Monday, February 18, 2013

A Farewell to Scotland

Some final favourite memories of Scotland:

Visiting Moffat, and also eating haggis there
(Or at least, I nibbled gingerly while Adam did his Scottish heritage proud by eating all of his serving.)

The Loch Ness
(Although slightly saddened by lack of monster-sighting) 

And other awesome Scottish things like Haggis-flavoured chips and Red Squirrels!!!!!!!

Having a fun, relaxed Christmas in Inverness at the bothy, surrounded by the stunning Moray Firth

(That's not the bothy. That was some dilapidated thing in the garden)

Spending Hogmanay/New Year in Edinburgh

And finally, the beautiful scenery:

I think we were both surprised by how beautiful and how welcoming Scotland was. The weather was cold, but we did get a fair bit of sunshine in with the wind and rain; the people were friendly, and those accents are delightful; and the scenery was nothing less than stunning. We loved it all, and as we drove home we agreed that we'd visit Scotland again in a heartbeat. For me, Scotland has been my favourite holiday of all our OE - there is just something magical about that country. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hogmanay in Edinburgh

After the thrill of seeing some red squirrels, it was with heavy hearts that we packed our bags and prepared to leave Inverness. We had spent a week in the Highlands, and it was now time to make our way to Edinburgh for Hogmanay (New Year). We took a gamble and drove the long but scenic way, via Fraserburgh. 

A strange sight in Fraserburgh
Adam's Mum mentioned that his Great-Great-Grandmother came from that part of Scotland, so we decided to see if we could find the house she grew up in. The address we had led us to the house on the left (below). We couldn't tell if it had been re-clad, or if it was a new house, but we assumed that the house on the right was more likely to be an original style. It was an interesting design, and almost seemed to have sunk into the ground over the years, although it might just have been a very low house in order to give it some element of shelter from the howling winds that came from the sea, just across the road. 

It was a quaint wee village which looked relatively unaltered by the passage of time. We felt privileged to think we might have seen the very house that Adam's relatives inhabited over 130 years ago, and walked on the sea-wall across the road that Great-Great-Grandmother may have played on as a child.  

The drive from Fraserburgh to Edinburgh seemed to drag on forever, and we were glad to arrive at our hotel - even if we were greeted by an extremely fierce wind in Edinburgh. (The gale in Edinburgh could put a Canterbury nor' wester to shame...)

The next morning was Hogmanay, and we decided to explore Edinburgh. We got to cross the harbour three times that day, so Adam was rather excited about that as there was a rather impressive bridge to drive on.

When we got into Edinburgh the streets were pretty quiet, possibly because it was FREEZING outside. After checking out some local attractions, we did what we do best - found a hipster cafe and ordered flat whites.

Mmmm.... coffee....
Just before Adam and I got married, my close friend Helen moved to Edinburgh, where she stayed for three years and worked for much of that time at the botanic gardens. I decided that it would be a good idea to visit Helen's workplace, even if we were about three and a half years too late to visit Helen herself. 

We had a wee look around the gardens, but soon made our way to the cafe where we hunkered down and warmed ourselves with large bowls of soup. (Not literally) It was a bit of a shame to have visited Scotland in Winter, as everything was so darned cold that we felt we couldn't spend as much time enjoying things as we would have liked. The botanic gardens were lovely, and they have a great view over Edinburgh, but it was just too cold to explore much of the complex. We soon realised that it was going to be a very long day if we were to see the Hogmanay fireworks that evening, which were to be let off from the Castle, so we got back in the car and went to find our hotel, which was across the Firth of Forth, so that I could have a nana nap. 

After dinner, we crossed the Forth once again, and parked up near the botanic gardens and waited. And waited. And waited. We thought about going to have a drink in a pub, but when people have been drinking since 3 in the afternoon, it's not much fun to join them at 10pm when they're all past their best! At least it was nice and warm in the car, and we enjoyed seeing the fireworks at 9, 10, and 11pm. Soon after 11, we began the trek into the centre of Edinburgh, and nabbed a viewing spot to await the midnight fireworks. We were surprised at how quiet the streets were - compared to New Years Eve in London, where the public viewing areas were mostly full at 5pm, and the leftover places full by 9pm!! We soon realised that the Scots' plan was to stay in the pub until 11.55, then pour out into the streets to watch the fireworks, then disappear back into the pubs! 

The fireworks were great, although that nasty wind blew them away quickly. One minor disappointment was that nobody linked arms and sang 'auld lang syne', which was one thing I was really looking forward to - they just came out for the fireworks, stood and watched quietly, and disappeared straight afterwards. However, we stayed and soaked up the atmosphere afterwards for a bit, as it didn't really feel right for the evening to finish like that. As we were watching everyone leave, a guy came up beside us and started playing the bagpipes. It was the perfect end to the evening, and a wee group of us stood around and watched, while some people danced to the music. After three or four songs, the piper turned and walked down the hill behind, playing as he walked. A group of about 50 of us turned and followed him. It was a most surreal and lovely thing to follow the bagpipe music down the hill, all of us like the rats - or children - of Hamlin, following their piper. He really made the evening for us.

The next morning we began the eight hour drive back to our house in Kent. We stopped at the border and waved a fond farewell to bonnie Scotland, and just as we crossed into England, dark clouds filled the sky.

Ominous England?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Christmas Adventures - Squirrel spotting

While in Scotland, it was my second priority (after Loch Ness) to see a red squirrel. We did some googling and discovered that while red squirrels can be found throughout the Highlands, there were a few woodland spots that were well-known squirrel hangouts. One of the Scottish squirrel groups had posted a map online, so we picked one that looked good and decided to head out on an afternoon squirrel hunt.

