Friday, 17 April 2015


The University of St Andrews has a lively array of traditions, from Raisin Monday (can't possibly explain in a few words) to May Dip (students run in to the freezing North Sea at dawn on May Day).  Courtesy of a resident source,  here's another tradition - the Kate Kennedy procession. Students in the procession portray characters from the University's 600 year history, including Robert the Bruce, John Cleese, Mary Queen of Scots and Rudyard Kipling.  Kate Kennedy herself was apparently the niece of Bishop Kennedy, the founder of the University's St Salvator's College.  The character of Kate is played each year by a first year male student. 

It was the end of a long working week during which I had written goodness knows how many thousand words when I wrote this post, and my brain rather ran out of words at this point.  So this paragraph is an update to the original, to mention that the university's Kate Kennedy Club, which stages the procession, originally only accepted male members.  The club is a mixture of charitable good works and highly selective entry processes.  Prince William was a member when he was at St Andrews.  When the first female Principal of the university, Louise Richardson, arrived in 2009, she withdrew university support for the club because it excluded students on gender grounds.  By 2012 the club had abandoned its men-only policy.  The Principal has been involved in another gender issue: the university's Principal is traditionally made an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews.  However because she is a woman the Club refused to extend membership to Professor Richardson. Recently the Club voted to admit female members, but Professor Richardson was not among the first 15 women admitted. Small minds.  Gie them laldie, Louise! 

Back to the now calmer waters of the procession.  Horses are involved.


As are bishops.

I wish I could tell you who these characters are.  A rich mixture.

And of course when there are horses involved there is always the moment when someone doesn't look where they're stepping.

Monday, 6 April 2015

A proper walk

As promised, some photos from a 'proper' walk, involving a hill of a decent height.  They're from my daughter's recent trip to Skye with her university hillwalking club.  For once they had decent weather - they seem to have spent the autumn and winter walking inside a cloud - but on this occasion the clouds fled and she actually got sunburnt.  

The shot above is looking towards the bridge linking Skye to the mainland.  Before the bridge was built the crossing was made by small car ferries,  of the turntable sort that still make the crossing at the south end of the island.  We crossed on one of these on a summer visit to Skye a few years ago.

The shot below is looking towards the destination for the day's walking - the Storr and the Old Man of Storr.  The Old Man is the pinnacle you can see halfway down the slope to the right of the shot.  My daughter's group walked to it up along the ridge leading from the left of the shot.

And here's the Old Man from up top.

And one of those 'it was worth it' views.

A glimpse of sunrise, from the hostel the group stayed at.  The sun is rising over the mainland of Scotland. 

And to finish, some deer posing for photos.   

Unfortunately the group's latest walk again encountered clouds, made more challenging by the fact that it was the annual fancy dress walk.  Anyone who encountered bizarrely-clad walkers on a Scottish mountain recently - one of them was mine.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

A bit of a walk

And a bit of an absence from blogging.  I've been ill, annoyingly.  The very Victorian-sounding ailment of pleurisy.  Stupidly I've tried to keep working through it, which hasn't helped.  

This had an impact on a weekend away we'd planned.   The intention had been to climb 'a few Munros'.  This was our daughter's idea - she's a keen hillwalker and decided she would get her parents out of the city and out onto the hills.  For anyone who doesn't realise the significance of the Munros bit, the Munros are Scottish hills over 3000 feet.  The classification dates from 1891, when Sir Hugh Munro published his Munro tables.  There's now a popular of 'Munro bagging', as hillwalkers try to climb all 282 summits. 3000 feet may not sound very high by Alpine standards, but some of them are ferociously difficult, requiring compass navigation - no tracks - and knife-edge ridges.  

With my dodgy breathing a Munro was beyond me, so we settled for a bit of a walk up into the hills above Aberfeldy, in Perthshire (and managed 8.6 miles all the same).  The start of the walk was up through beechwoods, a walk made famous by Robert Burns' poem 'The Birks of Aberfeldy'.  And here's a statue of Burns, enjoying his birks in perpetuity.  He seems to be multi-tasking in the way of today's teenagers, holding a tablet or Kindle while also reading a book.  

We took a look at his paper reading material.  Anyone recognise it?

 We came across prehistoric-looking trees. 

And waterfalls, celebrated by Burns in his poem:

The braes ascend like lofty wa's,
The foaming stream deep-roaring fa's,
O'erhung wi' fragrant spreading shaws-
The birks of Aberfeldy.
The hoary cliffs are crown'd wi' flowers,
White o'er the linns the burnie pours,
And rising, weets wi' misty showers
The birks of Aberfeldy.  


And then it was up onto the open moor.

We saw a huge number of black grouse, which was encouraging given that they're in a category of a globally threatened species.  They don't exactly help themselves by being supremely bad at being unobtrusive, breaking cover at the slightest noise, and making their distinctive harsh call.  I didn't have enough zoom on my camera to get a good shot of this one, but you can hopefully see it perched on the wall, with its red comb standing out against the heather.

As so often now in Scotland, there was a wind farm on the horizon.  I'm very ambivalent about windfarms.  Clean energy is good, but the impact on the landscape is huge.

Even less scenic was this row of dead moles, strung on a fence in a sort of medieval visual deterrent.  I wasn't aware that Mr Mole was considered a pest, but having googled it I discover that if silage is cut in a field with mole hills it cases listeriosis in the livestock that eat it, which can kill them or make them abort.  This puzzles me about this upland thin grass, as it doesn't look too good for silage. 

And we had a spot of spring heather burning - this is done to keep the heather young and vigourous.  The practice is known as 'muirburn', and it's governed by legislation.  The  green shoots of the new heather growth are eaten by grouse, so the burning is part of a larger cycle.

