Saturday, October 21, 2006

Conservatory Horrors (2)

Still trying to write, publicise a new book, and set up a new Scottish Home website in the middle of a building site! I had a week's blissful respite, while I tutored a fiction writing course at wonderful Moniack Mhor in the hills above Loch Ness (see my other wordarts blog, for a fuller account.) My husband had done his very best to clean up before I came home, doing sterling work with brush and mop and duster, but no matter how often you clean up plaster dust, it tends to settle all over again within the next few hours. The low point came on wednesday when the concrete arrived for the base. Actually, the concrete didn't arrive for several hours. The workmen who had been building the walls waited and waited. Eventually they left and an hour later two more workmen turned up, nice polite lads both of them. (All the tradesmen involved have been fine - it's the organisational skills of the company itself that we keep calling into question. ) They waited as well. I made them a cup of tea. At last the concrete lorry turned up, several hours later than planned. 'Are all those pipes to be concreted over?' asked one of the big young men, innocently.
'I don't know' I told him, exasperated beyond belief. 'That's what I'm paying the company many thousands of pounds to tell you!'
Normally I'm not quite so prone to irritation, but we have done so much of our own project management on this job that we feel we ought to be somehow billing the company in return. We have just had to organise our own builder to restructure the drainpipes above the proposed conservatory - a necessity which these so called specialists never even mentioned.
Yesterday I was about to write a cheque for the second slice of money when two thoughts struck me. One, we have had nothing in writing about additional work which the company have agreed to do on a couple of upstairs windows, so I have no idea what they are planning to charge me for this. And two, we haven't seen hide nor hair of a building control officer, when we know that they usually come out to check work in progress, particularly on - as this is - a listed building. Have they even been told that work has started? Until I get the answer to both these questions, I find my hand curiously reluctant to write out a cheque....
There is only one element of progress to report. Several young men energetically barrowed concrete through the house (and were touchingly concerned about not walking on my kitchen floor in dirty boots) Now the new floor has set solid ('turned to stone' as my son described it, when he was a very little boy) and - praise be- I can get into my kitchen without negotiating a piratical plank.
More as it happens.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Conservatory Horrors (1)

