Every New Year we go with a big group of friends to a self-catering accommodation somewhere in Scotland. This year was our third in Kingussie.
Kingussie sits within the boundaries of Cairngorm National Park and is a lovely place to visit. It has cafes and general shops, pubs and places to stay. The long main street is lined with pictureque stone houses. Air is fresh and wildlife is plentiful and there are walks and views in every direction.
It's an easy town to reach, 12 miles south of Aviemore on the A9 and 42 miles south of Inverness. There's been a railway station since 1863 and it's only two-and-a-half hours by train from Glasgow, two-and-three-quarters from Edinburgh or one from inverness. See timetable on the ScotRail website.
Day 1 - Sunday 30th December 2012
A wild day, mean weather. Jennifer and I in multiple layers - thermal then main then waterproof. We walked north towards the hills, along minor road beside the Gynack Burn. Robert Louis Stevenson loved to explore here during his 1880's holidays in the town, floating paper boats down the stream.
We only went a few miles, partly because of my currently tender Achilles tendon (left foot) but chiefly because of driving snow, sleet and rain. I managed one quick pencil sketch but it was too finger-numbingly cold for anything more. I added watercolour when I got back.
|Gynack Burn, pencil & watercolour, 19x28.5cm
|yellow-lichened tree, by Gynack Burn path, pencil & watercolour, 28.5x19cm
We lunched in woodland just before it opened onto bare hillside where the wind blew even stronger. Jennifer found a shelter under low branches of firs. It felt snug but even here it was wet and snow was dumping down on us. Just before, in the woods, an extra fierce gust brought about a thumping all around as laden branches shed their loads.
After sandwiches, and soup from a thermos, Jennifer headed back. I went more slowly, looking at snow and trees and river and distant hills. I found two yellow jelly fungi on a stump in a plantation forest, more phallic than perhaps any I've seen. I uploaded my photos onto the amazing iSpot website (if you haven't yet tried it - do!) and quickly had a response to tell me it was Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa, coloured orange due to frost damage (and it certainly was cold!)
In the upper slopes of Kingussie many people have bird and squirrel feeders in their gardens. Red squirrels are common, we saw 6 or 7, eating peanuts or scampering across a path. One scared off a jay that I'd been watching. It was the closest I've been to a jay. The jewel-like metallic wing patch matched an alert blue corvid eye. The body is mostly a salmon-pink-grey with a black moustache and tail and wing patch. You see a square white rump patch as the bird flies.
Probably because of the weather, I saw only eight bird species in the several hours I was out:
|our under-tree lunch spot
|snowed trees by the Gynack Burn
|snowed trees by the Gynack Burn
|Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa
|Yellow Stagshorn, Calocera viscosa
Day 2 - Monday 31st December 2012
Much better weather. Wind and spits of rain but no snow and no sleet. Blue sky broke through sometimes and shone bright against mixed clouds of ochre and grey.
I walked south to Ruthven Barracks, built by the Hanoverian government following the Jacobite rising in 1715. Leave the town by crossing the railway at Kingussie station. There's a level crossing but I chose the footbridge for the view - distant hills and mountains were deep dark blues. On either side of the quiet road are flood fields, extremely waterlogged at present. Fantastical lichened trees rose from the shallows and a few mallards swum amongst trunks and long dry grasses. I sketched standing up, using pencil with my sketchbook resting on a fence post. Watercolour was added in the evening. There were shaggy-coated horses eating hay from a rack in the field I looked across.
|Ruthven Barracks, pencil & watercolour, 19x28.5cm
The barracks are raised above the landscape by a man-made motte. I sat up there and painted, trying to capture colours and curves of fields and trees and hills. I hadn't long before Jennifer was to pick me up so I worked quickly and with no pencil under-drawing. Often I find this gives my most exciting results.
|from Ruthven Barracks, watercolour, 19x28.5cm
|Insh Marshes road, from Ruthven Barracks, watercolour, 19x28.5cm
With Michelle and the kids we drove to the Highland Wildlife Park where Jennifer and I get in free with our Edinburgh Zoo membership. Only four miles north of Kingussie, it's a great morning or afternoon out. The animals have lots of space and the collection includes many native and once-native Scottish species - pine martin, Scottish wildcat, capercaille, wolves, beavers. Also two polar bears, eagle owl, snowy owl and my favourite of all, a pair of great grey owls. Stunning creatures.
