Thursday, 22 June 2017

MACBETH, MACBETH, BEWARE MACDUFF

My young film students have been at it again, and have produced their best work to date, in an abridged adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth. And when I say abridged, well, that's an understatement. They took what is almost a three hour play and turned it into a visual spectacle of just 16 minutes.

A year ago they had spent a number of months rehearsing a stage version, but when they came to me a few months later, hardly any of them really understood the story. At first I was a little dismayed, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as they were not bound by any preconceptions.

You can watch the finished version by clicking on the picture below.

https://vimeo.com/219845892

Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in 1606, just one year after the gunpowder plot to blow up parliament. James the 6th of Scotland was on the throne, as James the 1st of England, son of Mary Queen of Scots, and distant cousin of the recently deceased Elizabeth. Appropriately we filmed in a castle where Mary Queen of Scots had once been imprisoned.



In the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes attempted to kill the leading politicians, and the king, because of his lack of support for the Catholic cause. He and his conspirators were tortured and then executed for their treason. Macbeth was written as a cautionary tale, warning any others that an awful fate would overtake any such future attempts.

Macbeth is partly based on fact. He was a real 11th century Scottish king, but this historical Macbeth reigned capably in Scotland from 1040 to 1057. He did indeed succeed Duncan, his cousin, whom he defeated in battle. But Macbeth was succeeded by his own stepson Lulach, but only for seven months.  Duncan's son Malcolm, then became King of Scotland in 1058. The Stuart kings claimed descent from Banquo, but Banquo is a mythical figure.

Now my students turn their attention to devising a new film for entry into film festivals next year. The vast experience they gained from making this recent film will stand them in good stead, in all aspects of filmmaking, from story structure to production values.

Younger students also embarked on abridged versions of Shakespeare plays in the past few months, namely A Midsummer Nights Dream and Romeo & Juliet.

400 years after the death of Shakespeare, and here are children of today enjoying his stories, and creating spectacular films using the same structure he wrote all those centuries ago.
At the end of the process, and after watching the finished film, many of the students saw parallels with current political times, especially when you consider that on a basic level Macbeth was written to warn that excessive ambition will have terrible consequences.

Maybe we should send the link to some of the worlds current leaders.


Friday, 16 June 2017

SETTING THE COURSE THROUGH LIFE

My working life in the creative industries started in 1981 when I went to work at Hall Advertising in Edinburgh, then part of Saatchi & Saatchi. It was a great time, and so much foolery was had that it never really felt like work. An early influence to me back then was the Creative Director Jim Downie. Though Jim was head of all things creative for the largest and most successful agency in Scotland at the time, he felt like one of the lads, and always encouraged those below to progress. I left Halls in the mid 80s but would never forget Jim.

Fast forward 32 years to now. Recently, in a conversation with my neighbour Frank, who has lived next door for a number of years, it transpired that he knew Jim Downie. Though Jim had never been far from my thoughts of the past, I had not seen him or spoken to him in all the 32 years. But this chat with Frank set me on a quest to meet up with Jim and reminisce.

Then, by absolute coincidence, just one week ago, as I walked home, I spotted a small film crew in the lane leading to my house. Obviously I've seen a film crew before and decided to leave them alone rather than go and nose. It would turn out that the film crew's director was none other than Jim Downie!

Yesterday we met for coffee at Cafe Rouge in Edinburgh. The passage of the years had played its part on both of us, but we recognised each other despite the changes. When I look at the photographs below comparing both of us from the 80s to now though, I think you'd find it hard to believe we are the same people.



Despite the passage of time, our passion for filmmaking was shared. He's since sent me various links to some of the TV commercials he's made recently. Cinematic sequences with Jim's trademark attention to detail. We talked a while of times past, and how things took a particular path, how opportunities came and went. It was at this point that I told him of a young student under my wing called Stanley, who was successful in landing a part in a major new Ridley Scott film, recently returning from filming alongside some very recognisable stars.

I don't think it matters if your mentor is famous or not, but their influence on your path can literally be life changing. Though I have forged my journey myself, and it has been hard at times but well supported by those around me, I would never have reached where I am now without having first met Jim Downie. I wonder if all of us can point to someone from our past that opened our eyes and set us on a particular course.

Reading this you will most likely not have heard of Jim Downie, but you will have heard of the director and cast pictured below. I wonder if in 32 years time Stanley, pictured on the right, will meet up with Ridley Scott and recall the time they first met on set as Stanley started his journey.


Now that's a meeting I'd like to have coffee over.


