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May "ADOPT THE PACE OF NATURE: HER SECRET IS PATIENCE" (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Bluebells The cuckoos and swallows have arrived at Stempster House - so Summer is on its way! The cuckoo was first heard here on Thursday, 28th April when I was pegging out the washing. I was on my own and everyone believed I had heard it but I still wanted someone else to hear it too. Judith saw one first - in the windfarm woodland - but then the others heard them too. It's a wonderful sound from what amounts to a bit of a terrorist really! Ginny and Judith spotted the first swallows the day before I heard the cuckoo - on the 27th April. They were circling around the farm buildings next door and, since then, they have filled our skies - in sunshine and in rain. There are thousands of tiny insects for the swallows and martins - and we are rather grateful that they are so hungry! (I'm thinking of dangling corks from my sun hat!) This morning Ginny and Clem walked through a flight of swallows as they took Orlando and Jess down to the river. It was on the corner by the broch where

FEBRUARY - "Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings." Ralph Waldo Emerson

So much to remember! So much to hope for!

Rain incoming

February Fill-Dyke! That's what we used to call this month in North Lincolnshire and, overnight, it has lived up to its name here in West Caithness. For a few days we've seen pictures of terrible flooding in the south but, until today, we've not really been affected. Fortunately, for us, we have had no flood damage - and we're on a hillside so that's a good thing - but the lane and our little road, the burns and the river, the hitherto almost-dried-up pond by the farm and all dipping corners of the fields around us are holding considerable volumes of water. The forecast for tonight is 0 degrees. Not good!

February Fill-Dyke

I think back to harvesting winter vegetables in Lincolnshire and I shiver at the thought. Mud, mud, glorious mud! Not so glorious for non-hippopotamuses! Broccoli and swedes need harvesting regardless of weather and labour shortages and farmers are now needing to put fertiliser on their arable land. 

Overnight the low temperatures have combined with snow to leave a perilous winter wonderland around us. I sit back in my chair to check on my feathered friends through the window and we now have a blizzard! The shelter afforded by the house makes it possible for siskins, sparrows, great tits, coal tits and chaffinches to continue taking the nuts and the seeds. Keith has been out in his balaclava to refill the feeders. Orlando is back from his walk with two of his humans. It was probably a tough one as the three of them look exhausted! Winter walks can be beautiful but we are earnestly seeking Spring here now!

Spot the dog!

On the first day of the month, when the sea was white and frothy, we saw snowdrops in flower at Castletown. Just over a week later, my cousin and friend emailed a beautiful photo of the snowdrops flowering in the churchyard of Saint Andrew's, Epworth. The image stays with me and I'm so grateful that she keeps me updated with the natural history of the Isle. The stone of the church behind the pure white of snowdrop flowers and vibrant green of their leaves sets the February scene perfectly. So deep in the dark days of Winter yet full of the newness and virtue of Spring.

And the memories!

One snowy February afternoon we took anything we could sit on and toboganned downhill from Saint Andrew's to Belton Road. That was in the days before there was a garden centre at the bottom of the hill. Makes me sore to think about it now! My first chilblains!

Stempster snowdrops

When we found snowdrops in the garden here, we were delighted. This is our first winter at Stempster and it has been a learning curve! We now have a much better idea about what needs to be done and when. Some things need doing urgently, others not-so-much. The garden has given us nothing but pleasure. It needs a great deal of work - the house had not been lived in for quite some time before we moved in - but, whether wild or tame, the garden is full of life. The snowdrops and delicate crocus are treasure-trove. Visitors, both nocturnal and diurnal, have become our family. The buds-in-waiting are our hope - as are the hundreds of bluebell leaves pushing through beneath the trees - way ahead of their time to bloom. 
Since I see them between Christmas and Lent each year, I'm not sure whether  to call them Christmas roses or Lenten roses, but Westerlea, by Wick River, has a magnificent patch of hellebores. I'm not well-up on hellebores. As I understand it, Helleborus Niger is the Christmas Rose and Helleborus Orientalis is the Lenten Rose. Westerlea's head gardener, chief cook and bottle washer, has promised me some for Stempster - and, thankfully, she reads these blogs!!

