Sunday, 23 August 2015


Fidra island

We took a very quick trip to nearby Yellowcraigs beach the other weekend.  Very quick - we were having yet another busy weekend but had promised ourselves that we would escape from the city.  It was very late on Sunday afternoon before left and we almost decided it was one thing too many on our list,  but I'm so glad we broke free.  Yellowcraigs is a gently shelving sandy beach a short walk from parking in a field.  The parking isn't totally rustic - there is a well-maintained toilet and shower block, an ice cream van, and a Treasure-Island themed (but tasteful, seemingly all made of wood) children's play area among trees nearby. It's the beach of choice for many primary school end of term trips - I remember the packing list for my daughter's trip included sunscreen, sun hat, fleece and waterproof jacket - the typical any-weather-is-possible of the Scottish summer. 

Out in the Firth of Forth are several islands, basalt left-overs from long ago volcanic activity.  The one above is Fidra, with its lighthouse and rock arch - you can just make it out to the right of the main island.  There's speculation that Robert Louis Stevenson drew on it as part of his inspiration for Treasure Island.  Looking east, there's Craigleith and the Bass Rock off North Berwick.

Craigleith and the Bass Rock

I have to admit that as a Moray Firth/North Sea girl I don't find the seascape of the Firth of Forth all that exciting.  So it was the wildflowers behind the shore that captured my attention.  The vibrant blue of Viper's Bugloss was everywhere.  This was the first time I'd seen it in the wild.  I had longed to do so ever since childhood when I read a description of it in one of Monica Edwards' books set on Romney Marsh.
Viper's Bugloss

obligatory summer shot of bee and flower

There were some ferociously-spined roses.  Not the wild Scots rose, I think, as they fairly bristle with spines, but they seemed to have larger spines than the common Dog Rose.

And teasels, which reminded me of Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout.
"Time for bed", said Zebedee

One thing which did catch our attention on the shoreline was this rock, seemingly a magnet for shells.  We moved in close to take photos, and then a wave dislodged some of them.  A very plausible bit of environmental art!

On the way back to the car park we came across this plant in the woodland.  I have no idea what it is - rare wildflower, escapee from a garden?  Internet searches haven't turned anything up, so any information welcome.  I may email a photo the countryside rangers for the area. 
mystery plant

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Summer reading part 1

 Yes, this is part 1.  I'm having a library binge this summer, and let's face it,our sodden, cold summer is just right for cosy evenings spent reading indoors, ideally in front of an open fire or wood-burning stove.  Since we lack those in Edinburgh I can be found keeping warm sitting on the large squashy sofa under a soft Swedish throw.  There is now a 'reading dent' in the sofa.  We are desperate not to put on the central heating, so it's a case of that good Scottish solution of putting another layer on.

I am fascinated by the 1930s - literature, art, politics.  I've read a lot about Britain in the period, but shamefully for a French graduate I'm rather ignorant of the feel of the decade in France.  This is a fairly dense read, and it's not going to be too cheerful.  Right now I'm still in the aftermath of the First World War and its effect on the French social and political psyche.

 When I want cheered up I turn to Ned Boulting's account of the 2014 Tour de France.  This is funny in the category of "Oh no, Mum's laughing out loud at a book on a transatlantic flight" - blame Bill Bryson for that one. In fact I've enjoyed it so much I extended its loan period and am on my second reading.  I now accept I'm going to have to buy it.

Because I'm new to this following cycling lark, I've only just become aware of Matt Rendell.  Matt is a freelance cycling commentator/author.  During this year's Tour he did an exquisite interview in French with a former French cycling professional turned journalist about his sceptical comments on Chris Froome's performance.  You can see it at the end of this short clip here.  Just shows the power of being able to speak other languages. After all that I felt I should read Matt's book about the history of the Tour de France.  As the French would say, 'j'ai appris des choses', discovering the even more extreme, punishing early days of the race, how the time trial and peleton came about, and how the race has adapted over the years.

A very pastoral, ideal-for summer read next - the life of an English meadow through a year.  Poetic yet brutally realistic about nature.  I've learned about moles harvesting worms and keeping them in suspended animation in worm-larders underground.  The Wind in the Willows didn't mention that.

