Saturday, 30 December 2017


OK, so my blog is a day late. But it is the holidays!

Roughly 40 miles north of Edinburgh is the City of Perth, and the two are connected by a motorway, the M90. Many's a time I have been traveling south back to Edinburgh on this motorway, when around halfway I pass Loch Leven. There's a nature reserve there and a flat cycle path all the way round its 15km circumference. On an island stands a castle, famous for imprisoning Mary Queen of Scots for a year in 1567, when she was forced to abdicate. 

We've cycled this area a number of times, but there is one aspect I see every time I go past, but have never ventured on to, and that is Benarty Hill, also known as the Sleeping Giant. At just 200m in height, it dominates the landscape, standing guard over the south edge of Loch Leven.

So on a frosty, almost windless day, Pauline and I made the short journey by train and connecting bus, to ascend the hill from its south flank. It only takes about an hour to reach the top, but for such a small hill the views are pretty amazing, uninterrupted all the way to the Highlands.

Above our heads two gliders were gracefully catching the updraft from the side of the hill, and in the far distance I could clearly see the flanks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a Chroin, capped in snow. It was a great vista, but even without the wind it was still bitingly cold, so we didn't hang about, and traced the ridge east to find the way down toward the Loch on the north side.

We were hoping to catch sight of a skein of geese coming in to land at dusk on the Loch. Having stopped briefly on the way down for a bite to eat, we followed the steep path to the RSPB centre called Vane Farm, right on the edge of Loch Leven, which forms part of the 2000 hectares of the National Nature Reserve. In the centres cafe we warmed up with hands wrapped around mugs of hot chocolate, before venturing out onto the reserve itself to view the wildlife from the hides.

Most of the birds were at the far ends of the isolated ponds of water, and the low sun was casting a wonderful late afternoon light on everything. We moved from hide to hide and waited patiently for the geese to arrive, but there was no sign of them. In the distance we could hear the Whooper Swans calling as they sheltered on the banks of the pond as other birds came in to land for the night, among them curlews, but no geese.

The sun had gone and it was time to traverse the eastern shoulder of Benarty Hill back to our start point. High above us a half moon was crystal clear. With the naked eye you could make out large craters, but using binoculars the detail was staggering. Half way up, on the edge of the shadow, was a very visible crater, and I surmised it must be gigantic to be able to see it in such detail. I have no idea what the name of the crater is, but I could have stood and stared at it for hours.

Just then Pauline heard a familiar sound. As we turned our attention back toward Loch Leven, in the pink skies of the setting sun, a hundred geese flew overhead in V formation.

Job done.

Friday, 22 December 2017


It's cold, which is correct for the time of year, but sadly no snow for a white Christmas here in Edinburgh . . . yet. But one thing is guaranteed and that's the twinkling lights of the city decorations.

On the shortest day/longest night of the year, Pauline and I met up at Valvona Crolla's in the Jenners department store on Princes Street. This is by far one of the oldest traditional department store I know of, having been started in 1838, just four years after Harrods in London. But we weren't starting here because of that, or even to buy anything. We were here for the Jenners Christmas tree, and institution in itself, and one which many a grown can remember going to see as a kid.

Hot chocolate and cake later we wandered George Street, an upmarket shopping strip just behind Jenners. At one end a temporary circular artificial skating rink had been created, which looked enormous fun.

From there we wandered the 1km length of George Street and marveled at the effort some store fronts and hotels had made.

At the other end was a collection of temporary wooden huts set out as a Christmas market, and from here we ventured back down onto Princes Street, with the castle facing us off in the distance.

The park in the centre of the city traditionally becomes the centre for all things festive, and this year there were lights and fairground rides everywhere you looked. Aromas of delicious hot food mixed with the sweet smell of scented candles and natural garlands as we wandered through another collection of Christmas market huts.

Together with the traditional music is was starting to feel a lot like Christmas.

Merry Christmas everyone.


