Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mum of Beans (Guest blog)

(Guest blog from #1 Son aka 'Boris)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Farewell, K.C.N.

This week saw us saying a final farewell to Kinnoull Church Nursery. Previous farewells had always been tempered by the knowledge that we always had a smaller child about to start the nursery. This farewell was different - as this week our youngest graduated from the nursery, and our many years of involvement with it came to a conclusion. It was a very strange feeling, knowing that a place that has been so much part of family life for so many years, suddenly isn't!

It's not that I think that little 'Doris' should be cosseted in the nursery environment for another year, and shielded from the big bad world outside. In fact she is more than ready to go to school, although she's quiet she is socially confident and academically just starting to want to learn letters, numbers and so forth. In fact the twinge of sadness we sense as we say farewell to K.C.N. is because it has been such a brilliant place for our kids to go to. We had previously used other nurseries in the town, all of which provided a safe environment for children. Kinnoull was in another league however when it came to being a friendly, personal, family-like, stimulating environment for them. Saying farewell to previous nurseries was very matter-of-fact; whereas saying goodbye to Kinnoull feels like a major life-milestone.

I think the qualitative difference between the nurseries we experienced was that other nurseries cared in a very professional manner; whereas the staff at Kinnoull cared because they cared! The far smaller scale of this nursery meant that each child was looked after as an individual, rather than as a box to tick on a council form. This was especially the case when #2 son 'Norris' was deaf and exhibiting challenging behaviour! The other significant difference was the involvement of various parts of the community with the nursery - parents, church, the committee that ran it and so forth. This added a huge amount to the whole experience, making things like end-of-year concerts, carol services and the like into great community events.

So, farewell KCN, and thanks!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Boat that Rocked - and the film that didn't

The premise is a good one; take a writer from the historical satire Blackadder, assemble a cast of first-rate comedy actors, and produce a well-funded madcap historical comedy set in the 1960s - as battle commences between Pirate Radio, and the establishment. It sounds like a formula too good to get wrong; and yet this film just never seems to get going, to convince or capture the imagination. This film is excessively long too - and that doesn't seem to be because the plot demands it; but rather it is the lack of a compelling central plot that makes the sub-plots and asides expand uncontrollably into the vacuum.

It would be all too easy to critique the historical niceties of the film, especially in regards to social attitudes and ethics; but that would be to miss the point. Writer Richard Curtis deliberately caricatures the boat crew as representing the 60s and their wild totally unrestrained artistic, sexual and chemical hedonism, in total contrast to the establishment caricatures who are cringingly square, repressed and repressive. While in reality things were far more complex - and neither side was quite so appalling; Curtis seeks to harness the popular myth of the 60s as a comedy device.

The problem with this comedy isn't the crude retelling of history - its just that such a darn good cast, are allowed to fizzle and fade; without a compelling narrative to get to grips with. The film comes across like a series of sketches as if it were the box-set of a sit-com series; rather than as a complete film. What's worse is that as a comedy - it lacked any genuinely laugh-out-loud moments. It finally comes to an end, with a whimper - and leaves the viewer with a prolonged feeling that despite the likes of Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, and Bill Nighy doing their thing so well; this is a movie which sounds great in theory but fails to to live up to any of its potential. The boat may have rocked - the film certainly didn't!

Drums and Pipes

My already thunderous headache is being made worse by the incessant drumming coming from a massive Orange Order parade - just across the river. Could anyone nip out and explain to them that Christendom has been abolished and so making all that racket to define and control it, is probably about a century too late. If they really like drumming though - any chance they could leave it until my headache clears up?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Local Shop!

The phrase, "this is a local shop" surprisingly featured in the top 5 comedy catchphrases of all time. The ghastly premise of the comedy was that the grotesques who manned the shop used it as a front for all manner of degradations and murders.