One thing we've had more of this year than while we were living in Wick, is thunder and lightning. At the beginning of this month, we were setting off for our walk towards the windfarm when there was a loud clap of thunder. We did an about turn! I'm not afraid of thunder and lightning but common-sense dictates it is safer not to be in open country when there is an electrical storm. My granny hated thunder and lightning and, if she was alone, she would close herself in the cupboard, under the stairs of the cottage on Belshaw Lane, where she felt safer. When I was small, people used to open two doors or windows - one at each side of the house. This was so that the lightning  bolt would go in one way and quickly find its way out by the other opening. There has been so much grumbling from the clouds recently that we now account for every unidentified sound as thunder.

Winter Jasmine

Henny the hen harrier is always around, keeping her eye on things. I'm not sure she notices the winter jasmine flowering in the garden, or the first flowers of the year on the gorse up the hill, but I like to think she does.

The roe deer wake up and play in the little woodland when we are all asleep. We catch them on the trail camera and try to understand their family dynamic. Sometimes they're joined by Watt the hare who comes through the old metal gate while the deer family easily jump the flagstone wall a little further down.




On the day that Storm Dudley raged further south, we spotted what we later identified as badger droppings. Ginny pointed out some, very close by, which she had noticed a few days earlier. We were fortunate, in the far north, to miss those early storms. That day was fair and I photographed the poo, looked up "animal droppings in wintertime" on the internet, got out my identification guide to tracks and signs and deliberated. "Badger" was definitely the best fit. The following day we found more of the poo and I took more photos. Badgers have latrines where they regularly defecate and it looks as if we have found one such. That day we had everything thrown at us - rain, sleet, snow, wind, sunshine, thunder and lightning. Even so, the birds were getting more and more vocal - and colourful. Two days later, Ginny found an animal footprint in the snow. In my diary I wrote "unsure what it is" - which is true - but it is as likely a badger's as anything else we know to be around our home. 

February rainbow

The geese are moving in larger numbers at present and they make quite a noise when flying overhead. Sometimes we see them grazing the field  down the hill towards the Forss. There never seem to be as many in the field as fly over us. I recently read that tame geese can be plucked up to three times a year and their down used for stuffing quilts. This came as a surprise because all the people I know who have kept geese preferred to keep their distance! It's believed that the domestic goose is descended from the Asian greylag. I had no idea.

One grey morning, walking homewards, we watched a hare run across the track, through the stock fence and pelt like something from a catapult across the sheep field. I can't remember ever seeing one move quite that fast before. Such power in those legs!

Ice patterns

There are lots of reasons to enjoy a walk in the late winter but Clemency and I were surprised on Tuesday when we could smell Summer. We'd gone a little bit further than my usual distance - although she and her sisters cover more mileage as their norm - and turned off, taking a different track. On the way down the track we were genuinely puzzled and then, as we came back up, we spotted a manger which had dry hay in it. The smell was intense as we passed by and I think we would both have liked to stand on the spot and inhale that amazing reminder of summer meadows. But it was bitterly cold so we didn't hang around!
The countryside has its peculiar smells - some of them much nicer than others!

Blue sky thinking

You don't have to go far to experience one of the most intoxicating perfumes you will ever know. In the garden, where new greenery is sprouting in the damp earth, the smell is heavenly and quite unlike anything else.

Yellow on the gorse

In spite of the weather, we have managed to do some gardening and I have even planted some old favourites in the garden at the back, through the kitchen door. This is going to be my garden to have as I would like it and I would like it to be a cottage garden so I've planted lupins, iris, peonies, roses . . . I also found, online, a nursery growing, amongst its other fuchsias, "Natasha Sinton", which I have loved for a very long time but have been unable to find up here. I bought some plug plants and there are now two in the garden and three in pots.  They've joined the lilac and the bird bath on the stand. Fingers crossed! Since Christmas, when I bought it as a gift to all our animal and bird friends, we have had another bird bath sitting on the step to the conservatory. It doesn't have a plinth so that all comers can access water without a problem.  Orlando loves it!

"There is always in February some one day, at least, when one smells the yet distant, but surely coming summer."   Gertrude Jekyll

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