Thursday, 26 May 2016


On a cracking day on Friday 22 April, my friend Pauline set out for the day to Callander, a small town on the edge of the Highlands, to walk north into the hills. One in particular was her goal, a mountain called Stuc a'Chroin (you can read about it here: The Outdoor Diaries), and the blog is subtitled "the Long Approach", because of the fact that she had to walk along a track for mile after mile just to get to the bottom of the hill.

As she reached the end of the track there was a small, locked building, most probably used by the estate during the stalking season. There in the undergrowth was an old rusty bicycle pedal. She picked it up and propped it up on a stone to photograph it with the mountain in the background.

On her return she shared the photos and the story of her day, and we speculated on the age of the pedal. I commented that it may well be 50 or 60 years old, at which point Pauline wished she had brought it home, as she quite liked the look of it.

Well, it's her birthday this week, and up until this point I had no idea what to get her for her birthday. So, the following Friday I loaded my bike into the back of my car and set off for Callander. My quest was to retrieve the pedal as a fun and unexpected present.

She was right about the long track in. I was so grateful to be on my bike. And it was steep. The weather was quite different from the Friday before. It had snowed on the Thursday evening, and there was a light dusting everywhere, plus there was a chill northerly head wind all the way in.

It was quite exciting, not knowing if I would find the pedal or not. I knew I would have to go all the way to the building to find out. As it came into view I was faced with a small challenge . . . there were three buildings! I passed one on the road as I headed for a brand new wooden bridge across the river, which you used to have to ford, and the building didn't look like the one from the photo. Neither did the second one, so I knew if I were to find it then it was going to be at the last building. Getting to it with the bike was tricky, and I had to go a little further and cross the head of a no longer used reservoir, then push through the snow as it was a little deeper here.

There, right on the corner, in exactly the same place that Pauline had propped it up, was the pedal. I was quite pleased with myself. Not only had I found it, but I'd had a great afternoon out on my bike in the hills.

And so for the past month it's sat in a bag in my house, waiting to be boxed and handed over.

What fun.

Thursday, 19 May 2016


Spring was late again this year. The pink blossom on the trees, one of my favourite spectacles, in the local park, was at least three weeks later than usual. It has been a mild winter so I would have thought this would encourage new growth to start early rather than late.

A great place to visit to see a wide variety of new life springing forth, both flora and fauna, is the Figgate Park, originally known as the Figgate Muir, just 15 minutes walk from my house. Figgate is from an old Saxon word meaning "cow's ditch" and was used as pasture for cows tended by monks in the late 1700s.

There is a great cycle route that you can complete in a day, which takes you from the source of the Figgate, up in the nearby Pentlands Hills, all the way down to the pond and on to the sea. You can read about that in The Outdoor Diaries blog. Around eight years ago the council built a wooden walkway, snaking across the northern end of the pond, having the effect of immersing you more in the wildlife experience.

In the past few months locals have even spotted otter gracing the banks of the large pond in the centre of the park. Sadly I've not seen it myself. Speculation has it that it may well be a pup that's been ousted by its parents to go and find its own territory. There wouldn't seem to be enough food at the pond, though the bird life are all now nesting and incubating their eggs.

One such bird is the mute swan. I was a little concerned this year as it had built its nest right next to the public walkway, and an easy jump for the likes of a fox in search of a tasty meal.

However, several weeks on and my fears were unfounded. Five signets are now happily swimming around with their proud parents, as seen here in a photograph I captured early one morning this week.

Right in the centre of the large pond is an island, inaccessible by predators, creating a safe environment for them to occasionally come out of the water.

As the summer goes on a large area of the park will become very colourful, as the Scottish wildflower garden emerges. Planted just five years ago, every year it seems to get better and better.

But it is the rich variety of animals that attract me the most, and incredibly that list is enormous:

Mallard; Mute Swan; Moorhen; Coot; Goldfinch; Starling; House Sparrow; Blackbird; Canada Goose; Greylag Goose; Grey Heron; Dipper; Grey Wagtail; Magpie; Carrion Crow; Jackdaw; Woodpigeon; Feral Pigeon; Blue Tit; Great Tit; Black-headed Gull; Tufted Duck; Dunnock; Robin; Wren

Red Fox; Brown Rat; Rabbit (including some jet black); Grey Squirrel; Bats

Regular Visitors
Kingfisher; Goosander; Cormorant; Sparrowhawk; Buzzard; Shoveler; Great Spotted Woodpecker; Chaffinch; Long Tailed Tit; Herring Gull; Lesser Black-backed Gull; House Martin; Swallow; Sand Martin; Mistle Thrush; Goldcrest; Bullfinch; Greenfinch; Redwing

Rare, but spotted
Otter; Osprey; Willow Warbler; Chiffchaff; Brambling; Goldeneye; Gadwall; Little Grebe (used to be resident); Pintail; Teal; Treecreeper; Blackcap; Waxwing

New bird feeders have now been put in place, using old railway carriage wheels in a creative way. Took me a while to realise what they actually were, and I assume they are a tip-of-the-hat to the nearby railway yards.

