Jam doughnuts and Brandy

sandisonNormal people don't have my trouble. They climb straight to the top of a hill. Not halfway up, back to the bottom then up again; followed by three-quarters of the way up, halfway down, then back up again; an assault course, not a walk.

However, normal people don't have Jean or Heathcliff; which is where I went wrong on the Braes of Angus.



There were seven of us, parked by the South Esk at the head of Glen Clova. My wife Ann, and her constant companion, a rag-haired, black-snubbed Yorkshire terrier called Heathcliff; eldest son Blair and his wife, Barbara; second son Charles and small daughter, Jean.


On either side of the glen mountains tower two thousand feet above the teenage stream and our day's purpose was to explore them. Walking eastwards up Green Hill (2,854 feet), round the horseshoe corrie and down to Loch Brandy, cupped below sheer cliffs where we planned to have lunch - and, perhaps, a cast or two at some of Brandy's hard-fighting little brown trout.


This is Ogilvie country. In 1432, Sir Wallace Ogilvey, Treasurer of Scotland, was granted permission by King James I to fortify his Tower of Eroly, site of the present Castle of Airlie. James had returned after eighteen years captivity in England, determined to break the power of Lowland nobles and Highland lairds who had ruined Scotland during his absence.


King James paid the customary price for his efforts. On 20 February 1437, as he settled to sleep in the Dominican monastery at Perth, three of his relations - the Earl of Atholl, Sir Robert Stewart and Sir Robert Graham - called to say goodnight to him, permanently. Catherine Douglas, a lady-in-waiting, barred the door by thrusting her arm through iron clasps, but the murderers snapped it like a twig and defenceless James was dirked to death.


I could never get away with doing that to Heathcliff although I often feel like trying. What stops me is the sure and certain knowledge that I would meet the same fate as King James's assassins: soundly tortured, pinched with hot irons then hanged. Without mercy.


I looked at the invitingly open door of Ogilvie Arms Hotel whilst the gang got ready. Time for a quick one? “Boots on, Bruce, I know what you are thinking and the answer's no.” Ann, a true Scot, though Yorkshire born, has a strong streak of Protestantism: labour first, pleasure later, perhaps. “Have you got my jam doughnuts?” inquired Jean. It was going to be one of those days. My daughter can only be tempted uphill by promise of reward at the top. In this case half a ton of jam doughnuts - which I was expected to carry.


There are numerous notices at the foot of the hill warning walkers to keep proper control of their animals, presumably dogs and children? One notice explained that keepers had instructions to shoot stray dogs on sight. What about stray kids, I wondered. Bang first, questions later a traditional Highland welcome?


Sunlight warmed our backs as we fell into line behind Ann, who is the only one who can read a map - at least that's what she says. Making our way past the little school, we followed the narrow track, climbing steeply between Ben Reid and Rough Craig. Grouse-shooting country, dogs too, apparently. Early July heather begged to bloom, covering the hill in a dark-green purple-specked carpet. Twin streams chortled busily by; a good-to-be-alive day.


Then I remembered the camera, which I had left on the car roof. wfIn the turmoil of packing and pleading with Jean to behave, I had forgotten the other purpose of the walk: capturing award-winning photographs from the top. By this time, the fit members of Clan Sandison had disappeared over the first ridge. I had been detailed to bring up the rear, which meant helping and encouraging Jean. I instructed my complaining daughter to wait and, fingers crossed, set off back down the hill, hoping that the camera would still be there.


Thankfully, it was. Grabbing a few lungfuls of air, I hastened hillwards, anxious that my little charge hadn't come to any harm. She hadn't and after some less than gently persuasion, we set off again after the rest of the Clan.


When we caught up with them they were having a rest and coffee and I immediately noticed that Heathcliff had managed to persuade Ann to slip his lead; would never have happened if I had been there. Just as I opened my mouth to complain, a hare broke cover and bounded over the moor, long antennae ears laid back for greater speed. Heathcliff gave a joyful yelp and set off after the animal.


