Saturday, 22 July 2017

Summer Wardens.

When Hanna and I arrived at Vane Farm we joined a well established team that took care of the visitors and the environmental education, which was the main focus of the site. John Norton was the caretaker reserve warden who was there to hand over the keys to us.

John was very enthusiastic about the birds, the wildlife and the plants; he was also hyper-energetic and heavily into cycling. Within our first half hour he had us down on the lochside looking at the wildflowers there. What he didn't know was that the flowers he was showing us were especially significant to me.

Grass of Parnassus is one of the most beautiful bog plants you could ever wish to see. I knew it from Cumberland but my grandmother once found it is Swaledale where she lived and would often tell us about it. In fact, I think it was the last thing she spoke to me about before she died. The other rare flower John showed us was a tiny buttercup called creeping spearwort (Ranunculus reptans) which I had only ever seen once before, near Swansea in South Wales.

Seeing those flowers made us realise that there was a lot more to Vane Farm than a nice view and a few ducks.

I don't remember what we did at Christmas, but I'll never forget Hogmanay. We had heard so much about the Scottish New Year and we were looking forward to a legendary party, so we dropped a lot of broad hints such as "What are you doing at Hogmanay?" It was stupid question because what most people do is gather at home with the family, unless they hate their family, are far from home, or haven't been invited to anyone's party.

"So. What are you doing for Hogmanay?" apparently translates as "How would you like to spend Hogmanay with us?"
"Oh thanks, we didn't really have any plans, we'd love to come."

And so it was that we spent our first New Year in Scotland with a bunch of misfits who had a taste for whisky and nowhere else to go. One couple actually went through their entire marriage breakdown and divorce during the course of the party. We had some great music and single malts though.

We spent our first winter getting to know our neighbours and the neighbourhood which stretched from Edinburgh to Perth. We delighted in the masses of pink-footed geese we could see and hear every day and the constantly changing play of light on the loch and the surrounding hills was a novelty after living on the flat coastal plain in Sussex.  We entertained a string of house guests from down south and became Scottish foodies, digging in to stews, broths, Scotch pies, lorne sausage meat, haggis and neeps, black pudding, Arbroath smokies, tatty scones, salmon and venison.

In the spring we prepared for the arrival of a new summer warden by cleaning up his bothy and we put on a massive full Scottish breakfast, comprising most of the above meaty products plus Scotch baps, vivid orange Scotch Cheddar cheese and Dundee marmalade. I drove to Waverley station to meet him off the London train but couldn't spot anyone who looked vaguely like they were coming to work on a nature reserve. I was expecting a barbour coat, backpack, walking boots and maybe a telescope. The platform soon cleared of people and there was just one young man left behind. He was wearing a battered tweed jacket and flat cap while pushing a bicycle that had a vintage cardboard suitcase tied to the crossbar. The overall (and intended) effect was of a lost evacuee from the second world war.

Matt May was from Essex and you could tell. It wasn't just his accent; there was also the bright red Mohican haircut that was hidden under his tweed cap. He was a really nice lad and keen as mustard. He was also starving and I knew he would love the feast we had waiting for him. Hanna piled the table high with food and offered him a starter of fish chowder made from smoked haddock with an Arbroath smokie on the side. The smokie made a bid for freedom, landing in Matt's coffee and that's when he told us that he was a vegetarian. He had a marmalade butty and we showed him his new home.

I can't remember how it all happened but we had a mass of house guests that year, so many that we had to park a caravan outside our kitchen to cope with the overflow. When you live only an hour out of Edinburgh, it's amazing how many people drop by during festival time.  Hanna's sister Susy came over from Chicago and actually landed a job in the Fringe office on the Royal Mile. This meant we got a lot of tickets and went to a huge number of shows that year.

One night we had a massive party that included friends from Sussex plus Susy, Matt and his lovely red-headed girlfriend from Lochgelly, some volunteers and two Dutch girls who were staying in the caravan. After an evening of partying, people were sleeping all over the place, but all was calm until about three a.m. when Hanna and I woke to find two bulky men at the foot of our bed, their stubbly faces lit by a torch from below.

"Is the warden in here?"
"I I I ththththink so" said Hanna, "I'll look."

I was in the bed next to her but I wasn't making any more sense than she was.

"We are with the Perth Constabulary and I'm afraid you have had a break in."

At first I wondered if they thought that all the various bodies distributed about the premises had just raided the place and turned it into an illegal squat but they took me outside to see how someone had cut their way through the shop door and stolen the float and some of the sales goods. I sobered up pretty quickly.

The police often used our car park and toilets at night and they would make a quick security check at the same time, so they found out about the robbery before we did. They had banged on every one of the doors leading off the yard and got no sensible response from anybody. When they tapped on the window of the caravan they met two beautiful girls in nighties who spoke to them in Dutch but pointed at our front door, which was eventually opened for them by our artist friend Richard Kemp who was unable to stand up straight and had lost his voice. He just pointed up the corridor in our direction.

The next summer was a bit calmer and we had an information warden called Jo Thomas who was a young lass from York. She was our ace recruiter, homing in on any new visitors to make sure they didn't leave without joining the RSPB. By strange co-incidence she now lives ten minutes away from me and runs her own wildlife travel business.

