Diamonds and Opals and Precious Sparkly Things

When I was at primary school, the all-consuming craze among the girls was collecting beads. Everyone had a collection, and everyone brought their bead stash to school for swapping and gloating over in the playground. Beads were sometimes acquired from the broken necklaces of aunts, older sisters’ discarded best dresses (sequins were in vogue), theft from mothers and through swapping. Crystals and glass beads were everyone’s favourite, which we called diamonds (or rubies, emeralds or amber, depending on the colour of the glass). I had (oh my god, I still have) a “diamond” dropped by the Queen. Well, I found it in the Mall, when my sister Barbara took me to see Buckingham Palace. She assured me the queen must have dropped it from her coach when waving from an open window. To avoid being hustled for it by the Bead Bullies, I left it at home on schooldays. Most usually, beads were collected by going round the streets and playgrounds picking up those dropped by others. There seemed to be no shortage, but some girls made certain of it. My best friend Pamela (who had a nasty, vicious streak) would run about, “accidentally” barging into gaggles of girls peering into their open bags or boxes of beads. She’d even help to pick them up – but pocketed the choicest, and there were always plenty no-one spotted rolling away. Keep your eyes to the ground long enough, you’d soon build a collection.

I don’t know at what point I decided to look up at the stars rather than down at my feet, but when I did, I realised the most precious jewels were the intangible ones that faded or shape-shifted before your eyes. Recent falls of snow, melting, re-freezing and glittering in cold, rare sunlight have reminded me of the times as a child when I ran across dew-covered lawns, chasing the rainbows in the water drops. If I stopped running, and swayed gently from side to side, the colours of these so-precious gems changed. But if I touched them or moved toward them, they vanished. Then there were the frosty mornings when my mother got me up early to go round the garden with her, finding exquisite frost patterns on leaf and glass and stone, shimmering in the early sun. Or the first foggy morning of autumn, when every spider’s web was be-jewelled and bewildering in its complexity and simplicity.

Diamonds are famously said to be “forever”. What a nonsense. They’re fairly nice to look at, and they collect rainbows in the same way glass or water does, but I wouldn’t pay money for them.

Collecting snowflakes and making mental snapshots of them before they melted. The fractal patterns of ice creeping over a cold surface. The world viewed through a dripping icicle. The vanishing, slippery uncertainty of the Merrie Dancers, green and rose, across northern skies. Sun on a breaking wave. These precious sparkly things, along with the now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t twinkling of stars as they emerge at dusk or retreat into cloud, these are the jewels of value, the real pearls-beyond price. Ephemeral, transient, temporary. I can’t buy them, own them, hoard them, swap them or sell them, and I never want to try.

Photo by Visit Greenland on Pexels.com

I still have most of my schoolgirl hoard! I am sure one day I’ll find a use for them. I’ve strung some onto the Christmas tree or hung them round the garden before now, and forgotten about them. Maybe they’ll be archaeology for someone, some day. Me, I’ll stick to rainbows in the dew. If you see me swaying about in a meadow on a spring morning, you’ll know what I’m doing!

“Diamond” cast my way by QE1 (of Scotland) aka QE2 (of England etc), circa 1964

Whose Woods are These? I think I know….*

(This is the first in a new series of posts for West Stormont Woodland Group. From fear or repeating myself, I thought I’d write about the fact that each month, the woods have a Gift for us. And every month, there is at least one challenge that faces us – whether physical, philosophical or organisational – in contemplation of owning woodland as a community.)

FEBRUARY’S GIFT: GORSE FLOWER TEA

Of course, there are gorse bushes in flower in February in Five Mile Wood. There are gorse bushes in flower in the woods every month of the year, providing pollen and nectar for insects out too early or too late in the season. Some ancient lecher noticed this and spawned the saying “When gorse is not in flower, then kissing’s out of season.”

Gorse in flower in a cold and clenching winter such as this of 2021 is a real gift. It’s too cold to detect the rich coconut smell from them which can be almost overpowering in high summer, but the gold dazzles against the grey landscape of February or keeks through the smothering snow. Gorse has been used for many purposes, from feeding tough-mouthed horses in winter to sweeping chimneys. It’s a nitrogen fixing plant, like all the pea family, and imparts fertility to the soil. Burn it, and the alkaline ash is good for cleaning soiled linen.

