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Winter, taking flight

February 24, 2015

The weather this month is giving us the mixed messages typical of early Spring; or, as it is better named in these parts, the ‘dreich end’ of Winter.

Our little early cherry blossom and the first crocuses are blooming already,,24.2.15-1

but the days of bright sun melting frosted fields, and the growing confidence of birdsong in the woods, can turn in a moment to biting gales and snow showers.

A Turner-esque sky heralds an approaching shower of snow.

A Turner-esque sky heralds an approaching shower of snow.

Ruffled by the continual freeze, thaw and re-freeze of the water, the pair of mute swans who usually nest on the lochan by the castle have not yet settled down there. Most days there is one swan; some days the mate returns; one mild morning I heard the unmistakeable beating of great wings and saw that a third had arrived. This caused much puffing up of feathers from the established pair, who patrolled the water like galleons in full sail while the new arrival stood uncertainly on the bank. As it turned out, after the display they all settled down beside each other on the grass for a while. Was he, as seems likely, their offspring who was raised here last year with two siblings? If so, he was just paying a flying visit to mum and dad: next morning he was nowhere to be seen.,24.2.15-2

The parent swans thinking about leaving too.

Yesterday the cob and pen also left, if only until the next thaw. We humans enjoyed a very snowy day at the weekend, when our boys were at last able to build snowmen and have snowball fights for almost the first time this winter, and the castle looked dour but picturesque in the snowfall.

Snow picks out the angles of the castle's 15th Century towers and turrets.

Snow picks out the angles of the castle’s 15th Century towers and turrets.

For the swans, however, a layer of snow over the newly re-frozen lochan was enough to drive them away to search for open water somewhere else. Funnily enough, as I was thinking of them one evening, I noticed a cloud formation in the sunset which looked, to my eyes, uncannily like a great bird taking flight. I hope that the swans will return to our water soon, as Spring grows more certain.,24.2.15-5

You might enjoy A snowy spring or A glory of swans.

Listen to your heart

February 14, 2015

O.K., it’s time I confessed. I have a slight obsession going on. Well, two, actually: deer, and drawing or papery creativity in general. Both interests were kick-started last midsummer, when I took a wonderful online paper art course with artist Rachel Hazell. At around the same time, I began to have some memorable encounters with deer.

Mother and young roe deer

Mother and young roe deer

We see roe deer almost every day here, as they share the same woods as us. Last  year, however, I had several meetings which struck me as unusual. The first was coming face to face with a mother doe suckling her fawn on the driveway..and then realising that there was another tiny spotted fawn curled motionless in the long grass right beside me. (I saw the family several times over the next few months.) In the woods, I kept coming across deer which, instead of running away, walked towards me; wary but interested and unafraid. One day a doe – presumably with a fawn hidden in the undergrowth – chased my dog and started kicking and butting her. I raced to the rescue, and had the extraordinary experience of standing within touching distance of the wild deer, giving her a stern lecture about the natural pecking order while my spaniel quivered in my arms and the deer stared at me from her dark, liquid eyes as if she could see into my soul, and I yearned to communicate properly with her, to touch her with my heart rather than merely my outstretched fingertips…

The same doe (I think) and one of her young in October 2014.

The same doe (I think) and one of her young in October 2014.

That got me thinking. All such encounters can be explained in prosaic terms as normal animal behaviour; but I felt there was something more going on. It felt as if the universe, or however you like to put it, was trying to tell me something, and the hints were getting increasingly blunt, moving from the attack on my dog to culminating, in September, with my getting bitten by a stag. (He was a semi-tame red deer in a farm park, and did it by mistake as I was feeding him, but still…) So I began to pay attention, and to research what various cultures and traditions have to say about deer and their spiritual significance. The synergies between, for example, what Native American Shamanic tradition has to say about deer and what was going on in my life were extraordinary. All this time I continued to be followed by deer in the woods, until I learned to recognise particular families and felt almost that they were old friends.

Oh, hello again: roe doe and young buck, November '14.

Oh, hello again: roe doe and young buck, November ’14.