Other summer wardens included Mike Pollard who went on the become a Reserves Manager based in Banbury and Norwich. He did a great job of making interactive displays for the visitor centre. Alan Coles was next and he did a couple more seasons on Scottish Lochs before moving back to Cambridgeshire. I see him quite often still.

Mel Kemp and Sally came as a pair, which was nice for us, but the accommodation wasn't great for two and they rented a place in Kinross. Our last assistant was Dave Fairlamb, a gangly Geordie with a pony tail who was, and still is, a larger than life character. He's now the curator at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust in Arundel, where we used to work before moving to Scotland. It's a small world isn't it?

One warden was mad enough to stay for two years. Gareth Morgan is now parliamentary officer at the the Lodge and still a good friend with a brain the size of a planet and heart to match.

So much happened during Gareth's stay that it's worth another chapter.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

A band of brothers.


I was now an RSPB Warden!

Of course I wasn't a proper warden. For a start, I couldn't grow a decent beard, and then I wasn't really very good at practical work either, though I could "talk-the-talk".  Fortunately I had my volunteers to show me the ropes and a succession of summer wardens to back me up. Anyway, the raison d'etre for Vane Farm was environmental education and I did know a few things about that.

My competence as a warden was soon challenged when I had a call from the local Forestry Commission Officer who was a Geordie who didn't mince his words.  He managed the woods above Blair Adam in the Cleish Hills and he had caught someone trapping finches for the cagebird trade. We rendezvoused in a car park and he asked me if this was an illegal activity and what the law was on finch trapping. I said that I didn't know, and he said "Well you bluwddie well should do, shouldn't you?" Needless to say, the next time I was involved in a finch trapping incident, I bluwddie well did know!

After a season of settling in, I was invited to my first RSPB wardens' conference. This was a big deal for me. Would they find me out? Could I fit in? My only insight into what the other wardens were up to came via a monthly newsletter from the Lodge where each of us had half a page to vent our spleen. I loved reading between the lines as it slowly became clear that not everyone was happy to have landed where they were or with whom.

There was a warden on Loch Lomond-side who always started his news with the weather, which was always terrible. He was convinced that of all the wardens, his weather was the worst and it probably was. Apart from the constant rain, there was the midges, the wild goats and the inconsiderate tourists. One unlucky couple invited his anger because they lost control of their speedboat and crashed ashore on the reserve, ending up in the woods and causing damage to several trees. He never mentioned if they survived or if the boat was salvaged.  I imagined them crawling away, bloodsoaked and with broken limbs, then swimming back across the loch to be hospitalised. I bet they never considered joining the RSPB after that.

That year, the conference (which was rather too grand a description for less than twenty guys snoring in bunk-beds) was held at the Graffham Outdoor Pursuits Center, not far from the Lodge at Sandy. Unbeknown to me, this meeting marked the end of an era because the man in charge of all the reserves was retiring. He had recruited all of the other wardens, except me. John Crudas was the Reserves Department. He micromanaged the whole show, but I'd never heard of him and sadly never got to know him.

Hanna and I drove down from Scotland taking the minor roads through the East Midlands rather than the Great North Road. This made us late. Apparently this was my first cardinal sin. "You're late" said the two shop-stewards on the door in unison.
"Sorry, have I missed much?"
"Only the chairman's speech!"
"Was it any good?" ...... Silence.
I had committed my second cardinal sin; Lack of Respect.

Hanna was going to drive on down for a reunion with friends in Sussex and pick me up on the way back, but after 400 miles in our old car she needed a loo break so she headed inside.
"Hold on", said one of the tweedy beardies, "No women allowed in here; this is a wardens' conference!"  Hanna pushed past and I didn't quite hear what she said, but it wasn't nice.

I went on to have a great couple of days, mainly because I was made very welcome by the two wardens in the room that I respected the most; John Wilson from Leighton Moss and Jeremy Sorensen from Minsmere; both legends in my world. They showed me how to sit at the back, look interested and put my feet up on the chair in front. It was like being in a warm friendly pub with my third pint in my hand.

I made other friends there too and came away feeling much less isolated. They were a "band of brothers." Even the two shop-stewards were nice to me, and I can't think of any way that I had earned their friendship.  Just being an RSPB Warden was enough to get me in the club.

How I became an RSPB Warden.


Furze wren or Dartford warbler.
60 years ago, England was a different place. I lived in Southampton at that time, an important port that had largely been flattened by successive air raids. Rebuilding of the town had only just begun but the harbour was fully operational with great rows of ocean liners owned by the P&O, Cunard and Union Castle Lines moored up at the quays. Cargo such as Fyfe's bananas, Jaffa Oranges and cut timber came in from all over the world. Flying boats took off from the water and flew over my school. They might be going to Kenya where they would land on Lake Naivasha, or Uganda where they would use Lake Victoria, and then perhaps on to refuel in the Seychelles on their way to India. I had no idea that my future career would eventually take me down those same flight-lines.

There were jobs to be had for sure; that's why we moved there. My dad worked on the ships installing and repairing cine projectors and sound systems as well as working on tape recorders, radios and the latest televisions. Business was booming, but I wanted to work outdoors in the countryside.

In the mid 1960's, most children left school at 16 to find work. My "careers teacher" had probably done his military service and gone straight into teaching, then attended a training course at some point. I told him I'd like to be a game-keeper and he countered that I'd make a good policeman like my grandad, mostly because I was tall.

