Sunday, August 14, 2016

the animals, the river, the hills

 At the Windlestraw Inn, where you surely come to unwind, explore, take in the country air, the weather becomes an important point of discussion: how is it now, how will it be, say, in an hour or two. The consensus at breakfast is that we have a morning window of good clouds -- the kind that don't do anything dramatic and that occasionally part to reveal a quick sliver of sunlight -- and after that, well, probably a bit of a slide into the usual.

The weather deftly disposed of, we switch our attention to politics. I'm there with the Italians, whose English isn't adequate enough to participate (I must spend a year in the UK to practice! -- she says; her husband looks troubled: does she mean without me?) and I'm there, too with the Aberdeen couple whom I met last evening. I know they are both scientists and so I plunge into Brexit talk, knowing that whatever views they hold are likely to be informed and based as much on fact as on passion.

And I learn something: they voted no (not a surprise considering over 60% of Scots voted no to an EU exit) and I comment how the Scottish seem more generous on issues of social welfare and immigration.
Maybe, she answers. But in fact, Scotland's "no" was different from London's "no." London is worldly, Scotland has a declining population. We need immigration.
Her husband agrees. We've been thrilled with the influx of Poles. In my (biotech) firm, we hired a Polish man who is terribly overqualified and an excellent worker. I asked why he's doing this -- he should be higher up! He reminds me that he earns ten times what he would in Poland.
The Polish people -- they squeeze together in small apartments and they work hard to send money home. We expect the wave of new immigrants will do the same.

I ask about their Prime Minister Theresa May. Perhaps there's some sympathy for her in Scotland? After all, she may be the leader of the Conservative Party, but she cast a "no" vote to Brexit.
Ha! You have to remember that Scotland suffered (for 15 years) under Margaret Thatcher. She hated us! May comes along twenty years later, but we, Scots have a long memory. There's no love lost for the Conservatives. She thinks a while. Perhaps our memory is a tad too long. We hold grudges! 

Ha! So there's a dose of passion after all!

She smiles, with that bit of wistfulness you save for something you wish weren't as it is. Like in your country, we thought we had an extreme (in Thacher). These days, her positions seem so tame!

They're returning to Aberdeen. Me, I have a plan for my own day: I had seen signs for the Peebles Agricultural Society Grand Open Show and if you've been reading Ocean for more than a year or so, you'll know that I love Scotland's agricultural fairs! There is no better way to get close to the farming communities that surround me. Here's where you come face to face with the locals who know their stuff. And you see the animals, expertly raised, tended, herded, handled. I have a weakness for watching those who do things well. The people who proudly show the best of their herd at these fairs do things very very well.

I get off the bus just a handful of miles before Peebles. I'd seen these grounds being prepared for the fair. It's a beautiful setting, against the backdrop of undulating Borders hills. Oh! There's a John Deere on display just as I enter!


What I did not expect is the mud. It's ankle deep in places and there's no good way around it. Every person here (with the rare exception of dumb outsiders like me) is wearing rubber boots. The kids are splattered beyond the knee cap but it hardly matters. They're prepared.

Me, I'm in my low trekking shoes. I have a clean pair of pants on and I quickly realize that for the second day now I'll be washing clothes and using the warm radiator to get things dry. My shoes will need a thorough rinse as well. I'll be looking for clean brooks on my hike later in the day.

Let's concentrate on the animals. Sheep dominate. Of course they do! And it's not just the standard white. We have the gold. And the beautiful black.


And everything in between.

I watch several competitions. Here, he's trying to herd them back for the judging. If you ever watched sheep being handled by humans, you'll agree that it's a bewildering game. Sheep respond in ways that, to the layperson, seem dumb and unpredictable, though I'm sure there's reason behind their movement.



(Watching, learning, perhaps rooting for a family member...)


In this competition of rams, the handlers all get low on cue and the sheep -- well, they do their group thing which I completely do not get. The judge takes notes.


To get the rams to where they should be, two people grab the horns and drag the animal into position.


The two finalists. (Spoiler alert! The lighter shaded one will win!)


I force myself to move on. There's more to the fair than just sheep. There is the competition of crooks and herding sticks.


And cattle! I bring you greetings from the Scottish Highland herd in Wisconsin (you know, the one belonging to the corn farmers up the road from our farmette)!


