Friday, 23 March 2018


The Beast from the East decided to have one last foray, and I awoke last Sunday morning to another few inches of snow and bitter winds, driving spin drift into the air.

Undeterred, I loaded up my bicycle with panniers packed with gear and food, and set off to Waverley railway station in the heart of the city.

Pauline and I were west bound, and having had our adventure plans scuppered at the start of March we were determined not to let it happen again.

And how right we were. Though cold, when we arrived at Connel, just short of the bustling ferry port of Oban on the west coast, it was glorious, and not a patch of snow or high winds anywhere. The surrounding high peak mountains tops were capped in snow, but that is usual for this time of year and creates already stunning views into spectacular.

We didn't arrive until early afternoon, so our first day out was just over 20 miles to Glen Duror, which, if you've been following the making of my film about the Ballachulish ferries, will know Glen Duror was the lost ferry I found recently on Mull. So that connection was nice.

There was a bit of a head wind, and added to the fact that I was not only unfit but also exhausted after a hectic week, I struggled to keep up.But the delightful cycle path all the way took my mind of that, and the stunning views all around made the effort all worth while.

Just over halfway we passed the very picturesque, and best preserved example of such, Castle Stalker, sitting proud on a small tidal island. Still in private hands it dates back to the early 1300s.

We were on the Caledonia Way, which is a cycle route that runs from Campbeltown to Inverness, route 78, and the section we were on was perfect, only touching a main road once.

By late afternoon we were heading up Glen Duror, our destination a small bothy connect with a Highland character called James of the Glens. In the mid 1700s he was wrongfully accused of the murder of the chieftain Colin Campbell, aka The Red Fox, in Appin, and was hanged for it. Not lost to history, he makes a cameo appearance in the Robert Louis Stevenson's book, Kidnapped. When James was hung his body was left hanging for 18 months at the south end of Ballachulish ferry as a warning to others clans with rebellious intentions.

We decided to camp beside the bothy, one of his former homes, but the wind was blowing fierce and cold off the mountains resulting in a chilly night despite wearing several layers.

The following day we woke to a cloudless sky, and set off for Ballachulish. Now I was in familiar territory, boring Pauline with my childhood stories.

At Kentallen there was a nice surprise to find a preserved water tower from the days of the old steam trains.

The views were opening up to the north, and as we neared Ballachulish the ridges and mountain peaks of Glencoe started to rise into view.

Past my old childhood home of some 46 years ago, we were aiming for lunch in a coffee shop come gift shop called Craft & Things in Glencoe Village, and would meet up with Kate, the daughter of the last ferryman of the Ballachulish ferries.

Our camp for the night was back down the cycle path, and off into Port Appin. We found what could easily be described as the most beautiful wild camp spot we have ever stayed on. Right next to an unusual rock formation with a large opening though its heart, we had views across to the island of Lismore and mull beyond.

The sunset was stunning, and the afterglow and the appearance of a new moon just farmed the vista perfectly. Though if we though the previous night was cold then this night was arctic! With a cold day and not a cloud in the sky the temperature rapidly fell. I awoke at 2am shivering.

With a leisurely start and gear packed away, once the sun had melted the ice off out tent and bikes, we took the small ferry across to the island of Lismore.

It was another glorious day with hardly a breath of wind. On the island there is just one road, which is only about seven miles long, so there was not a great deal to explore. However, when we alighted the ferry a gentleman who reminded me of the actor Bill Nighy, told us of the most beautiful part of the island, where he happened to live, called Sailean. With no other idea in mind we set off.

Obviously it didn't take long, but as we approached I had my doubts, as the way was along an unpaved road, more akin to the entrance to someones private farm. But, this was the place, and beautiful it certainly was.

By mid afternoon we were aboard the Calmac ferry for the hours crossing to Oban and my train home. Refueled with local fish and chips I bade farewell to Pauline as she continued the adventure and I returned to Edinburgh on the most picturesque railway journey in the UK.

Another great adventure in the saddle.

Saturday, 17 March 2018


They say every day you learn something new. I'd pretty much agree with that, though in my case "learn" should maybe be changed to "utterly confused by".

I'm in the middle of a major new project, which is top secret for now. All will be revealed later in the year. It's pretty exciting stuff, if not a little scary, but part of the process is creating a website.