We ended my ‘year of the deer’, as I came to think of it, with a visit to the herd of red deer at Highland Safaris in north Perthshire. With a kilted ranger supervising, we hand-fed the stags and hinds. It was the perfect culmination of my close encounters with deer: a royal stag* dipping his soft muzzle into my palm, his eyes on mine, while his huge antlers seemed to curve protectively around my head.

Feeding the red deer stag

Feeding the red deer stag

(*A Scottish stag is termed ‘royal’ when he has twelve or more tines on his antlers.)

Given that I have also been experimenting with book art and paper craft ever since my art course in June, it was inevitable that deer and stags should start to appear in my art work. Having written about them, pondered their meaning and felt their presence, my first attempt to actually paint a stag turned into a sort of collage, as I felt that I needed to add feathers and ferns and other natural elements from the woods to my watercolour.

'Moon Stag'

‘Moon Stag’

I then turned my hand to a ‘proper’ collage, i.e. composed almost entirely of printed papers rather than my own painting.

Beginning: a sheet of vintage architectural drawings, suggesting order and civilisation

Beginning: a sheet of vintage architectural drawings, suggesting order and civilisation

This one kept me happily away from household chores last week! I was inspired by the realisation – reached partly thanks to the deer and partly through further, wider readings, including the seminal Women Who Run With The Wolves by Camilla Pinkola Estés – that intuition and creativity are essential to life.

Over that went layers of washi tape, stampings, cut paper etc. to suggest other aspects of life (flora, the written word, music, fauna)

Over that went layers of washi tape, stampings, cut paper etc. to suggest other aspects of life (flora, the written word, music, fauna)

As a recovering perfectionist (!) I’ve always felt apologetic about my need to create. My artwork is amateur and is just for me; I don’t make a living out of it, so how can I justify this puny little hobby?

The central image, the stag, is torn from a paper napkin and stuck down with difficulty (!) and PVA glue.

The central image, the stag, is torn from a paper napkin and stuck down with difficulty (!) and PVA glue.

At long last I am coming to realise that I don’t need to justify my creativity. It is what it is. It may not make my family’s fortune, but it is an essential part of me, and I have been desiccated by the attempt to shove it under the carpet.

I stamped and cut out some words, aged them with inks and watercolour and stuck them over the stag - or, as he would have been called in past times, the 'hart'.

I stamped and cut out some words, aged them with inks and watercolour and stuck them over the stag – or, as he would have been called in past times, the ‘hart’.

And so this is where I have got to so far, with my recent twin obsessions of deer and the need to create. My message to myself – and to you this Valentine’s Day – is ‘Listen to your heart’. And whatever paths through the woods it takes you on, may it lead you to happiness.

Already hanging by my desk, so that I don't forget.

Already hanging by my desk, so that I don’t forget.

You might enjoy The calligraphy of hares and ‘they say that life’s the thing…but I prefer books’.

Oh, what a beautiful day…

January 26, 2015

I read this morning that the third Monday of the year is ‘officially’ the most depressing day of the year. That means today. So if you, like me, have found it hard to get motivated today, you have an ‘official’ excuse.

However, I do wonder who these officials are who dictate our feelings to us. Rather than allow them to decide the mood of the day, I thought I’d rage a bit against the dying of the light, and think of some of the good things about January. And anyway, as I mentioned in my previous post, the light is in fact increasing now, isn’t it? It is nearly Imbolc, after all, the first stirring of Spring. ‘As the light lengthens, the cold strengthens’, an old Scots saying goes; but there is plenty to enjoy at this time of year, even if more winter weather is on the horizon.