Great grey owls, Strix nebulosa, are chunky and fluffed-up to cope with the cold conditions of northern Europe and Asia and America. Every part of the body -even the toes- is thickly feathered. Squat wedge heads snap to and fro as they look around with a piercing and intelligent stare. The wings have an impressively large surface area compared to body size and weight, meaning that as with most owls, the great grey has very low 'wing loading' (read first paragraph here - barnowltrust.org.uk). Low wing loading minimises number of wingbeats required to stay aloft so the bird can move silently, gliding in to catch its prey of voles and other small mammals. One of this pair stretched its wings fully and flew directly towards me from the back of the enclosure. I managed one A5 page of really quick sketches but the park was closing and my hands were numbing again.
|great grey owl sketches, pencil, 21x14.5cm
Bird count still quite low for the day but I suspected there would be more to see if I went beyond Ruthven Barracks to the Insh Marshes reserve... so the next day I did.
hooded crow (only one seen this whole trip)
geese - grey ones but unsure which - too far away
various small songbirds, seen and heard passing over throughout the day. Not identified.
|flood fields on way to Insh Marshes
|sketching Ruthven Barracks
|Insh Marshes from Ruthven Barracks
|Evening catch-up - in the dining room adding watercolour to sketches and writing up my day. Minor distractions.
|other evening activities - walnut-shell candle-boats to tell our fortunes for the new year
Day 3 - New Year's Day 2013
We saw in the New Year along with the rest of the village - out of doors beside the park with fireworks and dancing and free drams of whisky. At lunchtime on New Year's Day (it took longer than usual to get up) I headed off towards Ruthven Barracks, walking beyond this time into the grounds of RSPB Loch Insh reserve. Rather than exploring further I went into the Gordonhall Hide and was inspired to sketch paint a small part of the scene in front of me. A heron was crisply lit amongst brown-greens, mauves, earth reds and ochres. Dark reflected water. The bird's strong yellow beak shone beside bright white face and chest and blue-grey back. Black in the eye-stripe and in parts of the wings. Legs orange-yellow.
|New Year's Day heron, Insh Marshes, pencil & watercolour, 19x28.5cm
On the return walk dusk was on me and quickly turned to night. The barracks were floodlit a gold yellow. Non-lit sections were in deep shadow. Sky and clouds behind the barracks were deep dark blues. Distant mountains showed some touches of snow but were mostly silhouettes.
Many more birds seen today:
raven - just one, it cronked and flew a circle over the water and a mounded isle as I watched from the hide.
lapwing - a whole flock, swirling over the marshes. Recognisable even from far away.
widgeon - many on the water, whistling gently to each other.
redpoll - likely but not certain. Bright red on head, Brightish red on chest. There were lots, along with other birds of similar size - perhaps the females or possibly linnet or twite. Light. Whites. Greys. Pretty and very delicately beautiful. 3 species I need to learn.
treecreeper - two together, in a mixed flock with the long-tailed tits and redpoll/linnet
a dipper - on the Gynack Burn
great spotted woodpecker
28 species seen on the first day of a new year.
|painting from the Gordonhall Hide, RSPB Insh Marshes
|Ruthven Barracks at night
Day 4 - Wednesday January 2nd 2013
Our final morning. I managed a short walk around the nearby terraces to have a last look at squirrels and birds. Successful on both counts. Three or four red squirrels on feeders and trees. One was making the grunting that I already knew from greys.
Two new birds for the trip - goldfinch and pheasant. Which, along with:
makes 12 species today.
|my final two sketces - red squirrel, Kingussie, pencil, 21x14.5cm
A good trip.