Monday, 25 October 2010

Back from holiday

I'D HAVE been back blogging earlier but we've been on holiday in France for a fortnight. When we got home there was a pile of paid work to get through and that came first. It's all squared off now, so it's blog time again.

Our summer holiday was necessarily late this year because I took part in the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I may not get a chance like that again and I wasn't going to miss the experience for the sake of going on holiday which could be postponed - which it was. We stayed in a little narrow flat in the village of Lauzerte which is on the border of the Dordogne and the Lot. Lauzerte is considered to be one of the prettiest villages in France - a bastide village, which means it was built as a fortified settlement about 800AD on its hilltop site.

It has 360 degree views, as have so many villages and chateaux in that part of France. Perhaps it was all part of a defensive plan - they could all keep in touch and warn each other of impending danger. More will follow.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Not a breath of "fresh" air!

I smelt it before I saw it. The heron had been dead several days, lying hidden amongst the long grass by the roadside. I don't think I've come across a dead one before, and the process of decomposition was quite advanced. His - or perhaps it was her - eyes were crawling with tiny flies and even the dogs were put off by the rotting smell. But it's nature doing what nature does. The dead body will support all sorts of insects and worms and grubs, and before long only a pile of slate grey feathers will tell the tale that something that lived has been reclaimed.

In old Celtic mythology the heron was regarded as a bird of ill-omen. Perhaps it's the way it stands with its head hunched into its shoulders, looking as though it's contemplating villainy or evil. The novelist DK Broster in her classic Scottish novel "The Flight of the Heron", based on the 1745 Jacobite Uprising, describes how it was considered unlucky in those days to meet a heron when you set out on a journey. It all seems a bit hard on a bird that is shy and withdrawn.

There may be dignity in dying but, looking at that corpse, there's no dignity in death.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Mother Earth!

Food for free, including home-grown tomatoes

Redcurrant jelly, raspberry jam, wild raspberry jelly, strawberry jam, rowan and apple jelly, gooseberry jelly, marmalade, opal plum jam, and now my indefatigable wife's latest find is a recipe for rosehip and apple jelly - they're all there in the photograph. Small wonder my centre of gravity slips ineluctably southwards with each creation from nature's bounty - all food for free - requiring only my time to pick them!

The rosehip and apple creation is deliciously moreish and a major hit with her home-made bread, bannocks and as an accompaniment to ice cream.

Actually, while the fruit is free, nothing else is. By the time you've paid for petrol to drive to where you're going to pick the fruit, paid for electricity and gas to boil it all up, and sugar to add to the boiling creation, it ends up quite an expensive exercise. But there's nothing to match the home made creation and you won't find anything to beat it on the supermarket shelves.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Not still waters

It has rained relentlessly for pretty well 24 hours. I took the dogs down to the river for their walk and watched the water pouring like brown Guiness or Newcy Brown - Newcastle Brown Ale to the uninitiated - through the tree lined gorge. It rammled and thrashed in torment between the high rocky sides and stormed on seawards in a torrent of white sound. The noise of the water blanks out everything, and for a while the mind is blank too while you come to terms with the sheer violence of what's happening in front of you. When the elements flex their muscles we puny humans have no response. But I know that the water level will fall as quickly as it rose, and in 36 hours we'll wonder what all the fuss was.

Drookit dogs!
They say there’s no such thing as bad weather,
just the wrong clothing.
How can I explain that to two damp dogs?

Half a dozen autumn run salmon had been resting in a pool preparing to run The Loups (or Leaps), a short series of waterfalls that they have to negotiate in the final stage of their journey to the headwaters to spawn and produce the next generation of the King of Fish. They'll be safely tucked away just now, close under the bank, to escape the destructive force of the spate.


It may be autum, but the canopy of leaves on the trees lining the river bank provides a marvellous umbrella against the rain. It's mostly beech trees but there are fir trees, rowans, oak and sycamore and I can take off my cap because the worst I'll suffer is a few large drops that manage to break their way through the cover.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Jam tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

It's just not cricket! The rain it raineth every day.

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella,
But chiefly on the just because
The unjust steals the just's umbrella!

The beginning of September, we should be enjoying sunshine, farmers should be bringing in their harvest - the "hairst" in Scotland. The last of the wild harvest from the hedgerows is waiting to be picked. It's been pretty good so far this summer. I picked loads of wild raspberries which my wife boils up into the most delicious jelly. Our daughter brought us tiny plums which she turned into plum jam. There's been blackcurrant jelly, garden raspberries for jam and her marmalade, famous throughout three counties. And there's still more to come unless the wet weather rots the fruit on the bushes.