The flowers themselves are used to make a yellow dye, and whether it worked or not, some dairies insisted that feeding gorse to milking cows made for a rich yellow butter. I don’t use gorse for any of these, but I do make gorse flower tea. It looks wonderful swirling around a glass teapot and you might catch a breath of that coconut smell. Don’t expect to taste it; it’s a very subtle (or absent!) taste. If you look hard you may find early shoots of nettle in the woods to give the tea some substance.

But don’t pass the gorse on to anyone else – allegedly, making a gift of gorse guarantees you’ll end up fighting. It’s the woods’ gift to me in February, and I will have no quarrel with the woods.

A CHALLENGE FOR FEBRUARY: WHOSE WOODS ARE THESE?

I think the woods are used more now than I remember in over twenty years, Evidence for that lies not just in who you meet, but in new tracks veering off, in small acts of clearance, in scattered pieces of art, in well-maintained articles of recreation like the new swing in the picture. Using the woods implies a sense of ownership, a vested interest, a certainty of relationship. A future.

But are we all buying into this? And will that feeling of belonging translate into an actual belonging? If Five Mile and Taymount Woods are to be taken into community ownership, it’s essential that community identifies itself, makes itself heard and provides the evidence of its existence that will count.

This month, West Stormont Woodland Group will begin a Community Consultation on the proposals the group has been working on for the two woods (or, as it’s widely seen, the one wood with a gap in the middle). Of course, Covid restrictions have forced the consultation to be mostly online, but this shouldn’t be seen as a problem – taking an event online in my recent experience amplifies and multiplies its reach and scope. There is a new website dedicated to the consultation, which launches on 22nd February; details can be found at http://www.weststormontwoodlandgroup.scot ,on Facebook, or by emailing contact@weststormontwoodlandgroup.scot

The challenge is to get you, me, all members, all non-members local to the communities around the woods, all of us starting to think these woods might be ours, to contribute to the consultation. Spread the word!

*Quoted from the opening lines of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.

Here comes the Sun

The mute swans stand in the middle of Stare Dam loch, looking at their feet in puzzlement, as meltwater sluices over them. They bend round to look beseechingly at me as I stand by the wooden jetty, as if to ask why this strange divinity has been bestowed on them, and why they cannot swim in water as usual. Then with determination they undertake a rather slippery swan take-off from whatever the surface of the loch is, and wheel around the trees in the reassuring sky.

The sun roars through into the morning like a rocket. Speed of light. It burnishes the bare trees and their wavering reflections in the loch, shrieks and shatters the shards of once indomitable ice. Water trickles unseen, seeps from frozen ground, sings in quiet rivulets.

An old song burrows its way into my head, and will not leave. The ice is slowly melting. I stand, eyes closed to the sun, and feel the breeze that no longer lacerates with coldness. I hear the whirring of the bemused swans, the first territorial song-stakes of the woodland birds. It seems like years since it’s been here.

Back at the house, the speculating rooks are at home, sitting in their parliament in the sycamore and debating which of last year’s nests have foundations sufficiently stable to re-use. Twigs start dropping.  I think there are more rook members than last year.

Not all of the calamities and sorrows of the winter will disappear with the snow. But some will diminish, I think, and some will be easier to face. The snow has retreated from bits of lawn. The winter aconites open, and dazzle.

The Hole in the Ceiling

There’s a hole in my ceiling.
It appeared in a shower of soggy plaster at two in the morning,
thank you, the plumber who couldn’t see the pipework he was soldering.
Now it gapes at me, streamers of ceiling paper ripped apart by weight of water
from such a tiny drip.
I do not know how it will get fixed. Or who will fix it.
Already, I’m in danger of forgetting it’s there.

It’s amazing what you can get used to.

There’s a hole in my planet, a land-slipping crater, the stuff of nightmares. Into it
falls species after species, scrabbling at the edge as the crater gets wider.
Few get out. Few are rescued.
They slip unseen. They fall. Out of sight at the core of the vortex, they join
the bones jangling amid the soup of ruined soil and despoiled seas.
Some measure the crater. They scream
the edge is getting closer and closer
to where this dysfunctional, bipedal, insensate species hovers.
Most look away. The party must go on.
We will not notice the crumbling quicksand.

It’s amazing what you can get used to.