Late last year, having had a number of quotes from several companies, we finally decided who we thought might make the best job of putting a convervatory on to the back of our 200 year old listed, terraced, Scottish cottage.
They came highly recommended by friends who I shall be having words with when I see them, although oddly enough, I don't seem to have met them for a good long while.....
This was to be a replacement for a much smaller conservatory, which had been built by my husband some years previously, and was all we could afford at the time. It was nice enough, but Alan has always felt that it was a 'bit like a corridor' and as our antique Scottish textiles and interiors business is about to expand we felt the need of a bigger room - somewhere to store our lovely old linens, somewhere to dry herbs for our own pot pourri, somewhere to sit quietly with a glass of wine, on a summer's evening, and come up with the next good idea. Somewhere to entertain in comfort. Well, that was the theory anyway.
The conservatory is only part of a much larger plan to renovate the whole house, something which we knew would take a year, and most of our savings. However,since a house is the biggest investment most of us will make in our lifetimes and - when you work from home in various ways as we do - somewhere you will spend a great deal of your time, we thought that major renovations and refurbishments were well overdue. On the first working day of the year, we took our deposit and the completed plans in to the company in question, and signed on the dotted line. Then we turned our attention to our bathroom, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog, and spent some three months turning it into a small paradise. It is now the nicest room in the house, and one where I am inclined to spend more and more of my time for reasons which will soon become obvious. The rest of the house is rapidly turning into a cross between Steptoe's living room (for those of you who are old enough to remember) and a reclamation yard.
The first hitch came with planning. We know from long experience that getting planning permission for alterations to a listed building can take time. The conservatory company should have known that too. To save a little money, we had our own reliable architect draw out plans to the company's specifications. We were also planning two new upstairs windows, which we said that our own builder (who was working on another project for my husband's family) would tackle, although planning permission would be sought for them at the same time as the conservatory.
We had already told the company that my husband would be making a long trip abroad in the summer, so the conservatory would have to be completed by the end of May, or mid June at the very latest, so that he wouldn't be leaving me in the middle of a building site with so much other work to be done (I was on the final draft of a commissioned book, and knew that I would be busy.)
Weeks passed. Then months. The end of March came and there was no sign of planning permission and no word from the company. Eventually we phoned up our local planning department to be told that no plans had yet been submitted to them.
At this stage, when we threatened to withdraw from the project altogether, the company offered to throw in the taking down of the old conservatory, since it was likely that Alan wouldn't be around to do it by the time planning permission came through. They also offered to include a window at a very good price. Our builder went in and ordered it. Planning permission, after a little negotiation, was granted, just as Alan was about to depart for foreign shores. We had tentatively proposed September as a new start date and we were told that the company would 'look after Catherine if you're not back by then - don't worry.' No firm date was mentioned by either side.
After that, we heard nothing from them whatsoever for the whole summer. Nobody told our builder that the window was ready for collection. Nobody phoned me. Nobody emailed me. Nobody wrote to me.
Alan came back much later in the summer, and we wrote to the company more in sorrow than in anger. The response was immediate and irritable. The window had been awaiting collection for months. (But if that was the case, why on earth had nobody phoned me about it? They had my address and phone number. I had been at home, writing hard, all summer.) Moreover, the conservatory panels were already under construction. They were planning to start work on 7th September.
Says who? Nobody had thought to tell us that.
Once more, we capitulated. Trading standards told us that we had so little in writing, that they could sue us for the balance if they wanted to. And they already had about £2000 of our money.
They actually began work during the last week in September. Two nice young men came to dig the foundations of the new conservatory to find the old one ( which they had agreed to take down) still standing. Nobody seemed to have passed that message on to the workforce. Besides that, although their surveyer had visited twice, they seemed completely unaware that there were electrical cables to be isolated.
As I write this, the entire contents of the old conservatory are piled in my boarded up study, there is a large hole outside my back door, and to get into my kitchen I have to walk the plank. Since this is a terraced cottage with a huge garden which borders on a field (no back access) the skip is outside the front door, so everything is being barrowed through the house. You can imagine the mess. We have no idea when they plan to finish. We are not unreasonable. We know that the Scottish weather causes delays. What we didn't realise was that they were going to pass other people's delays on to us. We thought we were employing quite a big company, with enough manpower to cope with autumn rainfall.
The final straw was when the woman in the office told me tetchily that it was taking so much time because everything had to come through the house. As soon as I had hung up the phone, I realised that the inconvenience is all ours. The skip is some 20 feet away from where the men are working, down a nice straight corridor. There can be very few projects where they are so close to the job in hand. Most conservatories are, after all, built onto the backs of houses, so building will invariably involve much greater distances.
No, it is we who have to put up with the mud and the muck and the dust and the noise, and - now that autumn is upon us - the wind and rain and cold. My conservatory plants are all huddled together for warmth under a little glass roofed arbour at one side of the house. God knows if they will survive. The plan is now to finish the conservatory, and the upstairs bedrooms (decoration only!)before Christmas, and tackle the kitchen after Christmas. The bill for the second tranche of payment arrived last week. It said 'Balance due on commencement of works'. The contract I signed, on the other hand, reads that the money is due 'on completion of ground/building works.'
Are we there yet? No way. Are we paying yet? No way.
More as it happens.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Scottish Country Living

