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.

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