Now, what I know about creating a website could be written on the back of a matchbox, or even a postage stamp. I guess it depends how small your writing is. But I know a few people who do know the ins and outs, and they do say, if you are not an expert at something, get someone in.

My contribution is on the creative side; the images and text. But I'm a designers worst nightmare, because I know what I DON'T like, I just don't know what I actually want.

But I will when I see it.

The starting point has been to browse "themes" using something called Wordpress, which I have heard of, which is a good start I thought. Anyway, apparently you can choose a theme, and then alter it to your hearts content. Sounds easy enough, until I entered a word into a search box to find associated themes, and was presented with 763 examples!

And yes, I did look at every single one.

Unfortunately that had the effect of me choosing "anything", just so we could get started. I think my brain just kept looking because my website didn't turn up. Well that's because I haven't created it yet!

Two weeks on and finally, and only because of the saintly patience of the friend who is building it all, we are starting to make progress. Our deadline for launch on the 9 April is looking a tad shakey now though.

New language has entered my world. Phrases like, "static HTML pages" and "Joomla and Drupal database driven content management". Haven't a clue what any of that means but it sure sounds complicated.

It's also fun to watch my friend get excited when a page of code pops up! To me it's just nonsense. Lines of dots, dashes, stars, hash signs and words that are not even words. I take my hat off to anyone who understands that stuff. When I ask if a photos can be made a different size, or a button made a particular colour, I'm told that's easy. Just an alteration to a line of code.

Yeah. Easy!

I think I'll keep in mind what my very first employer told me, after just one week of work, back in 1979: "stick to what you know and leave the rest to us experts".

Sunday, 11 March 2018


I'm super late with my blog this week, but I have a great excuse . . .

It was my birthday!

So I'll be brief this week as I have cake to eat.

Finally I'm starting to act my age. I find I now make involuntary noises when I bend down to pick something up all the time; my hearing is getting worse; I pretend I've heard what someone has just said when I haven't at all, and I'm most definitely more grumpy about things like poor service and other people in my space. Though to be fair, I think I always have been.

I've never been a birthday party sort of person, and prefer to let it slide by each year unnoticed, except by my closest friends. Somehow though, the word had leaked out at the academy I teach at on a Saturday, and so I was treated to six separate renditions of Happy Birthday by the kids throughout the day. Which was nice.

Presents. Never mind what age I am, presents is always a welcome thing. And I'm very lucky, surround by very caring and generous friends who treat me to breakfast out, or go to great efforts in cooking a nice evening meal just for me, and it is especially nice to have some down time.

Then there's a mini adventure on bikes to look forward to soon, which will be a great break away from the seemingly never ending raft of projects I have going on. It's been full on lately, not least of which has been  taking great strides toward launching my own filmmaking workshops for young people. It has been, and continues to be, a long process, with challenges presented almost on a weekly basis. There's also that nagging fear that it may fail miserably, which then creates doubt about doing at all.

But, this afternoon, after a leisurely wander back from the city, I was chatting to my best friend Pauline, when she found a little wooden, heart-shaped sign, that one of my students had given me back at Christmas. The words written on it seemed rather poignant:

Life is like a camera
Capture the good times
Develop from the negatives
And if things don't work out
Take another shot

Friday, 2 March 2018


The Beast From The East, that's what the UK media decided to call it. As it turned out, it was a pretty close description with travel disruption everywhere, few businesses open and most people hunkered down in their houses.

There have been so many negative reports about the winter weather, but at the end of the day it is an annual natural event, just maybe not to focused and wild. I understand some cope less well with it than others, but personally I love it. I even created a mini snowman on the window sill of Pauline's apartment. One person locally was way more creative though and sculpted a full size Moomin character on the beach.

Pauline loves the snowy wintry weather too, and every day, took her daily exercise atop cross country skis. I remember back in December 2009, when the UK was blanketed top to bottom in snow, Pauline skied into work without once having to take her skis off.

The birds in the garden love it less so, and though I loved the look of it, I cleared the accumulated falls every few hours to put out food for them and defrost the bird bath so that had some open water to drink.