My experience in Perth over the last few years has been that the opprobrium heaped upon 'the local shop' by that comedy is ill-deserved and worthy of reconsideration. While it is true that some marginal savings can be made by shopping online and trawling for bargain prices, I have found that multi-nationals and faceless .coms provide poor service, lousy aftercare, and ultimately bad value of for money. A few 'local' examples will demonstrate the point (and just so that you know - I'm not getting commission here, these are just personal recommends)

The Beanshop in Perth roasts and sells their own coffee. It's completely fantastic. We've tried various other coffee's, we've used supermarket coffee's and we've sourced cheaper ones too. There are several things that draw us back to the Beanshop though. For a start, the quality of the coffee is the best, then there's the option to have it as beans, ground - and if ground, done so to suit your machine, then there's the whole range of fairly-traded coffees they offer. If you want to drink fair-trade espresso-ground coffee - no-one else will supply that combination for you. Then there's the advice, on coffee making, equipment, contacts for machine servicing, and that's before you come to the fact that visiting the store is worth it to chat to the staff, over a free sample of their coffee of the month. The Bean Shop

I recently bought a second-hand drum-kit for my son. When setting it up, we realised that one of the ratchets on the cymbal stand was completely broken. I took it back into the shop, and without questioning it at all, the owner handed me a brand new boom-stand, which was set up again within an hour. I was very glad I hadn't spent £50 less and got the kit on ebay, from some anonymous seller, who may or may not have co-operated, who may-or-may not have tried to blame the courier, or who may have just said, 'it was fine when I sent it out'. RWJ Drumstore

The customer service we received from the huge chain store Comet, and what we got from local company d3 Audio Visual, couldn't be more different. Comet were a complete disgrace, when the DVD recorder they sold me packed up, their level of customer service was so appalling that I blogged about it here. When d3 installed a surround-sound system for our TV, they gave us a pretty good deal on an ex-demo amp, and installed it for us. When my kids wrecked the install by pressing random buttons on the remote, botching up the lovely sound that d3 had created, they cheerfully came and did it again. Local companies value their reputation, and go the extra mile to protect it. Some companies have such a control of market share, that the individual customer is of no consequence. I haven't set foot in Comet since that experience. I'd go back to d3 in a flash though. d3 Audio Visual

We made a big mistake when we bought a bike last year from Tesco's. It was £30 cheaper than the bikes on offer in the independent bike shop in the town. In retrospect it would have been far, far better to save up the extra £30 and go to a shop who understand bikes. The Tesco bike wouldn't stay in gear. Several bike rides proved very irritating for our son, as the gears clicked, jumped, and constantly slipped. On hills when the gears are under strain, it was unusable. The problem? It's cheaper to use brake cable than gear-changing cable on bikes. The Tesco bike had brake-cabling on the gears. The designed springy-ness of brake cable wrecks the performance of gears. We ended up paying the local shop to bring the Tesco bike up to standard, and that's where all future bikes will come from - even if we have to save a little longer to get them. We bought a bike-rack for the car this Spring. The owner of the bike-shop came out and helped us get it all fitted onto the car for the first time, safely. You don't get that kind of service online! J.M. Richards Cycles.

When we go out for a coffee, we have the choice of the delightful unique French cafe in town or the overpriced, drably impersonal Costa. I find 'chain' cafe's useful in a town I don't know well, as you can walk in, knowing exactly what you can expect. Conversely, what's the point in going to a new town, if every High Street looks exactly the same? No, we'll give Costa a miss and go and enjoy freshly baked croissants instead at Cafe Breazh.

If we need a snack-on-the run in town, we have the choice between The Tower Bakery, who make all their produce within a mile of the town centre - or the halogen-lit garish plasticity of Gregg's, whose wares are driven countless miles around the country. In my opinion there is something rather satisfying in sinking ones teeth into a Tower Bakery Fudge Doughnut, letting the fudge delight the tongue and the custard squirt around the gums like something from a Roald Dahl book! It's even better to add to the sheer indulgence of the experience, the thought that local jobs are protected, and local businesses helped to thrive as I do so. Tower Bakery.

The up-front discounts offered by the multi's, and the .com's can be very alluring - and I have taken advantage of them from time to time. I'm sure I will again, if they are prepared to offer massive discounts. On the other hand - more often than not, their discounts prove to illusory, and what local businesses offer in terms of advice, help, follow-up, customer-service, and friendliness is usually worth a lot more than the marginal savings available online.

Have you had similar experiences? Or are there any local businesses near you that you'd recommend?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Magzine Recommendation: The Bible In Transmission

Three times a year, "The Bible in Transmission: A Forum for Change in Church and culture" is published by The Bible Society. Its a unique and fascinating magazine in that while it explores contemporary, relevant issues, it is not a news source. Neither is it a scholarly journal with obscure, detailed papers across a range of subjects followed by a plethora of book reviews. Rather - in each edition they pursue an important theme, and invite a range of different scholars to biblically reflect on it, from their position, but in a easy-to-read, non-technical style. Recent editions have looked at environmental issues, the economic crisis, and the influence of Biblical language and categories on British culture and language.

