Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Walk on the Biel estate and Keith Brockie paintings at Waterston House

January 31, 2023

I last posted a reference, with photos, to Biel House, almost exactly two years ago on this blog. In order to get to Biel (pronounced Beel) Estate, which c3miles/5K from Dunbar, you leave the A199 and go up a long drive to the house, firstly passing a cottage which would have formerly been the gatehouse to the estate. Once you are over the bridge spanning the A1 dual carriageway, you come to a newish set of gates (photo below) which lead to an impressive avenue of cedar trees. This is a stunning entrance and it is a very pleasant walk with the tall, thick trees to your left and right and the Lammermuir Hills in the distance. There is farmland on both sides of the trees, with the winter/spring wheat growing slowly but becoming a sparkling lightish green in the sunshine.

Entrance to the Biel Estate (click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the end of the cedar walk, you come to a lane (photo below) with a small forest on each side. The side of this narrow road is still decorated with fallen leaves from the autumn and this scene refreshes your memory of when the leaves were yellowing and browning, but still on the trees. The adjoining wood is a mixture of rhododendron bushes, evergreen and deciduous trees. So there is a contrast all the way up the hill, with the bare tree on the right and the branches of the fir tree extending across the avenue. At some points, where there are mainly deciduous trees, you can see through to the fields beyond. This view will disappear in the late spring.

Lane leading up to Biel House

At the top of what is quite a steep hill for walkers and cyclists, you come to a crossroads, with the left taking you down to the Biel Burn and the right to attractively named Beeseknowe Farm (good photo). The entrance to Biel House itself (photo below) has impressive, elegant and graceful twin columns, with decorated, thistle-like rounded tops. The sign says Private and this is meant for cars, as walkers and cyclists appear to be welcome as passers-by. The photo shows the still flowerless rhododendrons to the right and left but if you look closely at them, you can see the small buds appearing, a sign of beauty to come. As you can see, there are some impressively tall trees here and the carpet of rust-coloured leaves adds to the attractiveness of the entrance.

Entrance to Biel House

We visited an excellent exhibition recently at Waterston House in Aberlady, the home of SOC (Scottish Ornithologists’ Club) to see the work of well known wildlife artist Keith Brockie, whom I have featured here on the blog on more than one occasion, the last time being in 2017. The exhibition finished not long after our visit and we are looking forward to the present exhibition, featuring examples from Scottish Nature Photography Awards. I am grateful to again to Laura Gressiani at SOC for sending me, with Keith Brockie’s permission, the three examples of his outstanding work below. The first example (photo below) is entitled Brooding Tawny Owl and shows Brockie’s truly amazing grasp of detail and his ability to portray the details of the tree and owls. It is hard for me as a non-artistic layman to imagine just how long this must have taken him to paint, but the result is a wonderful piece of art. Seeing Brockie’s quite large paintings at the exhibition is quite a different experience from looking at the photo, but the enlarged photos here will give you a chance to admire his work at close hand. On first seeing the painting, you notice the adult owl and its tired but still alert looking face, as well as its colouring and the very realistic looking feathers. Then you see the baby owl, fast asleep it seems to me and its green beak accompanied cleverly by the green, exquisitely veined leaves. Then there is the patterns on the smooth bark of the silver birch. In all, a painting to be admired again and again.

Brooding Tawny Owl by Keith Brockie

The second example (photo below) from the exhibition is entitled Mistle Thrush and is another example of Brockie’s supreme artistry in portraying birds and their environment. Once again, you are struck by the sheer amount of detail here. This bird, with the unfortunate (for us) scientific name of turdus viscivorus, has an enchanting song, which you can listen to here (scroll down to song audio). Brockie’s bird is not singing, but is perhaps waiting for an opportunity to sing to attract a mate, perhaps. The patterns on the bird’s breast give an aspect of surrealism, whereas the keen eye and the sharp beak, ready for the berries below, are painted realistically. The colour contrast been the berries and the bird draws our attention to both. The branch upon which the bird sits has a claw-like feature, seen just above the artist’ signature. A study in ornithological concentration is presented here and is as eye-catching as the owls above.

Mistle Thrush by Keith Brockie

The final example shows Keith Brockie’s art (and artistry) at its finest. This is a stunning portrait of a wild animal and you can see the muscularity in the hare which will give it its lightning speed. Out cycling around Dunbar, I have often seen hares, whether on the road in front of me or in a field, and when they start running, they go so fast that you think they might be flying low above the ground. The hairs on the animal’s ears, face and body are drawn so convincingly that you think this must be what it is like to be really close to a hare. There is alertness in the ears, the eyes and the nose and this is a hare which is very aware of its surroundings and possible dangers. This site (good video) tell us that “The hare grazes on vegetation and the bark of young trees and bushes”. You have to admire Brockie’s skill in painting the grass upon which the hare will feed and the way in which the grass mimics the shape of the hairs on this powerful but stunningly beautiful animal. The contrast in colours – white, brown, black, orange and green – in the painting should take your eye up, down and across the painting to appreciate its visual beauty. This was a most remarkable exhibition and if you ever get to see a Keith Brockie art show, grab the opportunity with both hands. A huge round of applause to Waterston House for acquiring this enchanting display of wildlife art.

