More Halloween fun from RSPB Media & Communications Officer, Melanie Paget!
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -Only this, and nothing more.'”
These immortal opening lines of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, are just one example of the link, in the minds of many, between birds and the supernatural. Despite all the advances of modern science and understanding, this connection has continued through the years, from Hitchcock’s iconic The Birds to the oft repeated phrase “Dark wings, dark words” in George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. But just what is it that makes birds, perhaps more than any other creature, the object of such fascination and suspicion?
The answer might lie in the fact that unlike most animals, the majority of birds have the almost supernatural gift of flight. The human mind can understand the walking, crawling, running and even swimming behaviours of other creatures, but flight is an elusive skill that has always evaded us, unless aided by technology. Unable to explain the phenomenon, it must have been all too easy for early naturalists to attribute birds’ aerobatic ease to the dark arts or the supernatural.
In the darkening months of autumn the sounds of barn owls and nightjar (also gruesomely known as goatsuckers) at our reserves provide a suitably eerie backdrop to ghost stories and superstitions. One such legend concerns the much loved barnacle geese, which are currently arriving in their thousands at our Mersehead and Loch Gruinart reserves.
Barnacle geese at Mersehead (photo: Kaleel Zibe)
In the days before scientists understood the ins and outs of goose migration it was thought that barnacle geese were born from goose barnacles growing on driftwood and washed in shore in the autumn storms. The crustaceans have the same colourings as the delicate barnacle geese and it was thought that, like some kind of feathered caterpillar, the birds emerged from the shells to graze on our shores in the autumn and winter months.
While the tale of the barnacle geese now seems far fetched, perhaps what we can take away from this is the sense of awe that birds give us. They are magical, entrancing and otherworldly, but not in the sinister and dark way our ancestors thought, making it all the more important to help conserve these beautiful and mysterious creatures.
RSPB Media & Communications officer, Melanie Paget, has rounded up the very best in spooky stories from our reserves.
Ghostly goings on at Scottish reserves...
A raven to set the mood (photo: Chris Gomersall)
You might be forgiven for thinking that braving the Scottish weather this October was a scary enough prospect in itself, however it seems that many of the RSPB reserves in South and West Scotland have spooky stories of their own. Do you dare explore them this Halloween?
Crook of Baldoon
The road to Baldoon Mains leads to the ivy-covered ruins of Baldoon Castle. The quiet and deserted ruins are haunted by the ghost of Janet Dalrymple who walks there in the small hours, her white garments splashed with blood.
Janet’s sad tale starts in the middle of the seventeenth century when, as the eldest daughter of Sir James Dalrymple, she was forced to marry David Dunbar, heir of Sir David Dunbar of Baldoon, despite her love for the practically penniless local, Archibald.
Despite her misgivings, the dutiful Janet married David in the kirk of Old Luce, her brothers later swore that her hands were cold as ice on that hot summer day. Was this a case of cold feet (or indeed cold hands)? Or was it something more sinister?
Here the story varies. One account tells that a heartbroken Jane stabs her bridegroom in the bridal chamber and dies insane. In another version, the bridegroom stabs the bride and is found insane, and in the third version, the disappointed lover, Archibald, conceals himself in the bridal chamber, stabs David, and escapes through the window into the garden.
Whatever the facts, Sir Walter Scott immortalised the story in The Bride of Lammermoor and describes how the door of the bridal chamber was broken down after hideous shrieks were heard from within. The rescuers found the bridegroom lying across the threshold, dreadfully wounded and streaming with blood, while the traumatised bride crouched in a chimney corner, her white night-gown splashed with blood, grinning and muttering and quite insane. Jane never recovered and died shortly afterwards, on September 12th, 1669.
Whatever the events of the night, they seem to have left their mark in the area forever and there are some who claim to have seen the sad and awesome ghost of Janet wandering among the quiet ruins, most often on the anniversary of her death.
Kenmure castle, next to part of the Ken-Dee Marshes reserve, is the ancestral seat of the Gordons of Lochinvar. William Gordon, Viscount Kenmure was executed at the Tower of London in 1716 for his part in the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and ever since the castle is reputed to be haunted by a headless piper. Weather the eerie sounds passersby have heard is the gruesome headless piper or water rails calling at night is up for debate.
The Oronsay Farmhouse is reportedly haunted by the figure of a woman walking along the top corridor of the house passing through what was once a doorway, but which is now blocked off. Many people, some of whom refuse to stay there, feel uncomfortable in the higher rooms.
The shade of Angus haunts Mhoinemhor at Gruinart, on Islay. Angus was a man devoured, possibly whilst alive, by rats. Angus’ haunting cries can still be heard in the quiet of the night when conditions are right – some people think they are curlew and spotted crake, but we know better!
Our very own James Reynolds, Head of Media & Communications at RSPB Scotland, tells us about a favourite pastime.
