Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Rough Road

I've often said that one of the things I love most about this job is that you never know what's in store for you. The Scottish weather is notorious for keeping you on your toes and that's only one of an infinite number of variables that make up a day on the hill.
Yesterday, I was shovelling gravel into potholes all day. The day before was the same. And today- wait for it!- yes, I was supposed to be shovelling more gravel into more potholes. It's a dull job but it's in great surroundings and, as we're all working in a team, you do get the 'craic'.
The job itself is a vast improvement on what it used to be. In my first years here ( back in the 'days o' the widden boiler' ) we would quarry the fill for the roads ourselves. A huge, angled grate, like a cattle grid on legs, would be lifted by the digger onto the bogie. Then the digger would pour the excavated sand/gravel/rock mix through the grate, then lift the grate off again and the tractor would take the filtered stuff away to the waiting shovellers and rakers.
If the fill was wet, it would be like trying to shovel porridge. If it was just damp (it was never dry) it would stick to itself, the bogie and your shovel. When you did eventually get it thrown onto the road, the rakers would come along behind you, level it and take out all the rocks. And you'd lose half your stuff.
It was a problem that so many rocks found their way into the bogie. Smaller ones passed through the grate, larger ones slipped past it. Often, the first the shovellers would know of the big ones was when the bogie was getting tipped up. In theory, the sand and gravel should have slid gently down to the tail of the bogie, where it could be accessed. In practice it would sit in a consolidated lump and refuse to budge as the bed of the bogie rose higher and higher. When the whole mass loomed high above you, it would suddenly avalanche and a rock the size of a car engine would come thundering down at you out of the mix. It would require lightning fast reflexes and an ability to jump your feet out at strange angles to avoid crushed feet. It's where the highland fling originated. It might not have looked dignified but it was better than being caught on the hop.
Nowadays, we buy in the gravel. You couldn't ever say that shovelling 15 tonnes of aggregate in a day is a doddle, but, in comparison, it is childs play. Or that's what I keep trying to tell my son. He remains to be convinced.
But you'll have noticed that I wrote that I was 'supposed' to be shovelling gravel today. As it happened we were 2 loads into the job when our head 'keeper tracked me down. One of our horses had gone sick and the vet recommended taking her- and her 3 month old foal (to avoid stressing them with separation)- to the vet school on the other side of Edinburgh.
It was a long, slow journey and I was tremendously glad that I'd taken a few minutes to study and understand the directions before I left. I don't think the Edinburgh commuters would have found any lumbering 30 point turns amusing.
And, although it was a real relief to get to my destination in one piece, I couldn't relax while I waited. The vets warned me that it might be grass sickness, which is incurable and fatal.
And just because Cassie was one of the nicest, friendliest horses you could meet, that's what it turned out to be. I signed the form authorising them to put her down and started the long road back with only her exhausted foal in the horsebox. You can try and be philosophical about times like this, but they're shit really.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Name's Pete.....

The accompanying photo shows a butt that will go down in the annals as being the tightest (Steady, Elton!) for space in the history Nippit in the butt, as it were.
It required radical surgery. However this is not to be undertaken lightly. Not only can it give you piles of trouble but if you push things too far it can lead to a co-lapse. And you don't want one of them.
The other pic shows a rather large rock our alterations uncovered. It was a real strain but we managed to squeeze it out with only a minimum of soft tissue damage.
As it happens, half the butts in this row have needed similar attention and we have already spent two days on them. That's two days of hard labour, in the pissing rain, absolutely clarted (good Scottish word!) in peat. At least the rain washed the midges away.
There's another good Scottish saying; "You have to tak' the stoor (dust) wi' the grain". Well here's my stoor!

Thursday, 15 July 2010

A Pain in the Butt

As our shooting season approaches, our duties go through a gradual transition. The onus shifts from all-out war on our vermin to making those final preparations prior our guests arriving.

When we have a good forecast and a morning free of other demands, we'll still go out at dawn and see if we can fall in with a fox. But mostly, there are other jobs demanding our attentions now.

In the next three weeks I've got grouse butts to maintain, bridge supports to repoint, roads to patch, grit piles to cover over and fencing, concreting and dyking all needing done. And I could do with getting a load of firewood in. Yes, I KNOW it's the height of summer but once we get guests in the lodge, we'll be busy with them every day until the end of October. And as soon as we've finished with them, I've got a few hundred hinds needing my attention. No rest for the wicked? I'm thinking Auld Nick has some competition.....