The edition on the economic crisis is fascinating and includes a critique of contemporary capitalism from 'the west' from Alan Storkey, views on globalisation, and the poor from the two-thirds world from Vinoth Ramachandra and Prabhu Guptara. There is also a very eye-opening consideration of the Biblical prohibition on 'usury' and the contemporary acceptance of 'lending with interest' by most Western Christians in the light of the present crisis. This is by an author I haven't come across before called Robert Van der Weyer. Very thought-provoking and stimulating reading. These are just the highlights - there's more too!

When my parents come up from Englandshire they perform many useful tasks, not least of which is child-minding to facilitate my hill-walking! They also usually bring us a case of splendid wine, and also the latest edition of The Bible in Transmission. It is not the kind of read where you expect to agree with every sentence - but it is uniformly worth considering. I'm not on commission here - I just appreciate a good read! It's available online here.

Spider-monkeys at Alien Rock

Yesterday was young 'Norris'' eighth birthday! The exclamation mark at the end of that statement is perhaps indicative of the surprise that fact is. While sometimes, eight-years-ago feels like a lifetime, in truth it could equally be a fortnight since he came perilously close to being born in the hospital car-park. When 'Mrs Hideous' was offered an egg sandwich as a meal to recover from all her labours, she immediately checked-out of the hospital, came home and ordered a big curry. As we arrived home that day, I carried the little bundle around to show him off to all our neighbours.

And now, minutes later, that little squidgy little ball of potential is eight. That means amongst many other things that he is old enough to be allowed in the kids club at the climbing wall, "Alien Rock" in Grantown, Edinburgh. So as a birthday treat both boys were let loose on the climbing walls - with an instructor, showing them (amongst other things), the ropes. They absolutely loved it, and are really keen to go down there again for another session. That was partly because of the exhilaration of the achievement itself, but also because the instructor was so good. He had them bouldering, traversing, learning how to put on their own harnesses, climbing ever more difficult walls, and learning how to belay each other too.
The best thing about the experience for us was watching our boys throwing themselves completely into a really good activity - and absolutely loving it. Young 'Norris' little life isn't without its stresses and disappointments - but it was just fabulous to see him just absolutely grinning as he abseiled down from the top of the wall, having managed to completed his first climb.

Norris' big-brother Boris, joined in the session too and is seen in the last photo, powering up the wall. Hanging off the holds, and crawling ever upwards they each looked like a cross between a monkey and spiderman - hence spider-monkeys. What made the afternoon even more enjoyable was that as soon as we were satisfied that they were safe and happy there, their little sister, parents and grandparents slipped off round the corner to the wonderful "Porto & Fi" cafe, for lunch.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Eilean Donan

Driving past Eilean Donan Castle at night - who could resist taking a holiday snap?

The Five Sisters of Kintail - with a limp!

The celebrated 'Five Sisters of Kintail' form one of Scotland's finest ridge walks. They are also amongst the most photographed of the mountain ranges, images inevitably captured across the head of Loch Duich from the Mam Ratagan bealach. From here, four of the five sisters magnificently fill the frame from the sea upwards, leaving apparently little room for sky. The mountains forests, ridges, slopes, folds, eroded gullies and defiant peaks are arrayed in a truly grand display. These sisters both seduce their would-be conqueror with their irresistible beauty and then equally alarm him, with their scale and severity. The Rogers Character and I stood on the shoreline outside Ratagan Youth Hostel and had a long ponder at the prospect in front of us. After a long pause I said, "What do you reckon then?". "Well, I think we can give it a go", he replied.

Nearly all the mountain route books say that two cars are required to complete the Five Sisters traverse, one to be left at Shiel Bridge, the other to be driven to the high-point of the Glen Shiel road, where access to the high ridges can be gained via an ascent from the Glen's historic battle-site. Uniquely I think, Ralph Storer's book suggests a different route that enables the great ridge to be assaulted as a walked circuit. We followed his route from Morvich up Glen Lichd, past a private climbers hut and a ruin, before turning up the side of the mountain for a long, steep, difficult and exhausting climb up the unrelentingly steep grass slopes that make for the lowest point of the ridge; Bealach an Lapain. From here the views were stunning, with Beinn Fhada and The Saddle jostling for attention on each side, fighting against the long graceful lines of the South Glen Shiel Ridge, further round. Our eyes were inevitably drawn west and northwards however to get a glimpse of what the day ahead might bring.

