Wednesday, 26 January 2011

A Cottarton Burns Night

Burns Night celebrates our poet’s birth. By January 25, we already notice more daylight when we wake up. This year's mild January even has a touch of spring. Traditionally the dinner menu is haggis, neeps and tatties, eloquent toasts and speeches that speak fondly of the bard, despite the fact that he was a scoundrel who seduced every lassie he came across. If you have the space in your house, a ceilidh. At Cottarton we do it a little differently, with a focus on poetry, song, good food, and conversations on deep philosophical issues and controversial ecology, all chased down with high quality whisky.

Amber procured the haggis at the Forbes-Raeburn butcher in Huntly. A necessity. There’s nothing worse than supermarket haggis, stuff with the consistency of glue that sticks to your mouth and refuses to be swallowed. Unfortunately US residents are deprived of the real haggis. People have ended up in jail trying to smuggle in Scottish haggis. It’s made of sheep’s heart, liver, lungs minced with onion and oatmeal, simmered for an hour in the sheep’s stomach. How to describe the sensation of eating it? You’ll taste a symphony of spicy meat, sweetness, all perfectly complemented with Amber’s classic, mashed potatoes and neeps (known in the US as rutabagas).

Alex, from Drummuir castle, read an abbreviated address to the haggis, standing with a knife to make the first ritual cut:

“His knife see rustic labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi steady slight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then O what a glorious sight,
Warm reekin, rich.”

Makes your mouth water, then heat up like with good Mexican food, thirsting for a splash of whisky. Amber and Annie stayed with white wine. Rachel drank last year’s dandelion wine brewed at Cottarton, while Charles and I mixed the dandelion wine with cheap beer. Quite a cocktail. We decided that 2010 was a good year for dandelion wine. We had a Texas contribution to Burns Night --- chicken marbella, made of marinated chicken in a sweet prune sauce. An amazing complement to the haggis, that should from now on be added to the traditional menu. For dessert Annie made crannoch pudding, made of oatmeal, berries, cream and whisky.

Once we’d all not only eaten our fill, but lubricated our brains and tongues with more whisky, we struck up the poetry and song. We sang a capella, when we knew the choruses. Annie led “Ae fond kiss”, Rachel “Ca’ the Ewes”. The lassies have a great repertoire of which we were treated to only a few selections.Charles sang “Cald kale in Aberdeen” --- a poem that references our nearby river, the Bogie. I made an attempt at my favourite, To a Mouse, set to music by Battlefield Band.

Why the poet’s enduring appeal that crosses all classes and education background? He was the first poet of note to write in the people’s dialect, on every topic from misadventures with sheep and cattle, his romantic exploits, the mythology of the land and of politics. Very sympathetic with the plight of the common man, expressing his conviction that class and money have nothing to do with a person’s worth:

“A man’s a man for a’ that!”

He was a pacifist who saw war in all its forms as evil. He watched many young men march proudly away, never to return. Most biting are his words o politicians in “Logan’s Braes”

“O wae upon ye men o’ state
That brethren rouse to deadly hate!
As ye mak monie a fond heart mourn,
Say may it on your heads return!
How can your flinty hearts enjoy
The widow’s tears, the orphan’s cry?
But soon may peace bring happy days
And Willie hame to Logan Braes”.

His compassion extends also to the mouse, whose house he one day destroyed with his plough. The experience made him ponder the fragility of all our lives, in the final stanzas, lines unfortunately a bit overused.

But, Mousie thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men,
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Still thou art blest, compared wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee;
But och! I backward cast my e’e
On prospects drear!
And forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess and fear.

Yes – some days I feel myself a lord, and other days when things “gang a-gley” I’m no higher than that mouse. Quite a normal feeling I suspect.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Anti-Poet

January 25 is almost here, and that means Burns night --- a celebration of our most celebrated bard. At Cottarton we’re expecting 11 people over for our party. Amber is cooking up a storm. After dinner, the musicians will strike up some music, and we’ll have poetic recitations and singing.

Scotland also boasts of a great anti-poet --- whose poetry is recited at parties, even in the US, and garners more laughs than Burns because it’s so unashamedly bad. I refer to the great Dundee poet, actor, tragedian and quintessentially tragic William McGonnagall (1825-1902).

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array,
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beutification to the Tay.

Six more stanzas follow about the bridge's architecture. Let’s try another one, written later after the bridge fell down one stormy night. Apparently as a result of poor engineering…

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

Get me out of here!Two pages of verse carry on the story, each verse ending with,
Which will be remembered for a very long time.

