Monday, 20 April 2015

’Highlight’ of the month…possibly not seen for 150 years!

My meeting with Ron last month re his book about Abernethy Forest saw an amazing development.  During our discussions we covered various uses of timber from the forest and focused for a while on the topic of pines killed off by resin-top fungus (Peridermium pini or Cronartium flaccidum) and how local folk sought out these trees to make something called “fir-candles”.  We assumed that the resin 
filled parts of the tree would be cut into sections probably ten to twelve inches in length and the logs then split several time to make thin slivers of resin-packed wood.  An illustration of a holder made specifically for these “candles” was found in a book “Highland Folk Ways” by I. F. Grant, first published in 1961, and from the “V” section of the holder where the candle was held, we assumed they would be roughly 1-2cm square.  The sections below were taken from Isabel Grant’s book to give a bit more background information about fir-candles.

Information that lots of fir-candles were made and used:
P124 – “…the farm servants or cottars were expected to give work to the tacksman [a bit like an estate factor today] using their horses to help with ploughing, dunging and labouring, cutting and loading of the peats and extra help like bringing home a new millstone, repairing dykes or delivering a load of fir-candles”.

Finding and collecting fir-candles:
P184 – “In inland districts splinters of resinous fir-wood or, better still, knots from pine trees buried in the peat mosses [bogs], were called fir-candles and were used for lighting.  Old people in Strath-dearn, which is a high-lying strath where birch is the natural timber, have told me that their fathers and mothers, in their young days, remember taking part in autumn expeditions to Strathspey, where the pine-trees flourished, to lay in a supply of resinous wood for making fir-candles.
   These fir-candles had to be very dry.  Sometimes they were stuck in the Slabhraidh or pot chain [over the fire].  Sometimes they were arranged in a circle on the barred girdles that are characteristic of Inverness-shire and Perthshire and hung above the fire to dry.  In use, a number were sometimes placed on a flat stone [to light] and more frugally they were more often held like little torches by a child or an old person and had to be constantly renewed as they burnt out very quickly.  A woman traveller wrote in 1799 that they gave ‘a charming light’ and that it was a pretty sight to see an old woman holding the light while her daughter and grand-daughter spun [wool] and sang and danced. 
    Various devices were also used for holding the fir-candles.  Small iron clips were used, with a sharp end that could be poked into a crack in the drystone wall, and in eastern Inverness-shire the clip was even fixed to a jointed bar so that the light could be adjusted [swivelled]”. 

Drying the fir-candles:
P193 – covering cooking and baking – “In Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, as a variation to the flat iron plate of the ordinary “girdle” [a flat iron plate with handle and eye for hanging by a chain over an open fire for baking on], girdles were formed of narrow bars of iron bent into pleasing designs.  Old people have said that these barred girdles were used sometimes for drying the ‘fir-candles’ so much used in these districts”.

In the Lowlands candles were also made from the pith inside rushes (Juncus species) and held in a similar way to the fir-candles.

What followed fir-candles:
P185 – “In the nineteenth century the fir-candles were replaced by primitive naphtha iron lamps then all over the Highlands came the ordinary paraffin lamps, superseded by Tilley lamps”.

