Category Archives: Scotland

Fergus

A little thing that I wrote five years ago while sitting at the end of Seatown harbour in Gamrie. My sincere apologies to any Scottish readers, especially those who live there, for my poor attempts to capture the atmosphere of that wonderful place.

DSCF0767The light was fading rapidly now, sapphire to cobalt to indigo. The agreeable sunset apricot tint had faded from the clouds overhead and now they were simply battleship grey. The sea remained calm, but the surface began to chop as a cool breeze picked up, bringing the delicious scents of salt and seaweed to the shore. Gulls, waders and kittiwakes filled the dusk with their last raucous shrieks, whistles and mock laughter.

A maroon smudge smeared athwart the horizon was all that remained of the day’s sun. In the near distance Saltire Craig, a small jut of rock no bigger than a trawler, rose black out of water the colour of molten lead. Pale grey smudges spattered its surface. They swirled and wheeled occasionally about the tattered Bratach na h-Alba, the Banner o’ Scotland, that fluttered bravely atop its lonely pole, as it had since planted there by some hardy Scottish brave some time ago.

High on the lookout platform at the sea end of the harbour pier, Fergus eased his bony buttocks on the rusting bollard and stretched out his legs, feet poking out over the edge of the harbour wall. Inside his clumsy old boots he wiggled his toes, and imagined how good they’d feel with sea-water sluicing between them.

A loud splash echoed across the water, startling him. He peered into the murk, seeing nothing. The sound had originated from the other side of Saltire Craig, out of his sight. What could be large enough to make that noisy an impact with the water? Dolphins, perhaps? Or maybe old friends?

He gazed out at the ending day. Sunset always calmed his mind, soothed his soul, helped him to settle for the life he had now. On either side of the bay the headlands were already mussel-black. The vast dimming sky grew steadily darker.

Fifteen feet below his boots the waves lapped quietly at the weathered stone that protected the vessels safely tucked away behind it. More squealing gulls circled the end of the pier, curving pleasing arcs below his feet. Above his head a tiny red light winked on and began to flash.

DSCF0744A small white boat rounded Saltire Craig, its engine popping quietly as it crossed towards the harbour entrance. The boat was small, big enough only to carry two at most, yet now bearing but one passenger. Fergus could read the name painted on the prow – “Maighdean-Chuain”.

The single occupant raised a hand to Fergus as he passed and entered the placid waters beyond the sea wall. Fergus lifted his own arm in acknowledgement. It was good finally to feel included after all this time. His peculiar arrival in the village all those months ago had caused many to keep their distance at first, yet now even that extraordinary day was fading from memory. Village folk tended to live in the present rather than lingering on what was past. Folk here had finally started to show friendship to Fergus; yes, and acceptance. He scratched his grey beard and pulled the ear-flaps of his plaid charity-shop hat down over his ears. Getting chilly now.

He pushed to his feet, old muscles complaining. He wobbled a little in a gust of wind and steadied himself on the stanchion that held the harbour light aloft, before slowly descending the curved steps down from the lookout point. He ambled along the dock to where the small boat had tied up, and peered down at it bobbing on the shadowy water.

There was enough light left to see that the man in the boat was gutting a freshly caught fish on an upturned blue crate. A sharp knife, expertly wielded, slit the belly open. Fingers were deftly inserted and slid smoothly inside to pull out the guts. These the fisherman flung into the water for the flocking, shrieking gulls to fight over. He glanced up at the dock.

“Fergus,” the man nodded, laying his cleaned fish on a plastic bag beside him.

“Robbie Gamrie, is that you?” Fergus peered uncertainly down into the gloom.

“Aye, so,” Robbie confirmed “Got mysel’ a couple of late haddock.”

DSCF0528Robbie lifted a second wriggling fish and whacked its head on the side of the boat before laying it on the blue crate and sliding in his knife.

“Well done, there,” Fergus said. “What kept you out so late?”

“Forgetfulness. I was miles away, daydreaming like a bairn. I’d likely still be out there, but a noise brought me alert.”

“The splash? Aye, I heard that. Big splash, it was. Did you see what made it?” Hope glimmered briefly in Fergus’ breast.

“Nay, it was behind me, whatever it was.”

“Hmm,” said Fergus, slightly disappointed. “Too big for a bird, anyroad. Could it have been dolphins, think you?”

“Maybe. They… or silkies, eh?”

Fergus could hear Robbie’s grin in the tone of his voice. Robbie didn’t believe in silkies, despite the name of his boat. Not many did, nowadays.