Brown Hare by Keith Brockie

Spott Burn, the ford and nearby Brock Wood on a soggy New Year’s Day 2023

January 20, 2023

I have featured the walk up to Spott House a few times on the blog e.g. here. On New Year’s Day, we went to do the same walk but the gates were (unusually) locked, so we walked through the village of Spott (good photos) and on past the older houses. We then came to what is known as the Witches’ Stone Photo below). Some local historians repeated the story that the stone was erected in memory of Marion Lillie, a witch who had been burned at the stake in the early 1700s. However, this was refuted by a researcher studying the local Spott Kirk (good photos) records, who noted that Lillie had been interred in Spott Kirk (Scots for church) in 1705 and buried in the kirk graveyard. Although Lillie was accused of being a witch, she could not have been buried in the graveyard, as women found guilty of being a witch could not be buried. The early 1700s was a time of fear for many women and you can read about the witch trials, with women often found guilty on flimsy evidence, here. A new sign at the stone was placed there a few years ago and the stone is now seen as a memorial to the women who died unjustly.

Witches Stone at Spott. Photo by Hlz Wlz (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

At the bottom of the hill, past the stone, you turn right and down another hill until you come to a ford, through which flows the Spott Burn (Scots for stream or small river). This is normally a gentle flow of water and you can drive your car safely thorough it with impunity. On the day of our walk, there had been recent heavy rain and the normally calm water appeared to be either in a boiling rage or in throes of an ecstatic experience, as it hurtled under the footbridge, carrying on its journey eastwards to the sea. The photo below shows the view looking eastwards, up the road to the village. You can see from the marker denominating the height of the water that it is 6 inches, which is high, as normally the water from the burn does not go beyond the edge of the burn on the left. The photo also shows the sturdy trunks of the many-limbed tree and the branches reaching down to the water. In the field beyond, the green shoots of what will later be a wheat or barley field are now emerging. When the sun catches the sun catches such a field at this time of year, it enhances the greenness of the crop. To the left of the photo you can see the buildings of Spott Farm.

The ford at the Spott Burn

The map below shows the exact location of the ford, down the narrow road from the Witches’ Stone. The F B opposite Ford stands for footbridge. The road going up from the ford is locally known as Daniel’s Brae (brae is Scots for hill) but on the map is Daniel’s Side Brae. I could not find the origin of the word Daniel in this name. The map also shows Brock Wood of which more below. Opposite Brock Wood is Spott Dod and the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines one meaning of dod as “A bare hill with a rounded top” and this word is also used in the English language. Spott Dod is the site of an old hillfort according to this Canmore site indicates that this was originally “the remains of an Iron Age enclosure, in which the defences were predominantly of timber” and was a functioning fort about 2,900 years ago. If you followed the high road from Spott village, you come to another dod Deuchrie Dod (good photo).

Spott and district map from

I took this video standing on the west side of the ford.

Near the end of the video, you get a view of Brock Wood and we walked through part of the wood, which is separated by Daniel’s Brae. Brock Wood (good photos) is a nature reserve and also popular with walkers with an ornithological inclination. This site states that on the last visit to the site (10 photos) , wildlife included “Dippers, nuthatches, lots of woodpigeons, tits, screeching birds of prey, possibly a jay. Ripe raspberries, blackberries, elderberries”. The Scottish Wildlife Trust site describes the wood thus “Brock Wood, located 3 miles south of Dunbar, is a mixed woodland. Non-native trees, which were originally planted for timber, are gradually being removed to encourage the regrowth of the native alder, ash and oak”. The photo below is near the entrance on Daniel’s Brae and is taken when the greenery has returned to the trees and the winter leaves on the ground have been replaced by summer growth. In the Spring, I will walk through both sides of the wood and continue this story.

Photo by Tony O’Connor

Wintry swans at Seafield Pond and a frosty West Barns Bridge

January 10, 2023

One of my last walks of 2022 was to nearby Belhaven. I parked the car opposite the Surf School (good photos) and walked up what is known as the Dump Road to Seafield Pond, which was originally a clay pit for the Seafield Brick and Tile Works in the 19th century. It later became Dunbar’s refuse site, thus the name Dump Road. The wall separating the sea from the path to the pond is known as the Divvy Dyke and was built by David France, who established the brickworks. France was referred to by Dunbar historian James Miller as “the man who beat Canute” after building the dyke (wall). At high tide, the sea comes right up to the wall. On the day of my walk, instead of sea water, there was thick ice to be seen over the wall. The first photo below shows the frozen grass – submerged at high tide – and the ice beyond. Further out is the wide stretch of sand forming Belhaven Bay (good photos) with the Bass Rock in the distance. The second photo shows the very thick ice further along the sand and you can just see an array of birds further out. These birds – oystercatchers and redshanks – normally feed closer to the wall.