I mentioned to Ron that I found the resin-top fungus trees quite regularly in the forest (natural pinewoods rather than intensively managed pine plantations) and just a few days after our meeting I was walking back from the village when I noticed a couple of dead Scots pines, one used by great 
The starting point
spotted woodpeckers last summer, that had been toppled in the January gales, both had “resin tops”!  I returned later that day armed with my bow-saw and carefully removed a two foot length of resin rich stem.  In total, as a live pine, the tree would have been about 60 foot tall with the resin filled part accounting for about a 12 foot section close to the top of the tree.  Whilst visiting RSPB staff at Forest Lodge the next day regarding the handing over responsibility for the butterfly transect, I managed to get one of the chainsaw trained staff to cut the log neatly into three, ready for the next 
The splitting process
stage.  Next day, after a session of aspen mapping I dropped in to daughter Ruth’s house, where my log-splitting axes now reside, and after entertaining Harry for a while, I went outside and chopped the resin logs into smaller and smaller sections.  Relying on just whacking the log in the hope that the split would be reasonably straight wasn’t working too well, and in the end I resorted to using one axe and my heavy lump hammer to create a much more even slice.  I continued to use axe and hammer 
The final chop
until half of a ten inch tall log had been reduced into a pile of slivers around 2 cm across.  It was noticeable that the slivers sliced from the outer, sap-wood were much richer in resin than the heart-wood.  Chopping over I was eager to see if the slivers would burn, and, for the first time in possibly 
The first time in 150 years?
150 to 200 years, we had a fir-candle lighting up a room held upright by a lump of modern-day play-doh!  Amazing.  Back home I couldn’t wait for it to get dark before sticking two “candles” into lumps of blu-tac, switching off the light and setting fire to them.  As the lady traveller from 1799 wrote, they did give off a fantastic light but also an amazing quantity of heavy, black, smutty smoke which covered the room.  However, the experiment wasn’t yet complete and the next day I spent an hour or 
Let there be light!
so in the garage workshop making something resembling the illustration of the fir-candle holder, just to see if the candle burnt any better when held at an angle similar to that shown.  For a while this did work but then I think the dampness of the freshly chopped wood saw the candles quickly go out but not before I took a photo of myself sitting in a chair lit only by the light from a fir-candle.  Black bits of soot covering everything was well worth it just to get the photo and to estimate that a ten inch long candle would probably burn for about ten to fifteen minutes.  Bits of black soot would have been the least of their worries all those years ago, with a typical “black house” having an open fire in the middle of the main living room with smoke finding its way out through an opening in the heather thatched roof, so a bit more soot around the house wouldn’t have made much difference.
Fir-candle and holder. Just as well you can't see the soot!

Perhaps the event of March 2015 for many folk in the UK was the almost total solar eclipse on the 20th and, with lots of publicity, children in schools and lots of adults were well prepared and armed with dedicated eclipse glasses.  In our area the eclipse was to be about 95% total, providing the right weather conditions prevailed.  So, it was breakfast at 7.30am at which time everything looked quite good with the sun shining in a mainly clear sky.  An hour later total cloud cover which had cleared 
Solar eclipse at 9.15 am
away again within half an hour – it was going to be a bit hit and miss as to whether the cloud cover was going to be kind.  To get the best view of a “big” sky I decided to drive over to Broomhill, by the Strathspey Railway station, but as I packed cameras and tripod into the car at 8.45, the omens didn’t look good.  At this time the eclipse was already underway but with total cloud cover nothing could be seen, so as I set off it was fingers crossed that Mother Nature would be kind by 9.40am when the maximum eclipse was due.  As I drove over it was possible to see some breaks in the cloud over towards Grantown on Spey and as I set up the camera and tripod a clearer sky did seemed to be developing to the north.  9.10 and the clouds became thin enough for the sun and eclipse to be just about be visible, quite a good safety feature as I didn’t have a pair of safety specs.  The sun remained visible long enough for me to get the camera and 400mm lense aligned and, using the cameras rear viewing screen, it was possible to watch what was happening without looking directly at the sun.  Amazingly, the thin cloud acted a bit like a filter allowing the disappearing sun to be seen and photographed as though wearing the eclipse glasses.  First decent photo was taken at 9.15 and with the camera being moved to follow the sun quite good shots were obtained right through until almost 
Maximum eclipse at 9.37 am
maximum coverage at 9.37 when the clouds rolled in fully again hiding everything from view.  Phew, a close run thing.  Sadly the folk who made the effort to travel to the Faroe Islands where the eclipse would have been 100% didn’t see anything due to heavy cloud and rain.  A similar eclipse will occur in August 2026 with about 95% coverage if viewed in Ireland but the next time the UK mainland will see the Sun fully extinguished by the Moon is close to sunset on 23rd September 2090.  I’ll leave it to someone else to write a blog about that one!

