Saturday, 28 December 2013


Wrapping paper added to landfill, turkey gobbled and stuffing, well, err, stuffed, we enter the last week of 2013. A time when most of us reflect, not just on the year gone but further back too.

I too often hear people say things like; live in the now; today is the first day of the rest of your life; the future depends on what you do today, and so on. One I have recently heard is, "you cannot use the past to fill what is missing in the present". I strongly disagree and would counter that, "one cannot erase or dismiss the past simply because it does not fit the present".

Someone once told me that I dwell too much on the past. I think they mistake my fondness for my past experiences and memories as a negative thing. For me they are what makes me who I am, and what we are.

An adaptation of an old grace, goes: "gather in the summer for the winter ahead", referring on this occasion to the harvest. But I've also heard it applied to taking photographs or gathering memories, and I have gathered a bumper crop of both over the years. So maybe some see me as dwelling in the past, but in actual fact I simply cherish the memories of good times . . . often.

They are, in some ways, all that remain.

I could go on forever, waxing lyrical on the subject, suffice to say we are a product of our experiences, our memories, and they are precious to me, to all of us.  Some are not so great memories, and some make us smile and laugh, but they are all important. More often than not they are made up of experiences with people, and yes, I do long to repeat them. The fact I often reminisce about past adventures and great experiences with the people that have been in my life, says a lot about how much I value those friendships and times.

So I think it is good to reflect. It helps us make new decisions. Imagine if science never considered what had gone before. Where would we be now? For me I can see where I went wrong over the past year and beyond, of where I put too much effort into one thing, only to end up with a poor result. In contrast I recall those times where a small amount of time and effort resulted in a strong, everlasting memory that will stay with me forever.

2013 for me? Two special memories: the first was my 50th birthday weekend and the second of course was the talk tour over the summer. Both were made all the more memorable because of one special person involved in both.

And so on to 2014. Some call them resolutions, I prefer to call them goals for the year ahead. I have a few (I love a list). Mostly though I can see that 2014 is going to bring change, and I'm not great with change.

Whatever happens it will be an experience to reflect on next new year.

Friday, 20 December 2013


I was at a friends house this evening for "drinks and nibbles", and one of the topics of conversation was about those in the Philippines still dealing with the aftermath of the typhoon that hit them at the start of November.

Then there's the Syrian refugees and the worlds largest ever appeal launched by the UN.

Closer to home an elderly couple talked about how they had nursed their daughter most of the year in her final months of a terminal illness.

Another friend had just marked 10 years since losing the love of their life in December 2003.

There is no doubt, this is a tough time of year for many around the world.

Now this all might sound a bit miserable and putting a dampener on things, but actually it was some what inspiring. As the conversations grew it became more and more apparent just how many people were so much more aware of the needs of others, and many had given to the big appeals this year.

A number of years ago I stopped buying and sending Christmas cards, choosing instead to give that money to a disaster appeal. A number of people in the room had also done the same this year. I received a Christmas card from my friend George, with a note inside saying this was the last year he would be sending cards as he was going to give the equivalent money to a worthy cause in future.

It's not that we were being miserable, but that we were bringing the issues out into the open and taking some form of action.  When I think back say just 10 years, the very idea that we would not send Christmas cards but give all the money to charity instead was almost taboo. The closest we would get would be to buy charity cards, which is something I guess.

There is still far too much commercialisation of Christmas, and we are bombarded for months before hand to buy buy buy. The pressure on less well off families is immense, driven by advertising influencing their kids to have the very latest whatever.

Over the past couple of months I have been privileged to have been involved in teaching high school students filmmaking. The last time we all met up it was encouraging to hear them talk about the pressures on families at this time of year, and they too were taking action to do something for those less fortunate.  I can't remember this ever happening when I was their age.

Of course the key to all this is global communication, and latterly social media sites.  Yes there is a downside, that advertisers get increased opportunity to target us, but on the up side humanitarian issues and appeals now reach everyone, of all ages, and I can see a shift in thinking like never before.

May everyone find hope and happiness in their Christmas stocking.

Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.

Friday, 13 December 2013


There's no use in denying it any longer:  Christmas will soon be upon us!  Though to be honest it seems it's been upon us since October!

We've all moaned about it I guess, the shops putting their decorations up in September, Christmas adverts on the TV in October and piped Christmas carols everywhere you go in November.  I often wonder if businesses have a competition to see who can be first.

I used to own a retail deli some years ago, and Christmas for me who start in July when I had to decide what to order from my suppliers!  I too was guilty of forcing it on the public as my Christmas stock would be on the shelves on the 1st November.  From experience I discovered that if I left it much later than this customers would go elsewhere for the goodies I sold.

Maybe we should all take a leaf out of Amsterdam's books: there it is not allowed by local law for ANYONE to display Christmas decorations, or shops to display products, until December 1st.

But to the matter in hand: the Christmas tree.  When are we supposed to put it up and take it down?