I love days when a morning’s snow stops falling, the sky lightens and every branch and twig in the woods is sketched in white., 26.1.15-1

As snow turned to heavy rain a fortnight ago, the fields became waterlogged before freezing again. Frozen overspill from the lochan has made lacy patterns amongst the reeds,,26.1.15-2

and the resulting large puddle of ice on the field makes a perfect, safe place for skating and general larking about: even the dogs enjoy slithering on the edge of it…,26.1.15-3

…although the local residents are not impressed by their noisy visitors, and the swan shepherds the mallard ducks further away like an anxious schoolteacher.,26.1.15-4

In the woods, meanwhile, where the last lot of snow has melted, the slanting light creates an enchanted forest:,26.1.15-5

and the blue sky above the trees is a baroque fantasy of cherubic, puffy cloudlets.,26.1.15-6

While ice has lain in places for weeks and more snow is forecast, the first snowdrops attest to the increasing energy in the earth. Their early appearance must be thanks to 2014’s exceptionally mild autumn. What a hopeful sight they are!,26.1.15-7

Crocuses and daffodils are showing strong green shoots too,,26.1.15-8

and the bulbs on the kitchen window sill are in bloom already. I planted them in an old vegetable tureen, surrounding them with fir cones and covering the soil with moss from a tree trunk. Flowering weeks before the outdoor ones will, they add their own cheery sunshine to the room.,26.1.15-9a

I hope these sights have helped to cheer your day a little. And I’ll leave you with one final thought. If those officials are right about the third Monday in January…then that means that every day of the year will be better than today. Which, however your day has been, is an encouraging thought.

You might enjoy the pleasures of a frosty morning, or the contrasting fun to be had in thaw.

Storms and teacups

January 10, 2015

A belated Happy New Year to you! The first week back in reality after Christmas is always a pretty bleary one, isn’t it? Our alarm clock drags us from sleep in the black dark of morning, at least an hour before our holiday wake-up time. It is pretty hard to motivate oneself out of bed in early January. I well remember sitting at my desk in my city job days, nursing a cup of coffee and pleading with the phone, ‘don’t ring, don’t ring,’ as the working day began. Now my day at home begins with nursing a cup of tea in the kitchen, thinking ‘just one more cup, just one more…’.

However, the daylight is definitely growing, if only the teeniest bit. Have you noticed? On bright days I remember how much I love winter, with its clear sunlight and white frosts. Out of the rat race now, I have time to notice the feathery hoar frost on dead grasses,,9.1.15-1

and to enjoy the way the long shadows stripe the fields.,9.1.15-2

I love the stillness you can get in winter. With nature in its dormant phase, one’s own energies naturally turn inwards too. It is a time for reflection, introspection, planning and dreaming.

Having said that, the past twenty-four hours have been anything but still! Winter storms sweeping in from the Atlantic are chasing each other across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Last night we barely slept. Our bedroom is west-facing and high up on the top floor of the castle, below which the ground drops away to the fields. In a westerly gale like last night’s, we feel like gulls on a cliff-face above a roaring sea.  (A westerly is the one we most dread in this house: it finds its way through every chink in the ageing window frames, chilling the whole castle with draughts.) Even huddled under the covers, I felt too shivery for sleep to come. As the storm built to its peak in the wee hours of the morning, the power went off and the blackness was noisy with the banging of doors, rattling of slates and the roar of the wind. We finally dropped off some time after five, when the the wind died down to a muted bellow.

Breakfasting by candlelight this morning, things didn’t seem so bad, of course. We were able to weave our way between fallen branches to the village for a scheduled meeting, and then spent an hour in a cafe for warmth, coffee and internet access. With thousands of people across the Highlands having lost their power supplies, we were resigned to a long wait for reconnection. Who would be an electricity engineer in such conditions: the wind still high, thousands of trees across power lines and more gales with blizzards forecast tomorrow? Bless them, though, they had us back on power by late morning and we were able to get on with the day, stopping every few yards on the way home to drag branches from the drive. Sudden gusts have snapped a number of full-grown trees in two, but there are no significant losses and really there has not been much damage here.

It is further north and west that is bearing the brunt of the storms, with winds of well over 100 miles per hour recorded in the Outer Hebrides last night and Storm force winds forecast tonight and tomorrow as well. We have been thinking of Sian, who blogs about her life in Orkney over at Life on a small island: looking at the weather reports for Stromness recently, I know I am too much of a southern softie to stick life in the Northern Isles! Slow and cold from lack of sleep this afternoon, I put the kettle on and curled up for some introspection again by the fire, with a cup of tea, and just one more…,9.1.15-3

You might like to compare this with the violent winter storms of three years ago in ‘Many of those trees were my friends’.

