NO MEAN CITY

I have written about the flora and fauna of our recent holiday. Let me now turn to the people – do they come under ‘fauna’, I wonder?

We were travelling with Joanna, Lawrence and our grandchildren, and therefore we were obliged to go within the school holidays. It was a great pleasure being there with them. Lawrence and John golfed; Joanna and I chatted, had coffee, shared cooking; Alexandra read, undisturbed; and the younger girls ate their meals with us and then cleared off the entire day to play with a gang of other children on the beach. I had gone with English and craft projects for the girls; John had planned waterborne activities. None of this was required: they had far more exciting companions than elderly grandparents! So it was definitely well worth the price we paid which was that we were away during the ‘Glasgow Fair’ – traditionally a time when the great industrial companies had their annual holidays, and which still seems to be when Glaswegians take their holidays although those industries are no longer present. My idea of a busy site is that I can see, about 12 stations away, another family in both directions so you will appreciate that to have the site absolutely full, with people being turned away and the resultant press of people at the local sights or sports points is not my ideal situation.

I should make haste to point out that the collective crowd did not produce the type of person who was ahead of us in the queue for a boat on the Norfolk Broads on the latter part of our holiday on our way home. This lady, who sounded as if she came from some part of the Midlands was a kindly soul, a nice person I’m sure; she fell into conversation with a little boy beside her and his mother. She had a grating accent and no volume control. She noticed that the boy was blonde haired but brown eyed; his mother remarked that his father was dark haired, and this brought forth a torrent of conversation about the likelihood of having brown eyes and blonde hair, and whether the blonde hair would survive into adulthood. The lady considered the fairness or otherwise of herself and her brother; her four children; her ten grandchildren; her brother’s children. She could (and did) detail the exact colour of each person’s eyes and hair, (Now Robin has blue eyes, but paler than Tracy’s…) at what age the blondeness had ceased; what degree of darkness their hair now boasted. I was just coming to screaming point – who cared what colour any of their hair was? – when the boat fortunately began loading and she drifted out of earshot. I was reminded of an excruciating evening I had passed some years ago when a woman monopolised the conversation to tell each new arrival of a minor road accident which had happened to her grown up son, in which she began with what she had given him for breakfast, and traced his journey village by village to the actual incident, how long it had taken the police to arrive; no detail too small, while I reflected that this could easily have been summed up in ‘Bobby had a driving accident but he’s OK’.

Your Glaswegian is not garrulous like this.

Glasgow has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for drunken violence and it is certainly a city where you have to have your wits about you at certain times. As a theatre audience for example it has a fearsome reputation and takes no prisoners.

But on the other hand, if you pass muster with them and they accept you, there is no finer body of people. The men may have scars on their faces from fights they have fought in their youth, but they are gentlemen in the best sense of the word; and the women, though they can be fierce celtic viragos sometimes are also bighearted and generous.

So here we are on this site, full to the gunnels. Clearly they did accept us, for it was like belonging to a large family group. Arriving families would check in as it were with their neighbours, and exchange brief information about who they were, where they came from, how long they were staying, (no intrusive questions asked) and then go off about their own business. When it came to putting up awnings in the ever present wind, help would materialise as if by magic and set about the anchoring of the flapping sides unasked. Services we ourselves rendered to others included charging phones for people with tents and no electricity; the usual help with awnings; we lent our whirligig to a lady with too much washing, putting it up for her in their area; they returned it to our section and put it up; we saved our old 1pound coins and exchanged them with people who needed them to use washing machines; we kept an eye on other people’s children on the shore line as well as our own. When we left we had bought a new larger kettle, and we donated our old one to the communal kitchen so that people camping could have tea two at a time. We also donated our magazines and books. Everyone else was doing much the same.

It made you tolerant of the occasional late night party (nothing exceptional, just people drinking and laughing together) – it was still quite light at 11 pm and dawn was at 3 am!) and you felt protected and comfortable in this body of people.

I myself am not a daughter of the city of Glasgow and have never been mistaken for one. But I would regard it as an honour to be so counted.

As the verse says, Wha’s like us? (However, the answer is, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.)

FLORA

Flora

Last week I wrote about the pleasure I had obtained from the birds on our holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; but I also enjoyed the wild flowers. Their profusion took me back to the flower filled meadows of my childhood which I had all but forgotten.

