Into the West

[31 Dec 03] The cold temperatures and occasional clear days this past week were perfect for an end-of-year day trip to the west coast of Scotland. The train to Oban passed snow-covered ranges and lonely castles, and Oban itself looked out to the frosty mountains of Mull. Not much to do there but see the sights, but what sights.

The Train to Oban

Ardlui Station View from the Train View from the Train Oban Harbour Oban Oban Sunset Oban Sunset


Trust Me

[31 Dec 03] For such a small country, in area and population, there's a lot of history packed into Scotland. That's true of most European countries, I guess, but this is the one I happen to live in, so it gets the New-Worlder-dazzled-by-the-Old cliché today.

By the end of our first 18 months here we still hadn't seen as much of Scotland as we wanted, so at the beginning of the year we made a few resolutions. One was to think about getting a car. That resolution was completely successful: we did indeed think about it. But the cost put us off actually doing it: a grand or two for a car, hundreds more for MOT and insurance, and who knows what for repairs, all to go off on a picnic now and again. We almost bought one anyway, until Jane found out about the biggest car-sharing scheme in the UK. The cost of joining was less than a few days' rental, so we figured it was worth a try.

It's worked well. The club cars are hooked up to the booking system via an onboard computer and a mobile phone link, and you book them online for anything from half an hour to three days. An afternoon costs £10-30 depending how far you drive, but the per-mile rate includes petrol. It's not as convenient as jumping in a car parked outside your back door, but it's better than filling out forms at a rental company every time you want to go anywhere, and it's good not to have to look after half a ton of metal. Best of all, it's got us out of the house; we've finally seen more of Fife, the Borders, and other tantalisingly close parts of Scotland.

That led to another change: joining the National Trust. We'd been members of Historic Scotland since we got here, but apart from the showpiece castles of Edinburgh and Stirling they deal mostly with ruins; the NTS has the intact stuff. We soon found, though, that the difference is more than just that. People look at you strangely when you join the National Trust under the age of seventy. It's just not something that's done. You might have thought you were saving on entry fees to the great houses of Britain, but no, you've bought into a lifestyle: the upper-middle-age upper-middle-class lifestyle. You're shoulder to shoulder with people who write to the Trust magazine to insist that all the bench seats along Edinburgh's Princes Street be removed because they aren't "heritage" (as opposed to the historic Body Shops and HMVs lining the other side of the street). Medieval peasants had nowhere to sit down after muckin' oot th' sty, after all, and modern-day tourists are just peasants in loud shirts.

Fortunately, the grey-haired staff of the NTS are a kindlier lot, some of them excellent guides to the history of the properties they work in—and some of them, not. For every ex-printer who can talk you through the workings of an old press, there's an old biddy who forgets your face between the time you've left the room and when you've returned five minutes later, and tells you all over again about the Duke of Extinct Family Line, 1895-1971.

It's worth it, though, to see the properties themselves.

Pollok ParkPollok House in Glasgow is overshadowed by the nearby Burrell Collection, one of the best museums in the country; but the house itself is worth a look, as we found on our second visit to the park that's home to both. Inside was one of the best El Grecos I've ever seen, a portrait of a dark-haired noblewoman trimmed in white fur. Outside, a red-haired noble coo grazed happily.

NewhailesNewhailes in Edinburgh bests the city centre showpieces of Gladstone Land and the Georgian House, although both of those are well worth a look. It's harder to get to—our first attempt failed, the bus leaving us stuck a few miles short without time to reach it before the pre-booked tour—but when you finally do, it's one of the best things in the city. The grand late-17th century home of a family who later became too poor to change it much, it's a true time capsule, with peeling 19th century wallpaper, rococo rooms decorated with gilded scallop shells, and a huge library with rows and rows of dark empty shelves; the books are awaiting return when the conservation conditions are right. There were books in other rooms, though, a couple of them particularly noticeable among the tomes by worthy authors: the 1960s-ish Good Food on a Budget; and from the '20s or '30s, Rambles in Womanland.