The little cottage which used to belong to my dear mother in law has just gone on the market, and there has been lots of interest in it. My sister in law is busy showing people round, all of whom say how much they like the place. Many of the potential purchasers have been middle aged or older women, or couples, looking to downsize, and settle in a village. The setting is positively idyllic, and there is a great deal to be said for village life, as you head for an active retirement. I'm not advocating moving miles away from family and friends, to a house in the middle of nowhere. But a cottage in a reasonably peaceful village (or on the picturesque edge of one, like this) can be a good move if you are planning to downsize. For a start, village life can be infinitely more sociable than town life. You will have lots of invitations, and there are all kinds of things going on if you want to get involved in the life of the place. The rhythm of the passing year is more noticeable in the countryside, and each season has its traditional events. But perhaps most of all you will probably find supportive neighbours. It's a truism, but people do tend to look out for each other more in villages. We still have a village shop which acts as a dispenser of information. The postman still says hello, and knows who lives where. There's a well attended church, and a caring minister, as well as a pub that serves good food if you don't feel like cooking - and the nearest town, with a small supermarket, an excellent deli, and rail and bus links to anywhere you might want to go, is a mere 10 minutes drive down the road. Add to that, a low crime rate (You can walk home from a friend's house at midnight without fearing that somebody will mug you) and there's a lot to be said for country living.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Scottish Home Website Coming Soon

I posted about our brand new Scottish Home website some time ago, but it won't be up and running for a few weeks yet. One of our problems is that The Scottish Home is intended to pull together the various aspects of our businesses - my creative writing, my husband's woodcarving, whether sculptures in wood, or restoration work, and our joint interest in Scottish antiques, interiors, arts and crafts, and everything else connected with Scottish homes, traditional and modern. Added to that, we both have websites which are desperately in need of updating. The task is to link all three sites, changing where necessary - no career in the arts stays the same for very long - and including a brand new Scottish retail idea, of which more in due course. It is no easy task, and we are currently working with a web design company to find the best solution to all our requirements. In the meantime, of course, The Scottish Home blog will be continuing - and will continue after the website is launched, because it is here that I can write longer and more informative pieces about various characteristically Scottish antiques, crafts and collectables, as well as Scottish interest posts of all kinds.
This year, September has been unbelievably wet, even here in rainy old Scotland. We usually have a soft, sunny spell about the middle of the month, but it hasn't arrived yet. Instead, I sit here with the rain coming down, and the washing machine full of old linens, which arrived with the marks of years on them. I never know, till they are finished, if the various whitening treatments are going to work or not. Sometimes it takes two or three washes and drying in the sun. But right now, there is no sun!
Last month the hydrangeas in the picture above were in full, astonishing bloom in the garden of a seaside restaurant where I often go for lunch. But there has been so much rain that the blooms are battered and beaten now. It's berry time - rowans, hawthorns, rosehips, elderberries and luscious blackberries - and it has been a spectacularly good year for them too - splashes of colour, scarlet and glossy black, are everywhere. But if the weather continues like this, they will rot on the bushes and shrubs. If the sun comes out for long enough, I'll take some photos and post them - along with some recipes - over the weekend.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Pictures of the Scottish Cottage

My last piece about this delightful little cottage which we are about to put on the market, wouldn't let me post pictures, but for some reason a new post doesn't have that problem, so here they are - You can see the front, which is quite deceptively small - like the Tardis, the cottage is much bigger once you get inside it, (two bedrooms, brand new kitchen, shower room, very large living/dining room) and all the best bits face this most wonderful view, looking across to the ancient woodlands of Kirkmichael House (and south facing, so there's plenty of warmth and sunshine to enjoy!) There is a feature staircase and a delightful hand built bridge across the small stream which is also a feature of the large garden. Most of the garden is down to grass, but if you wanted to grow your own vegetables, and live the good life, there would be plenty of room to do just that.
The whole place is so pretty, and with such a lovely atmosphere, that we would prefer not to sell it, but needs must. People keep asking us if we are going to become property developers, but I suspect not! This was very much a labour of love, and probably a one off. On the other hand, you should watch this space for lots more information about life in Scotland, urban and rural. I'll be featuring some very special gardens, just for the fun of exploring them, so watch out for future episodes.
PS If you like the fish carved newel post, they are a speciality of my woodcarver husband, Alan Lees. They can be customised to suit your particular tastes - he can carve whatever you want. He built the bridge as well, but don't think he wants to go into bridge construction just yet! Visit his website at to see more of his work.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Scottish Cottage (2)