Friday, 15 December 2017


Last Saturday I went along to a surprise birthday bash for a good friend of mine, Lindsay, to celebrate his 60th. There was a slight hiccup with the banners, as no one had noticed they actually said, Happy 65th Birthday! Maybe that was the surprise. It was a fun night, with a great local ceilidh band duo, and great food, courtesy of Lindsay's daughter Caitlin. It was held in a handy venue for me, just a 10 minute walk from my house, and almost as short a walk for Lindsay and his partner Gwen. Though they are, like me, keen on walks of a longer nature in the great outdoors.

Pauline was away that weekend in glorious sunshine, and crisp white snow, up in Glen Tilt, at Blair Atholl, and her photos were impressive. So impressive in fact, that I felt a tad envious of her good fortune on being away in the mountains on such a fabulous winters day. Due to work commitment I had missed all the great weather that weekend, and the forecast for the early part of the week was less inviting.

However, when I awoke early on Monday, it was to glorious blue skies, and the temperature was still below freezing. Keen to have some outdoorsey fix and quench that envy, and to have a break from the edit suite, I pulled on my walking boots and cozy duvet jacket, and headed for our local hills, the Pentlands, just a short half hour drive from my front door.

More often than not, the way in to the Pentlands is from the city side, but on this occasion I was able to start from the south side of the Pentlands, at a small, old pub called The Flottersone Inn, and thus enjoy the whole walk in winter sunshine. It was bitterly cold, but thankfully there was not a breath of wind.

Within just 30 minutes I was on the southern ridge line on top of the first small summit of Turnhouse Hill. Winter brings clear skies and so the views can be forever. On this day I could see all the way to the peaks of Ben Vorlich and Stuc a' Chroin.

From Turhouse Hill it was a leisurely walk across Carnethy Hill and onto Scald Law, the highest in the Pentlands, though still only 579m.

I was happily snapping photos as I went along, when the camera suddenly packed up. I assumed it was the cold and so tucked it away in an inside jacket pocket until I was off the ridge line, and down onto the road that runs alongside the two reservoirs Loganlea and Glencorse, which would take me back to Flotterstone.

I stopped a while watching pairs of Cormorants fishing, when I thought I heard a familiar sound in the sky above me. As I turned my head upwards, five swans flew over in formation, and I was fairly sure they were Whooper swans, though they didn't call out again.

It may not have been the wild, highland mountain, winter adventure that Pauline had enjoyed, but there was something rather satisfying being out there on a Monday morning, on a glorious day, when everyone else was holed up in their offices, maybe looking longingly at the Pentland Hills, wishing they were out there instead.

Friday, 8 December 2017


In the 1970s we had various talent shows on the TV. You could say they were a precursor to todays X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent, though with far lower production values. One such programme was called Opportunity Knocks and was hosted by Mr Cheese himself, Hughie Green. So cheesey was his presentation of the programme that Billy Connolly included him in his routine at one point, and liked the coincidence that Hughie Green's name backwards was the same as late night vomit produced after drinking too many Creme de Menthes, which apparently the Pope drinks.

Anyway, we digress. I've just completed filming with the latest youth group up near Stirling. They came up with a story line about a boy whose mother in the past had been a great opera singer, and he too aspires to be the same, but living in small town Scotland, his situation conspires against him.

Back in the early 90s, Channel 4, in collaboration with the English National Opera, ran a competition  called Operatunity. Well, the kids loved that title, but of course it likely had a copyright. However, the good people of Channel 4 clearly saw the value in supporting these students and gave them permission to use it in their short film.

But then we took it a step further. The gave the character the surname Knox, and thus the film became Operatunity Knox.

By a sheer coincidence I had been filming in London the week before, and whilst their picked up shots for them of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, so they could add them to their film.

Filming with two cameras simultaneously and with a drone flying camera for the chase sequences, the production values are such that Hughie Green would no doubt be jealous.