Friday, 9 June 2017

POLITICAL COMEDY MATERIAL

Politics is boring. But thankfully it is now the 9th of June, and all the hot air is over. It would seem though that the current PM did not get the huge majority she wanted. Though she remains as PM it is of a hung parliament and is attempting to form a government jointly with the 10 Irish politicians of the DUP.

Yes politics is boring, but you have to vote. It is a privilege, and I never waste my right. Though I'm not going to state here who I voted for, I'm not a fan of the Conservatives, but I'm also not a fan of the Scottish Nationalist Party, and I was not disappointed to learn they had lost a third of their seats.

Interesting times ahead, but for me personally I rarely see any effect in my life, and I'm fairly sure this will be no different. Tomorrow I will continue my work with my young students.

My students love making films, and they are definitely improving in their acting skills in front of camera, but there can be no doubt that for me, I prefer to be behind the camera. This week though, I had to pluck up the courage to get on the other side of the lens to have a new set of professional head shots done, by a good friend of mine, professional photographer Dave Stewart, of Studio 2.


Just now my students are in the throes of understanding parody, and have spent the last few weeks making one-minute shorts on any subject they choose. One of the best so far, as they are only half way through the 16 shorts they are making, was one on the infamous "wall" proposed by President Donald Trump.

Politics may well be boring, but it provides great comedy material, even at its worst.


Friday, 2 June 2017

NOT QUITE A MARATHON

There's a great route from my house, along the sea coast, to the town of North Berwick, which I haven't cycled for as long as I can remember, but at Pauline's suggestion I rectified that last Sunday.

I'm not an early riser by any means, and Pauline's suggestion to get away early doors on a Sunday morning was met with some resistance. But her reasoning was sound, to get along the busy, narrow and winding coast road before the hoards venture out for their Sunday drive, post breakfast. But it had slipped our minds that this particular day was also the Edinburgh Marathon, when just over 30,000 runners would take the exact same route that we planned to cycle!

We were pushing off from the house around 9am, joining the promenade just a few metres from our front door, when immediately we saw all the traffic cones and tapes cordoning off sections of the beach-side walkway, for the imminent arrival of said runners. We deduced they would start their route at 10am from the city centre, so we had a good head start on them, and with a stiff tail wind would easily stay ahead of the pack. We took advantage of the taped off route as we left the city, which was a little precarious as police motorcycles were already patrolling the route, and were zooming toward us in the opposite direction, but didn't seem to mind what we were doing.

At points our chosen route was well away from the runners path, especially passing Musselburgh, taking the semi-circular dirt track around the lagoons nature area, rejoining the main road, and more cones and an increasing number of officials in hi-viz jackets, on the outskirts of Prestonpans. This was clearly some sort of staging post, and judging by the set up and mile markers, this was the finish line for those running the half marathon.

Leaving the outskirts of the small town, still hugging the coast east, it suddenly dawned on us that the twisting, narrow road, that is normally a little hair raising with fast moving morons in cars, was entirely empty. We had the whole road to ourselves. At this point we vowed to take note of the marathon date for future years, and make this run an annual event for ourselves, to take advantage of the car-free roads.

Two thirds of the way to North Berwick we left the marathon route behind, entering the quaint little village of Aberlady, past the nature reserve that we have both often visited, and then turned inland away from the coast. Then almost immediately turning east again, along narrow quiet back roads, the verges and walls covered in wild flowers, among them Red Valerian.

The distinctive shape of Berwick Law was in the distance, marking our own finish line.


The small conical hill is actually a volcanic plug, blown there through the skies around 360 million years ago. Since 1709 a set of whale jawbones has sat atop the rock, replaced several times, the last being in situ since 1933. In 2005, after they had mostly rotted away, they were removed permanently. As they were such an iconic element, a fibreglass replica was made and installed in 2008.

No cycle trip is ever truly complete until a quantity of coffee and cake has been consumed, and on this occasion we pulled in to a trendy looking place called Steam Punk, on the outskirts of North Berwick.


After a quick stop off on the coast near the Seabird Centre, to view the largest gannet colony in the world on Bass Rock, with some 150,000 birds, we headed for the train station.

Our journey had been just 22 miles, four short of a marathon. With a strong wind now blowing from the west we had opted to catch a train home. Thankfully we boarded at North Berwick, as just two stops later the remnants of those 30,000 runners also need a ride home.



Friday, 26 May 2017

BIRTH DAYS

Last week I blogged on the wide variety of wildlife in my garden and surrounds. Well, that number has swollen considerably.

The weather has been particularly nice in Edinburgh for the whole of the week, and though we are in desperate need of rain soon, it makes a pleasant change to be able to have breakfast in the garden.