The New Forest was on my doorstep so I wrote to the Forestry Commission in Brockenhurst. They never replied. I probably wrote to the wrong office; I hadn't a clue what I was doing really. Fortunately my O-level grades were good enough for me to carry on at school and I eventually went to be trained as a teacher in Bristol.

My interest in the outdoors never waned. I studied to be a geography teacher but we also had to take a different subsidiary subject each year and I chose to start with natural science. Miss Jelley taught us how to set up a nature table, make plaster casts, identify plants and animals by using keys and all the things I would later do as head of environmental studies at a big primary school on Salisbury Plain.

Meanwhile, our geography department took us on a field week to Devon where I teamed up with a mature student who said he had been in the SAS. He told me how he had been parachuted into the bush dressed as a Massai warrior during the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising. I wasn't sure I believed him at the time, but I played along as he had a pair of 8x30 military binoculars that had cross-hairs in the lenses. You had to focus each eyepiece individually, which made them slow to set up, but they were quite literally an eye-opener for me. They were in colour! Most books and almost all tv at the time was in black and white, so I had only seen close-ups of wildlife in monochrome. I became a proper bird-watcher on that trip, seeing my first fulmars, buzzards and peregrines up close.

As a young teacher in Wiltshire I soon discovered a network of other birdwatchers and naturalists and became aware of the wider world of nature conservation. That's when I found the RSPB.

Every year, near Christmas, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds came to Salisbury with a film show and a van-load of sales goods. I took my class along to see the new crop of films made by the society's own film department and I bought calendars, cards and wrapping paper, illustrated by the likes of Charles Tunnicliffe and Robert Gillmor. I was inspired to become a member and I started a Young Ornithologists Club in School.

Old RSPB logo on a car badge.
At that point the only paid member of RSPB staff I had seen was a man called Trevor Gunton. He was the development officer who ran the film shows and toured every village hall in the country giving slide shows in his spare time. Trevor would go on to set up the regional members groups and take the society's membership past the million mark. We are still in touch as he is a volunteer on the nature reserve where I work today.

I was also involved in the local Natural History Society and the newly formed Wiltshire Ornithological Society. I once joined a group of elderly ladies for a field trip to look for orchids on the military ranges and we were led by a young man called Peter Newberry from the local Wildlife Trust, which was based in Marlborough. Peter's version of orchid hunting turned out to be an extreme sport with a bit of botany thrown in. Peter had an old Landrover that he took up, down and across the steepest of slopes and gave us all a good scare. "Newbs" went on to work at the Lodge where I found out that cars were a bit of a passion. He used to study woodcocks in the local forests by setting up mist nets across the rides and forest tracks at dusk. He would then drive his route in an open-top sports car that was so low he could drive it under the nets. This was at night, with the lights off. I think he eventually won the trophy for fastest run down the drive at the Lodge, achieving over 100 mph. It was probably as a result of this that the drive now has some pretty fierce "sleeping policemen" installed.


On a birding trip to Cotswold Water Park I met an extremely tall young man with a shock of unruly dark hair who was throwing a drag line out into the lakes to collect weed samples. This was my first encounter with a proper scientist who wasn't a teacher. His name was Dr. James Cadbury and he would later become the Head of Science at the Lodge. He is undoubtedly the best all-round naturalist I have ever met. Our paths would cross many times, including in Seychelles where his father Christopher had bought two islands and set them up as nature reserves.

As an isolated member of the RSPB, the arrival of "Birds" magazine was my window into a world of bird watching, photography, artwork and the politics of conservation; more than that, it featured real people who had proper jobs as full time staff. One edition of the magazine featured an article on Dartford warblers. These "furze wrens" are the shape of a long-tailed tit with the colours of port, cranberries and heather stems and they live mainly on spiders. In those days they were confined to the the New Forest and part of the Dorset coast near Corfe Castle. The article featured pictures of the birds and their habitat, but my eye was caught by a photo of a man with a petrol-powered vacuum cleaner on his back. He was sucking the bugs out of a gorse bush to see what was there for a warbler to eat.  Young Colin Bibby was a researcher from the Edward Grey Institute (part of Oxford University) and he would follow James Cadbury as head of Research at the Lodge and later at BirdLIfe International in Cambridge.

I would never have been a good scientist, but wouldn't it be amazing to work alongside these people?

Another copy of "Birds" featured an RSPB reserve called Leighton Moss. Among the pictures of otters and bitterns one photo caught my eye because it had a man in it. That man was John Wilson and he was cutting back the reed-bed using a two wheeled Allen scythe. He was an RSPB Warden.

It took me until the mid 70s to discover all this. A career in nature conservation simply didn't exist in the 60s, though there were retired colonels and brigadiers who pioneered the way using their military pensions to get by. You could find them in the National Trust and the fledgeling societies and trusts that were springing up. They would employ ex-servicemen to work for them, and they in turn would eventually employ civilians like me.

Looking back to the 50s and 60s, it was hard not to be aware of at least one conservationist and that was Sir Peter Scott. He was the son of Robert Falcon Scott, known as "Scott of the Antarctic", and his mother was a famous sculptor, but I first knew him as the man who started the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge. My parents took me there several times and I loved it. I demanded that they buy me one of  Scott's paintings, but they didn't; £30 was a lot of money back then. Never mind though, I had fifty "Peter Scotts" on a set of Brooke-Bond tea cards called "Wildlife in Danger".

