Friday 24 January 2014

Scotland by Rail - Burntisland, Fife. Hill & farm, ravens, standing stones

Wednesday 22nd January 2014

flocking teal - read on

Burntisland. A small town on the Fife coast. The fifth settlement and fifth station north of the Forth Bridge. Thirty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, trains twice hourly during the day. Also, as of last Friday, my new home.

My studio will move to Burntisland too but until there's time to do that it remains in Linlithgow and I'm commuting to work. Other than a morning beach walk last Sunday I hadn't yet had opportunity to get out into these new surroundings and, sticking to my resolution of regular Scotland by Rail explorations and blogs, I was due a railway day. So I chose Burntisland for today.

This was a rambling day, using map but going hither and thither rather a lot. It wouldn't be possible to describe it exactly, nor sensible to follow it. Get an Ordnance Survey and use it to aid your own meanderings. Roughly, I made a large loop with a bit of a there-and-back wiggle on one end. An unshapely balloon-on-a-string walk, up the Binn Hill and curving out through the countryside up there.

From the station east takes you along the High Street to the links (running north-south are houses, road, grass, railway, sea). Turn left at some point to get yourself up through the housing and onto the B923 road to Kinghorn. When a golf course building is on your right turn left up a little path that leads uphill through trees. Here were snowdrops and a few aconites with their lion's mane petals, two thirds of the way through January. Off path were old workings, mining perhaps.

At the top of the steepest bit were sandstone ruins. Old and full of green ivy, pioneer trees, dried hogweeds and grasses. In the corner of one of the buildings I found a maroon plastic urn, still lidded. It looked like it was to hold ashes but now it was empty.

Walking a bit higher I was in farmland, on a stone-walled track. I could see distant landmarks - Edinburgh, North Berwick Law, the Bass Rock, even the Isle of May far far off. I'll be on the Isle of May again this year, a week drawing seabirds and cliffs.

Bass Rock

the Isle of May

North Berwick Law

I painted here, a finished watercolour, farm track winding the eye across and up to Arthur's Seat and our Capital on the far side of the Forth. A large flock of small birds - finches and sparrows? Too far to see. - were flocking to and fro in bounding flight, landing sometimes on ploughed field but soon taking off again. Pheasants and sheep were in the fields below me and buzzards and ravens in the sky above. What a treat to have ravens, only half an hour from my home!

watercolour, 21x15cm

I spotted someone else's home - a vole hole, mouse house, house hole - a perfect dark circle in a field.

I found what I was sure was a fox's dropping except it looked like it had starfish remains in it, light in colour and textured with many mini dimples. When I saw a second patch of dropping I decided I had to investigate. It was the skin of the under or upper side of the foot of a bird. I washed it in tractor hollows that had filled with muddy water. Definitely a skinned foot. The pencils beside it give scale in the photo, lucky that someone dropped those there. From the size and location I'm guessing pheasant. They're rather cumbersome and can't fly fast. I can imagine a fox, possibly, finding one in slumber. If you know better please do tell.

I detoured a short way east along a quiet road that in four kilometres would take you to the outskirts of Kirkcaldy. I wanted to see the Standing Stones, marked in gothic script on the map. There are two in a field, small and squat compared to what you see at Ring of Brodgar or Callanish, but nice to have. Islanded at present by freshly growing crop. Tree sparrows were in the hedgerow along with other songbirds. There was a feeding station in a garden and through trees an ornate and old glasshouse conservatory.

Walking west now along that road (seemed very safe, almost no cars, beautiful for cycling. In fact it's part of the National Cycle Network, Route 76). Yellowhammers were in the hawthorns, and a pair of reed buntings in one particular bush. A kestrel hung, flutter-winged, still-bodied, over a small gorsy rise. Another short detour to my right brought to a rise and sweeping views inland: wind turbines; an old church, graveyard, manse; the Lomond hills; the hill at Ballingry, beyond which Loch Leven lies, not visible from this angle and elevation.

Lomond Hills on the horizon, right of middle

spot the yellowhammers (two of them)

spot the reed buntings (two of them)

Turning left (south-south-east) off the quiet road I walked across a field and to the edge of the plateau, looking down to a little pond, the town, the Forth. By a young stand of conifer, on a wall under a mature (not ancient) beech I had the remains of my lunch - thick beetroot slices between crackers, and coffee from my flask. A mixed fieldfare-redwing flock 'chack'ed and 'tseep'ed high in the largest of the beeches. They flew and I counted at least 60 of each. They didn't go far, I kept hearing them and saw them again later. I was also hearing the tinkling calls of teal, contrasted by the rasp of mallards, both down on the pond.

spot Burntisland

spot the redwings and fieldfares

The track to the pond followed a deep cutting in the brow of the plateau. Possibly a holloway, created by centuries of passage, or possibly it had been cut or blasted by man. I didn't take it because of deep livestock-made mud. I scrambled down the slope instead.