There’s a hole in our lives.
Our patterns and expectations slashed and cloven, our hopes
pulverised. Into this fearful emptiness creeps something tiny and unseen.
It carries fear. It divides us more than it unites us,
provokes discord, brings us down. We look around
to see where our thwarted plans, our comfortable habits, our dreams, have gone.
Where are our friends? Where are our grandparents?
The children we cannot see growing up?
Where is tomorrow? Our bodies are under attack.
Our minds turn backwards, inwards, away.

It’s amazing what you can get used to.

There’s a hole in my ceiling. I sweep up plaster dust.
But it won’t go away.

Muffled in Monochrome

I don’t hate snow, really. It’s just different. It invites us to be indoors, to exclude the cold air, the blinding whiteness, the threats of slip and slide and sink and fall. If it’s around too long, it starts to bug me. Last Friday while reading, I got frustrated by the pinprick of light that seemed to obliterate whatever word I was looking at. Then the pinprick became a ball-bearing, then an expanding ring. A migraine aura. Perhaps going outside earlier when sun on snow had dazzled me caused it. An hour of lying, eyes closed, listening to a dark and frighteningly funny play about the erstwhile president of the USA saw it off but left me uneasy. The sun was gone, and greyness encroached, but I needed exercise, daylight and an antidote to foreboding.

Snow lay thickly on the ground, with an intensity and doggedness that bludgeoned the senses. Dense, white cloud merged into white fields, but it was not easy to know if I was looking at land or air, except where snatches of stubble or deer-scuffed soil peered through a thin, white fog. There were no distant views; everything seemed close, oppressive, heavy and inert.

Vision impaired, a mild headache bleakly persisting, and the opacity of the veil of snow deadening all sound. Small flocks of monochrome birds passed over, silent and anonymous. Solitary grey figures slipped soundlessly across the edges of fields or emerged from woods; we did not acknowledge that we’d seen each other. The sounds I could hear were only in my head; ringing of tinnitus, a faint roaring; result of a year of being virtually locked down and unwilling to self-treat blocked ears after causing an infection with my last attempt.

Seeking light, I went into an open field. The snow immediately came over the tops of my boots and slid down to my heels. I looked for patches of exposed stubble, and followed deer, humans and dog prints to avoid drifts, but they confounded me. The effort of trudging uphill took concentration. I could only see the spot where I would place my next mark on crusty, half-frozen snow.

When I got home in the dim, shrouding dusk, I was surprised to see the hens still out. I stepped into the polytunnel to knock snow off the top from inside. The sight of green, growing plants, brown soil, terracotta pots and little piles of compost waiting to be spread filled me with strange relief. I sat for a few minutes in a garden chair, relishing the last remnants of colour before nightfall. Then I punched the thick layer of snow from the top and sides. It slid off with a rushing sigh. And I saw then that it was not yet dark – the hens were right. Night had not yet fallen, and into this small green space came a brief shudder of light, clarity and hope.

(When I open the curtains onto the first serious snow of January, I am just like any other child.)

Just round the next corner….

How often in the past year have you heard someone say, “You never know what’s around the corner”? Or felt anxiety because you really, really don’t know what is happening or going to happen to you, and the future is obscure? We got caught in the Christmas Covid Car Crash, and are just mentally reeling from a close encounter with coronavirus. We emerge, cautiously and with reluctance from tests and self isolation, while our close family recover from the virus. We emerge into another lockdown, and feel relieved. Self-isolation, let me tell you, can be addictive when you’ve been scared, and realised how ill-prepared you are for dying.

Back in late summer, when such things were still possible, we had a two day camping trip to Glen Esk. On the second day, we decided to take a short and easy walk up Glen Lee. Short, to give us plenty of time to enjoy a cycle down Glen Esk as well. At first, we decided, we’d just go to the start of Loch Lee and turn around. But just beyond the point where the Water of Lee calmly enters the loch, we could see the ruins of a church or chapel by the waterside. “We’ll just go to that and explore.”

The tiny old parish church of Glenesk had not been used in a good while, but the ancient gravestones, carved with faces and bones and what look like crossed spades, suggested a long history. In fact, a church of some kind is believed to have stood here since at least the 8th century. The sun on the well-tended grass invited a long dawdle and a picnic, and then we ambled along the track by the loch. The other end of the loch wasn’t quite visible, so we thought we’d “just go round the next corner” to see it.