Frost and ice at Belhaven Bay (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)
Ice on the shore at Belhaven Bay

My walk was in the afternoon and I managed to capture the partly frozen pond while the sun was setting in the west at about 3.30pm. I was lucky enough to have two elegant, graceful and very calm swans feeding in the pond. The photo below shows the swans, with the sun making a golden streak across the pond, the frozen and whitened reeds to the left, and more frozen solid in the ice in the foreground. It was a freezing cold, but fairly still day and the only movement at the pond was the two swans lowering their heads to feed where they had broken the ice. There is a serenity about this photo which I like, although it was not a day to stand still for long. There are numerous lines in the photo, with the grasses above the ice, the reeds standing to attention and the bare branches of the trees shown clearly by the white glow of the sun.

Ice, grasses, reeds and swans at Seafield Pond

You need have patience when taking photos of swans as, just when you think you have the perfect shot, one of them dips its head into the water. The swans were aware of my presence but treated me with insouciance, as if to say “Take your photos but don’t expect us to pose for you”. In the next photo below, you can see the ice in the foreground and, waiting a short time, I managed to capture the sun coming over the pond and the narrow strip of gold on the pond, ending beneath the feet of the swans. The ice/water below the swans has turned to pink and the sun has made reflections of the swans in the water. Just at the point of taking the photo, the further away swan lowered its head but this does not detract from the photo. Swans have a beautiful shape and look perfectly formed with their graceful necks, orange beaks and feathers neatly tucked in to produce warmth on this winter’s day. The legs and feet are perhaps less elegant but there is a fascination about swans which attracts the viewer. You can see more photos and a video of swans at Belhaven on a sunny autumnal day in a previous blog post.

Ice, swans and reflections at Seafield Pond

If you keep walking west past the pond, you come to a path which borders the Biel Burn, over which stands West Barns bridge. West Barns is a village about 2 miles/3.2k from Dunbar. The photo below shows the path and the bridge looking west, with the sun nearly set but leaving a white glow above the trees. There was a dog walker on the bridge and his reflection can be seen, as well as the bridge’s in the water. Across the bridge, the fields to the right were thick with frost and the path was very slippery, so I had to walk next to the wall on the left. So, a very picturesque scene but there was only enough time to take the photo and move on, my breath showing white in the cold air.

Frosty path and reflections at West Barns bridge

Looking east, back to the bridge (photo below), you can see that the wooden railings going on to the metal bridge are white with frost and the grass next to the path is temporarily petrified by the frost. The reflection in the water looks like an impressionist artist’s depiction of the bridge, which loses its colour in the water. I have taken my mountain bike over this bridge many times as you join a path to the right which takes you along a bumpy route to John Muir Park (good photos).

Heavy frost at West Barns bridge

In a previous blog (good photos), I referred to what a relative and a friend of mine would call the art of guddling. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) – a treasure trove for Scots words – defines to guddle as “To catch (fish) by groping with the hands under stones or the banks of a stream”. Another definition given is to catch trout “by tickling the underbelly with one hand, grabbing them with the other”. One reference from 1921 states “An’ oot aneth a mossy stane some muckle troot he’d guddelt” which is translated as “And out beneath a mossy stone, some huge trout he had guddled”. See here for more examples of guddling from the DSL. The photo below shows the view upstream in the burn and a favourite guddling site was just around the corner to the right, where the burn forms small pools, into which the trout would swim and rest. There are more reflections here – of the wintry trees and although there was little wind that day, some of the trees appear to waving their “arms” about in an aerobic fashion. There are more lines of sight here, from the left you see the wall, the path, the grassy verge, the burn, another verge and another wall, so the photo is well worth more than a cursory look. The walk ended with me going back along the Dump Road, into car and driving home for a warm and welcoming cup of tea.

Upstream view from West Barns bridge

St Abbs Head walk and ploughing tractor

August 14, 2022

Checking my blog posts, I noted that the last time we did the full walk (good photos) at St Abbs Head was a few years ago, although we have done shorter walks since then (e.g. this blog post). The circular walk, which we did from west to east this time, is 4 miles (6.25K) long and includes some steepish climbs. We walked past a flock of sheep being herded into a pen, we thought for shearing, then over the first hill to where there are fecund fields of barley and wheat at this time of year. Down a second hill, you come to Pettico Wick Bay (good photo) where you see the first of the many cliffs around this area. The photo below shows the bay and the fascinating rock formations which appear to slope down and up at various angles, engraved with solid lines. I have always been puzzled by the name Pettico Wick and it turns out that I am not alone, as the expert Berwickshire Place-Name Resource states “This name is a puzzle”. It refutes the definition provided by the Ordnance Survey Name Book, but suggests that the Scots word wick “an inlet of the sea, a small bay” may be relevant here. The suggested origins of Pettico are discussed but without a definite conclusion, with name being described as “even more puzzling”. The white ledges along the cliffs are former nesting sites of guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, but by the time of our visit, most of the birds had gone. Looking at the cliffs, you get a sense of the powerful forces that shaped this landscape.

