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Food and views for free
It isn’t often the humble wild bramble gets a mention in the press these days when just about everything we consume comes wrapped in plastic from a supermarket. But so noticeable and plentiful is its fruit throughout Argyll this season, it would be remiss of anyone interested in the natural history of the highways and byways, not to record such an unprecedented crop.
Despite the constant rain, or perhaps because of it and a few days of bright sunshine as the plants came into flower, their branches are now bowed down with berries. It was often said that brambles were never at their best until there had been a hard frost but so far, in Morvern at least, the temperature has not dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit this autumn. There may be another explanation for this year’s explosion and one which I am not aware of, but one thing is certain it is not an indication of a hard winter to come.
Brambles (Rubus fruticosus) make fine jam, jelly and wine. In the old days the root was dug up in February and March and boiled with honey and taken as a cure for oedema, better known as dropsy, the old term for the swelling of soft tissues due to the accumulation of excess water in cavities beneath the skin. When plants were used at home as a source of dye, the fresh young roots and leaves provided grey and orange colours for woollen shawls and stockings. The prickly bramble is the clan badge of the MacLeans.
For a reason I cannot explain, my two Jack Russell terriers, Nipper and Polo, have taken to gorging themselves on bramble berries. They help themselves by crawling among the bushes and pulling the fruit off the branches with no noticeable effect on their mouths or stomachs regardless of the sharp thorns. It seems strange, but it is not unknown, as I have read of badgers, pine martins, foxes and other small mammals, supplementing their diet in this way.
Chanterelle too have been prolific in the Morvern peninsula this season. Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius), or golden chanterelle, are probably the most well known wild mushrooms. They’re sought after by chefs and foodies due to their delicate flavour, which some describe as mildly peppery. Ranging in colour from yellow to deep orange, they are easily spotted in the woods. They can be as large as three inches in diameter, but two inches is closer to average. The cap is wavy and generally funnel-shaped. Their false gills appear as wrinkles that are forked and wavy with blunt edges and run down the stem. Chanterelle also have a distinct fruity apricot-like aroma and enhance stews, especially venison.
While on the subject of John Keats’ “seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, seal numbers around our coastline have shot up dramatically over the past few years. Some say the population is too high and that they are the reason why salmon and sea trout no longer run up West Coast rivers as they used to.
Visitors like to see seals in the wild and imagine them to be soft and cuddly; others believe them to be the souls of drowned sailors. I have watched hundreds of massive grey seals and their pups at close quarters on Fladda on the Treshnish Isles, and off the great beaches of Mingulay and Pabbay, as they idle and bob on a full gut. Fascinating as they are, I would not like to get between a mother and her young in the calving season when the adults behave like angry Rottweilers. Perhaps Mother Nature will step in, as she always does, and reduce the population to a sustainable level by giving them a type of flu which will be beneficial to both animal and man.
I suppose it could also be said that there has also been a good crop of tourists this year. Too many, where there are single track roads and limited facilities. The trouble with tourism is that once it starts and the genie gets out of the bottle, it is impossible to put the lid back on.
VisitScotland and selfish advertising must take a major share of the blame where places such as the Quiraing, the Jacobite monument at Glenfinnan and the Fairy Pools in Glen Brittle (which no one had heard about until recently) and are now almost impossible to get near, let alone park by.
The Rev Norman Macleod of Fiunary (1812-72) was ahead of his time when, in 1867, he wrote of Sithean na Raplaich in his Reminiscences of a Highland Parish, ‘We back this view from the highest hill in the parish for extent and varied beauty against any view in Europe! It is the Righi [king] of Argyleshire and given only what, alas! is not easily obtained, a good day, we know not where to find a more magnificent outlook over God’s fair earth. I name not its name, lest inquisitive tourist hunt it, and make it a lion, and get it at last into guidebooks.’ Sorry Mr Macleod!