulled by engine noise and snack food so I was not able to fully understand what I was seeing. My young hosts put me smartly to bed and it was not until the following morning that I was able to see the village and surrounding landscape. Phrases like stark beauty and rugged grandeur are overused so they are out. The word beige did come to mind but that would not be fair. It is a rugged, stark and beige place but it is also so much more.
The houses of the village seem to climb on top of each other, each new one welcomed to share a wall, to shield its older neighbour from the unremitting pounding of the sun. Few of these houses would look out of place in a Roman landscape, indeed, I think it’s a fair bet that some of the founds under these houses go back at least that far. With pan tiles, cypress trees and ancient figs one could easily imagine Maximus Decimus Meridius striding the landscape, running his hands through his crops. Him or Clint Eastwood anyway.
This village and many others like it sit on small patches of high ground, islands in the seas of bare honey-coloured stubble and the odd deep green patch of sunflowers. The farms here are alien to me. In Britain, we sit as kings surrounded by our lands. Here the houses are usually in the villages, farmers commute to their land in the early mornings, work until the heat drives them home and then again in the evenings, even deep into the night at busy times. The farming is less intensive and more varied too. The patches of arable are interspersed with almond orchards and olive groves, small jewel like gardens of vegetables and odd rough areas with black and white signs ‘coto de caza’. The only livestock is housed in buildings, barring a few depressed looking sheep. The pig industry is strong round here but what conditions must be like in those low buildings and in this heat I dread to imagine. One might mistake this dry climate for an almost desert-like condition but there is no shortage of water. A huge construction project has ensured massive amounts of water and hydro power for the area, courtesy of the snow melt and thunder-storms of the Pyrenees.
There is more new construction hereabouts too, somewhat at odds with the tales of doom and gloom in the Spanish economy. A vast road building project is snaking its way down from the mountains, past towns with shopping developments, hi-tech industrial parks and large areas of housing, which actually appears to be occupied. Rather to my amazement I even passed a shiny new Land Rover dealership.
For a resident of the Highlands of Scotland however, all of the landscape and infrastructure becomes insignificant before one crowning feature. The heat of summer. Yes, I know other places get hotter, but not by much. I have seen the temperature gauge here top forty four. It was outside Ikea in Zaragoza, an unlikely place for the traveller I know. It is this kind of heat which bleaches the landscape and bows down the people, causing them to become, crepuscular, even nocturnal. But none the worse for that and why would it be? Just because it is not my norm to see kids (well behaved, polite, friendly ones I might add) scootering at midnight, does not make it weird. Just sensible. Different.