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Issue 93 - Roddy Martine's View

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


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Roddy Martine's View

Roddy Martine encounters the midge

Every country has them: nuisances. I was in two minds about whether or not to write about such things in a magazine that celebrates the best of Scotland but, to be fair, it is always best for visitors to be well informed. Those of us who live here have learned to live with them.

Midges are not nearly as nasty as their relatives, the mosquitoes, and their lives are short. You could almost feel sorry for them. To begin with they are invertebrate and only around for three months over the summer, in which time the females are expected to lay batches of 30 to 100 eggs within five days of being fertilized. Even if they are lucky, and survive being eaten by a Pipistrelle bat, their adult lives only last up to 30 days. So what exactly is a Midge and where do they come from?

Although there are 1,400 species on record globally, only 36 related species are indigenous to Scotland. However, it is only the female Culicoides impunctatus, the Highland midge, that bites. Cattle, deer and sheep are the principle targets, the assault continuing steadily until some point in September. As is so often the case, it’s all done in the name of reproduction.

Curiously, no mention of midges was made by the Roman legionnaires during their excursions into the Grampians in AD80. Nor do the records indicate that they were encountered by Robert the Bruce, while hiding out in the heather, or by English soldiers fleeing from defeat after the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

So where did they come from? There are those who blame the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and there could be some truth in this. It was only after large areas of forestry were cleared to make way for sheep and blood sports that Scotland's midge population exploded.

Prior to that, of course, few Highlanders (contrary to popular myth) wore the kilt as we know it today and perhaps it is no coincidence that midges are attracted to exposed knees. During the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Bonnie Prince Charlie had a pretty scratchy time in the Uists, wrapping himself from head to foot in plaid. According to her diary, Queen Victoria was certainly not amused during one of her picnics on Loch Maree.

Highland midges make their debut annually following a wet spring and the biting variety emerge in June. They don't like bright sunlight or wind and they tend to congregate in shady places such as low vegetation near water, usually on the banks of Highland lochs, rivers and burns.

Their favourite time of day is early morning or evening, or during those still and humid days when the cloud cover remains intense. The best advice is to wear bright clothes, preferably white (midges like dark fabrics), and to stay indoors at sunset. Midges do not penetrate clothing, but they can sneak in past your collars and cuffs.

How can you recognize them? Don't worry, you'll feel them first. Highland midges are tiny, with a wing span of 1.4mm, and, under a magnifying glass, unlike the common garden or dancing midge, they have blotches on their wings which they fold flat on their backs. When they arrive, they swarm.

So what can be done about it? Some landowners and hoteliers have installed electronic midge traps that mimic perspiring humans and suck unsuspecting midges into a glue trap collector. The results are impressive but nevertheless appear to make little difference to numbers in a swarm.

Pipe smoke and cigarettes used to be the gentleman's answer, but this approach is less common nowadays for obvious reasons. Citronella lemon-smelling shampoos act as deterrent, as do repellents such as bog myrtle, ‘Smidge that Midge’, and Avon’s ‘Skin-So-Soft’, which is widely used by forestry workers.

If all else fails, you might consider acquiring an antimidge head net — but don't let it spoil your appreciation of what Scotland has to offer. Remember that we are all part of the same ecosystem, after all.

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