Thursday, 30 November 2017


It's not often you get to be behind the scenes of a world famous West End London theatre, but that's exactly where I found myself last Sunday.

For almost half a year the students that attend the performing arts academy where I teach Film & TV, have been rehearsing a show called Lazy Ace. It's a musical all about a conman called The Lazy Ace who has been swindling casinos on the Las Vegas strip. Back in June it seemed so far away, then before they knew it the curtain was raised in Her Majesty's Theatre, home to none other than The Phantom of the Opera.

It wasn't as large as stage as I had imagined, and the wings were tiny. The present building was built in 1897, but it's first incarnation was back in 1739. The layout and location of the dressing rooms was not exactly well thought out, down or up many flights of stairs which carried sound all the way to the stage. I'm sure the 800 plus audience will have heard "shhhhh" many times that Sunday night.

I didn't see the show, but did manage to see two scenes during rehearsal in the afternoon. What a difference the acoustics of a theatre make compared to the school hall they have rehearsed in. On the day there were a few melt downs, mostly nerves and a little stress maybe. One girl had been ill for about a week leading up to the performance and had a very sore throat. Then, during the last rehearsal, she opened her mouth and nothing came out!

Help was on hand from the theatre staff, who presented her with a Chinese potion that the opera singers use for just such an occasion. It was touch and go, but she nailed at the end which just made for an even more emotionally charged finale.

I haven't seen the students since I waved goodbye to the majority of them in London and a number of others at Edinburgh once off the train, so it will be interesting to see this Saturday how many of them have suffered the post show blues.

It certainly had the wow factor, and how on earth do we follow that!

Friday, 24 November 2017


It has been a fun a varied week, which has found me dashing about from the low highlands of Autumnal Scotland, to end the week in the big smoke of London.

It was Thanksgiving in the USA yesterday, a much looked forward to annual holiday. Though an American tradition, it inspired me to think about just what I am thankful for.

The obvious one is my friends of course. Without them, especially a select few, life would be pretty dull. In that vein I sent a number of good wishes off to various friends that I rarely see, across the pond, wishing I could be there to experience a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. And then, to my great delight, I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at a friends family home nearby, whose husband is originally from the States. Centre stage was a massive turkey; traditional green beans in mushroom sauce topped with "fixings"; followed by pecan pie and pumpkin pie. Fantastic.

The previous day I was in Glasgow with their son, who had a film in the Scottish Youth Film Festival. He had been asked to create a one minute film about What Scotland Means To Me, to launch a year-long competition of the same name, as part of The Year Of Young People in 2018. As well as being a competition, every film entered will be included in the Scottish National Archive forever. At the moment we can look back over a hundred years of films of life back then, and the aim is to provide the same for future generations. Stanley set the bar high, and already there has been a great response and take up.

That same day, together with my friend Stuart, I was conducting research for the Ballachulish Ferries film I've been hard at since July. Earlier in the year we had stumbled across an image on the internet, possibly the last photograph ever taken of the ferry that remains elusive in my search, that of the Glen Loy. The picture showed her without her turntable, beached at Camusnagaul opposite Fort William. But the photo online was of low resolution, and somewhat muddy and unclear.

For months I've been trying to find the original. It is thanks to Stuart that we finally located its location, in the Langmuir collection, part of the Special Collections section of the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Imagine my delight as we turned a page in one of the photo books to come face to face with the original! On the back was written "5A", which in all likelihood relates to a negative number, so now the library are trying to see if the negative still exists.

The day before Glasgow saw me back up in Doune with my young students that are taking part in a film course until Christmas. Now halfway through, they are just starting the process of creating a short film, something another friend, John, is giving of his time to help write. The groups wish list for some of the scenes are to have big city landscapes. Doune, however, is in the middle of rural Stirlingshire, the nearest "city" being Stirling itself, but it doesn't fit the grandeur of what they want, so they were a little disappointed. But it just so happens that this weekend I'm filming in London, and as a surprise for them I'll capture some iconic London buildings and landscapes while I'm there.