Pettico Wick at St Abbs Head (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Up from the bay is a stiff climb which has a steep rockface on your left and on your right, you look down to the Mire Loch (good photo). The walk flattens out and the road takes you along to the lighthouse and the keeper’s cottage. To your left are some vertiginous rockfaces which house thousands of seabirds in May and June and you can see examples of these in this NTS video. The lighthouse is shown in the photo below and this is a superb view of these artefacts which were so vital to passing shipping before the arrival of modern maritime technology. The lighthouse was built in 1862 by David and Thomas Stevenson and the NLB site notes “The oil burning light was first exhibited on 24 February 1862. The light was converted to incandescent in 1906 and to electric operation in 1966”. Also in the photo is what the site refers to as “A Siren Fog Signal” ( a new term for a foghorn to me) and this “was established at the lighthouse in 1876, being driven by hot air engines. These engines were replaced by oil driven ones in 1911 and by diesel engines in December 1955”. I like the variety of colours in this photo – the yellow, black and white of the lighthouse, the prominent red of the foghorn, the blues in the sea and sky, and the brown and green of the rockface. At the bottom right of the photo, you can just see a nesting site for a range of seabirds. The St Abbs Lighthouse looks small because of its elevated position but its light was as strong as any other in Scotland. The Siren Fog Signal was the first of its kind in Scotland.

Lighthouse at St Abbs

As you make your way along the paths to the end of the walk, you pass many little coves, a small beach with jagged rocks just offshore, and a divers’ boat sped past as we looked out. Near the end of the walk, at the top of another steep climb, you look across another bay to the village of St Abbs Head. The photo below captures the view of the sea, the rocky shore, the village itself, with the harbour to the bottom left, and the cliffs beyond. There is a 6K walk (good photos) along these cliffs to the fishing town of Eyemouth (good photos). Above the town, the countryside stretches languidly out and beyond, a mixture of arable crops on fertile soil and sheep grazing areas on rougher ground. Just above the rockface, in the foreground of the photo (best enlarged), you can see Northfield House (detailed description) built by the brewing giants the Usher family between 1888 and 1892.

St Abbs Head and its rocky shore

From the end of the walk, we went down to the harbourside in St Abbs for our picnic lunch. On the way there we took the high road route and this gives you a good view looking down to the harbour (aerial photo). My own photo below shows the busy scene. The red roofed building at the bottom right is St Ebbcarrs Café (good photos) which serves teas and coffees, but also delicious cullen skink (soup) and rough mackerel paté. To the left of the café, on the harbourside, is the now independent St Abbs Head Lifeboat shed and slipway. The narrow entrance to the harbour is opposite the slip way and is hidden by the harbour walls. We could see a number of boats carrying divers coming into and leaving the harbour. The sea here is very clear and popular with people doing scuba diving (good underwater photos). This being summer, there is a line of small boats and sailing dinghies in the harbour, along with the larger fishing boats.

Looking down on St Abbs Head harbour

We had lunch on a bench above the harbour and enjoyed a different view of the harbour and beyond. The photo below shows the view, with the back of the café in the foreground. In the distance, you can see the whitened cliffs where the guillemots had nested and above that is near the end of our walk. On the middle left of the photo, Northfield House sits on the promontory. It is a very peaceful spot, with little traffic noise and the mewing of an occasional passing seagull may break the silence. With this view, you have the harbour, the sea, the cliffs and the farmland beyond, so an idyllic spot which is appreciated by all who pass here.

St Abbs Head harbour and beyond

Earlier on the walk, on the far side of the cliffs and before we got to Pettico Wick, I stopped to watch a tractor ploughing a field. I did not add commentary to the video below as I enjoyed the sound of the tractor’s noise increasing as it came towards me. Watch how the tractor gently turns the earth over, to the delight of the swarming seagulls behind it. Then the balletic turn of the tractor at the top, with the shiny limbs of the plough raised and then lowered in anticipation of the next run down the green side of the field. This is a timeless scene i.e. the ploughing of the field. The technology may have changed from ploughman with 2 horses to one man in a tractor, but the overturning of the pliant sod remains the same.

So another extremely enjoyable walk at St Abbs on a fine day and lunch with what many would see as an enviable view.

SOC print exhibition and Carry Akroyd’s book “Found in the Fields”

July 6, 2022

The current exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady, home of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC) is in two parts. Firstly Nature, Prints and Poetry (good photos) which is “A small exhibition in the corridor, organised with the support of the Society of Wood Engravers, presents wood engravings by 13 artists, alongside the poems that inspired them”. The larger exhibition, in the main part of the gallery, is Birds, Botany and John Clare (good photos) by Carry Akroyd (examples of her work). I received permission from SOC for my photos from the first exhibition and from Carry Akroyd to scan and reproduce prints from her book.

I chose two prints from the smaller exhibition – they were all of a very high standard. The print below – much clearer in the exhibition – is by Ray Hedger and is his interpretation of Laurie Lee’s poem April Rise (video reading). The poem’s lines include “While white as water by the lake a girl/ Swims her green hand among the gathered swans”. Hedger’s woodcut shows the girl swimming between the two elegant and graceful swans, with her long hair stretching down into the water, like the smooth back of the swan below her. Above, the other swan is putting on a display for the girl, with the trees at the lakeside spread out like fans. The poem also includes “Weeds of warm light whose every root and rod/ Splutters with soapy green”, demonstrating Lee’s powerful images.

