Saturday, 19 December 2009

A New Life --- Up the stairs

There’s something almost religious about building on an upstairs room to a house, especially if you undertake the project soon after leaving an office job you’ve done for over twenty years where you mostly sat in an office staring at a screen. Now you have to use your hands, make them work as more than appendages for your brain. They have to hold a drill, a hammer, a saw, a drill. You are building a new floor onto an existing structure, making the place where you’ll eventually move. Maybe you’re also preparing the space for the greater move that you’ll make sometime between now and eternity.

Enough of philosophy. We have to thank Pat Grant for the seed idea, that our attic could be somehow transformed into an attic. But it took more than waving a magic wand to accomplish it. About two winters and two summers. Philip Anderson built our stairwell, and the first walls. The first winter I created the space for a bedroom and bathroom. The bathroom space was originally a crawlspace only three feet wide, up against an old, slanting roof structure. To make it larger took some sleight of hand.

In the picture you can see the slanting roof under the shelving. Elsewhere they're hidden under the marble countertop.

The first job --- and it was a job, was to move the attic beams to open up the area, side beams a few inches left or right, top bracing beams up by six inches. 40 beams. It was cold, uninteresting work that left numb fingers, and me wondering if this was going anywhere. Not until Louis Charron arrived in early Summer and needed an architectural project did I get the oomph for the next phase --- even less glamorous, to trim out a beam and reinforce the roof structure for skylight windows. We had to grind off protruding slate nails, bolt on 2 by 4s to roof beams, insert cross beams. Our friends, the Ashtons and Roys cut two holes in our roof, inserted the skylights, and rearranged our roofing slates. Daylight appeared in the attic. We laid down a temporary floor. We barely started to install foam insulation in the ceiling when Louis left, and I had to wait for the next kid to show up --- Santiago my nephew. He grew up in the high Andes and is an accomplished carpenter. Makes amazing kitchen cabinets. Alas, I’m not ready for cabinets, only for insulation, 2 by 4s and sheetrock. When Santi was not riding the lawnmower --- he loved the riding lawnmower, he was up with me cutting up the insulation board or screwing in the sheetrock. Again the work stopped and had to wait until Jordan Poole arrived. Each kid had his passion, and Jordan’s was spackling (plastering as it’s called here). We were starting to see the rooms taking shape.

Around that time I managed to find a plumber and a sparky (Scottish for ‘electrician’). It wasn’t easy. Tradesmen generally don’t like coming out to work in the country. They’re busy people and prefer to work in town. We had several plumbers come out to look at out project, drink tea with us, and talk enthusiastically. But either the estimates never arrived or were so high as if trying to dare us to take them. Come on, make may day! I asked Paul F to do our plumbing, a good kid who had come out before. He wanted the job and did it well. Luckily we knew a good sparky. Once he was able to extricate himself from a heavy work load he came out --- two months later than scheduled, but he did appear. He did a great job and provided good conversation about my favourite Orcadian writer, George MacKay Brown.

Last summer I finished the plastering, endless sanding that made me look each day like a snowman, and then came the painting. The laminated wooden floor went down. Then the Swedish drawers were built into the wall --- Louis's idea, and --- Ta daaaaa!!!! Where’s the fanfare? Ah yes, there are no stairs! Philip Anderson, our joiner, is in Jersey, imprisoned by a dastardly laird who won’t let him out until he has finished building his castle. Christmas is coming --- argh! We need those stairs. So we contact various joiners. They come out, drink tea, look at our space, mutter something about planning permission to which I shrug. They go, and we wait for something to arrive in the mail or a phone call. One estimate did arrive, a high estimate.

Our neighbour Anne Christie mentioned Neal Donald, a joiner in the glen. He comes, and takes the job…and those are his stairs.

Amber and I now live upstairs, a cosy room that feels like a treehouse. We’ve hung up our Navajo dreamcatcher, and we’re expecting some big dreams.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The March of the Sheep

When people think of the Scottish countryside, they usually think of sheep; masses of them crawling like tufts of cotton wool over grassy meadows or wandering the heather covered slopes.Where you don't see sheep, you'll find black cows, the Aberdeen Angus in our area, or endless barley fields. Dotted around the valleys you often see abandoned stone cottages, sometimes with a slate roof, but often little more than the walls still standing. They point to a dark episode in Scottish history. Two hundred years ago there was a different landscape, many such cottages with two or three generations of a family and a few acres of land that grew potatoes, oats, barley, some root crops, hay to feed a few cows, and several scrawny sheep bearing little resemblance to today's fluffy Blackface sheep.There were few if any of the towns you see today. It was a tough life, living at the mercy of bad weather, potato blight or other farm diseases. As most smallholdings were rented from a laird, there was rent to be paid no matter the weather. Every ten years or so when crops failed there was widespread famine.