Ever since watching the original BBC TV series of Survivors in the late 1970s I've been fascinated by post-apocalyptic scenarios.  That fascination has been tempered a bit since I've become a mother.  No hospitals! dentists! pain relief!   But without going as far as being a prepper I am concerned that we are really pretty helpless about even basic survival skills.  This was a very technical book, some of which I glazed over because of my complete lack of scientific knowledge.  I guess I could be useful growing food and making contact with French survivors.  In fact this year's Scottish summer made me conclude that the only sensible thing to do would be to pack up here and head for the south of France, where at least post-apocalyptic misery would be slightly warmer.

Last year I read a fascinating account of life in North Korea - a survival situation if ever there was one - by a former British diplomat there: 'Only Beautiful Please'.   'North Korea Undercover' is by a journalist who travelled to North Korea embedded in a party of students.  There was a fuss about it in the news when the subterfuge came out.  I was disappointed by this book - I felt it was sensationalist/tabloid-ish in parts, and I limped along to the end.

This account of six 19th century English women who made second lives in America is by one of my favourite travel writers.  I've read all her other exploration books, but found this very difficult to warm to.  There was a tenuous thread of the author's own inner turmoil at turning 50, but it came across to me as rather contrived.  Oh dear, I've gone into lit crit mode.  What impressed me in this book was the tenacity of these women at a time when they were expected just to fade out and grow old quietly, so perhaps it was a worthwhile read just for that message.  

That's another thing to add to my 'appreciating Edinburgh' list - great public libraries. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Appreciating Edinburgh

A busy time at home and work = lack of blogging.  And also, I have to admit, a certain fatigue with Edinburgh.  We've lived here for 30 years now, and if one has to live in a city it's a rather lovely one.  But still.  I'm in danger of taking it for granted/being bored by it/longing to escape.  One day we will escape, back to the north east, but for the moment our working lives are here and things are conspiring to prevent mini-escapes to hills or coast.

So I've given myself a mental shake and decided to appreciate Edinburgh.  What would I miss most, I asked myself, when we eventually move from the city?  After all, its Old and New Towns have UNESCO World Heritage status.  It has 12 festivals of culture throughout the year, with the peak in terms of volume coming with the International Festival and Festival Fringe in August.  And art galleries and museums and gardens and trams.  The answer, I was startled to discover, was...cafes.  I told myself to think again, but the answer came back even more firmly, and I realised it was true and that I was unapologetic about it.  Edinburgh has a blissful range of independent cafes, so that there's no need to darken the doors of a Starbucks or Costa. My nearest cafe corner is in the Canonmills area, beside the Water of Leith.  Canonmills was originally a small village, and got its name from the Augustinian canons of Holyrood Abbey who had a watermill here from the 12th century.  Jump forward several centuries and I present the Blue Bear cafe as top of my list for appreciating Edinburgh.

Photo credits are due to my daughter, who took these shots for me unasked.  And if you're very observant you'll notice from the Christmas tree that they were taken a while ago.  But at any time of year, what could be nicer than afternoon tea in these lovely flowery cups?

And some of the home baking.

What would you miss most about where you live at the moment, if you had to move?  I'd love to see a blog post about it!

As well as the Christmas tree, you may also notice I've added an Instagram button to my sidebar.  You'll find me at @occasionalscotland. I've been puddling around with Instagram for a bit, as much for my own interest as anything else.  I still have to get round to adding any tags to my posts so I'm obviously not in it to maximise my followers!  But I'm enjoying the immediacy of the thing, especially when my time for blogging is limited.  What about you - are you attracted by Instagram?  

Monday, 13 July 2015

Tour de force

It's that time again - the Tour de France.  I'm no cyclist, not having been on bike since my student days.  Back then I used to cycle to the tennis courts on summer evenings, and cycle out with friends on the quiet country roads around the village.  But over the past few years I've become besotted by the Tour de France, that epic 3 week unfolding drama. We holidayed in the Bordeaux area one year just before the Tour passed through, and it was evident in even the smallest of hamlets that something of the magnitude of a royal visit was about to happen.  Everything that could be was painted, swept, polished, renovated.  And unlike a royal visit, no-one would even stop - unless they fell off.  I started watching the race on TV.  At first it was the footage of France that drew me in.  Then gradually, almost without noticing, I began to pick up some of the technicalities.  And now it's a highlight of my year.