Ready for the off

December 23, 2014

Looking at my ‘To Do’ list a couple of days ago, I had to chuckle. Along with the usual sort of jobs to remember – ‘make soup’, ‘phone plumber’ – were the following:

– wrap presents

– ice cake

– deck halls [really]

– press angel’s overskirt

That’ll be Christmas, as they say. When else would you be doing the ironing for an angel?

And now the list is all ticked off. Boughs of holly, which this year are thickly covered with scarlet berries, have been spread over windowsills and tucked into antlers: the halls are thoroughly decked (fa la la la la, la la la la!).

Piles of holly ready at the door (and pheasants for the pot).

Piles of holly ready at the door (and pheasants for the pot).

My project to re-upholster the Christmas tree angel, which began in January, has at last been finished. Having laid aside the pink velour in which she arrived, she is now resplendent in an outfit which I have made from fabrics I found in cupboards in the castle: lengths of antique lace and the off-cuts of the ivory satin wedding dress of my husband’s grandmother, who married in 1936.

Even the wings are vintage lace.

Even her wings are now vintage lace.

Advent, such a blessed time, has drawn to its culmination. The reindeer are harnessed and ready for the off.

Reindeer from the Cairngorm herd helping  Father Christmas in Dunkeld.

Reindeer from the Cairngorm herd helping Father Christmas to visit Perthshire.

Thank you for visiting and reading Dancing Beastie this year. May you have a blessed, peaceful and very Merry Christmas!

You might enjoy: The days are accomplished! or Never mind the washing up: the point of Christmas.

A little winter weather

December 16, 2014

After a mild, dull and exceptionally foggy November, the weather in December has livened up a bit. Thank goodness. The first belated frosts at the beginning of the month made me suddenly realise that Christmas is coming and I’d better start getting organised!

As well as frosts, the past fortnight has brought us sheet ice, gales, mists, sleet, snow…a bit of everything, really: even cold, bright sunshine at last. (I think the sun came out only about twice in the whole of November.) I am enjoying the variety after the monotony of November fog. Here are some photos I’ve taken around the castle grounds in the last couple of weeks, to give you a taste.,16.12.14-1


Beyond the sheep grazing in the sunshine, mist hovers like a ribbon of gauze over the frosty shadows.,16.12.14-3


Fallen leaves bristling with frost in blue winter light.,16.12.14-2


Afternoon moonrise over icy fields.,16.12.14-4


Here’s an example of the strange phenomenon you see on frosty days in the woods: the moisture in a recently fallen branch is squeezed out by freezing conditions, and appears to cover the branch in a coat of icy white fur.,16.12.14-5


First snow on the hills.


Our resident mute swan found itself with only a puddle of clear water on the frozen lochan last week: the scuff trails show where the swan laboured to take off and land on the slippery ice.,16.12.14-7


Beyond the dead heads of alliums in the garden, afternoon sun catches the turret windows of the castle.



You might enjoy Frosty morning and some mid-December images from our very snowy winter of 2010, Wintry pleasures.

Reasons for not blogging, or whose idea was it to blurt out my life in the first place?

November 24, 2014

Yes, here’s yet another post from Dancing Beastie. I know, I know, you must have had trouble keeping up with them all recently, I just can’t stop blurting forth, can I?

Or not.

Actually, I have written plenty of posts this year. The problem is finishing them. Most of my dialogue in recent months has been in my head, as I try to work out why my inspiration has deserted me, and what I need to straighten out in my mind before it can return. Tentatively, I think I can at last say that I am beginning to make a tiny bit of headway; and I feel I owe an attempt at an explanation to old blogging friends who have wondered at my silence, as well as to new ‘followers’ who have found nothing to follow.