What changed it all? The march of the sheep. Beginning in the 1750s, they came from the south, a relentless white tide that swallowed up farm after farm. Landlords, who often ran up huge debts from dubious financial gambles, soon realized that a large sheep farm would give them four times the income and much less bother than the rents from so many smallholdings. Wool fetched a premium price as did mutton, with very little outlay of cash. New sheep breeds appeared that had more meat, ample wool, and withstood the frigid Scottish winters. As often happens, the financial factors were only part of the reasons for change. Poor people, living on the land where you can't control them, are inconventient for politicians. The Clearances lasted over a hundred years, a slow process of forced eviction and land confiscations leading to the establishment of the large farms you see today. The population density in the highlands fell, while the sheep population soared. During a particularly dark chapter, violence broke out between the people being evicted and the sheep farmers. Land administrators, known in Scotland as factors, were known to burn cottages to prevent them being re-occupied. Economists suggested that people would just fit into new jobs on the new farms, but mechanization resulted in much fewer people being needed. More benevolent landowners resettled their tenants in newvillages that took root in those days. Many emigrated to Canada or to the States.

What about the future? Todays farms are scarcely profitable; many exist for mainly two reasons 1. Cheap diesel oil and fertilizer 2. European Union subsidies. When the price of oil rises, as it must when the effects of peak oil become felt, the high price of diesel and fertilizer will make the present system unsustainable.
George Monboit, a writer for "The Guardian" looks at one scenario.

Higher food prices already are making people see the advantages of growing their own. Vegetable allotments so popular that, in big cities you often have to wait for years to get one. Some cities are changing their parks into allotments. It doesn't take much imagination to see the trend extend into the countryside. We may be coming full circle, back to the old crofting days.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Riding the train with Dundee United

Returning from Scone last weekend, after being two days with mum, Amber and I expected a leisurely train ride back to Huntly. Arriving at Perth Station we encountered a crowd of mostly young men with flushed faces, cider bottles in hand and wearing football colours. Several tall policemen and women paced back and forth trying to look impressive. We knew that the lads were coming home after a football game, but had their team won or lost? If the latter, they could be mad enough to trash the station, or anything breakable in their path. Where were they heading? You guessed it, our train.

Waiting among them on the platform, we were treated to a chorus of chants. Less musical than Gregorian chants, with parent advisory lyrics, what the chanting lacked in musicology it had in sheer volume and emotion. You didn’t have to know the lexicon to know that the team had won, and yes…”Weeee’re the Dundee boys”. I yelled to Amber, who stood bewildered and deafened by the spectacle, “Here’re a bit of local culture.”

Train pulls up at the platform. With sinking hearts we see that it only has four carriages, and it’s pretty full. Doors open. Covering Amber with my left arm, we board, are able to take two steps before the horde presses in behind us, sandwiching us on all sides. “Can you breathe, my dear?” I ask. It gets tighter. I have visions of winding up beneath a stack of bodies, when I notice that we’re up against a pair of doors leading to First Class seats. We don’t have tickets, but so what. I open the door. Rushing in with the crowd falling on top of us we find two seats, which we grab. At least we’re sitting down. Dundee United squeezes into the aisle. Slowly, as if feeling its extra load, the train crawls off and lumbers over the Tay Bridge.

A lone voice intones, “We’re Dundee United….” And ten others join in. With the cops gone, beer and cider bottles multiply, get swigged, passed around. Names of players appear in chants, how this or that hero slew one of the Celtic “c—ts” I ask one of the guys what the score was, 2-1. They are ecstatic about the win that came from behind. Other passengers, like us sit bemused by the spectacle. No train conductor shows up; in that press no one can possibly move.

After half an hour we pull into Dundee and the fans stagger out of the train. We watch them disappear down the platform, still chanting. Silence, except for a giggle from a couple of little old ladies. The experience made their day.

Sunday, 18 October 2009


It’s been a pleasant autumn at Cottarton with long stretches of dry warm days. The farmers are happy, because they were able to harvest their barley ahead of schedule. Our vegetables this year were stellar: gigantic zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, parsnip. Amber greets them in the kitchen with a mixture of elation and dread. More pickling to do? This year’s success story is our chrysanthemums --- still going strong, decorating every room in our cottage. We give many bunches to our friends.

These days I’m engaged in the long job of forking over the vegetable beds. Our neighbour, Hugh, is delivering a load of dung that will be spread out over winter so that it properly rots in, to be ready for next spring’s planting.

