FOR the summer holidays, storyteller Tim Porteus is sharing six tales of journeys of discovery in East Lothian, each one beginning at a tree, here is the first. . .

“THE most romantic sweet place I ever saw.”

This quote is attributed to Robert Burns after his visit to Dunglass in 1787. The poet was always careful to compliment those who showed him time and hospitality, but I think his comments still hold true, as I’m sure the many people who have had their wedding here would attest.

This week’s journey began by the ancient Sycamore tree at Dunglass. It’s said that it may be the Tron tree on which goods were weighed when a village was here. That would date it back to the 1400s, and make it as old as the nearby collegiate church. Its girth suggests this may be true, and it’s a truly magnificent sight.

Dunglass Church is now a ruin, although still mainly intact. It sits atop a small hill amongst pristinely-kept landscaped trees and manicured grass. Although I prefer ruins in wild overgrown places, there is no doubt that this old kirk has a setting which enhances its beauty.

It was a sun-blest day, with hardly a breath of wind. The view of the sea beyond, and the smell and sounds of summer, made the place irresistibly romantic.

Our ragged-looking family set off from this lovely location in search of a faerie oven. An early reference to it suggested that it got its name from the belief that faeries baked their bread in a tiny, oven-shaped cave, and that is why it has smoke stains above its entrance. The location has long been known as Faeries Oven Rock (or Fairies Oven Rock).

So as we set off on our adventure, we first made sure we all were wearing something made of metal. Faerie magic is undone by forged iron, or metal, which is why the tradition of having a horseshoe on the door emerged; it keeps the wee folk out of your house. I wanted us all to return safely!

As we began our walk, I momentarily reflected on the violent events of 1640. It is a tale to tell at another time, but in August of that year the castle, which once stood where now there is a modern mansion, was blown up, killing many people. It seems a young page boy sacrificed himself by igniting the gunpowder in the vault. This was during the time of the Covenant and the Bishops’ Wars, when people were dying in the name of religion. Sadly, we can still relate this to our current times.

But it’s the story’s inconsistencies and the mystery not told by history I reflected on. But, as I say, that is a story for another day. My children’s laughter brought me back from my thoughts to enjoying the moment as we headed for the woods.

Our first discovery was two hares. Here is classic countryside where hares will be seen. My four-year-old was certain they were dancing with each other. I explained that sometimes they also look like they are flying when they jump and can box each other. The female especially will box the male if he is giving her unwanted attention!

We watched as the hares froze, listening to our approach. Then they ran at an incredible speed into the woods. They don’t have a burrow to hide in like a rabbit, for their nest is a ‘form’ above ground, basically a cosy dent in the ground. But this makes them very vulnerable to predators, like the fox. Hence they are constantly on alert. Big ears help them hear approaching danger, and their speed is their main protection.

The hare has been, and remains persecuted. We often don’t take the time to admire their beauty, and the magnificence of their survival. I’m sure they watched us from the safety of their hideout as we headed for the trees.

My young daughters then noticed the foxgloves. They seemed to be guiding us along the way. They know not to touch them, for they can be poisonous to humans. However, they are associated with the faeries, and their flowers have the fingerprints of the wee folk inside them. The girls peered into the flowers, trying to count the fingerprints.

The magic of descending into wider-feeling woodland from well-kept parkland was not lost on the kids. The change in atmosphere was keenly felt as we headed for Faeries Oven Rock, with foxgloves marking the way.

The tree-covered slopes of the valley were thick with bracken which teemed with small partridges or grouse. Their movement in the undergrowth made it seem like we were being followed or watched. We could hear them moving about but couldn’t see them, which added to the atmosphere.

When we finally reached Faeries Oven Rock, we needed to negotiate a jungle of stinging nettles. A much-maligned plant, the nettle has had many uses and its stings are said to help ease arthritis. I was stung relentlessly as I led the clan in short trousers, but sure enough my aching bones seemed to benefit!

“This is just a magic place,” said Manja, my nine-year-old, as she stood underneath the faerie oven. And indeed it was. Despite the hot, dry weather there was still water trickling down the wee waterfall, creating a small pool. It did feel like a miniature otherworld, all hidden and protected by the nettles. Thankfully the wee folk weren’t baking. It’s said the sweet aroma of their freshly-made bread is irresistible and will tempt people into their realm. Hence our precaution of wearing something made of metal.

After leaving a small gift, we safely made it back out and my children kindly collected dock leaves for my stings. The remedy works best when the leaves are scrunched up and the juice squeezed out. How or why it works is a debatable point, but it does. It was like a field hospital, for they also had a few stings of their own to administer to.

The kids continued to collect dock leaves as we followed the foxgloves back to the car. We emerged back into the parkland and past the sheep and cows. Here we spotted flowering thistles, a cue for the story of how they became Scotland’s national flower because Vikings stood on them while creeping upon a sleeping Scots army. Their cries of pain alerted the Scots, and so saved them from surprise attack. This predictably created a desire to touch and test the ‘prickliness’ of the thistle’s spikes, and so the veracity of the tale!

There was one other discovery we made that day: a badger’s sett. It had a pile of freshly-dug soil by its entrance and we stood still hoping the creature might poke its nose out. But of course, badgers are nocturnal, and it would have been sleeping cosy inside its sett on this balmy summer evening. And besides, the sight of us standing there would have deterred its emergence anyway.

“Maybe it’s having its breakfast,” suggested Skye, my four-year-old, then asking: “What do they eat?”

“Mostly worms and bugs,” I said, “also lots of other things. But they like fruit as a treat.” So we left a small piece of apple as a gift to the badger, just as we had done for the faeries.

It had been a real adventure and safari of discovery. It had lasted hours but time had flown, and hardly a minute was without something of interest. We had a small evening picnic as our tea when we returned to the car.

The kids were utterly exhausted on our trip home – a good result!