And finally, just before I'd traveled to Doune I met up for coffee with my friend Alastair, director of 2020 Productions in Edinburgh. As we chatted about all the goings on for each other, it dawned on me just how lucky I am to have such varied, fun work, and a wide network of equally fun, genuine friends.

I truly enjoy what I do to make a living, which is added to by great friends that altogether make my life full and interesting, and that is what I give thanks for at Thanksgiving.

Friday, 17 November 2017


On the coldest night of the year since summer, I ventured off for a short hillwalking break with Pauline to the environs of Dunkeld.

This is a good time of year to go. The area is well known for its Autumn colours, and the rich gold, amber and red foliage of Birnam Wood did not disappoint, and could even have soothed the tragic Macbeth.

On the southern edge of Dunkeld & Birnam flows the longest river in Scotland, the Tay, from its humble beginnings on the slopes of Ben Lui, to the Firth of Tay, south of Dundee, it drains an astonishing 2,000 square miles of land, a little over 10% of the entire country, along its 120 mile course.

It was dusk when we arrived, alighting at the small railway station on the southern edge of the Tay. To our south was our destination for the night, Birnam Hill, and our goal was to camp for the night near the summit before darkness fell.

By 7pm we were fed and watered and tucked up in our little home from home. As I read my book under torchlight, something unusual caught my eye through the open door of the flysheet. Looking north east along the edge of the lower reaches of the highlands, a bright, deep orange, full moon began to rise. It was as if on fire, such was its depth of colour. Because the Earth is closer to the moon at the moment, I had read that it was 14% larger than usual. It was an astonishing sight. As it rose higher its orange colour faded, until it shone its silvery light through the trees surrounding my tent. It was truly magical.

On the Sunday we woke to beautiful clear skies, and the early sun was dancing through the trunks of the Scots Pine and Larch, the only deciduous conifer in Scotland.

Tents packed, we headed down to and through the village of Dunkeld. Our destination was Deuchary Hill, a 500m peak we have walked many times, and with many different people.

I was still recovering from a small bout of viral pneumonia, so my progress was slow. That, added to the fact that I mostly bike now as opposed to hillwalk, so my overall fitness is not what it was. I guess I'm a little older too, but that didn't deter from the enjoyment of the walk.

To make life easier we had dumped kit in the woods near the railway station, and were now sporting much lighter packs. Though not a strenuous walk overall, it was still nice to stop 3km on at the waters of Mill Dam, if only to feed a part of my lunch to the ducks, patiently waiting for the next generous passer by. The resident swans were on the water as well, but seemed too busy to swim across for their share.

The path we chose goes directly north toward the flank of Deuchary Hill, but its condition in places had deteriorated somewhat. The cause of this became apparent as we were passed several times by mountain bikers, enjoying getting mud splattered. Where the track takes a sharp turn we spotted the somewhat hidden path that is the direct route to the top.

Though steep in places, it is an easy route up, and we quickly popped out onto the summit and we beheld a glorious view of surrounding Perthshire, albeit buffeted by an icy wind.

Not a time to hang about, we descended quickly, making it back to Dunkeld with more than enough time to indulge in the usual reward of coffee and cake. Well, you would, wouldn't you.

Friday, 10 November 2017


"Exchange their poverty for wealth,
their ignorance for knowledge,
their anger for kindness,
their divisions for union".

So said industrialist and philanthropist, Robert Owen, in the early 1800s.

Do you work an eight hour day? It's likely because of Robert Owen's vision to improve workers rights in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. At the time he coined the phrase, "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest".

A couple of weeks ago, because of yet another good suggestion by Pauline, on a clear blue sky, crisp Autumn day, I visited the World Heritage site of what was Owens' utopia, New Lanark, situated south west of Edinburgh and almost equidistant from Glasgow.

