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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

MARCH - "I'd like to sow the barren spots with all the flowers of earth, To leave a path where those who come should find but gentle mirth" - Edgar Guest

First day of Spring (sunrise)

First day of Spring (sunset)

The fickle nature of March is displaying itself clearly today. We've had a white-over frost, some bright blue skies and glorious sunshine, and now the wind is rocking the fir tree against a heavy grey sky with rain-bearing clouds. And here comes the rain!

So, we won't be getting out the lawn-mower after all!

Gardening in March is a bit touch-and-go really. I can never know that I will finish what I start. I come to terms with the rain, though, by telling myself that whatever I've just done in the garden, it will surely benefit from a good soaking.

March Crocus

On the first day of the month, the morning was deliciously spring-like with new lambs in the fields between Westfield and Thurso, crocus and celandine flowering by Thurso River and even a dandelion shining like the sun on the pathside. The afternoon was lovely too but, as the day wore on, the temperature dropped and we had a frost before bedtime. 

March celandine

South-easterlies didn't clear the frost for the next morning's walk but the gorse had more flowers and our resident pheasant called us home like a siren.

"The periwinkle trailed its wreaths, And 'tis my faith that every flower Enjoys the air it breathes" 
Those who regularly read these blogs will remember my little collection of diaries written by an agricultural worker in nineteenth century North Lincolnshire. I've been looking at his entries for March 1896 and was reminded of how cold the east of England can be at this time of the year. On 2nd March, 1896, George writes that the snow was a foot thick, "Master was ill, did things at home, blowing and snowing all day, cold." All of the first half of that month was cold or wintry. He spent it leading hedge roots, fetching coals from Blyton, pig-killing and leading manure. By the end of March he was ploughing and fetching mangolds. In the garden, he was setting shallots. By the end of the month, here at Stempster, Judith, who is our Lady of Shallots, will, weather and time permitting, get the shallots set for 2022. Judith does the pickling at the other end of their season too. I'm so pleased about that!

One hundred and thirty years ago this month, in 1892, George did some gardening too.
Thursday 24th got 8 rows of potatoes set in garden
Friday 25th planted first row of peas
Monday 28th set cucumber frame down

I'm wondering whether we will keep up! So far Clemency has planted mint, asparagus, garlic, rhubarb, a blackberry/bramble, gooseberries and blackcurrant bushes. She and Judith planted shallots today (19th March - so well before the end of the month!). The potatoes are waiting in little bags in the porch.

Most of the garden, apart from the cottage garden at the back, will be on hold until the food crops are in - but progress is being made with the shrubbery. Clemency has planted skimmia, dogwood, hypericum and tamarix. She's also moved some bluebells over from where she's been digging for the new hedgerow. 

We are all of one mind as regards prioritising food crops. Fresh food choice is limited in the shops and the prices of everything seem to be rising so we aren't going to waste time - we are growing our own. Because I had our town garden as full as was possible with trees, shrubs and flowers, Clem and Judith had an allotment until last year - but now, here in rural west Caithness, we have plenty of space for all kinds of things.

Pussy willow

The cottage garden is taking shape. I'm working with what I already have here. So the trees and shrubs around three edges are going to stay, and here I will encourage wild flowers to grow amongst them. There are daffodils planted in front of the three lines. The Swedish Whitebeam is the crowning glory of all the trees in the little cottage garden area. It's a lovely specimen all through the year and, even in winter, its shape is very pleasing and classically deciduous - if you know what I mean! It grows to 12 metres and I think ours must be well on its way. I haven't measured it - of course! - but my guess is that it's getting close to that. 

At one end of the cottage garden, I've planted two bamboo and some carex sedges with dog roses. I won't cut that part so that it will be semi-wild. I've put in a eucalyptus between this area and the stand-alone forsythia which now houses a teapot with an invitation for Bob Robin to nest there. This morning I wedged the remaining plum pudding in the branches. (I found the pud at the back of the fridge last night!)

Between this and the tall wall separating the little cottage garden from the  kitchen garden, I've cut out a shaped bed and planted a number of my favourite old-fashioned plants. In front of the high wall is a line of spiraea. It always reminds me of my home in the Isle of Axholme as it grew wild in places there - back in the day! It grew by the side of a tiny pond close to our house. Its name was "Wire Pond". I never knew why. 

I've cut back the spiraea with the intention of thickening it and thereby creating further nesting sites for the birds. It will grow tall again but I'm hoping it will grow together too. There is a significant gap in the middle and I have a solution for that!  A couple of days ago I was emptying large pots which we brought from Wick and I found a little cotoneaster seedling. Knowing how quickly that type of cotoneaster grows here, I decided to plant it between the two stretches of spiraea. 

