9 May 2019

Scotland 2 - Hard Rain Falling

Halfway Houses.....

I am in the Halfway House, Fleshmarket Close, Edinburgh, just up from Waverley station, waiting for a train....  I am halfway through a pint of Scottish metaphor, and a plate of Haggis, taties and neeps.  I am halfway home, halfway between laughing and crying, between clarity and confusion, between the here and the now, between life and death.  My glass is neither half full nor half empty as I prepare to leave Scotland and its distractions to return to the destruction of 'normality.....'

As referred to in my last post, I have been watching an empty nest, the iconic osprey nest at the RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre in Abernethy Forest, between the River Spey and the awesomely beautiful Cairngorm Mountains. This year no osprey took up the penthouse suite, and so, sadly, I am wending my way home, crestfallen, spent and empty.

I wish I could stay.  I really don't want to go home.  If I could linger on the hillside, watching the trees grow and fall, my mind blank, that would be rather fine.....

Occasionally I would eat a grouse, to replenish my store of grumpiness.....

And perhaps I would bake a squirrel in the embers of my fire, its sweet squeak and fluffy fur pealing away with the brittle clay....

You cannot be serious?  I hear you whisper.  

No, you are right, I will instead take cover in a highland hotel and gorge myself on stewed stag, venally delighting in venison.  Would I harm a squirl?  Nah.  Of course not!  You know me?

So, courtesy of a tastefully truncated train, which ScotRail has managed to fill beyond capacity, I drizzle southward, reading Don Carpenter's 1966 novel Hard Rain Falling for light relief.  With the exception of the title, the book has little direct association with Scotland, but it is a book that suits my mood and fits some parts of Scotland like a perfect kilt.  Gradually, through his books, his records, his long walks alone, the mere passage of time, he would begin to come to terms with his life as it was. He became an observer.  He began to taste his food and to smell the air.  He saw things and felt them. The art became real, and at times he was capable of sensing the pleasure of existence.  Other times were not so good. There were evenings when he would drink too much and get to feeling sorry for himself.....

And so to Dundee, or Glasgow on Sea as I have heard it called.  Not exactly on my true migration route, but I have a yen to glim the new V & A and associated pleasures....

There it sits, next to Robert Falcon Scott's Discovery, a dismasted hulk (the V & A) that pretends to greatness by the mighty Tay, famous for its December 1879 disaster when the railway bridge, with a passenger train aboard, collapsed in a violent storm, with the loss of some 75 lives....

The Tay Bridge Disaster was commemorated in verse in 1880 by William McGonagall, possibly the worst poet ever.....  

His poem concludes:

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay,
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

And Amen to that!

But its replacement is a splendid sight, as seen from James McIntosh Patrick's studio window in 1948.....

Though on the beach at Broughty Ferry I find small traces of a wreck,

And nearby I witness precautions against a tragic recurrence:

Robert Falcon Scott notoriously said Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to [-] without the reward of priority..... 

And I share his trepidation {though he may not actually have been referring to Dundee}.

However, the V & A has some smart designs and a grand stairway, and after a slice of cake and some marmalade in The McManus Art Gallery my heart is warmed by chatter with Ron Sternberg's Two Auld Wifies,  Dundee, benched for posterity at the corner of Reform Street.....

And then I am even more inspired when I meet Lily in Verdant Works, where she started work straight from leaving school at fifteen..... Now, aged 90 and with a recently broken hip, she still demonstrates the machinery that tells the story of the nine different processes of making sacking, ropes, boot linings, aprons, carpets, tents, roofing felts, satchels, linoleum backing, tarpaulins, sand bags, meat wrappers, sailcloth, scrims, tapestries, oven cloths, horse covers, cattle bedding, electric cable and even parachutes, out of raw jute fibre which is obtained from two varieties of plant: Corchorus capsularis and Corchorus Olitorius, both native to Bengal. Jute is one of the most versatile natural fibres known to man and, in its prime employed some 50,000 people in Dundee....

Life was tough.  For example, with the aid of a very poor diet, life expectancy in 1863 could be as much as 33 years for a man. Living conditions were dire, with an average of eight to a family, if they were lucky sharing four to a bed. Clean water was a rarity and cholera and typhus added to the misery. Unusually, this was a city where women were the workers and men stayed at home as kettle boilers.  More  women ended up in court for drink related crimes here than almost anywhere....

Hard Rain Falling....

Meanwhile the Jute Barons built their grand homes and lived in style....

I'm still reading Hard Rain Falling and every so often a passage touches a nerve.  The food at the orphanage did not taste very good, and the children were taught, told, that this food, this unappetising oatmeal or dish of prunes or boiled-to-death vegetable, was nourishing and good for them and would make them strong and capable of much hard work.....  

Yes!  The poor you will ALWAYS have with you. 