And finally, under one of the underpasses, a local artist was commissioned a couple years ago to paint a wildlife mural. This is just one side, showing a heron at one end and a fox at the other. On the opposite wall the artist has depicted a kingfisher, woodpecker, squirrel and several other animals, all resident in the park.

All together a fab place to spend some time.

Friday, 13 May 2016


Ahhh, Unlucky Friday the 13th.

Superstitious claptrap in my opinion.

If you believe certain things deeply enough they can become self fulfilling. I read about people all the time saying bad things happened to them on Friday the 13th. Coincidence folks.

Instead why not turn it on its head and make good things happen? All this week I've been telling just about everyone I meet just how busy I am. And it's good. I've had too long sitting on my bum getting over various stages of being unwell. I love being busy. Anyway, surprise surprise, I've become even busier!

Just this week alone I've built a new 7m long garden fence; assembled an entire bedroom set of furniture; filmed a set of very energetic young kids throwing paint everywhere for a day; edited a rough cut of a new 2 minute promo short; washed and tidied my car and van (first time in a year!) . . . and arranged a new mortgage for a rental flat!!

Then the phone just kept ringing today, Friday the 13th, to book me for even more work in the next few weeks!

So sometimes maybe obsessing can bring even more onto your plate . . . in a positive way.

The fear around Friday 13th has many origins, one of which is the Knights Templar. Supposedly that was when they were arrested in 1307. Some even associate it with the Last Supper of Christ, because there were 13 at the table, and that Judas Escariot who betrayed Jesus is documented as the 13th person at the table. But neither of these are the origin of the superstition. Until 1907 no one regarded it as unlucky. Then author Nathianiel Lachenmeyer published a book called Thirteen, which argued that before the 20th century 13 had always been an unlucky number, and that a Friday was an unlucky day, but the two together was never a concept.

This is the basis for Friday the 13th.

But if you're one of those that fears it, a friggatriskaidekaphobia (Frigg because Friday is named after the Norse goddess Frigg) as they are known, then you can relax after today. In 2016 there is only one, and it wont happen again until January.


Friday, 6 May 2016


I have a great garden at the back of my house, albeit it is only 7m square. It's very sheltered but doesn't get a great deal of sunlight due to a 3m high wall on the south side. But Pauline has done a great job over the years of getting the space looking great, with just the right plants that love shade. The birds love it, and we have a resident field mouse.

However, the neighbours cats love it too, as a toilet.

It is really disgusting, and I do find it intolerable, especially as dog owners are responsible for cleaning up their pets mess, but cat owners can just let them out to crap anywhere they like . . . except their own back yard!

So my job in the garden over the years, has been creating a fence structure that deters them. It's impossible to keep them out completely, but I've managed pretty well over the years.

The main fence though, which stands a metre above the stone wall, has now become so badly wind damaged that the cats can simply walk right through wherever they like. I've been repairing it over and over, and the past year has seen that happening more and more frequently, to the extent it is now an eyesore of a patchwork mess.

So a new fence was needed.

This time I plumped for something pretty substantial, and went for woven wicker panels. They stand 1.2m above the wall, and the worry was that I was creating a strong climbing frame for my feline enemy. But a few months ago I discovered online someone who had screwed perspex panels to one side of their fence, and the cats found it impossible to climb as they couldn't get a grip.

So this is what I've built (you can just make out the perspex on the photo above), but I've also attached the perspex at a slight angle away from the fence, and sitting proud of the top. Then on the top edge of the wicker there are plastic cat-deterrent spikes, just in case they want to try and tightrope-walk the top edge.

The amount of debris from the old fence, plus masses of ivy, required four car loads to the local dump. Thankfully I had the help of my good friend John, who dragged the vegetation up the steps from the garden, through the kitchen and down the front stairs, obviously leaving a trail of vegetation and snails behind him.

The design of the fence is good, but my concern was that I was in effect creating a giant kite, and if the wind was to blow hard enough it could bring the actual wall down, so there was no way I could attach it to the stone. So, just to add to my workload, I sank 3" square, 2.5m long, fence posts, two feet into the ground, and concreted them in!

I'm almost finished. I've lost a few bits of greenery here and there, especially the ivy, which was the only thing holding the old fence up, but I'm sure everything will grow back well due to the sheltered nature of the garden.

I'll bet the cats are plotting already to try and find the structures weak points.

Let battle commence.

Thursday, 28 April 2016


Back in mid February I wrote a blog about inspirational women (you can recap that blog here: Inspirational women). One of those was Nellie Bly. She had been given the assignment of beating the fictional Phileas Fogg's feat of Around the World in 80 Days.

