Wednesday, 1 February 2017


to the children laughing
as they splash in the river,
orange with the reflected
Autumnal foliage.

to the leaves crunching
beneath running feet
never stopping to catch breath
or look behind.

to the geese cackling,
calling to each other
as they fly in their V
past the fiery sun.

to the splash of the salmon
as it again fails
to breakthrough the frothy,
full flowing water.

please listen.
Do not dispute what I hear.
These sounds are in me,
they are part of who I am.

the laughing, crunching, cackling and splashing
drown out the buzzers, shouting and cries.
These sounds put a smile on my face,
give me contentment in this dark, grey place.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

My Wild Places

I have just finished reading the first of my Christmas books  ‘The Wild Places’ by Robert Macfarlane and have that mixed feeling of sadness and contentment that comes with reaching the last page of a book which you have lost yourself in for the duration of its story.  The book in this instance was a non-fiction piece of writing but the story it told was about finding the wild places of Britain and Ireland.  Macfarlane began his writing with the belief that true wild places existed beyond the touch of ‘human history’ and concluded that wildness can, and frequently does, exist alongside human marks made on the earth.
As I was reading I began to think about what places I would consider to be my wild places. The places where I felt most connected to the natural world and where I enjoyed returning to. The first four that sprang to mind are the four below.

The Glen

This was where I spent a lot of my childhood with my friend Nina. We would go ‘down the glen’ and collect tadpoles from the burn, make a bridge across to our secret island, pick raspberries and just generally be free to do as we wished. Our glen was at the edge of a run down town in central Scotland where many years ago mining was the main employment.  I now live 1 ½ hrs drive away near the beautiful Angus Glens which are by far a different kind of glen altogether. Nina lives in Seville in Spain but her parents still live in our childhood hometown. In summer 2014 we met up at  the home of Nina’s parents and we took our two oldest children to visit ‘ our glen’.  Despite all the wild places I have been since I last visited here ‘the glen’ still had the ability to stir something inside me and in my mind I returned to the wild, carefree days of my childhood. Our daughters ran off exploring as soon as we passed through the gates and I felt a lump in my throat as I watched the next generation exploring our wee piece of the wild.

The Burn

This burn runs along the bottom of the field behind our house. In the summer it’s not much more than a trickle of water but in the wetter months it can be as high as the measuring stick seen in this picture. On June 22nd 2013 I took our dog his usual wee walk to the bridge over the burn and stood on the bridge watching a deer bound across one of the fields. As I was watching I heard a plop as something disturbed the water and looked down to see what it was.  Immediately I saw a long brown body  just immersed and no more and swimming towards me, a moment later the body emerged from the water and the next thing I knew I was staring into the eyes of an otter as I gazed down at it and it looked curiously up at me. I was transfixed and it had no inclination to turn and flee so we stood like that for a good few minutes before the otter decided it had better things to be doing. Me, I could have happily stood like that all day.

 Glen Doll

One of the Angus Glens and in the Cairngorm National Park, Glen Doll is glen we visit most frequently. No matter what time of year it is the car park is never empty as this is where people come to climb the two Munros Driesh and Mayar, to walk Jocks Road to Braemar, to visit the beautiful Corrie Fee or just to walk around the wooded pathways and experience the fresh, clean air. It is highly unlikely then that you will not meet people when out walking but there is one pathway we often take that other people seem to overlook. The pathway takes you on a circular walk by the edge of the river South Esk, past the stony river edge where we like to search for interesting stones and river life, over a bridge where you can play a great game of Pooh Sticks, through a dark, mysterious wood and past the mountains where you can hear the stag rut in the autumn. The land tells the story of how it was formed (assisted by my husband’s narrative) and large erratics lie where they have been deposited by glaciers around 14-15,000 years ago. It’s strange to think that these boulders our children now clamber over and jump off were once carried by ice through a landscape that we today would not recognise, at a time when mammoths roamed the land. 