This cover of Bird Magazine
led to people resigning.
Is this supposed to be art?
I loved it.
As I progressed through school, I would encounter more of Peter Scott's paintings and his books, but for most people it was his pioneering broadcasts that brought wildlife and nature conservation into our living rooms through a small wooden box containing a grey cathode ray tube. He paved the way for Hans and Lotte Hass and Jacques Cousteau to show us the underwater world. Armand and Michaela Denis would take us on an African safari every week and James Fisher would take us around London Zoo. Eventually a young David Attenborough would take us on Zoo Quests to New Guinea and Madagascar.

This was all great stuff, but in a class-ridden society, these well-spoken, highly educated and wealthy people seemed distant and extremely privileged. Their world was only open to us as voyeurs. We couldn't join in and had about as much chance of going on safari or SCUBA diving as going to the moon. Or, at least, that's what I thought at the time. But seeing a photo of John Wilson, RSPB Warden, changed all that for me. I could do that.

As an educator, the logical way-in would be as a teacher-naturalist. I took several courses in Field Biology and got a degree from the Open University, then my chance came when Sir Peter Scott built a fabulous new Wildfowl Trust centre at Arundel and I became its first education officer. There I would rub shoulders with the Scotts and all sorts of famous people, including David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and even Prince Charles. My Mum was thrilled, but I learned the most from my colleagues and I started to network with other organisations including the Wildlife Trust, the RSPCA, Keep Britain Tidy, the World Wildlife Fund, and of course, the RSPB. I was now a professional charity worker, specialising in environmental education and wildlife conservation. I could have moved to almost anywhere, but to me the absolute pinnacle of my career would be reached if I could be accepted as an RSPB Warden.

When the warden's job at Vane Farm on Loch Leven came up I just had to apply.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Bunkroom Boys and Volunteers

I inherited a stalwart band of local volunteers at the Vane who turned up in all weathers to do manual work. The really big tasks would be done at week-ends by the Edinburgh RSPB Members' Group and the Young Ornithologists from Duddingston Loch. Edinburgh is only an hour away from Kinross.

Big John
I'd done some voluntary conservation work in the past, but my career up to that point had mostly been in Environmental Education. The volunteers taught me how to turn over a divot, bang in a fence post, plant trees and build steps. They turned me from a soft-handed southerner into a hardened hill-man. My main tutor was a young man called Big John Graham.

Big John looked a lot like the American lumberjack Paul Bunyan or perhaps Desperate Dan from the Beano comic. He was a big man with a grand Scottish voice and the strength of an ox.  After long weeks on the offshore rigs out in the North Sea, he would be helicoptered ashore at Aberdeen from where he would motor down to his home in Fife. Most of his onshore days were spent walking or getting a work-out on the steep hill-side above our house. He used to bring young Callum Mcgregor with him.

I've forgotten how many steps there are on the trail up the hill, but it's a lot. The wooden risers kept rotting out and, after heavy rain, there could be extensive gullying too. Benarty itself is an old lava flow, made of basalt that is as hard as marble, but the slopes, including Vane Hill, as coated in glacial sands and gravels. Even so, there are no easy places to dig on the hill. Every post or step that went in was hard won and every tree planted was a victory for nature conservation; except that they took forever to grow because of the lack of soil and exposure to the wind. The slope faces north, so it doesn't get a lot of sunlight.

Like his biblical namesake, John recruited disciples for us.

Young Stuart Hamilton was a long-legged beanpole of a youth who would tramp up to us from his home in the south east corner of the loch at Levenmouth. He always wore a deerstalker hat, which he called a bonnet, and he always called me Ken. Eventually the RSPB caught on and I was replaced by a man whose name actually was Ken. Ken Shaw was Glaswegian and didn't need a translator.

"The forecast today is snow, so we need to wrap up." I'd say.
"Aye, Ken" Stuart would respond, "It's feeder snow. We'll be knee deep by the morn."
If you have ever seen Dad's Army, you could imagine Stewart saying those immortal words "We're all doomed."

Apart from his physical labour, Stuart brought us other gifts, usually a trout or some vegetables. Hanna and I sort-of adopted him and his family adopted us too. He caught the trout from the loch or the river, not always on a fly, and the vegetables were pulled from a neighbours field as he made his way up to us. This klepto-vegetarian habit was the inspiration for the volunteers' soup club.

On volunteer work-days, a pile of root vegetables, and sometimes a bit of meat, would appear on our kitchen step. The idea was that Hanna would make a soup or stew for lunchtime, which she did willingly until she got a full time job as a ranger, over the hill in Lochore.

Mysteriously, the number of young male volunteers started to grow. Stuart recruited Grant Thompson and, when Gordon Wardrope came from Dunfermline,  Big John treated him like his little brother. Gordon first contacted me at an RSPB film-show saying that he knew where there was a peregrines nest and would I like him to show me where? Of course I would.

The lads started to stay overnight at weekends, so together we converted a part of the steadings into a bunk-room, and so the legendary "bunkroom boys" were formed.

.Jon Wilson, who would later marry Stuart's sister Alyson, was joined by two unlikely lads who sold our out-of-date crisps outside the school in Kinross. Girls used to phone me asking for Tony and Romano, the two Italian exchange students. They were in fact Anthony Paterson and Norman McLeod. Then there was Dougie, Steve and Andy Carroll, who now works for RSPB.

