Thursday, 19 April 2018

THE BOULDERS OF NARNAIN!!!!

Did you miss me? No post last week, which is a first for me, but things have been rather hectic on the film side. The good news is though, I did manage to get away with my best friends on an overnight hillwalking adventure a week ago.

Andrew, Pauline and I try to get away together at least twice a year, and our busy lives rarely allow us more than this. Over the Easter holidays we set off  bound for the Arrochar Alps, organised by Pauline as always.

It is fair to say that both Andrew and I may be a little below par on the fitness scale, so spare a thought for our seasoned third team member, Pauline, waiting at every turn for us to catch up, listening to my moans and groans, or having to hurry us up in order to catch a train. Like reluctant teenagers we would regularly just giggle to ourselves in response. Poor Pauline.

The train station sits between the two villages of Arrochar, at the head of Loch Long, and Tarbet, on the shores of Loch Lomond. Having left the train we were faced with a wooden fence barring us from walking the woodland trail to Arrochar, due to the danger of logging activities. But we are seasoned hillwalkers, and laugh in the face of danger.

But it was Sunday, and no loggers were working.


A very pleasant couple of kilometers brought us out at the head of the loch and a view of, well, mountains covered in low cloud. It was a disappointment, as we had hoped to view the famous Cobbler, and summit the nearby peak of Beinn Narnain. The forecast promised that the following day would be clearer and brighter, so instead we headed north up Glen Loin along a forest track.


We were treated to views of various angles of the snow capped summit of Ben Lomond in the distance, with Ben Vane and Ben Vorlich (not the Lochearhead one I was reliably corrected) on our western flank.


The track was almost as good as a main road, but unfortunately that meant it was solid, and thus created a fair amount of pain in my damaged right toe with the repetitive force applied all the way along. This, naturally, fell on deaf ears of my "friends"


Up ahead was the gigantic front of Loch Sloy dam, serving the Loch Lomond-side hydro power station of the same name. As we ate up the kilometers, expecting to arrive at the dam at some point, I was unaware that we were slowly turning to the east. Eventually the track turned back on itself, and a few kilometers more we passed some distance below the dam.

Our plan was now to find a place to camp for the evening and so we headed south, past new born lambs skipping about the hillside and over the pass back toward Arrochar.


I could almost guarantee that the first spot we would stop at we would camp on. But our intrepid leader Pauline insists on scouring the local vicinity in search of that quintessential camp spot, only to always arrive back at the first spot. Confident that my bet was safe, both Andrew and I sat a while and chatted, watching the birds flit about, singing their song, and Pauline, bouncing and leaping from tussock to tussock, every further away, stopping a moment with chin in hand in contemplation, before heading to the next possible site.

Finally, we set up camp for the night, right where we had originally stopped.


Day two we all awoke with eager anticipation for clear tops and blue sky. Instead we had even lower cloud and murk. Packed up early in order to make the summit of Beinn Narnain, we headed off, much to my complaints that I thought it pointless going up in this, well, I can't repeat my comment here.

But Pauline, ever the optimist, drove the merry band on, and before long we were through Arrochar and on the path ascending toward our goal. If all else failed we would be treated to The Boulders of Narnain, Pauline promised.

We had dumped our heaviest gear, and Andrew and I agreed to share carrying the one rucksack with both our kit in. I was quietly delighted when he opted to take it on the way up, and I must have looked rather casual and reckless to others ascending the path, with apparently no gear. The mist kept teasing us, but eventually we accepted it was never going to clear, and so, as we stopped for a snack at the enormous Narnain Boulders, we took the decision to turn around.

But not before Andrew decided that more of a celebration should be made of reaching the boulders. He stood, with arms out in operatic style, and sang, in his baritone voice, as loud as he could muster, "THE BOULDERS OF NARNAIN!" holding "nain" for dramatic effect. What nearby walkers in the mist must have thought is anyone's guess. Not to be outdone, Pauline and I joined in, but with slightly less confidence than Andrew in wanting to look like a tit.


Very happy with ourselves, we descended to a local cafe in Arrochar for our reward, in celebration of our efforts and our musical prowess.

We shall return.


