Saturday, 31 December 2016


Another year has gone, and what a year! 12 months ago I was grateful just to have made it to the end of the year, following a near fatal accident on my bicycle in Wyoming. 2016 was bound to be better.

But it didn't start off all that well. I had just begun treatment for hyperthyroidism when my body took an allergic reaction to the meds. That was fun! But gradually over the year all that has improved, almost to the point of being cured. Other people did not fair so well of course, and over the year we lost over a hundred household names, such as David Bowie, Mohammad Ali, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and George Michael. Two people that I was fond of, passed as well, Amy Moar and Kathy Donaldson. Another close friend went through a difficult split with her partner, and my brother has had a challenging year, but "all that too shall pass".

But I found there was a lot to celebrate too.  Films made by the young students I teach won a number of awards both in Scotland and Internationally; I marked the 25th anniversary of opening my deli, which I loved for 15 years, and Adventure Cycling in America screened a short film of mine as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations.

2016 has been the busiest year for me in filmmaking for some time, with six short films by the students in the first half, and several since; attending red carpet award events throughout the year; making films with special needs kids, and I became part of a new Scotland-wide film teaching initiative. At one point I worked as Producer for a film crew from Tennessee, which was nice to be working in the professional field again. At the cinema several films made a big impression on me, such as Room, Spotlight and Captain Fantastic. One special screening event was particularly good, called The Last Man On The Moon, chronicling astronaut Gene Cernan, with a live Q&A at the end.

At home lots of projects, some big, some small, were taken on. Things as simple as gathering wild blackberries and making a pie; remodeling the garden fence; helping Pauline move into her first home, and laterally, taking on a new rental property. My local area featured big this year as well, with festivals on the beach; walks over the local hills, and sightings of a visiting, exotic bird called a Mandarin Duck on the pond in the local Figgate Park.

The majority of the highlights of the year were, of course, in the great outdoors. This started with a special moment in mid January when I finally got back on my bike. Making up for lost time I ventured off on the bike, down to the Borders on the new Railway; along favourite routes near the Cairngorm Mountains; through the local Pentland Hills; two days following the east coast, south, from Stonehaven; circuits up and around Glen Tilt, Loch Ard and Glen Finglas. On foot I enjoyed new hills such as Ben Venue and returns to routes trekked long ago, such as The Tarmachan Ridge.

If I were to plot 2016 on a graph it would have a definite slant upwards in terms of success and enjoyment. 2017 is shaping up to be just as enjoyable, with new films to make, another astronaut event early on, a new property to renovate and hopefully lots of Scottish outdoor adventures on bike and foot.

Happy New Year everyone.

Friday, 23 December 2016


Here we are, two days before Christmas, and the time of year when everyone is panicking doing last minute shopping. Some will have done nothing at all so far. A cartoon on Facebook made me laugh, saying that the sale of any old rubbish was about to soar as men do their Christmas shopping.

On the BBC News, a woman interviewed in a high street somewhere, said she had reduced her Christmas present budget this year to just £800.

And food shopping has gone crazy once again, despite the much higher cost of everything this year, and despite the fact the stores are shut for just one day!

I have very little family left, and mostly spend Christmas with my friends. I gift presents to just a few, but mostly I choose to make those myself. For more than a decade I have made a bespoke mini diary for Pauline, with highlight photos from the previous year throughout. I also make Christmas cakes, mostly gluten free, and give these as presents too. I just feel that those sort of presents mean more. 

But that, of course, is just my opinion.

I haven't sent cards for many years now. Instead I take advantage of modern technology and send a homemade card via email.

All the money I would have spent on cards and postage is then given to a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal, which this year I've chosen the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan.

I'm lucky to have like minded friends, and I receive gifts with the same thought, and many friends have also started giving their card fund direct to charity.

But I've already received what will probably be the best present this Christmas. One that made me shed a tear.

Last Saturday was the last gathering for the academy where I teach film to around 150 kids. At the end I was setting up some fun activities for them to do in the last hour, when a tug came at my sleeve. I turned round and was blown away by the number of kids that had taken the time to write a card, and wanted to wish me Merry Christmas. One teenage student was tearful as she said she was leaving that day. Then she told me that when she joined two years ago, Film & TV was not on her radar. Two years on, and it was her favourite workshop, and she would miss me.

