It’s been two weeks since I last posted. I just haven’t had a spare minute to write in. But here I am now… it’s Sunday, the madness has come to a lull.
The Saturday morning after I wrote (but somehow didn’t publish) my last post, I was straight out of bed, breakfasted and pacing round the room. That was the morning my family came up.
It was a profoundly beautiful moment to see the three of them walking into the complex, and to really hug someone for the first time in way, way too long. It’s funny, because I’ve always thought of home as Croft Cottage, and thought that the need I felt was to be back there. But at that moment, in the middle of Edinburgh city, I was home.
And so my little piece of the world is complete. It is now filled with music and joy… joy that, I assured my warden, won’t bother the other residents.
After this, it was onwards to the National Museum of Scotland because, even in my free time, I can’t resist seeing more dead animals. I loved it. My brother loved it, and even in the hours we spent comparing each other to weird animals, we didn’t see it all.
But that night I had the best night, eating perfectly cooked steak and chilling with my family, like we’d never been apart in the first place. I tell you, I haven’t slept so well since I got here. Perhaps that has something to do with the parties next door in my halls!
Sunday was all go. Breakfast, splash in the pool and off up Arthur’s Seat. Taking the long way round, obviously, we did eventually make it to the top… where you had to grip the cairn tightly for fear of doing a Mary Poppins impression off the top. Boy, was it windy.
Sunday night saw the last supper before I was returned, with many tears, to my room.
Ah, but no fear, we all managed to squeeze in another meal at the hotel when I finished school on Monday, much to my delight. And the tearful leaving ritual was repeated again.
It was a weekend I wish I could relive on a loop some nights. I thought seeing them again would make things easier, but in some ways it made it that much harder to say goodbye again. Not that I would trade it for the world, and so roll on Christmas!
But not quite yet. First, Halloween rolled on. And in response, the university erupted with yet another excuse to get absolutely plastered.
Deciding to join the residents of Chancellor’s instead of the vet school, Rowena, Kristen and I attended the Halloween Horror Cabaret at the Edinburgh Caves. If nothing else, the venue was incredible.
The Caves is a venue in the Edinburgh Vaults, a series of chambers formed in the nineteen arches of South Bridge, dating from 1788. Totalling 120 vaults, they housed taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, and possibly even the bodies of Burke & Hare’s victims. Quite appropriate for our Halloween haunt, then.
It was a pretty full-on evening of horror-themed burlesque dancing, knife throwing and incredible music from a DJ who is, strangely enough, also my warden. And I enjoyed the whole evening, warts and all!
Meanwhile, school marches on and waits for no one. Among more cell biology, bone lectures, an extremely lengthy first aid tutorial and four hours of lectures on cattle management, I actually went to handle cattle.
Waterproofs on, we made our way to the teaching barn, where six cows stood waiting in crushes. Our teacher for the day was a large animal vet that I’d met doing the safety session, and he gave us the safety brief and continued on to show us how to make and fit a rope halter to the cows.
Once instructed, the class split off into groups, and mine ended up with a small, pretty heifer on the end of the row. Despite my expectations that she would be difficult because of her age, she stood relatively quietly while we took turns fitting the halter to her head. What a sweetie.
Next, head restraint. The cow’s body is restrained in the metal crush, but her head is free to move left and right, as well as up and down. To examine the mouth, or administer medication or whatever else you might want to do at that end, the head needs to be still… ish. Our vet made it clear that there’s no way to out-muscle a cow, no matter what size human you are, because she’s always stronger. So, it was a case of technique and compromise. You encourage the cow to lift her head (because her first response is to try and tuck it between her front legs) with a mixture of putting pressure under her chin, tugging gently on her top lip and, strangely, inserting your fingers into her mouth. Once it’s up, you hug her head with your arm over the top of her nose, and get ready to dance. She’s not going to want to stay there, so sometimes it’s just a case of moving with her head as she throws it about, and wait until she settles.
Once at that point, however long it takes, she might let you look at her front teeth. If she does, you can estimate her age.
But what if you want to keep it open to look further back, or fiddle with something in there? Put a gag in. These devices slide between the back teeth and she bites down, holding her mouth open to allow you a little more access, because you don’t want those molars crunching down on your fingers.