Before I settle down to my own though, the wildlife feeding comes first. I'm still putting out the usual amount, but now there are many more mouths to feed. The Starlings have fledglings! They are a demanding lot, screeching for attention, and competing with the Sparrows fledglings for the seeds and mealworms. Mmmm, yum.

The mouse also needs to get his breakfast of course, but as the photo below shows, he's both daring, coming out while I'm stood right in front of him, and adaptable. The birds don't seem that interested in the high fat content peanuts at this time of year, so more for the mouse I guess. Can you spot him?


The temperature gradually rose as the week progressed, peaking today at 25C (77F), which for Scotland is a heat wave! With very little wind it was the perfect weather to get out on my bike.

And that is how the week ends, meeting Pauline after her work, on the other side of the city, for a joint cycle home. Through the back streets and various small wooded glens, through tunnels of pale green leafed trees and a backdrop of bird song, past children playing in the river, Tom Sawyer-like.

The route home was a strangled one, strangely with more uphill than on my way out. Strange, because I left from sea level. However, it had to be Pauline's choice, as today is also a birthday of a different kind, that of my good friend, and neighbour, Pauline.

Traditionally we take on the pleasurable task of providing a birthday supper, and though mine is only pizza and a movie, there is a special little something. She has a favourite sweet that I very occasionally make, which is a chocolate pecan torte. She thinks I'll have been out buying a Marks & Spencers gluten free cake today, but little does she know what awaits. Of course I also get to indulge.


The birds are happy with their mealworms, and Pauline will be delighted with her chocolate indulgence I'm guessing.


Friday, 19 May 2017

OF MICE AND . . . BIRDS

If there's one thing I really enjoy every day it's feeding the wildlife in my garden. This week has been particularly fun with an abundance of sightings, but not just in the garden.

We're just getting into warmer temperatures now, and on Wednesday of this week it was warm enough to sit out in the garden and have breakfast. So I purposely fed the birds before sitting down to quietly eat my muesli. I never have to wait long. Sometimes I don't even make it up the back steps into the house before the Starlings descend. Energetically they hoovered up the mealworms in just a few seconds, pecking each other out of the way, before moving on to my neighbour Pauline's garden for a second course. We have one particular Starling, which I've noticed perches on a particular branch, which is a perfect mimic of other birds, and even the crying of a neighbour's baby!

Then came nature's announcement that summer had arrived, as several screeching birds swooped down through the garden at unbelievable speed. The Swifts had returned!

The Sparrows are comical, almost like unruly teenagers, lazily hanging around my garden all day, making a racket that seems like they are gossiping with each other, whilst enjoying the safety of cover, usually in the dense ivy or fir tree. The ivy though is starting to get quickly out of hand as it has literally burst into rapid growth in need of a slight rim I think otherwise I'm soon not going to be able to get down to the garden to feed the wildlife.


Most of the birds are now starting to perch inside the birch as it reaches full leaf, so that provides a better opportunity to see them. On this particular morning I realised there were more than the usual number of Sparrows, when it dawned on me that I was watching new fledglings. That was a great treat.

The blackbird hangs around most of the day as well, and his song is a joy at the end of every day. Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Crows, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves, Magpies; all visitors in that breakfast time period.

The other "wildlife" in my garden habitat are two field mice. The have their own corners and are quite bold. Unusually they are out during the day, and one very small one, a picture of who ends this blog, seems unphased by my presence, and sometimes even sits atop a pot while I put food out, patiently waiting. I do worry about him, as though I have a pretty good fence all around, a persistent cat of a neighbour occasionally gets in. On Thursday this week I spotted it, slinking away slowly. Slowly that was until it heard me thundering down the stairs in hot pursuit!

Pauline also has a field mouse in her garden, which occasionally pops through to mine to steal food, and I noticed during the day that it's food had not gone. I checked a few times and it remained there all day. I was getting concerned that the cat had found its prey. Later that night, after dark, I decided to take a torch for one last check. Maybe it had been spooked by the cat and decided to return to nocturnal activities. To my relief, not only was the food gone, but he was there, on top of Pauline's narrow, thin, metal, six-foot bird table, shimmying down one of the narrow legs, upside down. It was very funny to watch. Pauline had seen this once before but I never had, so I was very lucky with my timing.

Away from my garden earlier in the week, whilst walking home late one night along a local lane, I was swooped by three bats out catching bugs. But the best siting of the week was driving home late one evening from seeing a friend in the country. On a long straight stretch of road, up ahead, illuminated by a trucks lights going the opposite way, was the white underside of a large owl, gliding through the air, across the road, to a small wood on the opposite side. I pulled over into an adjacent layby, switched off the lights and engine, and waited patiently. It didn't reappear, but it hooted several times. A very spooky but fabulous sound.

