Friday, 30 September 2016


If you've been reading my blog for a while you may recall last year at this time I came upon a secret stash of wild blackberries. I returned again this year only to find that the crop was not that great. Many of the blackberries had not ripened and had simply withered away. I can only assume it is because of this extended warm period we have been experiencing. However, there was almost enough to fill a pie!

On the way home I stopped by the local community orchard and picked half a dozen small apples to add to the quantity of blackberries.

Now I had enough for a pie!

I went for a gluten free option. 12oz of gluten-free flour and 6 ounces of Stork marj were added to a bowl and rubbed through my fingers until a fine breadcrumbs texture was achieved. Using a tiny amount of water at a time, I worked the mixture until it formed into one lump of dough. I let it chill for half an hour in the fridge before rolling it out and lining a pie tin. The tricky part was getting it into the tray, as gluten-free pastry just breaks up if you try to lift it. Third time lucky. Then I "baked it blind", by putting greaseproof paper over the base and placing the empty shell case in the oven for about 15 minutes.

Once cooled, in went the chopped apples, a little caster sugar, the blackberries, a little more sugar, then the lid went on. Back in the oven for another 30 minutes.

The orchard was started a few years ago by the same organisation that runs the local community market on the first Saturday of every month. The area used to be known locally as the donkey field, as a retired donkey used to live there. It had long since passed, and the field, which is on a slope down to Brunstane Burn, had become badly overgrown. Taking control of the field from the council, the area was cleared, and since 2010 around 90 fruiting trees have been planted, including apples, pears, plums and cherries, focusing on unusual and old varieties. Currant and gooseberries bushes have also been planted, and together with a little more landscaping a hive of bees was introduced three years ago.

They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Well, I can't share it with you, but trust me, it is yummy. Or should I say was, as it was consumed within hours of leaving the oven!

Friday, 23 September 2016


In the mid 1800s the 6th Duke of Atholl, George Murray, resident in Blair Castle in the village of Blair Atholl, attempted to close probably the best glen in Scotland, Glen Tilt, running for 14 miles in a south westerly direction from the Cairngorms.

But thanks to the Scottish Rights of Way Society at the time he was unsuccessful. Just as well, as last weekend Pauline and I set off for a couple of days in that very area.

Normally we use trains to get to our outdoor destinations, but the train company in Scotland is so out of tune that we are rarely able to get our bicycles on the trains due to a lack of available space. Undeterred, we loaded the bikes into my van and headed for Pitlochry, 13 miles south of Blair Atholl and the start of Glen Tilt.

There was the familiar smell of autumn in the air as we set out from Pitlochry, and the temperature was perfect with blue skies overhead. Surprisingly though for this time of year the trees were showing no sign of turning into their autumn hues. Having left the van in Pitlochry, we pootled along on quiet little back roads  the dozen or so miles north west to Blair Atholl. Halfway we passed by the site of the Battle of Killecrankie. In 1689 the Jacobites were victorious over government troops, albeit with great losses on both sides of around 2,000 men.

Soon we were entering Blair Atholl on its southern edge, past Blair Castle and out north east for Glen Tilt. The majority of the route is good quality track, and so the going is easy and fairly quick. The first few miles wind through woods, with the River Tilt always on our right, cascading its way down to join the River Garry.

By the time we stopped for lunch we were already passed the halfway point. The sun shone as we sat and enjoyed our snacks in its warmth beside a small burn, flanked by native Rowan trees, heavy with their bright red berries.

The good quality track now started to deteriorate as we reached the end of the V-shaped glen. A narrow path continues on to the Cairngorm, but we were leaving it here to turn due east.

Right at this point here is an ornate suspension bridge easing the crossing of a fast, wide river coming down off the hills. Though attractive it looks completely out of place, and is known as the Bedford Bridge.

In 1879 an 18 year old lad called Francis John Bedford drowned at this spot. Having fought off the Duke's attempt to close the glen, the Scottish Rights of Way, together with contributions from friends, paid for a bridge to be built to commemorate this boys life, and exactly 130 years ago since it was built, we now used this magnificent structure to safely cross the river.

It was only mid afternoon when we decided to camp. The second section of our route would take us over to the next glen, and as far as we could deduce from the map there would not be many places to camp.

Tents set up and supper on the stove, we were joined by several hundred unwelcome visitors. Midges! They can ruin a camp. By mid September they are usually gone, but the weather has been so unseasonably warm this year that they are still out in force. Unwillingly to allow them to feast on us, we retired to our tents to eat our supper, read and listen to the river bubbling past as the light slowly faded.