InnerleithenThe drawback with most Trust properties is their short opening period, often only four months long. We only just caught Robert Smail's Printing Works, in the Borders town of Innerleithen, a week or so before going to Oz. The smell of ink was instant nostalgia for this printmaker's son, and a couple of the presses were almost identical to some in Dad's studio. But the real fun was setting up metal type to print a few words on a bookmark; my first attempt at setting an email address failed for want of an @, so I stuck with the URL.

CulrossHill of TarvitWe visited the Royal Burgh of Culross on the Firth of Forth one bright October day, which turned out to be a few days after its NTS properties had closed for the winter. It was a perfect day for outdoor photography, though, and for dozens of pictures of windows and winding streets. That same day we looped through Falkland and St Andrews before following the Fife coast back to the bridge. My other favourite sight was the Hill of Tarvit, a mansion built by a Dundee jute millionaire a century ago. Every room reflected the period of its antique furniture: here a 16th century Scottish living room in mahogany and oak; there a white fine-plastered French Regency sitting room. The silver model galleon on the dining table was impressive, but it was hard to beat the fencing taxidermied frogs in the upstairs bathroom.

LindisfarneThere was more: the Tenement House in Glasgow, with its Essence of Grandma kitchen; Inverewe Garden on the west coast, warmed by the Gulf Stream; Culloden Moor near Inverness. And more Historic Scotland, English Heritage and English National Trust properties: Sizergh Castle in the Lake District; Stott Park Bobbin Mill, another fascinating insight into the working life of the past; the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, with huts made from boats sheltering behind its castle; Skara Brae, Maes Howe and the Broch of Gurness on Orkney; Fort George outside Inverness, and other castles.

TraquairCarlisle CathedralAnd the rest: Traquair House in the Borders; the cathedrals of Carlisle and Durham; a Rennie Mackintosh-designed school in Glasgow now turned into a museum; the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow; the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh; exhibitions of Leonardo's drawings in the Queen's Gallery at Holyroodhouse, Duane Hanson's photorealistic sculptures at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Monet's Seine and Sea paintings at the Royal Academy of Scotland, Antony Gormley's ethereal sculptures at the Baltic in the Newcastle; and my favourite museum discovery of the year, Sir John Soane's Museum in London, preserved exactly as he left it in 1837.

Too much to do justice to here, which is why I hardly mentioned them before now. In 2002 it felt as if we still hadn't properly explored the north of the UK, even though we lived here; now it feels as if we've given it a good shot. Next year is already shaping up differently, with two weeks in Andalucía in February after a year of Monday-night Spanish lessons in preparation. (No aprendí mucho todavía. Hay demasiados verbos acordarse.) After that, back to Leuven in March for a brief work trip, and maybe to the inner and outer Hebrides in the spring. Got to make the most of it while we're here. Not that that isn't true of anyplace, anytime.


[16 Dec 03]

The Göta River Canal and City Museum Jul Decorations Decorated Street Poseidon Canal in Vallgraven Marzipan Pigs Jul Decorations New Tunnel Being Dug Slippery Slide Dusk by the River


The weekend before last, The Guardian ran an article on Britain's unbelievably cheap air travel and its obvious environmental costs. I read it guiltily, because six days later we were catching a flight to Sweden which cost all of one pound each plus taxes. It cost the two of us forty two pounds to get from Glasgow Prestwick to Gothenburg City Airport and back—in fact, to get there from Edinburgh, because you can get free rail connections to Prestwick from anywhere in Scotland for some flights. It would have cost more to take a train to Aberdeen and back at apex rates.

Half of our city-hopping around Europe last year was down to cheap flights. We didn't do it this year out of a conscious decision to see more of Scotland instead; but it costs as much to go away for a weekend here as it does to go someplace where they speak a whole different language. (Like, say, England. Ho ho.)

It's certainly the only reason we found ourselves in Gothenburg (or Göteborg, yooteborg, in Svenska). I'd barely heard of it before, even though it's Sweden's second-biggest city. But we loved Stockholm when we visited some friends there six years ago, and although other parts of Scandinavia were higher on our list that was no reason to pass up this opportunity.