April Rise engraving by Ray Hedger, with poem by Laurie Lee (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The second wood engraving which caught my eye was The Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar (good photos). It appears that the artist has got his spelling wrong as the RSPB calls it a Grey Wagtail. The photo below – taken through glass – shows the sharp edges of the bird’s beak, tail and feet and how the artist has captured the bird’s attentive look forward. The black and white portrayal of the wagtail is enhanced by the white around its eye and the stripes on its rear feathers and tail. This loch-side scene, with the bird standing on a rock with the rippling water behind, the overturned boat outside the shed and the trees, perhaps waving in the wind, gives a feeling of being in the countryside somewhere. The wood engraving is based on the poem by Norman MacCaig and poet also calls it a gray wagtail. The poem captures the movement and the spirit of the grey wagtail. If you see one, it is in constant motion with its head going up and down as it flits from place to place. MacCaig writes “You dip and dip and go on dipping/ your tail,/ then shuttlecock up (death of a fly)/ and parachute down again/ on to your watery stone”.

Gray Wagtail by Jim Dunbar

The wood engravings in the first section of the exhibition are very small, but no less effective for that. As you walk into the main exhibition, you move into a different world, of large, dynamic and colourful paintings by Carry Akroyd, accompanied by whole poems (or extracts from) by John Clare (short biography). Ackroyd’s book “Found in the Fields” is on sale at the exhibition and contains her interpretation of several Clare poems, as well as work she had done over the years. The exhibition is on the Clare poems and these are included in the book, in which each page is not far short of A4 size in width and longer than A4 in height. Thus the reader sees the paintings, monoprints and mixed media works in a fairly large size. At £29.95 it is an absolute bargain, given the quality and quantity of its contents and the high production values from Swallowtail Print.

The first example from the book – see below – is entitled Swifts and the accompanying lines are from Clare’s book Northborough Sonnets. The lines of the poem include “The develing black as coal comes out at night/ & flyes above the village out of sight”. The “black as coal” is an apt description of the swifts which dart unceasingly and you can hear their cries as they speed past you. Carry Akroyd’s lithograph captures the essence of the swifts, both visually and in words “never seem to settle”. The winding river catches your eye, with the swans gliding at the bottom and you follow it through a myriad of fields to the top, as the elegant swifts pass by.

Swifts – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The second lithograph – photo below – by this artist is entitled Startled and is inspired by John Clare’s poem long poem Autumn. The section relating to the hare, quoted in the book, reads “See! from the rustling scythe the haunted hare/ Scampers circuitous, with startled ears/ Prickt up, then squat, as bye/ She brushes to the woods,/ Where reeded grass, breast-high and undisturbed,/ Forms pleasant clumps, through which the soothing winds/ Soften her rigid fears,/ And lull to calm repose”. Clare’s imagery of the “rustling scythe” and how the hare “scampers circuitous” into the woods makes the poem come alive, as we can imagine the hare desperately escaping the scythe. In the print, we can see how Carry Akroyd has managed to incorporate the motion of the hare running to the woods, with its ears “prickt up” and its determined eye, as it seeks the refuge of the woods. Clare writes “These haunts I have long favoured..” and you can see how the poet would be at home in the countryside portrayed here.

Startled – hand-drawn lithograph by Carry Akroyd

The final example from the book – photo below – features two oil on canvas paintings on page 74. These two works are inspired by John Clare’s poem “Wood pictures in summer” which begins “The one delicious green that now pervades/ The woods and fields in endless lights and shades/ And that deep softness of delicious hues”. Carry Akroyd’s painting includes many “delicious greens” in the rolling countryside on view, but she also incorporates “delicious hues” of blues and yellows in the multiplicity of fields on show. In the nineteenth century, in Clare’s time, fields such as these would have been much smaller than they are today, as there were no tractors to plough or to reap. A view such as this today would be of large fields, maybe the size of four of five of the painting’s fields, with fewer hedgerows and trees. Also, you can imagine Clare wandering through the country lanes as he sought to ease his often-troubled mind.

Green Season and Lane through Green Fields by Carry Akroyd

The photos and scanned pages above do not do full justice to the work of the artists on show at SOC or to the clarity of the prints and paintings in Carry Akroyd’s splendid book. Enlarging the photos will give a much better impression. The exhibition runs until the end of July, so visit it if. you can and buy the book while you are there.

Addendum to the previous post

May 29, 2022

Having spent some time this week discussing the lyrics of the song below with my good friend Tam, I was taken aback to realise that I had NOT included it in the Birks of Aberfeldy post. So here it is, one of my favourite songs by Gallagher and Lyle from their 1973 album Willie and the Lapdog, the original vinyl LP of which I have in my garage. It is a charming, melodic tune and you can imagine a young man walking through the Birks of Aberfeldy with a young woman and serenading her with this song, added to by the sound of the burn’s rippling water and the birdsong in the background.

Audubon’s Birds of America exhibition in Edinburgh

April 18, 2022

I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland to see the stunning Audubon’s Birds of America exhibition (good photos). I remember this book being mentioned as being significant in the history of printing (good photos) in my first postgraduate course. The National Library of Scotland describes the book as “one of the world’s most famous and valuable books. Its huge pages contain the life’s work of John James Audubon, a Haitian-born Frenchman who became an American citizen. The book took nearly 12 years to complete. In four volumes, it contains 435 plates showing 1,065 life-size illustrations of 489 bird species of 19th-century America”.