It must be so!  John, Chapter 12, Verse 8.

But then we will also ALWAYS have unicorns, the national beast of Scotland (a symbol of purity and innocence, as well as masculinity and power....)

And Dundee has HMS Frigate Unicorn, never masted, never sailed, but Scotland's only wooden warship, wallowing in Victoria Dock, washed by the wakes of drag line water-skiers, but mouldering too far from the V & A, hard by deserted Chandler's Lane.....

Up town, however, on Nethergate, I find Dundee Contemporary Arts, where David Austen is on show....

And where, after a few bevvies with some local lassies, I stumble into Wild Rose, where an Irish girl (Jessie Buckley) plays a Glaswegian (with a Lancashire mother) who is aiming for Nashville.  

And then it's a pint of Mor in The Phoenix with Oor Wullie, and a fifth of malt in Mennies on Perth Road with Desperate Dan, courtesy of D C Thomson, and I am about done.... The transition from shaggy highland beast to civilised man about toon is almost over, though reference to Boswell lowers the bar a little:

We stopped a while at Dundee, where I remember nothing remarkable.....

And thence to Auld Reekie, where I join the dreamers in The Tiles....

And the pretty things on Princes Street by the Scott Memorial, 

And watch the sky fill with darkness.....

Before I take my final leave, and board the train that will take me back to the Halfway House that I call home.....

His life was temporary.  He continued to park cars for a living, and he stayed in hotels and ate in restaurants, but for the time being, that was enough.  Not that he planned to spend the rest of his life this way.  He did not plan anything.

Hard Rain Falling

Don Carpenter

2 May 2019

Scotland 1 - Kidnapped

The Road to the Isles

A far croonin' is pullin' me away
As take I wi' my cromach to the road.
The far Cuillins are puttin' love on me
As step I wi' the sunlight for my load.

The Road to the Isles
Kenneth Macleod.

I am in Edinburgh.  I dine with gentlemen of distinction: Sir James Dunbar Nasmith; the President of the Scott Club; The Chair of the Royal Celtic Society.  

I have oysters and lamb, for the record.  I ask Sir James if he had known Basil Spence.  My conversation is limited.  Adam Smith may also have been present….. 

Later I sip Glenmorangie on the terrace, in lonely isolation with a slightly stained stoney  Queen.....

In the morning I am ribbed, via North Berwick, to the Bass Rock, where, along with a plethora of gannets,

A number of puffins and several guillemots,

I am reminded that Robert Louis Stevenson was nothing but the cousin of the man who designed and built the Bass Rock Lighthouse. 

The waters are cold. I see no sand eels.

To Ladybank, where I am held, in significant comfort and relative luxury, in a remote Steading.  I meet a man with restless eyes and a young woman who leads scouts and rings bells (though not mine).  A lamb’s leg is carved in ritual.  We speak of Gavin Maxwell and his discomforts, and of the insurmountable difficulty of electrifying the Forth Bridge, almost as if they are linked.... 

A tree creeper lightly touches the silver birch on the drive.

The next day I am taken to Crail.  Fishermen bait lobster pots and disappear.  An hotel claims to provide fresh fish….  Breaded or battered.  The shellfish shack is void.  Curlews in a field. Whaups would always be whistling….. (though these are black-throated divers....)

Later, in St Andrews (a city once archiepiscopal); I beg for Cullen Skink, in memory of the Battenbergs.  As Boswell recorded, Saint Andrews seems to be a place eminently adapted to study and education, being situated in a populous, yet a cheap country, and exposing the minds and manners of young men neither to the levity and dissoluteness of a capital city, nor to the gross luxury of a town of commerce, places naturally unpropitious to learning…..  [This might have been Charles’s prospectus for his son - the redshank....]  

No white-tailed eagles are seen.

From Ladybank to Pitlochry, where I am allowed haggis and neeps at the Old Mill Inn.  And thence to RSPB Loch Garten, close betwixt the Spey and the Cairngorm, and a forced induction smacking of The Prisoner; various Number Twos acting on uncoordinated orders from the unseen Number One.  My quarters are thin, the hut commander terse, dry philosophy her craic - enough to give a great spotted woodpecker a headache.  

No ospreys are seen. 


But I walk from Glen More to Nethy Bridge, taking shelter at the Ryvoan Bothy, making my bed of heather bushes which I cut for that purpose… there was a low concealed place, where I was so bold as to make a fire: so that I could warm myself when the clouds set in, and cook hot porridge, and grill the little trout that I caught with my hands under the stones and overhanging banks of the burn…

In the dark of Abernethy Forest the chaffinches elude me with their northern accents, but the Willy Wobbler is the same,  a sudden immigrant with his waterfall sing-song.

And then the redstart, sparkling at me in the slanting rain.....

His little love shaking her tail feathers at him in shameless rite of instinct....

