OCTOBER - "O HUSHED OCTOBER MORNING MILD, BEGIN THE HOURS OF THIS DAY SLOW" - ROBERT FROST

October - with two full moons in the month. And one of them due on Hallowe'en. That only happens once in a blue moon! We had perfect weather at the beginning for part of the allotment harvest - including the celery and some of the potatoes - and another fat bunch of sweet peas. The celery was good and some of it's now frozen as soup. With the addition of a little white wine and a good dollop of cream, it will be presented as part of Christmas dinner. Those sweet peas will be the last for this year - and the yet the scent was still powerful. Monty Don sows his sweet pea seeds around mid-October so that he gets an early display. I love the idea but I'm not convinced it will work in Caithness. We have some great gardens in Caithness but we really do have to battle with the conditions. When the Queen Mother bought and mended the Castle of Mey in 1952, she had the gardens planted to fit the conditions here. Having spent, in total, over twenty years creating and tending gardens in the far north, I am so well aware of the need for shelter. The plants which grow in the castle garden are sheltered from the winds by stone walls. They are also sheltered by each other, the taller plants protecting the short ones. It's a clever system and the plant types are either native or known to flourish in similar conditions in other parts of the world. The Castle of Mey Gardens are both romantic and full of happy little surprises. I find them quite inspirational.

Because there are few flowers suitable for cutting now, I've bought some scented candles - lily of the valley, orange spice and frankincense. Soon the Christmas candles will be filling the shelves. The year, in spite of everything, has moved so quickly.


Our October holiday really is happening! We missed out at Easter and then again in Summer - we legally couldn't in spring and sensibly shouldn't in summer - but we packed the cars - with all the food, lots of cleaning products and all manner of reading matter, crafting materials and new DVDs and clothes to last the week - and drove south to one of my favourite parts of Scotland. Last Saturday's journey was barely broken and, when necessity intervened, serious precautions and remedial actions were taken!

The week is being spent in Aldclune, just a short walk from the mass grave of officers killed in the Battle of Killiecrankie (Rinrory) on 27th July, 1689. It was a terrible loss of life. The government forces were cleverly defeated by the Scots and the Irish - but their leader, Viscount Dundee, after leading his men to victory, died of his wounds in a nearby field. Legend has it that he died propped against a neolithic stone which has since been named "The Claverhouse Stone" in his honour. We were at the Killiecrankie Visitor Centre on that date in 2007 and saw Ronnie Browne of Corries fame
"An ye had been whare I hae been, ye wad na been sae cantie O!"

This year, on a mild October morning, we stood between the forces of Mackay and those of Bonnie Dundee and sensed the courage and the fear on both sides. And we still wonder. Will humankind ever come to realise that destroying each other genuinely never solved any problem? One can hope!

The area is teeming with wildlife and autumn glories and multi-layered spirituality. Dog walks are sometimes challenging but always rewarding. Orlando senses things. We need to take notice of his hunches - otherwise we miss something wonderful - such as the bats flitting in and out of trees and bridges and getting up close, the pheasants looking down at his lordship from on high, "hahaha, heeheehee, you can't catch me - I'm sitting in a tree!" or the dark, friendly pony mistaken momentarily for the Shuck!

We are walking in the area and trying not to meet anyone. At times we do meet a person or several and then we step back or we turn our backs, depending on the suitability of the pathway. Waves, smiles and brief greetings are important right now - at the right distance! Apart from the local walks and the occasional road trip to take in favourite views, we are staying in the cottage with time for our hobbies.


The books I've chosen to have with me on this holiday are quite a different bundle from my regular holiday reading. This wasn't intentional. I collected a few, put them in a bag and, when I came to look through them in the cottage, I realised that there are absolutely no novels. I normally bring too many to read. In my bag, on this holiday, I have identification guides, I have poetry collections and I have someone else's diary. This last one is a treasured gift and is unique. It's a series of pages, hand-written by an agricultural worker from Lincolnshire. They have been stitched together and make up a diary covering the years from 1886 -1896. I am still learning from it.

I would like to share two of the poetry books with you - because they must surely be for all ages and all times. William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience (Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul)" is a jewel of an artwork - both its words and its illustrations. Yeats said of it, "Every page is a window open in Heaven". I can't say better than that! My edition was first published in 2006 by Tate Publishing in association with the William Blake Trust. The second poetry book is newly published this year, by Hamish Hamilton, and is written by Robert Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris. Its title is "The Lost Spells" and it's a "little sister" to the hugely successful book, "The Lost Words". Both the Blake and the Macfarlane/Morris offer inspiration for small children and grown-ups alike. They are food for thought for all.

