Spitfires & Blackcock

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Blackcock at Tweedsmuir

I was delighted to visit Stanhope near Tweedsmuir on Thursday last week to provide support and advice on a heather restoration project they’re planning to carry out. Stanhope is a cracking place; steep-sided Border glens, blackgame and dramatic views from the high ground – in fact, it’s one of my favourite grouse moors and I’m always keen to gaze at the hills from the road on my way to and from Edinburgh.

The Upper Tweed is full of myth and legend for me as it was home to parts of my family on both sides for many generations. My grandfather was farming over the road from Stanhope during the late nineteen thirties, secretly training to be a pilot at weekends. At the outbreak of war, he was called up to fly with 603 (City of Edinburgh) squadron, much to the consternation of his mother, and he flew a number of extraordinary and heroic sorties up and down the East Coast of Scotland, intercepting German bombers which had slogged over from Norway to bomb the docks at Leith. He shot down several German aircraft in the first six months of the war, including a bomber which crash-landed into Aberdeen’s recently opened ice-rink, and fascinating photographs survive of him in his spitfire at Leuchars, Dyce and Turnhouse.

One occasion, he had followed a retreating German aircraft into thick cloud South of Edinburgh and became thoroughly lost. With fuel running low, he dropped down out of the cloud and found himself over wild, mountainous country. Despairing and starting to look for somewhere to ditch, he dropped down still lower and spotted a small white iron bridge crossing a river – the only visible landmark on a grey, miserable day. He recognised the bridge as the one that crosses the Tweed just downstream from the Crook Inn, a mile or two from Stanhope. Using the Tweed as a reference, he managed to skip back to Turnhouse on the last fumes of fuel, having been saved by the white bridge. As a child, I asked to be told this story again and again whenever we drove to Edinburgh, and although the bridge has since been repainted green, I always give it a nod on my way past.

The road from Moffat to Edinburgh is full of stories for my family – each one a reminder of how you can grow roots into a landscape. And even without family history, anyone who loves adventure stories will tip their hat to John Buchan as they pass through Tweedsmuir – these are the links that allow us to tune in to a place.

As I drove down the hill towards Moffat, I stopped in the verge a few miles South of the Crook Inn to watch a blackcock and a greyhen in the bracken a few yards from the road. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so devoted to these birds – They belong to a landscape that saw me coming generations ago.

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