Even by Yours Truly’s intermittent blogging standards, it’s been rather a long time since my last rural bulletin, so buckle up and hold on tight for a whistle-stop tour of spring in Scotland, as viewed from here at The Sparrowholding.
In my defence, one of the reasons for the paucity of posts to date this year has been that work has been pleasingly manic for both HunterGatherer (with spreaders to calibrate, soil to sample and fences to build) and Yours Truly (with spurts of prolific proofreading activity punctuating my planting of the finer points of poetry and prose in the fertile minds of myriad pupils).
At risk of descending into oxymoron, I did say ‘pleasingly’ intentionally above, because when you are both self-employed, work tends to appear on a feast or famine basis and thus the feast periods are to be celebrated. Fortunately, our only real famine of this year so far was caused when March roared in like a lion – or, to be more precise, like a ‘Beast from the East’. The ensuing solid mile of snowdrifts between us and Kinross, saw The Sparrowholding cut off from civilisation for a couple of days. If by chance you didn’t see the photographic evidence at the time and are interested, scroll back to March on the Square Sparrow YouTube, Instagram and Facebook accounts for photos/micro-videos.
Our lovely little flock of nine Shetland ewes have been equally busy these past few months, first growing and then producing a veritable posse of 17 leaping lambs (as evidenced by various videos and photos here and on the Youtube , Facebook and Instagram accounts). This year’s gang of woolly warriors are particularly beguiling – though, of course, we say that every year.
Talking of things sheepish, we’re hoping that this year’s wool harvest will be good, as it transpired last year that some of our lovely girlies’ wool is exceptionally ‘fine’ – in the literal sense of the word! As I reported in the March update, late last summer a 'friend of a friend' of mine asked if she could have a fleece to spin for the 2018 Royal Highland Show (if you’re interested in country life but have never been before, and you live within travelling distance of Edinburgh, get it on your bucket list now!).
Anyway, we duly sent ‘the spinning lady’ away with Tufty’s gorgeous brown/grey fleece, and you can see the photomontage of the subsequent process that the fleece underwent and the shawl that it eventually became in a previous blog post if you missed it first time round. It is so exciting to see our girls’ wool transformed in this way, and if I didn’t have arthritis in my hands that makes dexterity a thing of the past, I would love to have tried spinning – and perhaps felting – for myself.
Given that the lady who did spin Tufty’s fleece was incredibly complimentary about the resultant wool, we’re hoping either to sell the fleeces individually to spinners this year or to group together with a couple of other local producers to get all our fleeces made into balls of wool by one of the UK companies who offer this service. Sadly, this is a very expensive business – hundreds and hundreds of pounds! – so we’ll need to weigh up carefully what is the best way to proceed. It just seems a real shame that a gorgeous natural material such as wool is no longer valued whereas eco-unfriendly, micro-fibre-shedding ‘fleeces’ have become the norm instead…
The thing I love best about spring in Scotland is that any foray outside – such as a leisurely stroll along the track just above us – is akin to walking along the green paint aisle in B&Q, thanks to the countless shades of green in every possible nuance to be seen in the hedgerows on either side. HunterGatherer and I amused ourselves the other day trying to think of names for all the shades. The track has also been a source of inspiration for some of my tutees at The Learning Cauldron for students who find it difficult/ unappealing to sit inside and concentrate.
Meanwhile here at The Sparrowholding itself, HunterGatherer has only recently begun his spring planting activities in the garden. The winter went on for soooooo long that we are at least a couple of weeks behind last year, so the “tub meister” has had to make up for lost time this past couple of weekends! Currently, there are giant red tubs containing all manner of veggies adorning our vegetable patch, and some of the seeds are just poking through the earth. We've been asked on several occasions where he sources his tubs, and the answer is that they are empty sheep mineral lick tubs (which also make great sleeping places for lambs, it transpires!).
Better still, the micro-orchard which we planted in the autumn at the bottom of our two-acre paddock is bursting into bloom, which means that our courageous little fruit trees (four apple, one cherry, one plum, one pear plus a couple of hazel bushes) survived their first winter against all the odds.
It's reassuring that the garden is back in action again with the advent (finally!) of spring in Scotland, but I have to confess that it’s sometimes a tad demoralising when we see all our fellow gardening and smallholding Instagram friends from 'doon sooth' posting photos of full-grown plants. However, such are the joys of living in these precarious Scottish climes – and there, are of course, compensations...
