Sunday, 2 September 2012

Birds hide and seek

Normally, I'd consider the birds in the garden to be very macho: they would approach cautiously when I would do the weeding or cutting the lawn, wait until my back was turned, then swoop down and gobble down any incautious worms on the ground surface. In the winter months, the robins, especially, who look deceptively cheerful, but are one of the most ferocious predators (at least, as far as worms are concerned) would come closer to keep me company.

However, when tidying up the garden, I found the bird feeder, and very shortly found that the birds rather liked it - or the contents. And I found that I rather liked sitting in the verandah watching the birds and trying (often unsuccessfully) trying to photograph them.

So I extended the bird feeder situation to the side of the back sun room. My sister warned that the buzzards and eagles from Mull may come in search of easy meals, so I put a roof on top of the seed tray; my daughter wondered if the cats of Iona would invade my garden, so I put the other seed tray on top of one of the many spare tables in the garden. Daily, more and more birds came, though my attempts at photographs were still pretty awful; this is the absolute best I could manage:

Saturday, 25 August 2012

When summer meets autumn

I've always assumed that autumn would start on St Durin's Day, which I've decided should be the 5th November, though due to the Scottish weather, perhaps that would be a better day for the beginning of winter.

But today, with the excitement and frenzy of the Festival gradually beginning to fade, I thought maybe this should be the first day of autumn. I was walking down the abandoned railway which runs from Leith to far further than I normally go and saw one of the last raspberries hanging. I picked it and ate it: the slightly tart flavour exploded in my mouth, the fruit dissolved and left the woody seeds waiting to be spat out discreetly.

And then, I saw one of the first ripe blackberries - first of what looks like a huge crop this year. It was black and glistening, a mouthful of ripe, warm sweetness, yet still with the tint of bitterness.

There's still time for one last autumnal summer pudding of raspberries and blackberries before the elderberries are ready. Last year, there were so many that the boughs bent under the weight of the pigeons, feasting on them. But I still managed to get a few, though the tannin flavour is strong enough to overpower practically everything so, frankly, I was quite willing to leave the berries to the pigeons.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Then, like a thunderbolt, he falls

I haven't seen this eagle statue before, but couldn't resist the contrast of that in the foreground, the nasturtiums in the background, the wood against the fragility of the leaves and flowers. There's just something about statues, a moment frozen in time, which fascinates me. The statue's in Iona - in the gardens of the Argyll Hotel, I think, or the next one along, but Edinburgh's the city of statues, always another to discover.

Later note: My sister points out that  it's actually in the garden of Carol and David Kirkpatrick, so abject apologies for suggesting that it might be in the Argyll Hotel garden .

Friday, 27 July 2012

And now for foraging

I had the first raspberry of the year today: warmed by the sun, with a slight tartness, it was the perfect way to announce the official opening of an Edinburgh summer. The blackberries are flowering on the abandoned railway path I walk along between home and work, promising a bumper crop later on.

So when I went to a talk on Wild Harvests, I felt a kinship with the editor, Fi Martynoga, who had started foraging at age 3. I think I must have been a bit older, since my first memory of foraging is when my sister and I would go onto the railway embankment and collect ripe blackberries. We'd climb up and down the slope, disregarding the thorns and the occasional trains; we had a small sandy den where we'd squat and wave to passing trains. In those days, we'd no idea of the risks we were running, either annoying the staff in the station a mere couple of hundred yards away, having an accident with the train or even eating polluted fruit. In my memories of those days, the sun was always shining.

Fi praised nettles and made some nettle browse from chopped up nettles, oatmeal, seasonsings and a knob of butter: nutty, surprisingly delicious, I may make it myself another time. The book has a recipe for nettle pesto, which sounds interesting. This time of year, though, the nettles are fully grown, but that's no problem - apparently it's possible to weave the strings of the stalks and even make silk-like stockings from them - and never mind the stings, they can be beneficial medicinally.

Will I be more than an opportunistic forager? Unsure at present. I will still pick the wild berries I find and celebrate St Patrick's Day with wild garlic. I'll make teas from more than the Iona mint I use which romps round my balcony. Collecting and eating seaweed will be a challenge. St Columba did it, and discussed  the delights of "cropping dulse from the rock", so maybe I'll use the seaweed for more than the annual fertilisation of the garden.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Religion on Jubilee Day

Today, I walked down to the Bay of the Corracle, down the south end. It's a longish walk (though only about 4000 paces, according to my rather temperamental pedometer), but I must say I was glad of my holy socks.