And so we began the inevitable daunder-of-curiosity which besets all walkers in new territory – the drive to see what’s round the corner, or over the next hill. Round and past the far end of the loch, skirting the flat plain where we looked for the signs of ancient habitation, past deserted farmsteads and into the steep-sided valley, up into the purple heather. Every crag we rounded gave us sight of another; we had to know what came next.

Eventually, we saw the Falls of Unich, where tracks to right and left might have given us a circular walk. But we didn’t have a good enough map, and still wanted a cycle. So we returned the way we came, marvelling lazily at the carnivorous sundews and butterworts in the ditch by the track, stopping to watch a hen harrier swooping low over the crags and rising again, while we, in turn, were closely observed by ravens, shouting harshly at our passing. Before we got the bikes out, we had time to admire the forbidding Invermark Castle and the tempting Hill of Rowan, surmounted by the imposing Fox Maule-Ramsay monument.

On this short walk, we left many corners not turned. Maybe we’ll go back. Maybe we won’t. Truth is, none of us knows, or ever has known, what’s around the corner, even when we succeed in deluding ourselves that we can plan ahead and things will always turn out as we planned. The future’s the un-turned corner, and we can only know for sure about the corner we’re standing at.

A warning from Invermark Castle

Yggdrasil: The World Ash Tree

The ash tree, with its distinctive black, pyramid-like winter buds that sit defiantly opposing each other, was the first native tree I learned to recognise in winter. From the grey, ebony-tipped twigs I stood back to take in the whole glorious form of this tree at maturity: the grace and strength of the downward-sweeping branches, the solidity of trunk and main frame, and the artistic flourish with which the ends of each branch skip briefly skywards following their downward plunge.

Like all deciduous trees, the beauty of its structure is revealed annually at leaf-fall. We may love and appreciate our trees in summer, but in winter, we can truly see them. I never tire of looking at trees in winter.

Sadly, the monumental frozen-motion glory of the mature ash is a sight less and less available to us. Ash die-back disease is caused by a fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxinea) which attacks and infests the bark, leading to wilting of leaves and die-back of those optimistic, sky-seeking terminal twigs. Jaggy, stunted branch-ends and lesioned bark are more often what we see today. The spores are wind-blown, and so it has spread inexorably through Europe. There seems to be little point in felling affected trees, since the fungus spends part of its life cycle proliferating in leaf litter. In pockets where old ash trees are isolated from larger populations, such as Glen Tilt in Highland Perthshire, the majesty of the winter ash can still be seen.

There will be resistant trees, and much is being done to find these, identify their genetic codes, and breed from them. We can only hope the ash tree’s absence from the landscape is temporary.

But the Ash Tree has an existence outside the biological. It is – and long has been – a symbol, a magical entity, a talisman. In Norse and Germanic mythologies it is Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree. Its branches reach into and hold up the heavens; its roots delve deep into the dark caverns of the underworlds, where the serpent-dragon Nidhogg gnaws at its roots. Between the two lies everything we know, and much that we don’t. Three women, the Norns, sit below its mighty branches, tending the World Tree and spinning, spinning, spinning the fates of gods and humans.

The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are other expressions of Yggdrasil. Odin, father and chief of the Nordic pantheon, presents as a seriously flawed, doubtful and often misguided god. (To be fair, they all do.) Maybe that’s why he disguised himself as the Wanderer, with his wide-brimmed hat (echoed in the character of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings?) and ash staff cut from Yggdrasil, roaming the Earth in search of knowledge and enlightenment. Ultimately, the tale goes, Odin had to hang himself from the Tree, wounded by the ash spear, for nine days and nights, to find the wisdom to save humankind.

Should the Norns cease to care for Yggdrasil, or malevolent forces overtake it, like our blighted ash trees, it will die, and the rooster Gullinkambi will crow from its withering canopy, proclaiming Ragnarok – the Twilight of the Gods.

Will we save our earthly ash trees? Who are the gods whose twilight we would seek in return?

May 2021 bring a sea-change in our relationship with nature, may we all be safe, may Yggdrasil bear new shoots of hope, and may the ash tree survive.