Meanwhile I’ve taken out a library card at Aberdeen University to study the Earth’s climate. Not the global warming thing. I want to know how the climate changed over the past 100 million years, and why. The story reads like a whodunit. As a geologist I’ve studied for twenty years the oceans rise and fall, because these result in deposition of sandstones and shales that we drill for to find some reserves. Its no secret that every 20-100 thousand years during the past 10 million years the oceans go through a cycle of rising and falling. The Earth gets warmer and cools, mostly a result of changes in the earth’s tilt. But several extraordinary anomalies are evident. During the Eocene, 50 million years ago the Earth was 6 degrees warmer than it is today --- but the sun was somewhat cooler. What gives?

Before I offer an explanation I’ll say that I am not a climate expert. The internet is full of those who make that claim. If you check out the blogosphere you’ll find that everyone who has taken a science course is out there pontificating about climate change, claiming to be a expert. In their recent book, “Superfreakanomics”, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner, two economists, argue that global warming is nonsense. Even if it’s true, then why not spray some stuff into the air to counteract global warming? A much cheaper solution than for us give up driving our SUVs. I have a Master’s in Astronomy and one in Geophysics, two disciplines that are necessary if one is to understand climate change. Yet I feel totally inadequate to enter into a scientific debate on the subject. Remarkable that those economists who have less background in the field, don’t have such srcupules. Their book will no doubt be a best seller. There’s also the science fiction writer Michael Crichton who wrote “State of Fear” a SF novel that suggests that the global warming movement is a global conspiracy. The guy was called to Capital Hill to testify in front of the US Senate as a “climate expert.” I can think of many people they might have chosen, but then those --- real experts, might not have given the Senate committee the answers they wanted to hear.

So why was the Earth so warm in the Eocene? One source I consulted suggests that it was caused by a sudden emission of methane. Then, as today, there are large amounts of methane stored under the ocean floor in the form of gas hydrates. A small warming could release the methane into the atmosphere. Once there, methane, even more than carbon dioxide makes our atmosphere more impervious to heat, so that our earth behaves like a greenhouse. All this makes me think of what might happen to the gas hydrates that I saw in seismic data while I worked for ExxonMobil, should a small increase in our present temperature result in an analogous warming. It would be scary. I’m no climate scientist, so I’ll defer to those who are in that line of work.

Meanwhile, I’m reading about the recent ice ages. I’d like to know why the last one came to an end about 14,000 years ago, to give us our present, very pleasant climate.

Friday, 18 September 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Of Service?

Everywhere we are talking about a peaceful humanity, a peaceful world. This is not from prayer, not from technology, not from money, not from religion, but from mother. This is my fundamental belief. Mother, I consider, our first teacher. (Women of Tibet, The Great Mother), Dalai Lama

My sister in law Munia lives with the poor in Ecuador. “I am not necessarily a good person,” she says. “I was just born fortunate. I had a good mother, a good father, food, education, and love. It is my duty to give it back.” Not everyone is called to live and work with the poor but everyone is indeed called to something greater than themselves. Whether or not we hear the call, or even recognize the call is another matter entirely.

So what does it mean to be of service? Is it volunteering your time to a local charity? Calling in on the sick? Tossing the proverbial 10% at the collection plate on Sunday morning? We all periodically do this throughout the course of our lives, but this is not what it means to be “of service”.

Being of service is a relationship, a state of mind, a way of life. (Which might in fact include the above, volunteering, visiting the sick, etc. but not an end unto itself). It is a meditation of unending gratitude for those of us who have to keep us ever mindful of those who have not. I believe that in this gratitude, this eternal state of gratitude lies grace and out of grace is born compassion and compassion gives rise to empathy. “Why do we complain all the time?” asked Munia this morning over coffee. “We have so much,” she said. “Yes, but still wanting more, still incomplete,” I added.

She was only here for one night, visiting Cottarton with her beautiful daughter, Anita and her twin girls, Teresa and Margherita. It was as splendid as any ballet to watch the two of them in concert with each other, laughing, singing, sharing the responsibility of the babies. I got the feeling that they knew each other so well they didn’t even need words to communicate the next step. Like Nureyev and Fontaine they glided across the floor from cue to cue. The hungry cry, the sleepy cry, the wet cry, and the frustrated one they responded artfully, intelligently with humor and fatigue.

It is truly a remarkable occasion to witness the numinous in the domestic. The numinous at table, in a small kitchen feeding a hungry baby and then the peace that comes with the last bite.

Not all of us are favored with the presence of a good mother, in fact some of us are actually injured by the birth mother who was never taught or never learned how to mother herself. I have a small photograph in my collection of framed pictures on top of the china cabinet in the hallway that very few ask me about, which surprises me because it’s obviously antiquated and doesn’t look anything like my family or friends, but Anita did – she asked. “Who’s this?” “That’s a picture of the fantasy mother and me,” I said. “It’s a picture of the way I would have liked it to have been. An image.”

I’m sure you’re wondering now the link between service and mother and it’s this.

