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...

Friday, 29 May 2015

Flag time again!

The flags are out again at our house, dancing in a stiff northerly wind.  Our son arrived home today after a year in Australia followed by a month wending his way back via Hawai'i, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Maryland.  I can't begin to tell you how happy we are to see him!

The temperature drop is something he's going to have to get used to.  I took the shot below when we arrived in the car park at Edinburgh airport.  Clouds like that anvil-headed beauty have been passing over all day.  On the way to the airport we drove through an onslaught not just of hail, but of chunks of ice.

Airport welcomes home always make me emotional.  We had lots of hugs today, and a few tears.  And on the subject of tears, I defy anyone to watch the T-Mobile 'welcome back' video and not shed a tear.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Skyline changes

It's not often that we have changes to the skyline right in the centre of Edinburgh, unlike Glasgow which seems to be in perpetual motion.  Overall it's a fairly low-rise city.   There are some tower blocks of social housing on the periphery, but the Unesco World Heritage status of the Old Town (which is fairly old, at 16th & 17th century), and the New Town (which is still quite old, being 18th century) keeps things in check.

It's surprising therefore to see cranes at work just off Princes Street.  I thought they made an interesting counterpoint to the Gothic spire of the Scott Monument.  A Victorian building and a 1960's building have been demolished on the corner of St Andrew Square, and a new glass boxy thing is going up.  I admit that I don't have a very good architectural eye, but I get a bit depressed by the standard stuff that is going up in our cities.  Am I being too retro, surrounded as I am by medieval/Georgian/Victorian character?  Can anyone help me to see the beauty in a glass box?


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Another walk, another loch

We returned to Edinburgh by the twisting inland route through Braemar and Glenshee, which gave us the chance to fit in another walk before returning to the city.  I will write more soon about my Edinburgh gloom, but for just now let's have another sunny day out in the hills.  The road south from Braemar passes the starting point of the walk to Loch Callater, another easy walk on the flat of about 7 miles.

The path is part of a track known as 'Jock's Road', which refers to a key episode in the history of Scottish land access when in the late nineteenth century the owner of the estate in this area tried to ban all access to the estate.  John Winter ('Jock') fought for the right to walk this route, which followed the track of an old cattle drove road used to drive cattle to markets in the south.  Legal action in the case went as far as the House of Lords.  The case led to the passing of the Scottish Rights of Way Act.  Recently in 2005 the Scottish Land Reform Act gave further rights to walkers. 

Some sections of the bank beside the burn were planted with native trees, in a similar conservation effort to the one we'd seen at Loch Muick.  It all looked very bare and contrived, and I'd love to return in a few years to see the trees looking more natural in the landscape.

At the approach to the loch is Callater Loch Lodge.  The building with the green shutters is used for shooting and deer-stalking parties from the estate.   To the right are the former stables, now used as a bothy for overnight shelter by walkers. We had a chat with an estate worker who was doing work on the interior of the lodge.  He was accompanied by a huge Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, who turned out to be a real softie.  I was glad all the same that we were introduced to him as friends.

It turned out that the man we were talking to had built the cairn standing on a hillock just beyond the lodge, in celebration of the Queen's diamond jubilee.  He told us all about how he'd built it, sourcing a stone from every farm on the estate.  After such a build-up we felt we had no option but to climb up and take a respectful look at it.

Here it is from the other side, all solemn and loyal in its lonely setting.

We had lunch beside the loch, listening to the wind and the cry of a curlew, and watching a diver out on the water.

Behind us, pools in the heather teemed with yet more frogs.  Here's one adopting 'classic frog sunbathing posture'.

You've maybe noticed that everything is still wintry-brown.  Spring comes late in the hills here.  There were some startling patches of colour however from mosses in the boggier sections near the burn.

The twisted black stems are burnt heather branches; the aftermath of the practice of muir-burn.

Back in the car and heading south, we passed Glenshee, one of Scotland's ski areas.

Just downhill from the ski area we came across large heather fires.  

Two days of walking in the spring sun left us with the classic Scottish walkers' suntan, which stops abruptly at mid neck and wrists. Still, I would rather have that than the lying on a beach sort.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Loch Muick spring visit

Our first visit to Loch Muick (pronounced 'mick') was in late summer of 2013.  Yes, mid-August in Scotland is late summer.  The heather was coming into bloom and the light was soft and hazy.  This year we spent a few days on Deeside just after Easter, and made a return visit on a day of hard, bright sun and a thin wind. 

There were still patches of snow on the hills, although none at the lower level of our walk.

The circuit of the loch is an easy 8 miles.  On the north side there's a broad track, which feels a bit like cheating, but was fine for me to get going again after being under par with the wretched pleurisy.  

We came across a fenced section, and stopped to read the lengthy notice.

Love the email address!

We saw no evidence of the browsing deer.  Apart from some birds of prey, our encounters with wildlife were of the miniature variety:  all along the side of the track on the uphill side were large pools of water full of frogspawn.  Pools below a certain size had no frogspawn - evidently the frog brain had calculated that they risked drying out too soon.

And every pool also had its sunbathing frog.  I couldn't decide if they were smug because of their large output of frogs-to-be (although the mortality rate must be huge), or smiling because they were basking in the sun after a very long winter. 

Overhead we kept seeing two planes flying in parallel, very high up.
They criss-crossed the sky from north to south and back again several times.  We put it down to a NATO exercise that we had heard about, but when I checked later I found that it wasn't due to start until the following week.  Rather spooky.

Here's a good solid holiday cottage - at least if you're Queen Victoria.  Called Glas-allt Shiel, it was her retreat from Balmoral Castle.

Towards the head of the loch there's a tantalizing route into the more remote Dubh Loch and its waterfalls.  We didn't have time to branch off, but we'll definitely explore further on a return visit.

Easter Island-like boulders litter the hillside.

A rare sighting of me on my blog, looking extremely happy to be outside and out of the city.  

What more perfect end to the day than a deep, candle-lit bath?

For my husband, who likes the stuff, some port.

And a comfortable four-poster bed with a view of red squirrels in the trees outside the window.

We stayed again at Glendavan House, which was just as lovely as before.  I think we're hooked - perhaps an autumn visit next time?

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.


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