The Wood

I had never been in this wood until we got Ben our dog. It is just yards from my horses’ field but I had no need to go into it until Ben started coming up to the horses with me and required a walk once the work was done. I had never taken the horses in as I believed the wood was too dense and the ground too uneven to ride safely. The wood is only about half a mile long and not very deep. There are fields to one side, and roads at the other side and both ends. If you time it right you can walk through the wood and meet no one at all, half an hour at either side of your time slot and you will meet the same people walking their dogs no matter what day you are there. Despite the small surface area, in this wood I have encountered an amazing array of wildlife. It is home to red squirrels and at one time there were six of these rusty tailed characters inhabiting the tree tops and caching their winter supply in the undergrowth. It looked for a while that this population had disappeared and one regular dog walker informed me he had seen the last one being eaten by a buzzard, the tail having been dropped on the soft grass underneath the tree the buzzard had dined on.  I left that conversation with a heavy heart.  A couple of weeks later Ben alerted me to a red coated character darting up a tree and I stood and looked up into the tree canopy as two alert and curious eyes stared back down at me. On another occasion we were approaching the end of the wood and as I made to retrace my steps something flew right in front of me then landed on a branch just in front me. It was my first, and so far only, encounter with a Little owl. On other occasions I have watched Great Spotted Woodpeckers drum on the trunks of dead trees and just this week a Roe deer bounded silently through the snow yards from where we were walking.  There are also flocks of Great Tits and many different types of fungi depending on what time year you visit. I would never have believed this small area of woodland would be home to such a rich variety of flora and fauna and I think Robert Macfarlane was right when he reached the conclusion that “ There was as much to be learned in acre of woodland on a city’s fringe as on the shattered summit of Ben Hope”. 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Everything Endures

Quite literally just after I had written down the last word of this reflection yesterday my mum came through the door and told me my grandpa had passed away. Writing this was my way of coping with the waiting and the sadness and I decided to post it on my blog in memory of him. 
ANDREW AITKEN 30/04/1923-08/01/2015

It is the New Year and rather than thoughts of new beginnings and moving forward my thoughts seem to be concentrated on death and dying. Some of these thoughts are brought about due to the consequence of working with adults who are predominately in the winter of their lives. Indeed in winter many seem to melt away from this life in large numbers, some expected others not.

Reasons closer to home are also affecting my thinking and as I write this my grandpa, my dad’s dad, is lying in hospital on the cusp between living and dying. He is ninety-one approaching ninety
two in the spring and when we last saw him on 27th December 2014 he was happy and content surrounded by every member of his immediate family, my granny, his son and daughter, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law, his five grandchildren with their spouses and his five great-grandchildren with two more expected in March.  He was happy but he was tired and there was a feeling among us all that this would be the last time we were all together. Yet there was no sadness, just joy in being there at that moment in time.

My grandpa’s deterioration in health prompted a text conversation with my friend last night on the subject of death. Admittedly it was not the cheeriest of conversations but it was interesting. We discussed our reactions to death now as opposed to our reactions when we were teenagers. At this stage in my life my other grandpa passed away after years of living with Alzheimer’s disease. My response to his death was to cry inconsolably and internalise the loss I felt. It was in many ways a selfish grief I experienced but then as my friend pointed out “ Teenaged selves are very self centred and experiences of death at that age will be difficult”. So is experiencing a death less difficult now in my thirties  than it was in my teens.

As I have been walking in the woods this morning with our dog, mucking out my horses’ field, cleaning out the hens and walking Ben dog again this is primarily what my thoughts around death and dying have centered on, is it still a difficult subject to deal with? My friend and I touched on this in our conversation both feeling our society is not very confident when dealing with someone who is nearing the end of their life. Rather than looking at the person and allowing a dignified death free from interference, there seems to be a need to turn to medicines and medical settings to try and prolong the inevitable outcome. As my friend rightly pointed out, dying is part of living. The two come as a package and every minute of every day people are reaching a natural time in their life when they are ready to exchange life for death.

This exchange also takes place daily in nature. A queen bee sees through a summer of reproducing then dies having led a brief, productive life. A salmon makes the final journey to its spawning grounds, ensures more generations will follow then dies.  A flower blooms, produces its pollen then fades and dies having ensured more colour will appear next spring. A dragonfly emerges from the pond, finds a mate and after only a day of sunlight dies, the eggs containing the next generation laid and waiting to emerge. Living is natural and dying is natural. One cannot exist without the other.

Looking at it in this way I find death is not as difficult to deal with as it was when I was a teenager, or when I was even younger and at an age when the tears would flow over the death of a stick insect. Death is actually a fascinating and contemplative subject and one which we should not shy away from. Loosing someone will always be difficult even with an understanding that this is their time and keeping them with us any longer would be unfair. However, I believe everything and everyone endures in some form or another be it in the new blooms that emerge in the spring, the dragonflies that unfurl their wings as they leave behind their watery nurseries, the young salmon beginning their migration, the new queen bees pushing their way out of the soil where they slept away the winter or the nineteen family members who are there and together because of you and who all see you as their inspiration.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

A Story of a Queen

The last icy cold night of the winter had been past a few weeks and the sun was rising higher and higher in the sky with each passing day. There was a warm earthy smell in the air and the stillness that had settled over winter was gone, as all around life began.
In a tunnel just below the earth there was a stirring....then, from where she had been hibernating over the winter months, a queen bumblebee emerged. She gave herself a little shake then set off to find some flowers rich in sweet nectar to provide her with much needed energy.