The views of the Five Sisters themselves didn't really come into view until we had climbed the first peak, Sgurr Spainteach, "The Peak of the Spaniards". This relatively straightforward 'sister' is completely hidden in the 'classic' view of the range. It leads on to the great peak of Sgurr na Ciste Duibhe, which is a wonderful airy viewpoint, forming a 'corner' on the ridge, as it turns Northwards. Sgurr na Carnach (a defrocked Munro!) sits up on the ridge between the two highest points, and forms a significant obstacle as one traverses from Ciste Duibhe to Sgurr Fhuaran.

It was somewhere on Carnach that The Rogers Character's knee exploded. He came on these few days walking carrying an injury that had caused no significant problems - until now. It suddenly became obvious that he was walking neither normally nor comfortably - his usual confident stride being replaced by a painful limp. The nature of the Five Sisters of Kintail is that while they put up a huge amount of resistance to you getting on top of them - once there, they certainly do not let you go easily. The choices were stark - go back all the way we had come, or continue over Sgurr Fhuaran, Sgurr nan Saighead and Beinn Bhuide! We chose the latter and walked, increasingly slowly over Fhuaran, the great summit of the ridge, and then past the subsequent peaks, traversing under the very tops of them where possible, before exiting the ridge at the first available place - down the Alt an Chruinn. Some friendly walkers we had met on the hill gave us a lift from there, round to our car at Morvich.

At the time, it felt like a bit of a disappointment. We had set ourselves a big challenge, and thrown ourselves at it, and indeed had done most of the hard work, only to be robbed of the joy of completing the whole route as planned. In retrospect though, it looks much better! After all, we managed to stand on top of four of the ridge's major peaks, came within a few metres of another - and only completely avoided one! We climbed thousands of feet, walked many miles, saw some of Scotland's finest scenery, did two Munros, and got back safely too. I would love to be able to walk the whole ridge though, and I'm itching to go back already!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cursing Cameron McNeish on Beinn Sgritheall

'The Rogers Character' and I, threw a few things in rucksacks, pointed the nose of the car towards the North West, and made for the mountains. With plenty of food, water, guidebook in hand, and with hours of daylight to use up, what could be finer than a day out in the Highlands?!

Our target for the day was Beinn Sgritheall (pronounced "Byn Skreeyol"), a towering viewpoint which dominates the Northern shores of Loch Hourn, fills the view from Knoydart, but whose majestic slopes are probably best appreciated from Sleat on southern Skye. From some angles this mountain looks impenetrable, with its steep, scree-covered sides careering down three-thousand uninterrupted feet to the great loch below. Guide-books though, insist that there are a few lines of weakness, which allow the walker up onto the hills great lofty ridges.

Cameron McNeish's book, "The Munros" contains the following advice: "leave the road at a point roughly opposite the [the island of] Eilean Rarsaidh. Clamber up through the trees until a faint path is found". I would advise any hillwalker (a) to definitely climb the fabulous Beinn Sgritheall, and (b) to make sure that you completely ignore McNeish at this point. There was a time when McNeish was accused by walkers in some circles of having perhaps published details of a few more routes than he had actually accomplished! Now that is probably going a little far in this case - nevertheless The Rogers Character and I took to the hill at the recommended point and found ourselves fighting through vegetation, on wet-hummocky ground, rising up in front of us at an increasingly alarming angle, expending huge effort making inordinately slow progress. At the point at which I was ready to begin cursing McNeish (and signing up for a subscription to The Angry Corrie!), we came to the feint path he mentions - which scratched its way out of the forest and onto the ridge. What McNeish should have said is this: "A path leaves the road just beyond the island of Eilean a Chuilinn. A small cairn marks the easily miss-able start of the path, but it's essential to find this path as it will take you up the only navigable route through the very steep sided, densely forested slopes onto the ridge."

The top picture is of Knoydart, Barrisdale Bay and the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, taken from the ridge, just above the forest line.