Pauline has topped all these encounters this week though. She is away up north on holiday and witnessed her first enormous Sea Eagle. Very jealous. Can't wait to hear all about that.

Meanwhile I'll be quite content with my Sparrows and mouse.



Friday, 12 May 2017

LIVE YOUR DREAMS

One of the best films of recent times is a Ben stiller movie called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I'm in the process of looking more closely at this film, deconstructing it, with a view to teaching my young students about it. It deals with a number of issues that may affect the majority of us, and it is this that makes the film so good I think. It is no coincidence that it is set at Life magazine.

If you haven't seen it, basically it is a quest movie about a daydreaming, boring photo processor, Walter Mitty, working at Life magazine in its last days before going online. He loses a negative, a first for him, for the last issue's cover, sent by one of the photographers, Sean, twho is the only person that recognises Walter's skills. The film takes us on an epic adventure from shark attacks in Greenland, to volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Snow Leopards in Afghanistan.

To mark the beats of Walters quest throughout the film, he regulalrly gets calls from Todd of eHarmony, asking what else he can add to Walter's profile to make him more interesting, to increase his chances of finding a partner. Part of what makes Walter so boring, is his scrupulous accounting of his finances, which stays all the way through. A sort of count down to oblivion for him, down to zero dollars. His first job had been in a pizza restaurant called Papa John's, and he finds himself in one on Iceland. As he studies the plastic cup, after first checking his dwindling finances of course, he suddenly has an urge to get out of there. Away from the superficial plasticity of an international food chain, a metaphor for the world. This marks the point where Walter starts to change. Working for money and counting every bean is a waste of a precious, short life. This is reaffirmed by Life magazine's motto all the way through the film:

"To see things thousands of miles away,
things hidden behind walls and within rooms,
things dangerous to come to,
to draw closer, to see, and be amazed"

Though Walter had worked at Life magazine for a long time, his role was obscure, and a bitter sweet reminder that modern technology is changing everything, including the security of all our jobs. In essence, if you aren't creating something new, you're replaceable.

We're not here long at all, and we're really good at excuses, busy living up to what other people think we should be doing. But the bottom line is, stop doing what you hate and go out and live your dreams.

At the end of the film Todd from eHarmony appears and ask Walter if he is zoning out still, daydreaming. Walter pauses a moment, reflecting on what he's experienced, before he answers . . .

"Not so much"

Friday, 5 May 2017

DISCO DIVA

A couple of weeks ago I was in Carlisle for a wedding. I wasn't able to make the actual ceremony, and arrived just in time for the evening celebration. It's been a long time since I've been to a wedding reception, and on this occasion I thought I'd dropped through a wormhole, back in time.

As people gathered, the DJ, incomprehensible on the microphone, started his play list for the evening. Someone leaned over to me and told me that the same guy had run all the hotel's disco needs since 1979.

Well, I don't think he's bought any music since then either!

However, 1979 was a great year for music. I was 16 at the time, and on a Friday evening I would travel into Edinburgh to Cinderellas, an enormous disco at the bottom of St Stephen Street. I recall I wore black trousers that had a thin white line down the seam of each leg, that I had to lie on the floor to squeeze myself into.

Most of the other young people there were busy sneaking in bottles of vodka in their handbags, and so on. But for me, it was straight onto the dance floor. Many of my friends knew how much I loved to dance, and I was pretty good, though I say so myself, and they would follow me onto the floor. The DJ must have loved me too, because I was regularly the first on, and rarely left.

It was probably a subliminal influence of the disco at the wedding reception, but in the middle of this week I found myself researching hits that I remember from the charts around that time. How many of these do you recall:

Le Freak - Chic: Loved this one, sitting on the floor doing particular moves, and I always led from the front.
YMCA - The Village People
Don’t bring me down - ELO
Tragedy - Bee Gees
Video Killed the Radio Star - The Buggles
Pop Muzik - M
Light My Fire - Aimii Stewart
Rivers of Babylon - Boney M
The Shuffle - Van McCoy
Crazy Little Thing Called Love - Queen
Funky Town - Lipps Inc

Then there were others I came across, which though not dance music per se, brought back fond memories:

Monster Mash - Bobby Pickett and the Crypt Kickers
Walking on the Moon - Police
Enola Gay - Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark
Another Brick In The Wall - Pink Floyd
Oxygene part IV - Jean Michel Jarre
19 - Paul Hardcastle

Unfortunately there wasn't a single one of the dance tracks above that the Carlisle hotel DJ played that night, otherwise I would have been first on the floor, and would most likely not have left.