If mother is the point of entry, then mystery is the point of exit. It is the relationship between the good mother and the Great Mother, the mystery that beckons us to be of service. Like Munia and Anita in the dance of the mother at my kitchen table last night, the good mother reflects the magnitude of the Great Mother in her attention to that what is vulnerable in all of us. It is our cue as humans to listen for the call from the Great Mother, the mystery to listen for what we should be giving back. We must give back – it is the road to home.

PS Munia is Rose’s daughter and Anita is her granddaughter. I have been gifted in the company of women that have come into my life through marriage; Theresa, Basia, and Ciocia Renia….how fortunate am I.

Friday, 4 September 2009

10 percent in 2010

In the UK global warming is seen as real, and not a left wing conspiracy, supported by radical scientists. The summers of 2007 to 2009 saw unseasonal rainfall and flooding, people losing their houses. The affected County Councils are spending money to shore up flood defences to prepare for rising seas. Latest studies of Greenland glaciers show those glaciers are melting at a much higher rate than predicted by current climate change models. If they melt, sea level could rise within the next 100 years by several meters.

A natural Earth cycle or a result of human activity? No argument will silence all doubts. The debate will continue until the last debater is shot. As a geologist I can see that natural climactic cycles, visible in the rock record, are part of our Earth's history. Regarding the present changes, I defer to scientists who have studied the data. With few exceptions, they speak with one voice, that the present climate changes are due to the human impact on natural ecosystems --- burning fossil fuels and deforestration being the chief activities. This has become particularly acute because of our growing population.

Politicians talk and debate. In London, they discuss whether to cover the island with wind generators or put them all offshore. In Copenhagen, they bluster about who should make the first carbon dioxide cuts --- Americans, Chinese or Europeans who caused the problem in the first place? The Brits propose that we pay third world countries not to develop technologically, so that Brits can go on, business as usual. A convenient solution. One can conclude only one thing from the debate--- that we'll all fry before policicians come to an agreement that's likely to make any difference.

Or, the people can take action and show the bastards how it must be done.

Last week, "The Guardian" daily newspaper threw its support behind a grass roots movement, for every household to cut its carbon footprint by 10 percent in the year 2010. So far 10,000 people have pledged their support including many multinational corporations, all of Gordon Brown's cabinet, movie stars etc...According to the climate models, an immediate 10 percent global cut in carbon emissions is what is required to avoid an increase of 2 degrees celcius in our global temperature. Such an increase is likely to cause ecological changes that will result in further temperature increases. The carbon cuts have to start somewhere. Given that the UK only produces 3% of the world's carbon emissions, a 10% cut is not a large portion of the global budget. But it may generate the political impetus for other countries to follow suit, and for politicians to take meaningful action.

We may be too late. Arctic ice is melting more rapidly than predicted. Are we past the point of no return, where the Earth will grow warmer regardless of what we do? Nobody knows. To accept this scenario as true and to do nothing, will make a disastrous global warming of several degrees celcius an inevitability. Or, we can bury our heads in the sand and hope that none of this is real. That God will come to our aid, or that the sun will cool off. We can hope we'll all be dead before the disaster comes to roost.

I think about my children, the legacy we are about to leave them. Will they see scenes of mass starvation, wars fought over scarce resources, and mass migrations all because our generation was unwilling to make the right choices? The latest scenes from Bangladesh where 20 million people will have to move from areas inundated by rising seas, are a sample of things to come.

Amber and I are taking the 10:10 pledge. We are not sure how we will make good on the pledge but we will do what we can. We may cut down on car journeys, take the train more often, install more home insulation or fly less. We have more options than many people. We will keep you posted.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Fifteen Minutes to Execution

When does a clock decide between life and death?

The tower clock in Dufftown, a short distance from Cottarton Cottage, has been called, “The clock that hanged McPherson.” On November 16, 1700 the clock, located then in Banff was put forward by 15 minutes to allow for the execution of Jamie MacPherson before a rider bearing a pardon could arrive.

Jamie MacPherson was the illegimimate son of a Scottish laird and a gypsy woman. After his father’s death, Jamie was adopted by his mother’s family. He grew up to be a good swordsman, a poet and musician. As the leader of the gypsy band, he lived by rustling and selling horses and lifestock. Even detractors admit that he never murdered anyone or was guilty of any act of cruelty. Though popular with common people, for whom he was a kind of “Robin Hood”, he earned the emnity of the landed gentry, in particular the Earl Duff of Braco. Among his many supporters were the Grant family who held considerable influence in the Northeast, still do today where they are the owners of the Glenfiddich, Glengrant and other distilleries.

MacPherson’s band would often march into local fairs behind a piper. The day they appeared in Keith market, Braco’s men ambushed them, killed most of the gypsy band and captured McPherson. In a Banff court, he was charged with theft, being a vagabond and a gypsy --- then a criminal offence, found guilty and sentenced to death, as follows:
For sae muckle, as you, James MacPherson, are found guilty of being Egyptians and vagabonds and oppressors of his free lieges. Therefore, I adjudge and decern you to be taken to the cross of Banff to be hanged by the neck to the death.