And finally, an unusual sight now in Scotland - a thatched roof.  
This was very near the very lovely bed and breakfast we stayed in.  If you're looking for somewhere to stay in the Aberfeldy area, I'd recommend The Steading.

In my next post, I'll give you a glimpse of the view from a Munro.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Kilgore Rangerettes

The University of Edinburgh's Old College quad is used for various performances during the summer arts festival, but things aren't so exciting during the rest of the year.  However this week the  Kilgore Rangerettes from east Texas performed as part of their 75th anniversary tour of Scotland and Ireland.  

In the shot above the performers are just about to land on the grass in the splits.  I didn't get a photo because I was too surprised.  Ouch - I can't begin to imagine how they practise that.  As we say in Scots - they're 'gey swack' - very supple.  When I googled 'swack' I was startled to discover that it means something...very different, if you come from San Diego. 

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Glasgow old and new

I've been working in Glasgow all week, but with very long working days  there's been no time to get out and explore the city.  The most I can show you is the view from my hotel bedroom.  Glasgow is much larger than Edinburgh and the cityscape always says 'big city' to me.  I feel as if I'm visiting from a village in the country by comparison.  

This is a city in movement, summed up for me by my 6th floor view:  sadly derelict Victorian sandstone building, complete with blurred carvings, chimney pots and tiny attic casements, beside a gap left by a demolition, and then the modern high rises beyond. 

And more of the same in the other direction.  I hope the building in the first picture, with its hobbit-like cupolas and dormers, will be restored, but it did look as if it was being left to fall into decay.  Pity.  I felt like starting a charity for abandoned buildings, it tugged at my heart-strings so much.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Happiness in bitter cold

I'm biased of course, but there's nothing that can lift winter-dulled spirits better than a day of bitter cold, pure Northern skies and the wide expanse of the North Sea.   Scotland's coastline from the Moray Firth down to the Kingdom of Fife is in my blood.  My forebears fished out of the small Moray Firth ports, venturing round the tip of Scotland to the West coast, but most often following the herring down the East coast as far as Great Yarmouth in England.  Family tradition has it that on one occasion my grandfather's boat reached as far as Calais, where touching attempts at speaking French were deployed.  The crew asked for directions to the 'postie-officie' - because at a time before domestic telephones the first thing to be done on reaching any port was to send a postcard home to announce the safe arrival:  "Made the land in [insert port].  All well."  Fresh food was the next priority - with my grandfather asking in a baker's shop for 'one breada'.  My grandfather died before I reached my teens.  I like to think he would have been amazed and proud that his granddaughter became fluent in the language that he and his crew tried to negotiate.

Yesterday we were in St Andrews on just such a spirit-lifting day.  The shot above is of the cathedral ruins. Built on the site of earlier churches, the cathedral dates from 1160.  In its time it was Scotland's greatest cathedral, but tragically was left to fall into ruin during the Protestant Reformation.  You can read more about the cathedral at the Historic Scotland site. 

From the grandeur of the ruins to intimate acts of remembrance: we came across these hand-knittted poppies on the cathedral railings.

The small stone pier always draws us when we're in St Andrews.

Lobster creels were piled up on the quayside, and we watched a boat  returning from setting some out.


For all its wide horizons and medieval grandeur, St Andrews is a very intimate place.  On the pier I noticed this fragment of china set into the surface.  I'm sorry it's a blurry image - the sun was so bright that I couldn't see if my wee camera was in focus.  You'll notice some splashes of red.  We saw these all along the pier, and after the first lurid thought - "historic blood of medieval martyrs" - realised that they were candle wax.  There is a long tradition of St Andrews University students processing along the pier in their red undergraduate gowns after the Sunday service in the University chapel.  However that is in the middle of the day, and however dark it gets in Scotland in winter I doubt if these processions are candle-lit.  There is a candle-lit procession on 30 April each year, in memory of student John Honey, so perhaps the wax has endured the year since then.  Or it may be from an informal Christmas celebration.  Archaelogical mystery!

The intimate also extends to the size of some houses.

And to the decorated windows that can be found around the town.

Today the sky is flat and grey, with snow forecast.  It's good to have yesterday's brightness to look back on.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Above the city

Last Saturday we were desperate to escape the city, even for a few hours.  With the Pentland Hills just to the south of Edinburgh it's easy to have a morning's breathing space without having to spend too long getting there.  This is the view north across the west of Edinburgh towards the river Forth and the hills of Fife beyond.  Immediately above the trees are the housing blocks of Wester Hailes.  I remember as a child coming down to Edinburgh for summer holidays in the 1960s - we used to drive on a narrow, winding road through open fields where this housing estate now stands.  

On Saturday the Forth was hidden by fog, but the two bridges were standing clear.  The three triangles in the middle of the shot - like an iron Toblerone - is the upper structure of the Forth rail bridge,  and the slender pillars to the left are the road bridge.  

Even at this height, after a stiff pull uphill, there was considerable traffic noise from the city bypass below.  But turn and face away from the city and you could be on a remote hillside anywhere in Scotland.

Looking east, you can see what a superb defensive position Edinburgh castle occupies on its rock.  

We passed by the frozen Bonaly reservoir, one of Edinburgh's water sources.  

It was so good to get away from pavements and out among heather and bleached winter grass and icy snow. 

The slight drawback of the Pentlands, if there is one, is that parts are used as an army training area, complete with occasional live firing.  The Ministry of Defence tells you smartly what's what:  "Live firing is restricted to the Live Firing Range at Castlelaw. The primary land use is for military dry training (i.e. use of blank ammunition). Red flags (daytime) and lamps (night-time) are flown/shown when firing is taking place and walkers are not allowed into this Danger Area."

I love this sign - it looks as if there's very choreographed troop training going on.  Or line dancing.


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