When you enter the exhibition, you are immediately entranced by the moving images of birds on the walls and it pays dividends to stand still and watch as each bird metamorphoses into another. I took this video just after going inside the exhibition.

On the walls of the exhibition are examples of Audubon’s work and it is here that you see the outstanding quality he has in carefully depicting the birds. This is art as well as ornithology and the paintings can be appreciated as much for their artistic style as their content. The photo below is a good example of this. Audubon, in his notes in the book, writes that the song of the water thrush – Turdus Aquatucus – is equal to that of the nightingale and “The notes of the bird are as powerful and mellow, and at times varied”. He named it the Louisiana water thrush although this bird (good photos) can be seen in many eastern states in America. In this painting, you see the detail of the bird’s plumage, beak and its claws, which are wrapped tightly around the branch and appear to be made of wire. There are also delicate shades of colour in the flower itself, with the brighter red of the fruit providing a contrast.

Louisiana Water Thrush by John James Audubon (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

Audubon liked to portray himself as a frontiersman and commissioned a portrait of himself – see photo below. He is a controversial figure today, given that he was the son of a slave trader and owned slaves at one time, but he accepted patronage from abolitionists in England. Also, he killed some of the birds he wanted to paint and this would be unacceptable today, but he also was an early critic of the deleterious effect humans could have on the environment of the birds and is seen as a conservationist today. Audubon came to Edinburgh in 1826 and the book would not have been printed without the help of William Home Lizars, described by the National Library of Scotland as “A talented artist and a superb engraver. He played a key role in the production of ‘Birds of America’. He was the first man to consider seriously engraving and publishing the bird paintings”. The exhibition has a quote from Audubon which reads ” I saw Edinburgh and was struck with the natural pictorial elegance of the site. The principal scientific characters of the metropolis received me as a brother”. The four volume work was completed in the 1830s. Complete sets of the huge book are rarely seen and one sold for $8.8 million in 2000.

John James Audubon

The books themselves are much bigger than most art books, measuring almost one metre by 650mm. The photo below shows the volume – in a glass case – which was on display at the exhibition. This page shows the Snowy Heron or White Egret and is described by Audubon as “This beautiful species is a constant resident in Florida and Louisiana, where thousands are seen during winter, and where many remain during the breeding season”. You can see a larger print of this magnificent bird here.

Audubon’s book – Snowy Heron

I was mesmerised by the moving paintings of various birds on the walls before I left the exhibition and I took another video. The exhibition ends on 8th May, so if you are in the vicinity, go and see it. You will not be disappointed.

The Hoot and John Banville’s Snow

April 7, 2022

A new of edition of The Hoot online magazine (Photo below) from SOC’s Librarian and Communication Officer Rosie Filipiak is always something to look forward to. This latest edition promises “some springtime topics – migration, pairing up, and eggs”. I have selected some interesting parts of the magazine, sent out to SOC members and have included information and photos on moorhens, guillemots and shovelers.

Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended.

We see moorhens on local ponds in Dunbar and they tend to be small, shy birds which will swim away as soon as you approach the water’s edge. The Hoot notes that “Moorhens are often overlooked as being rather ordinary, everyday birds, but aspects of their life history are fascinating.  Over winter, Moorhens often form small flocks within which they pair up before monogamous pairs disperse in spring to establish a territory”. Research quoted states that female moorhens are fussy about who they mate with – as they should be, of course – and prefer fatter males, choosing a mate only after inspecting the approaches of several males. The males do 70% of the incubation and often have to build several nests before attracting a female. The photo below is similar to the one in The Hoot which is copyright. Moorhens have red bill shields and yellow bill tips and the stronger the colours, the healthier the bird. This moorhen is in a beautiful setting, with the water lilies as a background and its ribbed reflection in the water. From a distance, moorhens tend to look black and it is only when you get close that you see the stunning colours on its face and bill.

Dusky moorhen in Sydney’s Victoria Park. Photo by Toby Hudson and included under Creative Commons

My own experience of guillemotsUria aalge – are members of the auk family and gather in their thousands in places like St Abbs Head (good video). Unfortunately, The Hoot reported that many guillemots had been found dead along shores in Scotland and the likely cause is a shortage of sand eels, which have moved to colder waters due to climate change. When you get near enough to a guillemot colony, you can hear the constant cries of the birds as they leave and return to the closely packed cliff edge nesting sites. As you can see in the photo below, guillemots are elegant and graceful birds, with their white fronts and blue/black heads and backs. They always look to me like inquisitive birds, with their keen eyes and sharp beaks always on the lookout.