While awaiting execution, MacPherson is said to have composed his lament, later the basis for Robert Burns’ poem – “MacPherson’s Farewell”. Upon reaching the gallows, he played a tune on his fiddle, then asked the onlookers whether anyone could play the violin. As no one raised their hand he broke the violin over his knee, declaring that “Hence forth no one would play McPherson’s fiddle.”

Meanwhile Jamie’s supporters prevailed on the Lord Grant to stay clemency. A rider was dispatched with the stay of execution, but Braco saw the rider at a distance. Suspecting correctly that the rider carried a padon, he arranged for the Banff clock to be moved up by 15 minutes so that the execution could be carried out before the pardon arrived. For years afterward the Banff clock was set fifteen minutes ahead of the other clocks, to commemorate the execution.

Today there is no capital punishment in the UK. Jamie MacPherson’s story is the stuff of legend, but less mythical is the parallel case of Michael Richard, executed in Texas on September 25, 2007. A last minute appeal for a stay of execution was rushed by his lawyer to the office of Justice Sharon Keller, nicknamed “Killer” because of her well known support for the Texas death penalty. Because of computer printing problems, the appeal arrived after 5pm, only to find the court doors closed. Though the lawyer had phoned the court to tell Keller that the appeal would be late, she ordered the court clerk to close the doors on time. Richard was executed two hours later.

Some things don’t change.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gardening --- In Partnership

Back in the sixties, many of us wanted to get back to nature, live off the land. That meant growing our own food and eating nettles. Forty years on we’ve come full circle, but not to the same starting place. Global warming and a shrinking food supply are the new realities. Many fertile regions are turning into desert because of low rainfall, or poor farming practices. Even economists recognise that food is not produced by a factory but by a growing, breathing and living land. The UK produces only 60% of the food it needs. A recent government report says we must produce 100% if we are to meet the challenges of a burgeoning population and global warming in the coming century.

Can it be done in Northeastern Scotland which has a short growing season, no dependable summer warmth, and strong winds that blow for days on end?

I started our vegetable garden to rediscover the lost art of working with the natural cycles and to produce vegetables whose taste arouses all your senses. Make dining a different experience. Thanks to our global marketplace you can buy any vegetable, year round. In December strawberries are flown in from Chile. Most are mass produced with artificial fertilizer, varieties bred for quantity and shelf life. They may not taste like much but they’re there. However they have no connection to the land. Unsurprisingly many kids these days aren’t sure where vegetables are from, other than that they come from Tesco.

Rather than rely on heated polytunnels, we plant what grows well in our climate ---potatoes, garlic, onions, large stands of broad beans, all the root vegetables, and vegetables that can be stored away for winter when very little grows. I’m not a purist. We grow tomatoes, courgettes and Mexican pepper (for our salsa) in a greenhouse, and cucumbers in a cold frame. Our long summer days give us a short but very rapid growing season. In July lettuce, radishes, turnip and rocket come and go so fast that you have to plant successions to keep your kitchen supplied. We dry wild mushrooms, or freeze them cooked, pickle beets make jams and Mexican salsa. By September the garden slows down. Leeks, kale, brussel sprouts and yellow turnip still grow but not as fast. Last November we still lived mostly from our garden: roasted vegetables, tomatoes that ripened indoors, potatoes and so on. By January we draw on our stored carrots and beets. We draw on mushrooms and beans from the freezer or from our dried supplies. Leeks, turnips, parsnips and brussel sprouts can still be dug up when the frost lets up.

I have much to learn about sustainable practices. This year the overall production is down, in part due to soil depletion. Neither I nor our friends have sorted out how to rotate crops to keep the ground fertile, use the right amount of dung, find the best varieties and plant the correct quantities. There is a lot of discussion of permaculture techniques, where you disturb the soil as little as possible. It works in England and Australia, but I’m sceptical about using it in Scotland.

Our plot is about, 60 by 40 feet --- a large plot by local standards. It barely supplies enough vegetables for our home, and our house in Scone. If city people are to grow their own in future, much more allotment space than is available today will have to be set aside.

We’re not self sufficient. Rather than raise hens we obtain eggs at the Smiddy --- the house at the end of our road. We buy fresh salmon from Buckie, a small coastal town. The local Deveron river has got salmon, but I don’t have the patience to catch it. I make rhubarb wine, dandelion wine and blackcurrant liqour, but they don’t satisfy our craving for French or Italian wine.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Celebrating Rose

Character used to be spoken of in terms of the “heart” of courage, or the “heart” of generosity and loyalty. This heart heartens the downtrodden, cooks a hearty meal, and has a hearty laugh. It has heart for the fight and beats for what’s right: family, friends, comrades, causes.
James Hillman, The Force of Character

Paul and I drove down to Scone last week to celebrate Rose’s birthday. She was eighty nine.