I made a start on my butts today. It's gruelling work cutting and carrying divots and digging out floors and drains. Torrential rain overnight has saturated the ground making the work (and the divots) heavier. We -myself and the three ghillies (seasonal assistants)- came home just black with peat.

However, I did save some energy to go down to the river and try for a salmon this evening. Conditions were perfect so I persevered for longer than usual. And the result- two of my favourite lures sacrificed to the River God and one welly full of water.

There's no justice.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Going back

I'm just back from my holidays so there's not much to tell. Everywhere I look the vegetation is burgeoning- especially in the garden. And while my back has been turned, the heather has started to bloom. Some years you get a lot of flowers, others are bloomin' awful. I think it's going to be exceptional this year.
Unusually for here, I'm taking a stalker out after a Roe buck tomorrow. That means we'll be guaranteed to see loads of does ,kids, stags and hinds.
As I've so little to say, I thought I'd give you a taste of how my blogging came about:-

Jan 31st 2009

At long, long last we have started our adventure. As expected, we set off in a state of exhaustion as a result of me having trouble getting off to sleep and Louise waking up early. I suppose that between us we've had a good night's sleep....

The flight to London could hardly be described as restful either. The moment the "fasten seatbelts" sign came on as we moved away from the terminal, Jack announced "needaweewee!". He continued his announcements with increasing frequency and volume through the taxiing,take-off and ascent until, in desparation, Louise made an unauthorised sortie to the toilet with him. This was unfortunately repelled by a stewardess and thus a panicky search of our hand luggage ensued. The final lightning swap from "big boys pants" to nappy was done to a yell of "WEEWEECOMING!" that was heard from cockpit to tailfin. How I dread tomorrow's 10 hour flight.

But for now, we are ensconsed in a comfortable but wholly unremarkable room in the Heathrow Holiday Inn. We've had a surprisingly nice meal here with Louise's folks and, as of 9.30, I'm the last man standing. But not for much longer. This rock'n'roll lifestyle ain't for pussies, y'know......

Feb 1st 2009

Hello from sunny South Africa !

And sunny it is- or was anyway. We've finally arrived at Tswalu and as I type this, it's 9.30pm and still 33 degrees (where's the little "degree" sign on this keyboard? I have a feeling I'll be needing it often.)

The trip here was a long one but I shouldn't have worried about Jack having ructions on the flights. The poor lad was catatonic with a fever all the way from Heathrow to here. We were getting more than a little concerned but after a 5 hour sleep under the air-conditioner he's a lot more sprightly. Let's just hope he's over whatever bug he's had. And talking of bugs........ but I digress. First, the flight.

The flight down to Johannesburg was a night flight and pretty run-of-the-mill. I had a window seat and (as an inveterate insomniac on any form of transport) was fascinated to see the sprawling mass of lit-up, built-up areas in Europe give way to fewer and fewer lights of any kind the further South we went. When dawn arrived I was itching for my first glimpse of the African continent but it kept the mystery up with a thick blanket of cloud right up until the approach to Jo'burg. That's not to say that I wasn't aware that I had a very different country waiting for me. An hour before landing we were at 38,000 feet and we passed a thunderhead that towered above us! We were within half a mile of this massive, dense mountain of cloud and every few seconds it would be lit up from inside by huge lightning bolts. It looked bloody impressive from where I was sitting but I reckon it would make even more of an impact experiencing it from below!

By the time we landed we were feeling somewhat travel-worn. We were expecting to be met and taken to a place in Jo'burg and perhaps get a little sleep. Not a bit of it . We were met all right, then hurried through passport control to a waiting cab then driven to another part of the airfield ( or maybe a different one, for all I know) where we waited in a lounge for a while before being joined by Mr and Mrs O. Shortly after that we boarded a small (but amazingly fast) Lear Jet and set off for Kimberly. After dropping the Os off there, we flew North from there to Tswalu. And Jack slept for practically the whole trip. Pity, because, unless he becomes a rock star, he wont be doing that again!

And so here we are, back down to earth and feeling very much out of our depth. How's THAT for a mixed metaphor? It only remains to bid you goodnight and wait and see what tomorrow brings. And the bugs? The house lights must draw them for miles, the place is moving!!