It's one thing to watch it from the comfort of the sofa, but almost unimaginably another to ride the actual route within the same timeframe, a week in advance of the Tour itself.  However that's what a friend is doing this year - riding the route for charity.  The Tour de Force takes riders on some or all of the stages of that year's Tour, raising money for the William Wates Memorial Trust to help the most disadvantaged young people keep away from a life of crime and violence and fulfill their potential.   Imagine riding the daily hell of the Tour without having chosen this as a career, without the corporate resource of the big cycling teams, without years of finely-tuned training programmes.  Have a look at Tony Does TDF and you'll see someone doing just that - and perhaps consider donating to the charity if you feel moved to.

You weren't going to get photo of me on a bike to illustrate this post, so I popped out from work to take some cycling-themed photos in the neighbourhood.  The last photo below is one of the bike stores for cycle commuters at the University of Edinburgh. 

And bon courage to Tony as he approaches the Alps!


Monday, 6 July 2015

Woeful failure to take photos

The Shard, from Citizen M Bankside
 Not much photo-taking going on.  I'm still on the tram lines of get up-go to work-come home-slump.  I will blog more about this in my next post.  We had a long weekend in London recently - things have been too busy for us to plan a summer holiday, so this was as close as we're going to get this year.  Since this is a blog about Scotland I shouldn't really be compensating by filling it with London.  In fact I hardly reached for my camera all weekend.  I just felt like enjoying the time rather than documenting it.  However I did take a few extremely random photos.  Above, a glimpse of the Shard from our hotel, Citizen M Bankside.  First time I've ever found staying in a hotel fun - I didn't realise the concept existed. 

Below, a place I really love - the Royal Festival Hall.  We got to know it very well when our children played in a national Suzuki  concert there.  This time we were at closing concert of the Philharmonia's season - Bartok, Mozart and Beethoven.  It was absolutely sublime.

Royal Festival Hall
 After the concert we walked back to the hotel along the river, taking photos of that major London landmark - clouds.

Clouds playing pat-a-cake over London skyline

The only other photo to emerge from the weekend is this totally unsatisfactory one taken in the Chelsea Physic Garden.  The garden was lovely and interesting and educational, but fiendishly difficult for photos, because it just looked like a large kitchen garden with some information panels.  I don't really mean 'just', and perhaps much of its charm is to be a garden that looks achievable rather than ferocious.
Chelsea Physic Garden
 The main reason for our visit was to see the exhibition of watercolours by Eric Ravilious at Dulwich Picture Gallery.  I absolutely love the work of Ravilious.  After we'd queued to get in and then gone round the exhibition, my long-suffering husband said 'I suppose you want to go round again?'. And of course I did.

Back in Edinburgh I was lucky enough to see something that's been tantalizing me on weather and cloud sites, but I began to doubt would ever be a feature of Edinburgh's skis.  Mammatus clouds!  They're associated with thunder clouds, which aren't very frequent here.  However, we've had a couple of thunderstorms this week, one of which I slept through, and in the morning on looking out of the window (which had been open wide all night) thought, 'oh, there's been a bit of a shower of rain in the night'.  

Mammatus clouds!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Where are the songs of spring?

"Ay, where are they?"  You might recognise the questions of the title and the previous line as coming from Keats' 'Ode to Autumn'.  Since I'm going to be poetic with my nearly-annual Matthew Arnold post, I might as well start that way.  And with the weather we've had all through May and June it's as if we're searching for spring, with a troubling fear that we're already turning towards autumn.  We are still putting the heating on in the evenings, I'm still wearing what I grandly call 'my winter wardrobe' to work (winter-weight trousers, long sleeved tops and cardigans, with a scarf round my neck for extra warmth, and wondering if I can climb back into my winter duvet coat), and several times recently I've set off for the allotment wearing three fleeces.

Some of the ingredients of Matthew Arnold's 'tempestuous morn' are here: volleying rain and tossing breeze, but the primal burst of bloom struggled onto the scene, and generally everything has been late and slow.  The May blossom was still coming out in early June.  My personal marker of the passing of the seasons, the cow parsley, arrived late and is still flowering up on Speyside.

 "So, some tempestuous morn in early June,
When the year's primal burst of bloom is o'er,
Before the roses and the longest day -
When garden-walks and all the grassy floor
With blossoms red and white of fallen May
And chestnut-flowers are strewn -
So have I heard the cuckoo's parting cry,
From the wet field, through the vext garden-trees,
Come with the volleying rain and tossing breeze;
The bloom is gone, and with the bloom go I!"

Matthew Arnold, Thrysis

We travelled north on Friday through the central highlands, and saw snow lingering on all the hills.