Foraging and then fungi…
My enthusiasm for all things mycological began about 15 years ago, when someone first bought me a copy of Richard Mabey’s seminal foraging bible Food for Free as a birthday gift. Already a veritable foodie with a deep love of cooking, as well as an enthusiastic outdoor type, this fantastic little book provided the link that had been missing in my life for quite a few years. It seemed to me that foraging had an enormous amount to offer to enhance and enrich the outdoor experiences I was already having, allowing me to get much closer to the natural environment and learn about the wild origins of almost all of what we now buy from the supermarket.
I started on the basics, picking the easily identifiable comestibles, like nettles, blackberries, crab apples, elderflowers and berries, with the occasional less well-known like sorrel or wild garlic. I still do this today, and enjoy it every bit as much as the first time I gathered for the pot.
Blackberries in Lochaber
This foraging activity was as much about mental and physical health; satisfying the soul as well as the stomach. Foraging is essentially another way of saying “hunter-gathering”, and whilst I have no yearning to return to the asperities of living a Mesolithic lifestyle, struggling through a hand to mouth existence on foods of little nutritional value like silverweed roots, it is still immensely satisfying to engage in something which our ancestors did - literally. There is an undeniable atavistic pleasure to be had in heading out with the intention of searching for something to eat, gathering that targeted foodstuff and then taking it home and cooking it. It is incredibly liberating.
Whilst I was occasionally embarking on little foraging forays to supplement my largely supermarket-supplied larder, there was one foodstuff that I was never brave enough to target: mushrooms.
Unlike our European cousins, Britons were, until recently, a nation of dedicated mycophobes. Whilst most folk probably knew what a field mushroom was and would be able to identify it, everything else was a toadstool – pregnant with all the risks that this ancient pejorative implies. This was exacerbated by the not insignificant fact that there are quite a few mushrooms out there that can cause a person quite serious harm if wrongly identified and ingested, and a few that will cause rapid and painful death.
But TV series like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s A Cook on the Wild Side and Ray Mear’s Bushcraft told me that, with the application of a little effort to learn the secrets of identification, this did not have to be the case, and there was a whole other kingdom of foodstuffs just waiting to be gathered.
Still working at The Scotsman, I pitched the idea of a feature on mushroom foraging to the magazine editor who agreed. The next week, accompanied by Dick Peebles from Caledonian Wildfoods, I was out in the woods and forests surrounding Loch Lomond picking egg-yolk coloured chanterelles smelling of sweet apricots, plucking chicken of the woods looking like fronds of sulphurous coral from the trunk of an oak tree, and liberating a beefsteak fungus, resembling an ox’s tongue, from the base of a sweet chestnut tree – all on my first foray. I was immediately hooked, and bought a couple of books to assist me in expanding my identification skills.
Since then, I have looked forward to the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness like a child willing Christmas to come sooner. Initially it was just so that I could gather something for the pot and satisfy that hunter-gathering instinct. Indeed, I can now confidently identify most of the common edible species in the UK, from the delectable penny bun or cep - Boletus edulis - to those requiring a lot more homework like the charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha or the utterly delicious St George’s Mushrooms Calocybe gambosa.
Cep or Penny bun
The common inkcap Coprinus atramentariusis one of those strange mushrooms that seems to occupy a category all of its own, straddling both the edible and poisonous species. This is because it is edible, but becomes poisonous if eaten within 72 hours before or after alcohol. It contains a rare amino acid called coprine that has the mischievous quality of rendering the liver unable to break down alcohol, and can cause alarming nausea, intoxication, hotness, sweating, shortness of breath and other symptoms. Whilst I have found it many times, my fondness for a tipple with a meal has always deterred me from trying it out. But these days, I’m just as pleased to chance upon a particularly fine specimen of fungi that might have some other, historic, practical purpose other than gastronomy.
Take the fantastic horse’s hoof fungus – Fomes fomentarius, the largest specimens of which I have ever seen I found on a recent trip to Fort Augustus. When the mummified body Otzi the iceman was found in 1991 between Austria and Italy, his bag of survival items contained this mushroom as part of what archaeologists believe was a complex fire-starting kit. It is still, to this day, known as ‘tinder fungus’ and is used to make amadou which will take a spark from a flint and steel, and is also used in fly fishing to flies and help them float.
Foraging is even more fun with friends. Here's a Horse's hoof fungus
Another beautiful bracket fungus which is common throughout the birch woods of Scotland is the Razorstrop fungus, Piptoporus betulinus. This shell-shaped fungus which looks like a puffball that’s been squashed against a trunk, has a pure white, almost rubbery textured flesh in young specimens if they are cut open. But as it dries it becomes corky, and it was in this condition that strips of the fungus were used as strops to sharpen cutting tools and take off the burr after honing.
Getting familiar with mushrooms and fungi, either to boost one’s larder, or simply from a point of interest in this fascinating kingdom, is a fantastic way to enhance one’s appreciation of nature. And right now is the season to get out and about!