Friday, 28 April 2017

IT'S A SIGN

I found an excellent article recently online which I thought I'd share with you this week.

It centres around how the majority of us are making things harder for ourselves than they necessarily need to be. I must admit to feeling I fitted most of the categories.

It started with a fairly common one; taking offence at something when in actual fact there was most likely none intended. An example given was of another driver on the road cutting you up, but from my own perspective I could see how I "ascribe intent", as it was headed, when a friend will make a trivial comment or observation. At times I can react as if it's a personal slap in the face, which it mostly never is (some who know me well will be nodding their heads right now!)

If you read my blog regularly you'll know I make and teach film. Another situation described one as, being the star of your own movie. You wrote the script, and therefore you know how you want it to unfold, and even end. But, like most of my writing, no one else has read the script, then when someone screws up their expected lines, or fails to do something, you feel that the movie is ruined in that instant.

Hmmm, this was becoming eerily familiar! But I'll bet I'm not alone in all this.

As I look back on my life, and some of my closest friends make observations, it is clear I am a "glass half empty" sort of person a lot of the time. Which made me fit the next paragraph in the article very easily; I fast forward everything to its worst possible outcome in my mind when a problem appears, when the actual outcome is usually better than utter disaster.

Others need very little explanation, but rang similar bells, such as, refusing to let go of things; comparing my life to others in a negative manner; having unrealistic expectations of situations or others.

I would say that over the years, on average, I have been a believer in "fate". Some things have happened in my life that cannot be explained in any other way, and I'm happy to say, against my glass half empty personality, have been rewarding moments. A close friend of mine though, dismisses fate 100%. It is, he says, like waiting for "a sign" before acting.

Well, that brings me rather neatly to the last item on the list.

Over the past year I have been contemplating making some pretty big changes. But that is as far as it has progressed to date. Contemplating. But the last paragraph in the article made me sit up and take stock, and has actually made me start the process. It's heading was; You let other people steal from you.

This wasn't in the sense of material items or money etc, but referred directly to Time. For me, time is way higher up on my priority list than money. However, for a long period of time now I have been giving away my time, mostly to people and situations that will never recognise the full extent of what I give. In fact, I can easily go as far as saying, it has raised an expectation in those people. The big changes will put pay to this.

I must apologise to my good friend, because for me, finding this article, and particularly that paragraph, was most definitely a sign.


Friday, 21 April 2017

A GRAND ADVENTURE

I'm pretty hopeless at knowing the titles of my different relations. The easy ones are auntie, gran etc, but beyond that is confusing. This weekend I'm off to "my brothers son's" wedding, as I refer to him. He is, of course, my nephew. I'm not big on weddings or the whole social chit chat with strangers thrown together, but I'm looking forward to catching up with my brother, which I haven't done for a very long time, and brainstorming a little on a trip we're going to take into the past together in July.

In 1971, as a little boy of eight, I lived not far from Glencoe on the outskirts of a village called Ballachulish. I have few memories of childhood, but the ones from there are happy ones. One such memory was of the turntable ferries that used to transport six cars at a time across the water before they built a bridge in 1975. One of those ferries was called the Glenchulish, and it survives to this day as the Glenelg ferry, making the short crossing from the mainland to Skye. Just before that it continued to ferry cars back and forth right up until the bridge was opened.


The rest of my memories are a little unclear, but because my brother is eight years older than me I figured he would be the perfect travel companion to try and recall the memories clearer while we are there.

That eight year old boy spent the summer holidays with a small leather pouch collecting money from the waiting cars before the boarded the ferry. I would then make the crossing back and forth with the ferrymen. It was a recent picture online of the Glenachulish that made me wonder what had happened to the other two, the Glen Loy and Glen Duror.


To cut a long story short I made contact with a community group in Ballachulish, and they have given me directions to the locations of the abandoned, decaying hulls. So my brother and I are on a quest to find them and document them at the end of July. We'll also walk the old railway tracks, long since decommissioned, and reminisce of a time now lost. We're hoping to capture most of it on film and edit a short film together to gift to the community group in Ballachulish to the new museum they are planning.

It's starting to shape up to a grand adventure.


Friday, 14 April 2017

THE THREE BRETHREN

It's been a while since our little hillwalking trio, myself, Andrew and Pauline, had an overnight outdoor adventure. Recently we had enjoyed a one day walk to the Eildon hills of the Borders, taking in the Roman settlement of Trimontium, and the Borders countryside was to once again provide us with a destination, this time for an overnighter in our tents. With the Easter holidays in full swing, and sunny skies forecast, we set our sights on a small section of the Southern Upland Way, starting out from Innerleithen and finishing at Galashiels.

