November 2009

The lovely Sharon and I were watching TV tonight.  Were we indulging in these operatic soaps or reality TV (which seems far removed from reality to me – at the moment a woman dressed as a bumble bee is trying not to get her head electrocuted)?  No, we just watched a programme called ‘Off the Beaten Track’ about wandering the hills and mountains of Northern Ireland.

So, we were watching and learning about walking along Fair Head and down a gully called the Grey Man’s Path.  I have never been there myself but the lovely Sharon has and is insisting that we visit it soon.  I was always under the impression that it was called the Grey Man’s Path because it makes a man’s hair turn grey.  I was wrong.  The program went on to explain that it is because according to local legend the grey man walks along this area when the mist rolls in from Rathlin.  As soon as I heard this I had a light bulb moment and thought, “hang on, that sounds familiar”.

I wonder if the conditions in this area match a similar legend called the The Big Grey Man of Ben MacDhui  their is an excellent website and a short film about the legend here (website) and here (film). Is it possible that the grey man of fair head is in fact a brocken spectre?  A brocken spectre is an amazing optical effect that I have yet to see myself:

image by Gerald Davison

The conditions have to be just right but the effect is that you see a ‘grey man’ a little distance away from yourself.  It will follow you and mock you by copying your movements.  It is not hard to imagine that “mist rolling in from Rathlin” are just such conditions.

I am sure it is initially quite frightening, especially if you were walking in these spooky conditions on your own.  Although I must admit that the site of this broken spectre I found on flickr would really scare the wits out of me:

image from hello, i am bruce

Apparently there are several stories that relate to the Grey Man of Fair Head,  one of these states:

“his voice was different and not of the accents she was used too, she noticed too, in the falling light, that the his face was pale and expressionless below his coat hood. She did not want to stare but could almost swear that it was grey”


“he noticed that that the stranger had one foot in the shape of a broken horse hoof, now this put the fear into her”

I am not sure this can be explained with a brocken spectre.

Back to ‘reality’ TV now, they are eating insects again.  Forget that!  The lovely Sharon and I are away out for a walk through the fields.  The moon is spectacular, the air is frigid and the sky clear.  And Jack Frost is out playing tonight.

There is a bug in my brain’s software, who do I report it to?

It’s been a few weeks since I have put my boots on and breathed the cool hill air, but I made up for it today.  The weather was  very cold and brought a light slow rain cloud that could be seen coming from the sea for an hour before it arrived.  The air was still all day as fog hugged the valleys like pools of frigid water.

For this walk we headed out onto the Sallagh Braes.  Before we left we debated the origin of the name.  I thought it might be the ‘willow road’ as the Irish word for willow is ‘seileach’ which sounds similar.  But it turns out that it was more likely to be the ‘dirty road’ as the word ‘sallagh’ means dirt or foulness.

The walk took us along the edge of a steep cliff which was the result of a huge landslip many aeons ago.  The walk was enjoyable on its own and the company was such that you would laugh in any conditions.  But as a bonus, the walk threw up some wonderful finds including the strange phenomenon of ‘star jelly’ (see below).

The first random thing to be spotted was what I assume to be a type of meadow coral fungus standing out like a strange alien in the grass:

It’s the type of thing that looks out of place and makes you afraid to touch for fear that it might come alive or sting like an anemone.   The next encounter was some sort of small mushroom that looked like a cherry with a perfect hole on top.  I would love to know what this is:

The final weirdness we stumbled upon was that of pwdre ser (or rot of the stars), also known as star jelly.

Pwdre ser is something you would easily walk past and think either nothing of or think of it as disgusting.  It looks like huge lumps of snot.  However, it is a bit of a mystery and an enigma.  For a long time people though it was the leftovers of falling stars (meteorites), hence the name.

William Somervile, in 1740, wrote in The Talisman:

Swift as the shooting star, that gilds the night
With rapid transient Blaze, she runs, she flies;
Sudden she stops nor longer can endure
The painful course, but drooping sinks away,
And like that falling Meteor, there she lyes
A jelly cold on earth.

from wikipedia Star Jelly article

In recent years investigations have begun to try and establish the true origin on the random jelly (see here and here and here).  Some believed it to be a bacterial mould or maybe a fungus.  But the conditions of finding it are unusual.  Sometimes it can be found on grass, on logs, on rocks and even in large amounts.  It does seem to be found either at early spring or at the end of autumn.  Some experiments have been done and I think I remember reading that they found it to be non living.  The strongest possibility is that of frogs.

