Saturday 24 September 2011

Poem: Aberdeen

My memories of Scotland's third city are almost all good. My first decent job was working offshore, and in Aberdeen the sun always seemed to shine on the incorruptible granite. It was cold in winter winds, but more welcoming to me than the wet, decaying streets of Glasgow that reeked of unemployment and self-doubt, streets which I had gladly fled. On the other hand, Aberdeen was stony soil for a person with an artistic temperament.

I did not tell my offshore colleagues I wrote poetry...

I wake with clear conscience.
Clear and solid the way to work
People of bright granite
Your city all a body wants
I'll go for a drink with my friends
Check the women, cruise the mat
the steady gaze of an honest day
hands dirty with pride
No imagination.

Friday 16 September 2011

Midlothian Doors Open Day

Ever wondered what was behind the facade of that big imposing house in your neighbourhood? Wonder what goes on behind the doors of the local masonic lodge? Want to see inside the local fire station? Then Doors Open Day is for you!

Last weekend was Midlothian's Doors Open Day, and we availed ourselves of the opportunity to see Arniston House for free. This estate has been home to the Dundases of Arniston since 1571, although in those days a tower house stood on the site. The current house was started in 1726 by William Adam and is one of the earliest houses in the classical style in Scotland.

Waiting to Visit Arniston House:

We were taken inside by the owner of the house and her daughter, then given a tour that was all the better for our guides being the descendants of the original builders of the house: the pictures on the wall were not some remote historical figures, but their great grandparents.

Arniston is small compared to the likes of Culzean, but is perfectly formed, with the most beautiful, shimmering hand-painted Chinese wallpaper in the dining room. The Dundases were big in law, and as such were intimitely involved with running Scotland in the absence of a Parliament from 1707. The most famous of the clan was Henry Dundas, elevated to Viscount Melville in 1802. Like many during the Enlightenment, he was a colourful character, as James Boswell's diaries show:
“I went to Parliament House a little after nine. I found the Solicitor, who had been with us last night and drank heartily, standing in the outer hall looking very ill. He told me he was not able to stay, so he went home. He had struggled to attend to his business, but it would not do. Peter Murray told me he had seen him this morning come out of a dram shop in the Back Stairs, in all his formalities of large wig and cravat. He had been trying to settle his stomach. In some countries such an officer of the Crown as Solicitor General being seen in such a state would be thought shocking. Such are our manners in Scotland that it is nothing at all.”
Henry Dundas was entrusted by various Prime Ministers, including Pitt the Younger and Lord North, to deliver a solid block of Scottish MPs loyal to the government, and was given carte blanche to hand out sinecures, pensions, and public positions to ensure these votes. If you wanted to get ahead towards the turn of the 19th century in Scotland, you had to go and see Dundas: 'The Despot Dundas' he was called by some, as well as 'King Henry IX'! He became influential in Westminster as well as Scotland, running the Admiralty during the wars with Napoleon as well as the India Office. He obstructed the speedy abolishment of slavery on the grounds of the commercial damage it would do to plantation owners; on the other hand, he advanced the careers of many Scots through positions in the East India Company, and tried to overturn legal bars in public life to Catholics.

The day ended with a stroll in the gardens down to the stream and the site of the Arniston Stones, but that is the subject for another post...

Arniston from the rear:

Such are the free enjoyments from Doors Open Day! Glasgow's Doors Open Day is 17-18 September, Edinburgh's the week after (I can particularly recommend the Traquair Centre and the Signet Library). Wherever you are in Scotland there is somewhere open. Take advantage of Doors Open Day if you can!

Wednesday 14 September 2011

The Mysterious Poetree and Other Sculptures...

Not a personal post but wanted to share this! Beautiful paper sculptures have been appearing at cultural spaces all over Edinburgh, made from books. Nobody knows who the artist is...