Access to the start of our walk was a mile and a half or so along tarmac, across the River Tweed, and then onto the route proper. The path we followed for the entire walk was great, and skirts an area called the Minchmoor.


The first day was a long pull gradually upwards, under hot, cloudless skies, but it was a fabulous, leisurely wander. The Southern Upland Way is the longest route of its kind in Scotland, some 212 miles, from Portpatrick in the west to Cockburnspath in the east.

The Minchmoor section we were walking has evidence to date it back to pre-Roman times as a Pictish Road, and was the main highway well in to Medieval times between east and west.

It is said that the Marquis of Montrose used this very route to flee from the battle of Philiphaugh in September 1645. He was eventually captured and hung in Edinburgh, and his head was displayed on a  spike in the Tolbooth. Lovely. It is said that as he was fleeing he buried a stash of money somewhere along the route, so we were keeping our eyes out for buried treasure.

A couple of hours in we came upon The Cheese Well. It is a natural spring and provided refreshment for thirsty travelers along the route, as it did for us this day as we filled out water bottles. It can be found marked on maps going back to the 1600s and derives its name from leaving small presents of cheese to thank and placate the fairies. These days people leave a coin or two on the engraved rock, so when in Rome, as they say.

A little further on, and a short few hundred yards detour, we came to the summit cairn of Minchmoor. A number of mountain bikers were already there, and in the short time we stood on its summit a number of others arrived, such is the popularity of the area with bikers. We had just come down and back on to the Southern Upland Way when Pauline found buried treasure. Well, actually, commemorative coins stashed in a hole in the wall to anyone who wants one. You'd have to know they were there mind you. There were only three left, and all a little corroded, so we only took one.

As I said at the beginning, we had walked the Eildons a few weeks back, which were now visible in the distance. On that walk we had enjoyed a treat of visiting the ancient Roman site of Trimontium. There we marveled at depressions and lumps and bumps on the ground, showing evidence of a once mighty settlement. As our walk along the Minchmoor progressed we came upon a man-made gouge called Wallace's Trench. This was a purpose built defensive ditch some 4 to 6 feet high, clearly made to defend one area from an approaching force of some size. As our small band of three got closer and closer, it looked from a distance like a slightly raised line of ground. More lumps and bumps of things long buried. But when we finally reached the actual site it was astonishing in its scale and preservation, still perfectly formed as a trench many hundreds of troops could have easily concealed themselves in.


Near to the end of our day was the third highlight of the route, and the title of this blog, The Three Brethren. When Pauline had first mentioned them I thought it referred to three slightly rounded hills next to each other, but in actual fact they are three giant cairns atop a hill at 465m.


Beautifully constructed, and standing some ten feet tall, they mark the intersection of the estates of Buccleuch, Yair and Selkirk. Originally there was only one cairn, built by Alexander Pringle in 1512 (of the wool jumper fame) and owner of the Yair estate.

This was to be our cut off point to drop down on the southern side of the route to camp for the night. As the sun was setting we tucked into our evening meals among the heather, relaxing after a rewarding day.


The sun shone again for us the following morning. This was to be a much shorter day as we made our way to Galashiels, but the walk was through some of the prettiest woods, along fabulous little paths dappled in sunlight, that I have ever walked.


As we descended toward the mighty River Tweed once more, the path was lined with great stands of Douglas Fir. It was popular in Georgian and Victorian times to plant Rhododendrons and Douglas Fir in the extended gardens of large estate houses.


So I started to think we may come upon just such a house. And we did. A beautiful, and grade 1 listed, Georgian mansion, built of red sandstone, the seat of Yair estate and Alexander Pringle that had built the first of The Three Brethren. A long time back the estate and house had been sold to pay off debts, but Pringle went to India, made a fortune, and on his return bought back the family estate.


We now ascended for one last time, across rolling farmland manicured by munching sheep, across well made dry stain dykes, past estate workers burning heather to create new and fresh habitat for red grouse, to eventually sit upon a small rounded hill overlooking the town of Galashiels.


The trip ended as it had begun, with coffee and cake. Of course.



Friday, 7 April 2017

COMMUNITY RIGHT TO BUY

I'm very proud of my community right now. Over the past few years three out of four churches in my neighbourhood have closed and the congregations amalgamated into one church. This then led to the Church of Scotland selling off the churches and adjoining properties now closed up.

Normally these fabulous buildings get snapped up by developers, and are either demolished and some collection of apartments, supposedly "designed" by an architect, are thrown up and sold to the highest bidder. Well, under new Scottish law passed a year ago, any such building put on the open market has to be available to the community it resides in under the "community right to buy" legislation. We have history of such an undertaking, albeit for island communities, but never in an urban setting, but since April last year this right was extended to cover the whole of Scotland.

