Thursday, 23 March 2017

THE HERDSMAN OF ETIVE

Nothing gladdens the heart like a trip to atmospheric Glencoe, with the mountains dusted and capped in snow, and the sun shining.

So it was that this week I found myself, after driving for almost three hours, in its spectacular scenery, filming with, of all things, a drone.

This is all part of one of my teenage student's projects this term; Shakespeare's Macbeth. Last Saturday all 52 of them gathered at Craigmillar Castle and the surrounding park, to capture various sequences for the film, most notably the scenes of battle and the witches on the heath. Though the forecast had been for light cloud and low wind speeds, for three hours in the middle of the day it poured down and blew a gale!

Thanks BBC weather forecast!

But the students prevailed and put up with it and got the job done. This is teenagers I'm talking about!

Glencoe was glorious. I was aiming to be there for around 11am to catch the sun on Buachaille Etive Mòr (The Herdsman of Etive"), an enormous pyramid shape of a mountain, guarding the entrance to Glencoe valley. The idea was to fly toward the mountain, gradually gaining in altitude, a shot that would open the film. However, the drone refused to fly, giving me a message that the compass had malfunctioned. Frustrated, I shot a very slow zoom in with the main camera, which luckily I had taken along.

Dissappointed, I drove a few miles further on the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe valley, to treat myself to lunch. The clouds had moved in and everything was looking a bit grey and poor light for filming. However, lunch finished, as I was about to leave a couple of hours later, the sun started to break through.

If only the drone worked.

I decided to phone the repair centre in Newcastle, and explained what had happened. They made a suggestion that because of the high iron content in vast areas of Glencoe, the compass may not be broken, but confused by the iron in the rocks. With fingers crossed, I carried out the pre-flight checks, and low and behold, she flew! Delighted, but with very little battery power remaining, I captured some shots of the late sun spilling on the rock faces of nearby Bidean Nam Bian, my favourite mountain in Glencoe.


At one point I almost took the decision to stay in Glencoe overnight, charge up the power packs, and film the shot I came to do the next morning. But I had enough I reckoned, and headed south for home, marveling at the golden hour of light from the setting sun, bathing the snow covered mountains. It was such a magical time, and there was a wow moment round every corner.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

BIRTHDAY WEEKEND

You would think in a country as small as Scotland, after 50 years of exploring its landscape you might run out of new things to see. But you'd be wrong. It was my birthday recently and I was keen to do something different as part of it. Somewhere I'd never been. In Scotland.

Catching the earliest train available, Pauline and I set out from Edinburgh bound for the west coast, via Glasgow. The forecast was for overcast skies, but dry, though given a little time that could change. In a little less than two hours we were off the train at Gourock and aboard a ferry crossing the Clyde toward Dunoon. Five kilometers north along the side of the Holy Loch and we turned west, toward our new adventure destination.

The road was mostly single track all the way, and around two thirds of the way along we hit a 12% gradient.

Which then changed to a 20% gradient!

Ordinarily, with no kit on the bikes, I would have managed, albeit slowly, to climb the road, but as it was, 200 yards from the top, I dismounted and pushed. And made the top quicker than I would have pedaling!

By mid afternoon we were trundling our bikes onto another ferry and onto our destination for the weekend. Somewhere new for me, the Isle of Bute, and we camped in a forest clearing overlooking Loch Ridden and the little ferry we had just been on. As darkness fell, a full moon rose and illuminated the landscape in soft light, with the only other lights those of the ferry, twinkling on the still water as it made its way back and forth across the 500 metre crossing into the night.



Early morning and the forest was filled with the golden light of the rising sun, and a myriad of different bird song.

We struck camp and headed off to explore. All roads lead to Rothesay, it seemed, as at every junction there was a sign, with different mileages, to the capital. On occasion we came across old stone block mileage pillars, with distances in fractions. Nowadays we simply round them up.

As we rounded Kames Bay we came upon Kames Castle. More accurately it is a castellated mansion house, and the 18th century house was built upon a 14th century tower.


Originally the seat of the Bannatyne family it is one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in Scotland. Behind the castle was a walled garden, with a turreted building at one corner, and as you turned your head west, looking up a sweeping grassy plain, you came to a church tower, standing guard over the local grave yard. Though the church is a ruin now, the graveyard is still in use today.