She of course did just that, and in a little over 72 days, on 25 January 1890, she stepped off the Atlantic Express train of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in Jersey City. Three time keepers from athletic clubs clicked stop on their watches, and the official time was recorded.

The majority of her journey had been by sea, as was that of her rival, Elizabeth Bisland, who was to come in four days later. She had been sent out by The Cosmopolitan in the opposite direction. This had been her undoing. It was January, and the storms in the North Atlantic were notorious. Her ship took almost double the amount of time to reach New York harbour than was usual.

Nellie Bly had finished the last leg of her journey across the United States by train, and despite enormous falls of snow blocking the passes in the Sierra's, causing her route to been diverted, she made it in plenty of time. Every station her train pulled into, enormous crowds had gathered to cheer her, hoping to grab a glimpse of this young American woman. They were star struck, in a time when "celebrity" was still to become a common phrase. Even the author Jules Verne, who she had met in France near the beginning of her adventure, had sent a telegram of congratulations.

She had tried to keep The World newspaper up to date by sending wire telegraphs as she went, but at times there would be weeks between her communications. How things would change.

As soon as she had set foot on the platform, an operator in Western Union telegraph office flicked a switch, which sent a signal across the water to Battery Park, and the sky was filled with fireworks. On that signal the roar of 10 cannons filled the air, and several more followed in other areas. This call was then taken up by boats, tugs and barges sounding their horns.

Everyone went mad for Nellie Bly.

Her route had taken her across the Atlantic, through Europe and across the Mediterranean from the southern tip of Italy. Then south east across Africa, to sail from Aden to the southern tip of India, and on to Singapore, Hong Kong and then Japan. In Japan her "taxi" around the city was in a chair carried aloft on two poles suspended between two barefoot Japanese men, called Jinrikishas. From Japan it had then been seven days out of Yokohama to San Francisco across the Pacific Ocean.

All at just 26 years old, in a time long before air travel.

But all this fame had a price. Exactly one year later, during which she had conducted a lecture tour that did not endure its full run of dates, and published a book of her exploits that sold below its expectated sales numbers, Nellie Bly was in a dark place. She had quit her job from The World in a dispute over money, been involved in a libel suit, fallen out with her lecture tour manager, endured increasing slights on her character by rival newspapers, moved out of New York, become bedridden and was struggling to write much of anything. To a friend she wrote:
"I am a victim of the most frightful depression that ever beset a mortal". She concluded that at times it was not clear who had really won between herself and Bisland.

However, five years later she would marry and retire from journalism entirely, going on to become president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. They created the steel 55 gallon oil drum, which is still in use today.

Despite all her travels, and challenges of that journey through all weathers and climates, she was to die of pneumonia in 1922 aged 57.

Nellie Bly's story kept me riveted from cover to cover. It made me smile to read about the little nuances of solo lightweight travel more than 100 years ago, as little has changed in all that time, apart from the choices of mode in which we can circumnavigate, and of course in how we can communicate instantly.

Following Bly's triumph, companies came up with the idea that if they could get Nellie Bly to use their products, then her success might rub off on their products, as they could imply to their customers that the success and vigour of Bly would rub off on those that bought the products.

Celebrity endorsement had been born.

Children used the Nellie Bly notebook, that had the picture of the globe on the front, and they carried that inside their Nellie Bly school bag, perhaps also with their Nellie Bly doll. Somehow even animal feed manufacturers got in on the game, with Ingerson's of Syracuse marketing Nellie Bly Horse Food.

Could she ever have imagined something such as the internet. Perhaps there would then have been a Nellie Bly tablet.

Friday, 22 April 2016


A very good friend of mine, Alan Dawson, is some what of an art buff. In my humble opinion he has terrific taste and an eye for the artistic merits of all that is, well, art. Which is probably why he owns and runs an art gallery.

I took advantage of the recent fabulous sunny weather to visit Alan, on the opposite side of the Forth from my house, in a little Fife coastal village called Aberdour, where he lives and his art gallery also calls home. From the beach I could look across on the clear day to the impressive skyline of Edinburgh.

Aberdour started life as a harbour, a mini port, which is situated at the point where the River Dour enters the Forth. Aber is a Pictish word meaning confluence,  and so evolved the name Aberdour.

The village also boats its own castle, now mostly a ruin and in the hands of Historic Scotland, but it is one of the earliest surviving castles on mainland Scotland, dating from around the 13th century.

Aberdour was beginning to feel like a medieval hot spot, as what felt like quite literally a stones throw from the beach, is the island of Inchcolm. In the centre of island is an Abbey, founded by the Bishop of Dunkeld in the 12th century, and at one time linked to St Columba.