It is a long process, but basically, if there is support in the community for it to happen, then things move on. To cut a very long story short, the last step is that the Scottish Government issue ballot papers to all registered voters. Somewhere in the region of 60% must vote in favour.

Well, on the 5th April a whopping 98.7% of this community did just that!

Now the purchase price will be provided by the Scottish Government once the Government minister upholds the legislation. This will be published on 26th April, but it would seem to be just a matter of ticking that box. So off we will then go to develop the space for the good of everyone.

Exciting times. Here's the action groups website in case you're inspired and want to do something similar: https://www.bellfield.scot/news/


Friday, 31 March 2017

WHITE VAN MAN

End of an era coming soon. Well, not quite an era I guess. I'm selling my big white Ford Transit van.

It has served me well over the nine years I've had it, and like myself it has changed its purpose in life many times.

At the beginning of 2009 I took the delivery of a monstrous motorcycle. You see, I'd always wanted to own a Harley Davidson, still do, if truth be known, but it was financially well out of my reach. But Suzuki had brought out a lookalike at a quarter of the price, so I went for it.


Though an inexpensive tourer, it was still a very attractive bike to look at, and I knew I couldn't leave it on the street, but I didn't have a garage. That was when a bright idea struck me; buy a van. And so the Transit came to be. I had it kitted out with a cage inside and ramps at the back, and after every time I used it, that is where it lived, though it was always nerve racking driving it up into the van and stopping before ending up in the cab!

I only ever did one big trip on it, up the west coast of Scotland. During the winter it was stored off its wheels in a friends garage. And the summers from then on were not conducive to motorcycle touring, so it rarely saw the light of day. It seemed a waste.

Then an opportunity came in 2011 to bicycle across the United States. Money had to be raised for the six month adventure, so it was a no brainer: the bike had to go.

I still had the van, and shortly after returning from the US I shelved it out to store all my DIY tools and bits and bobs. Almost a workshop on wheels, which helped me service a rental property and carry out odd jobs for friends to earn a little extra income. It served as transport for taking the bicycles away for a weekend up north as well, and the added bonus was you could stand up inside and get changed at the end of a muddy bike trip. By this time I had also become involved in the local community market, and part of that responsibility was to store the A-boards and other paraphernalia for the monthly farmers market. Again, the van did its job.

But it was becoming an expensive shed on wheels essentially, with service and MOT bills rising every year. So the past few weeks have been spent cleaning it up, repairing rust patches and emptying it of everything, ready to put on the market in a weeks time. It has two jobs left to do, one decorating a friends kitchen, and the other helping a friend move house.

I end on a daft poem by Felix Dennis:

White Van Man has a very white van
And a very white van has he,
Except for the dents and rust by the vents
A very white van has heeee!




Thursday, 23 March 2017

THE HERDSMAN OF ETIVE

Nothing gladdens the heart like a trip to atmospheric Glencoe, with the mountains dusted and capped in snow, and the sun shining.

So it was that this week I found myself, after driving for almost three hours, in its spectacular scenery, filming with, of all things, a drone.

This is all part of one of my teenage student's projects this term; Shakespeare's Macbeth. Last Saturday all 52 of them gathered at Craigmillar Castle and the surrounding park, to capture various sequences for the film, most notably the scenes of battle and the witches on the heath. Though the forecast had been for light cloud and low wind speeds, for three hours in the middle of the day it poured down and blew a gale!

Thanks BBC weather forecast!

But the students prevailed and put up with it and got the job done. This is teenagers I'm talking about!

Glencoe was glorious. I was aiming to be there for around 11am to catch the sun on Buachaille Etive Mòr (The Herdsman of Etive"), an enormous pyramid shape of a mountain, guarding the entrance to Glencoe valley. The idea was to fly toward the mountain, gradually gaining in altitude, a shot that would open the film. However, the drone refused to fly, giving me a message that the compass had malfunctioned. Frustrated, I shot a very slow zoom in with the main camera, which luckily I had taken along.

Dissappointed, I drove a few miles further on the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe valley, to treat myself to lunch. The clouds had moved in and everything was looking a bit grey and poor light for filming. However, lunch finished, as I was about to leave a couple of hours later, the sun started to break through.

If only the drone worked.

I decided to phone the repair centre in Newcastle, and explained what had happened. They made a suggestion that because of the high iron content in vast areas of Glencoe, the compass may not be broken, but confused by the iron in the rocks. With fingers crossed, I carried out the pre-flight checks, and low and behold, she flew! Delighted, but with very little battery power remaining, I captured some shots of the late sun spilling on the rock faces of nearby Bidean Nam Bian, my favourite mountain in Glencoe.


