Aberfoyle

From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!

Sometimes we like to think that our ancestors were far more superstitious that us: less sophisticated, less modern or up-to-date. But pay a visit to your local cinema and take a look at the large number of films full of vampires, zombies, ghosts and  horrific creatures: all there to scare the living daylights out of us.  And we even pay for the pleasure! It’s curious, isn’t it.  Just what is it in us that enjoys being terrified and faced with such primeval fears?

Back in the 17th century Rev Robert Kirk, the young minister at Kirkton Church in Aberfoyle, wondered just that. He collected folklore and stories from local people about their experiences with the supernatural. He then examined biblical references and asked whether there might in fact be a class of ethereal beings in this world which we didn’t yet understand, or could fully explain. He’s remembered today as The Fairy Minister, which tends to belittle him, and makes it easy to shrug of his work. But who really knows? And sometimes it’s worth keeping an open mind on such matters!

Certainly you’ll find that his grave is, more often than not, covered in coins, put there by the superstitious of today hoping for some good luck from their gesture. Or at the Minister’s Tree atop Doon Hill, where there’s a ‘clootie well’, with so many pieces of cloth that the whole hill top can look fairly dirty and untidy. Yet these things are put there as ‘wishes’ to the fairies: or to whatever power may be willing to offer assistance. I sometime wonder if we’re really much less superstitious today after all.

Kirk’s short study, The Secret Commonwealth, helped put Aberfoyle on the map, as did Sir Walter Scott, and the arrival of the railways. Yet there’s much more to the history of this small town than you might think. On top of which, it’s a wonderful base for exploring the Trossachs on foot, by bike or in the car.

This is just a taster for what’s in my article in July’s edition of iScot magazine. So if you want to find out more then simply download the online edition (116 full-colour pages for only £2.99) from iScot at Pocketmags or buy a print copy (£3.99) from any of these newsagents (right):

You won’t be disappointed. But, be warned, you might just find yourself checking under your bed before turning the lights out!

 

“I to the hills will lift mine eyes…” The Lodge Forest Visitor Centre, Aberfoyle

Womens Timber Corps 1942-1946There are days when things seem to wrong from the word go. The weather is lousy, the car won’t start, the bus is late, you’re caught off guard and hurt by an unpleasant remark from a bullying colleague or an unjustified mocking jibe on social media.  Then there’s the infuritaing call-centre that never answers the phone no matter how important they claim your call to be. Or the angry customer who vents his frustration on you. Or the delivery you waited in all day for that never came. Irritation after irritation.

Some days the list can seem endless! None of it your fault, but rather circumstances and people around you that seem to conspire to make you feel bad. To feel worthless. To feel invisible. Some days it can be an uphill struggle to retain you equilibrium.p1250113

We all have different ways of dealing with life’s ups and downs. For me, the very best way of dealing with the effects of upsets and hurts, and for putting life back into perspective, is to take to the hills.

Here in Scotland we are blessed to be surrounded by hills, lochs and forests. Yesterday we headed to Aberfoyle and on up to the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre run by the Forestry Commission Scotland.  If you should go there, stand on the terrace, breathe deeply and savour the marvellous panorama that unfolds before you: Loch Ard Forest, Loch Achray Forest, Ben Lomond, the Lowlands in front of you, the Highlands behind – it’s undoubtedly one of the very best spots in the Trossachs.the-lodge-aberfoyle-500p

And as you look across the wide expanse of countryside that surrounds you, the world takes on a whole new perspective. The view is magnificent. The air is fresher and cleaner: the encircling trees ‘breathing’ in our dirty air and ‘breathing’ out the clean oxygen that fills our hearts and lungs and makes us stand up straighter, bringing a new sense of calmness in its wake.

You’ll soon notice that all around the Lodge are tracks and trails that lead off and away into the forest, inviting you to follow them. Who could fail to be drawn onto a path as it disappears into the woods? Who wouldn’t want to go sit “Under the Greenwood Tree” as did Shakespeare’s Rosalind and Orlando, or Thomas Hardy’s characters? There is something primeval about forests and we respond to that. Our curiosity and desire to explore are awakened and off we go!

p1250063The trail to the waterfall is a delight. Running steeply downhill, it twists and turns, with strange sights awaiting! Turn one corner and there are the two young deer startled into motionlessness. Turn another and you come across the Magic Tree. Turn a third and you’re faced by the strange ghostly figures that stand so very still and silent among the trees – ethereal and alien looking, yet at the same time reflecting back strange visions of ourselves.

Then, turn one further corner, and come face to face with a force of nature: the waterfall crashing and roaring through the gorge, thundering over rock and down the cliff face as the swollen burn races in torrents past your feet. After heavy rain the might of the water is unmistakable. Magnificent – and a little bit terrifying too!