I was very glad we didn't, even though it took all morning to get there. The sun was low in the sky by the time we stood outside Gothenburg's main bus terminal; it's further south than Stockholm, so has a good six or seven hours of daylight in winter, compared to four or five there. We spent that first afternoon walking around the canals and streets of the city centre, ducking into shops to get warm, until we reached the river Göta at dusk. We criss-crossed downstream by ferry in the dark, watching boats pass by like floating chandeliers. The city doesn't have the dull orange glow that hangs over Edinburgh, so the night seemed darker and the lights more distinct.

The next day was a few degrees warmer, meaning no frost or ice, just clouds and rain. We visited the city museum (featuring the only Viking boat remains in Sweden), the art museum and the design museum; nothing unforgettable, but a fun day's wandering. In between we stopped at cafés and konditori and bought fabulous cakes for a pound each, cursing the Scottish addiction to the oat. It was a great trip for eating out, with pickled cabbage, blåbär juice (blueberry, not blubber; like drinking dilute pancake syrup), and a delicious pear cider which cost hardly more than a Strongbow back in Edinburgh. Christmas also meant hot glögg, saffron-flavoured buns and marzipan pigs.

Being there at this time of year added an extra dimension to the trip: all the signs saying "God Jul"; Agnetha Fältskog's Christmas album in the CD stores; pigs and reindeer made out of straw; and brightly-lit stars hanging in windows and reflecting off the shiny-wet streets. On the ferry into town on Saturday every apartment by the river featured an illuminated up-arrow of electric candles. By chance we were also there on St Lucia's Day, December 13th, and saw a group of children in white shrouds singing special carols in celebration.

It was a perfect 48 hours of wandering and exploring, and embarrassingly easy for an English-speaking visitor. There was no point asking "Do you speak English?" here; to presume they didn't seemed ruder. (A diffident "hello" was enough.) In one café a woman came up as we sipped our varm chocklad and started speaking to us in Swedish; "I'm sorry," we said, "we only speak English"—and she replied, without missing a beat, "I think I left my mittens here." No agonizing over grammar and fumbling through a limited vocabulary, as I would have been; and she was typical of everyone we met.

On Söndag everything was shut until 11 or 12, so there wasn't much to do but catch the tram into town, walk through the park, and buy strange food at the supermarket (Plopp, Kex, and other scatologically-named chocolate bars) before getting the bus back to the airport. But that was okay; any longer and I'd have been itching to get out into the countryside, to explore the lakes and forests and the icy north.

Maybe Gothenburg's council is subsidizing Ryanair; maybe we're all indirectly subsidizing each other to fly to places we never thought we'd see. And maybe I'll have to plant a forest to atone for all that jet fuel. But it's hard not to want to see the world when you're right in the middle of it.


[ 8 Dec 03] About six months later than planned, here at last are some More Castles of Scotland. (In case you missed them, the first ones are here.)


Breaking the Mould

[25 Nov 03] Spent the weekend visiting our friends in Nottingham. We'd all had a stressful week, so we whiled away Friday night drinking red wine and listening to Lieutenant Pigeon's 'Mouldy Old Dough', a song I'd never heard before but became so obsessed by that I tracked it down when I got home. The lyrics give you an idea of the wit and sophistication of this 1972 UK chart-topper (you have to imagine them drawled out by a grizzled Londoner over a honky tonk piano and penny whistle backing):

Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough

I reckoned if someone did a techno cover of it they'd have a sure-fire hit. Turns out that some people already have. Sort of.

On Saturday afternoon we went driving in the Peak District, stopping at Matlock for lunch. (Obviously the town the mouldy old Australian cop show was named after. The Nottingham area is rife with action-hero town names: Eastwood; Arnold; Ripley; Attenborough. There's even a Gotham.) After walking into—and straight out of—a restaurant which smelled more -room than -aurant, we found one with a rave review from the Guardian outside the door, and ate relievedly well.

By the time we emerged it was mid-afternoon and freezing, but at least the fog had lifted. We drove up through Bakewell, home of the Tart; and then, with the light going, down the A515 through the heart of the Peak National Park. As the sun set I took photo after photo, before it finally disappeared behind the hills and we disappeared into a pub.