Though not a blanket, country covering this time, where the snow has fallen it has done so in larger accumulations than back then. With the added fun of gale force winds, which dropped the temperature to well below freezing, it created another level of challenge. A friend of mine was telling me what what going through his mind when he ventured out on foot one of the days, braving the swirling, howling winds, and whipped up flurries of snow. As he walked across local parks, ankle deep in snow, his thoughts turned to those who would not be able to experience this wonder, for whatever reason, and it made him happy that he was able to do so. For it will be brief, for already a slight thaw has begun.

It was amazing to see very few vehicles on the road. My local high street was coated in a layer of untreated, compacted snow. Even the city's Lothian Buses had cancelled their services entirely for two days, something I've never witnessed before, and most trains were off. But then the improvement in air quality with the lack of emissions is definitely a great benefit. 

Within 24 hours panic buying set in. Local small supermarket shelves started to empty. Now this was daft behaviour, as things are already starting to return to normal, but it did make me think. What if the phenomenon had continued, unabated, for just one week? One of my neighbours told me they normally shop for what they need in the short term, and would run out of food in the house by tomorrow. Because I live on the outskirts of the city, it is easy for me to put on the appropriate clothing and footwear and get access to nearby stores. But what of those in more rural areas, literally snowed in their house?

Because of the panic buying there is now less provision for everyone else. So, just in case, I walked out to a large Asda store not too far from where I live, in the hope of picking up some basics for myself and Pauline. As well as being wrapped up I also wore my ski goggles, as the wind was still whipping up the occasional fine particle blizzard.

On the soles of my boots were miniature crampons, and as I trudged through the drifts, head down against the wind, I felt like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, as he battled through ice and snow to reach his son, Jake Gyllenhaal, buried inside a library in snow-bound New York City, having made him a promise that he would come and rescue him.

In Asda there was pretty much something of everything, but you could see that by the end of today the remaining staples of bread and fresh vegetables would all be gone. Despite dairy cows needing to be milked twice a day, none of it had reached the chillers of Asda. Staff were removing out of day stock, destined for landfill, as, though they had received no deliveries, they had also received far fewer shoppers. Overall though, the shelves looked no different to a usual busy Saturday, albeit that the "healthy" food remained, but the pizzas were all sold out!

Eventually I was back home, and having kicked off the snow from my boots, lifted my goggles, I dropped off a few provisions to Pauline, feeling like a much waited on rescuer. As Dennis Quaid said when he finally reached Jake; "I told you I'd come".

Thursday, 22 February 2018


As many of my readers will know, I'm a filmmaker, but for the past six years I have diversified into teaching young people the skills to make movies. Currently I am in the process of shooting a number of short films with my regular group. This week I follow on from last weeks blog.

So it will not surprise you to know that last Sunday I watched the BAFTAs. For a change I found myself agreeing with many of the winning choices, most especially those for 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I even found myself, alone on the sofa, applauding.

At the end they award The BAFTA Fellowship, which this year went to Ridley Scott, or should I say, Sir Ridley Scott. His speech had an air of sarcasm about it, mostly for never having been awarded a BAFTA for any of his films. This is surprising when you consider he is the man that brought us Alien; the original Blade Runner; Thelma & Louise; Gladiator; and most recently The Martian and All the Money In the World. And this last film had in its cast one of my teenage students, which was fun.

But it was his speech that inspired me. Read off cards, nervously bumbling in places, he talked about his career from the early days, involved in commercials and corporate film. That, he said, was his "film school", having never gone to university to study the art form. He then praised the teachers that had an influence on him, and talked about teaching being the most important profession.

I too learned my craft in corporate filmmaking, before I turned my attention to teaching it, but I am no professional teacher, as so many of my close friends are, but I do seem to have a natural flair for it. I also never had the opportunity to attend university and gain a degree, and therefore I can never become a full time teacher. But, it makes me proud to say, and even brings a little tear to my eye, that I have already guided a number of young people to start a path toward the film industry. To have a young person tell you when they leave your class that your lessons are the thing they enjoy the most, and then to thank you. Well, no degree can ever match that.

If I'm truthful, I have been finding my work difficult recently, mostly because I realise that in my mid 50s my own chances now are limited. But then, last Saturday, I watch a girl aged 13, directing actors and camera crew in making a short film, and feel happy that I gave her those skills that she's now making her own.

I've accepted that I will never attain my own dream of "making it", and will never find myself standing on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall accepting a BAFTA, but hopefully I can be satisfied with my contribution to these young peoples future careers.