Folk should be more conscious of the countryside and what it offers. It takes about two hours to pick 5 lbs of wild fruit like raspberries, and I'm always surprised how easily and quickly my wife makes the jelly. She always make too much, but a jar of home-made produce is always a much more acceptable gift to give to a hostess when we go for dinner than a boring old bottle of wine. I think it's time I started to learn these simple countryside skills - but it will have to be next year now!

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Words maketh blogger

The Edinburgh International Book Festival is an integral part of the The Edinburgh Festival and the Fringe Festival. Edinburgh, in the month of August, buzzez with people of every shape, size, colour, creed. Some are self-centred, some pushy, some reserved, even withdrawn - but, really, the greatest majority are fun people - and whatever I may think of individual foibles and imperfections, everyone is in Edinburgh to have fun and be part of the annual, amazing cultural (whatever that really means in this context)festivities. There's something for everyone from elevated to lower deck.

My contribution to the carnival was as a speaker at a Book Festival workshop last Monday with my co-author of "Sea Dog Bamse, WWII Canine Hero", Andrew Orr. The event was called "Selling The Story" and was targeted at would-be and struggling published authors looking for advice on marketing and how to get their book onto bookshop shelves.

Self and co-author Andrew Orr in the Writers’ yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We had just taken part in a workshop explaining how, working alongside our publisher, we marketed ourselves and our book and successfully turned it into Scottish best seller – Sea Dog Bamse, World War II Canine Hero ISBN: 978 1 84158 849 0

I've never bothered much with the Book Festival, and how I regret that now. But I've had three days at it this year and it's been an absolutely marvellous experience. What an idiot for not going before, but better late than never. I feel quite bereft at the thought that I shan't be playing with the big children again next year, with my pass to the writers' yurt (canvas encampment!) and talking to other writers I never expected to meet.

But I met and talked with other writers and found that some of my ideas were well received. It's so useful to hear their problems, but much more importantly, their successes - and see how I can put their ideas to work for myself.

And the workshop was a success. There's been positive feedback and I met the sister of one of my ushers at my wedding who I lost contact with about fifteen years ago. She bought my books and is taking them out to Canada when she visits her brother next week. A totally unexpected and welcome bonus.

I love meeting new people, I loved being part of the Book Festival - I want to do it again.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Just a busy month

Goodness, it's a month since I last blogged. It's so easy to start something like this with a flourish of enthusiasm and too easy to find excuses for not keeping up the activity. And it's been an interesting month that I could have shared.

I like good paintings - the sort where I know what the artist is painting. Liz and I went to an exhibition in Kirkcaldy Art Gallery of William McTaggart's paintings. There's a sort of a family connection there as McTaggart's second wife was my great-aunt Marjory, who was the eldest daughter of Joseph Henderson another painter and close friend of McTaggart.

Went through to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow to see the exhibition of the Glasgow Boys who outraged the art establishment of the day by having the audacity to paint outdoors, painting real people in real life. I love them because I can see what they are painting. You can't miss opportunities like these because the difficulties of putting together exhibitions of this stature means they are not going to be repeated in my lifetime.

I had a semantic tussle with myself about harebells and bluebells and which is Scotland's more representative flower. I decided it had to be the harebell, but it's interesting to note that a box Scottish Bluebell matches (made in Sweden, please note)has a spray of harebells decorating the lid.

We're having lots of fun watching the squirrels which come to the feeding stations outside our kitchen window. Four visit regularly, and there's also two or three woodpeckers which are really bonny birds. Some pundits say you shouldn't feed peanuts to birds, especially in the breeding season, because they will feed the peanuts to their chicks whose digestive systems can't cope. I've seen no reduction in young song birds and garden birds following their parents to the feeding stations, so I'm inclined to think that the parent birds feed themselves on the nuts but forage for easily digestible insects and bugs and creepy crawlies fopr their chicks.

You can't arrange some sights in nature to order. Walking with the dogs down the side of the River North Esk I stopped to watch a run of seatrout leaping up the waterfalls known as The Loups (Leaps) on their annual migration to the headwaters to spawn. They hurled themselves through the rapids in a series of spectacular leaps to reach the calmer water and the next step on their journey to the head of the glen.