Saturday, 7 April 2018

AT A LOSS

In the later years of my mums life, it's fair to say she was suffering from a high level of hearing loss. Though it's no joking matter when one of your main senses starts to degrade, at times it was quite comical. Like most people she denied there was an issue. On occasion answers she would give to a question would come back wrong, because she genuinely hadn't heard you. But at other times she would compensate by trying to guess what someone had just said. I recall well on one occasion, as a late teens young man on my way out for the evening, I said to her; "That's me off now. I'll likely be late", to which the response was "I'm not sure but I think I saw some in the kitchen cupboard".

A good number of years ago I started to notice my brother's hearing was going the same way, and now he is really bad. He tells me he has hearing aids but doesn't use them as "they don't work". I suspect the real reason is the same sort of denial of the problem, because let's be honest, a chunky device sitting visibly on the back of your ear is ageing.

Many of my friends will tell you that my hearing is also becoming quite bad. I'm not in denial, and will happily tell people when I haven' heard them that my hearing is poor. My job is starting to be affected as well. I have a large number of young children in my classes, and their voices are in the higher frequency bracket, and these are the sounds my brain is not processing anymore.

The other down side of this affliction is that some people, probably not meaning to, can be quite hurtful. I rarely say anything in response, but sometimes it is quite upsetting. They will repeat something to me, for say a third time, but in a slow, loud and sarcastic manner. If I was in a wheel chair, or blind, would they be so sarcastic with that disability?

So recently I took the plunge and started the process of having hearing aids fitted. I too am aware of the ageing affect of them, and decided at the outset that I would be going for something that was almost invisible.

The tests took about an hour, during which time a very clever computer programme built up an accurate picture of my hearing abilities, after which the consultant talked me through the various options and models. And there are many. I had no idea what I was looking at. The only parameter I had was that I wanted them to be as discreet as possible, with the added consideration of price, for these devices are expensive.

There were two suggestions, one being double the price of the other, due to being made of titanium. But I still didn't know what I was supposed to choose. All the models had a chart displaying each devices capabilities, but this did little to help my decision.

Finally she attached a demo model to each ear, and programmed them with what the computer had analysed as my needs. She then said she was going to play some bird song. After a few seconds she asked if I could hear it.

Nope. Total silence.

That was because she hadn't turned them on yet.

Then she activated them.

To say it was an emotional experience is the biggest understatement of the year! It was incredible. I could hear so much, and they were only operating at 80% capability. Even the crumpling of my jacket was really noticeable, and my own voice sounded strange, with higher frequency sounds such as a sniff seeming embarrassingly loud. She advised me not to have them at 100% to begin with, as it would be too much too soon. My brain had to have time to readjust to processing sounds it hasn't heard for years.

This time next month I predict the quality of my life is going to improve a great deal. Hopefully the impatience and sarcasm from people around me may also stop. But I'm most looking forward to being able to make out what my students are asking me, hearing the Robin in the garden and geese flying overhead on my adventures in the Scottish wilds.


Saturday, 31 March 2018

HIDDEN GORGES, WALLED CITIES AND CAESAR SALADS

A number of years ago a friend of mine left the UK to live on Gozo, a small island which is part of the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean, and sits less than 100km south of Sicily.

And we're talking small here. An outline of the island fits within the city boundaries of Edinburgh, and its population is equal to that of Portobello.



Inhabited since around 5,000 years BC, in 1551 its population went down to virtually zero, when the Ottomans invaded and removed everyone, executing many and enslaving the rest. Some two decades later, led by the Knights of Malta, the island was repopulated from Malta.

Until a few years after the second world war, the inhabitants of Gozo mostly moved around on horse and cart. When the Americans arrived in 1943 to build a temporary runway to support their invasion of Sicily, locals flocked to see the giant earth moving vehicles. Today there are certainly a lot of cars, and the roads themselves are not in great shape. Sadly driving skills are not at their best, with an average of one fatality per day. I chose to travel around by bus and of course, ferry.


There is a proposal to build either a bridge or undersea tunnel connecting the two islands, but with many years having passed since talking began, I sense a quiet resistance to the idea. It would certainly bring more than the 30 cars or so per hour that the current ferries do to Gozo.

Both Malta and Gozo have changed little in looks architecturally over the decades, and it is for this reason that it enjoys a very busy film industry. The streets and small sandstone and limestone towns stand in frequently for Palestine, Beirut and even ancient Rome. On the outskirts of the capital of Malta, Valletta, it boasts the largest water tank filming facility in Europe. Films such as Munich, Captain Philips and Game of Thrones have all filmed here.


