Soapy water may kill off our unwanted wasps, but I actually feel sorry for them

A LITTLE interest is a dangerous thing. It can lead to complicated relationships with creatures which are completely oblivious of your attention and benign focus. But there’s no going back. Once you start to look closely at wildlife, even the nippy, stingy, messy, smelly things, they begin to get a hold over you.

It wasn’t only bees that were enjoying warm, moist evenings last week. A visitor caught sight of a small, airborne body nipping in and out of some of our fuchsia flowers and warned us “wasp”! fI was sceptical. I know a wasp when I see one, having grown up with hundreds of them every summer and all their nasty ways. It must have been a hover fly, or maybe a bee fly, both of which are harmless.

There’s nothing like being wrong for restoring a proper sense of proportion and respect.

It was a wasp. Worse, there was another. I do like insect watching, but childhood memories of wasp nest destruction go deep. Our apple and plum orchard was very susceptible to wasp invasions, and tracking down their nests was an early experience which brought special rewards. Dad used to catch a wasp in a jam trap and tie brightly coloured thread round its middle. We would then all watch it as he released it and tried to trail it back to the nest. When he got right back to a nest, he dispatched the colony.

My visitor advised pouring very soapy water down the nest hole. “Wasps can’t breathe if they are covered with soap,” he explained and I was reminded of school biology lessons, where we had to draw “spiracles”, the system of little holes through which air is circulated, bringing life-giving oxygen to the insects.

The trouble is, the more you learn about something, the less you can readily kill it; even if it is a nuisance, or a dangerous critter. I have even been feeling sorry for blue bottles this week. Sunny afternoons seem to bring them into the porch in droves. There they have a high old time, until, in their desperate attempts to regain the outside, they aim repeatedly at the glass of the window, trapped by the wooden frame.

I leave the door open, but most of them end up dead on the windowsill.

So from now on, I shall keep a wary eye open for these latest invaders. I have been advised to look for the holes in the ground, where they access their nests. Apparently if you pour scalding, very soapy water down the holes, it kills the whole nest just about as fast and efficiently as it is possible to do. But fair is fair, and I believe that they do eat greenfly and other garden pests, so they are not all bad.

But now back to Stromfirth, where I am still sifting through vivid memories of recent wan­derings, which will not even begin to fade.

The approach to West Hamarsland (or just “Hamarsland” as some local folk advised us) must surely be one of the most charismatic and attractive places in Shetland. There are some configurations of landscape, set with buildings of a certain scale and character, which stop you in your tracks. There is a powerful urge to capture the magic; to reach for camera, or sketching materials and strive to immortalise the effect. This is one such. Add to it a lively sky reflected in a beautiful loch, low, sharp sunlight, autumn heather tints and you could stay for hours just looking. The road out to this old homestead was built for horse and cart rather than motor vehicles and reminds me of the marvellous road built by one man by hand in Raasay many years ago.

We made our way along the green road, with its massive stone reinforcements against the hill slope. The remains of sturdy, inventive bridges required more time for admiration. More mysterious stone scenes, excavated corners and puzzling features held us in debate but the old crofthouse itself held sway over all. Even the extraordinary stone built house, which from far away resembles more closely a small chapel or schoolhouse, seemed to defer to the older ruin. We marvelled at the fine masonry, but then Stromfirth was, we had been told, a valley of masons for generations. There was apparently a Jamieson family who stayed here, working the steep but fertile land. Precisely when the croft was first established, or exactly when it was last vacated we have been unable to establish, but we would like to have found out.

The little chapel-like house has a lot of atmosphere and stands in the most marvellous position for views, though it must be very exposed to gales, perched as it is on a high rocky outcrop well above the old crofthouse buildings. The old green road winds towards it around the curve of the hill; a fast flowing burn races down to the sea between banks which are curiously low in places, then suddenly very deep and steep in others, only a few metres away. Could this have been a melt water channel during the last ice age, or is the water carving down through a kind of glacial dump; a Roche moutonnee of sorts? Are there are geomorphologists out there who could interpret this little corner?

At the back of the scene, to the north, a high stepping platoon of single file electricity posts marches behind the house, down to the loch, where it wades out west, mounts the far bank and dwindles over the horizon, trailing its loops of cables.

New and old fit smoothly together in one gaunt but haunting pattern. Even older are the patterns down at the shore below. Here lies evidence of a whole complex of sites long since robbed for their stone, rebuilt many times as new folk arrived to live and work on the same piece of shore. There must surely be at least three sites, all on top of each other, like a mini Scatness. There are giant stones, buried up to their necks in deep turf. There are sizeable banks, following the lines of ancient foundations, curved lines following the course of more great stones, buried completely. Just below the old buildings of West Hamarsland, these remains lie in a tantalising tangle at the loch’s edge.

Next week, if the floods don’t stop us, Wildernews will come from the wilds of England and Scotland, as I plooch across the soggy wastes in search of relations and friends on the annual family pilgrimage. I hope there will still be blackberries on the brambles!

Jill Slee Blackadder


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