Anyone who knows the West Coast of Scotland will be aware of midges. They are one of three irritants regularly discussed here. The other two being the tourists and the weather. There is even a Scottish Midge Forecast (www.midgeforecast.co.uk) from who I quote” Midges are tiny insects with a wingspan of just 1-2mm. They suck blood from the skin, causing itching and swelling that can last several days. In summer, midges that bite people can reach vast numbers and become a real problem for both locals and tourists. Midges have been around for thousands of years but with climate change they are increasing their range and extending their season, meaning more bites. Biting midges are infamous in the Scottish Highlands, but they are now also found in other parts of the UK, including the Lake District and North Wales.
The Midge Magnet
Our answer under test
There are nearly 40 species of biting midge in Scotland but only five of these are thought to regularly feed on people. Of these the Highland midge, Culicoides impunctatus (or ‘Meanbh-chuileag’ in Gaelic, meaning ‘tiny fly’), is the most bloodthirsty, and the species responsible for most of the bites of people. Midges target their victims by sensing carbon dioxide in exhaled breath and other odours associated with their targets.So the answer must be do not breathe out and do not give off odours, easier said than done. But there are ways to combat them or at least keep them at bay. The soldiers in the British Army use and claim Avon’s Skin So Soft cream works very well, it is not a designed repellent but it was found by accident that midges do not like it. Other people swear by lavender and tea tree oil, other just swear and do an Australian salute. There are also machines known as midge magnets. They suck the midges out of the air and kill them. When you empty the machine of the blocks of now “dead” midges they need to be frozen before burning, strange but true. We, with a limited amount of success use citronella flares, as the name says burn citronella oil so that the smoke and hot vapour keep the midges at bay and these are work when kept topped up with oil and over the limited area of our patio. When all else fails and the midges win the only answer is to retreat indoors and pour a wee dram!
Lunga is one of the Treshnish Islands, an uninhabited group off the west coast of Mull. They were not always uninhabited as they were once a stronghold of one of the clans who built a castle there and more recently a family farmed Lunga for many years as a summer sheiling. Now the population is seabirds and seals. We sailed from Fionnphort with a group of friends on Mark Jardine’s beautiful classic boat. Birthe Marie was built as a fishing boat in Denmark in 1933. Mark has done a great job restoring her as an eco-friendly charter boat. Though she has a powerful engine, the idea when wind allows, is to sail, using her ketch rig where the wind takes her and take in the scenery and wildlife. That is just what we did. I have to admit that the day we went out the sea was a flat calm and the wind about force one, so the engine had to be used until the wind picked up later in the day
Our first “port of call” was Lunga, landing on the rocks and climbing the cliff path to the Puffin burrows to photograph and enjoy the antics of these friendly members of the Auk family. They have little fear of humans so it is possible to get in close for photographs, in fact they are quite happy to pose and sometimes a second bird will sidle into the shot. It is said that they tolerate human presence because our being there stops the gulls from mobbing them and grabbing food as the puffins return to the cliffs from a fishing trip. Seemed to work whilst we were there! So we all lazed in the sun eating picnics and enjoying the fabulous scenery before returning to our boat to voyage on.
We skirted the west side of the island going quite close to Harp Rock, so called because of its shape, not its musical outpourings. These would have been drowned by the thousands of guillemots and shearwaters nesting on the sheer face of the rock. The wind picked and so we were able to sail the next leg to Staffa. Staffa needs no introduction as Felix Mendelssohn introduced the island to the world with his “Fingal’s Cave” Overture. For me it was an overdue return for I was last in the cave in 1987 when on a naval training exercise when I was allowed to take a small dinghy right into the cave. Little did I know then that I would live on Mull and return to Staffa! Time did not allow landing on the island so after looking at the spectacular rock formations we set sail for home with a fair wind on the quarter and the sun warming our backs. The end to a pleasant day at sea!
The RSBP Eagle Watch Hide is now in the forestry at Glen Seilisdeir at the southern end of Glenmore and at the head of Loch Scridain. The area is perfect territory for the White-tailed eagles allowing them a varied menu of fish from the loch and rabbits from the glen. So with twelve other people, a mixture of islanders and visitors, and about a million midges we were taken by the RSPB rangers on a two hour visit deep into the forest. The hide, hidden in the trees, is well equipped with powerful ‘scopes trained on the nest. This year the breeding pair have hatched two healthy looking chicks.
