Thursday, 30 May 2013

Flora, fungi and friends - three fabulous "F" words

The daffodils are fading but still so pretty in the evening sun
It’s the yellow time of year again – I wish I was referring to that glorious golden sphere that occasionally deigns to grace the skies above, but I’m actually referring to the local flora. For just as the daffodils are finally fading, an army of dandelion plants and gorse bushes have sprung into action along the verges and hedgerows of rural central Scotland. And soon, no doubt, the fields of oilseed rape (think Summer Harvest Oils!) will be bursting into flower, too – adding yet more yellow to the scenery. If all this were not sufficient, we even have a yellow house next door to us (which happens to be for sale at the moment, if anyone fancies a move to this lovely part of the world – the neighbours are, it goes without saying, exceptionally nice...).

On dull days, the dandelions add a welcome splash of light
Yet more yellow: the gorse in full bloom
Even the neighbouring house is yellow!
In other news, eager to boost the extremely modest weight loss achieved to date by following the 5:2 diet, Yours Truly has been going swimming (not a favourite pastime, but desperation is a hard taskmaster!) and even out for the odd (very odd if you saw my running action...) jog. One benefit of such sorties is the chance to admire, at close quarters, the stunning area in which we live – as you’ll see from the photos below, not all of it is yellow!

Scenery like this almost makes jogging worthwhile

Jog past this tree regularly and find the fungi fascinating!
Further opportunities to admire the scenery have taken the form of “revision” walks, during which I have been accompanied by Son+Heir on his skateboard. It being exam time and said student’s ADD meaning that he finds it easier to study while moving, this is about the only way any meaningful revision can be achieved. So the neighbours have become familiar with the sight of grumpy mum clutching revision guide and simmering son practising “skateboard skills” while trying to recall quotes and themes from various Scottish contemporary plays. During this dramatic process, Yours Truly is not allowed to put even the faintest hint of “expression” into her cues (heaven forfend), yet if they are read too monotonously, that is not acceptable either... The skies of Kinross-shire have certainly been blue on a few evenings of late (metaphorically, if not literally).

A welcome escape from stresses on the filial front came in the form of an invitation to have supper at a good friend’s house along with a mutual friend of ours who is just back from three years in the Far East. There was, of course, a serious amount of catching up to be done, but I don’t think any of us had appreciated just quite how much... Suffice to say, the three of us began talking at 7.30p.m. on the Wednesday and only stopped when I received a text on my phone – it was from Son+Heir enquiring “are you OK”?  Only then did we realise that it was 3.30a.m. on Thursday. We had talked for almost eight hours non-stop, and by the time I reached home the dawn was just beginning to break. But oh, the irony of having a teenager check up on our well-being. It proved to us beyond doubt that there’s life in us middle-aged mums yet!
Instead of flowers, I took the hostess a bunch of rhubarb!

And made some crumble back at the Sparrowholding...

Our supper hostess's new hen coop - when she saw it online,
she assumed it would be big enough to hide the shed
 behind - her measurements were only slightly out...

Monday, 20 May 2013

Words and woollies

Recycling - alternative uses for an old ice cream tub!

At long last, after many months of anticipation, the SQA Higher English exam has come and gone. The past week was characterised by myriad manic messages from tense tutees, eager for last words of wisdom (or at least comfort) via Skype, text and email about how to tame the monster that is critical essay writing or to spot rhetorical triads at fifty paces. The evenings will be strangely empty now that Yours Truly is no longer spouting forth on the different sorts of love to be found in Romeo and Juliet or extolling the imagery in innumerable Carol Ann Duffy poems.  

This year’s group of students have been a particularly intriguing mix – indeed a couple of them have astounded me with their dedication to the cause. One analysed the results of each close reading paper he completed and then calculated (in percentage terms – as only a scientist would), precisely which type of questions he was losing most marks on and thus needed to focus on when studying.  I was seriously impressed. Son+Heir may possibly have been less impressed, so for reasons of personal safety I didn’t suggest he adopt a similarly scholarly approach...