Fay's Cottage - the house I was blogging about back in July, is almost finished, and about to go on the market. It has been a long haul, but worth it I think, and nobody who has been in the house has failed to say what a pretty place it has become. Not that it wasn't always a warm, pretty, welcoming cottage - just that now it is a brand new, warm, pretty, welcoming but infinitely bigger cottage, so subtly renovated and extended that it still has something of the character of the much older listed building that lies at the heart of it.
The work involved changing the layout of the original house, to give a bigger bedroom at the front of the house, a brand new shower room, and a small but pretty kitchen with fresh white units and a window (where the fireplace once stood) looking out over the open countryside on the edge of the village. The kitchen itself opens onto a very large sitting/dining room (so you could cook and talk to your guests at the same time) with double doors opening onto decking, and spectactularly beautiful views over the ancient woodlands of Kirkmichael house, just about to be tinged with their autumn colours at this time of year. A hand built staircase (complete with carved newel post) leads upwards from this living room to a light filled upstairs bedroom (though I think if it were mine, it would immediately become a study!) and there is plenty of storage space where a door opens onto the roof space of the old part of the cottage.
Although it retains the look of the original cottage, everything that you would want to be new (like the sewage pipes and the central heating) is completely new. There is a brand new combi boiler to provide oil fired central heating (there is no gas in our village). The interior is fresh and light and clean, carpeted throughout in neutral shades, the whole thing a pretty palate upon which you can impose your own personality.
Outside, there is a long back garden fringed by lush hedges, a big plot of land to one side with off road parking, and space for a garage and workshop. Ricketty old wooden garages once stood here, and although they have been demolished, and the ground turfed, there would be no problem with replacing them with a newer garage. The piece de resistance is the tiny, picturesque stream that runs through the garden, with its rustic wooden bridge (Like a willow pattern garden, as a neighbour remarked) constructed by my woodcarver husband. There are even new metal railings, courtesy of my brother in law. The garden is largely grass at the moment, but there would be plenty of room for a vegetable garden and a greenhouse, and even a summer house. These ancient cottage gardens are very fertile, and the garden and the house gets the sun all day long. At this time of the year the house martins are soaring over the garden, preparing for their long journey south - and sometimes from the upstairs window you will see the heron, from the heronry up at Kirkmichael House, flying lazily past, trailing his long legs behind him. In short the cottage, which is close to some of the best golf courses in the country, or indeed any country, is an idyll, a dream place, on the edge of one of the prettiest conservation villages in southern Scotland. As you can imagine, we can hardly bear to sell it, but the right person is out there, and we feel quite strongly that the house itself will surely find them. I would show you a picture, but at the moment, Blogger doesn't seem at all inclined to let me post one!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Mountmellick - Irish Whitework, Naturally.

I had been hoping to find a piece of genuine Irish 'Mountmellick' embroidery for some time, and suddenly there it was, right at the bottom of a cardboard box of old linen, bought at auction recently. This was a nightdress case, heavily embroidered with whitework flowers and leaves on a heavy, almost satiny cotton. It even had the characteristic fringed edge, although that had suffered some damage, as had the body of the case, which was missing a corner. It looked a bit as though someone or something had taken a wee bite out of it! But the embroidery itself was mercifully free from faults, and as beautiful as I had hoped it would be, complete with oak leaves, acorns, grapes and passion flowers.

It was, seemingly, the natural plants which grew along the Owenass River which inspired these designs: blackberries, oaks and acorns, roses, woodbine, wild clematis. Passion flowers seems to have been a favourite cultivated plant to be depicted, while butterflies and seashells are sometimes found. The pieces were useful as well as beautiful, and most Mountmellick can be washed, even at high temperatures. In fact you will often find that the more a piece is laundered, the better it looks, with a softness and patina that is hard to fake.

The history of Mountmellick, is part of the wider history of lacemaking in Ireland. One Joanna Carter received an award in 1816 for developing new embroidery stitches and by 1825 she had set up a small school in Mountmellick, County Laois, to teach the skills to the young women of the district. Like many of these industries, it was thought to be a good way of encouraging women to contribute to the economy of the family. In the early 19th century we find a genuine movement to set up schools of needlework and lace in Ireland with Limerick and Carrickmacross Laces, as well as impossibly fine Irish crochet, Irish whitework, and of course, Mountmellick itself.