Read more at:

Friday 9 September 2011

Poem: The Scots Crisis of Confidence

I've been reading The Scots Crisis of Confidence recently, a book by Carol Craig that makes a great deal of generalisations about the nation and the psychological make-up of its inhabitants. It is largely a tract of self-flagellation. Yet part of it rings true, especially where she talks about entrepreneurial culture. She quotes David Landes' The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a book that discusses how a nation's culture can affect individual actions. This seems to make sense: go-getting Scots feel more at home in London or California than at home, as perhaps American left-wingers feel more at home in Europe. There's a good side to Scotland's predilection to collectivism: but there's also a bad side. I've already written about how this culture affects people in Craig Ferguson's Neighbour. And here's some more of it:

Canny Wullie and Dinnae Ken
are twa our maist kenspeckle men
Wullie Canny dae withoot
and Dinnae Ken whit it's aboot
For their respective orthodox
of failure: infects like a pox
their minds. In soil rich they flourish but
in soil Scots they sour much.
Canny Wullie, Dinnae Ken:
oor twa, respected, gentlemen.

Canny Wullie, Dinnae Ken
Are twa kenspeckle gentlemen
Canny wullie's fulla doots
And dinnae Ken whit it's aboot
For their respective orthodox
of caution. Infects like a pox
their minds. In foreign climes they flourish but
In soil Scots they sour much.
Canny Wullie, Dinne Ken
Oor maist respected gentlemen.

Friday 2 September 2011

The Three Peaks of Yorkshire

One of my minor life ambitions - not as big as owning a seaplane, but bigger than wanting to go up Duns Law - has been the Three Peaks of Yorkshire. This is a big day's walk - roughly 25 route-dependent miles and 5,000ft of ascent, but is within the grasp of most fit people, given good weather and comfy shoes. It is easier than the 'national' Three Peaks of Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon, but remains a solid challenge. 12 hours is the generally accepted target. The record is a barely believeable 2hrs 30 mins. The usual route goes widdershins from Horton-in-Ribblesdale up Pen-y-Ghent (694m), Whernside (736m) and Ingleborough (723m) before returning to the start point. It was supposed to happen last year: but injury intervened.

Rainbow sunrise at Horton:

We woke at 6am on the day of the walk after a disturbed sleep: a noisy group had been up till 1am and there had been thunder and lightning overnight. The weather could scupper our walk!

Ascending Pen-y-Ghent:

The rain came on again near the first top, Pen-y-Ghent, but it was just a passing shower: the big surprise were the crowds around us all the way. This is a sociable walk on a holiday weekend. Perhaps a start at Ribblehead Viaduct would be less crowded?

Crowds descending Pen-y-Ghent:

A young Londoner called Simon collared us, he had lost his group and wondered if he was going the wrong way. We introduced ourselves: "Craig," "David," "Cameron," and I immediately sang: "Reduced the deficit on Monday, screwed the country on Tuesday." He decided soon after to go a different direction to try to find his pals.

Craig David Cameron on the second summit, Whernside:

After a long drag across a moor and the road, Ribblehead Viaduct is reached, an engineering wonder in a bleak landscape. We followed the right of way up Whernside rather than go direct. Whernside is the least inspiring of the trio, but is the highest point in Yorkshire and has the best views - the Irish Sea and Lake District are close, Whernside being on the border between Yorkshire and Cumbria. Except for a few boggy sections after Pen-y-Ghent almost the entire route is paved, so bear that in mind if you have new boots!

Ingleborough from Whernside:

Cameron had tried but failed the three peaks before due to blisters, but by the final drag up Ingleborough it was clear we were going to make it. We traversed through areas of limestone pavement and potholes (this is the best place in Britain for caves), talking to the other people on the walk. In fact it was all the people we met who were probably the highlight of the walk. A girl with a carrier bag tied to her rucksack, banging off her thigh with each step... a group from the south of England who had first met on a holiday in Ecuador... a German and a Yorkshireman, both red haired... almost everyone - except a local in jeans carrying a donkey jacket - were doing the 'three peaks'. The last top was cold, dull and extremely windy, so we did not hang about: there was a pint with our name on it in the Crown Inn in Horton!

Pen-y-Ghent from Ingleborough descent:

One of the extra things you can do on this walk is clock out and in at the village cafe: do this, and you are entitled to purchase a tie and badge commemorating your walk. But the memories are the main thing and, like the dozens of others we met on the walk and afterwards in the pub, we were satisfied with the day's efforts.