Wednesday 13 February 2013

Pitlochry - courting goldeneyes, red squirrel, second-hand books

Thursday 7th February 2013

I was going to
Frames Gallery in Perth to collect paintings from their Christmas show so I decided to make a railway day of it. I intend to do at least one of my railway days every month, but hopefully more.

I chose Pitlochry, two stops north of Perth and under two hours from Edinburgh. I left Linlithgow at 7.44, Edinburgh Waverley at 8.35, arrived in Pitlochry at 10.19. To make my railway day trips worthwhile I tend to need to leave Linlithgow pretty early, trying to catch one of the first trains departing Edinburgh or Glasgow for the main part of my journey. I like this early start. As I step out of the house it's often still dark, the air is cool and the world feels a new and fresh place. The birds are singing and I walk to the station with a smile on my face.

In the past I got a lot of reading done on trains but nowadays I often just sit and look out the window. There's always something to see, often birds to spot. Sometimes I make quick sketches. I saw my first oystercatchers of the year, a big host of them on the grassland in Burntisland, probing for worms with their long red beaks. The tide was out and on the shore were lots of waders, including quite a number of godwits, too far away to tell if they were bar-tailed or black-tailed. A kestrel was perched in a tree beside the track.

The further north we went the more pheasants I saw strutting their way across the fields. The males stand out well but the sandy brown mottling of the females is difficult to pick up against dead grasses and crop stubble. I watched a male land against a breeze, half hovering, head down. I hadn't seen this action before and was interested by the sinuous shape that his head - neck - chest - underbelly - tail made. A headless scarecrow stood in a field, long arms dangling. A long-dead tree stood alone, solid and tall and fantastically twisted.

train sketches, Edinburgh to Pitlochry, pen, 19x28cm

Reaching Pitlochry I decided to walk the main street to get an overview of the town. This was my first visit. It's nice, what you'd expect of a touristy Scottish town - gift shops, cafes, restaurants, information signs. The highlight was the
second-hand bookshop in a part of Pitlochry Station, part of ScotRail's Adopt A Station scheme. Sadly I only had time for five minutes browsing whilst waiting for my return train. The stock seems extensive and the prices are good. The staff volunteer was extremely friendly... and you can have a coffee while you look! Since November 2006 the bookshop has raised around £80,000 for various local and national charities.

I left the town by passing south over a long and bouncing suspension footbridge that took me past
Pitlochry Festival Theatre and beyond to Pitlochry Power Station and Dam. When the dam was completed in 1951 a fish ladder was required to be constructed alongside to ensure that salmon could still reach their spawning grounds up-river. In most seasons over 5,000 fish pass through. 

suspension bridge over the River Tummel

Like the salmon, though getting less wet, I too moved up-river. I walked along a small stretch of country road, quiet and isolated yet only metres from the A9. I was striding along, probably thinking about birds, when suddenly there on a branch just beside the pavement I saw red squirrel. We both stopped still, surprised, and watched each other for several moments before the squirrel scampered down and moved off a short distance in a bounding run. It scrambled up another tree and stayed there, working busily at a pine cone which it held in both paws and extracted seeds from with its teeth. I could hear the noise as it munched away.

red squirrel

I crossed back across the river on a footbridge below the road bridge. Now I walked on footpaths through the trees, sticking to the shoreline where Faskally Wood met Loch Faskally - a part of the River Tummel, created by the Pitlochry dam. I followed the shoreline for as long as my time would allow but I only had four hours before the train to Perth and I wanted to give myself an hour to paint. It's always a toss-up between exploring and sketching.

The water is slow here and the river is wide. Combined with snow on distant hills and a beautiful winter sunlight it was an enchanting walk.

On the water of the River Tummel and the loch were a variety of birds, though none in great numbers. There were four or five teal - our smallest ducks. And tufted duck and goldeneye and mallard. One little grebe swam like a speck in the distance and a solitary mute swan glided across the calm surface, causing ripples to break the mirror reflections of trees and hills. I saw a dipper perch and fly and perch and fly. When it stood on a stone nearby it sang its burbling chittering song. A cormorant was still as a sentinel on a rock close to the distant shore, beside a yellow buoy.

Birds are behaving differently now that spring approaches. I watched a drama unfold between three goldeneye ducks - two males competing for a female. As the female floated nearby the males swam in a race, necks long, heads held high, flicking their heads back. In courtship goldeneyes flick their heads right back so that their beak points upwards. It looks really odd. One of the males dived, swam underwater and rose directly behind the other, frightening him into flapping a short distance away. At one point they swam on either side of the female, flanking her like the minders of an actress who tries to avoid the press.

Loch Faskally goldeneye studies, pencil, 19x28cm

I chose a solitary beach of shingle, a river beach only 3 metres wide, and spent an hour there using watercolour to try to capture the scene of reflected trees. I wanted a dipper in the foreground, as it had been when it flew past me earlier. White neck and breast shining out against dark upper head, wings, back, and against dark reflections on the water. I've worked it up further back in the studio, in watercolour, gouache, graphite pencil and coloured pencil - I should probably just say mixed media. These days I'm enjoying trying to combine free-er painterly marks with areas of detail.

Loch Faskally dipper, mixed media, 25x35cm

It was difficult to drag myself away but I didn't want to miss my train. I walked back through Faskally Woods to the A9 underpass. From there I walked now on the Pitlochry side of the river, still through nice woodland, until emerging at the north side of the hydroelectric dam. Then five minutes to the station and a further five minutes to browse briefly in the second-hand bookshop.

A good day, and a town to which I shall definitely return. There are walks to be done in all directions.

Pitlochry bird list:

tufted duck
little grebe
blue tit
great tit
coal tit
long-tailed tit
herring gull
black-headed gull
redpoll - I need to learn to i.d. these little finches. In this country we can get the lesser redpoll, the common redpoll, the Arctic redpoll. I know no more than that. This one was smaller than a robin, very delicate. Ochre/grey legs. Body darker than legs, but streaked. Some white in the streaking and quite a lot of it on the underside. A daub of red on the forehead, quite bright. Beak and 'bib' area dark, almost black.

32 species

purposeless steps

Loch Faskally sketch spot


dipper studies from photos, 19x28cm


Loch Faskally

in Faskally Woods

Pitlochry hillside through binoculars


  1. This was a wonderful read and great to look at - thanks - will share with others. Liz

  2. Loved this as we know these woods and Pitlochry so well. Made me want to be there......... Judith.

  3. Good advert for Scotland and tourism. Terrific sketches.

  4. Thank you all. Glad people are enjoying reading about my sketching trip to Pitlochry. I thoroughly recommend the town for making exploratory walks from. i'll be going back.