By the path edge there, I've dug out a circle into which I've placed the hydrangea which was given to us last summer by our friend as a housewarming gift. I love hydrangeas and I'm quite sentimental about plants so the fact that my dad loved them is never forgotten. When Mum and Dad built Branscombe Lodge down Belshaw Lane in Belton, they had a hydrangea planted by the front door. We inherited one here at Stempster - growing by the summer house in the "wild wood". This one is blue and white and the new one is pink. (A bonus with hydrangeas is the potential for winter arrangements -  afforded by their dried flower heads.)

The cottage garden is still needing a lot of work to get to the stage where I can sit out with my early morning pot of tea without worrying about everything still to do!  As it is, as soon as the weather warms up a bit, I shall sit out with my little teapot and be thankful. Over the wall, the kitchen garden is going to be mostly raised beds and pots. Keith is very pleased with his little greenhouse in the corner. Let's hope it doesn't blow away like the one I bought for his eightieth birthday, when we were living in Wick on the other side of the county, a couple of years ago!

Daffies on the Roadside with Caithness Flagstones

The daffodils are opening up on the roadside. We've had welcome sunshine since the start of springtime at the beginning of this week. The sunshine opens up flowers and hearts!
We inherited a collection of willows on one side of the drive and, not far from those, we've planted out a Western Hemlock which was tired of being in a sink. It's looking good - so far! They can live for up to five hundred years so a good many people will enjoy its pretty leaves over time. 

Remembering Ukraine

On the other side of the wall we have planted another eucalyptus. I think this will form more of a bush than the eucalyptus I planted in the cottage garden. We're all hoping that it will keep the flies away. 

The flies do encourage aerial wildlife though. I'm looking forward to welcoming the swallows and martins back next month - and last night we had our evening meal in the conservatory - first time it has been properly tidy since we moved in last summer - and we saw bats! 

The skies are busy like railway lines where they all come together at a busy junction. Gulls move between fields recently spread with slurry. They criss-cross with rooks flitting from their treetop-township to a faraway field. Small flocks of goldfinches fly up and down and in and out of trees, then over our garden wall briefly before leaving in disgust at the possibility of sharing with the blue tits, cole tits and great tits. Skeins of geese are still overhead shouting their orders from one to the other - if I were one of them I would be the straggler at the back and flying slightly off course!

The curlews are burbling around us and the skylarks are giving it everything they've got to outdo them! In the last few days I've paused and listened to them each time I've opened the kitchen door to collect something from the adjacent larder.

Still bare and wintry looking towards the old farm buildings

Twice this month, when we have set off to walk down to the Forss, we have had to turn round and walk to the wind farm instead. One morning, 8th March, we soon realised that the wind was too strong (and literally breath-taking) to combine with the walk back up the hill. The other time was when a hare shot out from the field margin exciting the dogs far too much! Ginny and I thought it had gone but it hadn't! It came back and zig-zagged in front of us - causing pandemonium! Imagine two spaniels, on long leads, provoked by a hare, about to go down a relatively steep incline. I wish I was made of stronger stuff!!

And this little anecdote leads me to introduce you to Jess! Until 5th March we were a one dog household. On that day the sweetest little girl-dog came to live with us and to make this her forever home. Jess will soon be four years old and she has had a very happy life with Anna, Kate, Roddy and their parents. It has been discovered, however, that if poor little Roddy is to enjoy good health, he should not live with a dog like Jess. Their other dog is a labradoodle and so Roddy is fine around him. It has been a terrible wrench for the family to say goodbye to Jess but she is a most welcome addition to Stempster. She is a wonderful blend of friendly, loving and impish! She does, however, have a predilection for chewing sticks, branches - and the lens cap from Keith's telescope! We're working on it!

Our Little Jess

And March is a good time to set to work on anything!

 "No joyless forms shall regulate
Our living Calendar:
We from to-day, my friend, will date
The opening of the year."

- William Wordsworth

Post Script!  The plum pud was a BAD idea!  Although the cottage garden is gated off to the dogs, the gate came down and Orlando seized the opportunity and the remaining Christmas pudding which had fallen from the forsythia. D.S.McGregor and Partners, Thurso (The Highland Vet TV series) was called and Orlando was seen as an emergency patient. As I type, we are watching, waiting and hoping he has come out of it unscathed!


  1. A triumph, as always, Susan. Thank you for sharing your Nature tales of Stempster. Love them xxx


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