READERS may recall that back in July 2008, a delegation from the local angling club, together with Fetteresso Castle resident Susan Grimes and keen Heritage Society member Dr Keith Stewart, accompanied a lady from Historic Scotland on a prearranged walk along the banks of the River Carron below the castle to view a long section of beautifully cobbled level river bed with solid stone-built riverbanks at either side.
This legacy of the days when the castle was in its heyday and its owners (the Duffs?) could afford the luxury of creating a private boating or punting stretch on the river, was eroding badly at its downstream extremity and the HS representative agreed that this most unusual structure was well worth preserving.
But therein lies the difference between words and action... nothing had happened since then, and on a similar riverside walk there just last Monday to try to spot any evidence of autumn fish spawning activity, SDAA secretary Doug Smith and I found that intervening spates including the massive torrent of 1 November 2009, had not been kind to this man-made section of an otherwise wild river and many more yards of the cobbling had succumbed to erosion. On the plus side, an underwater jumble of shaped stones like these will provide excellent habitat and hiding places for juvenile salmon and seatrout.. and perhaps reduce the danger of predation from the likes of the large Goosander which we surprised in a deep corner pool and which shot off downstream at low level like a demented Buccaneer bomber on our sudden appearance.
AMONGST the other wildlife observed en route were a number of Buzzards, a Roe Deer, a skein of Geese, a solitary craggy Heron and a couple of individual Dippers, their black plumage and white breast being particularly noticeable as they bobbed on in-river stones before boldly walking underwater in near-freezing temperatures in search of invertebrate prey. These birds can be fiercely territorial during the summer breeding season, but seem to mellow when the prime objective is sheer survival. A large and highly vocal flock of coal tits searched the tree canopy and a diminutive Goldcrest - the UK’s smallest bird - ignored our close proximity as it hunted the riverbank conifer debris for spiders and other insect life. Like that other miniscule bird the Wren, the Goldcrest takes a terrible hammering from long snowy winters and the bitterly cold November start this time round will have done them few favours, especially with our real Kincardineshire winter still to come.
But the poor wee Wren sometimes used to suffer a very different individual winter fate, as it was once bizarrely hunted down - in Ireland in particular - on St Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) by excited gangs of boys who then paraded it - alive or dead - through the streets while they sang or played musical instruments and demanded a coin from the households which they passed. This curious annual ritual is actually said to have had some form of early Celtic Christian connection; older readers (ie of my vintage, who recall Sandy Bell’s pub in Edinburgh in the late 60s) may also recognise this strange barbarism from an Irish folk song about the wren or “Ran”, penned and sung by the great Clancy Brothers and which ended with the verse,
“Mrs Clancy’s a very good woman, a very good woman, a very good woman,
Mrs Clancy’s a very good woman, She give us a penny to bury the ran”.
TALKING of strange behaviour, there was nowt as queer as watching our minister on Sunday, avidly devouring a honey-coated locust as he described to the youngest members of the congregation how John the Baptist survived staying in the desert (he did later admit that the “crunchy” locust which he had consumed with outward relish right in front of the children, had in fact been a juicy date!). But this scene instantly sent me down memory lane fifty-odd years ago to the River Lossie in Elgin where our primary school gang would lie back lazily on the grassy riverbank in the summer sun, chewing sookie-sourock leaves picked there and munching on honey coated ants and chocolate covered bumble bees (honest!) which we bought in large quantities from an Elgin sweet shop which actually stocked these delicacies for a few brief months.
I seem to recall that these titbits were imported from Kenya... there would be some hue-and-cry nowadays if our severely at-risk UK bumble bee populations were culled to provide such a weird feast. And can you really imagine today’s “H&S Polis” even allowing kids to buy or eat them, for fear of contracting some dreaded disease? Yet, you know, our active outdoor generation - whose parents would not have known a Chelsea Tractor had it run them over and who were not averse to allowing us a substantial level of risk-taking as we grew through our most formative years - are actually still here to tell the tale!