Guillemots – Photo with the permission of Rosie Filipiak

The third bird to be covered in this edition of The Hoot is the shovelerAnas clypeata – and the RSPB site notes that “Shovelers are surface feeing ducks with huge spatulate bills”. I had to look up spatulate and it means “shaped like a spatula” and “having a narrow base and broad rounded apex”. You can see the shoveler’s not particularly attractive bill in the photo below. The bill is however, very efficient and effective as it allows the bird to sieve more water than other ducks. It uses, according to The Hoot “the lamellae, those fine comb-like structures that line the inside of the bill, also allow Shovelers to filter out smaller prey items than other dabbling ducks because they have both more and much finer lamellae”. The shoveler is still an attractive bird with its variegated plumage and keen, yellow eye and Rosie Filipiak’s superb photo also captures the bird’s surreal-looking reflection in the water.

Shoveler by Rosie Filipiak

A new book by the Irish author John Banville is always something to look forward to with anticipation. Banville’s new crime novel – this time using his own name and not his pseudonym Benjamin Back – is Snow (review) and it is a superb novel, which begins in a jocular fashion but becomes darker as the tale progresses. The crime involved is the murder of a priest in a rural Ireland mansion. The body is found in the library and has been disfigured (no spoilers). The eccentric detective St John Strafford is sent to investigate, and the local police and some of the house’s occupants refer jokingly to Inspector Poirot in relation to a “body in the library” mystery. The novel explores the characters in the house – and visitors – as to who might have carried out the murder and why. Banville carefully takes us on a journey of possible killers and their potential motives. The novel is set in 1957 in Ireland, which is still dominated by the catholic church and Strafford’s superiors warn him that he should not investigate too closely, as a scandal might be revealed. There is a quite disturbing chapter near the end of the book where we hear the voice of the dead priest admitting to his own crimes (no spoilers) and this is superbly written. Banville avoids a melodramatic ending – he is too good a writer for that – but he keeps us guessing until the end of the book as to who was involved in the murder.

Banville is a stylistic writer and we are treated to some memorable descriptions throughout the novel. Enjoying a better than expected traditional pub meal, Strafford reflects “It was like leaning one’s back against the sun-warmed side of a haystack”. We come across unusual use of words e.g. swag in “The sky was loaded with a swag of mauve-tinted clouds”. There is humour also, as a barman describes a customer “He’d drink whiskey off a sore leg, that fellow would”. Banville also sent me to the dictionary – “A brumous glow lay on the fields” – with brumous meaning foggy and wintry. Or “The wine gave off an evil, rubious glitter”, with rubious meaning dark red or the colour of a ruby. So we read Banville not just for his in-depth characterisation and sublime plotting, but also for his often telling use of the English language to poetically describe scenes or what people wear. This brilliant book is a must-read.

Making risotto and swans in the pond

March 17, 2022

The original recipe that I found online for making smoked haddock risotto is the one from BBC Good Food. The beauty of this recipe is that it makes risotto but you do not have to stand over the pot for 25 minutes, adding the stock one ladle at a time. I am not a big spinach fan, so I added peas instead to start with. Since then I have added carrot, red pepper/capsicum to enhance the flavour and also the look of the risotto.

Last week, I also added chorizo. It is a fairly straightforward dish once you have prepared the vegetables. Firstly, I chop a good sized leek into small pieces and rinse it in the sieve. I then diced the carrot and sweated these and the leek (no pepper this time) in some oil – adding mixed herbs – in a pan. Once these are softened and the leek is translucent, you add the Arborio rice, turning the gas right down, and stir vigorously for one minute. The frozen peas, which I steep in boing water first to soften them, are also added. I cooked the chorizo in a small frying pan without adding oil and dried it off in kitchen roll before adding it and the fish stock and cooking the mixture without a lid on, for 5 minutes. The photo below shows the mixture added to our Le Creuset dish and, as you can see, it is colourful and already looks appetising. I like the combination of the white rice, the pale yellow leek, the brighter green of the peas and the dark brown of the chorizo. It already looks creamy.

Risotto without the fish on top (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

We are lucky in Dunbar to have our own fish shop in the High Street and it was there that I bought the smoked haddock to go in the risotto. There are two types of this fish and I always choose the pale smoked haddock (photo) as it has a less harsh flavour. There are usually some bones left in the fish at the top of the fillet, so I cut these out with a sharp knife and slice the fish into large chunks. If you cut the fish into smaller chunks, they are likely to break up in the risotto. The photo below shows the fish added to the simmered risotto. There is enough for two people here, with some left over for my lunch the next day. The haddock has its graceful and elegant lines on the top side. The lid goes on and it cooks in the oven for 18 minutes.

Raw fish on the risotto

When the dish is ready, I take it out of the oven and remove the lid. This Le Creuset dish is quite large and has a heavy, solid base and lid. Depending on the dish in which you cook the risotto, you may need more or less stock. When we bought this dish, I found that more stock was absorbed. The result can be seen in the photo below. The fish has shrunk but only a little and the risotto underneath has absorbed most – but not all – of the stock. Now it is ready for the crème fraîche.

Cooked risotto

There are different methods of mixing in the crème fraîche. I used to chop up the fish before adding it to the risotto but I found that it tended to make the fish disappear into the mixture. I now remove the fish, add the crème fraîche and then gently fold in the fish to the risotto. The final dish can been seen in the photo below. My preference is to serve the risotto in bowls, keeping the fish in chunks and allowing guests to add grated Parmesan cheese when at the table. Modesty aside, it is delicious!