“You’ll have had your supper?” Robbie asked him.

“Ah, no. I’ll have a rollie when I get in.”

“Rollie be damned. You’ll need warmth inside you if you’ve been perched up there for long. Here, catch.”

A dark shape flew up from below to hover briefly before Fergus’ eyes, shimmering a little in the harbour light. Fergus snatched out a hand to catch it before it fell back. The fish was cold and oily, the flesh yielding beneath his fingers as only fresh fish does.

“Got milk, Fergus? Butter and pepper? Get that inside your oven, then get it inside you. It’ll do you a sight more good than cold bread.”

“Thanks, laddie, I appreciate it.” Fergus nodded farewell to Robbie and walked off the harbour, taking the shore path towards his tiny cottage, the haddock hanging limply from his fingers.

Fish for supper. He remembered a time long ago when supper had always been fresh fish. He did not eat it half as much these days, and the gift from Robbie was a pleasant surprise. Fergus was not inclined to take Robbie’s advice on how best to prepare the haddock, however. He would not bake the fish in milk. Tonight he would eat the fish raw, just like the old days.

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Gamrie, Friday 9th August 2013

DSCF0782The sea stretches before me, the colour of liquid silver to the east, darkening to molten lead on the west side of the bay where it is overshadowed by Gamrie Head’s grassy braes. The lonely Saltire flutters atop a crag of rock that squats on the water in the near distance. I sit on the lookout point of Seatown Harbour, and I am at peace with the universe.

This place – oh, this place – has soothed and inspired me, and what a delight to be without the constant nag of the internet. I have taken to writing longhand here, my pencil flowing across the page like nobody’s business. I always doubted Alex when she maintained that writing longhand was a way of lending fluidity to her thoughts, her words. But I get it now. This thing that’s happening is almost organic, the words on the page growing out of this remarkable town, its friendly folk and its long history. The keyboard clatter has gone, the constant spellchecker nagging removed. There’s just me, the vast sky, the waves, a million gulls and the words.

“Pretentious bollocks” I hear you say. Well of course, but it’s my pretentious bollocks, and maybe this will be honed during the process of typing it from notebook to blog. It’s coming on to rain now, so I’ll close this notebook and return to the delightful cottage by the sea, haunted by sadness that tomorrow I will be leaving this magical place.

Actual Bollocks.

Fergus

A little thing that I wrote while sitting at the end of Seatown harbour in Gamrie. My sincere apologies to any Scottish readers, especially those who live there, for my poor attempts to capture the atmosphere of that wonderful place.

© @wombat37 2013

The light was fading rapidly now, sapphire to cobalt to indigo. The agreeable sunset apricot tint had faded from the clouds overhead and now they were simply battleship grey. The sea remained calm, but the surface began to chop as a cool breeze picked up, bringing the delicious scents of salt and seaweed to the shore. Gulls, waders and kittiwakes filled the dusk with their last raucous shrieks, whistles and mock laughter.

A maroon smudge smeared athwart the horizon was all that remained of the day’s sun. In the near distance Saltire Craig, a small jut of rock no bigger than a trawler, rose black out of water the colour of molten lead. Pale grey smudges spattered its surface. They swirled and wheeled occasionally about the tattered Bratach na h-Alba, the Banner o’ Scotland, that fluttered bravely atop its lonely pole, as it had since planted there by some hardy Scottish brave some time ago.

High on the lookout platform at the sea end of the harbour pier, Fergus eased his bony buttocks on the rusting bollard and stretched out his legs, feet poking out over the edge of the harbour wall. Inside his clumsy old boots he wiggled his toes, and imagined how good they’d feel with sea-water sluicing between them.

A loud splash echoed across the water, startling him. He peered into the murk, seeing nothing. The sound had originated from the other side of Saltire Craig, out of his sight. What could be large enough to make that noisy an impact with the water? Dolphins, perhaps? Or maybe old friends?

He gazed out at the ending day. Sunset always calmed his mind, soothed his soul, helped him to settle for the life he had now. On either side of the bay the headlands were already mussel-black. The vast dimming sky grew steadily darker.

Fifteen feet below his boots the waves lapped quietly at the weathered stone that protected the vessels safely tucked away behind it. More squealing gulls circled the end of the pier, curving pleasing arcs below his feet. Above his head a tiny red light winked on and began to flash.

© @wombat37 2013A small white boat rounded Saltire Craig, its engine popping quietly as it crossed towards the harbour entrance. The boat was small, big enough only to carry two at most, yet now bearing but one passenger. Fergus could read the name painted on the prow – “Maighdean-Chuain”.