The Duke of Bohemia Part 2

Photo by Johannes Rapprich on Pexels.com

Five minutes later, they left the great hall, passing the grumbling cooks, the supercilious kitchen cat  and the snoring guards, Vaclav pulling the laden sled of logs, wine and pots of cabbage, while Pavel carefully carried the meat and vegetables. There was no sign of Peter.

“Well, Pavel, has he gone home?”

Pavel shook his head, shivering miserably. “I think he’ll carry on along the forest fence to get all the blown down branches. It’s more sheltered that way, Sir.”

The duke nodded. “So, if we cut straight across the fields, we’ll get there first? Well young man, best foot forward. Quicker we walk, the less the wind will nip at our heels.”

On and on they plodded – not a great distance, but with deep snowdrifts and a howling wind which made progress slow. Pavel stumbled often, nearly falling with his load. The light began to fade, making the snow glow with a strange light. The duke puzzled how strange it was that he’d known nothing of the struggles of this old man who worked the fields for him. He wondered how many more were fighting to stay alive, when a stone’s throw away was Duke Vaclav in his castle, feasting every week and wrapped in furs. Why wasn’t I told? he asked himself, and heard another question come back: Did you really want to know?

The snow was falling again – harder, darting out of the darkening sky and blinding poor Pavel, hands numb with the cold and feet that battled with every step. Suddenly, he stumbled and fell into a huge drift, and cried out. Vaclav turned, and hurried back.

“What lad? What’s this? Tired out?”

“No, Sir,,,,but….it’s so cold, the wind is stronger and it’s getting dark.”

Vaclav laid gloved hands on the lad’s shoulders. “We’re nearly there, are we not? Think of Peter, who has to face this every winter’s day. Take my cloak – it’ll wrap round you twice. Oh -and stop trying to make your own tracks. Follow the sled runs, or walk in my footprints. Much less effort and it’ll save the snow running into your boots.

Pavel was encouraged by the duke’s kindness. “Gladly, sir!”

As they went on, Vaclav was careful to take smaller steps, so Pavel could save his strength by stepping in the duke’s prints. The page found the going far easier, and he began to feel curiously excited, even happy.

When they reached Peter’s dwelling, Vaclav’s eyes clouded with sadness as he saw the pitiful way pieces of old wood had been roped together to keep out the weather. Inside, the snow had drifted in and lay unmelted on the earth floor. In the corner, a rough fireplace stood, cold and empty. “First things first,” he said, “lets get the fire going!”

This was Pavel’s area of expertise, and soon a roaring blaze lit up the room. Vaclav swept out the melting snow and started scrubbing vegetables (a skill he’d always meant to learn), while Pavel hoisted the huge joint of meat above the fire to finish cooking. They found Peter’s cooking-pot and Vaclav fetched water. It was starting to boil, and the dumplings had just gone in, when the door opened.

“Who are you – and what are you doing in my home?” demanded the old man, dropping his burden of wood. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he recognised the Duke of Bohemia and fell stiffly to his knees in horror and puzzlement.

“Get up, Peter, please,” cried Vaclav, “goodness knows I should be the one on my knees, begging your forgiveness for my ignorance and selfishness. I may be rich, and some call me a king, but all my money and my power have not made me a better man than you.” And he handed the old peasant a mug of ruby wine.

“Wine?” spluttered Peter (who like all Bohemians was first and foremost a beer drinker), “so kind…but perhaps not on an empty stomach?”

“Then let us fill your belly first! Come sit by the fire and feast with us!”

So long into the evening, duke, page and peasant shared a meal, talking and laughing as if they were old friends. Peter told Vaclav of the lives of those who lived around the woods and fields of Bohemia, and Vaclav listened and suggested many ways in which he could help, starting with a new cottage for Peter after Epiphany.

And when the duke stood up to leave, and Pavel, dozing by the fire after all, scrambled to his feet, old Peter suddenly remembered that this was his lord and began to offer his gratitude and allegiance.

But Vaclav brushed his thanks aside. “I should be thanking you,” he said, “for you have given me far more than food or fire. Now I know that my fortunate birth doesn’t give me the right to wealth and comfort while my people starve. And I’ve feasted with kings and princesses and great warriors, but I have never enjoyed a meal so much as I did this one tonight!”