New Lanark is a purpose built "town" like no other you are likely to come across. On first approach it looks like a Victorian style new-build, so pristine is its stone work. In actual fact the build was started over 200 years ago by David Dale. The area was chosen for the fast flowing water of the river Clyde. The speed of the water is due in part to the fact that over a short distance the vast volume of the river plummets over a series of three waterfalls immediately before New Lanark. This was another reason for our visit, the Falls of Clyde.

In its early years many buildings went up as the cotton industry thrived, and in this time of the Industrial Revolution, new machinery was powered by giant waterwheels, rotated by the diverted water of the Clyde.

As I walked past the three-storey high, stone built buildings, I felt I was in some rather grand meuse in a suburb of London, than among what were essentially, cotton mills.

We walked south and away from the collection of buildings, following the course of the River Clyde upstream. Visible from the village are the tumbling rapids of Dundaff Linn (Linn meaning waterfall), the lowest of the three Falls we would see, and nearest to New Lanark. The sun was low in the sky and no sunlight reached the river. Over millennia it had gouged its way deeper and deeper, and now the sides of the canyon was smooth vertical rock over a hundred feet high.

The track through the woods then becomes a boardwalk just a foot or two off the water, though when the river is in spate the boardwalk is not accessible. This pops out at Scotlands very first hydro electric power station, built in 1927.

The path wound its way through Autumn woods, eventually following a sharp bend in the river, where the highest fall, Corra Linn, came into view. A mist of fine water particles rose, as huge volumes of water went over the 84foot drop.

The path crosses over a weir two kilometres on, over the top of Bonnington Linn, the first of the Falls, which for me were the nicest set, split in two by a small island. Now at the top of the gorge, a small amount of sun could reach the cascading water.

To return to New Lanark you have to double back and retrace your steps, which is what Pauline and I eventually do, but not until we had wandered down the west side of the river to view the Corra Linn at a closer vantage point.

Halfway we came across the ruins of Corra Castle, and at first I hadn't noticed it, buried as it was in hundreds of years of ivy growth and fallen trees. Built in the 15th century it was home to an appropriately named family, the Weirs. Now it is home to a rare family of bats.

After viewing Corra Linn we started the retrace of our steps, and within little time were back in New Lanark.

New Lanark's founder, David Dale, sold the mills in the early 19th century, to a partnership that included Robert Owen, his son-in-law. Owen would become an influential social reformer, and improved the living and working conditions of all the workers at New Lanark, some 2,500 at its height. He introduced the eight hour day, and built a school for the workers 500 children.

War may always be prevented,
by those who adopt the principles of peace,
being at all times prepared
to resist injustice and oppression;
and this may easily be affected by
wise arrangements in the education of the young.

Owens business partners were unenthusiastic at his spending of profits on making the workers "comfortable", but Owen fought off all attempts to interrupt his vision. New Lanark would go on to become celebrated throughout Europe. Visitors, including royalty, were astonished at the cleanliness  of the place, and the happiness of its inhabitants and workers. His vision of, a happy worker was a productive worker, was justified by the mills becoming highly profitable.

They eventually closed, as recently as 1968, and rapidly fell into disrepair. New owners stripped the buildings of valuable metal, but in 1971 they were listed as historic buildings, that then required their legal preservation. By 2005 most of the buildings had been restored, with new business, such as a hotel and offices, opening up in the old mills. Along with Edinburghs Old & New Towns, St Kilda, the Antonine Wall and the Forth Bridge, UNESCO made New Lanark a World Heritage Site.

Robert Owen passed the ownership and operation of the mills to the Walker family in 1825, and set sail for the US state of Indiana. He established a new vision there, based along the lines of New Lanark, and called it New Harmony. The project ultimately failed, and Owen returned to the UK. He passed away in 1858, penniless.

So the next time you put in your eight hours, say a little thank you to Robert Owen.