The final dish before serving

I walked along to the pond at Dunbar Golf Course (good photos) in the morning recently as rain was forecast for later. Swans are regularly to be seen here and on my arrival, two swans were on the edge of the pond, unmoved by my presence. This was in contrast to a group of ducks, who one moment were swimming sedately in the pond and the next moment were noisily flying off to the adjacent woods. The rain came earlier than expected but this allowed me to take photos of the swans in the rain. The photo below shows the swan surrounded by what look like bullet holes in the water, but the bird was oblivious to the rain and, unlike me, needed no umbrella. I am always fascinated by the shapes of birds and the swan is no exception. Look at the black tip of the beak, its white surround, followed by the long orange section and the black top. All of these are of a different shape but blend together to attract our attention.

Elegant swan and rain circles

One of my favourite poems is Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats and these lines show his admiration for these magnificent birds who give us all so much pleasure when we see them in the water, on the shore or in the air.

Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

If you have ever heard swans flying above you, you will recognise Yeats’ wonderful description of clamorous wings. A swan in another pond in the photo below, this time at Belhaven Pond, taken for this blogpost. The swan – not the rain – has created the circles in the water now and the swan’s head and body take on a surrealist tinge when seen reflected in the water. I never tire of watching swans gliding along, with a superior look in their eyes, knowing how beautiful they are in contrast to what they might regard as dull humans.

Swan on a calm day

Tree felling at Spott House and Thomas Kenneally’s The Dickens Boy

March 7, 2022

We went for another walk at Spott House (good photos) recently and we could see a large crane near the house from the bottom of the drive. We could also hear the insistent buzz of a chainsaw. We walked up to the top of the drive and veered right and right again up past the small herd of Orkney sheep (good photos) and the glamping pods (good photos) which have stunning views over the countryside and out to sea. On the way back past the back of the house, we could see the crane again but also two men halfway up one of the large trees. In the photo below, the two men have attached a chain around the tree, with the plan to cut the tree in half. This may have been periodical pruning of the trees or the top half may have been damaged in Storm Arwen (illustrated article) in late November. The chain looks as if it might be part of the tree, with ridged instead of smooth branches.

Affixing the chain to the tree at Spott House

In the photo below, the man on the left is checking that the chain is in place and anticipating a signal from the crane driver. The chainsaw man is poised for cutting. The small crane on the left and the tree on the right look as if they are leaning towards each other and the branches of the tree are delineated against the light blue and what became an increasingly pink sky. In the summer, when the tree is in full leaf, most of the sky beyond will not be visible, and the pink sky will arrive hours later.

Tree fellers at Spott House (Click on all photos to enlarge – recommended)

The chainsaw man then started up his machine and the elegant bird song to which we had been listening, was drowned out. In the photo below, you can see that the chainsaw has been applied to the tree and it only took seconds for the saw to separate the upper part of the tree from the remaining trunk. The tentacles on the tree below the cut still stretched out in their mazy patterns, like rivulets of water in between the rocks as the tide comes in. When the crane and the men disappeared, normality was resumed and gradually the bird song could be heard again in the stillness of the day.

Chainsaw in action at Spott House

I took the video below but did not add any commentary because of the chainsaw noise. You will see the man on the lift machine signalling to the crane driver to separate the trunk and raise the amputated part of the limb into the sky and away.

I have read a number of Thomas Kenneally‘s novel over many years but I have not featured one on the blog. His latest novel The Dickens Boy (review) is set in Australia and tells the story of Charles Dickens’ youngest son Edward – known as Plorn – who was sent there to work on a sheep farm in the bush. You can read Kenneally’s intriguing recreation of the travels of Plorn and his brother here. Kenneally was – and remains in his 80s – a wonderful storyteller and the reader is drawn into the life of young Dickens and his efforts to “prove himself” (as he puts it) to his father. We see Plorn learning the ways of the outback sheep station from his employers and his Aboriginal fellow employee. There is a mixture of life in the outback – the work, the food and the culture of the Aboriginals – as well as in intriguing examination, told in many flashbacks – of the character of the great novelist himself. Dickens emerges as a good father but also a man of contradictions. Plorn and his brother cannot escape their father’s fame in Australia, where he is revered, and on Dickens’ death, they travel to Sydney to celebrations of their father’s life. Some of these are excruciatingly boring and embarrassing to Plorn, who has not read his father’s books but is inevitably questioned about them.

Back at the sheep station, there is an incident with bushrangers who take over the farm with the intent to steal. This is well told by Kenneally although the way the bushrangers leave is perhaps implausible. We see Plorn growing up from the age of sixteen, to becoming a potential sheep station owner himself. To what extent the story is historically true is irrelevant here. This is a cracking tale which draws the reader along and takes the reader into the atmosphere, weather, cultural practices and personal relationships in Australia’s outback and its cities. Having taught and lived in rural Australia and spent time in its major cities, this was familiar territory for me and added to my enjoyment of it. Even if you have no experience of Australia, this is still am intriguing read. I highly recommend that you buy a copy and enjoy the book.

Kenneally’s excellent novel