Saturday, 7 May 2016

Midges - the highland terror!

The west highland midge - devils with wings

Anyone who lives in or near the West Highlands of Scotland or who has holidayed there during the summer months will be familiar with the midge, that biting nuisance which can blight anyone's holiday or day trip. Visitors to Scotland are often caught out by the midge even though they may have been warned beforehand. This tiny terror with a wingspan of about 1.4mm (16th inch) is known as 'the scourge of the Highlands' and is quite capable of sending even the strongest man running for cover, a gibbering wreck. They swarm in huge numbers and can completely ruin a pleasant walk turning it into a nightmare from a Stephen King novel - and because of the mild winter and wet spring this year is set to be a bumper year for the midge!

WHAT ARE THEY? (apart from the devil's disciple)

One of the smallest of the biting flies the West Highland midge belongs to the Order Diptera, the true flies (six legs and one pair of wings). There are believed to be about 35-36 different species in the UK with five or six of them known to attack humans. The species which causes the most problems in Scotland is Culicoides impunctatus which can be translated as 'the small fly which bites' (notot the 'sabre-toothed midge' as one of my friends called it!). Culiciodes impunctatus begins to hatch towards the end of May - depending on the weather.

They gradually build up their numbers until they are at their peak in early July through to late August - which just happens to be the middle of the holiday season - and then their numbers decline until they are all gone by late October as it starts to chill for the coming winter.They are at their most active on calm, balmy evenings without bright sunlight, wind or heavy rain - a typical Highland evening in fact. This is when they actively hunt down their victims, swarming by the hundreds of thousands. All sensible people will be indoors at such a time with the windows firmly shut. But don't think you are safe at other times of the day because there is a morning feeding frenzy, a mid-day feeding frenzy and an afternoon feeding frenzy. Fortunately they are not active during the hours of darkness.

MIDGE FACTS (know thine enemy)

  • Their name in Gaelic is meanbh-chuileag - 'tiny fly';
  • They find their prey by following the trail of cardon dioxide in exhaled breath;
  • They only attack mammals - deer, cattle, sheep, you;
  • It is only the female midge which bites. She needs a meal of mammalian blood to produce the next generation of midges;
  • The itchy, irritating spot after a midge has bitten is caused by the human body's reaction to a foreign substance injected under the skin - midge saliva;
  • No-one is immune to midge bites but reactions vary. Most people have a normal reaction of a few day's itchiness;
  • Some people have a very nasty reaction to a bite. The affected area swells up into a half-inch diameter angry-looking red lump which is intensely itchy and can last for 2-3 weeks;
  • There is some evidence that climate change is causing the midge to extend both its range and active season.

CAN I AVOID THEM? (yes, if you are sensible)

Midges can be avoided and I do not believe they are a reason not to come to Scotland, after all some five million people live in Scotland and 12 million tourists visited between January and September last year (2015) and many of those were repeat visits and they seem to manage OK. Even when they are at their worst at the height of the tourist season there are several things you can do to minimise your contact with midges.

  • Stay indoors during those times and weather conditions when midges are most active, ie: calm evenings with overcast skies;
  • If you do go out wear long-sleeved tops and long trousers to minimise the area of skin the midges can get to;
  • Avoid wearing dark colours as they seem to attract midges. White or other light colours are best;
  • Use midge repellents. There are some very good ones on the market. The best place to go for advice is the local tourist office or pharmacy;
  • If all else fails wear protective clothing such as a midge head-net which covers your head, face and neck. There is even a midge-proof jacket available.

a midge biting

Public Domain image from Wikipedia


The Scottish weather is your best friend when it comes to dealing with midges. The wind in Scotland (especially on the hills or exposed places or on the coast) can be quite brisk much of the time and the midges don't like that. Any breeze above about 5-6 mph sends them scurrying back into the cover of the undergrowth so don't curse the wind - if it drops you'll be the one scurrying for cover. They don't like bright sunshine either although, admittedly, that is less common in Scotland than the wind. Nor do they like rain more than a light drizzle (come to think of it neither do I). They are creatures of the damp. Long dry spells keep them down and a humidity of less than about 60% doesn't suit them either.