One through the horrible almost-vertical quagmire of the lower slopes - Beinn Sgritheall is an absolute joy. Broad shoulders, lead up onto ridges, which in turn slope upwards to a summit which stretches skywards.
After enjoying the view and playing about with cameras, we returned by a the same route - except this time, we followed the path the whole way back to the road. To see Loch Hourn and Knoydart is blazing sunshine is to see Scotland at its finest - views which steal the breath, stun the senses, and just seem too good to be real!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Estate Agent

We are delighted to bring to the market, this once in a lifetime opportunity to make a remarkable home in this unique penthouse property. Every-room in this classical mid-20th Century time-piece, has stunning vistas along the length of Strathtay, which benefit from the site's elevated location. The rooms are surprisingly light, and airy and please the eye with their remarkable sense of space, which is only enhanced by the recent extensive open-plan redevelopment. The developers have removed all tired looking fixtures and fittings, presenting the purchaser with a fantastic opportunity for developing the property in their own style. Likewise, inefficient boilers and heating systems have been removed to facilitate the installation of energy-saving, green heating appliances. These modifications have also removed the requirement for air-conditioning, both saving money and making this an attractive prospect for the environmentally conscious home-owner. Character-full balconies with panoramic views, adorn the South-Eastern corner of the property - each with original period balustrades intact. Offers are now invited for this very special opportunity. Viewing highly recommended.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Film Notes: Capote

The film 'Capote' documents six years in the life of celebrated 20thC American author, Truman Capote, during which he writes his book, "In Cold Blood". The film documents the interactions of a dark and complex man, with a dark and complex unfolding narrative which itself begins with murder and ends with execution.

From the outset, Philip Seymour Hoffman dominates the screen with his compelling performance as the effete writer. His version of Capote sees him as a public socialite, camply regaling acolytes with sordid anecdotes of the rich and famous - while privately being vain, envious, morose, brooding and damaged. It is the exploration of the character, and his decline that drives the film, as much as the narrative - and for which Hoffman won several awards.

As an investigative writer, Capote sets out to write the story of the murders, trials and subsequent punishments of a case he reads about in the New York Times. It is the precarious relationship of author and subject, which is explored in the film - and which sends the famous author into his spiral of unproductivity and self-destruction. The crisis in point is the death sentence passed on murderer Perry Smith. As a writer, who needs to complete his masterpiece, Capote desperately needs the death sentence to be carried out. He needs the story to reach its ultimate conclusion to bring his story to a convincing end - or he would be left with an unpublishable cul-de-sac. On the other hand - during his visits to the convict he forms a deep emotional (and possibly sexual too - Capote's homosexuality is not flaunted in the film, simply assumed) attachment to him.

Capote is then torn apart by the inner conflict between his two desires. When he is the cold, detached writer - he refuses to visit Smith, manipulates the condemned man for his research, and pretends to offer to get him a better lawyer to extend his life. When he acts out of his fascination with the young man, he empathises over their respective troubled beginnings to life, and their mutual ability to use people, with an icy detachment that could just as easily lead to murder as betrayal.

When the 'author' wins over the 'friend', and Capote attends the execution, he is shattered by the experience. He has the ending for his book that he so desperately needs, yet the body of a man he loved is swinging on a hangman's noose as the price paid for it. "I couldn't have done anything to save him", Capote protests to Harper Lee at the film's conclusion. "Maybe not Truman", she replies, "But the truth is you didn't want to." The film then ends with a resume of Capote's final days, decline into alcoholism, increasing jealousy of Harper Lee, and early death from alcoholic related illnesses.

Hoffman's performance is remarkable, and the tricky topic of the relationship between author and subject quite exquisitely opened up through this most disturbing story. The central theme that this film burns into the memory however is of the tragedy and talent of Truman Capote. It is hard to think of a central character in a film, played with this depth, who comes across in such an unsympathetic light, so devoid of humanity, warmth, or empathy as this. The Life and Death of Peter Sellers perhaps comes close - but for all his complexity, vulnerability, literary and social extroversion - there remains what one reviewer described as a shard of ice through his heart.

Some people have said that it is the death of a friend - at the hands of the state -that drives Capote into his terminal decline. I think that that is to misread the film, and to see Capote in far more sympathetic terms that the writers intend. Rather, what overwhelms him with a dread that only drink and narcotics could numb, was the realisation that, he looked into the eyes of a psychopathic killer who incoherently veered between sweetness and savagery; and saw himself staring back. The final chilling end to this tale, is that Capote finds no redemption, no forgiveness, no renewal, no hope - just an alcoholic mask to conceal his damaged mind.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Ben Vrackie

Ben Vrackie - from Loch a Choire

The popular tourist-town of Pitlochry, stands beneath its own mountain - Ben Vrackie, a superb Corbett, with a good path, steep ascent and fabulous views. On Saturday afternoon, with the forecast looking good we went North to see if we could all climb it. There was no doubt that 'Boris' could climb it, its well within his abilities and he's been up it before. 'Norris' too is more than able to do this hill, having managed Schiehallion a fortnight ago. The question mark really hung over little 'Doris' who having just turned five was going to be pushed to manage a walk of this length or steepness.