On a chilly morning with the moon still visible low in the sky, we were faced with a tough challenge to the start of our second days route. A small hill with a very steep path stood in our way, and with the bikes fully loaded with kit we struggled to push them up the narrow path, at times almost losing balance to teeter over the edge. Pauline of course is more sensible than me, and did the climb in two stages, first the bike, then the kit. I on the other hand took the lazy option, and did it altogether.

It was around 2km before we cycled again, once the narrow footpath reached Fealar Lodge, said to be the highest, permanently inhabited dwelling in Scotland. From here the track we joined was of good quality and the going was fast. Mostly it is downhill and a lot of fun to allow gravity to do its job, with my hands always ready on the brakes of course, as the road twists it's way following the natural course of a river.

It was a striking glen, with large areas of forest regeneration in progress. At one point the track climbs very steeply but you are rewarded with a long fast downhill after. We stopped briefly for snacks before heading down the last few miles of the 12 mile run to join the main road. Turning west it was only 10 miles back to our start point of Pitlochry, with the last half being all downhill. As if that wasn't reward enough there was coffee and cake too.

On the way home Pauline asked me what my favourite part was. It's always hard to pick one above all others, but it dawned on me that it was at that moment. Not because it was over and we were on our way home, but because of the great feeling the Scottish hills leave you with, refreshed and relaxed.

Thursday, 15 September 2016


If you are a regular reader of my blog then you'll know that almost every Saturday of the year I teach youngsters how to make movies. They range in age from 6 to 18 and so far there are 152 students in total. Quite a handful but great fun.

I pretty much judge myself how to teach them and  we have a very flexible remit, the bottom line being that I need to improve their ability to act on camera and increase their confidence in front of camera. Throughout the year we achieve this through practical projects, usually just a few weeks long, but last year we embarked on six, high production value short films which we then entered into a film festival.

We started back in September 2015 on a blank sheet of paper. By Christmas they had developed scripts, cast parts and shot a few minutes of screen time. When we returned after the Christmas holidays it was full on production time. Normally I only get 50 minutes with each group, which isn't a lot of time to set up, rehearse, shoot and put everything away, so in January and into February we allocate a 3 hour slot to each group, morning and afternoon, over a three week period, to shoot extensive scenes. The scheduling is a headache, which I do for them in between weeks. By the start of March we were rerecording dialogue, ADR, and at the start of May we had the finished, polished films. It was my responsibility to edit the films, and to ease the pressure I edited the footage each week so that toward then end it was polishing and creating sound effects etc.

Well, we entered the films by the deadline at the start of June and heard nothing else. Until last week.

Astonishingly 252 films had been entered into the festival from the whole of the UK. There were three categories with three age groups and a total of 24 prizes in total. We knew we had produced the very best we could, but that was a big field to compete against.

Out of the six films we submitted, we won best film in three age groups, one in each category! Over 90 academies are operating in the UK, and the academy in Edinburgh won the most prizes. Needless to say I am very pleased and also very proud of the kids.

Here's a link (click on the picture) to one of the kids films on Vimeo, made by one of our teenage groups, called The Door:

Now we are faced with a new challenge. How to get almost 80 kids to London on a Sunday in November for the red carpet event at the Odeon Leicester Square.

Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

Thursday, 8 September 2016


It's great living where I do, right by the sea on the outskirts of Scotland's capital city. Strangely not everyone realises that Edinburgh has a seaside beach. On every hot, sunny summers day the mile-long beach is packed with visitors. But it's not just candy floss, slot machines and coffee shops that are available to entertain the hordes.

There's usually a special event of some description going on every month, and even though the Edinburgh International Festival & Fringe has now passed, Portobello continues to entertain. A couple of weeks ago it was the outdoor venue for The Big Busk, where musicians for all over descended on the promenade to entertain all day long. This past weekend was another gloriously warm and sunny one, and again Portobello played host.

It is well known there is a large creative contingent living in the area, including a great many artists. Almost 50 of these artists ran an open door event over the whole weekend called The Art Walk, where their works were either displayed in their homes, in coffee shops or out in the open along the promenade. I love this sort of event, but especially the outdoor element. As I wandered along, event map in hand, I sought out the different pieces. Some, it has to be said, demanded quite an open mind and imagination, but at the end of the day, even if you shrugged your shoulders and thought, "I could have done that", the fact remains that, maybe so, yes, but you had to have thought of it first.

My favourite was a series drawings on transparencies inside a white frame, presumably mimicking a porthole, nailed to a sea groyne. The best view was to position yourself so the sun was behind each frame. Each one had a scene associated with Portobello, either now or from history, and the one below shows a dredger at work some 35 years ago when the brought sand back onto the beach from offshore. At each different installation along the prom the artists have a description of what it represents, but I think it is in the eye of the beholder to judge for themselves.