The previous spring the garden the queen bee had hibernated in had been like a sweetie shop to a bumblebee. There had been lilac lavenders scenting the air, pink foxgloves growing in the borders and places where the grass had been allowed to grow which hoisted all manner of bumblebee friendly plants. Now the queen, weak after her long sleep, flew around searching in vain for a suitable flower. The borders of the garden were bright with blues, purples and pinks but the pansies that displayed these colours were no use for the queen as the nectar and pollen contained within them was minimal. There were no foxgloves to be seen and the grass had been cut short and stumpy. The queen bumblebee searched and searched for a flower that contained sweet nectar but after a while she became too weak to fly and landed on a grey concrete slab, unable to get up again.

A short while later a loud yell filled the air and a young boy called to his sister to watch where she was putting her foot as she was about to stand on a bee. The girl just missed the queen bee and both of them knelt down to have a look. “ Poor thing” said the girl “ I think she needs some energy. Quick go and ask Mum for a small container with a few drops of water and some sugar in it. Oh and a jar” The boy followed the instructions his sister gave and was soon back with the sugary solution. They placed it down by the queen bee and she lapped it up. Before she had time to fly off the girl carefully caught her in the jar her brother had also brought along. “I think she will happier in our wildlife garden” said the girl. “Our new one that dad helped us create after he tidied up  here is much better than this patch ever was.” So together they carefully took the queen bumblebee to a grassy patch full of insects, birds and (best of all for the queen) lots of wildflowers! They opened the jar and, full of energy from the sugar liquid, the queen flew up and out while the children watched in delight.

That would be a happy ending but it isn’t where the story ends. ..................

The queen bumblebee buzzed her way around lots of different flowers, releasing the protein rich pollen from the flower using her high pitched buzz. When she was full she searched around for somewhere she could build her nest. She didn’t have to search far before she came across an old tree trunk lying on the ground.  She examined it and decided it was a suitable place to lay her eggs. For the next two weeks she sat on her eggs until they hatched into female worker bees. The queen then laid more eggs and the worker bees ensured no predators attacked the nest, they kept the nest clean and they collected pollen and nectar for themselves, the queen and the new bees that emerged. The queen now had no reason to leave the nest and her sole job was to lay eggs. In the late summer male bees hatched as well as new queen bees. The males grew and left the nest to find a mate, never to return.  The queens left to mate but continued to return to the nest at night.

As summer neared an end the male bees and the female worker bees died, such is the short life of a bee. The old queen also passed away but she left behind many new queen bees. These queen bees made themselves a warm hole in the soil and settled down to sleep until the warmth of the spring coaxed them out to begin the cycle again. She also left behind many plants that she and her offspring had pollinated. Plants that would not be around if it wasn’t for the busy bumblebee. 

Friday, 21 March 2014

If I Reach an Age..

If I reach an age,
a stage where
I cannot always clarify
my actions or recall
my thought processes,
I hope there will be
someone present who knows
me well enough or someone
who has taken the time
to get to know me.

Someone who has taken
time to get to know me
so I am not a nuisance
because I ‘wander’.
Actually, I was never one
for sitting doing nothing,
so please don’t try and
keep me resting
when my body is still
able to be active.

My body is still able
to be active and,
as a result, I am not
trying to escape.
I am merely trying to
get outside to hear the
birds, breath the air
and allow the consistent presence
of nature to penetrate
those deep recesses of my memories.

Deep recesses of my memory
that still recall happy
days long ago.
Days when we would walk
in the woods seeking red squirrels,
search in ponds for frog spawn,
comb the beach for treasures.
Ask me about these times,
I can share stories and
perhaps even impart knowledge.

Stories and knowledge have
been laid down in the
areas of my mind that have
not yet succumbed
to the tangles and plaques.
Some gentle coaxing
will encourage them forth,
once released they will be
happy to be shared, relived
and bring joy.

Bring joy to me as I
quietly laugh at
the image of a wee boy
wet with sea water and
a bonnie girl seeking
mermaids purses in
the tide line.
Joy to you as you
realise you’ve reached me
and can share these memories.