The traditional decorated tree really originates from Germany.  But even before its association with Christianity, trees have long be used as symbols. The Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year in December; people of Finland used groves instead of temples in ancient times; Romans decorated their homes with evergreens during a winter festival; Druids decorated oak trees with golden apples during the winter solstice and in the middle ages trees were hung with red apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve.

The first reference I could find for a fir tree decorated for Christmas is in Latvia in 1510 and later in Germany in 1531.  German settlers introduced the Christmas tree to the United States in 1804, and Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria, in 1841 put up a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle and the idea caught on in Britain.

Some use real trees, and some artificial. I have a small, two foot artificial one, as I long believed it was more environmentally sound. However I recently read that you have to use an artificial tree for at least 20 years before it surpasses the carbon footprint of using a real tree! I'm pretty close now, though it does smell a bit musty these days.

The triangular shape is meant to represent the Holy Trinity, and so originally the Christmas tree would not be put up until the night before on Christmas Eve. Another tradition is to put up the tree on 6th December, in honour of the death of St Nicholas, and take it down on Epiphany, on the 6th January.  Most people these days say 12 days before, the 13th December, and 12 days after, which happens to be Epiphany anyway.

Where I live some people have gone bonkers with Christmas decorations. One house nearby has the entire front of their building covered in flashing and blinking lights. And they are three storeys up!

I never used to bother with any decorations until Pauline and I shared a home, and even stopped when she left on her world travel.  But I'm pleased to say the tradition has returned.  In terms of when I put it up: I like to stick to the 12 days before. Today in fact.

So if you'll figure me, I have a tree to decorate.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Where, gleaming with the setting sun,
One burnished sheet of living gold,
Loch Katrine lay beneath him rolled,
In all her length far winding lay,
With promontory, creek, and bay,
And islands that, empurpled bright,
Floated amid the livelier light,
And mountains that like giants stand
To sentinel enchanted land.

Sir Walter Scott

A golden sunrise over the Wallace monument at Stirling, set Pauline and I off on our 70mile bicycle trip for the weekend, setting out from the Bridge of Allan railway station toward the silver strand that is Loch Katrine.

It was cold and frosty as we weaved our way across farmland on quiet little backroads in the early morning light. In the far distance to the north east were the recognisable giant sentinels of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a'Chroin and directly ahead was Ben Ledi, all with a light dusting of icing-sugar snow.

Through the sleepy little village of Doune we were soon eating up the miles, passing the outskirts of Callander and on to the shores of Loch Venachar, it's surface as smooth as a mirror. We were following leafy forested tracks on the south shore, past little sailing clubs and half way along Invertrossachs House, visited by Queen Victoria in 1869 as one of her favourite destinations.

Four miles on from Loch Venachar we reached the winding Loch Katrine, at the small jetty where steam ship The Sir Walter Scott sets sail with tourists on it's cruises around the eight-mile-long loch. The wind picked up noticeably at this point, channeled down the valley at the north end from the sentinels of Ben Lui and Ben More, creating a choppy surface.

The Sir Walter Scott has been sailing the waters of Loch Katrine for over 100 years, and is named after the poet and novelist of the same name, who died in 1832, who gave us the poem The Lady of The Lake. It draws upon the Arthurian legend, where she is said to have given King Arthur the sword Excalibur. Sir Walter Scott's poem tells a different story though, and is set around the shores of Loch Katrine.

We were almost at the top end of the loch, some 35 miles since starting out, when we came upon a man-made promontory. The sun was starting to dip behind the mountain chain of Ben Lomond to the west, casting a lively silver light across the loch, as we parked up the bikes and wandered down to the point. Here was the burial ground of Malcolm Gregor, one of the chiefs of the clan MacGregor, buried in 1699. Rob Roy is the most famous member of the clan of course, but his remains are buried at a small church in Balquhidder. Here, on the shores of Loch Katrine, the chieftain had slept, looking out over this enchanted land for the past 300 years.

Turning round the head of the loch we headed south west now to the shores of Loch Chon, a tributary of Loch Ard, source of the River Forth that flows to our home city of Edinburgh. We camped for the night in dense pine woods on its western shore, with twinkling lights on the opposite shore from fellow campers. During the night I was awoken suddenly, when just beside my tent there was a thump thump thump and a snorting. I can only assume a deer had come upon our tents in the darkness.

A spectacular sunrise the following morning beckoned us to start our return journey home. Blue skies from horizon to horizon made the journey all the more pleasurable, as we picked our way past Loch Ard, the Lake of Mentieth, and through the towns and villages of Aberfoyle, gateway to the Trossachs, Thornhill and finally Doune.

We couldn't let a fabulous bike trip pass without indulging in a long standing tradition, and so it was we pulled into a little coffee shop in Doune for coffee and cake.

Tired but satisfied, once home I slipped into bed for a restful sleep with thoughts of enchanted lands, majestic lochs and sleeping chieftains.