There is singing from the kitchen while lunch miraculously prepares itself. Next to me, robins, holly and Christmas trees are being embroidered. By the light from the window, the illustrations are coming together for a children's book about the natural world. Father is reading. The lunch-maker prepared well for this holiday. She spent Friday in the kitchen making treats while her sisters shopped so that we need not go out into civilisation, thereby staying safe from "The Covid" - as it's often referred to in Caithness. 
We weren't sure we'd be able to come to Perthshire. We've been following the updates and instructions and - here we are!



The burn runs along the front edge of the property and a topaz tapestry is hung outside every window. The trees which grow around us are such a mix of characters. Some are visibly shaking their shoulders to be rid of their leaves. Others are stoicly waiting. At the back of the cottage and up the steep slope, trees peer down at us, barely whispering their histories and secrets. One of them has a gaping hole just beneath its pollarded parts - a wide thing with tentacles to form a trunk. What lives there, I wonder? If nothing lives there, then there is surely shelter for all the small things running in fear - "little things that run and quail".
No timid beastie, this burn! It tumbles excitedly over rocks, lapping the bank sides and watering the low shrubs which grow there. Copious quantities of rain in the night fill it past the tumbling state and into heaving mode. The noise drowns out all other sound. A fruiting snow berry nervously overhangs and provides a perch for the robin. He follows us everywhere. He came to say "safe journey" before we left home and he was here ahead of us to offer a welcome. He watched from his vantage point as the first arrivals cleaned everything to ensure no virus lurked in corners. They need a break. They go to school each day knowing, no matter how much they care and how much care they take, they may pick up the virus and bring it home with them in the evening.

The stress of school staff right now is horrible. They continued to do their jobs, teachers working online, through lockdown and, in Scotland, their Autumn Term began four days ahead of schedule. The expectation is that they will get back three of those days at the beginning of Summer 2021. A word about teachers' holidays - they aren't all holidays! Much of that time out of school is spent in research and in planning and organising. In this strange new world of ours, there is yet more to find out about. How does the pandemic affect the children - educationally, psychologically and socially? What can school staff do to support their classes in these peculiar times? Would you want your kids to be taught by someone who is unprepared? Neither would I. This week's break in Perthshire is designed to refresh and inspire three teachers (and two retired teachers).

The colouring of the burn is an intense shade of Scottish hillside - topped with white elderflower-like froth. It dances away under the ancient stone bridge to tell tales of the strange family-group staying in the cottage. But there is more to come! As the water picks up speed, it heads on through other gardens, other farms and other countryside, always learning as it goes, always sharing what it knows. I stand and watch the water and think what a good spot to live in days gone by - water from the hillside for all household purposes. There are some perfectly placed flat stones in the burn. They look as if they have been there for all time - and for all washerwomen. I can picture Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle with her skirts tucked up, her basket of laundry on the bank, and a good fire waiting in the cottage fireplace for airing the washing. There she is, beating a bed sheet to within an inch of its life!




Life is quite different. I have no signal. It might be nice to imagine living here in an other time - a time when the internet had not yet entered our lives. But this isn't possible because, for this week, we have no work. It's an artificial situation really. The people in the old photograph on the kitchen wall would have worked constantly in order to remain here, strong and healthy. I doubt they were able to enjoy even a weekend away. They appear to take the photographer in their collective stride as they pose by the front door with the ancestors of present flora framing the little family. There is no man in the picture. Perhaps he was too suspicious of those new contraptions to pose with the group. Perhaps he had passed on. If so, I'm fairly sure the others very quickly realised that he was never far away.

For many of us, as we come up to Hallowe'en, on the 31st of this month, our ancestors and those we love and who have loved us but have left us here, are especially significant in our thoughts. Hallowe'en has been altered. There is deep meaning to this important time of the ebbing year. We hollow out our pumpkins or our swedes and burn candles in them. We dress up as ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggity beasties. We, except for this year of Covid19, offer sweeties to potential tricksters to keep them from their dastardly deeds - but the depth to Hallowe'en is ebbing like the year. It is its own time. There's nothing satanic about Hallowe'en unless it is of our own making. Quite the reverse really! It's the night before All Saints' Day which is the night before All Souls' Day. In Mexico, Dias de los Muertos lasts for several days and Mexican people commemorate the dead with careful categorisation - children who have died will be remembered together, murder victims and so on. Any culture which respectfully remembers its dead is likely to be in a healthy state of development - not necessarily politically or economically but culturally. It's sad that our culture has distorted Hallowe'en. Does it matter that the stories of the saints are of another era? Why is it uncomfortable to think on those who have gone before us? A memory of a late grandparent is worth countless fun-size chocolate bars. A hunger for knowledge of good people who fought against cruelty and unfairness is so much more worthy than a thirst for the macabre! The sense of continued presence after death should not be something to fear. Rather, it calls for celebration! From the carnival that is Dias de los Muertos in Mexico to the kneebones, graveyard trifle and dustbread biscuits - the original and best! - washed down with Hallowe'en punch, at number 53, this is a good time to enjoy our memories. Like the family in the photograph at the front door of the cottage, we know our loved ones never really left us.