On the mainland of Scotland you do not get the yellow ‘machair’ of the Western Isles – a mass of flowers, predominantly yellow that covers the short grass, but there is still a wide variety. Right by the shore there were patches of bog cotton with its wispy white heads. There was plenty of clover – the shorter, fragrant white that makes good honey, and the taller vibrant red. Everything seemed to be out at once. There was that heady scented, creamy flower, Meadowsweet which makes a good country wine, and which we called Queen of the Meadow, as well as the taller patches of the pink Rosebay Willowherb, which we used to call Wildfire. There were the less noticeable Shepherd’s Purse which I have not seen for many years, and the brown headed flower we used to call Soldier’s sticks, and you could play a game with them where you knocked the head off the other person’s flower. There was the golden yellow tansy with its rich spicy smell and which when you squeezed the flower head gave a satisfying pop.

When we drove down the Ardnamurchan peninsula I spotted a ‘stand’ of the dainty harebell, the Scots ‘bluebell’, which is of a delicate but very intense blue; and there were pink foxgloves on a bank literally thousands strong, so much so that you doubted your own eyes. There was also blue speedwell, and I discovered a patch of wild violets growing in a ditch.   And there were the lovely white water lilies  on the still ponds.   As the song says,

Like the  white lily floating on the peat hag’s dark waters,                                                        Is the face of my Mairi, my Mairi, my beloved…

There were ‘forbidden’ flowers too – the statuesque Giant Hogsweed which tends to grow near streams, and standing about 6 feet tall with its huge flat white flower as big as a dinner plate, is a magnificent sight, but now tends to be obliterated when seen as it is poisonous (we called it, incorrectly, ‘hemlock’).

I thought of my childhood, where I observed all these things and took them quite for granted – thought everybody’s world was filled with wild flowers and birdsong, and how we assume these delights will last forever and be enjoyed by future generations: whereas this is by no means certain.

Let us stay where the wild things are.

Photographs are courtesy of John M Armstrong and were taken on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

FAUNA

We were in a lovely campsite earlier this month, on the West Highland mainland, north of Ardnamurchan and beside a sandy beach with a huge tidal rise and fall, and with a golf course in our view (very heaven you will understand,)

There was time to sit and watch the sun cross the sky (when it deigned to put in an appearance at all) and to watch the bay emptying and huge, malevolant rocks emerge and then see it fill up again and appear deceptively benign. The water was very clear.

The bird life was enjoyable to watch. Our bay had a resident heron,who flew in about 7 – 9 am from some wooded site inland, (rather as if he were a commuter coming in to work) and fished on some of the rocky islands. He was about 6 ft tall, very elegant in his grey and white, with black floating plumes crowning his head. We knew there were fish because we would see him stab his long beak into the water, and then swallow.

We saw the common gull quite a lot.

There were birds, handsome in grey and black, which I took at first for jackdaws, but they were larger and more powerful, and I think they were carrion crows. There were curlew with their quivering, haunting call, and our girls came across a nest on the ground, from which chicks ‘with very long beaks’ ran away.

At Glefinnan there were gangs of robin, which is rather unusual.

We heard larks. We saw pied wagtails with their flicking tails. There were flocks of oyster catchers who would pass overhead at night calling out loudly – they are very noisy birds!

One day in late afternoon I looked up and saw that a little flock of unfamiliar birds was present in our bay. They were black; there were three family groups – two of four, parents and two juveniles, and one of parents with one juvenile. To my surprise they dived; and all together, so that for a moment the space was empty and I thought I’d imagined the whole proceedings. But then they gradually surfaced one by one, only to dive again en masse after a few minutes. A diving bird is normally built like a submarine, very narrow and low slung to the water, whereas they were chunkier and had quite round heads. Looking them up, I came to the conclusion they were Common Scoters, a bird I had never seen before. They fished for about half an hour, and then they swam out of the bay; I never saw them in flight. I watched over the next few days, but they never returned.

It’s a great pleasure to sit in some remote and lovely place and just watch the light move across the landscape; see the grasses toss in the wind, and be pleasantly surprised when, as you sit there, some unexpected creature suddenly hoves into view, quietly going about its own business.

The photographs, the first being the view of the bay, and the second the monument at Glenfinnan, are courtesy of J M Armstrong.