 I got them first as a bit of a joke - this is the source, but despite walking round with mini whales on my socks and other relevant images, they've certainly kept my feet dry and that's the main thing. Normally, I'd sit down in front of the fire and watch tv. There's just two small obstacles: no fire (being replaced), no tv (being replaced).

So I did some baking instead, and felt that this was a very suitable recipe:

 Bible cake receipt:
A. 1/2 cup Judges 5:25 (Milk)
B. 2 cups Jeremiah 6:20 (Sugar)
C. 2 tbsp. I Samuel 14:25 (Honey) - my own! deliciously golden heather honey, just on the point of crystallising.
D. 6 Jeremiah 17:11 (Eggs)
E. 1-1/2 cups I Kings 5:2 (Flour, sifted)
F. 2 tsp. Amos 4:5 (Baking powder)
G. 4 tsp. II Chronicles 9:9 (Spice, likely cinnamon)
H. A pinch of Leviticus 2:13 (Salt)
I. 1/2 cup Judges 4:19 (Milk)
J. 2 cups (chopped) Nahum 3:12 (Figs)
K. 2 cups I Samuel 30:12 (Raisins)
L. 2 cups (chopped) Numbers 13:23 (Pomegranates?)

Cream together A, B, C and the yolks of D. Sift together E, F, G, and H. Combine the above together with I. Add J, K and L. Add in stiffly beaten whites of D. Bake in a well-greased rectangular 13"x 9" pan at 325°F for an hour or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Serve with ice cream - if you can find a biblical verse which mentions ice cream. I ate the ice cream, but I must admit I'm still looking for the reference ... It was delicious.

I think I'll have another slice, and listen to the radio. It's set to Radio Scotland. It's a nice way to end Jubilee Day.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

I never realised there were so many stars

In Iona, I'm normally pretty tired after manual work all day, so tend to sleep from 9 at night to about 7 in the morning, as opposed to my more placid Edinburgh life where I sleep from about midnight or 1 in the morning to precisely 5.18am (and don't ask me why: it's totally inconvenient).

So in Iona, I don't normally see the night sky. It was different at the weekend. For once I woke up about 3am and couldn't get back to sleep, so climbed down from my lair in the attic and absent mindedly walked into the back sun room where I stopped short in amazement.

The night sky was totally black, a dark deep of textured velvet; there was nothing to see, not even the reflection of the sea, no lights, no shade of the hills, no shapes of the sheep, lying to wait for dawn.

But there were the stars, hundreds of them, so bright, so clear, so many. In Edinburgh, I can just about pick out Venus, Jupiter, Orion's Belt. But here, it was difficult to find sky without stars, it was magical and really humbling.

I spent the night, wrapped in the knitted blanket I knitted for my father's room in shades of ice blue, sleeping on the bed sofa in the sun room, opening my eyes every so often to make sure that the stars were still there.

I woke at dawn to find them gone, just a soft streak of soft sienna in the middle distance, but my memories hadn't gone. It's one of those memories which I'll cling to during the stressful days in Edinburgh, when I have to remember why I'm in Auld Reekie earning money to give me the chance to be in Iona at the weekends.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Tulips in Amsterdam

Families are full of traditions: my husband and I go to Amsterdam for our wedding anniversary and have done so long enough for me to ask for advocaat and cream at Wynand Fockink in very understandable Dutch. This year, we went on a tulip hunt, though it would have been easier to have done a tulip avoiding one: of course they were everywhere. These, predictably, are at the Tulip Museum.

There's even tulips around at night:

More importantly, and as a bonus, the circus were in town. Not just any circus, though, The Circus, the Cirque du Soleil. We knew about it in an abstract sort of way and were strolling along the canal (any canal, it doesn't matter which) when we saw this:

After which, I defy anyone not to rush to get there. The circus was at the arena, so we shared the space with football fans, very strange. About the actual performance, what can I say? I think it was obvious the performers enjoyed it, which made it more enjoyable for the audience. And the sheer skill of it was breath taking. When the show finally ended, there was a spontaneous standing ovation.

And when I got back from work, they asked what I did in Amersterdam, with many nudges and winks: when I said I went to the circus, they looked at me in total blankness. But I stared back with a secret smile: I had memories from the circus performance which will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Why is Culloden so important?

Normally, I wouldn't care about Culloden or even think about it. I don't disrespect the place or the memories, but I've always considered myself to be English.

