All there in black and white
07 March, 2013
Monday took me to Mavisbank Estate, which is owned and run by Historic Scotland, to see how the grasslands are managed. Mavisbank is located on the north bank of the North Esk valley. Loanhead lies immediately to the north-east, and the property stretches eastwards to Lasswade.
Mavisbank House was built between 1723 and 1736, designed by Robert Adam for Sir John Clerk of Penicuik. The initial designed landscape was created around this period, with the house looking eastwards across a mixture of formal gardens, a ‘canal’, parkland, tree lines and woodlands. Clerk later commissioned amendments to the designed landscape to reduce its formality. The property later changed hands, and in 1876 the house became an asylum, before passing into private ownership. A decline in maintenance culminated in a fire in 1973, which gutted the house.
The estate has some magnificent veteran trees, mostly oak, and are lovely to see. I am reminded of that old proverb, ‘He who loves trees loves others beside himself’. Many of these venerable ancients now lie within young woodland. However many of their trunks are swollen at the base, evidence of earlier trampling and nibbling by cattle when they grew in open parkland.
This is good badger-spotting territory, there are many badger sets within the estate. An adult badger is about the size of an average dog. It has a single layer of fur, whereas most animals have a double coat – a waterproof outer pelt and a thick undercoat to keep them warm. But badgers live largely underground, where a thicker coat would require constant grooming.
They are very clean animals, regularly replacing their bedding and using a designated latrine. They are omnivorous: their varied diet includes plant bulbs, worms, fruit and carrion. Cherries are said to be a badger’s favourite food, and they have been seen racing each other to get to them first.
Traditionally, the badger was believed to embody wisdom and courage. It is unyielding in the face of danger and is noted for its tenacity. This led to its persecution during the Middle Ages. Badger baiting was a popular pursuit, reaching a peak in the 1500s. It was also widely hunted, mainly for sport, since its carcass has few practical uses. However, smoked hams made from badgers were considered a delicacy in medieval times. Badger baiting was outlawed in the United Kingdom as early as 1835, but it still occurs illegally today.
There were also medicinal applications. It is recorded that the blood and fat of the badger were used in oils, ointments, salves and powders, for ‘shortness of breath, the cough of the lungs and for the stone’. Old people also wore badger skins as a treatment for rheumatism. A medieval Japanese manuscript recommends underwear made from badger skin, which would eliminate lice infestation – a frequent problem on campaign, apparently! Badger pelts are still used today to make sporrans and shaving brushes.