Was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in in Charlotte Square Gardens. Saw and introduced myself to Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondent and independent MP. Also Jim Naughtie whose cheerful tones wake us up most mornings. You can look on those folk from afar and wonder what they are like. Or go and talk to them and find out they're no different from the rest of us. If I sit on a tin tack and they do too, we'll soon realise the meaning of an early spring!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Food for free

We've been busy these past few days picking raspberries which the Doyenne has made into raspberry jam. The kitchen fills with the "moreish" smell of the boiling fruit which permeates through the house and moistens the taste buds. We don't use a great deal of jam ourselves but as soon as the family know that the new season's offering is on the store cupboard shelves they descend like vultures! It's also such a good present for hostesses who invite us for dinner - much more personal than a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates.

Gooseberries will soon be ripe. The dogs and I pass two bushes in a beech hedge every morning which are probably escapees from a garden - so they are what you might call semi-feral. Some time, a long time ago, a bird has eaten a cultivated garden gooseberry, and several of the seeds passing through its system have popped out the other end in the way these things do, and have self seeded in the wild. Very versatile fruit are gooseberries.

Wild raspberries are just about ready for picking too. The Doyenne makes the most delicious jelly from these, and I make raspberry vodka. If everything ripens at once, this week may be even busier than I expected.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Beyond the kitchen window

Wee braveheart

Wednesday - this morning the cows and their calves were lying down again when the dogs and I passed the gate into their field. Several of the cows got to their feet with that awkward, laboured action they have, protective of their young from canine intruders. How anything as big as a cow could expect danger from anything as small as Macbeth, I cannot imagine. But Macbeth holds his ground with cows and when they come sniffing through the fence at him he stares them out and barks at them with his wee high-pitched bark. Surprisingly the cattle scatter in fright and Macbeth swaggers off with his tail in the air.

On the other hand our black Labrador Inka would like to be perceived as bold and fearless. As soon as the cattle blow down their nostrils at him he turns and bolts with his tail between his legs.

By the time we got back home it was raining again. It'd mid-July and I'm thankful we're not on holiday in this soggy part of the world.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Something to ruminate on

When cattle lie down in a field most folk think, understandably, that they are chewing the cud.

Cattle are ruminants, which doesn't mean that they have four stomachs - a common misconception - but that their single stomach has four compartments which allows them to chew their food once, regurgitate it and chew it (the cud) a second time. One of the side effects of this is that ruminants produce methane gas which is one of the unwelcome greenhouse gases threatening the world. "Fart" taxes have been proposed to fund research into how to reduce this antisocial behaviour.

But to get back to my original discussion - most ruminants prefer to lie down when they are 'chewing the cud' because there is an element of stress while doing so.

Sheep, goats deer and even giraffes are also ruminants. After you know about their rather bizarre digestive habits you might wonder why we eat them. I've eaten beef, mutton, venison and goat meat - and there's still the first time for giraffe - and I reckon I can cope with their whiffy habits.

But to get back to my original discussion - the old greybeards reckoned they - the cattle, that is - can smell rain coming and lie down so that they have a dry, warm patch of pasture to rest on while the bad weather lasts. Sunday and Monday, out walking the dogs first thing, the cows and their calves in the field at the back of the house were all lying down, and the greybeards were borne out because the rain came down in torrents. This morning they were all standing and feeding - the cattle, again - and now the clouds are high in the sky and it's sunny.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

better pasta sauce

The Doyenne came up with a good idea to improve her pasta sauce. There were a couple of thick, outside stalks of celery in the vegetable box which she cut small and added to the rest of the ingredients. The smell of the celery was noticeable before I took the first mouthful and the taste added extra zing to an already delicious meal.

I'm a bit of a dab hand at pasta sauce myself and my recipe can be found in my book "Tales from the Scottish Countryside - New Walks with the Man with Two Dogs" Black & White ISBN 978 184502257-0.

I can't claim to be any great shakes as a cook but I know enough now to be able to look after myself if I have to. And I realise that cooking isn't the black art I once thought it was; a lot is plain common sense. A bit of trial and error, a little patience and I reckon I'd get by. But as long as I'm as well looked after as I am there's no urgency to try to do better!

Mushroom delight

Out walking with Cait, James and their dog Rosie, and Liz and our two bold boys, saw the first chanterelle mushrooms. It seems very early compared with previous seasons. I'll look in the favourite spots and see if there's enough to fry with bacon for breakfast.