Through the aforesaid scopes we watched the birds undisturbed routine with the female adult returning back to the nest to feed the chicks. They were about four weeks old at the time of our visit which is about half way to being fully fledged and ready for the outside world. After a time in the hide we returned along the approach track to a log cabin for a talk by the ranger whilst watching the screen from the remote camera trained on the nest. This gives a “birds eye” view of the chicks and the nest. Sadly, this is as much for security as it is useful to monitor the health of the young chicks. There have been a number of prosecutions of photographers disturbing the birds and even an inveterate egg collector.
Whilst the hide visit is well worthwhile, many of Mull's White-tailed eagle population can be seen at the coast, with several breeding localities in close proximity of public roads, which can make the viewing of these awesome birds easier and as a bonus we occassionally see them circling high up over our village. In fact, later on the same day we were at the head of Loch Scridain and watched as a White-tailed eagle was being mobbed by two buzzards aided and abetted by one very brave gull. We thought the attackers were trying to make the eagle drop her prey but she beat them off by turning on her back and presenting the diving birds with her razor sharp talons. She flew off to feed her young and we nursed sore necks! Sometimes described as “flying barn doors”, the White-tailed eagle (also sometimes called the Sea Eagle) is the largest and heaviest bird of prey in the British Isles. They weigh around 7 kg and measure one metre from head to talon when perched. In flight the long, broad wingspan of 2.5 metres is unmistakeable as is the large white tail that gives then their correct name. They are a majestic and awe-inspiring sight whether seen perched or in flight.
A pleasant way to spend an afternoon is to sit in the sunshine in someone else’s cottage garden admiring their hard work whilst eating a picnic. But the admiration was not confined to the hard work but the layout of meandering paths, beautiful flowers, a fabulous variety of shrubs and trees, very productive raised beds for vegetables and a caged area for soft fruits. The rear deer fence had a section with a woven willow hedge to hide the utilitarian wire from view. My wife was in her element and arranged with the garden’s owner to have some surplus plants during the year.
When the garden contains a museum and archive of a village for me it is even more interesting. The village in question is Pennygael on the side of Loch Scridain and the museum with its papers and artefacts gives a view of what the village was like in the past. The private museum building is a refurbished cottage, light and airy setting off the large range of exhibits admirably. For me the collection of old tools was a delight, it is a hands on museum so I could pick up and get a feel for tools of yesterdays craftsmen. With a friend I attempted to name the some of the items that as yet had not been identified and determine just how they were used. We both agreed on the adze, but was it one used on the loch shore by a boat builder or as a framers adze for shaping roof timers when cottages were erected in the village.
There were some old blacksmithing tools that took me back to my childhood when my father had a forge, anvil and all the same types tools that fitted in the hole on the anvil know as the hardie hole. We explored the pile of tools, now well rusted looking like “junk” to the untrained eye, for tongs, hardies, pritchels, fullers, swages and chisels. Unfortunately, there was no anvil to complete the collection. Nearby were two pairs of working boots, one pair studded and the other interestingly iron shod with what looked like small horseshoes.
The workman and his wife needed “tools” for everyday living. It was a delight to find a peat cutter, various garden tools and some kitchen utensils but what caught my eye was the marmalade slicker for preparing the Seville oranges for the home made marmalade.
There was also transport! Leaning against the wall outside the door was an old “Pashley” parcel-carrying bike; this was a very early model that eventually became the well-known postman’s bike of the 1960s. Parts of it were made by my family sheet metal working business so for me evoked many memories.
The last full moon was according to the media a “super moon” appearing larger in size and brightness than normal. This, those who know about these things informed us, was due to the moon being closer to the Earth than normal. All I can say is the “experts” have not been to the Isle of Mull. We do not have light pollution or smogs, just cold clear nights. Our moon always seems larger and brighter than I have experienced anywhere else on this planet. Not only is our moon brighter, starlit nights happen regularly, in fact, enough to prompt a passing interest in astronomy. I hasten to add only a quickly passing “wonder what that bright star is” as I make my way to bed.
As a child I was an avid custard eater and I remember getting a Cremola Custard badge with its Highlander looking at the man in the large moon. I cannot now remember why I received the badge, but ever since large full moons have been called “Creamola Custard” moons by me. Interestingly, the Creamola Custard factory was in Glasgow for many years, so maybe the recipes inventor was inspired by seeing a Hebridean moon as he made the very first custard mix. Sadly, Creamola Custard is no longer, as the Glasgow makers were bought up by one of the international heartless food giants in the 1950s. But!...Creamola Custard moons live on!