I had a vision of a dozen twelve-bore shotguns being raised to twelve tweed-clad shoulders. What would life be like if Ann lost Heathcliff? Could our marriage survive the shock? Throwing down undrunk coffee, I sprinted after the brute, screaming blue murder at him to stop. It was like talking to the wind, or a politician - a complete waste of breath. I set off in hot pursuit, but the dog had vanished.


I stopped on a ridge, panting, heart pounding, covered in sweat. In the distance, a small group of black-faced sheep grazed peacefully. Heathcliff couldn't be anywhere near them. I searched for signs of movement, parting heather, swaying twigs, anything to give me a clue. Failure to find the dog would mean a ruined day and a ruined life. Ann would be broken-hearted.


I wandered over the moor, calling “Heathcliff! Heathcliff!” like a hirsute Cathy in search of her Yorkshire lover, my spirits sank lower and lower. Had he gone back to the car? By this time I was half-way down anyway, so I trekked on, fingers once more crossed. No luck. No dog.


Wearily, I started uphill for the third time. All I wanted was a quiet midsummer stroll amongst restful Angus glens. I should be so lucky. The sound of voices raised my eyes heavenwards; the final call; my sinking soul ready to meet its maker? The family lined a ridge, Blair waving. Heathcliff was clutched in his grasp, half-circling overhead.


My worry changed to fury and I increased pace, planning exactly what I would do when I laid hands, feet and anything else lying about on his misbegotten, misshapen body and fog-filled head. Women know these things. When I finally panted up, Heathcliff and Ann were a quarter of a mile ahead; the theory being that by the time I caught them anger and I would be too exhausted to do anything; which was true.


We laboured up The Snub and stopped to admire our achievement. Glen Cova and Glen Doll lay mistily below. Esk, like a silver ribbon, twisted and turned through small, fertile fields. Driesh, most easterly Scottish Munro, reared west, protected by the jagged scar of Winter Corrie and tumbled rocks of The Scorrie. Sheer hundred-foot cliffs surrounded Loch Brandy and we followed the track, carefully, round Green Hill, down a slow spur to the loch.


With lunch spread and waiting, as if by some devilish command clouds hurtled into the corrie. Rain mixed with sleet drove horizontally as we rock-huddled, sheltering from the sudden storm. Ann pulled Jean closer. “Now then, Jean,” she said, “isn't this fun?” “What about my jam doughnuts?” came her angry reply. I had the answer. They were still in the car where I had left them. Nor was I offering to dash back to get them. Enough was enough for one day.


Bruce Sandison
is a writer and journalist and author of nine books, including the definite anglers' guide, 'The Rivers and Lochs of Scotland' which is being revised and updated prior to republishing.

He contributed to 'Trout & Salmon' for 25 years and was angling correspondent for 'The Scotsman' for 20 years. Sandison writes for the magazine 'Fly Fishing and Fly Tying' and provides a weekly angling column in the 'Aberdeen Press & Journal'.

His work, on angling, Scottish history and environmental subjects, has appeared in most UK national papers, including 'The Sunday Times', 'The Telegraph', 'The Daily Mail', 'The Herald', 'Private Eye', 'The Field' and in a number of USA publications.

Sandison has worked extensively on BBC Radio. His series 'Tales of the Loch' ran for 5 years on Radio Scotland and was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and on BBC World Service. His series, 'The Sporting Gentleman's Gentleman' and his programme 'The River of a Thousand Tears', about Strathnaver, established his reputation as a broadcaster.

Sandison has had extensive coverage on television. He wrote and presented two series for the BBC TV Landward programme and has given a number of interviews over the years on factory-forestry, peat extraction, wild fish conservation and fish farming.

Sandison is founding chairman of 'The Salmon Farm Protest Group', an organisation that campaigns for the removal of fish farms from Scottish coastal and freshwater lochs where disease and pollution from these farms is driving wild salmonid populations to extinction.

Bruce Sandison won 'Feature Writer of the Year' in the Highlands and Islands Press Awards in 2000 and in 2002, and was highly commended in 2005. Bruce lives near Tongue in Sutherland with his wife Ann.