The will they won’t they saga of loads of houses in Carrbridge (96) raised its head again with the Park planners carrying out a site visit ahead of the planning meeting in Friday the 13th!  This is the plan to build houses in an ancient woodland site along with an adjacent field which is ancient pasture and good for more than 12 species of waxcap fungi.  Residents of Carrbridge have long protested about the number of houses and have enormous worries about the site being accessed by a very narrow road called Carr Road, which lacks pavements and is used daily during school term times by children walking to the nearby primary school.  Meetings had been held in the village and many 

villagers had written objecting to the plans.  A silent protest by the villagers had been organised for the Park Board and planners visit, and, having spent many hours surveying the field and adjacent woodland I just had to lend my support.  Arriving on Carr Road there were cars and people everywhere and I had to park my car some way from the development site and join the hundred or so adults and under school-aged children making their way to the planners meeting site.  To date, this has to be the biggest turn out of local people I have ever seen at one of these site visits, one the developers and their advisors decided against attending.  With the five minute introduction to the site by the Park staff the villagers wandered back down Carr Road whilst the Park Board members got back into their mini-bus to head off to the planning meeting in Boat of Garten.  At this stage I parted company and went off to continue with the aspen mapping work close to the village.  Whether the silent protest will have any effect only time will tell but the Park Board threw out the planning application leaving the ball once again (like Nethybridge) in the developers court. 

The aspen mapping work continues to produce excellent additional records starting off with a visit to a stand near Kincraig.  The red dots on the map took me to an area between the B9152 and Loch Insh, but on the map was an area of blue as a known aspen site – so I was tempted to have a quick look.  Grazing sheep were removed from this area for about 10-12 years and the mass regeneration of aspen 
Masses of young aspens
and birch was a joy to behold.  Only one other aspen stand that I’ve visited over the last 4 years has any new growth like this site, and that one only has a tiny bit of regeneration compared to the Kincraig site.  This site deserves to be used as a demonstration site to show what can be done with a little bit of planning.  Well done the owners.  Not only that but the aspens were also very productive and several of the rarer lichens were found.  The next map took me to the north of Kincraig, through the Invereshie woodland popping out by the sculpture trail adjacent to the Forestry Commission 
carpark near Feshiebridge.  Quite a shock to see the totem pole sized sculptures staring down at me over the surrounding wall, particularly the weird expressions on their carved faces.  As you can tell, I’d never visited the car park or trail before.  The red dot to be checked took me right down the River Feshie to its confluence with the River Spey and as I left the sculptures I came across two huge ash trees felled during one of the January gales.  Because they had come down on top of a deer fence around a field they had been cut from their root-plates.  Counting the annual growth rings I found that 
The 230 year old ash tree - sadly no more
one tree was 230 years old but with no immediate replacements to be seen.  The fan of sands and gravels along the edge of the Feshie close to where it runs into the Spey will be worth a repeat visit during the flower growing season and in amongst the ancient birches and alders were, surprisingly, several mature ash trees probably the result of seeds washing down from the trees where the two leviathans had blown over.  A brilliant place for a peaceful lunch in amongst the alders and willows with the river rushing close by.  A tall plant caught my eye, and though dead, still sported very obvious seed-heads.  For once I got it right and checking my books once home confirmed that I’d found a small population of figwort.  I also remembered that the odd looking lichen on rocks close to the river had the word “lambii” in its name – Placopsis lambii.  The last red dots to be checked were, 
Spey floods
annoyingly, just across the river from my lunch spot but the walk back to my car before driving round was full of interest.  Heavy rain in the Monadhliath Mountains over the previous days had put the Spey into spate and it was way over its banks.  The flooded fields held lots of recently arrived curlews, lapwings and oystercatchers an amazing sight and a real sign of spring.  The last red dot did produce a group of young aspens but in the distance I saw what looked like several more mature trees – almost right.  As I approached them I realised I had been conned by another poplar, Balsam poplar, and quite obviously different with lots of low branches and with buds on the higher branches already quite large, looking almost ready to burst.  The trees though did have a pleasant surprise in store: the 
Pinhead lichen Phaeocalicium populneum
wee black pinhead lichen Phaeocalicium populneum was present on the twigs, the same one that caused quite a stir in the lichen world when folk were asked to look for it last April.  A single green shield moss capsule on a Norway spruce root-plate ended the day nicely.  The last aspen-linked surprise came from a map site close to Kinveachy near Boat of Garten.  The first surprise came from finding several ancient aspens buried in a Norway spruce plantation shown, amazingly, as red dots on my map.  All the trees are in need of help before they are killed off by the spruces.  The last red dot location proved quite hard to locate and as I was searching around I saw a very inviting birch tree root-plate which looked like it might have potential as a green shield moss site, having found a single capsule in a similar place a little earlier.  As I searched visually amongst the many species of other mosses I noticed a small insect move and jump slightly, and almost immediately the shape of the insect cause me quite a bit of excitement.  The insect was about 5mm long but had a very distinctive 
The rarely recorded "snow flea" Boreus hyemalis
up-turned “tail” and the name that came into my head was snow flea, something that has been on the Highland Biological Recording Group “find me” list for the last 5 years and an insect with only six records in the Highland area.  With my eyes following the insect I felt into my pocket for a tube and eventually managed to place it over the jumping insect.  Initially the insect disappeared into the mosses but eventually reappeared and was “persuaded” into the tube.  Not knowing the insect it would have to return home with me to be checked and photographed under the microscope.  Emails from Murdo and Stephen the next day confirmed that I had indeed found a snow flea (Boreus hyemalis) which, despite its name isn’t a flea but a relative of the scorpion flies.