Another lad came from the East Neuk. He "telt me a wee poyem that was writ by his dad hae was a fisher who stayed at Anstruther" or thereabouts. (Anstruther is pronounced "Aynsta" or course.)

“On yonder hill there stood a coo; it’s no there noo, it must hae shiftet.”  (It makes you want to weep doesn't it?)

The bunkroom had a stable door and no windows. We built the bunks from fence posts and salvaged timber and found an old wood-burning stove to go in the corner. Soon the evening ritual started with banging and cracking as the lads would chop firewood for the night. Then the courtyard would fill with thick grey smoke accompanied by coughing.

We heard "Chop, chop, chop. OWWWW!" as Norman put the axe into his own leg. A rush to the surgery in Kinross brought me a quizzical look from the doctor, which I read as saying. "You realise now that you are responsible for the safety of these youngsters ?" If I didn't before, I did now.

In return for our care and accommodation the bunkroom boys rewarded us with a lot of fun, including some pretty convoluted pranks.

Hanna used to have a pink bathrobe that had earned her the name "Pinky." Of course, I only ever called her that when I thought no-one could hear, but some of the bunkroom boys had big ears, and anyway Stuart spent so much time draped across our living room furniture that we often forgot he was there as we stepped over his trailing legs. The boys called us "Pinky and Perky." We might find find ourselves shopping at Sand's Supermarket in Kinross, only to hear a distant soprano voice whisper "Piiiinkieee".....then another would reply...."Perrrrkieee". It all escalated from there.

Every year we would take a trip away to see Hanna's sister Katy in Holland, or her folks in Chicago. The Reserve was left in the capable hands of the summer warden, aided and abetted (if that's the right way to put it) by the bunkroom boys.

We returned from one trip to be collected from the airport by the seasonal warden, Gareth Morgan. We asked him how things had gone and he told us that things were fine, except that the staff were wound up about a rumour that RSPB was about to sell off one of its Scottish reserves. It was thought that having two education centres in the central belt was one too many. The reserves in question were Vane Farm and Loch Winnoch. We agreed that Loch Winnoch was most likely to be in the firing range because, in our view, the Vane was thriving.

As we approached our home we saw a huge "Property for Sale" sign at the side of the road.
"FARM FOR SALE IN TWO LOTS. APPLY SAVILLS PERTH OFFICE"

When Gareth pulled the old Escort into the yard and turned off the engine we could hear the bunkroom boys laughing helplessly in the distance.


Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Shankie.

I entered this story in the Bristol Short Story Competition but it did not make the long list. The winner The artwork is from my son Nick's notebook.

Rather than give an account of the brilliant days and nights I spent on the loch, I decided to share this story with you again because it gives a much better idea of how big a roll the fishing played in the lives of those round the loch.

The Shankie.


Around the loch, where every other person has the same surname, we use nicknames a lot; they are rarely flattering but they serve to avoid confusion.

Last month, when Auld Willie Clarke suddenly dropped dead, it caused no end of chaos; not least because, in a rush to meet their deadline, the reporters at “The Courier and Crier” didn’t bother to find out which William Clarke was dead and rolled out an obituary that they had already prepared for an elderly councillor from Fife. His family was not much amused, I imagine.

Our William Clarke was always called "The Shankie"; not due to his long legs, but to his initials, W.C.  His son, Young Willie, is known to everyone as “Kipper” Clarke because of his permanent tan.

The Shankie was never a man to seek public office or court popularity, but he made his contribution to life around here in his own way. He spent his working life in the deepest pits of the Fife coalfield, hewing his way for several miles out beneath the Firth of Forth. It must have been terrifying for an outdoor man like him to be so far down in that colourless world under the rock and the sea. No doubt he experienced cave-ins, floods and fires, but he never said.  

We knew him as a long-time committee member of our fishing club, which I'll tell you now, is a bigger deal than you might think.  He was a fine fly-tier, specialising in the local patterns that we use on the loch, such as the grouse-and-claret, the gold-ribbed hare’s-ear, the Dunkeld and the kingfisher butcher.  

I have a box of his flies here before me now. They are distinctive because, like the man himself, they are big, generous and hirsute; not to say flashy.  These are a coal miner’s flies, made from all sorts of garish, man-made bits and bobs. They cost nothing to make and never once won prizes for their elegance. All the same the trout did not seem to mind and we all had success with them. My favourite pattern of his has to be the “Blae and Black”, which is our name for the big midge that can be so thick over the surrounding trees and the castle that they appear to be on fire with columns of smoke waving above them. 

It was good to see so many club members at the Kirk on Wednesday and I think we gave Willie a good send-off with beer and stovies in the Lodge afterwards. There was just one more thing to do, and that was to scatter his ashes on the water. You can understand why, as a miner,  he didn’t want to be buried underground.

As with everything else these days there are bureaucrats to pacify and procedures to go through. Forms exist to be filled in. Because of increasing nutrient levels in the loch, no-one is allowed to add phosphates and nitrates to the water, willy-nilly: for that you have to get permission from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). So, on behalf of the club and the Clarke family, I wrote to SNH making a special case. I had to use all the clout I had, and tell a few fibs along the way but, several phone-calls later, the boffins up at Faskally and the pen-pushers in Edinburgh reluctantly consented; but they made it clear that this event did not make a precedent and that the loch was not to become an unofficial cemetery for dead anglers. “Amen to that!” I said.