By the very nature of its location, Gozo enjoys a much quieter time than its neighbour, and I can see the attraction that many Brits see, making up almost 40% of its population. On my visit there this week it was a pleasant 18˚C, a Scottish summer in essence. At the end of my short stay it was into the low 20s and for me this was bordering uncomfortable, so I doubt I will return in the blistering 40˚ heat of summer!

Victoria is the capital of Gozo, and, like Malta, has a British influence, with the likes of Holland & Barrett on the main street. But up on the highest point of the coastal town is an ancient walled citadel, recently restored.


Walls, some 100ft high, slope at an angle, with grassed walkways at their base. The views from the ramparts are, naturally, amazing, across the vast expanse of the Med and to nearby Malta.


Within an easy short boat ride is the third island, Comino, measuring just 3.5km square, and popular with all holiday makers, primarily for its famed Blue Lagoon, a naturally formed shallow pool of water within a small bay.

My friends apartment is a recent renovation, with marble floors and modern interior. It stays cool in the summer and warm'ish in the winter months, and is also almost self sufficient for energy, with most of the roof occupied by solar panels.


Knowing a resident when you are in a foreign holiday destination is quite handy, especially when their friends are very knowledgeable of the area. On a warm and breezy afternoon, a group of four of us ventured off on a walk off the beaten track. Our starting point was the bay of Mgarr ix-Xini, a picturesque location, and where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt filmed By The Sea in 2014.


A gorge then goes inland, and we followed an overgrown footpath, hacking our way through vegetation, and even a bamboo forest at one point.


After less than an hour we came to an old water pumping station built in the Victorian era. A hundred feet of building rose up the gorge walled, looking as if someone had just glued it on.


Below was a further 100feet, deep into the ground, tapping into the natural water table. Long since abandoned, it is now replaced by a more modern facility some distance away, supplying all of Gozo with its water needs.

The gorge is a magnet for rock climbers, and a few of varying nationalities were busy belaying each other as we passed. As we climbed out of the gorge we came upon a series of holes in the rock surface, clearly carefully carved out millennia ago. I was unable to guess what their use had been.


It turns out that the largest opening, roughly two feet by three feet, was used for the first stage of grape pressing, then the shallow, triangular trough for a more thorough pressing, with any remnants being squeezed out in the small circular hole to the left. All the juice then gathered in the deep trough at the base. How you then extracted all of it efficiently from there is anyone's guess.

With my few days drawing to a close I decided to spend the last night in the capital city of Malta, Valletta, starting my journey out of the picturesque main harbour of Gozo.


If the walled citadel in Victoria on Gozo had impressed me, nothing prepared me for the gigantic nature of the walled city of Valletta.


These sloping defensive walls were some 150feet high, with the entire city surrounded on all sides. Up until I reached the newly constructed entrance, I had thought I was already in Valletta, but it turns out only the walled section is the actual capital.

There was not much time to explore, and we mostly walked it's high ramparts, at times daring to peer over the edge, legs wobbling with fear. Just within the entrance they had constructed a very modern-looking sandstone building for the parliament, and I am pleased to say it fits perfectly with the old buildings, with their Venetian-style wooden framed windows and sandstone walls.


Partly because Valletta is the European Capital of Culture for 2018, a lot of money has been spent on restoring the old buildings. But one building has not been restored to its former glory; the opera house. Situated just beyond the main entrance, it suffered a direct hit in World War II and was obliterated, save for some of its stone columns. So instead of rebuilding it they have created a modern, open air structure of steel within its boundaries, within its framing, stage and lighting rigs all naked and on show. This was my favourite structure.


After a late lunch of a delicious, large Caesar salad, and with the skies darkening, my friend bade me farewell to return to her home on Gozo. I wandered a little more as the light started to fade, then retired to my B&B for the last night, down a narrow street, not far from the Grand Harbour, on the edge of the walled city of Valletta.




Friday, 23 March 2018

THE CALEDONIA WAY

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.
I hadn't heard this story, and further research told me that Colin Campbell had just crossed the then Ballachulish ferry in one of its early forms, to serve eviction notices, when two miles down the road he was shot dead. He crossed at the very ferry crossing my new film is all about, so now it feels quite appropriate that we camped near James, wrongly hanged for his murder, on a small hillock at south Ballachulish, right beside the ferry landing. 

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

STICK TO WHAT YOU KNOW

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

LIFE IS LIKE A CAMERA

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

POST APOCALYPTIC PORTOBELLO

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".