Um. Well, when I began this blog, there seemed to be so much to share. Life here at the castle still felt fairly novel, so that I could still empathise with, and enjoy responding to, the curiosity of friends who saw my life as a tartan-clad fairy tale. On top of that, my children were both still very young: young enough to come out with gorgeously quirky takes on life which seemed (to their besotted mother) worth recording for posterity. And motherhood was still a new enough experience for me to be still adjusting to it, pondering it, and occasionally kicking against it.

My little boys are both big enough to be at boarding school now, and even the younger one rolls his eyes when we remind the children of the baby words they used to have for things. (‘Clip-clops’ for high heeled shoes was a good one; ‘big flower’ was an early attempt to describe a tree.) Motherhood is my state: no longer a novel experience, it is just blessed, pedestrian, everyday life. And so – at least until the teenage years hit with a vengeance – there seems much less to write about it all than there once was.

As for the tartan-clad fairy tale… well, it still holds true. (Followers of the wildly popular ‘Outlander’ books and TV series would no doubt think so, at any rate, if I say that my very own flame-haired, kilted Highland laird swept me off to be his bride in his medieval castle! Ooh, I can imagine my husband’s blushes from here, not to mention his sisters’ snorts of derision, heh heh.)

One can even get used to living in a fairy tale, however, and we have made our home here at Castle Beastie for over a decade now. Sometimes the wonder of the place is rather obscured by mundanities: by building maintenance and roof repairs, by red tape and hostile government bureaucracy, by trying and failing to accommodate the conflicting wishes of walkers, fishermen, mountain bikers, deer stalkers, picnickers, brides, sporting guns, birdwatchers and all the other parties who use our land – not to mention us, the family who lives here. Of course it can be wearisome sometimes, and I don’t like to dwell on wearisome topics on this blog.

And the other side of living here for all this time is that, naturally, I am no longer seeing it as a newcomer. Rather than wanting to stop and explain things about life here, I am usually just getting on with living it. You might say that, as the glitter has worn off, it has become more precious to me: the castle with its land is a wondrous place, but it is also the home where my family is growing up, and the scene of the same private joys, griefs and trials as any other family might live through. This perhaps makes me increasingly wary of what I share in public, especially as the blogosphere seems so intimidatingly vast and anonymous now in a way that it didn’t when I first began to publish.

For all these reasons, then, I have become rather uncertain as to what and how much to write. The natural world is a continuing source of inspiration and delight to me: I’m not sure what else I want to add into the mix, however. After writing busily and happily all through the years of my recovery from brain injury, it seems rather ironic that I should falter now, but there you are.

Which leads me back to that dialogue, or rather monologue, in my head. (For those of you still awake, I’ll keep this bit brief.) When not taken up with the vital topic of Why I Can’t Finish A Blog Post, it has mostly been pondering the broader background issues. There is no doubt that M.E./ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has knocked me for six this year: I thought I’d be better by now, and I’m not, and waking up every day with weak aching joints and the same exhaustion as the day before is what it sounds like: a tiresome pain in the backside. Quite honestly, there hasn’t been any energy left over for writing. I’m hopeful that there is progress I can make here, however. While the physical origins of the disease M.E. have been clinically proven (pace the naysayers), there is no doubt that one’s health is also affected by psychological factors. With the help of two wonderful ‘wise women’ – one, the cranio-sacral therapist who was such a Godsend after my head injury, the other a medical herbalist and Jungian psychotherapist – I am beginning to understand a little more about  myself than I used to. This will not be of interest to anyone else, which is why I haven’t written about it. But this ‘inner work’ is keeping me busy and I believe is important, as it will be helpful to me and thus my family in the next stage of our life’s journey, whatever that may bring.

Finally, this is not a finale! Writing a blog has brought me such inspiration and pleasure, mainly through the many people who have contributed so much to the process by their comments, encouragement and friendship. (You know who you are, and blessings upon you.) I wouldn’t want to give that up for anything. Dancing Beastie will keep going, if only in fits and starts, for the foreseeable future. I hope that, by explaining to you why the ‘fits’ have outweighed the ‘starts’ this year, I might have cleared the path to get it running again. Thank you so much for your patience.


You might enjoy Ten years and an age: the family in the castle and, on blogging, Hello, World!




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