It fascinates me how much of this obviously Irish embroidery and lace turns up here in the West of Scotland. Sometimes it seems as though every other piece of lovely old linen is decorated with shamrocks, or of obvious Irish provenance, like my piece of Mountmellick. I only wish the textiles could tell me their stories. But somewhere at the back of my mind is a vision of a woman who learned her craft at home in Ireland, but who - like some of my own forebears - crossed the sea, in search of work, a viable way of life, or even an escape from famine. I think about her quite a lot. Was she homesick, here in Scotland? When she stitched the flowers of the Owenass River, so beautifully into her nightdress case, did she still think of that place as home? When she worked those fine white shamrocks into the fine white linen of a small tablecloth, was she thinking of Ireland? Who was she? And above all, why did nobody remember, and keep these precious textiles in the family? It makes me quite sad to think of her, but at least the work of her hands is still loved and appreciated, usually by other women, all these years later.
For more information about Mountmellick embroidery, go to

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Caring for Vintage Scottish and Irish Linens

There is something at once poignant and magical about buying - as I so frequently do - boxes of old linen at auction. They are my first and best love, and I've collected them along with other textiles for many years, as well as more recently setting up an online shop so that other fans of old linen and lace can browse, and perhaps add to their own collections. Because these domestic textiles tend to be under appreciated (and somewhat neglected) here in South West Scotland, I often find myself having to give them a great deal of TLC before they are fit to be seen. Some of them arrive clean and starched and sweet, but so many of them have been stuffed into trunks and boxes and horrible old suitcases for years on end: they can be crumpled, stained, dusty, dirty and extremely smelly, if the truth be told. I look upon the process of preparing them as a rescue mission, and it is extremely time consuming - but fascinating too. Even though you have a good rummage on viewing days, you are never quite sure what you might be going to find at the bottom of the box. Mostly it will be a miscellany of rather ordinary crochet doilies, but just occasionally something more interesting turns up.
They all have to be sorted, examined, assessed. Can they be soaked in a solution of stain remover or are they just too delicate? Chlorine bleaches are out of course but there are some wonderful new products on the market which are much gentler. Big damask tablecovers and linen bedding can withstand high temperature washes. Some of the more delicate, lacy or whitework pieces need gentle soaking, hand washing, and rinsing with the shower - rubbing and squeezing of old and delicate fibres can do real damage. I know somebody who simmers old muslin baby dresses in a saucepan with soap, and claims that it is very effective, but I haven't ever had the courage to try it for myself. Nevertheless, when occasionally presented with a baby gown or something similar which is so stained and discoloured as to be almost beyond rescue, I have experimented with successive soakings, and changes of water, over quite a long period - 24 or even 48 hours, before washing, with a fair amount of success.
Dirt, in the fibres of an old piece can do real damage, so your vintage and antique linens should be kept as clean as possible. Lavender in the shape of bags, or a few drops of oil in your ironing water, will deter moths, and keep your linens smelling fresh and sweet. Keep delicate pieces out of direct sunlight, and if you are storing them for any length of time, use acid free tissue to wrap them. But I am of the opinion that we should be using these lovely old linens, to dress a table, or a bed. They have been created with great skill, by women who are long gone; they are a lovely tactile link with the past, and by using and admiring them we are somehow acknowledging all the talent that went into making them so many years ago.

Friday, August 11, 2006

New Scottish Home Website

My apologies to any regular visitors for the slight gap in posts. This is because we have been setting up a companion website to this blog, also called The Scottish Home. It should be going live within the next week or so. It is a very visual and quirky site, with sections on Scottish country houses, town houses, gardens and collectables. You will find it crammed with images, and snippets of information about Scotland. We will be changing it to reflect the changing seasons, and showing a very personal selection of all kinds of Scottish homes from cottages to castles, and their gardens, both ancient and modern. We will be exploring interiors, both traditional and contemporary and we will be looking at the hidden histories of some of Scotland's cities, towns and villages. You will also find Scottish crafts, textiles and collectables, as well as links to our eBay shop where you can buy some of them, if you want.
This blog will remain as the regularly updated companion diary/ magazine to the website. It is here that you will find longer articles about all things Scottish, from traditional customs and beliefs, to explorations of rare Scottish textiles and their history. And of course there will also be a good helping of fiction, because wearing my other 'hat' as a novelist and playwright I generally find that Scotland figures largely in my work.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Driftwood from Ballantrae Beach