Unfortunately the map had very poor directions, and we spent quite some time looking around for the site. Eventually we found another picnic area, and although this one didn't have a squirrel feeder it had a steep walking track to a swing bridge. It was good exercise, but a little discouraging to have to hike back uphill to the car in the rain, having seen no squirrels. But we weren't giving up yet.

We drove back along the main road and finally settled on what we are pretty sure was the site listed on the trust's map. We think it was so hard to find as the site was closed so that the pine hillside could be cleared for logging... Not a good sign when you're looking for squirrels that live in pine trees! 

There was an alternate path up the hill which we followed for over an hour, but we weren't in luck. There was not a hint of wildlife in the area - not even the distant chirp of a bird. Only the noisy burr of chainsaws cutting down precious wildlife habitats.

We walked a long way up the steep logging track, but when the light started to fade we agreed it was time to call it a day.

We had seen a signpost on the main road pointing to a nearby loch, so we decided that might be worth a quick visit while we were in the area. It was definitely worth it as there was a strange mist that kept appearing over the lake, although it proved too elusive to be captured in most of our photographs.

The next day we decided to try again. Squirrel-hunting is important stuff! We took a gamble on another of the sites listed on the local squirrel trust website - a woodland that we soon discovered was behind a new housing subdivision and a popular spot for locals to walk their dogs... I almost dismissed the site outright, but my squirrel sense started to receive a weak signal. I dragged Adam out of the car and into the rain. It was time to find us some red squirrel.

The Sciurus vulgaris was the only squirrel in Europe until the American grey squirrel was introduced in the 1880s. They might be cute but that doesn't make it ok... greys quickly outnumbered reds, and the UK now has an estimated 2.5 million greys but only 140,000 red squirrels. Of the red population, around 75% live in Scotland (another tick for Scotland!) and there are even some pockets of the country that don't have any greys (the only time you will hear me say "Yay, no squirrels!").

So why are greys such an issue? They are more resilient as they are better able to extract the nutrients from their food, and they are able to live in greater density with other squirrels. Reds prefer to live in a density of one per hectare, and even less in coniferous woodland areas, so they struggle to gain adequate nutrients when there are other squirrels competing for their food sources. Greys weigh more and to sustain this they consume more food. Although this affects the availability of food for the red, it can actually mean that the red has a better chance of long-term survival as it needs less food to stay alive - as long as it can make it through the short-term!

The other big threat to red squirrel populations is the squirrel pox. The grey is less susceptible to the pox and ends up being a carrier, transmitting it to other greys and on to reds who have no natural antibodies to the disease. The pox has a high mortality rate among red squirrels, but scientists are currently working towards creating a vaccine.

So Scotland really is a haven for reds, and they thrive in certain pockets of the country. They live in both broadleaved and coniferous woodland, and they like to eat seeds, acorns, berries, fungi, and even bark and sap. The red squirrel prefers to live in a drey - a nest made of twigs, moss, and grass - so when I saw one of these, I knew we were on the right track...

A squirrel's drey
We felt like nutters, mooching around in the depths of the pine forest, away from the main walking track, gazing up into the pine trees above us with our heads tilted. My Mum is a keen birdwatcher, so I've been on many bushwalks where I learned to stay very quiet, walk with soft footsteps, and listen for the sounds of animals moving. I am usually not very patient, but squirrel-watching brings out the good in me! After about 15 minutes of standing like a statue, I heard a noise. In a tree about eight metres away a small, red squirrel was scratching his way up the bark of a tall pine tree. A RED SQUIRREL!!

I then realised that Adam had the camera, and he was across the forest. Boy these squirrels can move! By the time Adam had taken a few steps towards me, this wee red was at the top of the pine tree, then jumping across to another tall tree to hide in its foliage. Buoyed by the sighting, we waited, still as mice. After ten minutes of very patient waiting, we saw a movement in the treetops high above us - a squirrel was jumping between a group of pine trees. A second sighting!!!

We waited another 10 minutes, and saw nothing more. I decided to try looking in a nearby area of leafier, wetter forest. Another 10 minutes but no sightings. We decided that that 35 minutes was enough squirrel watching, and we had seen all the squirrel we were going to see. How wrong we were. 

As we walked back through the first area of thick pine trees, I saw a movement in the trees high above my head. ANOTHER SQUIRREL!!! This squirrel was spooked by us, and did his special squirrel trick - the freeze. I was sorry to have scared him, but he sat there very quietly for about five minutes before another squirrel leapt into his tree and together they made a dash for cover. It took a while to point out the first wee squirrel to Adam, as he was so high up in the trees. To give you an idea of how tall the pine trees were:

This photo is from the website, and gives you a bit of an idea what a squirrel habitat is like. I was so surprised to see just how high up the trees the squirrels live - right up in the leafiest parts with the thinnest branches!

It was really, really special for me to get to see a red squirrel, and I think even Adam was charmed by these wee critters. I felt so lucky to see four squirrels - and even luckier when Adam found an online newspaper article where a journalist had gone into this very area of woods with a seasoned squirrel watcher, and they'd sat in the forest for two whole days and not seen a single squirrel. The squirrels must have known how much it would mean to me to get to see them...

See him?

See his tufty wee ears?

Finally, I've listed some links to information about Scottish red squirrels. I gathered my information from these, but they also contain some really lovely pictures of squirrels, so you should have a look now!