There are more --- about 200 poems. Have someone read them and see if you don’t end up splitting your sides. He recited in bars, in music halls; even in a circus where people would pelt him with flour, eggs and the like. His performances --- and yes he was a great performance poet, what today you’d call a slammer, often resulted in riots. He certainly wasn’t ignored. People turned up always, expecting a great show. While reciting “The Battle of Bannockburn” in a Montrose hall,he waved a sword and thrust it this way and that, sending the orchestra members running for their lives.

Then King Edward ordered his horsemen to charge
Thirty thousand in number which was very large;
They thought to o’erwhelm them ere they could rise from their knees,
But they met a different destiny, which did them displease.

McGonnagall became a poet following a mystical experience. He writes,

"I was sitting in my back room in Paton's Lane, Dundee, lamenting to myself because I couldn't get to the Highlands on holiday to see the beautiful scenery, when all of a sudden my body got inflamed, and instantly I was seized with a strong desire to write poetry, so strong, in fact, that in imagination I thought I heard a voice crying in my ears- "Write! Write" I wondered what could be the matter with me, and I began to walk backwards and forwards in a great fit of excitement, saying to myself-- "I know nothing about poetry." But still the voice kept ringing in my ears - "Write, write," until at last, being overcome with a desire to write poetry, I found paper, pen, and ink, and in a state of frenzy, sat me down to think what would be my first subject for a, poem."

He certainly remained true to his vision. Despite the universal derision, he remained convinced that he was a great poet. A genius. That people were merely stupid. Tone deaf to poetic metre and metaphor, he couldn't figure out what people were laughing at. Perhaps therein lies his genius. I certainly couldn’t write such poetry. You have to hand it to the man that he never gave up, and that all the egg pelting never shook his self-esteem or his faith in himself.

Yet, I hesitate to call him a tragic figure, though numerous anecdotes point that way. Once when playing the part of Macbeth, he refused to die as required by Shakespeare. He drew out the sword fight until his exhausted adversary threw down his sword and bodily tackled him. I suspect that McGonnagall was craftier than people give him credit. The crowds did after all turn up, if only to be entertained by his performance, his inane lines, and to pelt him with cabbages. He knew he was successful. He must have loved the attention. Yet, as with most poets, he must have felt lonely.

And today, a hundred years later, his poems are best sellers. Guess who’s laughing in his grave?

Saturday, 15 January 2011

A Little Night Reading

Those of you who wake up at night and can't get back to sleep may want to try out my story Ghost Writer, posted recently on the website ABC Tales. Nothing deep or philosophical here, just a story set in Aberdeenshire, a few years from today.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011


“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

It was ten in the morning, and I’d walked uphill along icy roads and pavements to the hospital, hoping to find Mama fresh and alert. Agata said that mornings were better for Mama. I found her lying quietly half asleep. I shook her gently, she opened her eyes to look at me but the most recognition she offered was a nod. She looked away, at the room, at the woman who sat in her chair opposite and one diagonally across from her. She’d had a stroke and hadn’t spoken for at least two weeks. Her family visited her each day and presented her with bills to sort through.

With an irritated smile Mama replied, “Do you think that I’d forget my son?”

She indicated for me to raise the head of the bed. Once she’d settled comfortably she asked me about how I’d slept. It’s cold outside. She nodded at the snowy hill just outside the window where a fresh load had fallen overnight. Had I been warm enough in the upper bedroom of her house? Though they were all familiar questions that I’d heard often, spoken obsessively, I felt that she was concerned for my welfare. As always she asked about the kids. Even about my writing. How was it going? Our conversation lasted about ten minutes before she drifted off again. The fixed look returned. She wasn’t sleeping but she no longer appeared interested in what I was saying. Her eyes followed the morning sunlight, the way it caught on the snow and made it sparkle.

I was left wondering what she is thinking about. What thoughts occupy her while she remains unresponsive to me? Very few, I suspect. Not having Alzheimer’s, I can’t imagine what it must be like not to have the ability to retain short term memories. Does that leave you in a Zen state where you are intensely aware of the present, of everything that is happening now? Each snow hillock, that tree branch bent under a heap of snow? Our normal consciousness involves a constant internal narration, where we go over our thoughts, one after another, each thought awakening new associations and generating the next. Our thoughts are so important to us that we narrate them constantly, either consciously or unconsciously. Watching Mama, I don’t get the sense of internal narration. When she looks at the snow, it’s without any thought filter. She doesn’t wonder about it, associate it with the past. The past doesn’t have the importance it once had. She’s accepted that she doesn’t remember it. She doesn’t ask questions about it. Or about me, just sitting beside her. It’s a peaceful place to be --- the place we all eventually must come to the moment we take our last breath, when we must let go of everything. Including the body.

