Attack of the Killer Midges

OK, in the title, I exaggerate, but only slightly. If you read our midges in Scotland page, you might detect the faintest hint of ‘Och, what’s all the fuss about?’ Sure, Scottish midges never killed anyone – but, yes, they can be a bit of an irritation.

However, after our experience one year during a hot still day in mid-August, I’m not so sure that I am taking the whole midge issue seriously enough.

To set the scene: we were returning from a 16 mile / 26km hike in the Cairngorms National Park. It was mid-evening. The sun was low and, significantly, the wind had dropped away completely.

We were eastbound, heading for the Linn of Dee and the Mar Lodge carpark, following the River Dee downstream on a rugged path that improved on arrival at White Bridge.

White Bridge, to be clear, is a bridge and only a bridge. If not exactly in the middle of nowhere, then certainly it’s only a little to one side of the middle of nowhere.

At White Bridge, near Inverey, Aberdeenshire
Looking east from White Bridge, which spans the young River Dee about half-an-hour’s blistered limping west of the Linn of Dee and the Mar Lodge Estate carpark. The attack of the killer midges took place on the river-flats (we’d call them haughs) on the left-hand side.

I had been bitten by a cleg (horsefly) while photographing the Chest of Dee. (See gallery below.) That malevolent insect had arrived along with the midges.

We were on guard. My ear was bleeding from the bite – providing a grand opportunity to be heroic. (Though you know how easily ears bleed.)

The Scottish Midges Attack

But it was on the wide expanse of the glen that the problem started. The usually very effective Smidge that Midge had long ago worn off.

Time for a re-application. But it was now hidden in that churned-up collection of spare garments, maps and sandwich crusts that is an end-of-day rucksack.

The all-important deterrent was either in Johanna’s pack or mine. But which one?

We had only seconds to decide and there appeared to be clouds of midges following us and closing in. Johanna was walking slowly, as you do after all those miles and with a blister to nurse.

A black cloud of midges!

To be honest, we were walking too slowly and so were outrun by them.

A moment later, out there in the wide expanse of grass and bog and open water patches, there were more midges than truly I have ever seen before. And I’ve seen a lot. 

There were so many, in fact, that they began to take the form of an almost solid cloud, just above and behind our heads. Very unsettling.

Then they descended. We couldn’t help but inhale them both by nose and mouth. The dog was on the ground rubbing his face on the stones.

Johanna was coughing and hurling things in all directions out of the rucksack.

Can you outrun a cloud of midges?

We eventually gave up finding the anti-insect spray – where could it have got to?  We repacked hurriedly and hobbled away, cursing and spitting. Did I take a picture at that point? No. Out of the question.

I was at that point, amid the pinpricks, just about joining with the dog and rubbing my own face on the stones too.  Camera, phone? Not so much as a spare finger to press the shutter.

Truly, for a mad howling moment, we almost panicked and ran. Only, we couldn’t. But we made as good a speed as J’s blisters would allow…

About half an hour later, with the light fading fast, we reached the bridge at the Linn of Dee. I raced ahead to get the car. Johanna waited by the bridge.

‘Bastardo!’ shouted the Italian tourist

Later she related to me how, suddenly, from the rocky river below the bridge, a handsome young Italian tourist appeared, rubbing his hands all over his face, while shaking his head and screaming ‘Bastardo! Bastardo!’

He asked Johanna – little knowing he was talking to a tourism expert(!) – if there was anything that could be done about the insects and was it dangerous to swallow them.

Was there a plant that might keep them away he asked. He was all but in tears.  Here was someone who was definitely having his holiday spoiled.

(As far as effective anti-midge plants are concerned, some say bog myrtle has some effect. Personally, I sometimes wear a sprig of it in my hat when in the wilds – but I’m not convinced of its efficacy. You hear the same about lavender oil as well.)

Best to go with something that is applied to the skin. 

Actually, as we had just experienced, breathing and swallowing midges under certain circumstances is unavoidable.

Johanna did her best to reassure him but told him to keep walking – though running was even better. He went on his way, disappearing into the twilight – coughing and cursing just like us.

We got some great photos on our day in the mountains. But had to pay a price at the end. The moral: keep that insect spray and also a midge hood in your pocket, at all times. Just thinking about that day is making me want to scratch…

The young River Dee falls by a series of pools above White Bridge.
The young River Dee falls by a series of pools above White Bridge.
In Glen Dee, west of White Bridge
In Glen Dee, west of White Bridge
In the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms National Park, August evening
In the Lairig Ghru, Cairngorms National Park, August evening