Ballantrae is a small village in the far south of Ayrshire and - sometimes - an excellent source of the driftwood that my husband often uses in his artworks. We went down there yesterday on a fine afternoon, but winter and spring, after the storms, are much the best seasons for driftwood and now most of it has been cleared away by the council, so that the visitors won't be hindered as they amble along the beach. Ballantrae was once a thriving fishing village, with many ring netters and other boats, with the characteristic BA registration. There is a village street which more or less turns its back on the sea, a ruined castle and a picturesque harbour, with only a few tiny boats moored there. Down along the shore is a lovely little row of fishermen's cottages which have been renovated and painted in bright colours, and an old clinker built open fishing boat, drawn up on the hard. This is a beach where terns nest and from which you have views of Ailsa Craig, now a bird sanctuary, and Arran, from an unusual angle, with Holy Isle clearly visible as a separate island (It sits in Lamlash Bay and from most of the Ayrshire coast, it looks as though it is part of the main island.) On a clear day, you can see the Kintyre Peninsula, and the Antrim coastline from here and it becomes very easy to see why the so called Scottii, the Dalriadan celts, came over from Ireland to colonise this place. Yesterday though, it was all misty and distant with smudgy suggestions of other lands. The only people on the beach were two women, walking a pair of dogs, and a couple of wee boys and a girl, who had set up sea fishing rods and were hoping for big things. Children in this part of the world have summers that most city kids can only dream of. There's an optimum time, my own grown-up son tells me, when you are 'old enough to go out and about on your own and young enough to get away with it.' He remembers playing 'chases' up hill and down dale, like the legendary William Brown and his outlaws, and already thinks about that time with a certain amount of nostalgia.
Down at the harbour, a retired couple who had driven down from nearby Girvan, were perched on the sea wall enjoying the sun, while a trio of teenagers with rods were digging for lugworms for bait. We stood back, older and wiser, and agreed that they hadn't a hope. They were digging and then standing back to survey the results, thus giving the worms plenty of time to burrow back in. The technique is to dig, and then pounce on them immediately. We spent a few summer mornings in Gigha, doing just that, when our son was small but I can't recall that we ever caught many fish. It was my dad who was the lucky fisherman.
At Ballantrae, we poked about the beach for a while, gathering one or two interesting driftwood pieces, which might be useful as part of something larger, and then came home again. In due course, you might well see some of the results of our beachcombings on the Scottish Home. Driftwood is imported into the UK in huge quantities these days, but there is nothing quite like the natural sculptures to be made from the real, indigenous product. And if you aren't sculpturally inclined, these sea bleached pieces can still make an interesting addition to your garden.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Garden Sculptures in Wood

My husband, Scottish sculptor and woodcarver Alan Lees, has often been commissioned to create large, outdoor sculptures in wood. These days he finds it too physically demanding to make the ten or fifteen foot high artworks which he used to make, and he tends to create slightly smaller pieces, although his inspiration always seems to be on a large scale. If you want to see a great quantity of his work all in one place, go to the excellent Kelburn Country Park, at Fairlie, just outside Largs, on the North Ayrshire coast. He has contributed a number of extraordinary pieces to Lord Glasgow's 'Secret Forest' including a three dimensional 'Green Man' in solid oak. One other life size carving is in the Burns Centre in Alloway, although this is a source of constant frustration to the artist as well as to many visitors, since the shop manager there persists in using this life size realisation of Robert Burns' Tam O' Shanter and Meg the Mare, entirely hand carved in Scottish lime, as a 'point of sale' display piece - blocking the visitors' view of it with assorted cheap souvenir items. Yeuch. We are quite used to getting irate phonecalls about it from outraged Canadian and American visitors, but since the sculpture belongs to the council, not us, there isn't a thing we can do about it. (South Ayrshire Council are not noted for their extensive appreciation of the arts!)
Working on large carvings like this, though, can be a thankless task. People have no idea of the time and work involved and while they will pay many thousands of pounds for a mass produced item such as a car, are curiously reluctant to pay an artist or craftsman for his time. On one memorable occasion, a client (better remain nameless) asked Alan to travel fifty miles in order to estimate for carving a 40 foot high dead tree into an interesting shape. When we got there, we found they had a budget of £200! We don't have many sculpture in our own garden, but the big bird, above, is one. Now that the ivy and the honeysuckle have done their work, I think it looks wonderful - as if the bird is flying out of a big green cloud. It won't last forever, of course, but the gentle, slow decay of these outdoor pieces is a part of the process. The older they are, the better they seem to look.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Critter in the Kitchen