On the pond were mallards, teal, coots, and at least one each of moorhen, little grebe and tufted duck. I was delighted to see the teal. They're Britain's smallest duck. The males are beautiful with rusty read heads and metallic green eye masks ringed with golden yellow, stunning when a low winter sun catches them. I chatted for some time to a man who was out with his dog and his camera. He knew all the species and knew the area well, had lots of good tips as to what I might see and where I might see it. A dark helicopter flew over, low and loud. The noise spooked the teal and they flew in a flock, round and round and round, up down up down up down above the pond. It was some minutes before they seemed to feel it safe to land.


spooked teal - spot the green wing flash

I sat and painted, light going fast but illuminating magnificently the beech tips and dried rushes. I started a second one, really quickly, to capture the colours of the Forth - aqua blue green by Edinburgh to a light salmon pink yellow by Fife.

watercolour & coloured pencil, 15x21cm

Now getting to dusk, up the steepest path of all to the main brow of The Binn Hill. A hare bounced away, much faster than I could manage up these tussocks. I looked at my nice little new (1900) house through binoculars and scanned along the East Lothian coast. A runner ran past going the opposite way. It got darker and darker, proper nightfall by the time I was downhill at the east end of The Binn. In the town I delayed by a few minutes to walk to the shore to wash my boots in the sea, replacing mud with salt. Which, come to think of it, is probably worse.

watercolour (quickly), 15x21cm

In future posts, lots more to write about Burntisland; the cafe, the artists' studios at the station (full), the Museum of Communication, the summer fair and the beach.

How to get there by train
Thirty-five minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley, trains twice hourly during the day. Timetables on ScotRail website here.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

A mole, on towpath, in water, now back in its hole.

Me and a Mole

An amazing thing when on the return leg of my BTO monthly WeBS waterbird count this morning. I count along the Union canal, Linlithgow to Philpstoun. A kilometer east of Linlithgow, approaching Wilcoxholm Farm bridge I spotted a mole scurrying along the path away from me. It was close in against the banking, away from the canal side of the path, trying to dig back into darkness as it moved forward in a rapid, jerky, side-to-side way. I stopped and watched through my binoculars for fear of scaring it towards the water. It continued towards the bridge, never finding a place to burrow because of the old stone wall that holds up the embankment here.

As the mole approached the bridge I was increasingly worried it was going to end up in the canal, and I knew that in a couple of minutes a boat would be chugging round the corner behind me. I tried to get my gloves on, still not wanting to run forwards and make a grab in case I made things worse. My decision was taken away - mole bumped into the base of the bridge, made a sharp left turn, trundled across the narrow path, over the few inches of grass, and splash, plop, straight into the water.

Now I ran forwards, dropping rucksack and binoculars to the ground at the side of the path. Luckily luckily after several seconds splashing out towards the centre of the canal mole turned and swam back towards shore, making contact with the vertical edge and scrabbling there. Because of the bridge there was no chance of clambering up vegetation or slope here. I knelt in the least muddy patch of mud and reached down with both hands, scooping mole from the water.

I stood up and mole struggled against my hands, not exactly difficult to hold but very squiggly and squirmy. When those huge but soft baby-pink hands find purchase between your fingers the mole prises and shovels at the gap, quite easily widening it. The claws are long but didn't seem to scratch. It was not unlike holding a hamster, though much stronger in its burrowing. The snout is long and tapering, reminiscent of a shrew's, and bright moist pink at the end. The eyes are pinpricks and I couldn't spot them. The body is small and tubby, like a beanbag sausage. The tail is a tight length of thin black rope, not very furry. The velvet is as soft as soft. I couldn't believe I was holding a mole! I don't know if I've ever even seen one before and I'll likely never have opportunity to be this close to one again. I held it for several minutes just looking.

I walked along the banking until I found what I think was its hole. I put my mole-holding hand to the entrance, watched black bottom and tail wiggle away from me into more black, then it was gone. What a beautiful creature.

When you type 'mole' into Google a lot of the information you get is about how to kill them.

More info about moles here:

The Mole

The Hole (for Mole)

Saturday 4 January 2014

New Year 2013/14 Inversnaid. Rain, rain, walking, rain, sketching, rain.

HaPpY nEw YeAr!!!

Loch Lomond dusk, pencil & watercolour

Every New Year a big group of us go away. Friends and friends of friends. (See our NY 2012/13, Kingussie, here) For the 2013/14 switchover we were in Inversnaid Bunkhouse, a mile east of the east shore of Loch Lomond. Some of the land here is owned as the RSPB's Inversnaid Reserve - see

These New Years are never full sketching trips for me but I usually manage to get a good amount done, often going out alone before others are up, or making quick drawings on group walks then adding watercolour in the evenings. Almost always we've had some snow but this time it was wet. Every day. For a lot of every day. It didn't stop us but it did make us all a bit less keen, and my paintings a bit more soggy.

Inversnaid Bunkhouse

Day 1
Sunday 29th December 2013

Afternoon walk in the hour before dusk. The Arklet Water in absolute tumult. The falls by Inversnaid Hotel a torrent of white. A rope swing dangled over the tallest fastest fall, suicide for sure.