Alan likes a project, and a couple of years ago he bought over the old butchers shop, with it's curved facade taking up a prominent corner site. It was just begging to be an art gallery in my opinion. Such is his eye for detail, he made sure that the renovation kept a hold of a lot of the original features of the old butchers shop. Don't worry, I'm not talking about pigs hanging from hooks, but certainly the hooks themselves are still there, now with pictures hanging from them.

But none of pigs sadly.

I am always impressed at the content of his gallery, as it is not your typical art house. The layout is reminiscent of someone's living room, and you feel comfortable as you wander around admiring pieces of original sculpture, jewelry, furniture, and of course, paintings.

When he first started negotiations for the shop, to his great surprise and delight, hidden away overlooking a small cobbled courtyard to the rear, was a small stone-built house adjoining the back of the property. He rolled his sleeves up and took on the challenge to bring it back to its former glory and the end result is impressive. He re-purposed old outbuildings, and with cleverly designed glass atriums and cunningly hidden connecting doors, brought these outbuildings into use of the main house.

Though this gallery is not even two years old yet, he has had a gallery in Aberdour for many years. That started life down at the harbour, which is where it got its current name, The Quay. Though he has moved location up onto the main street, he has remained on the original side of the Dour burn, so historically he remains in Wester Aberdour, for back in its early life, this now small town was actually two villages, separated by the Dour burn.

That changed in the late 19th century, when the railway reached the villages, with the building east of the line from the newly opened Forth Rail Bridge, and the ferry service to the harbour came to an end. It was now far quicker and safer to take the train across the Forth.

The ticket inspectors aboard the train crossing the bridge were known to sing, "half an hour, half an hour, half an hour to Aberdour, tickets please".

Friday, 15 April 2016


"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"

On September 12 1962, during a speech at Rice University, Houston, Texas, the President of the time, John F Kennedy, delivered a speech that set a challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon before the end of the 60s.

The Cold War was in full swing, and the main enemy of America at the time was Russia. On the 12 April the year before this speech (today almost exactly 55 years ago), Russia had just struck fear in the American hearts and put the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin.

In all the time man has been around, it is only 55 years ago that we first left the planet's surface and looked down upon the earth.

So NASA, a fledgling space agency, having been founded in 1958, took up the challenge. America had to be first to the moon.

Many obstacles had to be jumped over and solved, and the only way to do this was to get up there and out into space, which meant sending people out into orbit atop volatile rockets.

The mission program that would go to the moon was to be called Apollo, but the preceding program was called Gemini. It was aboard these early research flights of Gemini 9, the 7th such launch in June 1966, that a 32 year old young man called Gene Cernan had his first opportunity. He would perform a spacewalk (again Russia had beaten the Americans to this a year earlier) and later be selected to be part of the Apollo missions.

And so the perilous journey to land on the moon began in earnest.

It was fraught with difficulties, and astronauts died in the process in horrific accidents, but finally a date had been set: July 20 1969. That crew, aboard Apollo 11, would consist of Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins.

But before they could do that NASA had to have a fly by, to check for possible surface problems for landing. We didn't have powerful HD cameras in those days to look at the moon, and certainly no satellites, so we had to go there, and Apollo 10 made the journey, over  a week in May of 1969, doing everything but actually land on the surface. Gene Cernan commanded that flight. It must have been so frustrating being that close and not actually landing.

But, at age 38, he would finally get his chance in December 1972, aboard Apollo 17, and was home in time for Christmas.

Here's a startling fact; that smart phone in your pocket? The processor for the clock alone is 32,000 times faster than the computer that was aboard the spacecraft that went to the moon, and can perform calculations 120 million times faster!

To put it in simpler terms, your kitchen toaster is more clever!

But go, land, walk about and come back they did.

And that was that. As it turned out, after Apollo 17 the budget was cancelled. We have never been back since.

I am hugely excited and interested about the Apollo missions. I can still recall as a 6 year old boy, Armstrong stepping onto the surface. It was such a milestone in mans evolution. Yes, things at home in Scotland, the mountains and bike routes I so regularly visit, are certainly my first love, but there is no ignoring this incredible feat.

So you can imagine how very excited I was last Tuesday at my local cinema, to go and see a screening of a new film, The Last Man On The Moon. Just to make it more exciting, there was a live Q&A at the end with Gene Cernan himself, by satellite, which seemed appropriate. He seemed very emotional, as were a lot of people in the audience. He told us he had been offered the Space Shuttle program after the Apollo missions, but had turned it down.

He now lives out his days on his ranch.

He was the very last person to have his feet on the lunar surface, but there was one final story that he told us that I didn't know. Just before he stepped off onto the LEM ladder to come home, he wrote his daughters initials, TDC, in the surface. They will be there for millions of years to come.

Maybe one day we'll go back and find those initials. I hope so, for despite all the amazing advancements in technology and space capability, only 12 humans have ever stepped on the surface of the moon.