The single occupant raised a hand to Fergus as he passed and entered the placid waters beyond the sea wall. Fergus lifted his own arm in acknowledgement. It was good finally to feel included after all this time. His peculiar arrival in the village all those months ago had caused many to keep their distance at first, yet now even that extraordinary day was fading from memory. Village folk tended to live in the present rather than lingering on what was past. Folk here had finally started to show friendship to Fergus; yes, and acceptance. He scratched his grey beard and pulled the ear-flaps of his plaid charity-shop hat down over his ears. Getting chilly now.

He pushed to his feet, old muscles complaining. He wobbled a little in a gust of wind and steadied himself on the stanchion that held the harbour light aloft, before slowly descending the curved steps down from the lookout point. He ambled along the dock to where the small boat had tied up, and peered down at it bobbing on the shadowy water.

There was enough light left to see that the man in the boat was gutting a freshly caught fish on an upturned blue crate. A sharp knife, expertly wielded, slit the belly open. Fingers were deftly inserted and slid smoothly inside to pull out the guts. These the fisherman flung into the water for the flocking, shrieking gulls to fight over. He glanced up at the dock.

“Fergus,” the man nodded, laying his cleaned fish on a plastic bag beside him.

“Robbie Gamrie, is that you?” Fergus peered uncertainly down into the gloom.

“Aye, so,” Robbie confirmed “Got mysel’ a couple of late haddock.”

© @wombat37 2013Robbie lifted a second wriggling fish and whacked its head on the side of the boat before laying it on the blue crate and sliding in his knife.

“Well done, there,” Fergus said. “What kept you out so late?”

“Forgetfulness. I was miles away, daydreaming like a bairn. I’d likely still be out there, but a noise brought me alert.”

“The splash? Aye, I heard that. Big splash, it was. Did you see what made it?” Hope glimmered briefly in Fergus’ breast.

“Nay, it was behind me, whatever it was.”

“Hmm,” said Fergus, slightly disappointed. “Too big for a bird, anyroad. Could it have been dolphins, think you?”

“Maybe. They… or silkies, eh?”

Fergus could hear Robbie’s grin in the tone of his voice. Robbie didn’t believe in silkies, despite the name of his boat. Not many did, nowadays.

“You’ll have had your supper?” Robbie asked him.

“Ah, no. I’ll have a rollie when I get in.”

“Rollie be damned. You’ll need warmth inside you if you’ve been perched up there for long. Here, catch.”

A dark shape flew up from below to hover briefly before Fergus’ eyes, shimmering a little in the harbour light. Fergus snatched out a hand to catch it before it fell back. The fish was cold and oily, the flesh yielding beneath his fingers as only fresh fish does.

“Got milk, Fergus? Butter and pepper? Get that inside your oven, then get it inside you. It’ll do you a sight more good than cold bread.”

“Thanks, laddie, I appreciate it.” Fergus nodded farewell to Robbie and walked off the harbour, taking the shore path towards his tiny cottage, the haddock hanging limply from his fingers.

Fish for supper. He remembered a time long ago when supper had always been fresh fish. He did not eat it half as much these days, and the gift from Robbie was a pleasant surprise. Fergus was not inclined to take Robbie’s advice on how best to prepare the haddock, however. He would not bake the fish in milk. Tonight he would eat the fish raw, just like the old days.

Teddy’s Adventures

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Scotland – Millbuies Loch

Friday was our last full day in Speyside, and we had yet to investigate the Loch that was just five mintues awat from the cottage. DSCF2025First though, we had a last trip into Elgin to see the town centre NOT on a Sunday. Big improvement. There are several thousand charity shops, which we investigated, and a geeky comic-SF type one where I bought the goodies on the right. The Four Marys FTW! We also found the exact jacket for which Ellie had been searching for weeks.

Dscf1922 We’d probably never have noticed Millbuies Loch if our Twitter chum @edinburghjo hadn’t told us about it. This secluded little treasure gave us a relaxing and peaceful stroll. Except when I fell over, obviously, and bruised my right buttock.

DSCF1932 Buzzards “skee”-ed above, and water-boatmen “ski”-ed on the placid waters (ha ha, see what I did there?), surrounded by towering trees. The loch is well-stocked with fish, as evidenced by the anglers in the boat there.

 

Dscf1953This is the view I was turning to look at when I fell over. There should have been a warning sign – “Danger, these trees have roots that you can trip over”. But there wasn’t.

 

 

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I like this photo that Mary took, cos of the perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mary sur le pont.