The Peak District, 4.10 p.m., Saturday 22.11.2003

Our final destination was Derby, where by uncanny coincidence another friend was making his professional theatre debut (as opposed to all that other larking about on stage he's been getting paid for for years). It was only when James posted about the play on his blog that I realised we'd be in Nottingham—only a few miles away—while it was on, so I couldn't very well not go. Before that, though, we had to find a place to eat, since we were too late to join him for an early dinner before he disappeared backstage.

Derbians, we soon learned, don't eat. There's no other explanation for the complete absence of restaurants in the inner city. We looped around and around the central streets, running out of time before the show, wondering if we'd end up eating at Sainsbury's. The place was deserted at six o'clock on a Saturday, apart from four bakewells strutting to a bar in high heels and underwear. We ended up with some suspicious chips from a kebab shop and a few snacks from a café that short-changed us ten quid. (To be fair, they worked hard for it, enlisting two members of staff and the manager to convince us that the customer is always wrong.)

But all that was put aside when we saw Joe Orton's Loot expertly staged and performed by James and his colleagues. The sight of Lucy Montgomery as Nurse Fay wrestling the clothes off a dead old woman was one of the funniest I've seen all year. It was hard to argue with those renowned theatrical organs the Uttoxeter Echo and the Derby Evening Telegraph, both of which loved it; there was nothing mouldy about this old dough.


Walking on Air

[31 Oct 03] The Huon was cold and rainy for most of our two weeks there—snowing, even, up on Sleeping Beauty. There was a bit of reasonable weather one afternoon though, so my parents suggested that Jane and I grab the chance to visit the Airwalk, a new tourist attraction down at the Tahune Forest Reserve that's been a big draw for the area. Tahune was a popular spot for picnics and school excursions through my childhood. It's a few miles from Farmhouse Creek, scene of a major 1980s conservation campaign.

The two of us drove down in their brand new Polo, along the swollen Huon River, through Franklin and Castle Forbes Bay and Geeveston, and up the Arve Road towards the Hartz Mountains and Tahune. Signs directed us into a carpark before we reached the river at Tahune, and a new visitor centre stood where five years ago there was nothing. While we were buying our tickets one of the staff asked us where we were from, for their visitor survey.

"Edinburgh, at the moment," said Jane.

"But I'm originally from here," I added. "I used to visit this place all the time when I was a kid."

"That's what everyone says," smiled the ticket-seller.

We wandered down to the river—the Huon, still, but much smaller here—and over the bridge, now closed to vehicles. Signs pointed us up into the forest to the start of the Airwalk, a fragile walkway weaving through the treetops on giant metal stilts.

The trees dwarfed it. River gums and rainforest surrounded us, exhaling their reviving oxygen in the plant-to-human equivalent of mouth-to-mouth. The views of the river and the mountains in the late-afternoon sun were as fine as ever, but the sensation of being suspended above the trees and ferns was something new.

The best of it, though, was when the walkway branched off to a cantilevered dead-end that jutted out over the water and pointed to where the Picton joins the Huon; a sight I'd never seen.

Back in the car, I peeled an apple and divided it up slice by slice, staring idly at the large crow perched in a blackwood in front of us. He, in turn, was staring at us, and at the apple. Soon he was joined by another; and then a flock of them—a murder of crows—all waiting to murder that apple.

Jane held the core at the ready; then pressed the window button. A blur of horny beaks stabbed at the gap the moment it appeared. She barely escaped with her fingertips.

We drove out of the forest, down to the rural surroundings of Geeveston—quiet, now, at the end of a cold Tuesday. On the other side of town, as I was doing about 80 km/h, a ute went past, and—


—a log fell out of its tray and went right under our driver's side wheel. No time to swerve, or do anything except run over it—it all happened in an instant. See/process/react/too late/bang.

I pulled over. Another car stopped behind us, and its driver retrieved a bit of plastic that had broken off our car—some part of the bumper. "That guy's a fuckin' idiot," she said; "He should have had it tied down properly."