An installation that has appeared a number of times is one called the Tidal Octopus. Made of steel and very colourful, it is attached three-quarters of the way up the marker pole at the end of one of the groyns. As the tide comes in the octopus disappears below the water, only to emerge again when the tide recedes.

At one point there was a sea monster made from recycled bits and pieces and further on coloured nylon ropes wrapped around posts depicting the "roads of the sea". But this was definitely one of those works where I couldn't quite agree with the artist in what it was representing, but it was pleasing nonetheless.

At the far end of the prom where two concrete bays look out to sea, a chalk design had been created called The 12 bakers. Based on the race in 1661 from Portobello to the top of Arthur's Seat by 12 bakers wives. Not sure how this represented that race, but back then the prize for the winner was "a hundredweight of cheese along with whisky and rum, which must have been well worth winning in those days.

Having wandered for an hour or so, and refreshed myself with a good coffee, I brought out my bicycle and cycled up to the local Rosefield Park. On this weekend every year the community holds The Village Show, a celebration of all things local, including foods and entertainment. There are games for the kids, prizes to be won and residents can hire a small table to sell off their own home baking, plants from their garden or artworks. Thanks to the sunny warm weather, Portobello was out in force, but I was still surprised to see such a huge gathering. Despite the large numbers it was great to walk around and realise that, if not by name, by sight at least, I knew just about everyone there, partly due to my time as a local business owner 'til 2006.

In a good mood, and as a tip-of-the-hat to the 12 Bakers Race, I rounded off my day with a cycle around that local hill that sits smack in the centre of the city, and the finish line of their race, Arthur's Seat. On my way home I paid one final visit to The Village Show, just to marvel once again at the community of Portobello out in force.

Thursday, 1 September 2016


Once a year one of my circle of friends gather on a local beach for a combined family picnic. This year I went along on a glorious summers day.

The beach in question is on the east coast, just south of North Berwick, and roughly a 40 minute drive or less from Edinburgh, and is situated just after Tantallon Castle. Now a ruin, built in the 14th century, it was once home to the Earl of Douglas. Despite several sieges it remained in the family until 1699 when it was sold by the then Marquis of Douglas. Today it is looked after by Historic Scotland.

The arrangement was to meet from 1pm onwards, and having gathered some items for the picnic I made my way down, arriving at the entrance around 2pm. However, I had not read the email properly, and was now confronted by a barrier that required three £1 coins to get through. Having no change I had no choice but to retrace my steps ten minutes back to a supermarket on the edge of the small town of North Berwick. As I reversed the car on the narrow road there was a loud metallic bang from beneath my car. On closer inspection I discovered that the exhaust had collapsed where it meets the silencer box, where two bolts had been slowly rusting away. They chose now to fail.

I rummaged around in the car and found some cable ties, and with a bit of effort, and burnt fingers from the heat of the exhaust, managed to raise it up temporarily. I had passed a farm yard when I turned off the main road, so my plan was to limp back there and see if I couldn't find some wire to make the exhaust more secure to be able to return to Edinburgh.

Sounding like a boy racer that purposely makes their tail pipe loud and farty, I slinked into the farm yard and started my search. As I rounded a large building, there, in the far corner, was a mechanic working on cars! What good luck, I thought, I can maybe get some wire from him. But when I asked he wouldn't hear of it, and duly took my car, jacked it up, and did a thoroughly professional and permanent fix to the damage! This was his hobby and he was delighted to help.

What a wonderful random act of kindness. In all the excitement we forgot to exchange names.

I then went to the supermarket and returned with change for the barrier and made my way down to the beach. The tide was coming in, and by the time I finally made it with a story to tell it was getting late in the day, with barely time remaining to munch my treats.

There was a strong breeze blowing along the beach, and it was all I could do to keep the sand off my salami and goat cheese baguette. As I munched I wandered down to the waters edge. Just off the shore, so close I felt I could touch it, is Bass Rock. A huge volcanic plug some 360 million years old. It would have been ejected from a massive volcano all that time ago, and flown through the air to land at its current spot. From afar the rock appears white in the summer. This is caused by the guano of 150,000 Gannets at the height of the season, the largest northern nesting colony in the world. The air was filled with them as the dived from a great height like arrows into the swell of the sea in search of food. Back on the rock each individual struggled for their right to space among thousands.

After a couple of hours on a busy, wind-blown beach, I set off on my return journey to Edinburgh. As I drove it crossed my mind that despite being surrounded at close quarters by familiar friends, you can still feel entirely alone.