As a group we did manage all of these tasks, with varying levels of difficulty. The level of difficulty depended on which cows we chose. The groups swapped and changed cows to get a feel for every individual. Some, like our lovely little heifer, were quiet and tractable. Others were stroppy and getting pretty sick of our antics, thank you very much. It was these that provided the challenge, the challenge that tested our ability not only to be brave and stay calm, but to be patient. Getting frustrated with the animals, particularly with so many people watching, would have been really easy. But that just makes things worse.
At one point, I was watching someone tackle their cow, and there was a shout and a thud behind me. Turning round, I saw a student skidding across the floor on her back, the adjacent cow now shaken free of its irritating student. Ah, better watch that one.
The whole process took nearly three hours, and we finished off with a leg-lifting demonstration. Although I’d already spent a reasonable amount of time with cows, I hadn’t handled them at this proximity before, and I left feeling a lot more at home with them.
This Tuesday, I got yet another live-animal fix, in the form of sheep. The day was cold, but it was sunny in that golden, Autumn kind of way. The sheep unit is at Easter Bush, so it’s not a bus ride but a short walk across the car park and to the farm.
Here, we changed and entered the barn, where we were met by the shepherd and his beautiful dog, and taken out to see the sheep in the field. While he described to us the usual method of breeding different types of sheep back into each other at different stages of the farm, his dog crouched like a spring in the grass, waiting for the orders. When the low whistle was given, the dog sprang into action and was guided round the sheep, bringing them from all across the field and right up in front of us. I’ve seen this happen so many times on the TV, but to see the bond and intelligence in real life is quite something.
Getting back into the shed and dividing up the lambs (these were around 7 months old, so they were no longer little but neither were they fully grown), we were taught how to catch and restrain a sheep humanely, and how to tip it on its back. So for the next hour we snuck around, trying to corner and catch sheep, which was easier with some individuals than others. Again, we learnt to age sheep by their teeth, and condition score them by touch, before estimating their weight.
Our final task of the day was to enter each pen in pairs, catch the collared sheep of the group and fill out everything we could find out about it. What sex, age, body condition, estimated weight, breed and purpose. After marking our paper against the true values, my partner and I scored 40/43, a new farm record. Body scoring and estimating weight is a very subjective thing that you get a feel for after feeling and looking at a number of animals. This is why I know, when I next have to do it, that my estimations could be quite a way off at first. But at least I know I’m far from inept at it!
Leaving the barn, the sun had gone completely, and was replaced by dense fog that had rolled in out of nowhere. Visibility was hugely reduced and the whole place was dark. I waited at the bus stop outside Roslin, unable to see whether the next vehicle was a bus or not!
The following day contained a lecture on sheep husbandry, which was a great way to link what I’d seen to the way sheep are farmed in the UK as a whole.
And that afternoon, we dissected the nerves of the forelimb. This was definitively the single longest and most demanding dissection. For 3 and 1/4 hours, we delicately picked away at a convoluted network of nerves in the armpit of our dog, stressed up to the eyeballs that we might sever something important. Stringy structures penetrated muscles in every direction and, using their course and destination, we attempted to identify what each one was. Such a difficult task was this that asking members of staff often yielded no definitive answers at all. But we got there in the end, and I was pleased with the final look of our dissection. It was about as clear as it was going to get. And it really does reinforce the complexity of an animal as commonplace as the dog.
But my week was topped off with the most amazing trip out to the Salisbury crags with Kristen. On bonfire night, we trudged up to the top of the crags in the dark, and made our way to the single highest point. Stood on the edge of the great cliffs, we watched out across the whole of the city as they all set off their fireworks. And what a sight it was.
Atop the crags, around a hundred people gathered in a long line along the crest, and a group arrived with flares and fireworks of their own, which they sent both up into the air and horizontally off the crags, so that they exploded at eye level over the city. Quite the show!
And so, with the 5th November passed, it has happened. The sun is only just rising as the vet students get out of bed, and it’s pitch black on the way home. As Dad would say, “The nights are drawing in…” and we’re on the very cusp of that long stretch of time where we’ll get up in the dark and go home in the dark. As I write, the sunny weather that’s been surprising me every day has disappeared, and the rain is moving in sheets past my window. Welcome to bonny Scotland!
But I’m far from an alien to this weather, I consider it my standard operating conditions. So the weather can do what it wants, because I’m ready for it, and cosy in my little room.
It’s been a long post, so thanks for sticking around! I will try and write weekly to shorten it down. The next week is an interesting blend of cell biology, professional skills, vertebrae lectures, animal welfare and the last forelimb practical. See you on the other side!