And even rabbits.


But ultimately, the sheep dominate. I dare say, in looks as well as numbers.


For the little kids, there are a few diversions, though frankly, they're a bit of an after thought. A few will ride now and then. Most, however, toddle around between stalls and competitions.


 I leave satisfied. I have had my day of sheep.


Where to now? Well, there is a hiking path to Peebles that looks promising. Can't be more than four miles from fair to town. I already had an unexpected cloudburst at the fair. If it rains again - so be it.

It's along the River Tweed. Are all my hikes here slated to be near the river? I look around me. It's a stunning landscape!


Here, too, I find riverside flowers.


The trail serves also as a bike path and so it's easy to navigate. But halfway into it, the scenery deteriorates. I'm meandering between some light industry and the Peebles sewage plant. Eventually I reenter the forest, but I am by the road. It's a poor ending to my Borders hiking adventures.

And so I decide that it mustn't be the end. The weather is holding. I should finally venture into the hills!

In a book of trails I find one out of Peebles that actually looks quite tame and more importantly, there are no warnings about bogging your way through mud or losing yourself in the forest. I turn off the bike path and head for the hills.

In terms of views, it is without doubt the best of my hikes here. Within an hour, I've left all traces of Peebles (or peoples!) behind me. I'm in the hills alright and they're alive with the color of tall grasses and harebells -- the same ones I so associate with Islay!


Very quickly I come to a clearing with a view toward the hills. I pause for a time-release photo...


This makes my stay in the Borders feel complete. I am deeply content.

As I dip into the valley to climb the parallel hill, I am impressed by signs from a local farmstead welcoming walkers. This, to me, is one of the best things about visiting Scotland: the knowledge that I (and you and the rest of the world) have a right to roam wherever I want. That the land, all of it, is open to me. That I can gaze out at a forest and love its deep green hues from any vantage point, that I can meander any which way and feel that the planet is as much mine to love as the person's who formally "owns" a field, a garden, or a meadow.

 As I descend back toward Peebles, I am stunned at the beauty of these hills. And the flowers! Oh, that rosebay willow herb!


The weather holds. The clouds, suspended in their desire to dominate, hold off with any rains. Every now and then I see the play of sunshine on a distant hill. It's just magnificent!


Eventually Peebles come into view. It's a pretty perspective.


And now I'm in town, poking around the High Street...


And in a shop of locally woven goods there are pretty children's scarves and I do think Snowdrop would like one...


I visit, too, a chocolate shop recommended by the diners last night from Peebles. It's abuzz with people eating cakes and sipping tea, but I settle for a berry smoothie and several gifts for my Islay hosts and this really does wrap up my Borders adventures.

From the bus on the ride back to my Inn, I watch the people leave the fairgrounds. Muddied boys and muddied farmers, satisfied, I'm sure deeply satisfied, maybe there was a ribbon won, maybe there was just a friendly conversation with a fellow farmer...


Yes, I see the sheep are mostly still there, but trailers are hauling livestock away, to be returned home, to the fields and the hills were they belong, were they spend their days grazing, heedless of the weather...


And now I'm at the Inn, waiting for the guests to come down so that we can all go in for a masterfully prepared dinner. Oh! A mirror! A selfie.


Sylvia, one of the innkeepers, jokes that she has put my little table at the head of the room so I can preside over the rest. I have brought down a book to read. I am happy to merely look around me.

But an extraordinary thing happens. The couple next to me -- newcomers -- ask me if I would join them at their table. In all my years (decades!) of solo travel, I've never had such a spontaneous and kind invitation.

They are Canadian transplants to England and they are actually celebrating an anniversary and I joke that I am ruining their most special evening, but they assure me that they've been together long enough that I am ruining nothing at all.

It should come as no surprise that they are wickedly funny, kind and with fascinating life stories.


Now if only their path took them through Wisconsin...
A road trip, maybe? -- the husband muses.

Yes, of course! Those you left behind in Canada! Right through Wisconsin!

The next morning dawns gray. The grass is wet and I see puddles in the courtyard.


We know better. It means nothing at all! IN an hour all may change.

I come down for my final Borders breakfast of eggs and salmon. Of mushrooms and tomato. Breads, yogurts, fruits. And then I hurry to begin my convoluted journey to Islay.