Monday, 16 December 2013

Scotland by Rail - Dunkeld & Birnam. kingfisher, follies, salmon, an Oak

Thursday 12th December 2013
Departed Linlithgow 9.25am, Stirling 10.37am.
Arrived Dunkeld & Birnam 11.33am.

Stirling station

A glowering black blue bruised sky was pressing the landscape low as I waited at Stirling station. The Wallace Monument was dark when my train pulled out. The Allan Water, a favourite walk for me, my mum and my brother Roan, from Bridge of Allan to Dunblane, was in pounding high torrent.

Beyond Dunblane, briefly north then a steady north-east until Gleneagles, the Allan Water is still alongside. Here it meanders, carves deep curves through a wide and gentle U-shaped valley. As we proceeded the sky gradually lightened from "is it dusk already.." to a more usual heavy overcast. I watched the river and surrounding land. Two crows flew up. Two lapwings joined them, spooked by the train I think. A buzzard slid from a railside fence post. Twenty five or more pink footed geese on a green grass field, a bit later another group of similar number lighted on fresh ploughed dark clods. A bridge takes the train over that miniature hidden valley - blink and you miss it. I always think to make an expedition to find and explore it.

Dunkeld & Birnam station


The two platforms at Dunkeld & Birnam station are low, really low. There are a couple of two-step mounting blocks on each but jumping down is rather fun. When you come out of the station - don't panic. That's the A9. It's full and fast but we rail users have an underpass - turn left and a sloping path leads down and under. There's a little burn and on it was a dipper. It stopped its splashy foraging, looked, thought, decided, and flew. Whirring away from me upstream, flying only a couple of inches above the water.

Beatrix Potter loved Birnam. She holidayed here with her family in the second half of the 1800's and wrote her original Peter Rabbit letters whilst staying in a rented home on the Dunkeld side of the water. Birnam village green is a little wooded park. Sculpted creatures forage among the bushes. These are for you Jennifer:



I got a cakeaway from the cafe in the Birnam Arts & Conference Centre - cherry scone and a latte. I browsed the shop and exhibition and didn't, this time, go around the Beatrix Potter museum. The coffee was in the nicest 'to-go' cup I've ever seen. Here it is, with another nice thing, The Birnam Oak, in the background. The Birnam Oak is ancient, a relic of the medieval Birnam Wood that once grew all around these hills and valleys and played such a part in Shakespeare's Macbeth. A red squirrel scampered down its trunk as I left.

The Birnam Oak


I didn't see as much wildlife as I had expected. Partly due to the weather -overcast and often drizzling- and partly, probably, because I was always in woodland. Woodland is great habitat but it's difficult for the watcher to spot things in. There's so much cover! I saw tits, chaffinches, woodpigeons, corvids. I heard bullfinches softly calling and heard then saw a V of geese overhead. I still can't identify geese by call. Don't know if they were saying 'pink-pink' or 'wink-wink'... They flew over, northbound, until out of sight. They must have turned because almost immediately they were back above me, heading south.

There was also a kingfisher. What a bird! I saw its blue flash. Mostly that's all you see but this time I was lucky. It perched a few tens of metres away on a low-hanging branch then flew, across the river but not much farther off. It perched again, now on a sticky-up black stump. I got this photo through binoculars and cameraphone before it whizzed downstream.

spot the kingfisher

A big salmon was in the water, the best view I've ever had. I don't know about fish but I know it was a salmon. It was probably about two feet long and covered in lots of crusty white marks, like scabby growths. It also looked like its jaw had a portion missing. The National Park & Preserve Alaska (!) say this is a fungus - "Fish protect themselves from infections with a thick layer of slime that covers their scales. When that slime layer is removed, the salmon becomes vulnerable to fungal infections. Typically the slime layer is removed by improper handling from an angler, from commercial fishing nets, and/or other the physical hazards of migration."

spotted salmon

spotted salmon

I saw another salmon, dead, lying by the path. In fact just half a salmon. A second was down on an islet, flesh partially pecked away.

half a salmon

half a salmon

My inspiration for today - Cameron McNeish

The inspiration for this particular railway day was a mention by Cameron McNeish in The Herald Magazine. He writes a great little half page column ever Saturday, map and walk description, somewhere in Scotland. On 7th December it was a walk near Dunkeld and decided to follow it. The problem is that Cameron doesn't work sketching time and stopping-to-look-at-every-bird-tree-fungi-and-stone time into his schedule, so his 5 mile in 3-4 hours walk would probably take me double! I didn't manage his circle, skirting back through the trees of Craigvinean Forest and past the folly and waterfalls of The Hermitage (though I did see follies). My walk was from Birnam upstream on the south-becoming-west shores of the River Tay for about 4km then back by the same route.

The art

I stopped twice to paint. First only a mile or so into my walk, just west of the views across to Dunkeld Cathedral. I was attracted by the black eyes and mouth of a folly on the opposite shore - screw my eyes half shut, in the way of artists everywhere, and I could see these as the darkest areas of the scene. Firs and deciduous trees towered above and their reflections towered below. I sat here and worked on two pieces. The first, an A5 pencil underdrawing then watercolour on top, was rained off and is still to be finished. The second is closer to finished. Watercolour only, no underdrawing. Started, and nearly completed in the rain.

The sound of shooting was echoing through the hills most of the time I was sat painting. I find it difficult to understand that anyone can take pleasure in shooting animals. Towards two o'clock it stopped. Perhaps time for their sandwiches. Pheasant and hare anyone?

the things we used to build, such folly

Later I found two perfect glass bottles peeking out gem-like from a pathside bank. An old dumping ground. Here they are cleaned up. My favourite is the one on the left. I'd like to know what they may have contained..?

The second painting was an hour before the train. Dusk was firmly upon me when I saw a reflected scene of Dunkeld Bridge - all blues except four yellow bridge lamps and their corresponding water columns of sulphur. I had half an hour leeway so I sat down again to paint. Coloured pencils and watercolour.

Dunkeld Bridge

Dunkeld and Birnam are lovely places to visit. There are walks in all directions, river and hill and woodland. Dunkeld & Birnam railway station serves both villages. I didn't cross the bridge to Dunkeld this time. That will follow in a future post.

who needs New Zealand, Roan du Feu?

the things we used to build, such folly (2)

beardy lichen

riverside ruins

How to get there by train

Dunkeld & Birnam is one and a half hours by train from Edinburgh, an hour and twenty minutes from Glasgow and an hour and fifty minutes from Inverness. Regular trains throughout the day. Timetables on ScotRail website here.

creatures discuss

1 comment:

  1. Fab must read all when I have more Beatrix Potter her saving the land for future generations is great as well as her great art ...your sketchy memory's of your visit is inspiring.... :-D