Scotland has a seasonal midge forecast just like it has a weather forecast. It has proved to be as accurate as the weather forecast or the pollen index forecast for hayfever sufferers. The midge forecast is available during the summer months and it gives the lowdown on midge activity for the next five days and you can sign up for email alerts which should give you a fighting chance to avoid these little pests.

We in Scotland are lucky when it comes to being out and about in our beautiful countryside. There are no dangerous predators to worry about and no venomous reptiles but just in case you haven't encountered the west highland midge before and are a little sceptical about them take a look at this short video:

Sources: some information from Wikipedia, in-text links and (unfortunately) personal experience!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

She's on the money!

The two new faces of Scottish banknotes

Anna (Nan) Shepherd, a Scots-born poet and novelist and Mary Somerville, a Scottish science writer who studied mathematics and astronomy have been chosen as the ''faces'' of the Royal Bank of Scotland's new polymer £5 and £10 banknotes - the first time that women have appeared on Royal Bank of Scotland banknotes. The new notes will be printed on a polymer plastic, with enhanced security features, making them harder to forge and more durable than the traditional cotton-based banknotes - up to 2½ times more durable in fact. They will also be about 15% smaller than the banknotes currently in circulation.


Photograph of Mary Somerville
Mary Somerville: 1780-1872
Public Domain image from Wikipedia

After her death Mary Somerville became known as ''The Queen of 19th-Century Science'', having been elected to the membership of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Irish Academy, the Italian Geographical Society, the American Geographical and Statistical Society and the American Philosophical Society. She was also awarded the Patron's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society and was an honorary member of the Société de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève. Considering that the times in which she lived frowned upon women having more than a basic education that is a very impressive list of accomplishments for anyone, let alone a woman!

Mary was born in Jedburgh, in the Scottish borders but spent much of her childhood in the small town of Burntisland, on the east coast of Scotland (not much more than a stone's-throw from my home) and it was here that her interest in science was kindled - collecting shells and stones and gazing at the stars glittering in the night-time sky. As a science writer she was noted for her ''clear, crisp'' style of writing. Her choice as the face of the new £10 note, which will be issued next year, came after a public poll chose her over the other two famous Scots who were on the shortlist - James Clerk Maxwell (a scientist most noted for his theory of electromagnetic radiation which led to the discovery of radio waves) and Thomas Telford (a civil engineer and architect noted for building roads, canals and bridges).

Photograph of Nan Shepherd
Nan Shepherd: 1893-1981
© the estate of Nan Shepherd

Anna Shepherd (known as Nan Shepherd) was a novelist and poet who spent all of her life in her native Aberdeenshire. Her writings dealt with life in the small communities of the north-east of Scotland with which she was so familiar but she was also something of an outdoors girl being (like myself) a keen hillwalker and the only non-fiction book she wrote The Living Mountain is about her perceptions of the hills she climbed and obviously loved so much. Nan wrote this book towards the end of WW2 but for some reason did not publish it until 1977 just four years before her death.

Nan was a noted feminist (in the days when that phrase was not commonly used) and a radical who lived an unconventional life. She never married but undoubtedly had several lovers, not all of whom were male - or so it was said. This was reflected in her poetry and her books some of which contained ''eyebrow raising'' amounts of sex. She spent 40 years as a teacher at Aberdeen College of Education where she imparted a distinct feminist edge to her lectures. Being a feminist she had sympathy with the suffragette movement and in later life she turned towards Buddhism reading much on the subject.

Not well known in Scotland, neither in her lifetime nor after her death, her appearance on the new Scottish £5 note (due to be issued later this year) will surely change that. I, for one, have just ordered a copy of her book The Living Mountain and I suspect I won't be the only one seeking to know more of this intriguing Scottish woman.

PS: The introduction of polymer banknotes is not without controversy. There are people who are allergic to the polymer plastics used in this type of banknote and there is some evidence to suggest that polymer banknotes can carry and retain germs for longer than conventional cotton-based banknotes - definitely a case of ''filthy lucre''!

Some information from Wikipedia (in-text links)