Following the main road directly south, we reached its furthest point by early afternoon. We could have carried on along the road, turning north, and head toward Rothesay, but something drew us along a track heading down toward the southern most point of the island. It was a misty murky overcast day, and as we trundled along we could just start to make out the outline of the mountain peaks of the Isle of Arran to our right.

Two and a half kilometres on and we came to the end of the road. A small sign pointed up a grassy path toward Blane's Chapel. We had no idea what to expect, and there was not a single glimpse of it as we walked up the rise.

In what we both described as reminiscent of Inca stone work, stood a remarkably well preserved chapel dating back to the 1200s. It sat in the middle of a grassy mound, and was circled by a series of walls. In the graveyard of weathered stones, dates went back to Norse times. There has been a religious site here since the 500s, when a monastery was founded, and at one time this little chapel served the whole island of Bute.


The sun came out as we wandered round the site. It is flanked on the north and east by small woods, while to the west was a natural cliff face, rising up some 20m offering natural protection. Open views to the south led your eyes to the Holy Isle of the Isle of Arran. Maybe this had been on purpose. It was a magical place, so peaceful, and the highlight of the adventure. A real hidden gem.


Further back down the track we stopped a while a some standing stones, before heading to Rothesay and the ferry home.


As we approached the fringes of the town, having negotiated a muddy cross-country path, we arrived at a natural depression in the landscape called Loch Fad, meaning Long Loch. It is interesting geologically, as it was formed along the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault.

Having satisfied our need for coffee and cake in the centre of Rothesay, we just had time to wander round the outer walls of Rothesay Castle, described by many as one of the most remarkable castles in Scotland, for its long history and unusual circular plan.


Built in the 13th century, it fell into ruin in the 17th century and is now looked after by the state. But for me the most striking part of the castle was the unusually shaped moat, defensively surrounding its walls.


With photographs and memories of a two day adventure, that seemed altogether longer, we boarded the CalMac ferry and left the Isle of Bute behind, heading for Wemyss Bay and the train home.

It had been a great birthday weekend.




Friday, 10 March 2017

ALL THINGS COME IN THREES

It's been a long while since our hillwalking trio, myself, Pauline and Andrew, had a wander in the landscape of Scotland. In fact, it's well over a year, so, last weekend we hopped on the three-carriage train to Tweedbank in the Borders.

A Short 20 minute walk brought us into the famous rugby village of Melrose, the starting point for our walk. The town's humble beginnings were as a monastery way back, and in the middle ages it was re-built in its current site, the now famous Melrose Abbey. Originally it had gone by the name of Mailros, meaning The Bare Peninisula, and is referred to in Anglo Saxon writings as Magilros. When the monastery was rebuilt they symbolically represented the old name with a masons hammer, a Mel, and the Cistercian abbey symbol of the Virgin Mary, a Rose, hence, Melrose.


The monastic ruin of the Abbey is the location of the burial, in a sealed lead casket, of the heart of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

Our walk today started with a short, but very muddy, ramble up the adjacent Eildon Hills, a close collection of three distinct points.


It was two steps forward and one back, although more of a slide back than a step, as we tried to keep upright through the sticky red clay underfoot. It wasn't until we reached the saddle between two of the peaks that we left behind the squelchy quagmire. The annual hill run across the Eildons had just passed through, and the pounding feet of a hundred runners hadn't helped conditions. How they had managed to run on that surface though beat me.


We decided to walk only two of the three tops, and as the sun broke through, we headed east for top number two. Coming down from here was an adventure. I found my skiing balance skills were more useful than any hillwalking fitness, as the clay path became smooth and polished with all those before that had negotiated this way down. Still sticky underfoot, it clogged up the soles of our boots and left us with no grip. It sounds rubbish, but actually it was an hilarious hour, as Andrew and I gingerly picked our way down, mostly through jaggy gorse. Pauline on the other hand, had used her Ninja skills and had seemingly floated down unscathed. We met up again at the base for a rest and lunch, and shared our stories of treacherous paths and the close decision of calling mountain rescue.