You’ve reached me because
you have taken the time.
Time to sit with me,
time to speak with me,
time to not watch the time,
to just be present so I can
be present in a time that
I loved and didn’t want to lose.
This is all I hope for if I

reach an age, a stage....

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Letting Nature take its Course

Someone recently told me that her 27 year old son had out of the blue informed her that he really appreciated all the things they had done together when he was a child such as going outdoors and visiting museums. He went on to say that he had assumed these activities were part of everyone’s family life and it is only in recent years he has discovered not everyone did have the privileges he and his sister had. This had really struck home when a friend had admitted to him she had only recently discovered dinosaurs were once alive and not just constructs of the film industry.

The privileges he referred to did not involve an excess of material things and money. They were simple privileges like having the freedom to run outside in the fresh air, to learn about the wildlife and plants that shared the outdoors, to explore without being on a tight rein and to visit interesting places that enhanced learning about the natural world past and present.  There is no doubt these experiences were enjoyed at the time, but the real appreciation of how important they were in the development of self did not come until many years later.

Months after this conversation we had a rescued hedgehog staying with us for a holiday and in conversation with a different person I stated that I really hoped my two children would always appreciate how privileged they were to have had such close contact with a wild animal. The person I was talking to shook his head and said “Nah they won’t!”

I will admit here and now that as I write this my two are sitting together in the living room watching CBEEBIES. However, it is the first time they have had the television on in three days as we do limit their screen time. The rest of the week has involved carrying out a pond project, planting bulbs, numerous walks with Ben dog and bat watching. At the weekend we visited a country park where we learned about different trees, found a frog and played in the play park. This is typical of our week days and weekends and as a family we do a wide variety of activities, with the scales leaning more towards nature based entertainment. When I reflect on who plans the activities I have to admit it is usually me. I like to form ideas in my head and I like to be organised so no precious time is wasted. On saying that I will usually offer a choice; woods or beach? Country park or the glens? Turn left at the end of the drive or right? What should our project be on? My husband likes being outdoors and is happy to follow my lead, only complaining now and again that his weekends are never restful! Our children also seem to enjoy being outside and learning about nature but I admit at times they do seem to take things for granted. This occasional apathy and the above conversations are why, I suppose, I am sitting here just now writing my thoughts down.

As I mentioned we recently had a hedgehog staying with us. She was rescued two years ago and was too young to hibernate so was cared for by friends over the winter. In the spring attempts to release her were unsuccessful as she would just throw herself onto her back so her soft, vulnerable tummy was exposed for any quick witted predator to take advantage of. As a result she still lives with her rescuers and we look after her at holidays. On Hedgie’s (friends choice of name is not very original) first stay over both son and daughter were excited to have her around. Subsequent visits did not elicit the same enthusiasm and close contact with this essentially wild animal is now treated in the same manner as looking after Ben dog, the cat or our two hens and cockerel.

When Hedgie is residing with us she does her bit for hedgehog conservation and has visited my daughter’s primary two class and my son’s nursery class. On these visits I have first found out what the children know about hedgehogs then I have told them Hedgie’s story before introducing the star herself. As Hedgie has a wee wander around I tell the children more about hedgehogs and they have the opportunity to ask questions that I am hopefully able to answer sufficiently! On these visits I have observed my own childrens’ reaction to having Hedgie introduced to their friends. I have noted wee smiles on seeing how excited their peers are to meet a real hedgehog and pride at being asked by their teachers a question about their unusual house guest. Once home, the opportunity to feed and water her is met with a ‘if I have to’ attitude.

“So, beach or woods?”  That is usually the question of the weekend, or a variation of it anyway. Following a wee sibling disagreement for the sake of disagreeing a decision is usually made and off we all set with Ben dog sitting a bit too snug in the boot of our tiny car. Sometimes on the way to our chosen destination there is some grumbling about how far it is (anywhere is too far for a four year old who doesn’t like being confined to a car seat) and complaints about being too tired to walk. Husband and I exchange looks that say “this is going to be fun!” Inevitably we get there, children and Ben dog are released and off they go. Our daughter will always be right off on her own, head down, looking for treasures in the form of stones, shells, cones, beasties, egg cases etc. Our son likes to stick closer to us until water is spotted. This water could be in the form of a puddle, a burn, the sea or a loch but as soon as he spots it he heads towards it and if possible and safe will often end up in it! Ben dog, in the meantime, will be frantically running around trying to ensure we are all within close proximity to each other as is the nature of the Border Collie.