It was a weekend of darkness at the lightest time of the year.  Below is the view from my father's garden, as another heavy cloud settled over the village.  We feel cheated of the lovely long evenings as we sit indoors or go out for quick, brisk walks.  Despite that, the span of daylight at this time of year is a wonderful thing.  On Saturday night I went to bed at 10.30 pm and it was still light.  During the night we had to get a medical visit for my dad, and so we were up at 3 a.m.  It was daylight again.

There are still blooms of course.  The white lilac in the photo above is beautiful, and this clematis in my dad's garden holds all the blue of the skies we can't see just now.  This is the first time for many years that we've visited at this moment when this clematis is out. I felt a bit like Monty Don, banished to boarding school and missing all the unfolding and blossoming going on in the garden at home.

The next verse of Matthew Arnold's poem goes on to describe the 'high midsummer pomps' of the garden.  I'll settle for mid-level pomps and a bit of warmth and sun.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Inside looking out...and back

Blogs recently have been full of celebrations of May, that most perfect of months.  I have lived vicariously through them, as most of my May was spent inside looking out, typically from my office or a meeting room.  June is going the same way, hence my absence from blogging.  The view above gives a tantalising view I had recently.  If you have to spend a morning in a meeting room it's not a bad view, perched among the tree branches and looking out over Edinburgh's Meadows.  Whenever I'm at a meeting here I make an  unseemly dash to claim a seat that gives me trees rather than wall.

And there are distant horizons to dream over (once the meeting has finished, of course).  This is the view south, over the rooftops of Marchmont to the Pentland Hills.

I have been captivated by the Pentlands as Edinburgh's southern horizon since I was four years old.  We used to visit a cousin of my father's in the genteel Edinburgh suburb of Colinton every summer, driving down the resolutely single-lane-each-way road on an all-day marathon.  At one particularly twisty, hilly stretch (Glenfarg, for anyone who remembers what it used to be like) we always seemed to get behind a fish lorry toiling uphill, fishy liquor spilling from its crates.  I remember lots of 'are we there yets', lots of singing to keep me amused, stops for lunch in cold, white-tableclothed hotel dining rooms and a lunch menu which always started with tiny glasses of tinned tomato juice. 

Below is the house we stayed in.  I took this photo a few years ago when my daughter was at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival nearby and I had escaped for a nostalgic wander around Colinton.  Of course it seems smaller to me now, and the new owners have unforgivably changed some things.  The front lawn used to be sunk, surrounded by a low mossy wall.  The driveway used to be lined with yellow Welsh poppies and wild strawberries.  The garage is still the same on the outside at least, and I could almost imagine our cousin, cloche hat on her head, setting off for the village shops in her little Morris Minor.

In the photo below I see that 'they' have built an extension at the back - on the drying green where Mae, our cousin's daily help, hung out the washing.  Behind the house the garden stretched away back at both sides.  Where the tall birch tree is there used to be a tennis court, gradually becoming overgrown by birch saplings around the margins even then, but with the net still saggingly in place, and a little wooden pavillion to one side for Pimms and chat after the match.  Orange hawkweed was gradually colonising the red clay surface of the courts.  Until I was nearly five we lived in my grandmother's large house in the country, and I spent a lot of time outside in the huge garden.  As an only child I was more familiar with the plants in that garden than with other children, and so I remember the shock of seeing hawkweed for the first time.  It was as if I'd met an exotic new person.

But back to the Pentlands.  The whole interior of the house retained its original 1930s decor.  Black carpets and white sofas and chairs in the living room - fantastic.  The bathroom in particular was glorious - all black and white tiles and a massive chrome heated towel rail. My parents had the bow-windowed bedroom at the front of the house, decorated in a primrose yellow, including the luxury of a primrose yellow wash-hand basin.  Not a colour scheme used in north east Scotland at that time! What fascinated me more than the decor - actually transfixed me - were the hills that rose steeply in a gap between two copper beech trees in the opposite garden.  I was well used to hills, growing up on Speyside, and I still can't pin down what it was that fascinated me.  I'm not sure I want to, because then the mystery, the longing I felt and still feel would escape.  When I stood outside the house taking photos I wanted more than anything to ring the doorbell and ask to stand at that bedroom window again.

So my recent meeting room did have the consolation of bringing me back my Pentlands view.  And I did concentrate on the task at hand - most of the time...


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