Have you ever looked at frog spawn and wondered how all that spawn fitted into one tiny frog?  It may be due to the packing material that the eggs come in, the jelly.  This packing material takes up very little room but rapidly and dramatically expands when it comes into contact with water.  This is thought to be the jelly.  It is believed that when a raven or heron (or maybe even a fox or badger) eats a female frog with this packing material unused, the material comes into contact with the predator’s stomach juices during digestion and expands.  The result is the predator vomiting up the jelly.

I have seen this jelly a few times many years ago and wondered at the time what it was.  I wondered so much that I looked into it and found the information I have stated above.  However, there has always been doubt and no hard evidence about the frog theory.  So, I have always kept an eye out for it.  A few times friends have mentioned that they seen it and also wondered.  Only a few weeks ago a colleague on the ML assessment mentioned it to everyone and was curious about its origins.

When I found it today I was delighted (strange, I know).  But then one of my friends exclaimed, “and look , a dead frog!”.  And not even 1 meter away was a frog, bloated and sad.

A dead frog is not a frequent sight at the best of times, but so close to the dirt of a star, it cannot be ignored.

After all that excitement we got to wander off the hill as the light began to play around us.  The winter night is quick to come but its strange and brilliant character cannot be ignored.  On the last leg of the walk we were treated to a view of the gathering fog wrapping around Slemish and the valleys.


I have been pondering this and have some questions.  Why do most reports of pwdre ser see only the jelly and no frog or frog parts?  Why are all the examples mostly clear apart from a few that I have heard of being slightly red in colour (tinged with blood)?  AS I understand it (I could be wrong) birds like herons and ravens swallow their food whole and without chewing.  Is it possible that a live frog empties itself (pee, poo, and egg packing material) inside the predator and causes the predator to vomit the frog and material?  At this stage it is probably likely that the predator would then re-swallow the frog leaving no trace but the jelly unless it was spooked or disturbed after it had vomited.

Update 1/12/09

Based on a few conversations on web forums it seems that the ‘pwdre ser’ of long ago was more than likely referring to nostoc which is a type of cyanobacteria. However, the clear jelly that I found, and other examples on the net, are part of a collection of substances that many people call pwdre ser (or star jellies) today.  So in time, the definition of what people call pwdre ser may have widened over time.

Also, I had stated that I had never heard of anyone finding frog parts in the jelly (the ‘frog jelly’ star jelly).  However, I have since discovered from chatting on forums that people have found partially digested frog parts in some finds.

UPDATE 05/12/09

Or maybe it IS pwdre ser?

I was doing some more searching about on the internet and found the abstract of a 1926 Nature article. It seems this debate is a bit Déjà vu:


Pwdre Ser (The Rot of the Stars)
PERHAPS I may be allowed to reopen a subject which gave rise to a very interesting correspondence in NATURE in 1910. I refer to the mysterious jelly-like substance found lying about in open spaces, and popularly connected with ‘shooting-stars,’ about which Prof. T. McKenny Hughes contributed an interesting article to these columns on June 23, 1910. Many suggestions as to the origin of this substance were made both by Prof. Hughes and by later correspondents, but no definite conclusion seems to have been reached. Of course it cannot be taken for granted that the ‘jelly’ is always of the same nature. It may well be that the ‘jellies’ recorded by some observers were the plasmodia of Myxomycetes, or masses of Nostoc or some other organism. But it seems to have been suggested so early as 1667 by Merrett that the jelly consisted of the viscera of frogs. He says (I quote from Prof. Hughes) ”Regiae Societati palam ostendi solummodo oriri ex intestinis ranarum a corvis in unum locum congestis, quod aliis etiam ejusdem societatis viri praestantissimi postea confirmarunt”

The Muntjac are coming.

Yesterday’s busy rushed day was worth it.  The full cups of coffee down the drain were worth it.  The one hour spent on the M2/M5 car park* was worth it.  It was all worth it see the pupils get this:

Their LEGO trophy (and medals) for the most innovative robot design.


On a completely different note, something strange is happening.  A few days ago the lovely Sharon drew my attention to the roof of our garden shed.  Sitting/lying on the shed is a toy action figure.  We are a little perplexed as to how it got there.  It is still there, maybe he is just visiting.  Then at the weekend the lovely Sharon and I returned from church to find another action figure.  This time it was in her handbag and rather scary looking. How strange.


*the only good thing about the M2/M5 car park is that it is free.

It’s catagorised as a busy day when I am making my 3rd cup of coffee without actually having drunk any coffee at all. ****sigh***

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