Until now. I was talking to my mate Ziggy and got carried away with his enthusiasm. Damn it, I've lived half my life in Scotland. My home's here. My husband's here. I've got one true born Scots child (I went to the trouble of getting my son born in Yorkshire so he could play for the county cricket team. But as all parents will know, plans for the children rarely go to plan: my son never showed any interest at all in cricket, and the club changed their rules anyway).

So I've decided that now I'm choosing to be Scottish and am grateful to have the choice to do so. I'll keep my voice - it's BBC English and very useful for my job (some people say it sounds like the Queen - I hope not, I cringe whenever I hear the Queen speaking, though to be fair, I don't make speeches like she does or, for that matter, have her sense of fashion - one person went as far as to say it was the loveliest voice he'd ever heard. I do appreciate that, honestly, but would be a little more modest about it. But I like my voice and my accent).

Am I going to Culloden on April 17th to pay my respects to the Scots - and English - who fought and died there? I don't know yet. Maybe. My thoughts will be there, regardless.

Thursday, 8 March 2012


My boyfriend, who is infinitely superior to everyone else's boyfriend on the planet, bought me Big Cashmere. Every other project has been put on hold since it arrived, because I needed a dark green shoulder warmer with pretensions more than anything else, up to and including tea and char siu buns. I ended up adapting the pattern for the cardi I'm neglecting, after trawling Ravelry, and not finding anything quite right- the one pattern I thought would work with the yardage turned out to be dreadful, and I wasn't confident enough to adapt it because I only had 400 metres (the website says you get 115 metres per 50g, but actually you get 80) and the thought of leaving any or running out was pretty scary.

There should be pictures at some point, when I get round to blocking it and going to admire Jenny's latest project (rugs? Blankets? Her productivity puts mine to shame, never mind how she turns inferior yarn into such lovely things), if I can ever take it off. It goes surprisingly well with rose print fleece pyjamas, which I am still wearing because after last night's takeout, a two hour bus journey to college is a recipe for disaster and unpopularity.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

So why hope and not faith?

So I finished the blankets - but still had a mountain of wool. Consequently, I decided to finger crochet rugs to match. In the meantime, I'd decorated the two bedrooms: I decided to call the single one Hope, the double one Faith.

So far, so good. But then I came to the colour theming of the room. Hope had, up until now, been in shades of cool blue and I transferred it to tints of green. There was an embroidered picture of moss roses; curtains which referred to a paleish green and the green carpet. So Hope worked. There was plenty of the same sort of wool I'd used for the blanket left, enough, as it happened to make two rugs and still have more left than I was happy with.

But Faith was a complete disaster. The blanket had been conceived as a homage to autumn, with warm browns and rich oranges. But the rug took on a life of its own. It was so beautiful: starting with pale yellow, it gradually darkened until it became a warm brown, then there were echoes of black. I called the rug "The Dawn of Creation", though a kinder title might have been "What a cappuchino looks like from above". It just didn't go with the blanket.

So back to square one. Hope worked; Faith didn't. But the good thing with Faith is that you don't have to get it right first time, there's enough faith to try again and maybe get it a little better, I guess that applies to more things than rugs ...

Monday, 6 February 2012

Oh, so tired

Poor blog! College has been very busy and I have been neglecting it shamefully. All I've had space and time to think about have been equations and reactions and how best to bear the natural exuberance of my classmates- particularly during the rather trying Numeracy unit that's just started. Almost everyone finds it too easy, but our particularly narky lecturer has decreed that we don't get to do anything more advanced because he keeps coming across bad calculations in our other classes. Difficult to endure.

So the cheering fantasy of buying a bag of wool and heading for the hills is sharper than usual. Jenny keeps updating me with the progress on the cottage- a proper shower! Snuggly blankets! Central heating!- and honestly, it's all I can do not to say to hell with it all, I'm going up there and not coming back without a new cardi. I have one on the needles already, in a lovely dark green, but I've been looking for an excuse to order from Colinette again- I think their Prism yarn and the rippling stitch pattern would work well together. Definitely one of the different blue colourways, but which to go for? Sun on the sea? Stormy waters? The sky from the comfort of the Martyr's Bay restaurant, after fish and chips and before dessert? Decision, decisions...