Is this newfound peace a result of her stroke?

A few months ago, when she lived at home, anxiety was the order of the day. An implacable anxiety that came from nowhere and would not listen to reason. Where are my keys? Who is upstairs? Did anyone bring me Holy Communion today? How long have I been in this house? She repeated the questions, and even when she didn’t, her hollow eyes told us that she was terrified. She knew that she was losing her mind, that her memories were drifting away. There she was, trying to nail them down before they floated away. After enduring her for an hour or so, I’d take a blank paper and write down in large letters answers to all her questions, so she could read them to herself. It usually calmed her down for a while. The anxiety was the most visible sign of her suffering. Driving home, I would ask Amber wearily --- Isn’t there a better way to die than this --- consumed by fear?

I hope that there is. Mama’s anxiety is now gone. She’s been in hospital for over two months, in a strange surrounding, with no clear plan for the future, but it doesn’t bother her. We're probably more worried about her than she is herself. She's happy to have us sitting beside her and the pure white snow sparkles outside the window. She doesn't need the rattle of useless conversation or narration.

Scottish Social Services are putting together a care package --- a plan that would allow her to come home, with a helper to visit her up to four times a day to help Agata take care of her. It’s all funded in full by the Scottish Government. But Mama doesn’t need to know any of that.

It’s time for my train so I get up to leave. The moment I stir she’s right there focused on me. She asks me when I’ll be back. In a few days. We give each other a good-bye kiss. For now.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Forest and the Trees

Just as our oil storage tank began to flirt with empty, our long awaited delivery arrived. The Brogan Fuels truck sputtered up our dirt road, the driver unfurled his hose, engaged his pump and pumped in 800 litres, enough for the next four months. Yesterday came the bill, £560. High, oh yes --- 67pence a litre. Last October we filled up at 58p/l. The previous year at 42p/l. Auto fuel also jumped over the New Year from £1.22/l to £1.35/l, the highest it’s ever been, but that was due to Mr. Cameron’s bright idea to solve our economic woes by raising fuel taxes and VAT. If anyone tried that back in the US, they’d be out on their ear within a month, or facing an armed rebellion. But this is Britain, and we bear such matters stoically, a little like our proverbially nasty weather.

We do all our cooking on an Aga type oil stove. It heats our hot water. A small pump circulates it through our radiators. It's an ingenious system that combines cooking, hot water and central heating. Is there an alternative to using home heating oil and paying criminally high prices, not to mention the high carbon footprint of burning fossil fuel? There’s wood. We have a wood burning stove, which we light in the evenings and on cold days. During the long winter nights the open fire keeps away the winter blues; takes the chill out of the air, but it can’t do the work of our Aga.

Our friends over the hill, the Ashtons of Coldhome, also use wood for their energy needs. They’ve taken pot belly stoves and encased them in a layer of cobb --- that’s home-made adobe made of clay and straw to increase the heating surface area; even to make a small oven. A neighbour delivers a pile of wood which they saw up and split. A job that also keeps me busy during the winter months. Heating and cooking with fire works for them except in days when a northerly wind blows the smoke down the chimney into the house. At Cottarton we also have that problem; every two or three months. There’s no remedy except not to burn wood until the wind changes.

Recently our neighbours at the Mains of Blairmore installed a wood-burning system for their hot water and central heating: a huge magilla of tanks, a furnace, regulators and pipes in a disused steading. They buy ready split pine wood. The furnace needs attention only two or three times as day, and stays warm even during the night. It all cost them over £10,000 to install, but their house is now warm as toast and is heated at a fraction of the cost of oil. Within 10 years they may recover their investment. At Cottarton we could exchange our Aga for a wood burning one; an ironic reversal, as the previous owners went from wood to oil. In those days oil cost only 20 p/l.

However, the cost of firewood is rising rapidly. As more people switch to wood because it’s cheaper and more ecologically friendly, guess what's happening to the price? Five years ago farmers let you pick your own wood for free, but now realizing that they’re sitting on a pile of gold, they’re selling their wood. These days buying a forest doesn’t look like a bad investment.