Last Saturday was to be the day of the Laird's Trophy fishing competition.  We arranged to raft-up all the boats off Castle Island at noon in order to scatter Willie's ashes while we drifted along the shore, toasting him with a dram or two.

I think it is true to say that Mrs Clarke was not thrilled by the prospect. She told Kipper that she had lost her husband to the loch for most of her married life and he was hers now. They had quite a row about it, but in the end a compromise was reached. The loch and the widow would get half each. Half the ashes remained in the urn and the other half went into a plastic sandwich tub for the club.

Now, Young Kipper is a rising star in our fly-fishing team. He has bags of energy and he is organised. On Friday night he started to pack his gear for the match but then it suddenly dawned on him that he could now use his dad's best rods and reels. More than that, he knew that his dad would want him to use them. It took him hours to find everything and to make up his mind what to take, but he had it all packed in the old Austin van by bed-time. In the morning there was a rush to fill flasks and make sandwiches, so he almost forgot to bring the box of ashes.

We had a grand morning on the loch with fish often coming to the take just as the line was lifted off for the next cast. Everyone was in a good mood as we assembled just before noon. Kipper lifted out the cheap sandwich box to inspect the contents and found........ only teabags. 

He felt and looked like a lost bairn, almost in tears.  And, with no way to contact home, there was nothing to be done about it. Worse still, he knew that we would never hear the end of it. Someone suggested that we make the box of tea-bags into an annual booby prize called "The Shankie Trophy", but really it was just good natured but clumsy banter to relieve the tension and make him feel better.

Just the same, a bottle of whisky was opened and we had started to pass it around when we heard the drone of powerful outboards heading towards us from the direction of the pier. A bright orange fiberglass boat thumped across the length of the loch in minutes and made a braking turn alongside us. There was the stocky, bearded SNH warden seated at the helm, with the tiny figure of Mrs Clarke standing alongside him and holding the urn aloft. Doubtless she had found the box of ashes and realised how much the day meant to her son. We all cheered like fury.

So Mrs Clarke did the honours for Willie, which was how it should always have been planned from the start. We had the warden fire a blue flare up into the sky so it could be seen from the pier, the lodge, the village and even the Laird’s big house. 

The exploding flare made a boom that echoed off the hills and a snaking trail of smoke that soon faded away to leave a small, round, grey puff of a cloud that stayed for a long while over the loch.

The warden's new wife.

We felt like traitors when we left Arundel. Our friend and curator Andrew Dawnay waved us off. "Goodbye my chickens." "You'll never make it in that car." And we didn't.

Our old faded turquoise Citroen GS was heavily overloaded and it made a nasty banging noise every time I turned left. We made it over the South Downs but then, just outside Petersfield in Hampshire, the suspension gave out. We crawled up to a rather tatty petrol station that sold cheap used cars from a compound out the back and decided then and there to change horses.

I had always fancied an old VW beetle and we took one for a test drive, but it was in a bad state and, anyway, it had nowhere to put all our stuff. The only sensible and affordable choice was a red Lada Riva. If you don't know anything about cars, you will still know all the old jokes about Ladas, such as:

"What do you call a Lada with a sunshine roof?"
"A skip?"

"Why do Ladas have heated rear windows?"
"To keep your hands warm when you get out and push"

The value of a Lada was loosely based on how many wheels it had plus the amount of fuel in the tank. I paid £300 for mine. I was done, but it got us there and it lasted another year or two. We spent a night or two on the floor and then our furniture arrived.

My predecessor, liked rainbows and so we lived in a long narrow bungalow where almost every wall was a different colour. We found the house, which sat under the hill, rather dark and so we painted everything white and hung paintings everywhere.

There was a rather large garden to the side where we would later plant potatoes and keep chickens, but before all that I had to start work and Hanna had to find a job.

Our kitchen door.
Graham had his office up in the top of the big converted barn that housed the shop and an upstairs viewing gallery. I was safely installed up there out of harm's way and the staff breathed a sigh of relief. Only, after working with people all the time at Arundel, I didn't like it up there, cut off from what was going on, so I moved to the back of the shop where "Will-not-let-you-go" Trish Millar* was the secretary. I'm sure I was too disruptive but I could get a good feel for what everyone was doing and I could overhear what was going on in the shop. If the conversation got interesting, then I'd dive in. (I know, really annoying!)

One of the first people to pop into the shop was a large man in a long wool coat. He could either have been a football manager or a Glasgow gangster. Nowadays I'd say he was straight out of an Ian Rankin novel. As is often the case with people, there was a lot more to Les Peters than met the eye and he did us a lot of favours as a journalist and later editor of the Dundee Courier, which had a much bigger circulation than the Scotsman. He would nip out of his car with a camera every time a school visited (which was often) or when we had an event, or just needed a bit of publicity. A total star, he later became press officer to the police and a famous after dinner speaker.

Decorating.
I think the extra publicity and an increase in tourism led us to open seven days a week. Not everyone was thrilled.