She didn't hang around, though. By the time we'd picked the log up off the road to stop anyone else driving over it, she was gone.

Fortunately—against all my years of mounting urban cynicism—the bloke in the ute did the decent thing and came back, even though he could easily have done a runner. He crouched down in his orange overalls to inspect the damage, looking relieved that it wasn't worse.

His ute had a load of firewood in the back. There was a tarp and a rope over it, but it was stacked up high behind the cabin, leaving the tray half-empty and the wood over-balanced. A log had fallen out as he took the bend.

I was still in that strange state of calm that descends after an accident when you realise you're still in one piece. I rustled around in the car for a pen and a scrap of paper to write our contact details on, and for him to write his.

"You do it, mate," he said, "I can't read 'n write too good." He gave an address a mile or two away, and an old Huon name.

He was insured, luckily, and the damage didn't seem too bad: a dented rim on the right front wheel, a wheel alignment perhaps, and only the plastic bumper unit broken, not the panels or paintwork. These new cars are full of sealed parts, though, where a minor ding means replacing the lot. He might be out a few hundred bucks, I figured, as we finally drove off.

Only as I drove did it sink in that if the Polo had been a few metres ahead—if we'd left a few moments earlier; if we'd eaten our apples faster; if I'd pulled out of the Arve Road intersection a few seconds quicker—that log would have gone through the front windscreen at a net speed of 160 kilometres an hour right into my head.


[29 Oct 03]

Melbourne, September 2003

I made this graphic a week ago with every intention of continuing my "What I Did in Australia" series, until I realised that what I did in Melbourne was not much. Not much that any of you wonderful readers would find entertaining, anyway. Of course I did a lot during those two days last month—oh yes. So much that I had no time even to catch up with one of you wonderful readers (or at least, couldn't be stuffed walking from Lygon Street back to West Melbourne at the end of the afternoon, ahem). But shopping for clothes and shoes and DVDs and not CDs because they cost the same as here and not books because they were more expensive than here does not a satisfying entry make. And there aren't many photos from those two days that weren't of family or friends, apart from these typical Fitzroy and Collingwood scenes.

A few things had changed since we left. Federation Square is finished. A couple of large office blocks now overshadow the Greek cakeshops on Spencer Street. Genevieve's on Faraday Street is gone, and Brunetti's has ripped out everything behind the heritage facade and expanded into a big gleaming cake-and-coffee production line. I'd have opened a Brunetti's Two around the corner, myself.

But it still felt pretty much like the Melbourne we knew. Two years away isn't that long.

Next in this series: I completely fail to write anything about Tasmania because it dredged up too many emotions about home and life and change, and I'd need to write thousands of words to do it justice. Or, more precisely, I need longer to mull it over than the post-a-chunk pressures of blogging allow. Or it's all just too personal, and skirting around the private details while trying to get at the essence and weight of it is a daunting task, in a month filled with daunt.

I don't know. Wait for the novel. (Ha.)



[17 Oct 03]

Dep EDI 13 Sep 2003 06:30 AM, Sat

The best way to start your day—especially a thirty-hour-long day—is with a hearty breakfast, and what more heartening breakfast is there than an omelette with tomatoes, mushrooms and bacon on the side? Unless it's been schlepped into an aluminium tray, steamed in its own juice, and served up with a plastic knife and fork, ready to be scooped off in gelatinous chunks. I've had some passable airline food in my time, but eggs have never been it.

On the flight out of Singapore the next morning, the attendant seemed surprised when the pale English-looking bloke passed on the omelette and took the chilli noodles.

Arr LHR 13 Sep 2003 08:05 AM, Sat

At Heathrow, my green Kathmandu daypack was sent through the X-rays twice, then set aside for hand inspection. The guard carefully unpacked my books, cameras and film, opening up every individual canister and glancing inside.

"Is this Jessops film any good?" he asked, in a conversational tone.

"Sure," I said, "I haven't had any problems with it."

It was good to know that, whatever my status as a potential semtex-carrying, knife-wielding security risk, my opinion on free replacement film from a large national photo chain still mattered.