I met my mother in law in the summer of 2005 on my first trip to Scotland, in the period just before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, at a time when she could still, with artless charm, tell a story late into the night. And what a captivated audience she had in her daughter in law who never tired of hearing them. The vitality in her voice, the animation in her recall had not quite disappeared so the stories were tenacious and full bodied.

“If you had told me in 1939 that in six years I would be living in Scotland for the rest of my life, I would have said you were from the moon.” But by 1945, this twenty five year old woman who had courageously survived the war in Poland, together with her husband freshly released from a German stalag, made their way to Bankfoot to do just that – build a new life in Scotland.

She spoke French and of course Polish; French because it was the language of the aristocracy, what they spoke at table and the language in which she was educated, but not a word of English when she crossed the border into Great Britain carrying only the clothes on her back.

Clearly anyone who knows Rose or is related to her will know her story of colossal loss. They will know the childhood home that was burned down by the Germans as her father and sister stood witness. The loving and devoted mother she lost before her twentieth birthday; the family portraits, the furniture, the clothes, the friendships, the land, the last good byes don’t need to be recapitulated here for us to remember her extraordinary journey.

In the back garden of New Scone when sun was promised but the rains came, we carried on with our modest barbeque in typical Polish style – meat only, accompanied by the occasional slice of marrow. Rose sat beside me confused by the events of the day, by the many guests who came bearing chocolates and flowers, bewildered as to why we were even sitting outside under grey skies eating ribs.

This frail wisp of a woman who once commandeered a houseful of forty refugees and stood up to the German Gestapo pollinates my heart with the eternal in her story. Amid the intersecting conversations, the smell of grilled meats, the occasional drippy sky, I thought to myself it’s perhaps what a person loses and not what they acquire that defines them so completely. Of course during times of war there are many more stories of unspeakable horror that one might say pale in comparison, but this is not how we measure story or suffering or loss. I regard my mother in law as in part Naomi, in part Mara. She is ambassador to those who have lost their families, to those who live in exile, to those who make a choice to live their lives with as much dignity as they can possibly muster under the circumstances.

Rose Kieniewicz lost everything during the war but her beloved her spirit, and her faith. These are the things she brought with her to a new land. She came in part bitterness and in part anticipation but she never came believing or accepting she would never return to her homeland. She never believed she wouldn’t see her father again before he died, or not be able to attend the funeral of her sister who was killed in a car accident. “I think I cried all the tears I had on that day,” she says. Rose did not always graciously accept her destiny and railed against the fates for obstructing her will to go back to Poland. According to her husband’s memoirs, she suffered this loss long and hard.

When I moved with my husband from the States to Scotland in June, 2006, my parents were both deceased but I lost the friendship and communication of my dear brother and his family, my great nieces and nephews and other extended family members. I didn’t lose them to war but an equivalent kind of stupidity, fear of change. Rose would never understand this kind of emotional recklessness as family means so much to her; the preservation of what is significant in life is paramount.

But like the Book of Ruth, passed down to us through the centuries, Rose does not need to know my story for her story to be a blueprint of love, loyalty and redemption.

In times of quick fixes, fast food, desires unfulfilled, and short lived relationships there is something inspirational in the person who summons their strength from a storehouse of integrity and simplicity. Rose is not perfect by any means, but then, perfection is not what is remembered when we tell the story of one’s life; it is the essence.

From Rose I take her courage, her doubts, and her acceptance of circumstances, her trials and her defeats as a yardstick for my own life. Will I live it as humanly as she has lived hers? I will certainly try.

“Love the Lord with all your heart, be happy be happy today.” This is what she would tell me. I love you Rose Kieniewicz. Thank you for being my mother in law, my Naomi, my Mara, my Rose, and my north star.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Justice Tempered with Mercy

I was hoping that our blog would be non-political. I’m not sure I can add much to the passionate opinions voiced in many blogs on the release of Ali al Megrahi. But it’s not often that Scottish and United States interests clash in such a visible way. Perhaps our friends in the States would like to read how people view the release on this side of the pond. In American media there’s widespread disbelief and condemnation of Scotland over the release of the one man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing where 270 people lost their lives, of which 189 were Americans --- the view that that even if he was terminally ill, at least he should die in jail.

Sentiments are different here. Most Scottish people polled do not believe Ali al Megrahi is guilty of the atrocity; rather,that he is a convenient scapegoat, a pawn chosen to take the fall so that Libyan and US/UK relations could be normalized. A lot of undiscovered oil in Libya was at stake. Secondly, people are divided over whether it serves any purpose to keep a terminally ill convicted murderer in jail for the last days of his life. Even a mass murderer. Every blogger has their opinion.