Kids say it how it is, and I was, in fact still am, so moved at their show of appreciation. It reminded me of just how privileged I am to teach young minds and have their respect. Such a wonderful gift.

There are some days in your life you will always remember.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Friday, 16 December 2016


It's been a wee while since Pauline and I have ventured out on an overnight bike trip, and with the weather forecast to be unseasonably mild and fine, we headed off on the train to Dunblane, just north of Stirling.

Within minutes of getting off the train late morning, we were out of Dunblane and onto quiet little backroads, heading north toward Comrie. At one point, as we pootled along on easy roads, I spotted this buzzard standing motionless, just metres from the edge of the road, patiently watching the ground in front of it for movement.

Our goal for the first day was to leave the main road before Comrie and tackle Glenartney, across the hills on a dirt track, to eventually bring us in from the north into Callander.

Within a few miles of setting off we passed through a small settlement called Braco, which prompted me to have an attempt at humour. I pronounced it "Baraco" and asked Pauline if Obama was from here, followed by wondering if anyone had ever said that before. If not, then I might have set a "precedent" (president, get it?!). 

There was a strong head wind all the way from Dunblane to the farm at the start of the hill track in Glenartney, and this put us behind. Given that there are less daylight hours just now, we had set ourselves a difficult time schedule. I was also feeling less than 100% due to lack of sleep caused by pretty bad toothache, and Pauline was still recovering from a seasonal bug. All things combined, put us at the top of Glenartney watershed by mid afternoon as the sun was on its downward approach.

Rounding a bend in the track at one point brought into view the mountains of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin, which was a bit of a wow moment for me I must admit.

The light was starting to go across the mountains, with the suns rays creating a beautiful sight on distance hills.

We pushed on, along track that became increasingly boggy in places, until we reached a small, disused reservoir in the shadow of Stuc a'Chroin at Arivurichardich.

It was a fast downhill for the few miles into Callander from this point, and by then it was time to dig out the lights. Had we been on schedule we may have stopped for coffee, but instead we pushed on to a small camp clearing on the edge of Loch Venachar for the night, pitching our tents in darkness.

Our goal for the trip was to complete a circuit around the area of Glen Finglas. When we woke in the morning the wind had dropped to near zero and it was still mild. We hid the majority of our gear and set off west toward the glen.

But quickly it was obvious my toothache was gathering strength, and it was all I could do to concentrate on the cycle for more than a few miles.

We stopped within site of our goal at compass markers on the ground made from granite stone, and made the decision that Glen Finglas would still be there another day when we were both feeling fitter.

Now Callander beckoned once again and a pharmacy for strong painkillers.

Thursday, 8 December 2016


A couple of blogs ago I wrote about a visit to Craigmillar Castle and it's role in Scottish History, most notably Mary Queen of Scots. On that occasion I was just wandering around filming the outer walls to add in to a short film for my young students.

Last Sunday I revisited the castle, only this time I paid the entry fee and wandered within its walls. I had read that fairly recently extensive preservation and restoration work had been carried out. It was partly this that prompted the visit, but also I was on the hunt for a location for filming Macbeth.

There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the sun shone brightly, casting long shadows across it's grounds and beyond, as I entered through it's portcullis-style, heavy iron gate. The castle itself sits in the centre of a 4m high perimeter wall that was built a few centuries after the castle. The castle itself has a myriad of rooms and staircases going off every which way, primarily because it was added to over the centuries.

Right in the centre of the castle is The Laird's Hall, and on entering through a replica oak, metal-studded door, you are transported back to the 15th century, and can almost hear the banquet being thrown. There is no furniture of any kind throughout, but it's not needed, as the castle itself evokes the right atmosphere.

Once home I started the process of applying for permission by email to use the castle to film Macbeth. As I did so, I was pleasantly surprised by an email that popped into my Inbox from Adventure Cycling in America. Back in July they had invited me to talk at their 40th anniversary celebrations in Missoula, Montana.

Unfortunately I couldn't make it across, so instead I sent them a short video about the cycle I had completed the year before, including all the gory details of the crash and its aftermath. Now they have gathered together films of all the talks given, including my film, and posted them together online. After just two days I have almost 200 views for my film alone. Click HERE if you'd like to see all the talks. (scroll to the bottom of the page to see mine):

To round of this weeks blog, a little rant.