It would be hard not to be drawn into the beauty of this natural landscape. Nature heals and soothes. And as that happens you’ll find nothing seems as bad as it did before. You’re not worthless, nor are you invisible. A sense of proportion returns. Your physical and mental wellbeing improve.  Body, mind and soul.  Not a bad outcome from a walk in the hills!the-lodge-aberfoyle-burn-500p

Forestry Commission Scotland

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park

Scotland’s Wild Tours of Loch Lomond and The Trossachs

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH): Scotland’s People and Nature Survey

Søren Kierkegaard and John Muir on the benefits of Nature

Not so much the ‘Thieving Magpie’ as the ‘Thieving Jackdaw’!

"This will do nicely as nest lining!"

“This will do nicely as nest lining!”

In 1817 the Italian composer Rossini penned his famous opera ‘La Gazza Ladra’ – ‘The Thieving Magpie’.  Visiting the Scottish Wool Centre in Aberfoyle on Sunday, we saw an unexpected sight:  not a thieving magpie, but a thieving jackdaw!

In a small paddock behind the centre, a patient pony was grazing quietly in the warmth of the spring sun, while a busy jackdaw was perched on his back, pulling out hair to use to line its nest. Some of the pecks looked very sharp, but the pony didn’t seem to mind too much. However, it did look as though he was going to have a bald patch before long!

That has to hurt!!

Jackdaws are intelligent and gregarious birds and live together in small colonies. Watching this one made me realise that they’re also clever at acquiring nest material. And he wasn’t alone: three or four other jackdaws were waiting nearby to see if they too could get some soft hair to line their nests.  At that point, though, the pony decided it had had enough, and moved away.

Sweeney Jackdaw, the Demon Barber!

Sweeney Jackdaw, the Demon Barber!

I found another example of their intelligence on the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) website, where I read that a tame jackdaw had once been trained by some Italian thieves to steal money from cash machines!!

But back to our clever jackdaw in Aberfoyle. While watching him at work, someone remarked that this was a rather offbeat way to get a hair-cut, having ‘Sweeney Jackdaw, the Demon Barber’ do your hair!  I can only say that I’m very glad my hairdresser uses scissors!

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Watch here as the jackdaw helps himself to some nest lining!

“If you go down to the woods today…” The Lochan Spling Trail

“If you go down to the woods today…”

“Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir (1838 -1914)

Wise words from a wise man, and as true today as back then. If fact, probably truer today than ever before. A survey undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2014 reported that 90% of people found that visiting the outdoors helped them to relax and reduced stress, while 80% felt that being outdoors not only improved their physical health, but also left them feeling both energised and revitalised.  No mean achievement! We are very fortunate that Scotland is rich in forests and forest walks: so just what awaits us if we go down to the woods today?

The aptly named Old-Man's-Beard

The aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

Lichen abounds in the fresh, clean air of the forest

For a start fresh, clean, unpolluted air. Take a look around and marvel at the abundance of lichen draped over the branches of trees: in particular the aptly named Old-Man’s-Beard!  Then there are all the wonderful smells and sounds of a forest.  Birds and bird song all around, the glimpse of animals through the trees, while strange mushrooms and toadstools thrive on fallen trees. A forest creates its own world, its own rich eco-system from the top of the tallest trees to the smallest creepy-crawlies and strangest looking fungi! A gentle poke in the undergrowth will quickly reveal all sorts of life – much of it scurrying hastily away!

Weird and wonderful growths

A grumpy looking fungus!

A grumpy looking fungus!

At the weekend we set out from Aberfoyle, ‘the gateway to the Trossachs’, along the Forestry Commission’s Lochan Spling Trail.  Spling is a strange name and may come from the Gaelic word splàng, which means to sparkle. In Sunday’s sunshine, with its welcome warmth, that certainly seemed an appropriate name! As we walked through the forest and across the Duchray Water we met other walkers and cyclists, as well as groups of young people learning outdoor skills through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

The Lochan Spling Pike

The gigantic Lochan Spling Pike

Reaching the lochan, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with some very unexpected, and very out-sized, creatures! The Lochan Spling Pike, Dragonfly and Osprey were all created by artist Rob Mulholland in 2008 and form part of the Loch Ard Family Sculpture Trail, which runs not only around this delightful lochan but also along the shores of Loch Ard, Little Loch Ard and Lochan a’ Ghleannin. The three we saw are quite remarkable objects and reflect the creatures that live in the lochan and surrounding forest.

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

The Lochan Spling Dragonfly

There is so much to see, do and enjoy in a forest, and at the same time it is so good for us. Like John Muir, Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, was also keenly aware of the benefits of taking time to be outdoors, and in particular walking, until our problems take on a more manageable perspective. In 1847 he wrote: “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Coming from the man widely regarded as the world’s first existentialist philosopher, that’s good advice indeed!

All of which just goes to show that if you go down to the woods today you really will find plenty of surprises, plenty to enjoy and come back feeling refreshed and revitalised! And that’s got to be a good thing!

Links:

Lochan Spling Trail: Forestry Commission Scotland

John Muir, Scottish environmentalist and naturalist, and ‘Father of the US National Parks’

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park