The walk begins at a little car-park, just past the Moulin Inn and brewery which is signposted from the High Street in Pitlochry. From there a path goes steeply through woodland for a mile or so, before breaking out into open country. This long, constant ascent caused the most grumbling of the day, as in quite intense heat we climbed from the woods to the top of the pass between Creag Bhreac and Meall Na h-Aiodainn Moire. From here, two things come into sudden view, the height of Ben Brackie itself - which looks very impressive from here, and the Loch a Choire - the lochan which nestles at the foot of the mountain, behind an earthen dam. We stopped by the loch for a rest - here the boys went bouldering, and then we played about with the self-timer on the camera - resting it on a rock to capture a 'family-in-the-hills' moment. We also had a really big drink, litre after litre of liquid being taken from the rucksack and disappearing down parched throats. I was very happy to encourage this process, as hauling the massive amounts of water for five of us on a blazing hot afternoon was my task, and shifting as much of the weight off my shoulders and sharing it out into everyone's bodies, was especially welcome as we began the steep section.

The one little spell of drizzle we got was on the upper section of the climb. It didn't look as if it would last, and so we persisted. Given the strength of the sun and the severity of the climb - a little cool rain was actually quite welcome. What was even better was that as we rounded the final corner of the steep zig-zagged path, the sun-reappeared, the hills lit-up, the views opened up on all sides, and we sat to enjoy the achievement. Little 'Doris' did spectacularly well too! Although she had required a bit of a 'piggy-back' on the lower section - she marched resolutely for most of it, including the final 350m pull to the summit.

When she was very small, we all went hill-walking together; she was carried in a 'Mac-Pac', on my back. We did a number of great walks like that - including a Munro. Eventually though she got too heavy for me to carry doing any serious walks, but couldn't yet manage a good-length walk herself - so family walks were not possible for some time. In fact - family walks still happened, but weren't anything like adventurous enough to impress the boys. Perhaps this summer will be a turning point, and once again we will be able to take to the mountains together! We certainly hope so, and not just so that we can indulge our love of the outdoors, but pass it off as 'family-time', but also because the kids are at their best on such occasions. Whereas stuck inside on rainy days they can get a bit fractious with each other, with space, energy consuming activity and a definite objective in mind - they are great company. The question now is, where to head on the next sunny Saturday!

Trig Point - Summit of Ben Vrackie

Friday, June 04, 2010

At the Fergusson Gallery

Any of the old pictures of Perth skyline that you find online - or in the library, will show this distinctive chimney. In any early pictures taken from the turn-of-the century, smoke can clearly be seen pouring from the curious 'flower-pot' shaped chimney pot, which adorns the stack. It's a very distinctive building, one I have walked past countless times - but one I had never been in until last week.

Now known as The Fergusson Gallery, the building was a Victorian construction which housed a large static steam engine. It was used to draw the very pure water found underneath the gravel beds of Moncrieff Island in the Tay, up into a vast tank in the dome - the towns water supply. Having fallen into disuse, first as a pump-house and subsequently as a tourist office, it is now a museum dedicated to the work of J. D. Fergusson and his partner Margaret Morris.
I'm no art connoisseur (!), and so my opinions on what Fergusson did are as entirely subjective as they are ill-informed. Some of it was OK, a lot of it very evocative of early 20th Century atmospheres, some of it was a bit odd - and none of it moved me much! As for Margaret Morris and her pioneering modern dance - this was most odd. The whole idea of 'medical gymnastics' sounded quite funny - in fact some of the grainy black and white film clips from the 1930s of young people doing the movements felt quite uncomfortable. I was there with 'Vlad' - and he had a similar reaction to it too. On discussion we reckoned that although what we were seeing was self-evidently innocent, such images have become all-too-often seen in the context of the Hitler Youth and other such nefarious fascist groups. As such we were unable to fully separate these images of regimented youth in the 1930s, from that context.

The disappointment of the visit is that there is so little about the history of the building on offer! I would love to have learnt more about the pump-house, the engines and enginemen who gave Perth its pure water, of architects, designers and engineers who worked on it - and of the transformation of the building over time. Even more - I would love to have been able to climb up onto the dome, or look out from the windows in the top of the cupola - but this is all closed to the public. Still - it was good to have been and explored this museum on my doorstep, and to ruminate about its contents with the always unique Vlad.