Another action-packed year has been duly consigned to the family history, and I am pleased to report – in this, our twenty-somethingth annual Christmas epistle – that all five of us are still (just about) standing. Two thousand and seventeen was the year that saw all five of us – plus the daughterly duo’s brave boyfriends – head en masse for a ‘cinq-jour séjour’ (apologies to any native French readers) in the excellent and enticingly named “Villa Lavande” in southern France. This trip will no doubt one day be immortalised by the ghost of Enid Blyton as part of a hybrid adventure series entitled “Seven Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road”, but that is another story. It was also, sadly, the year that our unfortunate feline, Chuck the cat, proved that he shared his mistress’s lack of mathematical prowess by miscalculating how many of his nine lives he had left (none, it transpired). And finally, it was the year that Yours Truly formalised her tutoring activities and launched a new business, The Learning Cauldron, on April Fool’s Day...
When not pontificating about the finer points of poetry and prose or assuming the guise of grammar guru for my expanding band of avid academics, I now find my life being governed by my faithful companion and friend, the Fitbit. For any of you not familiar with these devilishly addictive little devices, they are essentially a smart watch that warns you that you have either been shockingly inactive (the perils of prolonged periods of proofreading) or impressively athletic (rarely, in my case). Mark you, having contemplated my retirement from the hallowed green Astroturf at the end of last season, I eventually decided that there was a little life left in this old hockey dog yet, and elected to stay on for another year. There are, according to my fellow team members, occasional moments when I become a little ‘excitable’ – such as the time when, having been belted in the foot by a particularly pernicious opponent, I yelled “You’re dead” in a moderately aggressive fashion at the offender – who promptly removed herself to the other side of the pitch for the rest of the game. In addition to my genteel hockey activities, regular bouts of badminton, weekly Zumba sessions (I still head in the opposite direction from everyone else during most routines…) and the occasional scoot around a squash court all conspire to ensure my Fitbit is still speaking to me at the end of each week.
HunterGatherer’s exercise quotient since last Christmas has been mainly achieved through his customary forays across the fields of Scotland à la recherche de multifarious soil samples. During his leisure time, he merely switches agricultural soil for the horticultural variety, as he has been going potty in the garden… I should explain here that this turn of phrase is no reflection on the gardener’s intellectual faculties, but rather an allusion to the burgeoning collection of giant red plastic tubs that he is amassing. The said pots have proved to be the ultimate weapon in his war against his arch nemesis – the chickweed that had previously laid siege to his beloved polytunnel and veggie plots.
His lapidary interests remain 'rock' solid (see what I did there?), and this year's finds have included a rather attractive chunk of Scottish amethyst. His wife and daughters are still fervently hoping he’ll stumble across a seam of gold, though Yours Truly suspects there’s more chance of him finding some at the end of a rainbow!
Son&Heir (22) currently enjoys one of the best workplace views in the country as he plies his barista skills at Kinross’s lochside venue, The Boathouse. When not there, he is to be found wielding weights at the local gym and is currently channelling his mental and physical energies into becoming a fully qualified personal trainer before moving south next year. Yours Truly hadn’t quite appreciated how much theory was involved in this until she’d to print off the 267-page course manual for him the other night! Here’s hoping that amongst all those words of physical wisdom there’s a unit on how to transform the body of a 54-year-old into that of a 30-year-old before the resumption of the hockey season in February…
Although we rarely see our daughterly duo in person, social media and Facetime occasionally allow us a vague insight into their London lives, and – as ever – any lacunae in information can be readily compensated for by liberal use of poetic licence by Yours Truly.
This autumn, DD1 (26) had to decide into which branch of commercial law she wished to qualify, and – as any self-respecting first-born child would do – she opted for ‘competition’. More than this about her work, I cannot tell you, as for reasons of confidentiality, she is unable to share anything of her professional life without having to kill us afterwards. Fortunately, having had sight of the density and dullness of the legal literature she was revising for her exams a couple of years back, her father and mother are – in all honesty – rather relieved not to be privy to the inner workings of English corporate law...