Unless it’s very cold or somebody has become too wet for comfort it is usually myself or my husband that announces it’s time to return home. Nobody protests too much and nobody enthuses about how much fun they have had, instead they make their way back to the car, fall into their seats and usually have a wee snooze on the way home. Once home the question about what’s for dinner normally arises and permission is asked for them to play on the computer or watch telly for a bit. A few weeks later work folders are sent home from the school and daughter’s teacher has commented that her weekend news is always a joy to read as we do such interesting things. The teacher also mentions that she did not know what a murmuration was until our daughter wrote about going to a local reserve to watch a starling murmuration. She later told us at parent’s night her husband was a bit smug when she got home and asked him if he knew and he did!

We are lucky to have around fourteen species of birds visit our garden including two Great Spotted Woodpeckers, yellow hammers and, in the last week, goldfinch. We take part in the RSPB’s Garden bird watch every year and if the woodpecker has not visited for a while and suddenly appears, or a new bird visits such as the goldfinch someone will point it out. I think it is fair to say that I spend the most time out of everyone watching the birds and my husband would come next. In fact I am writing this sitting at the bedroom window so I can watch the birds at the same time. Sometimes I wonder if our son and daughter appreciate this wildlife that we have on our doorstep as they don’t initiate filling the feeder and won’t sit down to observe the birds unless prompted to do so by one of us. I worry we are not making enough effort to develop their interest in and knowledge of these beautiful birds that live in such close proximity to us and now expect that we will help provide them with food, water and safe shelter.

The other day I was at one end of the kitchen and my son was at the table eating a snack when he suddenly shouted me over. I went over and asked what it was he wanted fully expecting it would be another satsuma as he eats them like sweeties at the moment. What he actually wanted was to show me a house sparrow that was perched on the feeder outside the window. I praised him for his  good observation skills and we watched it until it flew away, whereupon he decided another satsuma might be quite a good idea!

What am I trying to establish from these reflections/musings?  To be honest I am not entirely sure myself. At times I worry overexposure to the above activities will result in our son and daughter reaching a saturation point whereby they no longer want to inhale the great outdoors, observe the wildlife or search for natural treasures, too much of a good thing as they say. At other times I become concerned we are not doing enough to nurture the seed inside them that will grow and flower into a life-long passion and understanding of the natural world. As parents we cannot dictate to our children what they will be as adults but we can’t help having hopes for them. One of my hopes is that both our son and daughter will always take pleasure from the world around them and, more importantly, will always care and advocate for the other animals and plants that share this fragile earth with us. Are we raising them in a way that will give them ample opportunity to do this?

Going back to the conversations that began this piece of writing, the woman whose son thanked her for his nature based childhood works for a wildlife organisation and as a result her children had more exposure than most to the outdoors. There was probably a period in between where other teenage pursuits took precedence, but  twenty years on the importance of these early experiences has been appreciated and acknowledged. The “Nah they won’t” person is a cynical social worker worn down by the strains of an often demanding and unappreciated job (I can say this with little irony being one myself). However, he is also Hedgie’s rescuer and someone who takes great joy in all animals, so underneath that cynicism is someone who does understand the importance of having a connection with nature and helping it along when required. Two different experiences of life but the same conclusions reached.

My conclusion? All these things we do as a family we do because we enjoy them, and while our son and daughter still want to enjoy them with us I am going to grab every opportunity I can to find that special shell, spot a hiding squirrel, wade into the freezing North Sea and care for the wildlife that crosses our path. As for how these experiences will shape who our children will become, I guess I will just have to sit back and let nature take its course. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Among The Ruins

Here, where history was once
played out as present day,
canons congregated in cloisters
and carried out the mundane tasks
of everyday living.

Here, parishioners prayed and practiced
their faith in areas now exposed.
Today their prayers would have been
carried on the wind.....
maybe they were then,
perhaps they still linger!

Walking here among the ruins
treads time, follows footsteps
of kings and queens who
regaled this place of religion
with royal visits.

In the quiet that resides here
those who no longer tread this soil
rest in peace, protected by
the priory walls.
One only young, the son
of a king.

Here, among the ruins
present day mingles with history.
Eager eyes search for pellets
left by owls, looking for clues as
to their last lunch!

Here, hiding behind walls that
                                                   still stand straight and steady,
little people laugh at how
cleverly they are concealed,
convinced they won't be found.

Life was lived here,
prayers were said here,
those who no longer lived
were laid to rest here.
Life goes on here among the ruins.