You hear a lot of talk about the midges in Scotland; those small flying insects which gather in huge swarms, with the sole aim of snacking on humans.
Tell your friends you’re planning a camping trip to the west of Scotland and they’ll say: “Oooh, look out for the midges.”
Ask someone who’s just returned from a holiday in the Scottish Borders if they had a good time and they’ll say: “Oh yes, it was brilliant! Except for the midges of course.”
The midges, it seems, are the scourge of the Scottish tourist board, and it’s taken as read that they’ll probably ruin your holiday. These little buzzing blighters, along with the grey skies, are also surely the reason for the famously pale pallour of your average Scotsman; even when its warm enough to be outdoors it’s often safer to stay inside, or risk being reduced to a slap-up meal for the insects.
Heading north for a week in the Scottish Borders recently I was on full midge alert.
As I rolled out from the town of Moffat for forty-odd miles on the bike, I headed up a steady gradient on smooth roads and was soon well above the town and up in the hills. Despite a weather forecast of grey clouds and the threat of rain there was barely a whispy white cloud in the sky, it was still, and the temperature was resolutely in the late teens Celsius.
Not your typical Scottish conditions, I think it’s fair to say. As one Scotsman said to me later that day, “this is the best day’s weather I’ve had all year.”
Bear in mind it’s September.
As I was mulling over my good fortune to find myself heading out for my first proper Scottish bike ride in conditions of such perfection that the residents of Dumfries and Galloway were all but heralding it a national holiday, it struck me: “where are the midges?”
“Hmm”, I thought, with imaginary raised eyebrow, “maybe they’re all waiting in the next valley.”
But no. As I crashed down kilometre after kilometre of beautiful rolling descent, fully expecting to be plastered with tiny winged beasties, I found nothing but clean air and impossibly beautiful valley views. I even had a tailwind.
Into the valley bottom and still no sign, and I was beginning to get dismissive by now. “Bit over-dramatic all this midge stuff”, I thought, and turned off up a valley skirted with Scots Pine trees and followed the road up past the Talla Reservoir.
And then I saw it.
The entire width of the road was a moving mass of midges, about to wreak their revenge for my arrogant disregard of their awesome nibbling power. Pedalling along at 20 mph I had no choice but to squint, close my mouth, and plough into them.
I took in lungfulls through my nose, felt them stick like a moving, flapping carpet across my sweating brow and glistening arms, looked down to see a thick layer attached to my shins and thighs, and felt them packing tightly into the vents in my helmet, pinned their by the rushing air and sheer weight of numbers.
As I surveyed the film of insects covering man and bike I free-wheeled through several secondary swarms – swarmettes, perhaps? – like a man resigned to his airborne fate.
When I finally emerged into clear air what felt like (but probably wasn’t) several minutes later it’s fair to say the midges had made their point, having dined royally on my lycra-clad limbs.
After Scotland had given with one hand – the beautiful, sunny, crystal September day – it had now very much taken with the other.
Back at the holiday house that evening the wife and eye took a bottle and two glasses outside to enjoy the last of the evening sun. As I regaled her with the days events I could feel little nips and itches here and there, and the suggestion of a definite buzziness in the air.
The persistence of these creatures soon took the edge off the mood.
One look at the wife as she slapped, brushed, and scratched herself like a nervous sheepdog confirmed that either the midges had followed me home or, more likely, they’re all over the bleedin’ place in this country.
“Shall we just go inside?” I said.
There’s some stunning cycling to be had, but I can confirm that there are definitely midges in Scotland.