Maybe one day one of them will stand up there accepting their BAFTA Fellowship award.

Friday, 16 February 2018


If you're a regular reader of my blog you'll know that many a time I write about mini adventures I have in the great outdoors, mostly in the Highlands of Scotland. Regularly I find myself away on my bike or on foot, with Pauline, enjoying all that Scotland's landscape has to offer.

Well, this week I enjoyed another jaunt north of Stirling, this time to the small town of Callander, with the nearby, snow capped, Ben Ledi visible from the outskirts. But this was not a trip for walking or biking on this occasion.

About 18 months ago I became part of a team of film practitioners for Scottish Film Education, which aims to assist teachers, in the whole of Scotland, with online resources, to bring film into their classrooms. Not so much to make movies, but to use the medium to improve literacy instead of in print form.

It's been a long time coming, but finally I had my chance to launch a series of workshops that I will run in the Callander area between now and June.

By coincidence, the school that will play host to these workshops is the local school, McLaren High, the very place that my recent film students from Doune attend. Many of those young people struggle in one way or another at school, and the film project was a huge success with them. So I took the opportunity to sing their praises and promote the impressive work that those students had produced. Mostly teenagers do not speak up for themselves, and I knew I was in the perfect position to inform their teachers just what they had achieved and hopefully make a difference for them.

I was pleased to see that the response was immediate and enthusiastic, so fingers crossed new opportunities will open up for these kids.

Now I turn my attention to my usual Edinburgh students, who start shooting their next short film at a location away from the school where we usually run. The weather looks like it's going to hold, so fingers crossed for day one of principal photography tomorrow.

Sunday, 11 February 2018


It's that time of year when filming is about to start with the performing arts academy I teach at every Saturday. Scripts are written and cast, and now we are in the throes of finding locations.

The middle age group of kids, 9 to 12 year olds, have two films to shoot and both are set in a wood, so one location was going to suffice, making my job a lot easier. I found something suitable on the western outskirts of the city, and then just needed to recce it. We have to be able to provide toilet facilities and such basic amenities for the kids, and I could see from Google Maps that there was some sort of working yard in the area called Barnton Quarry.

However, I wasn't quite prepared for what I found.

There was three inches of snow on the ground when I arrived at the quarry, which is surrounded by steel fencing, and bizarrely, an intercom on a fence post on the outside of the area. I pressed the button and eventually spoke to the man in charge. As I waited for him to arrive I kept busy looking for CCTV, feeling a little unnerved.

But I needn't have been concerned. Martyn was very agreeable to allowing the students to film in the area, and use the facilities, and then invited me on a tour of the site. I agreed, a little puzzled, as all I could see was a low brick building.

There were two entrances, and he guided me into the first which was dimly lit by working lights. Inside was a series of empty rooms off a long corridor, and at the far end was a much larger room, sunken down into the ground. It was dripping with water, leaking in from the roof, and I struggled to imagine what it could possibly have been for. But it turns out that this was one of the bases for guiding the RAF in WWII, and would have housed one of those giant map tables that operators would push around models of planes. The company that now owned the building were in the process of renovating it, to eventually open it to the public.

But the next building was even more fascinating. As Martyn dragged back the rusted outer doors, it revealed a circular, concrete-lined, tunnel, going down steeply into the earth, with a string of lights on the ceiling lighting the way. It looked all very James-Bond-villain-lair-esque.

At the bottom of the tunnel were giant hinges, giving a clue to what had once stood here. Back in the Cold War, this facility was a nuclear bunker for those in power, and the hinges would have supported thick blast doors. Martyn led the way, and we continued down three levels, deep underground. Some of the old 1960s equipment was still there, including the enormous air filters. It was vast, and could have kept those based there safe for several months. However, apparently it would not have survived a direct hit. It was built to only withstand a nuclear strike at Rosyth Naval base, some 10km away.

Amazing that vast amounts of money were spent on this in the 60s, and it was never used, apart from one exercise. Though I believe modern day facilities do exist today, somewhere.

The company behind the venture also own "Scotlands Secret Bunker" over in Fife, which is open to the public. Eventually this place too will open to the public, though that will be many years hence, but I reckon worth the wait. What a shame it wasn't ready today, and the students would have had an amazing location. For now though, much like pre production for their film, you have to use your imagination to picture what this place will look like once complete.