Or you can plant your own forest. Economically it’s not such a crazy idea as long as you take a long term view of the project. Indigenous trees such as pine, birch, willow, sycamore and rowan grow large enough to harvest in 12-15 years. Oak and ash considerably longer. Harvesting involves selective thinning and inter-planting or coppicing --- a traditional English approach of partially cutting the trunk and allowing the stump to send out new growth. Of course you have a long initial wait during which you’ll have to protect the young trees from deer.

My thoughts turn to our open pasture: three acres we use currently as a horse pasture. Should we plant trees there? We’d have to build a deer fence or plant our saplings in protective tubes. Both expensive propositions. By time the forest is ready to harvest, Amber and I will be pushing 80, and may have little energy for the chain saw and the splitting mawl. But Cottarton’s next owner will have a bonanza --- a sustainable wood supply and one that is carbon neutral. Free energy? What’s there to complain about?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Cottarton Christmas

This year we didn't expect to spend Christmas at Cottarton, but as the day approached, we all realized that there was no better place for the family to gather. Amber lit all the candles.

Photographs, courtesy of Johanna and Jon.

L-R Amber, Paul, Natalia, Johanna, Adam, Iain, Theresa.

Johanna and Jon

The view toward Blairmore

Barb wire fence


Earth and Sky Meet

Winter flower

Natalia --- ambushed on a walk

Saturday, 1 January 2011


Communication. Crossing the Tay by train and heading back north toward Cottarton, I find myself asking whether we understand what the word means. I’ve spent a couple of hours by mama’s bed and we hardly exchanged a word. Certainly there’s been no exchange of what would pass as information. Neither was there any activity that you’d normally associate with thinking, or the activity of thought. Yet we communicated.

From a few feet away, she greets me with a broad smile, but no words. She knows who I am and my name. To speak it requires energy, something that she doesn’t have much of. She’s conserving it. I start to talk, telling her about our house, what we’re doing, about the children --- all the stuff that I feel she wants to know about. She listens politely but I have the impression that my talking tires her. It takes effort to pay attention to words and to parse them. She doesn’t mind me talking; it’s okay with her, but it’s not strictly necessary. In any case, she can’t reply using words. For two months now she hasn’t had that ability. She can’t tell us what she’s been thinking of during that time but I suspect that she’s come to a new understanding, that words and language are overrated. She’s just as happy with Amber and I sitting close by and saying nothing.

For several minutes we sit in silence. It’s more difficult for me than for her, as my mind whirls with countless thoughts. Should I ask her this? What might I say that would elicit more response than my previous conversation? I tell her of a recent dream I had of Tata. She smiles hearing his name. In the dream he was back in Old Scone Nursery with me, ploughing a field and then marking it out for a new sowing. I ask her if she misses him. She nods.

We’ve visited on other days when she has been even less responsive. One evening after such a visit, Amber asked me, “What touchstone does she have with reality?” "Only us," I say. Lying in a hospital ward, she’s not sure why she’s there; how long she's been there, or what is home. She points at other patients; her eyes appear to ask who they are. People she ought to know? At times her memories may be so jumbled up that she doesn't know who she is.

The following morning we brought her several photographs. Mama lit up like a candle seeing the picture of her husband and of her parents. As if they were all paying her a personal visit. A veil had drawn aside to reveal her as she once was. She started to talk, not too clearly, but using two or three words. “Are you cold?” she asked. “How is the house?” Again I was tempted to talk, tell her everything while the going was good. About how we spent Christmas, but I realized that my conversation tired her.

I'd brought with me a volume of Czeslav Milosz’s poems,so I read her one of my favourites, in Polish. My translation follows:


Hope exists when you believe
That Earth is not a dream but a living body
That your sight, touch and ear don’t lie
And all things that you’ve known
Are but a garden in whose gate you stand.

You cannot enter, but it is surely there.
If we could see clearer and more wisely
We'd find many a new flower and star
In the garden of the world.

Some say that the eye deceives us,
That there’s nothing there; we only think there is.
But those people don’t have hope.
They think that when their back is turned
The entire world will vanish
As if abducted by the hands of a thief.

While I read the poem she smiled, nodding when I spoke a line that meant something to her. After I’d finished she looked away.

“Are you tired?” I said.

She shook her head, and replied, clearer than she'd spoken yet, “I’m thinking.”