Over the years we had visits by quite a few celebrities including Annie Lennox from the Eurythmics, (I was out fishing at the time, dammit!) I also missed Barbara Dickson, who popped in quite often, but I did meet the Liverpudlian comedian Jimmy Tarbuck OBE. His daughter Liza is a tv presenter and actor these days.

My favourite "celeb" who stopped off by surprise was Humphrey Lyttelton who brought his whole band in for a cup of tea and look around. I took Humph up the hill and found him to be as wonderful in real life as he was when presenting "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue" on Radio 4. My parents had 78 rpm records of his jazz-band and they used to follow him around London during the late 40s until I put an abrupt stop to all that in 1950 by being born.  My Mum was thrilled to hear that I had met him. I still can't believe that I spent about two hours with him birdwatching, which was one of his many passions.

The gates used to be locked at five on the dot, but this meant tracking down the owners of cars that were still in the car park. I don't know if it was true, but I was told that Graham once got so fed up with waiting for one car owner that he set out to find him. What he found was the man's bare behind sticking up out of the bracken and he was not alone. Cool as a cucumber, Graham walked over and tapped the man on the shoulder. "I'm locking the car park, you have to leave now".  The reply was equally frank. "Aye, just a mo, I won't be long now."

Partly through being disorganised and never around at five, we stopped locking the gates except over the Christmas break. This meant that people could visit the reserve at all hours and sometimes they would bang on the warden's door to report a sighting or to give a donation. A reserves officer from Edinburgh popped in to see me one afternoon and got rather annoyed that there was so much going on that I didn't get to sit down with him until after five. Then a lady came to the door and asked to join the RSPB and he sent her away! 

I was more than fully occupied at the Vane, and Hanna was kept busy too, but she needed to earn some money and have a job of her own and that's where our story really begins.......

In those days there were two wardens at Loch Leven; the RSPB warden at the Vane and the Nature Conservancy (later SNH) warden, who, just to make it all more confusing to the locals, also lived at the Vane in a bungalow 100 yards away from ours.

Gordon Wright was known as "Gordon the Warden" and was, to most people, The Warden. He moonlighted as a marksman, deerstalker and helicopter winch-man, which meant he was away a lot. He was probably a spy as well. He was absolutely dreadful at Trivial Pursuits because he literally knew all the answers. This wasn't because of his superior intelligence but more because of his misspent youth in the Royal Navy where the crew would sit in the dark watching movies for days on end. Apparently we only had a few ships so crews would take it in turns to have a go in a real boat. 

Looking to St Serf's island and Lomond Hill.
Gordon had put in a bid for a project that involved knicker elastic and sophisticated electronics. No one was more surprised than he was when the money came in and he needed a field assistant in a hurry. Hanna got the job, which meant that she spent long days out on the loch with Gordon. I wasn't thrilled about this but the upside was that I got to fish using Gordon's boat, so it was a sweet deal really, but it lead to more confusion among the locals.

The job involved catching ten female mallards who were incubating eggs on St Serf's Island and then fitting them with radio transmitters. The transmitters themselves were light but they were glued to a AA battery and then the whole thing was cased in Araldite to make it waterproof. A few inches of wire aerial poked out of the end. Falconers used similar kit, sewn into the tails of peregrines so that they could be tracked if they went AWOL, but that wouldn't work with a duck so the transmitter was attached to the bird's back using knicker elastic that went in loops around the wings, like a backward bra. It worked a treat. Hanna would follow the ducks with their ducklings around all day using a receiver. 

At the same time there was another project. Two researchers called Jim and Rosie Green used the same kit to track an otter that they released onto the Loch. At first it was kept in a pen so that it could get used to the outdoors and the neighbourhood while still being cared for. Hanna had to feed it a large live eel every day. but one of the eels was really quite aggressive towards Hanna and so he succeed in surviving until the last feed.

The otter was tracked for night after night and then it was lost. Jim and Rosie searched high and low and eventually picked up the signal again in a reed-bed. The trouble was that it wasn't moving. They decided to go in after it and found one of Hanna's transmitters. It looked like the radio tracked otter had eaten of of Hanna's radio tracked ducks.

Tracking ducks.
Fishermen thought they were being spied on
 or Hanna was being paid to watch TV.
The result of Hanna's project was that, from ten broods totalling about 100 ducklings, not a single one survived. Loch Leven held a lot of wildfowl in winter but probably didn't add many ducks to the breeding population in Scotland.

One day, Hanna was in the post office at Kinross. If you are not British, you need to know that our post offices are world class when it comes to organising a long queue and Kinross was possibly top of the league at the time. If the queue wasn't growing long enough, they would shut a hatch and combine the queues that they already had (pretty much like the immigration section at the airport.) Rather than create a riot, like it would in most countries, the post office queue became the town's social hub and information exchange; a gossip shop.

Hanna was cashing a postal order and was asked for her address. The Vane.

"Ah, so you are the warden's new wife?"
"No, I'm the new warden's wife!"


* Sorry about this Trish, I can't get the tune out of my head. I probably owe Queen royalties for plagiarising Bohemian Rhapsody.



Vane Farm, Interview.

Luxury in the Soft South. at Arundel.
I think it was 1984. Hanna and I both worked at the Wildfowl Trust's centre on the English south coast at Arundel. We were recently married and immensely happy there but we were hungry for another adventure.