We are, however, wondering why our considerable investment in her education has resulted in a lawyer who doesn’t ‘do’ Scottish law and is thus of no use whatsoever to her poor parents! Actually, that is possibly slightly unfair, as she’s currently working in Berlin for six months, which allowed her fond parentals a welcome low-cost pre-Christmas winter break in mid-December – although Yours Truly’s sheep-covered Christmas jumper attracted the attention of airport security, evidently marking her out as a baaad(!) character, and she was promptly marched off to have her luggage and trousers drug-tested.
Ironically, DD1 had been far more concerned about the attire that her father might arrive in, judging by this Facebook message received prior to our visit: “Please tell dad to bring boots for dinner that aren’t from a hiking shop. And does he have any clothes that aren’t hiking-esque?” Her angst may have been prompted by HunterGatherer’s behaviour on the beach in France, where he stood bewildered in his full-length trousers, long sleeves and ear-flapped hat, beholding an entire beach bedecked with bikini'd and bikini-less bodies. By the end of the afternoon, however, he had taken the very daring step of rolling up his sleeves and even... his trouser legs.
Hot on the heels of insulting aging rock stars in 2016, DD2 (24) continues her precarious path to musical supervisorial (yes, it is a word) supremacy in London, and this year was caught pondering aloud in the office how interesting it was that quite so many of the songs in the Take That ‘Wonderland’ show she was working on had been written by some unknown guy called Robert Williams… She also managed to engage a certain well-known actor in conversation for 30 minutes in the office before casually asking him, “So what do you do?” Fortunately, the said thespian had a sense of humour and merely responded, “Do you watch TV?” When not listening to music and watching films all day (and getting paid to do so… call that work?!), DD2 hares around a hockey pitch in her usual inimitable fashion and apparently has moments of ‘excitability’ (can’t think where she gets that from…).
So the time approaches for New Year’s resolutions to be made (then promptly broken), all that remains is for me to wish all of you a very happy Christmas and a ‘merry’ New Year when it comes.
Hope 2018 brings you and yours good health and lots of wonderful memories!
It's that time of year again, which means that last week saw the big annual haircut (aka sheep shearing) taking place here at the Sparrowholding, with HunterGatherer wielding a pair of old-fashioned hand sheep shears – no fancy electric clippers for him, as we don’t have enough sheep to justify them.
In the olden days, all the wool collected annually during sheep shearing formed a small, but significant, part of the sheep farmer's "harvest", with the fleeces being rolled up after shearing (there is a technique, of course!) and piled into large wool sacks before being collected by the ‘Wool Marketing Board’.
Eventually a cheque, which varied in amount according to the weight of wool, would wing its way to the grateful farmer. However, in the 21st century, the advent of myriad modern synthetic materials such as Lycra, Acrylic and Polyester has gradually depressed the price paid to farmers for fleeces, and in most cases the wool cheque amount no longer forms a significant part of a farm's income.
Nowadays, the cost of sheep shearing in time, money and effort can almost outweigh the value of the wool on some sheep farms, but the job still has to be done for welfare reasons. If the fleeces are not removed, bothersome blowflies can lay their eggs in the wool and the maggots hatch out in these cosy climes and start tucking into the sheep’s flesh. Not a sight you’d ever want to see, I can assure you. So off come the fleeces around the middle of June every year!
With just 15 adult Shetland sheep here on The Sparrowholding, we wouldn’t have enough wool to fill even one of Wool Marketing’s giant wool bags, so we keep our fleeces and use them during the rest of the year for various tasks around the garden, e.g. lining the base of planters to keep moisture in or acting as ‘blanket’ of weed protection between (rows of) plants in the summer, plus keeping plants snug and warm in their pots in the wintertime.
Wool is also very handy for various crafting activities, such as rug or card-making and spinning, so we tend to set the best fleeces aside in our trusty little ‘wool’ shed and sell whole or part fleeces to keen crafters, who love Shetland fleeces because of the 30+ different official 'colourways' they come in (ranging from white through to dark chocolate).
Talking of sheds (please note seamless link here!), you may remember that the Square Sparrow blog was one of the finalists in the Waltons’ smallholder blog competition some months ago. Now Waltons have asked us to be involved in their current competition to win a 5x3 ft mower (or any other garden stuff!) store. The details of their competition appear below, and the closing date is 28th June, so get your entries in soon to be in with a chance of winning yourself a handy garden store. Good luck!