There were tits and chaffinches and two roe deer which spooked away from me then stood to watch from a respectable distance. A collection of ruins, more moss and winter bracken than stone, marked where families once made their lives. A board told that they were deserted in the late 1700's. It also showed a short section of 'hollow way', but try as I might I couldn't find it. If you read Robert Macfarlane's Holloway, as I recently have, you too will be eager to experience them.

rope swing is at top left of this section of the falls

spot the roe deer. (hint - white bottom)

old bottle found in the leaf litter - "PROPERTY OF CANTRELL & COCHRANE LTD. NOT TO BE REFILLED"

Day 2
Monday 30th December 2013

With Jennifer and Andy, a mile north along Loch Lomond shore to Rob Roy's Cave. One of his caves. The biggest spiders I've ever seen in the UK are there in the dark. Their egg cases beautiful silken teardrops that hang by thread from the walls. The largest egg cases are nearly three centimetres tall. The empty cases become shriveled husks.

We walked another mile to a point where the woods briefly cleared and a ruined homestead was by the shore. Old oaks grew from the stones.

A dipper flew from stone to stone along the water edge, always a step ahead of us, always moving on at our approach. Siskins were flocking through the trees, probably a hundred or more, mixing with all the common tits - blue, great, coal and long-tailed. A treecreeper was with them.

Feral goats browse the woods around Inversnaid, and have done for a hundred years or more. They have black-brown coats and long and curving (not fully curling) dark horns. You sometimes smell them before you see them, not an unpleasant aroma, remarkably like goats' cheese, which I suppose makes sense. Recently a decision has been taken to reduce their numbers due to finding that the condition of the site (a SSSI) was deteriorating and rare flora were at risk. So far the population control has been in the form of culling but discussions are underway aimed at relocation instead.

around Rob Roy's Cave

near Rob Roy's Cave, trees and bracken full of siskins

Loch Lomond

spot the spider

silken spider cases in Rob Roy's Cave

spider egg case

spirit of the forest

possibly Peltigera polydactyla... ? Confirmation welcome.

 a Cladonia species, maybe C. coniocraea... ?  Confirmation welcome.

smell the goat

Day 3
Tuesday 31st December 2013

A gentle walk with Jennifer and Sam. The length of Loch Arklet on track then returning by road as dusk was falling. Me stopping to sketch then running/fast-walking to catch up.

At the far side of the loch were six swans a-swimming, joined soon by a seventh to complete the carol. They were yellow-beaked Whooper swans and we could hear their gentle trumpeting when we stood still still and silent. On our way back their numbers had swelled to fourteen, singing the song twice.

The 'aqueduct intake' at Loch Arklet's east end is a fascinating structure. A steep-sided reduced-size colosseum, filled with water. I did a sketch and added watercolour later. Near to the intake a stonechat pair perched on fenceposts, the male smart with his mahogany brown head, white collar, rufous breast. The female overall browner, but still beautiful to see. Delicate little birds.

lunch and sketch spot, over Loch Arklet

Loch Arklet watercolour

(Whooper) swans a-swimming, Loch Arklet


the fortress

the fortress

miniature colosseum? / prow of a ship?

pencil & watercolour

Day 4
Wednesday 1st January 2014

People who aren't obsessed with bi... I mean aren't overly interested and involved with birds, won't know that some of us keep a list of the number of species we see each year. A 'year list'. I suppose it's a bit like collecting. It's interesting to compare year-to-year results and fun try to beat last year's record.

It's nice also to take note of the first bird seen on New Year's Day. My first for 2014 was bullfinch - a pair, one male, one female, feeding on seedheads outside the bunkhouse. Second was a robin. Both the bullfinches and a robin were been there each of our four Inversnaid mornings.

After breakfast (bran flakes and sunflower seeds) I took my provisions and walked a short distance into the hills along the RSPB Garrison track then doubled back to spend the remaining daylight hours walking the perimeter of Loch Arklet. Total distance to circumnavigate is about 9km. The road to Inversnaid runs beside the north shore of the loch, and a good new path runs beside that. The remaining two-thirds of the loch is unpathed, a combination of shingle, peat, bog, moor, a little slope-scrambling and a little stream crossing. You come to mini sandy beaches that seem like they should be joined to a Hebridean sea. The wind was blowing at me my whole way along the southern shore and the rain was blowing at me for half. Birdlife was fairly sparse, probably partly the weather.

These are all the birds I saw, mostly around the wooded bunkhouse area and on the RSPB reserve:

Great tit
Hooded crow
Coal tit
Blue tit
Cormorant x 1
Heron x 1
Canada goose x 2
Goldeneye x 1
Snipe x 1

21 species

Mr bullfinch

spot the hooded crow

holes on RSPB reserve, dug to aid tree-planting?

fur by fence - predated animal or snagged on fence as creature crossed over?

this is cracking peat

Loch Arklet

deer print in peat, Loch Arklet

Hebridean beach?

pencil sketch, rain not allowing me to add watercolour

Day 5
Thursday 2nd January 2014

On the final morning I went for an hour out into the rain. I found the Clach Buidhe hollow way from day one - only a very shallow, one-sided pathway. I sat with my watercolours and tried to capture the view to Bens Vorlich and Vane across Loch Lomond. The rain was trying too, trying to remove pigment from paper. The rain won.

rain painting

rain painting, Loch Lomond