 

 

 

 

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A beck burbling into the loch.

 

 

 

 

 

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Scotland – Benromach Distillery

DSC01030Benromach is the smallest distillery in Speyside, operated by just two men, and uses only two stills  – in stark comparison to Glenfiddich, which I visited earlier.  I’m not going to teach you the minutiae of whisky- making (hurray, you say?), but the wash still produces the low wines,  which are then distilled a second time in the spirit still (the one that has a ‘bubble’ half way up the neck to further cycle the alcohol). benromach-stills-250Because it would not be wise to photograph in the possibly explosive atmosphere during distillation (the smells were GORGEOUS), the photograph of the stills here is taken from the Benromach website. (Copyright to this particular photo rests with them, therefore, and I’ll remove it if they ask). 

DSC01034I learned all of these things and more from the lovely Katrina, who gave me a personal tour of the distillery. Katrina was extremely informative in a gorgeous accent, and taught me quite a few things that I didn’t know already.

The tour began in the museum containing several historic artefacts used in whisky-making as well as a facility to bottle your own ten-year-old. Katrina took me clearly through the process of manufacture including a look below the stills where coal fires  used to be burned to heat the liquids above. The cask warehouse held row upon row of casks of the various sizes used at Benromach (see behind Katrina up there? That’s the three sizes they use). Different head colours show how often each cask had been used; they are retired after three uses. When the distillery re-opened in 1998, Prince Charles signed a cask, which was to the forefront. Katrina whacked his signature with a wooden mallet to demonstrate how they test for leakages. Black stains at the top of the walls showed where the Angel’s Share had condensed over the years, and would not be cleaned off in case the fumes from cleaning products contaminated the whisky being stored there.

DSC01042Back to the Visitors Centre after I had exhausted my questions, for a tasting of the Benromach ten-year-old. Those of you who know me well will be aware of my prediliction for the Islay whisky Laphroaig, a peaty spirit. The Benromach whiskies are nowhere near as peaty, although the ten-year-old did have a delicate peat-smoke influence. The nose put me in mind of biscuits.

benromach-organic-special-edition-whiskyI also tried two other whiskies, but the one which won me over was the Organic Special Edition. The nose is fruity with a dash of toffee, and the taste is malty, slightly smoky, and again with that subtle hint of toffee. That’s what I bought.

To sum up – Benromach: Best. Tour. Ever. Thank you Katrina. Dear Reader, if you’re in Speyside ever, make sure you go there.

Scotland – I do love a nice groyne

DSCF1861 And so to Thursday in our Scottish sojourn. In the afternoon I planned to visit Benromach Distillery, Speyside’s smallest, but that will be the subject of a separate post. In the morning, then, we headed to the small village of Findhorn, DSCF1870 which lies on a spit of land jutting out to form Findhorn Bay. It is a pleasant old town, but of course Ben’s favourite area, and mine, was the beach and dunes. Ben loves dunes.

The beach was striped with proper wooden groynes, and gave us marvellous views out into the North Sea and across to Cromarty.

DSCF1885  On the way out we stopped at Findhorn Foundation Community, DSCF1886all eco-houses and turf rooves and artistic endeavours. Had a wee there.

After my distillery visit, we stopped at a farm shop to buy some chard (no, we didn’t know either), and then briefly into Forres. This is a lovely little town with many churches. We had ourselves a bag of salty vinegary chips.DSCF1903DSCF1906

 

 

 

 

Ben had some chips too….

Scotland – Inverness

DSCF1818 So, on to Wednesday, and a fairly long drive out to Inverness in a frigging deluge. Twitter friend @hardyduncan had told us we would be able to park “down by the castle”. Well OK, but when we reached the city, we could see no sign of anything remotely resembling a castle. We did see, for a very long time, the back of a white van carrying sausages, as we inched into the city via a mega traffic jam.  Finally, though – AHA! – a car park sign! After a lot of pratting about going round and round looking for a space, still in pouring rain, I managed to get us parked. Aaaaand relax.

As we explored, the rain stopped and the weather brightened up, as you can see in the photos. The city itself? Somewhat meh to be honest, and completely interchangeable with almost any other city centre, except for two things. One, EVERYBODY seemed to be smoking. Them Scots, eh, with their battered Mars Bars and the smoking? Tsk tsk. And Two, the river.

DSCF1829Seen from up near the castle (oh aye, we eventually found it, although it didn’t look incredibly castley – that’s it, the brown thing on the right there), the sweep of the river is a delightful thing, and tis most pleasantly bordered by soft green banks and verdant trees.