Another tutee had pinned handwritten, meticulous timetables on the back of the dining-room door, charting how every hour of study was to be allocated over the period of the exams. Even those who found English a metaphorical thorn in their side battled stoically on – one of them buoying my humour immensely at the end of a long evening by responding to my question “Now what is a benefit?” with the immortal words: “It’s a type of make-up.” But, joking apart, without exception, they’ve worked their socks off, and I feel genuinely privileged to have accompanied them all on the arduous linguistic and literary journey that ended yesterday at precisely 12.35 p.m. All we can do now is wait and see if their hard graft has resulted in the grades they deserve. Roll on the 8th August...

Of course, with the evening job having come to an abrupt end, Yours Truly will immediately have to focus on the “day job”.  And the first pressing commission is a self-imposed one: to re-write my own website. The current one was put up hastily 10 years ago when freelancing constituted but a tiny fragment of my working week. However, now that I’m writing website and marketing copy for other companies almost full time, it seems rather neglectful not to spend some hours polishing my own site. This is, therefore, to be priority no.1 for the month of June. And while I am slaving over the compelling copy, local web company Interphase Design will be doing what designers do best i.e. giving the words somewhere attractive to hang out!

Giant lamb Tufty just keeps on growing
Her mum "Auld Yin" is partial to a slice of bread
One benefit (not a blusher in sight...) of working from home during the post-lambing weeks is that I’ve been around to deal with miscreant escapee lambs – of which there have been plenty. Shetland lambs may be officially ovine on paper, but their apparent ability to collapse their skeletons and squeeze through the tiniest gaps in any fence/barricade/netting is akin to that of mice.  There are sixteen lambs in the paddock (or at least supposed to be in the paddock...), including four sets of twins. Sometimes both twins dive in to “mama’s milk bar” for a quick top-up at the same moment, and their eagerness for sustenance often results in the hindquarters of their long-suffering mums being literally lifted up into the air.
Brownie tells it as it is: raising babies is hard work!
As a mother myself, I have to confess I’ve been feeling distinctly sorry for the poor flustered ewes whose job it is to keep track of the wee dears. Yesterday I paused from typing, mid-sentence, when I saw one poor ewe squatting and attempting to relieve her bladder, but having to stop mid-stream several times because her beloved lamb thought that her lowered rear end was an invitation to jump on mum’s back. It took me right back to those Halcyon (or perhaps not!) days when, with three children under four and a husband working on the land virtually 24/7, I could barely get to go to the loo in peace.  And it reminded me there are definitely some advantages of having grown-up kids!

Talking of said grown-up kids, DD1 managed to escape from studies/work in Paris for a few days to celebrate her birthday en famille. As her culinary talents are vastly superior to her mother’s, she elected to bake her own birthday cake, and indeed her birthday meal: succulent gammon steaks accompanied by baked sweet potatoes (which I’d heartily recommend if you’ve not tried them before). Birthday girl's cake creation was a summery strawberry sponge with lemon curd cream, and it arrived at the table bedecked with pretty flowers and sprinkles of pink fairy dust, just as you’d expect from any self-respecting 22-year-old. To add to the birthday feast, there was a tub of Mackie's of Scotland's luxury ice cream which DD1 had been lucky enough to win in an online competition.

DD1's strawberry cream cake was so good... didn't last long!

A lucky win - a  free tub of Mackie's of Scotland ice cream
I have to say that it was a real treat to have all five of us round the table at one time, as such occasions are less and less frequent these days. Ironically, I suspect that the ewes out in the field might just envy me a little ...

And in other news from The Sparrowholding... sheep and plants are on the move!

Visiting sheepdog Speed gets some practice in

HunterGatherer with tup Coco - heading for pastures new

Poor Spot got in the way of Coco's horns, so out came the Sudocrem!
In the polytunnel, everything is growing - including the weeds...

One strawberry does not a summer make...

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Birthday bumps, mumps and lambs wot jumps!

The annual lamb races have begun...
The second half of April passed in the usual frenetic flurry of ups and downs here at the Sparrowholding.  On St George’s day, Son+Heir celebrated his 18th birthday by sipping copious cocktails with a group of friends in our sitting-room. Meanwhile, through in the kitchen, HunterGatherer and I were also busy celebrating – celebrating the fact that we’re no longer technically responsible for him!