Dep LHR 13 Sep 2003 12:00 PM, Sat

It was my first long-haul flight in a while, where "long-haul" means anything over twenty hours. For Australians, four hours is the minimum you need to even get out of the country; eight hours will get you to a country that isn't New Zealand; at sixteen, you're just starting to settle in. The 24 hours from Melbourne to London via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok is the true test of endurance, especially with a Hobart-Melbourne and London-Edinburgh tacked on either end. Only Canberra-Sydney-Honolulu-Vancouver-Toronto can beat it, although Atlanta-LA-Nadi-Melbourne-Hobart comes close if you spend eight hours sitting in LAX.

Fortunately, Singapore Airlines has transformed the long-haul experience by plugging its passengers into hundreds of individual LCD screens with movies-on-demand. (And appropriately, one of their offerings this month was The Matrix Reloaded.) At first I tried to resist this temptation and finish the books I'd brought, but the thought of thirty unwatched movies only a key-press away was too strong a temptation. By the end of the day I'd watched The Italian Job, Bruce Almighty, Confidence, Anger Management, The Quiet American, and Basic in eight web-safe colours and full inferio-sound; and at least half of them were quite good. But then I got cocky, starting a seventh without checking the "time left to destination". Half an hour out of Melbourne, the voiceover asked us to switch off all electronic devices and the screen went blank, leaving a horrible hole in the whole of Holes.

Arr SIN 14 Sep 2003 07:45 AM, Sun

In the hour before my connecting flight I browsed around the shops at Changi airport, where every souvenir features Singapore's national mythical beast, the merlion. This, I knew from my one visit to the city, was a half-lion, half-fish creature which became extinct when its sole source of food, the anteloplankton, was overfished by street hawkers looking for ingredients.

A cluster of touch-screens near the jewellery shops promised FREE E-MAIL, so I stepped up to send a quick hello to Jane, pressing my message out by finger one letter at a time. There was even a webcam for sending e-cards with photos, so I attached a snap of a giant nose and mad grinning teeth. A few days later Jane got an email with the right subject line but nothing inside it; and the e-card never turned up. I wonder who got it.

Dep SIN 14 Sep 2003 09:55 AM, Sun

On the flight into Melbourne I was on the aisle, and if I looked past the other passengers out the window could see nothing but wing; a bit more if I craned my neck. When we were coming in to land, just after dusk, I saw the lights of the city reflected along the wing's polished front edge; but because it was convex, the lights seemed to be crawling in the opposite direction, giving the illusion—even the physical sensation—that we were flying backwards.

If it was a Qantas flight the captain would've been saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, I just thought I'd chuck her into reverse and hang a few doughnuts."

Arr MEL 14 Sep 2003 07:10 PM, Sun

In the baggage collection area at Melbourne airport, the same three bags travelled round and round the belt, following their Scalectrix circuit out of the hole in the wall, past the waiting crowds, and back through the wall.

They should turn it into a ride, I thought. Attach a few seats, strap everyone in, and away you go: through to the mysterious Handling Area, where you could watch animatronic handlers pass suitcases delicately from hold to truck to belt, pausing only to test them for tensile strength and absorbancy. Any baggage that retained its rigidity could then be subjected to a final test by being flung at the watching passengers; items that killed or maimed would be removed as a security risk, and their owners quietly taken into custody.


You Are Here

[21 Sep 03]

Huonville, Tasmania


[18 Jul 03] A new instalment of Detail, taking a slightly different approach to the previously-posted highlands stuff: Orkney. I've got enough material for another series of castles, too, but might leave that for now—doing these takes too many late nights, and I'd rather get on with the plans mentioned over the past few days.


[ 4 Jul 03] Tour the Highlands II: The North and West. I promised some photos from our April trip, and here they are. This selection covers the north and west coasts of the Scottish highlands from Thurso to Ullapool. The photos were mostly scanned from 35mm prints; the only digital one was Jane's of the beach near Rispond. The pages are in the same style as the first instalment of 18 months ago, with the usual bandwidth-busting downloads, and the usual application of the facet filter in Photoshop (I like its painterly effect, and it shaves a fair bit off file size). There'll be some images of Orkney soon too, but I'm thinking of taking a different approach with those.