Questions about Megrahi’s guilt grew soon after his conviction. The following story by the BBC summarizes the issues that include the possibility of mishandled forensic evidence, mistaken identity, evidence withheld by the police, Megrahi’s possible motives --- whether he was acting alone. The British justice system is generally very thorough about conducting an appeal or an inquiry into how well the system works. An appeal had been filed, but because of Megrahi’s ill health, he would have been dead before the appeal could start. Dropping the appeal is the worst possible outcome for this affair, because now we will never know if Megrahi was guilty.

A recent US Supreme Court decision in the case of Troy Davis (See NY times story)
points to another difference in which guilt or innocence is viewed in Scotland and in the States. Justices Scalia and Thomas point out that the US constitution does not prohibit the execution of people who can prove they are innocent. What counts is whether the legal process was followed correctly. Luckily the court majority, and hopefully most Americans do not agree with this sentiment, and a court decision, rather than a constitutional amendment will suffice to clear up whether people who are factually innocent may be executed. In the UK such arguments are viewed as shocking. Whether Megrahi was guilty or innocent does matter. It’s not enough to lock up a scapegoat and call the job done, then let him die in jail because he’s the only one we have. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

If he is guilty, should he die in jail, or be released? In the UK it’s common to release a terminally ill offender who has only a month or so to live. Keeping him locked up is viewed as a moot point. Less weight is placed on retribution as the reason for locking someone up, especially someone who is terminally ill. Would his death in jail, a month from now, ease the suffering of the many victims of the Lockerbie bombing? My experience working with victims of violent crime in Texas, suggests that executing an offender rarely brings solace to the bereaved. Often they go away feeling that the offender did not suffer enough. On the other hand I met many people who lost a husband or children to a violent act, and who opposed the execution of the offender. See the following page for such testimonies :
In the UK, those who lost a family member in the Lockerbie bombing do not speak with one voice about Megrahi’s release. Even those who believe he is guilty.

With some justification, one can argue that the role of the judicial system is justice, and not mercy. Especially to someone convicted of mass murder. Yet in both the US and in the UK we do not endorse cruel and unusual punishments. Recently the US Supreme Court ordered a moratorium on executions until they could establish whether lethal injection, the main method for executions in the US, is a humane --- painless method. We make a show of treating our prisoners humanely, because we’re embarrassed to do otherwise. When discovered, we try and cover it up. Like it or not, as societies we do believe in justice tempered by mercy.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

The Golden Key


“There was a boy who used to sit in the twilight and listen to his great-aunt’s stories.
She told him that if he could reach the place where the end of the rainbow stands he would find there a golden key.”

So begins the George MacDonald story, The Golden Key. As in McDonald’s story, our glen is often visited by rainbows, often complete arcs that contain two or three secondary rainbows. We can often see the end of the rainbow in the field. More about about finding the golden key in a moment.

A late nineteenth century writer, MacDonald was born near Huntly, a stone’s throw from our glen and Cottarton Cottage. He is best known for fantasy novels, Phantastes and Lilith, children's novels such as At the Back of the North Wind and The Princess and the Goblin. Many of his fairy stories are imbued with the windswept hills where little but heather grows, the babbling streams, occasional forests. During the long summer days you can read by daylight at 11 pm, but in winter the sun barely appears over the horizon before it sinks again and gives way to a long night.

Often the sunlight on the waving corn, or the dry grass makes the hill glow with an unearthly light. Snow clouds that charge up the glen swirl create so many shapes that you can see the entire army of the snow king on the move. You can watch the wind in the field, travelling as a series of corn waves. Mists roll in unexpectedly, as in the MacDonald story, The Carasoyn, where a girl is lost in the hills, discovers a stone cottage temporarily inhabited by a mysterious old woman who takes her in for the night, then disappears at sunrise. The constantly changing landscape evokes so many images that a writer is tempted to forget about the humdrum world of everyday life, take the golden key in hand and with it step into a world beyond ours, where magic is real.

Most local farmers no longer look at the landscape that way. They raise sheep, cattle, barley and animal feed. They all work hard. Life is a repetitive routine with little time left over to stop and look around. We exchange services with the locals, provide fruits and flowers from our garden. We can always count on their help with a tractor, or for a load of dung to fertilize our garden.

From our living room we have a full view of the valley and the opposite hill surmounted by a small protuberance. Many nearby hills have similar structures, the remains of Iron Age forts, or ancient burial sites. In those days people built their communities on hill tops for defensive reasons. Nowadays a constant wind blasts the hilltops; you wouldn’t want to build your house there but long ago climate may have been warmer and less windy. Across our landscape stone walls assembled without any cement mark the borders between fields. Over the past two hundred years not much has changed except the advent of power lines, telephone lines and asphalt surfaces. Farm hands lived on the land. Many were needed for ploughing, planting and harvesting. Today a five hundred acre farm is worked today by two people armed with an array of farm machinery and contains the same crop of barley, year after year.