A few weeks ago I purchased a new bike light set, a Lezyne 350, the number indicating the number of lumens brightness. All seemed good, and I liked the bungy-type connection that allowed it to be placed anywhere on the bike. Several settings added to the appeal.

However, one night I was cycling home from the centre of Edinburgh, which part of the route follows the Innocent Railway path, which has no illumination at all. I switched the light to it's strongest beam, and then just left it on that setting until home, about 20 minutes further on. By the time I reached the house the light had all but died.

Why such a short life of power, you might ask? Well, in my opinion it is the advent of manufacturers now making all their bike lights rechargeable by USB. This is a complete nonsense, especially if like me you might want to enjoy a night ride, or if you're cycling through country roads in the dark. You need a bright light that is going to go the distance and not run out of power. Unless you put a USB-chargeable light on a low setting, or blink, then it's not going to last. I've yet to come across a USB charging socket in the middle of the Scottish Highlands! So I went to a local bicycle store to buy a battery powered front light that I need for a night ride this weekend, only to find they no longer stock them!!

Clearly these people don't use bicycles, or at least not at night. Eventually I did find a battery powered light.

On Amazon.

Made in China!

Here ends the rant. Maybe.

Friday, 2 December 2016


I'm not a fan of supermarkets, preferring as much as possible to shop local, so much so that just over 12 years ago I was part of a successful campaign to keep Tesco out of our community, due to its threat to local shops. But time marches on, and peoples attitudes change. Recently, one of the cut-price supermarkets, Aldi, opened on the same contested site. I've never shopped in one of their stores, but you can't forge an opinion on something without at least trying it once.

This time of year always encourages me to make homemade soup for the freezer, and last weekend I did just that. For some reason, that I cannot fathom, the soup turned sour overnight. I recall this had happened previously, and by leaving out most of the root vegetables it seemed to solve the problem. Anyway, down the toilet it went. Desperate to replace it I ventured along, with low expectations, to the new Aldi, using the opportunity to buy more ingredients there.

Well, I am surprised to report, it was really rather good. The layout was organised, not hap-hazard as I had been told these stores were, and the staff were very helpful. OK, so I did not recognise a single brand, but I was here for veggies. Another surprise then at the checkout when I paid, that pound for pound, the bill was far less than I had spent on the first batch of soup. And I don't mean pennies, but almost £2 cheaper!

I felt a little guilty at not having bought from my local shops, but that same day another opportunity arose to redress the balance.

A few years ago a number of long-time residents got together and decided that they would organise and promote a late opening night for local shops on the approach to Christmas. They were wise to set a date a few weeks before the madness sets in, and his year it was last night that the doors were open late.

Pauline and I wandered along the street taking in the atmosphere, passing colourful window displays, the warm light from inside inviting us in. Each shop was very busy, which was a great sign that people were supporting them.

The busiest stores were those selling arts and crafts and quirky items. Both Pauline and I bought a couple of gifts a little less ordinary, one of which was a fun bean-bag Santa for my tree. It's still a little early for the tree to go up, but there's nothing like being prepared.

Along the street mulled wine was being handed out with mince pies and other free treats from a few of the shops.

A little further and the Portobello Community Choir were out, with renditions of our favourite Yuletide songs.

They will appear again this Saturday at the market.

At the town centre the Christmas tree had been put up, but sadly the illuminated decorations had developed a fault and couldn't be repaired in time. But we had a fab time soaking up the atmosphere.

And anyway, who needs twinkly lights when you have such a strong community spirit, and a pot of homemade soup waiting at home.

Thursday, 24 November 2016


Today my friends across the pond, and they are many, celebrate Thanksgiving, in celebration of when in 1621 the Pilgrim Fathers invited the indigenous population to a feast. So all across America, giant turkeys will be thrust into ovens for the centre point of the celebration, unless your vegan of course, which a number of my friends are.

But today I wanted live birds, and as it was a glorious, cloudless, blue sky day, with the temperature hovering around zero degrees, I opted for an afternoon bicycle ride along to the local lagoons, an area reclaimed from the sea and now inhabited by an abundance of wildlife.

The ground was still white in areas that the sun had not touched all day, and with the knowledge in my head of a friend of mine coming off his motorcycle on ice last night,  I cautiously rode along the promenade toward the neighbouring town of Musselburgh. My route left the main road as it entered the outskirts and took me past the marina and onto the coastal path that would eventually bring me out at the start of the lagoons.

