19th September 2018
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No concoction can defeat the midge

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DEMONS! Perishing peerie menaces! I am absolutely certain that this year’s midges have been genetically engineered by aliens, intent on depopulating the isles.

We have been having such glorious sunny days and evenings, but when the wind drops, out they come and despite dousing myself in every conceivable anti midge concoction, in I go, defeated. I suppose I should be grateful that at least it’s not mosquitoes. Worse still, it could be New Zealand Sand flies.

But when the breeze rises above a whisper, the midges do begin to drift back to base and peace returns. Shetland at this time of year can be heavenly. Visitors can head for the hills and lie back in the heather, breathing in the rich waves of honey scented air and gazing across vast seascapes, strewn with sleepy islands.

The only downside to coming here in the later summer is that the puffins are starting to leave their breeding sites. Former scenes of mass activity, smell and noise will soon be silent and deserted.

One scene which is never deserted, however, is the Burland Croft Trail, created in Trondra by Mary and Tommy Isbister.

Seven-year-old Fin prodded me out of a spell of rare, hot afternoon lassitude, pleading for a chance to return to the farm he remembered from several years before and off we went to meet the multifarious characters in this magical little corner of Shetland. On the way there he recalled the only two things he hadn’t enjoyed on his previous visit. He had been scared of dogs and turkeys. But that was then. This was now.

A beautiful pair of sheepdogs greeted us, and their perfect obedience to Mary’s commands and their sensitivity to Fin’s nerves soon had him reassured. He felt their silky noses and even told his mum later: “I loved them!”

The turkeys too were no problem now he was seven. Big fella turkey strutted about in slow motion, like an old time emperor, making himself as big as he could, with every fabulously gleaming, iridescent feather held at maximum stretch. He gave forth occasional sharp booming calls which have to be heard to be believed.

Around him and among his many prattling wives, the rest of the poultry scuttled and dashed, racing for the scatters of pellets which Fin threw from his little bucket of feed. Bantams with fringed feet and comical topknots competed to feed from his increasingly confident hands.

He was amazed at the variety of the birds and the range of the sounds they made; soft peepings from ducklings, the plaintive call of the baby turkey and the many voices of cocks and hens, large and small, black, white and brindle, fancy and plain.

Mary appeared with bottles of milk for the caddie lambs and we set off down the field to find them. We were escorted by a bevy of more hens and there was soon nothing but dust in our buckets. It was good to see the black, reinforced matting now half buried under a short growth of pineapple weed, well set in and ready for any wheelchair users to visit. The gates and stiles too helped make the whole visit easier.

The lambs were so eager for the milk, that Finlay got the giggles and had quite a time trying to stop laughing enough to keep the bottle pointing downwards.

Eventually, persuaded that there wasn’t a single drop left, the woolly pair finally stopped butting the bottle. They released their grip on the red teats and retreated to the shade behind a shed, where they lay and panted in the heat. We returned to the yard.

Finlay had vivid memories of pigs and he wasn’t disappointed.

A magnificent mum relaxed in blissfully spacious surroundings, while her well grown litter slept in a tangle of long, ginger bodies and snuffly snouts. They woke up, much to Fin’s delight and clattered out to greet us, scrambling to gobble up some pieces of apple, with squeals of excitement and slobbers of enjoyment.

Like many Shetland bairns, I grew up familiar with livestock taking all the palaver and paraphernalia of farm life for granted, but those who are new to it all can find it quite a challenge. Fin’s eyes grew ever wider as the visit progressed. There were the ponies with dangerous weapons to be warned of, behind velvetty lips; Cows were far bigger, close up, than he expected and bare legs and sandals quailed at the sight of thistles in the field.

But there was always a way through, and thistles, he soon discovered, were important.

Bumble bees and butterflies were particularly partial to a good stand of thistles. So too, he learned, were thousands of small, tired migrant birds later towards winter, when those heavenly scented, purple plushes of flowers turned to frosty tufts of seeds.

We saw more purple in the tattie field, where great bands of different varieties were in full flower. One band had large white flowers, another purple ones with yellow centres. A third strip had small white flowers. We tend to forget the exotic flowers of the potato plant when rifling for a handful of tatties for the pot.

Sun, warmth, a glittering from the sea beyond, deep green fields and dazzling blue sky – Burland was at its most beautiful. Add to that the chattering stream winding between tall iris and rush leaves, the marvellous mill and the upturned, boat-roofed hen house, the wild flowers and scattered feathers at your feet and you couldn’t wish for more.

To finish up with, there was a visit to the barn where interpretive sheets, post cards and posters awaited, fleeces for sale in a great, multi-coloured pile.

You can’t put a price on this kind of experience, and this was just a summer visit. Harvest is still to come. And while on the subject of harvest, how is your harvest coming along?

Here I have been gathering tall, dry grass stems for decorative vases over winter. Mat grass is stiff enough to stand by itself in tiny vases. They press well for craft work and pictures.

Bent needs to be dried in bunches, but you can press individual stems between the pages of an old, rubbishy book. Pressing flowers and grasses rather ruins the book, so if it has any second hand value, get hold of one that doesn’t.

As you lay out each stem between the pages, you get to see really clearly the differences between the different species. Grasses are so varied, with some quite chunky, knobbly even, while others trail, splay, hang their heads or spread out like tiny Christmas trees.

Anyone working with bairns can fill several books of grasses now, while they are at their best for pressing. Come the October break you can entertain youngsters for hours making Christmas cards decorated with pressed grasses. Bunches of dried grasses too make lovely, lightweight gifts.

Those who have managed to fight off the urge to cut every blade and stem of their banks, edges and lawns, will have plenty of varied grass flowers to gather close to home. Those who are still at war with anything which dares to poke up beyond the two centimetre cut-off line, will have to search further afield.

Karen and Peter from Sundibanks have the best of both worlds. They have mown, open grassy spaces and stands of natural long grass.

Then even better, a large expanse of grass which has been mown all summer in a giant spiral. A neat, green velvet path leads round and round in ever decreasing circles between waving, silvery bands of flowering Yorkshire fog, to a mown circle at the centre where the bairns can gather to play, or just lie back and watch the clouds.

Jill Slee Blackadder