The wind had fallen and the sky had cleared. The snow lay deep, crisp and even, and the air was full of the freshness of midwinter. In the velvet black sky, a single shimmering star shone down upon a silent earth, lighting the way for Pavel and Vaclav as they made their journey home.

Photo by tixler.com on Pexels.com

Vaclav (aka Wenceslas) was a real person, Duke of Bohemia 921-935 A.D. They were murderous times, and he was stabbed to death in a plot in which his own brother was implicated. He was revered for his courage, piety – and not least his personally-executed deeds of compassion to the poor of his dukedom. He is considered the patron saint of the Czech Republic, and his statue in the famous “rectangular square” in Prague named after him, has presided over tragedy and joy, winter and spring again.

The Duke of Bohemia: Part 1

A Story for Christmas, that may be Familiar

Photo by SHAHBAZ ZAMAN on Pexels.com

In the year 938AD, it was, as usual, a harsh winter in the Dukedom of Bohemia. Roads into and out of Prague were treacherous with ice, and snow lay deep on the sides of Petrin Hill. Vaclav, Duke of Bohemia, gazed gloomily from the window of the castle, down to Vltava, flowing icily through the town. It was a feast day, St. Stephen’s, and Vaclav could already detect the mouth-watering smells of roasting pork and steaming vegetables rising up from the kitchens.

“Wine,” he muttered, “something red, rich and warming”. He called for his page.

“Here, lord,” came a sleepy-sounding voice from a back room, and a very young man appeared, rubbing his eyes.

“Asleep again Pavel? Cold getting to you too, is it? Run and fetch us a flagon of red, and I might let you have a sip.”

Pavel slipped off, and Vaclav turned his eyes across to Petrin, where he doubted the monks would be very happy in their prayers today. Toasting their toes in the warming house, if they’ve any sense, he thought. Thus, he was surprised – and not a little indignant – to glimpse a small, dark figure, bent against the drifting snow, skirting the edge of the woods that bounded monastic lands.

“Pavel,” he said to the returning page, “Look out there. Is that man insane?”

Pavel gravely followed his masters gaze, then gasped in an astonishment that seemed to Vaclav not a little exaggerated. “My Lord!” he cried in righteous indignation, “a trespasser! What a nerve! How dare he? I’ll get onto it right away, I’ll tell the guards to go and arrest…..”

“No, no, boy, don’t get your tunic in a twist! What’s it to me if he tramples a bit of grass? But do you think he’s in his right mind, going out in this weather?”

“Why, sir?”

“Well, would you be out there today?”

“Certainly not, your lordship, give me a warm fire any day to snooze by. I expect that’s what old Peter is aiming for too.”

“Old Peter? You know him?”

“I know of him, sir. He sometimes helps in the fields in summer.”

“Does he now? So why is he not tucked up by his fire today?”

“He’ll not have one, unless he manages to find a bit of firewood. Old Peter never has wood, he can’t afford it.”

Vaclav peered out again. “Why yes, he seems to have a wood-carrier on his shoulders. But not much in it – the guards will have taken all the wood there.”

“Yes, sir. For the castle,” Pavel put in quietly. Vaclav looked suspiciously at him, but the page’s face was blank.

“Where’s this man’s house then, Pavel?”

“House? He doesn’t exactly have a house, sir…”

“Doesn’t have a house?? What does he have, for heaven’s sake?”

Pavel considered. “Well, there’s a sort of cave, an overhang, near the falls of St Agnes, at the back of Petrin. Peter built a sort of cabin onto the front, and….”

“Do you mean to tell me, boy, that even in midwinter, this man not only has no fire, but scarcely a shelter? What about food? Don’t tell me the man doesn’t eat!”

“Not much, your Lordship. Old Peter doesn’t have much of anything.” They gazed silently out to where the old man struggled against the snow, stumbling in drifts, a pitiful bag of wet, thin branches on his shoulders.

Vaclav silently paced the room, a look of worried amazement on his face. Finally, he turned and seized the page by the shoulders.

“Well today he’ll have something,” he said quietly, “today this man will enjoy St. Stephen’s feast with us. First, fetch that joint of pork I can smell – and some sausages and dumplings.”

Pavel’s face fell, for he usually enjoyed the leftovers from a roast joint himself. But he dared not argue with the determined-looking duke, and went for the food, to the rage and astonishment of the cook.