Luka Bloom: Live at The Birnam Institute

Mrs H and I went up to the village of Birnam last night to catch Irish folk singer/guitarist Luka Bloom on the latest leg of his four-date Scottish tour. In the days running up to the gig there was some doubt as to whether or not it would go ahead - or whether it would fall victim to an unfortunate resurfacing of Luka's hand-injury which put paid to some of the planned English dates. As there are not that many bands that we both like - and would want to go and hear, we were both delighted that he was going to be playing a local gig, as we have enjoyed his songs since we first heard 'The Acoustic Motorbike' back in 1996.

The gig got off to a slow start, Bloom not starting with his strongest material, but starting with a track that was a protest song - relevant to that days news. His voice sounded OK, but clearly wasn't warmed up well, although he was playing confidently, indicating that the hand-tendon problem which has plagued his career, had completely settled down. From then on however the gig got better and better, -perhaps Luka Bloom knows that he is a slow-starter, which is why he apologised for the lack of an interval but just kept going!

With a mixture of his own haunting songs, unique guitar sound and his trade-mark re-interpretations of a whole host of songs in an Irish-folk genre (including rap, and rock-songs!), the evening grew in enjoyment as it went on. Luka Bloom enjoys a good chat with the crowd in between songs too, always quirky, often funny and enjoying some interaction with the crowd too. Various people called out song names for him to sing, when one bloke yelled, "I Need Love", he just replied, "I appreciate the sentiment - but you're not my type".

It was a really good night out - he's definitely worth hearing if you are in Glasgow in the next few days. Birnam Institute is a quiet little venue, and the crowd were rather subdued. On a couple of occasions the audience were a little intrusive - the worst of which was when two women had a 'heated debate' audible to the whole audience and artist about whether one of them was filming the gig or not! Perhaps the Oran Mor will have a better audience!

Here's Luka Bloom with a clip I found on YouTube (not recorded at the gig!!), performing Primavera. Fabulous!

Sunburt in Laggan: Beinn a Chlachair, Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh

Lochan na h-Earba

The road from Dalwhinnie/Newtonmore to Spean Bridge and Fortwilliam is littered with high mountains, several of which I have managed to haul my reluctant limbs to the summits of. Just below the outflow of Loch Laggan, an ugly concrete bridge leads out into the wilds of the Corrour Estate. Many times, on my way to Fort William, I have looked at the cluster of cars in the layby, or seen walkers early on Sunday mornings heading out over the bridge in search of the three-high peaks that lay hidden behind the smaller hills in the foreground. My jealous gaze at this point was usually short-lived because around the next bend, the magnificent sight of the Grey Corries looms large, and claims the attention. Yesterday however, I replaced my jealous gaze at this spot for good, and replaced it with happy memories of long-tracks, stunning lochs, rounded-hills, astonishing views, and sun-burn!

My day began early, as I needed get back to Perth for before six, for the family, so I left the car before 8:30 to get a good headstart. Even before 9, the sun was cutting through the morning haze, and layers were removed and crammed into my rucksack. The Corrour estate has a nice 'walkers welcome - please shut the gate' sign at the entrance to their land; it also has many tracks, which are well-maintained and which penetrate deep into open country. These are visually appalling, but certainly give very speedy access to the hills.

The first stop was Beinn a Chlachair, a long stony-steep-sided ridge whose finest feature is a high bowl-shaped corrie facing Northwards. The views from this mountain over towards the Ben Alder group were quite stunning, and made me more determined than ever to engineer the circumstances where a trip out into that wilderness might be possible! In blazing heat, and with heathaze shimmering from rocks and heather, and walked from the summit, the length of the broad ridge and clambered down its steep north-easterly end, to the bealach. From here, the route up onto Geal Charn is longer and harder than it appears, but is a straightforward trudge upwards.

Picking a route down to the col between Geal Charn and Creag Pitridh would be tricky enough in mist. My concern by this stage was not the route - that was obvious - but rather my aching head and dwindling supplies of liquid.

In the distance, Ben Lui stood tall on the horizon; its graceful 'upturned hull' lines, like a great arrow directing attention upwards as if to indicate that its glory points us upwards to a greater glory; from creation to creator. Unlike the day on which I stood on Lui, with clouds foaming around the summit like an angry sea; yesterday she shimmered and sweltered in her sun-drenched magnificence.

