Friday, 25 April 2014

Sloe gin

or rather the blossom that will form the sloes that will be picked to make the gin.   In the village I come from on Speyside, and where my father still lives, there's a wonderful wild expanse of sloe trees.  My mother used to make sloe gin from the fruit.  If we can time our visit right this autumn I'm planning to make some.  It's not really a gin, more a liqueur made by pricking the sloes and macerating in gin along with a hefty addition of sugar - the sloes by themselves are mouth-shrivelling.

Whether or not I manage to harvest some sloes, it was balm to the city soul to walk among the blossom on Easter Sunday.


On Speyside of course you're never far from whisky, and our alcoholic-themed walk continued as we passed Glenrothes distillery.  A load of draff was coming off.  Draff is the spent barley, which the distillery has no more use for after it's been soaked in hot water to extract the sugary liquid that will be fermented, then distilled.  In the shot below you can see the spiral of hot mash falling into the trailer.  Traditionally it's been used as animal feed, but increasingly now it's going to a biomass plant in the village where it's mixed with woodchips to produce electricity.   More about this mixed environmental 'blessing' in another post sometime!

And then, sadly, we had to leave Speyside to come south, where we were met with a good dose of haar (sea fog).  There's a castle in there somewhere...

Monday, 21 April 2014


We're very fortunate in Scotland to have free personal care for the elderly.  In my father's case it allows  him to remain in his own home, when otherwise he would surely be in an institution because he is too frail to look after himself, although mentally as sharp as ever.

He has four visits a day: in the morning, to help him wash and dress, and to get breakfast; at lunchtime and tea time, to prepare his meals; and in the evening to help him to bed.  The carers also wash his clothes and bed linen.  Beyond the physical help, they keep his mental world alive in a very real way.  He knows all about their children and grandchildren, and they bring local news in to him to the extent that he is one of the best-informed people in the village. 

And as we found when we arrived on Thursday night for the Easter weekend, they pick him posies of spring flowers from his garden. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Chariots of Fire 10k

 You've seen the film's opening shot?  A couple of figures walking on a beach beside the steely North Sea, the ancient university city of St Andrews on the skyline. 

A line of runners appears in the distance, far up the stretch of sand.

 We had our own family re-enactment of Chariots of Fire today, at the 10k of the St Andrews Running Festival. Here are husband and daughter, 3rd and 4th from the right, on the second West Sands leg of the circuit. 

No baggy white shorts and singlets as in the film; instead high performance leggings, trainers and goodness knows what else.  Also hats - in my daughter's case, MY hat, purloined at the last minute because of extreme wind-chill. Nor was there any thought of splashing barefoot through the sea - a safe distance was kept.

Meanwhile the other half of the family tried to keep warm and failed, and as a distraction we took photos of anything that moved and much that didn't.  My son, below, trying to capture the swirling patterns of wind-blown sand. 

The dunes against a darkening sky.

The optimistic aim of runners trying to lob their water cups and gel sachets into a litter bin. 

The hazard, perhaps unique to this race, of children building a sandcastle in mid-route. 

And at the end, a remarkably un-puffed looking daughter, and just a glimpse of her dad trying to keep up with her.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Sweet Thames, run softly

Spring 1977. A tiny tutorial room in an ordinary Scottish secondary school, in a small North East market town.  A dozen or so final year students, taking Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English (now the 'Advanced Higher' qualification).  All of us being challenged by our first encounter with 'The Waste Land', by T. S. Eliot.  For me, as the poem unfolded with each lesson, it was a sense of opening up to a new world.  We weren't taught to a national lesson plan or detailed marking scheme, as sadly seems to be the case nowadays.  We were simply led to a love of literature, to trust our personal response.  Every spring I remember that sense of discovery.  But I hadn't realised how deeply 'The Waste Land' had sunk into my being until we were in London recently.  We stayed in a hotel near the Thames, crossed and re-crossed bridges over the Thames, walked along the Embankment, and took a boat from Westminster to Greenwich.  And throughout, the river images from 'The Waste Land' came unbidden into my mind.

The first two photographs are my daughter's.  There are no rainbows in 'The Waste Land', but they show another face of the river so I had to include them.  I have to confess a technology fail - they were taken on an iPhone, which doesn't seem to like transferring to larger format photos.

Back to my own camera for this shot down river to the London Eye.  We were having breakfast over the river, in a little cafe at Lambeth Pier which juts out over the water.  

We took a slow tourist boat down to Greenwich.  We could have taken one of the fast Thames Clippers, which are used by commuters, but we wanted to take in the detail of the passing riverbanks.  And there were so many details. I was so fascinated that I forgot to take photos.  We passed the mouths of small rivers trickling down narrow creeks, of disused locks; shingle beaches and patches of sand; Shakespearean pubs; a floating police station. So many different faces of the river.  I thought I spotted the spire of the church of St Magnus the Martyr, whose walls 'hold inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold'. 

Tower Bridge, below, seems to be supported by the pinnacle of the Shard, London's newest tallest building.  Of course I looked for Eliot's crowd flowing over it.


One of the many surprises for me was the number of working boats on the river.  I could imagine myself on Eliot's Thames of 1922.

The river sweats 
Oil and tar 
The barges drift 
With the turning tide 
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar. 
The barges wash 
Drifting logs 
Down Greenwich reach
Past the Isle of Dogs.

Even at the time I was aware that our teaching in English that year was something extraordinary.  Nearly 40 years on the fact that one of the highlights for me of a family trip to London was to experience anew a poem first encountered in that small, bare tutorial room is a tribute to a gifted teacher.  Thank you, Sandy Gibb.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

A sighting!

I was beginning to think I was the last person in Edinburgh to see one of our new trams.  Work colleagues have been cheerfully announcing as they arrive in the morning, "Saw a tram on my way in", my son was nearly run over by one this week, and blogs and Twitter have bristled with tram photos. 

But yesterday, there it was, advancing silently towards me at the end of the line in York Place. I was the only person taking a photo, which confirmed my view that everyone else had seen plenty of trams already.  Or perhaps it was the weather.  Have a look at the photo again - dark, wet, cars with full headlights on.  8.30 am, in April.  For the past week we've been shrouded in haar, that chill fog that rolls in from the North Sea on an Easterly wind.  Midway through the week it also started to rain.  Fog and rain - welcome to Spring!  I took a photo of the utter greyness on my walk in to work - Edinburgh Castle is just visible at the left of the shot, and that was in a brighter spell.

You might think this wooden fencing is painted a fresh, leaf green, but it's whatever it is that grows when wood is permanently damp - lichen/moss?

If there is a bright side to all this wet, it's the patterns the rain makes running down tree trunks.  I now have a large collection of tree trunk photos from my walk to work.  I did get some strange looks as I photographed yet another tree, but thankfully most people were too enclosed in hoods and brollies to notice. 

April is the cruellest month indeedMore water images, and T. S. Eliot, in my next post.


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