Folklore tells of fairies below the Eildon Hills, and famously of one 13th Century Scottish Laird, Thomas Rhymer, written about, as well as by others, by Sir Walter Scott. A little further on from our lunch stop, at the point where we popped out onto tarmac road, is a stone tablet, erected in 1929, inscribed with the tale of Rhymer. He had a reputation for prophesy and supernatural powers, and famously prophesied the death of Alexander III. It is said that it was at the site of the stone that he met the Fairy Queen of the Eildons on a "milky white horse". Sir Walter Scott writes that the Queen dared Thomas to kiss her and go away with her for seven years.

Happy with underfoot now firm, and free of sticky clay, we set off in search of the main historical landmark of the day, named after the Three Hills of the Eildons, Trimontium, the largest northern fort of the Roman army.

Built around AD80, at its height it held 1500 soldiers, and became the main stepping off point for Rome's push into the north. Information boards circle this vast area, and one shows an aerial photograph, taken in the time of a drought in the 1980s, where you can clearly see the outline of the fort. 2000 years later!


Buckets of imagination are needed to picture the scene as it must have been, as now it is all agricultural plowed fields.The information boards help, and we all left with a strong feeling that this significantly important place should be properly excavated and opened to the public. It would become a World renowned archaeological site. Amazing treasures have been unearthed, as recently as 1905, 1947 and the early 1980s, from small digs carried out. Imagine what we might find with a full excavation.

At the far end of the Roman site is the modern day viaduct that once carried the railway line. It runs parallel to the old Roman road called Dere Street, that leads away from Trimontium north.


From here we turned south to continue our circuit of the fort, wandering along the disused railway line leading from the viaduct, through a tunnel of trees.

One fascinating item for me was a stone pillar milestone. Replaced by a modern marble replica, an original sits in the Museum of Scotland now. Sited on the corner of the fringes of the fort, all distances north, measured in 1000 Roman soldier steps, began from the one milestone pillar. It inspired me to visit the museum to see the original, found near modern day Aberdeen and mentions the distance from Trimontium.

Our day ended with a wander past the ruins of Melrose Abbey, followed by a trio of lattes in a newly revamped coffee shop called the Greenhouse cafe in the centre of Melrose, with views to the abbey.


Friday, 3 March 2017

CARPETS AND WALLS OF COLOUR

It may be bitterly cold on some days at the moment, but that's mainly because of clear skies. The sun is shining and the deep blue of the sky just makes you feel good.

During the past few days I've been receiving email alerts warning of a possible sighting of the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Because of the clear skies every night, it presented the chance of a cracking display of colour. Despite my patience over several nights, whilst shivering outside in the late hours, I didn't witness any sweeping brush strokes of dancing colours across the night sky.

But out for a wander a couple of days ago, through my local park and along quiet lanes, I did get a treat of vibrant colours. We are, afterall, entering that wonderful stage of new life, when nature throws its pallet of colours across our landscapes.

It is for me, like many people, my favourite time of year, though I do also love the hues of Autumn. But there's something really uplifting as you turn a corner onto a nondescript, busy road, and come across a simple garden hedge, displaying a veritable wall full of colour and beauty.


This rebirth period of the year also inspires me to wander further, in search of what is coming into flower next. Nearby is a large National Trust estate, and last weekend I happened upon glades of newly opened snowdrops.

Just now it's the turn of the crocuses and snowdrops, and they are creating carpets of colour everywhere. Very soon the bluebells will appear, then the daffodils. Already blossom has appeared on some trees, and soon the heady smell of wild garlic will adorn the cycle paths into the city.

In my local park, the first of the photos above, there is one particular tree that I love. It is easily 30ft tall and the same again wide, and for just a brief period it has the most incredible display of pinky purple blossom. The buds are there now, squeezing their way through, but it is yet to bloom. I can't wait. As a tease I came across this tree, with white blossom, in someone's garden at the end of my walk. Isn't nature amazing.



Friday, 24 February 2017

TODAY I WENT TO PRISON

I'm lucky to be able to indulge myself in one of my passions, filmmaking, for a living. I'm one of those rare people who can say with all honesty, that I love my job. And I'm constantly looking for new ways to stretch my experience, and around seven years ago I started to teach film. I still take on the odd contract to make short films with production companies, but teaching has become far more rewarding personally.

In those early days I was passing on my skills to a variety of different age groups, from those with learning difficulties in their 20s, to elderly, early-onset dementia sufferers. It was remarkable the response that was attained, especially with those with dementia.