A new day and the sound of a machine accompanies my early morning drink. Orlando is not keen but I've explained to him that, although he's on holiday, other folk have to carry on regardless! We take him out after breakfast and he is already displaying signs of belonging here. He does that. I always wonder what he feels when we leave for home at the end of the holiday. He will be very excited when he returns to his own garden - there will be lots of new smells. But that will be next weekend. For now, Orlando fits well in this Spaniel Country with its birds to flush and deer to chase. Never gets up close though! Earlier we had to make sure he didn't get up close and chummy with a great tit which had fallen down the chimney of the cottage and was staring cheekily at us through the glass front of the stove. The fat little critter had landed on the grate - fortunately we hadn't lit a fire in there. It was a great relief when, after fastening Orlando well away from the sitting room, the stove was opened and our feathered friend shot, like an arrow, through to the front door and out into freedom and safety. We're not inclined to light the stove now!

I hope our new friend joins the nuthatch on the bird table. We have shared our muesli and, this being our holiday, the muesli is a bit superior to our normal stuff! If they don't eat it, I've a feeling the red squirrel might. The one who has been visiting is the biggest I've ever seen. Mostly they appear dainty and quite easy to miss if you blink, but this one is something else. I'm wondering if it has been eating Autumn's offerings like there is no tomorrow! There is so much on offer for all comers in this bountiful and benevolent countryside of ours. Our own hoard is of longish feathers for a Christmas wreath.

Between the five of us, this week, we've seen a variety of birds. Our uninvited great tit was by far and away the most feisty, but the goldcrests, spotted on our way back from Saint Bride's Kirk, came a close second as they threaded their way in and out of a healthy elm tree which was richly dressed for Autumn. The heron reminded us that we are never far from our roots. In the Isle of Axholme, we used to see them lined up along the banks, keeping a respectful distance from the other fishermen there. Not far from the River Garry, a bejewelled jay flew ahead of an enormous flock of long-tailed tits. I always think the long-tailed tits look like tiny badgers with streamers behind! And we were delighted to make the aquaintance of the nuthatch. I'm expecting the pheasants will provide an escort as we head northwards and home. 
Bob Robin will probably get an early start and make it back before we do!


Perthshire in October is stunningly beautiful. You don't need to leave the main roads to appreciate its beauty - but, if you go just a little way from the hurly burly, you become totally absorbed in the splendid spectacle. The colourwash of Autumn bathes you and uplifts you to a state of wonder, of gratitude and of peace. It's difficult to believe that anyone who passes through this flagship artwork of Nature can feel anger - or anything other than generosity of spirit. Even the fading flowers, dotted here and there in roadside gardens, are reluctant to let go. It's as if they know that they are in the presence of true majesty and they cannot bear to beg leave. The tallest trees, the striking shrubs, the bronzed bracken and multiple paper-like seed heads join the weirdly shaped fungi - sometimes growing in the most unexpected of places - in boosting our memories of the year that is slowly slipping away. It slips, yes, but not without a promise. From the underside of falling leaves on trees to the tiny rosettes in the broken soil, there is evidence of what will come next spring. That sense of continued presence is definitely not something to fear - nor to dismiss as we move into the darker days of late Autumn.

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Susan Crow is the author of 2020 new release "Child of the Earth" - a sensitive but practical look at the natural world. It would make a perfect Christmas gift for someone with a love of nature.
Her latest children's book "Rosie Jane's Christmas Carol" is a delightful story in rhyme. It is being released on 2nd November. This book is the 2nd Rosie-Jane book after the successful "Rosie-Jane and the Swodgerump". Both books are written by Susan Crow, illustrated by Virginia Crow, and published by Crowvus.

If you are interested in Susan's or more Crowvus books, then check out their website here:

Comments

  1. Good morning Susan. Your October is inspired and inspirational. I loved the sight, scent and sound threads you wove into an eloquent and rich visual tapestry. Not forgetting the photographer too. Thank you for sharing your family sojourn in Perthshire.

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