Now you can see why I had nothing much to write about it. What can I say? It was beautiful. I could have stayed a month. As long as I didn't have to drive on the single-lane roads with hardly any passing places every day. The occasional RAF jet tearing through the roof of the car was another minor drawback (that's what it sounded like, anyway).

Other new things lately: a new banner on the category archives of this year's log, just to use up some more of the windows I've been photographing; and at last, a 2003 update of the outside page—I'm going to ditch the bogroll on the left as soon as I can get the design right.

And then there's this.


It's Oh So Quiet

[11 Jun 03] If this year was like last, by now I'd be regaling you with tales of the trips we just did up to Orkney and around the north and west coasts of the highlands, and through the Lake District, the Pennines and Durham. I'd be dragging you up cramped passages into five-thousand-year-old chambered cairns, sprinting through a park in Kirkwall to dodge the incontinent crows perched in the only trees on Orkney, standing on a deserted Sutherland beach in atypical Scottish sunshine, watching the seals on Loch Glencoul from the deck of a small fishing boat, and reversing down a single-lane road hemmed in by stone walls to find a place to let past a convoy of 4WDs in the Lake District.

But after several weeks away from it all I'm finding it hard to get rolling again, and at the moment have no time to write much anyway.* There'll be more postcard-y pictures soon, but as for words... well, we'll see.

*Although I do have time to write that I have no time to write, which makes a mockery of this sad place-filler of a post.


Of Mutton and Men

[ 9 Apr 03] We were down in Dumfriesshire on Friday and Saturday, for the wedding of one of my oldest friends. He and his girlfriend were eloping to Gretna Green, the British equivalent of Las Vegas, and as the only friends living nearby (and a long way from everyone they didn't want to find out beforehand), we were their lucky guests.

Gretna Green is the Bognor Regis of all things marital, so there was just a hint of cheesiness to the ceremony. This wasn't helped by the fact that traditionally it was the local blacksmith who wedded the 16-year-olds who crossed the border to take advantage of relaxed Scottish laws—a tradition that persists in the 'striking of the anvil' to declare the happy couple man and wife. All that was missing was one of those fairground poles with the ringer to show how many years the marriage will last.

But the emotion of the moment made the surroundings irrelevant, as it always does. It was one of those times when all of your happiness for your friends, and your happiness that they are your friends, gets concentrated in time and space into the now and here that you're standing in.

We spent the rest of the day and night in Comlongon, a 14th-century castle turned fancy hotel near the Solway Firth (only a few miles from another castle we visited a year ago), eating fine food and drinking champagne. The next morning, livers still reeling from the chemical attack, Jane and I drove west along the coast from Dumfries to Kirkcudbright, taking in ruined castles and abbeys, villages and gardens. Those are the things we photographed, at least, but what I suspect I'll remember most are the lambs.

Lambs near Kirkcudbright

Lambs everywhere: some of them the brand new white of A4 bond; others the sooty black of puffs of toner; others white and black in spots like so many photocopied bleats. Bouncing and basking and suckling and running in the sun.

Somehow wherever I go I end up surrounded by sheep. Growing up in the Tasmanian countryside makes it inevitable that you become well-acquainted with the sophisticated humour deriving from an ovine environment. The joke I particularly remember from my days at university, home to many a budding Wilde sharpening his wit, was:

Huonville: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who could forget that? Or the hilarious variant I encountered on moving from Tasmania to Canberra:

Tasmania: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Oh ho ho! But it got better. In the early '90s I spent a year in England, and heard:

Australia: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

And then there's the one from when I was about to leave Australia and go and work among the Kiwis for a while:

New Zealand: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Be still, my bleating heart!

Imagine my joy, then, on hearing this old favourite after moving back to the UK, from none other than our good neighbours down south:

Scotland: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who would ever have thought that such comic subtlety was so universal in its appeal.