Then came an opportunity to run a short term workshop over a period of weeks with school students from challenging, socioeconomic backgrounds.

This was the start of something that led me to where I am now. I had found my niche. Teaching young people film literacy and filmmaking. Almost three years ago now, I took up my current post with PQA, and haven't looked back.

That experience has enabled me to take on ever more challenging positions and projects. Last year was no exception, with a very rewarding project with the Festival Theatre, and then becoming part of a team that is bringing film literacy skills to school teachers, to enable them to take it into their classrooms. This is part of a much wider project by Creative Scotland nationwide.

All of these projects have been adding up to a very wide level of experience and knowledge, but I could see that there was a bias toward those of school age in most of the projects being funded. There was definitely a market for these skills in post-school age, especially for those in society who are disadvantaged. Film is a remarkable vehicle for improving self confidence and raising self esteem in those who feel left behind, and feel that all hope may be lost.

So I was excited to see a new post advertised recently to run a project with young offenders in a Scottish prison.


Of course, it will be a great addition to my wealth of experience, but that aside, I know film will bring a lot to those incarcerated. I applied, and today I attended the interview at the prison I would be working in, along with six other strong contenders. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will be me they choose.

I'm already excited at the prospect of meeting my new students. Afterall, who wouldn't want to make a positive difference to someone's life given the chance.


Friday, 17 February 2017

RENT, RENTAL, RENTON

There's definitely a thread, or should I say, line, of drugs running through this weeks blog. Some may disagree with some opinions I've written here, in fact, it may just get "right up your nose".

Never one to turn down a chance to go to the theatre, especially if it's with a free ticket, I took up the invite of my friend Innes to join a packed house at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh to see the musical Rent. Loosely based on Puccini's La Boheme, it is set circa 1989 in New York City. It follows the lives of a group of friends living in the East Village, as they deal with love, loss, AIDS and modern day life, with transmission through sex and drugs of the HIV virus playing its part in the demise of some characters.

At least, that's what I'm told it was about.

It is closer to a rock opera than a musical I would say, and though the choreography and the singing voices of the actors was without fault, the score was just one big noise. Eventually it all blended into one, and I struggled, as did those around me, to make any sense of what was going on. Thankfully, with the pre knowledge of the synopsis, I was able to occasionally pin a scene on what could be a part of the story, but other than that, I can't say it grabbed me. What you might call a "Marmite" show. I was so unimpressed personally, I did something I've never done before, and left at the interval.

Part of that was the experience, but part was also that I was pretty much exhausted from a recent project I'd undertaken.

Just three weeks ago I invested in a new rental apartment in the centre of Edinburgh city. To say that you don't get much for your money these days is an understatement. It's probably just as well that I'm not going to allow tenants to have pets, as it's so small you couldn't get a cat in there, let alone swing it. At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking very little needed done before getting it on the market. As the first few days rolled by, it became evident that was not the case.

Various bodged repair jobs had been crudely covered up, which all needed corrected, but worse than that, there was an unidentifiable smell. The more I worked in the place, the more I noticed it. To cut a long, investigative story short, I finally deduced it was the stale and acrid residue of a heavy hash smoker! The brown tar-like substance I literally scraped from the upper reaches of the UPVC window frames, was enough to bring back your lunch. I'm not suggesting it was the previous owner, as during my investigative work in lifting the floorboards, there was a strong smell of something similar emanating from the flat below. Two weeks on, and I'm not much further forward in getting rid of it, despite using sealers on the walls and woodwork, as well as deep cleaning. I am now at the stage of stripping off all the wallpaper and starting again.

The bedroom is the one room that is unaffected, and despite being small, it looks great now that it is finished.


Everything comes in threes they say, and to round off the week I had a drug experience of a different kind, in the form of T2, the sequel to the 1996 film Trainspotting.

Same cast, same director. The story centres around the return of Ewan McGregor's character Renton, who, at the end of the original film, made off with the groups illgotten drugs money. Having fallen on miserable times in Amsterdam, he returns to Edinburgh and looks up old friends. But the psychopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle), in an unconnected incident, escapes from prison, and when he learns that Renton is in town, he seeks revenge for being double crossed.