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Garden wars

Gardening in Iona is a constant challenge. If there's not the salt edged wind burning the plants or whisking away the top soil, there's the animals, poking their noses - sometimes their entire bodies - over the wall and devouring anything within reach. Like the cows here:

There's been years of fertilising the garden with battered seaweed: this is a double edged sword. It protects and enriches the soil, but it also encourages the weeds. My definition of a weed is the right plant in the wrong place, and the right place for weeds as far as I'm concerned is as part of the bulwark near the beach, which is helping protect the road from the encroaching sea. The picture below shows parts of the garden shed, practically covered by the rosebay willowherbs, which are encouraged for the bees (who adore them). Those plants are taller than I am!

Still, now that I've spent many energetic hours transporting the hundred or so wheelbarrow loads of seaweed from the shore, it's time to start planning next year's garden. For many years, I've taken the traditional view that flowers go in the front garden and vegetables in the back, but now I'm beginning to waver a bit. For one thing, the main vegetable patch is bordered by the bee hives and standing in the flight path of determined bees while trying to weed is more of a challenge than necessary - especially when it's done in a hot day in full bee protective gear.

So, last year, I started a herb garden in part of the front garden, transplanting some parsley. I was pleased that the parsley thrived, much to the annoyance of one of my neighbours, a very religious man, who just couldn't get parsley to grow in his garden. Not surprising: the superstition is that the roots of parsley grow so far down, they stretch down to hell, though personally I'd think that's more appropriate to docks. The embryonic herb garden photo is here: it doesn't show the borage which I added rather tentatively, and regretted somewhat as it began to dominate the whole patch. It's a real thug of a plant, but the flowers are so pretty.

My idea now is to plant some more parsley (though I'll be surprised if it hasn't self seeded - after all, I let it flower), and plant onions and potatoes. I'd wanted to use the red King Edward potatoes, but they're main crop, so I've got the early varieties, happily chittering (is that the right word? it sounds odd) on the kitchen windowsill in Edinburgh, waiting until I can plant them at the end of the month.

I've got onions too, though I haven't been lucky with them so far. My aim is to have enough onions to plait them into coils.

March seems to be the best time to plant more seeds. That's going to be a problem, as I'm likely to be away from Iona then. I may make the assumption that as the Iona climate is so temperate, I can start sowing in February. Certainly, the bulbs are beginning to grow. There's thousands of bluebells, and this year there will be more daffodils (planting all two hundred of them was a bit of chore) and if the hyacinths come up too, that will be a real treat for the bees.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Warning: adverse weather may affect everything

If I'd closed my eyes when I was sewing the trimming onto the knitted blanket yesterday, or to some extent this evening, I wouldn't have known if I was in Edinburgh or Iona: the rain was splattering against the windows, the wind was howling and - outside - travel links were rapidly becoming non existent. This first picture shows the stormy waves by Traighmor.

In Iona, the ferries were disrupted, not just the Fhionnphort to Iona one, but also the Oban to Craignure one and some of the others to the more remote islands. I think that a good benchmark for the weather severity is if the Oban to Tiree and Coll ferry is running. Here is a photo showing the sea looking towards Fhionnphort. The ferry didn't run this day - or the day after.

Meanwhile, in Edinburgh the Forth Road Bridge was closed (of course - it always is whenever there were extremes of weather, though they are very good about opening it for shortish periods). The tv news showed gruesome pictures of it flexing in the stormy winds. But, which is far more unusual, the airports in Edinburgh and Glasgow were closed, even Waverley Station was closed, which made transport even more challenging then usual. The tv news reported that about 850 trees were blown down throughout Scotland and that's not counting the lorries or bits of roofs making a break for it and there were about 15,000 homes which had their electricity supply disrupted - I found later that it took up to four days to get the electricity reconnected.

Back in Edinburgh, I had to venture out, to get to work for the first day back. The wind speeds were horrendous - I found out later that a speed of 102 miles per hour was recorded at Blackford Hill in the south side. I only had to go a mile or so to work and every step was a struggle. The wind seemed to want to force me into the road, which I didn't really want at all - I rapidly adopted a crab like scuttle next to the walls, as far away from the road as possible and my hat blew into a puddle.

Caledonian Macbraynes managed to get a couple of ferries running, much to my admiration and the transport links gradually got back to normal.

The islanders take advantage of the aftermath of storms to gather seaweed as fertiliser for their gardens (plus it helps prevent the top soil blowing away). The picture below shows an islander down near the jetty collecting seaweed for her garden. All the boats have been brought on land to prevent storm damage - a remarkably sensible precaution, considering just how horrible it has been!

Living in Scotland in the winter certainly makes people philosophical. There are some green spikes in the ground showing that the bulbs are beginning to grow, as a harbinger for spring and, really, I can't wait until the weather is calmer and warmer.