The bulk of Ben Alder fills the view from these hills to the South. Grampian's crumpled skin wears Alder like a great boil. Creag Pitridh on the other hand is but a pimple, an afterthought, even amongst these Laggan Hills. That is not to say a pimple that I could resists squeezing, and so I picked my way up its steep side on a scratchy path and stood on top of its airy summit - chatted to a fellow-walker and drank the very last of my water.

The descent off the North of Pitridh is straightforward enough, and the tracks out to the road long enough and good enough to make me really wish I had brought my bike in. The view down Lochan na h-Earba (top photo) was the sight of the day. Another highlight was chatting to an older couple, a retired bank-manager and his wife from Yorkshire, who have spent their retirement walking thousands of miles all over the UK.

This was a truly magnificent hill-day, and I was almost back in Perth on time too! These hills may not be the most intrinsically delightful in Scotland - and they require 18miles of work to scalp them; but they certainly reward the persistent walker with memorable, open views across mile after mile of Scotland's stunning mountain scenery.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

I'm going slightly mad..

My memory has never been that great. Although some odd facts seem to stick in mind with a weird permanence, I have never been one of those people who could recall phone numbers, car registration plates or other details and sequences. For some strange reason, ideas, concepts and abstract theories I find easier to grasp and recall, than facts, figures and specifics. I found understanding history a lot easier than remembering the precise events of which it is made - and always scored far higher in coursework than exams as a result.

Recently however, I have began to notice that my memory is, if anything, getting worse. It maybe of course, that I simply have a lot more to remember. Where once I just had myself to be concerned with, I now have all that- plus job, family, kids etc. Maybe it's age, maybe its the first signs of my mental decline, or maybe its me just catching up with what everyone else already knows. Whatever the cause, I have found myself on several occasions straining and fighting to recall things I should know - but just can't find.

Today's memory loss is a little unsettling. I have a 'Munro-Map' that lists all the Scottish mountains over the height of 3000ft. It's an old, battered, out-of-date and much loved map. It has the dates of many, many mountain expeditions across all parts of the country on it. Each summit is marked with a triangle - the white ones are yet to climb, the black ones I have stood on top of! In a column at the side is a space to write the date in, alongside each peak. This map, is a fantastic piece of personal memorabilia for me. As I cast my eye across its crumply paper, I immediately recall so many great days; The Forcan Ridge with Roymondo, Creag Meagaidh with Victor Meldrew, An Teallach with Stumpy Greenisland, the pouring rain on Bruach na Frithe, the little Buachaille with Mrs H., the blazing sun with the church group on Slioch, the adrenaline pumping on The Curved Ridge, the midgies in Glen Derry.... the memories go on and on. They are clear, vivid, and wonderful to bask in.

Looking at my Munro Map today I noticed that by Crianlarich, An Caisteal and Beinn a Chroin are marked off. There is a date and time - about six years ago. Strangely, although I can clearly recall climbing the adjacent mountains - I have no memory of this at all. Thinking that I might have filled in the wrong hills, I went to my mountain log-book. There is a detailed entry dated 28/04/04 which describes the route, the weather, the views, the walk-out and a series of dramatic rainbows above Glen Falloch that illuminated the descent! It all matches up - definitely no mistake about the hills in question. And yet.... I don't remember a single solitary thing about it. I mean nothing! I think I can recall details of almost every other hill - but it is as if this bit of data has been randomly erased from the hard-drive.

It's actually a bit freaky!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


We all walked up Kinnoull Hill (again!) the other day, and sat up on the top, by the stone table admiring the view. The cliffs drop vertically down to the Friarton Bridge hundreds of feet below, the Tay meanders its way Eastwards collecting the waters of the Earn, before passing Errol and heading for Dundee and the North Sea. We've sat in this spot and admired this view many, many times since we moved to Perth a decade or so ago.

This time however - something else grabbed our attention. A beautiful bird of prey joined us, hovering, soaring, sitting in the strong updraft lifting from the cliffs. Sometimes completely stationary, at other times circling, but mostly moving gently across the sky, scanning the woods below with radar-like precision. Then - without warning - and too fast to see, let alone photograph - it would tuck its wings in, point its beak downwards and dive into the woods below. The speed at which the birds descended was really impressive.

But what was it?

One ornithologically minded friend has suggested that it might have been a Perigrine. The photo above is not a good photo - but is it enough for anyone to tell me what we were watching?