The lagoons form roughly a semi-circular shape, and at the eastern edge where I joined the dirt track, the River Esk has its estuary. Here the temperature was marginally higher and a myriad of birds were gathered, most feeding.

There were thousands of gulls and a number of swans, both a regular sight. But I also spotted, godwits, turn stones, oyster catchers, greylag geese and one solitary curlew. Pauline would be proud of me that I should know so many of the birds, but to be honest, I cheated. I met a couple we both knew out for a wander, they themselves being birdwatchers, so as we stood for a while chatting I memorised some of the names they pointed out.

I hung about for a while but it was late in the day and I had not taken my lights with me. The sun was low in the sky and it is this golden hour that casts the best light, creating enormously long shadows and a rich amber light on everything.

I have much to be thankful for this week myself. Not only did I have this great afternoon ride, but at the start of the week some of my young students won Best Live Action, 12 And Under, for a movie they completed in April. They had previously won an award within the academy itself, but this award came from outside so was a little bit special. And to cap it off they won Best Film overall, beating students as old as 19.

It's at times like these I realise just how much I love what I do, and someone pays me to do it as well. As Anthony Hopkins once said, whilst picking up an Oscar; "It beats working".

Friday, 18 November 2016


What I know about whisky could be written on the bottom of a bottle cork. Until recently that is.

My work as a filmmaker can bring me into contact with a variety of unique situations, and I occasionally get to meet some well known faces. I have been fortunate to work for some pretty big names in the corporate sector as well, companies such as Apple from the United States, as their UK Producer. Two weeks ago another household name contacted me from the US for a documentary shoot on whisky, or should I say, Whiskey, on this occasion I can't name them here as I am bound by a non disclosure agreement, but I'm fairly sure you can work it out.

The job entailed arranging transport, accommodation, filming kit, locations and interviews, all prior to the film crew landing last week. They started off in Scotland and would then move on to London and Cambridge, so with my contacts I enlisted a London Producer to organise that leg. For you geeks out there we were shooting on an Arri Amira, a popular camera in documentary making and now some major TV dramas.

The majority of my time was spent securing a distillery for them to film in, and this brought me into contact with people who were so passionate about Scotch Whisky it was hard to get a word in edge ways.

One of our interviewees was the world renowned whisky expert Charles Maclean. So great is his knowledge that Ken Loach cast him as himself in his 2012 movie, The Angels Share.

As a result of this job my own knowledge of whisky has increased a hundred fold, and what a fascinating journey it was. The still house in one distillery alone was a thing of beauty.

Scotch Whisky's origins can be dated back as far as 1494 to a drink called The Water of Life, a definition it still carries today. But back then it was a clear drink, not the familiar amber colour we now see. This comes from the barrels that the distilled whisky is matured in over time. Though some sherry caskets are used from Spain, a large quantity of barrels from the American Whiskey industry, and bourbon makers, are used.

But it was a collective series of events that conspired to bring the American barrels into being a intrinsic part of Scotch making that I found particularly interesting. A long time back, wood in which to make barrels was becoming scarce. It was helped by importing sherry caskets, but this wasn't meeting demand, partly because Scotch Whisky was being "laid down" for so long. On the other side of the Atlantic federal law dictated that all American Whiskey had to be matured in new, unused white oak barrels. They had the opposite problem. They were accumulating a vast pile of unusable barrels. So the market was born for exporting them to Scotland.

A "barrel" is a unit of measure, much like the oil industry. The larger the barrel, the slower the maturation, and so the smoother the end product. In Scotland the American barrel was too small, and so when they arrive they are remade in a cooperage into a casket called a Hogs Head.

Distilleries all make a single malt, as that it was comes out of each individual still. A large portion of these are then "blended" with other whiskys. However, if you were to buy a bottle of blended whisky it may contain, for example, two thirds 70 year old, a third 25 year old, and a tablespoon of 3 year old. Though an unlikely extreme example, if this were the mix, it would have to be sold as a 3 year old, and cannot state the other whisky ages.  Incidentally, three years is the minimum age of any Scotch Whisky by law.

The patience required to achieve the world famous end result is astounding. This is not a business to turn a fast buck. It was amazing in one distillery to see dusty rows of barrels in a run down warehouse that had being lying undisturbed for more than 20 years.

