You probably know the Scottish traditional song that begins ‘Let the wind blow high, let the wind blow low’, made famous by Callum Kennedy and Andy Stewart half a century ago, so I’ll not bother you with the lyrics. But it got into my head as I was contemplating the most recent storms, Malik and Corrie, and it won’t go away. Like the wind you might say. We had not recovered from November’s Arwen and Barra when more amber warnings were given. Often amber warnings come and go without too much damage, but not so Malik and Corrie who visited us on 29 and 30 January; sadly, killing someone in Aberdeen, and causing widespread devastation. The food vans were back in Torphins and round about to provide for those who had lost power. Once more the gates at Crathes were locked and the trails closed. The gardeners and rangers worked against the clock because local people always look on access to Crathes as their right. The estate, castle and gardens were all open by the next weekend.
Because I hadn’t really caught up with all the destruction of Arwen and Barra I’ve lost track of which storm caused which particular bit of damage out on the estate. A trip down the back drive left me appalled and saddened. Emotion welled up as I looked on the devastation, the huge grand firs criss-crossed around the plantation like pick-a-sticks. The chain saws had been busy clearing for access – all those individual trees; all that carbon stacked and likely to be released into the atmosphere. Go Ape, where my grandchildren have enjoyed swinging high up through the trees, lay destroyed. Grand firs, Abies grandis, grow very quickly and I could count the rings easily on the cut tree trunks: roughly forty-six rings though not at the base of the tree, suggesting that they were probably planted some time after the 1953 gale and chosen for their rapid growth.
Later that day, by chance, I listened to Roddy Hamilton, one of our rangers, talking on the radio about the effect of storm Arwen and the destruction that I had just come upon.* Like me, he had been appalled, but he talked about the resilience of wildlife and some of the benefits of blow outs in the woods. Even the herons, whose heronry trees were also destroyed, he thought might return. I hope and expect that some of the fallen trees will be left to rot so that insects, fungi, birds, mammals and others organisms can benefit from the apparent chaos; after all it’s nature’s way – the cycle of life.
On a positive note, I have been meeting with Dave, a volunteer who is labelling the trees around the castle. James is keen that we produce a leaflet in connection with the new labelling. Dave is an experienced birdwatcher so I have been learning more about birdsong as a bonus.
As ever, the weather dominates the gardener’s year. Last year it was late frosts that did the damage and we may well see those again, but it’s good to see the survivors doing well so far.
And there’s plenty of the routine winter work that needs addressed. James oversees everything and catches up with administration, working in the garden when possible, recently around the East Lodge. Andy and Emily have been pruning; Mike and Steve have been filling in and re-positioning plants in the herbaceous borders; Joanna, pleased to be nearly finished with the painting, has set up an attractive white display; and the volunteers have been weeding, clearing leaves, tidying up neglected corners and helping wherever needed. Davy and Kevin, out in the grounds, are mostly clearing up after the gales.
Whilst they work, I scout about looking for garden stories: have the viburnums benefited from the hard pruning they received; how many flowers are there on the winter iris; is the daphne yet in full bloom?
The light is magnificent. To date the year has been exceptionally sunny. It’s not difficult to find colours: bright cobalt blue skies fading to white; yellow winter jasmine; shining green moss; 50 shades of green/blue conifers and the subtleties of bark and lichen: grey; brown; green; maroon, even black. And let’s throw in a pink castle and a robin redbreast. Shapes and long shadows accentuate the garden structure – it’s a feast for the senses and not just the eyes.
As the sun warms the garden the bees appear searching for the scents that tell of nectar rewards and maybe pollen: witch hazel and daphne by the viewpoint, sarcococca on the Yew Border, honeysuckle on the Aviary Terrace, viburnums in abundance, snow drops and snowflakes everywhere. The drumming of the woodpecker makes me smile; a sure sign that spring is on its way. The tits are busy announcing their presence and Dave alerts me to the mistle thrush song – a rather mournful version of a song thrush. What a joy to think of the year stretching out before us with lengthening days and warming temperatures. I lay a hand on a tree trunk and feel the heat of the sun on the bark.
For taste we will have to look to the past. For centuries the southern half of the Crathes walled garden would have been overflowing with vegetables and fruit, but today a diversity of flowers and shrubs has overtaken the kitchen garden. There will be grapes to eat in due course but just a few bunches.
This assault on the senses leaves me with heightened awareness; almost a sixth sense though not as defined in the dictionary. This spirituality which – for me – has no connection with religion is surely where our feeling of well-being springs from. This is why it has been so important to clear the trails quickly, so that people could regain their right to walk in the woods; to see the light, hear the birds, smell the pines and, when inclined to, hug a tree.
Westhill Rotary have been helping to clear Rhododendron ponticum at Crathes.**
All Aberdeenshire schools are to receive an apple tree as part of the Greenspace Project
The wind continues to be unpredictable and as I write a yellow warning for high winds is expected: storm Dudley. I doubt it has finished with us yet, so hang on to your kilt Donald.
*Keith Community Radio: KCR 107.7 FM
**see NTS North East Ranger Service facebook page