We break away.  The Road to the Isles strides across the glens. Past the commandoes at Spean Bridge, over Telford's Neptune’s Staircase at Banavie on the Caledonian Canal in the Great Glen, lowered over by massive Ben Nevis, then past Kinlocheil to the safe place of Arisaig, from whose silver sands Bonnie Prince Charlie set sail to France in 1746, and where the Scottish SOE had their HQ in WWII.  The foul airs from the Jacobite Steam Train (aka Hogwarts Express) smut Mallaig, where ton bags of organic remains are unloaded to feed the ravenous salmonds…..

I am hoisted aboard an open ship, Spaniards and Italians abutting me, pitching across the Sound of Sleat, where no cetaceans breach the surface.  No white tailed neither.  

Smoke rising from remote Knoydart.

On Skye, to Armadale [Sky. Armidel.  Boswell: Armidel is a neat house, built where the Macdonalds had once a seat, which was burnt in the commotions that followed the Revolution….] Past Sligachan the faeries are busy, their parking filled to the shining brim, the adjacent hard brows of Cuillin furrowed by the passionate tourist.  

Under Sgurr Alasdair, Glenbrittle Beach disremembers me, from forty or more frozen years past, the black scree of tinned cheese and tubed milk little more than spume on a camper windscreen.  

Here I climbed, unsteady and unsure, a twenty-something novice in thrall to life.

Now no ring ouzel.  No ptarmigan.  But oysters, from Ullapool, above the Talisker distillery [Talisker is the place beyond all that I have seen, from which the gay and the jovial seem utterly excluded….  Boswell]; and then hurriedly to the four-car Kylerhea ferry and the graveyard at Glenelg, near where Boswell and Johnson stayed in 1773; (Of the provisions the negative catalogue was very copious.  Here was no meat, no milk, no bread, no eggs, no wine.  We did not express much satisfaction….)

R L Stevenson in my head. The desperate chase through the heather, the frightened fugue of dispossessed and Francophile anxious to avoid the Brexit party, the red-faced, red-coated ferruginous ambassadors of phony imperialism.  We duck and weave to dodge the spilling fighters, the cocksure arrogants, and trek by memorials, personal and touching, pausing at the Bealach Ratagan 

with its view of the Five Sisters of Kintail and then down Glen Shiel and up along Loch Ness.  But for the details of our itinerary, I am all to seek; our way lying now by short cuts, now by great detours; our pace being so hurried..... and the names of such places as I asked and heard being in the Gaelic tongue and the more easily forgotten.....

In Abernethy Forest, in the forward hide, the dawn glows briefly over an empty nest.  Stoical EJ, faithful for sixteen years, now aged at twenty-two, does not return.  Age perhaps the enemy; perhaps deathly inclement weather?  The grassy nest, the spread of a double bed, shudders in the wind atop the RSPB tree. For the first time in around sixty years, no raptor sinks onto spangled eggs within this view.

I wake from slumber, the silent dawn punctuated by the electronic burr of a passing capercaillie, his brazen baritone a blare across the otherwise deserted mist.  No EJ.  No Odin. How strange the kidnapped quiet of highland Scotland.  Painfully beautiful in the absence of a much beloved foreigner.  

I climb the stair in the darkness, naively reaching for the door to heaven, and then, flashlit by lightning, I stop, disillusioned by my misstep.  Then I hear a voice, brushed by a cough:  There are two things that men should never weary of, goodness and humility; we get none too much of them in this rough world among cold, proud people.

And I think, in all innocence, how good and humble was that wonderful bird who returned here year after year, to attempt to raise fifty chicks through snow and wind, aggression and hunger, who flew some 120,000 miles in accord with primitive instinct, daring to mate and lay and incubate and feed and nurture and protect in full view of our curious eyes…..

In Edinburgh I dine with Professor Sir James Duncan Dunbar Nasmith, 92 years of age, native of Dartmouth, pupil of Winchester College and Cambridge, conservation architect, resident of Findhorn.  His full and worthy life is more than a book, and his eloquence and composure put me to shame.  But, and I do hope he won’t mind me writing this, I cannot help but feel that EJ, our beloved missing osprey, is at least as remarkable a being as any good and humble man……

(chorus) Wi' ma pipes below ma oxter an' ma sporran neatly pressed
 Ma pockets full o' porridge for the road.
 Wi' some Crawford's Tartan Shortbread an' some tattie scones as weel
 An' ah'm jist aboot tae paint masel' wi' woad. Oh - yo!

Leo McGuire’s Song
Billy Connolly


With many thanks to Lindsay and Pauline, who made all this possible.

Also, thanks to R L Stevenson (Kidnapped) and James Boswell (Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland)

[Editor's note: All pictures by the author, but some do not necessarily correlate exactly with the places mentioned in the text]