It lacks the energy and pace of the first film, but it has enough surprises and moments of disgust to be just as entertaining in its own right. If you haven't seen the original though, a lot of the references will be lost on you. Production values, helped by a much larger budget of course, were far higher, and it was a lot of fun location spotting in the setting of Edinburgh. There's a nice start to the film to show a lot has changed in the past 20 years, as McGregor's character arrives in Edinburgh, and travels on the modern tram into the city centre, with a look of surprise on his face as he stares out of the window.


A familiar visual moment for me in the first film was when they visit the UKs most remote railway station at Corrour, and the view toward the hill Leum Uilleim, a favourite destination of mine. It was fun when the sequel returned to the same spot. 

Famously in the first film, Ewan McGregors character delivers a monologue, based on Iggy Pops Lust for Life. It memorably starts off:
"Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television. Choose washing machines, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance..."

In T2 they update it well, and it serves to demonstrate some changes of the past 20 years:
"Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and hope that someone cares what you had for breakfast. Choose reality TV. Choose a zero-hours contract, a two-hour journey to work. Choose the same for your kids and smother the pain with an unknown drug someone made in their kitchen..."

Choose Life.

Then a remarkable moment happened as we wandered home, discussing the films merits. As we came to a road junction, a recognisable figure came round the corner. None other than Aidan Bremner, father of Ewen Bremner, who plays Spud in Trainspotting! It was an astonishing coincidence, even more so as it is also 20 years since I have seen Aidan! Ewen was born and brought up where I live in Portobello, so there is a strong connection, and his father and I have been friends since the start of the 90s, when I ran my deli.

What a fitting end to a Perfect Day.


Friday, 10 February 2017

LACK OF COMMON SENSE

In the middle of last year I sold a second apartment that I had been renting out. This was for various reasons, but importantly, the generated capital had to be reinvested in something similar, as it represents my pension provision.

It has taken until this month for everything to work out, and two weeks ago I took possession of the new property.

The previous one had been very close to where my own apartment is. So close, in fact, that I could have popped down the stairs to borrow a cup of sugar! The new one though is in the centre of the city, mainly to enable me to secure a tenant without too much wait.

There were a number of things that needed attention, and I had set a budget for those. Initially I had forgotten that our money grabbing government had recently imposed a 3% penalty, they call it a tax, on anyone buying an apartment that is not their primary residence. This despite that they are not building enough properties to rent and keep bellowing on to us to make provision for our pension. I had done so, but clearly that was a bad thing to do!
So that took a large chunk out of my renovation budget.

Which has posed a problem.

I should have guessed, but there is a lot more wrong with this property than initially thought. Some of it caused by bodged-up repairs by so called professional builders in the past, doing a very amateur fix, and leaving the owners with a whopping bill. The list grew and grew.

One item that needed attention, which should have been very simple, was the discovery of a gas meter. There are no gas appliances in the property, and further investigation revealed there hasn't been so since 2007. So, get it removed as it's taking up space was the logical next step.

I attempted that this morning, and it is two hours of my life I will never get back!

I contacted British Gas. In fact, I rang them four times, as they persistently cut me off, usually at a point in the conversation where we had almost cracked the problem. It's lucky the house phone is made of tough stuff, considering I launched it across the room several times.

Eventually, during one 54 minute conversation, I started to get somewhere, until the British Gas (BG) persons computer said "no". It went a little something like this:
Me: So I need this meter removed. Here's my address.
BG: Sorry but that address doesn't exist.
Me: Well, it was built in the late 1800s, so I think you'll find it does.
BG: Its not on our national data base. 
Me: So that means the property doesn't exist.
BG: That's correct. Anything else I can help you with?
Me: Aaaaaaargh!
Pause.
Me: Explain why to me.
BG: The address you gave us and the one on the system don't match.

To cut a long, long, long story short, the address they had was the same, just in a different form, and the BG person said it was impossible to change, and so I would just have to leave the meter where it was. According to them there was no meter in the property, (I had a photograph of it!!!) and that the meter number I had given him was supplying gas to another property two floors below!

I hung up.

I then called Scottish Gas Networks, who deal with the engineering. This time I get a cheerful Glasgow person. And guess what? Done and dusted in five minutes.

You can always rely on a Scot to cut through the bullshit.