DSCF1822 Crossing the water by means of a footbridge that swayed and bounced disconcertingly to the rhythm of our footsteps (Ben hated that!), we walked upstream (again, as recommended by @hardyduncan) to Ness Islands, a series of small wooded islands in the middle of the river.

DSCF1830 On the way, we passed several bewadered fishermen angling in the fast flowing currents, although there were also quiet areas so that Ben could enjoy a paddle.

Eventually we made it down (or up?) to Ness Islands, in bright sunshine now. DSCF1838 These little islands are  joined to each other, and the banks, by a series of well-made bridges. The islands boast plenty of British native trees, as well as a fascinating collection of sculpted tables and benches.

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In one place, an imaginative sculptor had carved a fallen tree trunk into something slightly more interesting.

 

 

 

DSCF1847 As you can see, some of the bridges on the islands are incredibly ornate.

To sum up then, a fine day at Ness Islands, but you can keep the city thanks. Oh yes, and on the way home we stopped in the small town of Nairn. It was closed, and is best forgotten, I think, although perhaps it might have made a better impression if we had headed down to the beach.

Scotland – Moray Coast

DSCF1712 OK, on to the Tuesday of our Scottish week. So there’s Ben on the left, making his careful, delicate way across the footbridge which crosses the Lossie as it reaches the sea at Lossiemouth. He doesn’t like bridges with gaps, not at all.

When we got across, though, he was in Ben heaven. The dunes you can see there separated the river, which we had just crossed, from the sea. As we left the bridge, he scampered off and around, DSCF1716scattering soft sand around, pelting into the water and bouncing delightedly. Mary threw sticks for him which, surprisingly, he actually retrieved for once.  He disappeared up a dune, then minutes later as he crashed out of the scrub at the top and plummeted down, I swear he had a smile on his face.

I too wandered the dunes, and emerged with this pleasing photograph:DSCF1740 After a steaming pastie from the local baker, DSCF1765we dragged a reluctant Ben back to the car and drove down to Spey Bay.  The environment here is mind-boggling – almost alien to look at. Smooth pebbles and rocks, bleached driftwood, scudding stormclouds, crashing waves, dead trees. The big selling point up at Spey Bay is dolphin-spotting. We DSCF1782 saw none, but that didn’t matter because the surroundings were so impressive.

 

I could fill this blog with photographs, but will limit myself to just an evocative few. Less is more, and so on.

 

 

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Scotland – Whisky!

DSCF1660 Oh my God how rainy was this day?!! VERY, that’s how. Pissed down, it did. But this was MY day to visit MY places, so I didn’t much care.

First stop, Speyside Cooperage, to find out all about the work done by those for whom I am named. No, not wombats – coopers. First surprise? Barrels are not all barrels, if you see what I mean. A ‘barrel’ is but one size of cask, as they are more correctly called. T’other sizes are (rising in size after Barrel) Hogshead, Puncheon and Butt. Yes, it does sound like a firm of solicitors.

DSCF1661 It truly was fascinating to see the coopers working hard to turn out up to twenty casks a day – they’re on piece work, so they don’t half move – gathering the staves into a hoop, adding more hoops to hold them together, steaming the half-made cask so that the wood can be bent, adding the ends and sealing them. The bloke in the photo is just about to fit the head of the cask he’s working on – note the steam. Also, you can see the collection of water reeds that he taps into the perimeter of the head to form a seal. When wet, the reeds expand, you see.

DSCF1678 Sorry, got a bit cask-geeky there. Sorry, but I enjoyed myself immensely… although not as much as at my next stop. I moved on a few miles down the road to Glenfiddich Distillery.

I was treated to an excellent tour of the place, and quel domage that I am unable to photograph smells, for the various aromas at different places around the site were exquisite.

DSCF1697From the mash tuns to the stills (above), and then on into the warehouse where stack upon stack of casks, dating from the Nineties, filled the air with a glorious whisky smell, our guide (a Gemma apparently), entertained and informed us. DSCF1687She peppered her talk with questions – asking us to smell casks and decide which used to hold bourbon and which sherry; asking if we knew why a sculpture of angels was significant (I did); before finally taking us for a tasting of three whiskies – the 12 year old, the 18 year old, and a new bottling just out – Rich Oak. I was dead chuffed that I identified ‘pear’ as the fruit in the flavour-mix of the new whisky.

In the shop I treated myself to a bottle of the 15 year old Glenfiddich, in rather a special bottle – click the picture there to see a larger version if you can’t quite read it.DSCF1702

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