Admittedly, I'm a touch defensive on the whole subject of lanoline lust, because I actually did grow up with sheep in the back paddock: three or four at any one time. They were pets, basically, giant woolly lawn-mowers, and like any pets had names: Torny, Wrinkles, Lambert, Handlebars. They would graze contentedly all year, growing wider and woollier until shearing time in summer. Then we would herd them into the chook shed, where one of the local shearers would peel off their fleeces with a trimmer disturbingly similar to the one Dad used on us boys. A few sacks of wool later, the naked ewes and wethers would stumble out into the sunshine and go back to extracting Essence of Sheep from the tender green shoots hidden in the dry grass.

Usually the sheep put up minimal resistance to being herded to the hairdressers, but in the late '80s we had one that always did: a young wether called Rabuka, after the Fijian coup leader (the letter b is pronounced 'mb' in Fijian, which gives you the pun; he was 'Rambo' for short). We suspected that the wethering operation had somehow gone wrong, because there was way too much testosterone in this one. He was a pain in the arse, never going where you wanted him, breaking through fences, and generally causing trouble; and eventually, Mum and Dad decided he had to go—to that great paddock in the sky, via Cordwell's the butchers.

But Rambo was fiercely independent to the end, and refused to be herded into the back of the Rangey. Four of us weren't enough to cover every possible escape route as we closed in around him, and he would break through and bolt for the far corner of the paddock as his brothers Wether and Ornot looked on.

Beneath the seat of every old four-wheel-drive, however, lies rope.

Dad fashioned a lasso out of the hairy red rope we used to tie down the trailer, and the next time Rambo went galloping past dropped it neatly over his charging head. Rambo jerked the noose tight, bucking and pulling against it until his cheeks turned scarlet, giving the four of us time to hoick him upside down into the back and close the hatch. Dad loosened the rope before the poor critter throttled himself, so that his last minutes on earth wouldn't be too miserable, and down to the butcher they went.

But Rambo had his revenge, in death if not in life. Normally any sheep we butchered ended up as stewing and roasting cuts, since they were usually too old and muttony to be edible as anything except curry. Rambo was only a couple of years old, though, so as an experiment my parents got half of him turned into sausages.

We tried him a few nights later, with peas and boiled spuds. Only then did we discover the truth about mutton sausage: it's horrible. Soft, grey and pasty, with that intense sheepy aroma known only to country-dwellers, because sheep older than a few months never end up on supermarket shelves.

We gave it to the cat. The cat wouldn't eat it.

Fast forward to Scotland, where men are men and sheep are turned into the national dish. You know the score: sheep's stomach (traditionally, or nowadays an artificial sausage skin) stuffed with mutton offal, oatmeal and spices. I first tried haggis a month or so after arriving here, in what was probably the wrong way: as a pizza topping, in a Stirling takeaway. (Jane dared me, of course.) It was ghastly: soft, grey, pasty, and very, very familiar. Like that of William Wallace, Rabuka's spirit lived on in the auld toun of Stirling.

I never ate haggis again—until last Saturday. If the banquet the previous evening was any guide, Comlongon's Full Scottish Breakfast probably tasted as good as it looked on the menu. The only drawback was the haggis substituting for black pudding (which despite its congealed-blood origins I actually like, in small doses; white pudding even more). But what the hell, I thought, I can always leave that aside; so I ordered it.

It was, without doubt, one of the finest hotel breakfasts I've eaten in the UK, matched only by the perfect porridge served at a small B&B in Kilmartin. Even the haggis was good—firm and granular in texture, tasty on the tongue—and there wasn't a hint of throttled testosterone about it.

It was so fine that I recorded it for posterity. (Elements of the dish conveniently marked for non-Britons; the tomato was grilled, and the potato scone is a flat bread, this one fried in bacon fat. Be still, my bleating arteries.)

Later that day, I stared at all the sheep as we drove through Galloway, shouting out 'lambs!' whenever a new flock came into view. Brilliant white symbols of spring; of the renewal of life; of care-free gambolling under the sun.

Every one an incipient haggis.


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