At one point I almost took the decision to stay in Glencoe overnight, charge up the power packs, and film the shot I came to do the next morning. But I had enough I reckoned, and headed south for home, marveling at the golden hour of light from the setting sun, bathing the snow covered mountains. It was such a magical time, and there was a wow moment round every corner.


Thursday, 16 March 2017

BIRTHDAY WEEKEND

You would think in a country as small as Scotland, after 50 years of exploring its landscape you might run out of new things to see. But you'd be wrong. It was my birthday recently and I was keen to do something different as part of it. Somewhere I'd never been. In Scotland.

Catching the earliest train available, Pauline and I set out from Edinburgh bound for the west coast, via Glasgow. The forecast was for overcast skies, but dry, though given a little time that could change. In a little less than two hours we were off the train at Gourock and aboard a ferry crossing the Clyde toward Dunoon. Five kilometers north along the side of the Holy Loch and we turned west, toward our new adventure destination.

The road was mostly single track all the way, and around two thirds of the way along we hit a 12% gradient.

Which then changed to a 20% gradient!

Ordinarily, with no kit on the bikes, I would have managed, albeit slowly, to climb the road, but as it was, 200 yards from the top, I dismounted and pushed. And made the top quicker than I would have pedaling!

By mid afternoon we were trundling our bikes onto another ferry and onto our destination for the weekend. Somewhere new for me, the Isle of Bute, and we camped in a forest clearing overlooking Loch Ridden and the little ferry we had just been on. As darkness fell, a full moon rose and illuminated the landscape in soft light, with the only other lights those of the ferry, twinkling on the still water as it made its way back and forth across the 500 metre crossing into the night.



Early morning and the forest was filled with the golden light of the rising sun, and a myriad of different bird song.

We struck camp and headed off to explore. All roads lead to Rothesay, it seemed, as at every junction there was a sign, with different mileages, to the capital. On occasion we came across old stone block mileage pillars, with distances in fractions. Nowadays we simply round them up.

As we rounded Kames Bay we came upon Kames Castle. More accurately it is a castellated mansion house, and the 18th century house was built upon a 14th century tower.


Originally the seat of the Bannatyne family it is one of the oldest continually inhabited houses in Scotland. Behind the castle was a walled garden, with a turreted building at one corner, and as you turned your head west, looking up a sweeping grassy plain, you came to a church tower, standing guard over the local grave yard. Though the church is a ruin now, the graveyard is still in use today.


Following the main road directly south, we reached its furthest point by early afternoon. We could have carried on along the road, turning north, and head toward Rothesay, but something drew us along a track heading down toward the southern most point of the island. It was a misty murky overcast day, and as we trundled along we could just start to make out the outline of the mountain peaks of the Isle of Arran to our right.

Two and a half kilometres on and we came to the end of the road. A small sign pointed up a grassy path toward Blane's Chapel. We had no idea what to expect, and there was not a single glimpse of it as we walked up the rise.

In what we both described as reminiscent of Inca stone work, stood a remarkably well preserved chapel dating back to the 1200s. It sat in the middle of a grassy mound, and was circled by a series of walls. In the graveyard of weathered stones, dates went back to Norse times. There has been a religious site here since the 500s, when a monastery was founded, and at one time this little chapel served the whole island of Bute.


The sun came out as we wandered round the site. It is flanked on the north and east by small woods, while to the west was a natural cliff face, rising up some 20m offering natural protection. Open views to the south led your eyes to the Holy Isle of the Isle of Arran. Maybe this had been on purpose. It was a magical place, so peaceful, and the highlight of the adventure. A real hidden gem.


Further back down the track we stopped a while a some standing stones, before heading to Rothesay and the ferry home.


As we approached the fringes of the town, having negotiated a muddy cross-country path, we arrived at a natural depression in the landscape called Loch Fad, meaning Long Loch. It is interesting geologically, as it was formed along the edge of the Highland Boundary Fault.

Having satisfied our need for coffee and cake in the centre of Rothesay, we just had time to wander round the outer walls of Rothesay Castle, described by many as one of the most remarkable castles in Scotland, for its long history and unusual circular plan.


Built in the 13th century, it fell into ruin in the 17th century and is now looked after by the state. But for me the most striking part of the castle was the unusually shaped moat, defensively surrounding its walls.


With photographs and memories of a two day adventure, that seemed altogether longer, we boarded the CalMac ferry and left the Isle of Bute behind, heading for Wemyss Bay and the train home.

It had been a great birthday weekend.