I had a great, if not exhausting, time on the shoot, and now I know my Hogs Heads from my Butts, Puncheons and Port Pipes.

I think the crew had a good time too.

Friday, 11 November 2016


The last blog told of the many splendid colours around Loch Ard, as I ventured north to Aberfoyle for an autumn highland bike ride. I thought that would be it for my autumn fix this year, but last weekend Pauline and her partner Rob invited me to join them for a wander up Deuchary Hill in rural Perthshire, so I jumped on a train in Edinburgh for the hour and a half journey to Dunkeld.

I've done this little 511m hill many times, but it is such a great walk, easily fitting in to a short day, that it is a joy every time. On this occasion of course, we were surrounded in amber, though past its best by now.

Our route followed a dirt track from a car park, and wound its way through the wooded and forested hills behind Dunkeld. There are a few small houses up here, set among the picturesque landscape. It would be a long way to go for a pint of milk, especially in the winter snows.

We had a brief stop at a small pond for some munchies, as had a few other walkers. A pair of mute swans paddled their way across to see if there was anything up for grabs.

Eventually the dirt track ends and continues as a well trodden path. It was a busy path, with many people out enjoying the hill, including a small group of ponies and riders, which was understandable given it was a glorious blue-sky day. 

We circled round the base of the hill before approaching the small lump of the summit from the north. There was a WOW moment as we stepped onto the nobbly summit, with a view to the distant mountains capped in snow.

There was a bitingly cold breeze at the top so we didn't hang around, and followed a steeper and more scrambley path back down. The colours had changed with the failing light, given us a different experience as we retraced our steps back to Dunkeld.

A great day, and thanks to Rob for driving us all back home.

Here's a few more pics from the walk:

Friday, 4 November 2016


Aberfoyle, a small village in the heart of The Trossachs, lies just one and a half hours north from my front door, and at this time of year the display of autumn colours is something to behold. But I haven't had a chance to get away recently to enjoy the spectacle anywhere. Last week Pauline returned from her holiday with a set of stunning photographs of autumn hues, which just made me envious.

Being freelance does have a number of downsides, but one big advantage is the flexibility of time. I had a couple of meetings scheduled for Tuesday last week, but with a little work, I rearranged and headed off for Aberfoyle, on a cloudless, blue-sky day, with hardly a breath of wind, and in less than two hours I was unloading my bicycle 3 miles beyond Aberfoyle village, on the shores of Loch Ard.

I then back-tracked toward Aberfoyle, before turning off into the forest that runs along the southern edge of Loch Ard. I've been here before with Pauline, and usually I just trundle along, ignoring any navigation. Needless to say, about half an hour in to the forest, I was lost. But it is a small loch and small circuit round it through this forest, so I knew if I kept heading roughly toward the mountain of Schiehallion, and kept the loch to my right, which I couldn't actually see, I would be fine.

It was a spectacular ride, through corridors of trees draped in rubys, gold and pale emeralds, with a constant shower of amber, carpeting the track. It was hard not to take a good photo. But I had not been paying attention very well, when I discovered that the track came to an end at a hidden and unexpected quarry.

I stuck to my plan and continued on, at one point having to push the bike up a very narrow and overgrown footpath. Eventually it popped out onto a more substantial forest road. I turned west toward the mountain in the distance, and then came face to face with an 8-foot high, wrought iron gate, with a deer fence either side. Luckily for me it was not padlocked, and once through I recognised the track that leads down to the village of Kinloch Ard.

It had only taken a brief amount of time to do the circuit, but it had been a complete joy.

I stopped on the edge of the village and heated up a pouch of food for lunch, washed down with coffee, as I enjoyed the peace interrupted only by a very vocal Robin in full song.

Back at the car there was still a few hours of daylight remaining, so I took a wander up a nearby natural wood, which is the start of the path that leads up to the mountain Ben Venue, which I had ascended earlier in the year, but back then it had been a misty and murky day, not so this day. Had I had more time I may well have continued on up to the summit. Inside the forest the sun filtered through the canopy, now with 50% of its leaf cover having fallen. But everywhere the forest looked healthy, with signs everywhere of low pollution.

With the light fading I returned to the car for the journey home. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable day and autumn fix. Here's a few more pics from the day.