I think the invitation to apply for the post of Warden at the RSPB's reserve on Loch Leven came from David Elcombe (the Head of Education) because we had been working closely with his education officers in Shoreham; first with Peter Martin (who went on to greater things with the WWF) and then Ken Smith who, much later, worked again with me in RSPB's international department where he covered our West African partners while I mirrored his work in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Anyway, I was very flattered, and I had a love affair with Scotland because my Dad was from Duddingston, in Edinburgh. It would be like going home, or so I thought.

We broke the 500 mile journey by stopping off at Richmond in Yorkshire; a place I knew well because it was close to my mother's home in Swaledale, but it turned out to also be the home town of the resident warden at Vane Farm, Graham Burton.

By another happy coincidence, the pub we were staying in hosted the local folk club, and this was club night.  We had a wonderful evening of sharing songs that we wrongly thought no-one else knew and went to bed very late and rather drunk due to generous portions of Old Peculiar.

 
It took us a whole day to travel from Richmond to Kinross because we were totally fed up with the Great North Road. Our old Citroen crawled up through Arkengarthdale and over the tops to the Tees at Barnard Castle, then up many very minor roads until we hit Offa's Dyke.  The summertime heather moors were filled with grrranking grouse and trilling curlews as we headed further into the border country. Red grouse chicks tottered across the road in front of us while their concerned parents cried out to us to stop.
Grouse with chicks.

The whole day was a delight of discovery,  only marred when we arrived at a dark and rainy Kinross to find that the B+B we had booked (garden full of gnomes) decided they didn't like the look of us, thank you very much!

The young lassies on duty at the Green Hotel welcomed us in an efficient but impersonal, tartanley corporate sort of way, but we were exhausted and didn't care. Years later we would be curling on their indoor ice-rink.

Due to our less than cool welcome and the fact that the place was socked in with grey cloud, we went to the interview with the opinion that we didn't need this job and (disappointingly) didn't particularly want it either.

My first impression of RSPB Vane Farm wasn't great; a bleak stone fortress overlooking the south shore of a grey lowland loch. Later I would learn that the locals called it "Fort Knox." Then came the rather enjoyable interview process whereby the candidates were herded together through a series of "sniff-tests" so that both the local staff and the high-heed-yans from Edinburgh could decide who they liked and who they didn't. I say "enjoyable" because I was along for the ride and had already decided that I didn't really want the job.
Fort Knox.

All of the candidates were out to impress the panel and so we didn't really form any bond with each other. I later realised that there were some candidates who already worked for RSPB in Scotland and would become colleagues of mine. One nervous candidate pointedly asked Graham if they still had the midge Chironomus plumosus in the loch. Graham replied "I never really needed to ask". That's because he was a cricketer and not an angler. The big hairy midge comes off the loch in millions and is known to anglers as the "Blea and Black." Of course I didn't know that at the time either, but I thought that perhaps I should. Maybe I hadn't done enough homework?

Graham the warden, David Elcome and John Hunt interviewed me. There were some hard questions and I put my foot in it a couple of times. I slagged off the rather grim architecture of lowland Scotland to John Hunt, an ex submariner who was head of reserves. He told me I would grow fond of it, which I did. I grew fond of him too, but he was always a bit distant, as officers tend to be.

Of course you know how it turned out, but I had no idea.

Graham offered us a bed for the night in the warden's bungalow which was attached to the farm buildings. We had no plans and so we accepted. Rather cleverly, Gramam sent us out for the evening to explore the best bits of the neighbourhood, recommending a restaurant in the ancient town of St Andrews. You may know it as the birthplace of golf, but there is much more to it than that. There's a cathedral, university and many ancient and amazingly intact buildings. The town stands on a rocky promontory that projects into the North Sea, on the south side of the Eden Estuary where the birdwatching is outstanding.

The East Neuk of Fife was new to us. What is a Neuk anyway? It sounds Dutch. By coincidence, Hanna speaks Dutch because her Dad is from the Netherlands. She later explained to me what a Neuk is in Dutch. Neukje is the origin of the word Nookie in English so work it out for yourself!

We arrived in St. Andrews after the shops closed and before the restaurant opened, so took a stroll and found a narrow medieval lane with a few specialist shops, including a second-hand bookshop that had some bird books in the window. My eye was caught by a thick anthology of  classic ornithological texts, edited by the great American bird man, Roger Tory Peterson. I had to have it, but the shop was closed and no-one answered when I rang the bell. We put a note through the door saying we were interested but explaining that we were on our way back to Sussex. The book arrived with us at Arundel a few days later. I still treasure it.
The view from the Vane.

Being 500 miles or more further north than Arundel, the summer evenings are long and at nine pm the sun shone brighter than it had all day. We had a lovely drive back to Loch Leven along the Fife coast, popping in at little fishing villages and sandy bays. This coast was ten times more attractive than Littlehampton beach.

It was still light when we got back to the reserve where Graham met us with the news that the job was mine if I wanted it. I said we still were not sure, but we would sleep on it. As he was talking I looked over his shoulder and was amazed to see a small but steep mountain rising behind the house (it's known as the Sleeping Giant.) Now that the clouds had lifted I could see that there was some serious scenery to be had and we decided to take a closer look by climbing the trail to the top. It was a revelation. Looking north across the loch and the surrounding hills we could see the tops of proper mountains up around Loch Tay and beyond. It was a view that we fell in love with straight away.

Deal done then. What the heck! We would take the job.