What will the glen look like in a hundred years and who will live there? If the climate experts are right, the glen’s climate will be warmer than today, but still pleasant. It could become a home to refugees from countries whose climate no longer supports them. With the golden key you can open a door and see a small village at the bottom of our field, another colony on the hilltop near the ancient fort. People of many races live there, happy to have a home, but uneasy with the monocultural Scottish society. New forests cover the landscape, and the wolf that used to stalk those hills is back again. It’s the stuff of stories.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Website Under Construction

I must admit I hate Facebook and I hate the word blog; for no reason, logical or otherwise. The philosophy of Facebook unnerves me and the word blog does not inspire me to write like its synonyms diary, journal, memoir, or letters. But that’s what it is and I’m not interested in why it’s that way because I’m not thirty anymore, Thank God, and have earned my right to add more vinegar to my diet than sugar, if I so choose.

However, I do like the idea of a website address because it lends itself to a kind of technological nobility, a kind of certitude or poise, if you will. I can pick and choose to whom I send this address and in that way it becomes more like a letter to me, personal, something on a more human scale as Paul might say. Something else about a website that appeals to me is the individual design of it, how it echoes a room of one’s own. In this era of sweeping acceleration, fast food, instant communication, and disposable packaging, Cottarton Cottage is a quiet place with a measure of modernity (we have appliances) certainly, but of a time past when the day moved a bit more slowly and without such competing ambitions. It is an interesting life, though not immediately noticeable because of its contemplative nature. There are no art galleries or concert halls; films released in the States take a whole extra season to find the village of Glass, by Huntly, and we can’t boast any three star restaurants. But we can walk down the road and buy our eggs, fresh, from chickens we can see – the Happy Girls, they’re called. I can walk out into my garden and cut flowers, make bunches and walk them to the end of my drive and maybe someone driving past might stop to take one home. I hang my wash out on the line and I must wait for the bread to rise. In late summer, I can pick berries from the bush and bring them in for cereal. True, in many ways an elitist lifestyle. But I think there is something else going on here and that’s one of the things I want to explore in the website as well fun stuff like recipes, pictures and the occasional fairy sighting.

I do live on the bones of Druids.

Be well, dear friends and look forward to our website coming soon – meanwhile, we’ll keep you informed on things happening here at Cottarton, what we’re doing, what we’re thinking.


Sunday, 16 August 2009

Flowers in the Wind

When we moved to Cottarton Cottage, our neighbours raised their eyebrows when I spoke of starting a flower farm. No one had ever done it, at least not in this glen where the wind blows steadily. The only certainties are not death and taxes, but blowing wind and a good sprinkling of rain every second day. As for winter time, snow stories are the makings of many legends.

Two years later, flowers are blooming around our cottage, so many that we place bunches each morning at the end of the driveway, with a notice for people to take a bunch and drop a couple of pounds in an attached can. Though the road doesn’t have a lot of traffic, we always sell a bunch or two. Others we give away to neighbours and friends. Not everyone wants to taste our beets and broad beans but they all appreciate flowers. Faster than a nip of whisky they lift that depression brought on by cloudy weather, and they don’t give you a hangover.

Unlike during the sixties when stores sold flowers grown locally, all flowers in supermarkets and florist shops are trucked in from Holland, southern England or Europe, where a flower farm means acres of poly-tunnels. We’re doing it differently. We use the greenhouse to start seedlings --- everything we grow is from seed, but after leaving that nursery, the flowers grow in the open, in the most sheltered part of the garden, supported by netting. We have a four month blooming season from mid July to mid October and have no desire to lengthen it. Our sweet peas are into their second month, fuller and more heavily scented than usual, dahlias and asters are close to their peak. This year we’re trying out single stem chrysanthemums, more common at flower shows than at supermarkets. Most successful this year are flowers that preserve their blossom when you dry them --- acroclinium and helichrysum. In case you never heard of them, neither did we a year ago.

Gardening appears less common than it used to be. These days, between making a living, and babysitting the computer, people have less disposable time on their hands. Retired people typically tend small, manicured gardens where everything is grown in straight lines and not a blade of grass is out of place. A good show for the guests. Donald, who each year rents me a large rotovator, says that it’s rarely in demand. Vegetables and flowers are so cheap at Tesco that most people don’t see why they should grow them.

I can’t offer a convincing reason for growing flowers. Not the money we receive, which will only buy a few bottles of wine. Bees love the flowers. They hover about them in clouds, and then go on to pollinate our vegetables. But honestly, there’s very little practical about flowers. Perhaps that’s why we appreciate them.