“Good!” exclaimed Vaclav. “Now, vegetables – a sack of turnips and carrots, and enough jars of pickled cabbage to last a week. Oh- yes – better get a sled ready”. While Pavel busied himself with this task, Vaclav tied up two large bundles of the dry, split logs that were waiting by his fireside.

“There now,” he muttered, that’s all I think.”

“Excuse me sir,” piped up the page. “but what’s he going to drink?”

“Didn’t you say he lives by the waterside?”

“Oh yes. Of course, sir. A peasant couldn’t drink wine like a king…or a duke…” Pavel looked very humble.

“I see,” said Vaclav, screwing up his eyes, “make me feel worse, why don’t you. Alright – go to the cellar, and roll out a cask of the finest port wine onto the sled.

Pavel raced to obey, and by the time he returned, the Duke of Bohemia was wearing his thickest, fur lined cloak, stoutly belted at the waist, and an enormous furry hat that covered his ears and strapped under his chin. The page gasped. “Are you…..”

“Going to deliver? Of course we are! I wouldn’t trust the guards not to scoff the lot the second they got out of the gate!”

“We, my lord?”

“Of course, “we”…. I couldn’t drag and carry all this lot by myself, could I? It’s your lucky day out!”

Photo by SHAHBAZ ZAMAN on Pexels.com

The story will be concluded on December 26th, Boxing Day, or, appropriately enough, the Feast of St. Stephen.

By Riverside to Denmarkfield

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There’s this story in Scottish folklore: A king (Scottish or Pictish) and his army were engaged in a long campaign to repel the Danish invaders who were terrorising the east coast. The Vikings knew that the only way to gain free access to the rich breadbasket lands and the treasures of the religious houses was to defeat the king’s army, which was camped, exhausted, by a river, thinking itself safe for at least a night’s sleep. The Viking spies located the army. and to gain advantage by stealth and secrecy, the warriors began to creep up on foot, swords drawn, and surround them. Thinking their boots made too much noise, the leader ordered his men to go barefoot. Their goal was in sight, until a skull-splitting screech and an unrepeatable Scandinavian oath filled the air. One of the Vikings had trodden on a well-armed Spear Thistle. The kings army were thus warned, and sprang to action to repel the invaders. Since when, the thistle has always been the emblem of Scotland.

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Last Sunday was the first of the seriously cold days of this winter. It will get colder, but we will have adjusted to it. Nevertheless,it was still warmer outside than in our currently challenged-in-the-heating-department house, so we decided to go for a walk to warm up.

As we sauntered along the footpath from Luncarty to the River Tay, almost a hollow lane, beads of frost and frozen droplets of moisture clung to any material they encountered. Ephemeral, discarded threads pf spider gossamer waved like chilly bunting. Touch one, and it evaporated. Frizzy, curled husks of ice-tipped willow herb seedheads towered as if frozen.

A haar descended. Generally the haar creeps upriver from Perth; today it seemed to come from all directions. Its gloom, exacerbated by the knowledge that somewhere behind it the sun is weakly shining, has the coldest feel imaginable. With wreaths of steam-like fog and mist flowing above the surface, the Tay resembled an Icelandic hot spring.

The river path proper starts at the site of the old Waulkmill Chain Ferry – once the only convenient way to cross from one side to the other. It closed as late as 1964, but I think this must have been a crossing point for many centuries before the chain ferry and pontoons were in operation. We headed in the direction of Perth City, watching gigantic pylons loom up from the cold dense air, bringing to mind the Martians from H.G.Wells’ War of the Worlds.

And then we came to the derelict bulk of old buildings beside Denmarkfield Farm, and the unmarked stone that stands in the weedy, thistle-infested ground just above the river. Here, locals say, is the site of that momentous battle that propelled the Scots thistle to prominence, and the stone – called the King’s Stone – marks the spot. That’s why the place, and later the farm, have been called Denmarkfield ever since.

There are plans to build yet another road, the Cross Tay Link Road, from here to Scone on the east bank. The land around the King’s Stone (actually far older than the 10th century) is under a compulsory purchase order. As people speed over the new bridge that will cross the river, congratulating themselves on the ease and convenience, will anyone remember the Waulkmill ferryman, the king who slept by the river, or the Viking with a sore foot?

The King’s Stone