A nice man called Mr Linklater rings me up abut once a year from The Glasgow Herald to suggest a book review, and I have always gone along with his suggestion. But I had reservations this year, when he suggested that for his April Fools’ Day number I should review a book called Midges in Scotland.
‘Believe it or not,’ he said, ‘a book of this title has just been produced by a Professor at Aberdeen, and I thought it would set you off speculating on the weird and hopeless things people write about.’
‘Have you ever encountered an army of midges, Mr Linklater?’
‘No, I haven’t.’
I had, once. It was on the West Highland railway line, about three years ago. We were filming a sequence at dusk in which the signalman was to be recorded scurrying around with the single-track token that always gets featured in steam train films, and I noticed, before we sallied forth, that the signalman smeared all the visible parts of his anatomy with some lotion like shoe polish. I had no idea why, until ten minutes later my face was suddenly covered in what seemed like a river of insects. Tiny, ticklish and totally disgusting, they poured slowly across my face and into my eyes.
The only way I could get rid of them was by running like mad. It was pure horror for everyone except the canny signalman. I later read in John Hatt’s excellent guide to world travel that of all the beasts from lion to scorpion, few rival the viciousness of the Scottish midge. So when Mr Linklater suggested that it might be a joke, I couldn’t agree. I thought the book should be reviewed by Vincent Price or not all.
‘Oh,’ he said.’ Well, I’ll send you the book anyway and not bother with a review of it.’
The book, a small paperback by Dr George Hendry, a biologist, duly arrived. It was not the only thing to arrive. A week or two later I received from Mr Linklater a photocopy of the Scottish bestseller list. Midges in Scotland had leapt into the Top Ten. At regular intervals he sends me further updates of the list, marked with more or fewer exclamation marks as the book goes up and down the list. It is presently at number one, and my first edition is probably a collector’s item by now.
I can see why the Hendry book should be a bestseller in Scotland, even if it’s unknown down here, as it has an engaging mix of science and chit-chat. The opening bodes well: ‘ For years there has been a wee conspiracy that the midges should never be discussed in front of the tourists. By mentioning not a word about the midges in the holiday guides to Scotland, let alone giving simple advice on living with midges, in some way it is hoped that the midge problem will go away. Unfortunately, the midges will not go away…’
That there are thirty-four kinds of biting midge in Scotland is what the tourist is not told, but only one that causes major agony to man: Culicoides Impunctatus. The male midge does not bite, only the female, and then only at breeding time. It sounds a minor threat, but it does mean that during the Highland summer – the high season for everything from tourism to forestry – armies of midges are out biting. It makes life unbearable for many; Hendry suggests that it may explain why the Scottish red deer was till recently a scrawny specimen – it fled uphill to escape the midge only to find much poorer food.
Queen Victoria was sometimes nearly eaten alive on picnics, and it is recorded that her watercolour painter, Carl Haag, while painting near Balmoral, was driven to resume smoking to drive away the little beasties only a month after he had finally beaten the foul habit.
Pretty sensational stuff, but Hendry brings comfort too: midges hate wind, too much sun radiation and people with light-coloured clothing – darker cows are, oddly, worse affected than light ones. He gives broad advice on when to go out and what to rub on yourself.
What he doesn’t do is give any promise that the midge can be eradicated.
The Independent 28th July 1989