Baking not being one of my talents, I ordered the birthday boy’s cake from Celebration Cake Station in Perth – and, as ever (they did DD1's and DD2’s cakes, too), they excelled themselves.  All Yours Truly had to do was email them an action photo, plus a close-up shot of his red astroturf boots and favourite stick so they could ensure the finer details of their masterpiece were correct.  Then I simply pitched up in Perth on the appointed day and collected the creation: piece cake.

An on-the-pitch moment recreated in icing
Birthdays have also been occurring in abundance out in the paddocks this past couple of weeks, with a host of tiny cloven hooves now trotting merrily across the grass, which has luckily – at long last – begun to turn 50 shades of green. There are four sets of twins plus half a dozen single lambs hopping and skipping from dawn till dusk, and some very hoarse mums trying to keep their wee woolly jumpers under control. On the rare occasions when they’re not yelling at their we’ens too loudly, one can usually hear the mewing of a buzzard overhead or the call of a distant curlew: a veritable wildlife symphony, complete with a bleating ground bass.

Tufty - aka Houdini!
Double trouble..
No that's not what troughs are for!
Keep up!
Talking of bleating, Son+Heir and his team mates in the Scotland U18 men’s hockey team underwent a painful yet remunerative procedure last weekend when they all had their legs waxed to raise money for their forthcoming trip to the European Championships in Vienna.  If anyone is sadistic enough to want to watch it, there’s even a vocal video of the hockey heroes being waxed, taken by the team manager.

And on the subject of creative endeavours, Yours Truly had a rare cultural outing to the opening night of an art exhibition in Dundee, courtesy of DD1’s artist friend Titi Finlay. A visit to New Orleans had inspired Titi to paint a series of works featuring musicians and people she saw on the street. As someone who was politely asked to leave the art class at the age of 14, having scored a mighty 52% in my exam, I am in awe of folk who can paint and draw well, and Titi is no exception. During the opening I snapped a couple of photos of her paintings, in between wolfing posh crisps, sumptuous sandwiches plus the mandatory orange juice.

Mardi Gras: one of the participants in the parade painted by Titi Finlay
Several of the New Orleans collection in Dundee
Meanwhile in the depths of the polytunnel, the weeds have been sprouting merrily under the special plant fleece that HunterGatherer considerately placed over his newly seeded parsnips and leeks. He also draped it over Nellie the nectarine bush and Vinnie the Vine, both of whom have benefited from their snugly fleece cover during the recent cold spell (aka the past six months!).  This week we harvested our first fresh asparagus of the season, plus a couple of herbs. Now that FatCat has been effectively barred from the polytunnel by means of chicken wire at either end, the newly seeded plots are safely protected from his pesky paws.

The chicken wire has also proved useful when we let some of the ewes and lambs into the garden recently. It somehow seemed criminal that they were keenly awaiting the arrival of the spring grass in the paddock while we had plenty of the aforementioned forage growing on our lawn! If ovine lawnmowers have been deemed good enough for the community lawns in Paris, then we reckoned they are good enough for our garden, too!

Fresh asparagus from the polytunnel
Homegrown parsley and mint leaves
To round the month off in style, we’d an unexpected visit from student DD2 last week, the poor soul having been pole-axed by a vindictive dose of mumps, perfectly timed – as was her glandular fever three years ago – to coincide with important summer exams. Yours Truly had forgotten just how debilitating mumps can be – not to mention the ‘mutant hamster lookalike’ effect that it has on the poor sufferer...  

Daughter Dear was indeed a sorry sight, yet she and her grotesquely swollen glands had to crawl back through to Edinburgh Uni to attempt her summer exams, which apparently you must not miss unless you have a certificate in triplicate from the undertaker. Ironically the first paper was the listening component, which was far from ideal when the swelling below this particular music student’s ears meant her hearing was distinctly muffled. And having breathed in her grotty mumpy germs for several days, I’m currently keeping my fingers and toes firmly crossed that my own childhood dose of mumps means I’m immune – otherwise I may not be a very happy bunny (or even hamster) in two weeks’ time...