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.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Popping home

We've had a tough start to 2015.  My father in law died at the start of the month and since then we've been taken up with everything around a family funeral, while continuing with a hectic pace of work.  
Our son came home from Australia for the funeral.  He's spending the year there on a working visa.  It was a sad circumstance that brought him home, but wonderful to see him at the same time.  In a rare glimpse of me on my blog, here I am with my boy.  He doesn't wear the kilt all the time, but it was Burns' Night, so it was a good excuse to check that it still fits.  He has actually grown in the time he's been away - must be all the unaccustomed sunshine - but thankfully the kilt is still okay.  As for me, when I saw myself in the photo my first thought was, 'I must get my hair cut'.  I have very thick, fast-growing hair - practical for the Scottish winter in terms of warmth, but sometimes I feel like a sheep in a drift, as the saying goes here.

Now my wee boy is back in Australia, and the kilt is packed away.  We're trying to get going again and back to a more even keel.  

As a PS, I've signed up to Bloglovin and apparently I have to 'claim' my blog.  A mystery to me, but here goes:  Follow my blog with Bloglovin


Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 - the ones that got away

My blogging rate declined sharply in 2014.  I took many more photos than I posted.  A combination of factors was to blame - family commitments and illness, pace of work, blogging fatigue.  To say goodbye to 2014, here are few of the photos that didn't make it into print.

First, three of my Christmas presents from 2013.  Two Nigel Slater recipe collections and the long-awaited third, posthumous volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1930s journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul.  I read Nigel Slater's recipe books for pleasure in the same way as novels.

Back in Edinburgh after the holiday, January started with lunch with my daughter at La Barantine in Bruntsfield Place.  A gloriously French cafe in every aspect, including the galette des rois and crown (traditional French Twelfth Night cake).

It can seem a long haul until the winter darkness gives way to lighter evenings, and this poster outside an Edinburgh church seemed well-suited to the time of year.  'Sair' in Scots means painful or hurting.

 Being lucky enough to live on an island, we have a good supply of fresh fish all year round.  We buy our fish from a traditional fishmonger in the Edinburgh 'village' of Stockbridge.  In recent years the winter traditional accompaniment to fish of samphire has been growing in popularity, and my eye was caught by the bright green strands on the fishmonger's slab.

There's a big market in tourist day trips from Edinburgh to the Highlands.  Every morning minibuses in varying degrees of sophistication leave the city to give visitors at least a glimpse of Scotland.  The bright orange minibuses of The Hairy Coo company have a distinctive slogan: 

From one mode of transport to another  - a duo of mobility scooters outside our village bakery on Speyside.

Controversy has surrounded a new power line from the north of Scotland to the central belt.  The Beauly to Denny line runs through the central highlands on larger pylons than are presently there.  Protestors have claimed that the line will spoil the landscape.  Now that they're in place I have to say that I don't think they are much more intrusive than the pylons they've replaced.  Below is one of the new pylons in mid-construction, looking rather symbolically artistic.

In May our son set off to Australia on a year's working visa.  Here he is at Glasgow airport, checking in for the first leg of his journey to Dubai.  He has just sent us fantastic New Year photos of Sydney Harbour fireworks.  We're glad he's having a great time, and we combine that with missing him!

In the Spring our rhubarb came on stream.  The most delicious combination is stewed rhubarb with Mackie's honeycomb ice cream. 

 A peaceful protest in Edinburgh city centre, below, of the Wool Against Weapons project allied to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

On holiday in France in June we discovered a surprising local product.  We didn't sample it, being much more attracted by the discovery of the local Gaillac wines.

 The Commonwealth Games mascot, Clyde, popped up all over the place in the summer.  Below is the home-made version in the same community garden that featured in a recent post with a Christmas theme.

The Scottish independence referendum is inescapable in a retrospective of 2014.  All sorts of polls were carried out.  The most fun was this one from Cuckoo's Bakery.  In the event the gap between 'yes' in favour of independence, and 'no' in favour of remaining in the Union,  was closer than this, but was still a decisive 'no'.  

Looking back at high summer from 'the year's midnight', it seems incredible that we will return to lush growth and warm sunshine.  But come it will, and the slow return of the light is one of the joys of Scottish life.

Further north now, to Gothenburg and our referendum-aftermath escape in September.  A slim Swedish lady sets out a high calorie array to tempt Saturday morning shoppers.

Strolling around the city with Swedish friends, at one point they urged us to look up.  We would never have noticed this suspended swimming pool otherwise.

For your domestic repairs, whether eroded carvings or pink turrets, you can call on traditional stonemasons.

From the late autumn, a few examples from my garden of the long flowering season we've had this year.

On to pictorial flowers.  These are on a tea towel that I bought at the Country Living Christmas Fair in Glasgow.  Christine from Writing From Scotland and I made a foray there in the autumn.

Finally, our 'festive branch'.  With a combination of parental illness at opposite ends of the country, and my daughter and me coming down with horrible colds that weren't quite flu but near enough, we had no energy for Christmas decorating this year.  Our artistic compromise was what we have called our 'festive branch'. 

We made sure to hang one of the bell ornaments from my childhood on the lowest branch, in memory of my cat who would sit under the tree batting softly with a paw at the tinkling bells.

Wishing you a Happy New Year when it comes!

Sunday, 28 December 2014


After a mild autumn we finally have winter - just too late for Christmas, but welcome all the same.  Frost patterns are one of the things I would miss if I lived somewhere it was warm all year round, and two days ago we had an abundance of them.  The shot above is our east-facing bedroom window (in Moray, that is - we are here for Christmas), and below is the west-facing window.  Broad blades of pattern to the east, and thinner, snaking fronds to the west.  I wish I knew why they were different.

The whole geometry of frost was evident all day long.  Here are triangles and starbursts captured on a walk by the river.

A different pattern now - the prints of hopeful birds around the back door.  My father is now too frail to feed the birds as he used to, and it's hard for us to resist putting out some seeds for them when we're here, even though we know you should only feed them in winter when you can do it regularly. 

The snowy Spey valley, looking south to Craigellachie.  This is the view from my father's living room window.  We fear that one day houses may be built in the adjoining field.  I try not to think about it, and to enjoy the view while we have it.

But I also love the view to the west, towards the village.  I take these ordinary Scottish houses for granted, and forget that they might be exotic to readers from other countries.

Usually by the time we arrive for Christmas the holly tree has been stripped of berries, but this year the birds have still been finding other food.

Out of the garden now and to a narrow glen behind the village.  This is a wild sloe, capped with snow where earlier in the year there was blossom.  

Who needs garish artificial Christmas lights when the natural ones are so much more beautiful?

Hoar frost whitens the gravestones of the young Canadian foresters who died here during WW1.  As every year, each grave has its Christmas posy of holly and lenten roses.


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