Birds and plants started to wake up during the month and it has been great to hear a bit of bird song first thing in the morning.  The first snowdrops and winter aconites braved the cold and the parsnips, frozen in the ground or buried under snow for most of winter, started to produce new growth.  Time to dig them up.  Laura and Douglas came over for a weekend and our walk round Loch an Eilein 
A peaceful Loch an Eilein
produced the first false morels of the year.  Hopes of hearing the first osprey of the year were dashed when it turned out to be the right call but emerging from the RSPB website via Laura’s phone!  A talk was prepared and given to the Spring Meeting of the HBRG titled “Species recording by accident and design” in the hope of tempting members to send in a few more records.  A second talk was given by Dave Genney from SNH covering Kew’s newly launched Lost and Found Fungi Project (as featured in earlier blogs) with its aim of getting keen recorders to go out and try and determine whether a species is truly rare or just under recorded.  On my way to the meeting in Strathpeffer I saw a kite just after the Tore roundabout on the A9 and another near the killing fields at Conon Bridge where 12 birds (plus 4 buzzards) were found dead just a year ago.  We still await the perpetrator 
being prosecuted.  With red kites in mind and as it was on my route, I popped in to see the Tollie Red Kite viewing centre, but this was the wrong time of day to see the birds.  This month also saw two of my ex-work colleagues step down from their long-term roles at the RSPB Abernethy Reserve.  First to depart was Andy Amphlett, Abernethy’s resident ecologist and someone who, over many years, helped me immensely during my time at the reserve, and continues to do so in the wider world of 
Richard's "tea and cakes" cheerio
plants and mosses.  On the last day of the month it was Richard Thaxton’s turn to say cheerio after just over thirty years at the reserve.  Richard was my first long-term assistant warden taking on responsibility for the Loch Garten section of the expanding Abernethy Reserve and the mainstay of the running of the Osprey Centre over the last couple of decades.  His honest, dedicated immersion into all things RSPB will be a role hard to follow.  I wish them both well.

That’s it for another month, enjoy the read
Stewart and Janet

Scottish Black House information
Next solar eclipse
Carrbridge planning application for 96 houses
Snow flea via Highland Biological Recording Group website
Kew Lost & Found Fungi project – click on The Lost and Found Fungi Project link bottom of page.  All news: 2014, 2015 link proves interesting!
Tollie Red Kites
Highland Biological Recording Group
and how to join HBRG

Arnol black-house Isle of Lewis
A guest house for lichens?
First of the year
The last day of March 2015!

Photos © Stewart Taylor