When describing the idylls of country living, most lifestyle magazines will tell you nothing about all the creatures who will not only share your garden, but occasionally decide to invade your house as well. This morning, when I went down to make my tea (real tea-leaves, real teapot, naturally) there was a critter in the kitchen. I heard a sudden, frantic scuffling behind the dustpan and brush, but couldn't see what it was, except that it looked quite big. Aaargh. I went out, shut the door, did something else and went back in again, wondering if I had been mistaken. But there it was again, that sudden convulsive scrabbling movement, this time in the vicinity of the dresser. Then all went quiet. I closed the interior door, opened the outside door, made my tea and hoped for the best.
Most summers, we have various specimens of the local fauna that decide that they would prefer to share our living space. There was the summer night when my son came into the living room and said that there was 'a very very very large moth' in the kitchen. It wasn't a moth at all. It was a disorientated pipistrelle bat. We put the light off and opened the back door (usually the best way of dealing with such intrusions, since they want to get out just as much as we want them to go!) But on this occasion it didn't leave. Somehow it found its way through into the study where one of my husbands woodcarvings - ironically enough a large wooden pillar, carved with bats (honestly!) - was waiting for installation in somebody's garden. The bat was found clinging to it the next day. Very gently we managed to transfer it outside, and put it well away from marauding cats, in the shade, to await nightfall.
Spring and autumn bring an annual invasion of little field mice and shrews. Sometimes young swallows fly in the windows. Once it was a blue tit that took up residence in the kitchen and definitely didn't want to leave. We have had baby hedgehogs ambling up the hallway, and rooks in the chimneys. Yesterday, standing in the kitchen doorway, I saw the flash of a mobile reddish brown sausage, marking the passage of stoat or weasel, I'm never sure which.
Worst of all, though, are the enormous garden spiders that seem to venture doggedly indoors at this time of year. I don't mind the smaller variety, but the other night's intruder was huge. I never kill them. Can't stand the squashing. I just put a glass over the top, slip a card underneath and evict them.
This morning's critter? Well, I just went out the back door myself and almost tripped over an extra large frog, making its hesitant way out, at the same time. I stood back and watched it hop off. Sighs of relief all round. I rather like frogs, which is just as well, because having a garden pond not far from the back door, we have lots of them. Oh and the wooden frog in the illustration? That's one of a pair of larger-than-life sculptures that my husband made for a country park. I'm glad my visitor wasn't quite that size!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Favourite Plants from a Lowland Scottish Garden

I went browsing around our local garden centre today, on my own, and realised how blissfully happy it made me. I've just sent back the revised proofs of my new book about the history of the beautiful little Isle of Gigha, which has also figured largely in my fiction, and I felt justified in treating myself to a coffee and some 'time out'. Later this week, if our current heatwave continues, I may take myself off to Culzean, or even as far afield as Logan Gardens, down in Galloway, all in the name of research for the Scottish Home (and garden, of course!)
As usual, I found myself driving home with an array of slightly battered plants which I had found on the half price trolley - a leggy Cotinus, with lovely golden foliage, and a couple of Prunus, Oshidori and Triloba. I do so love rescuing things and restoring them to useful life - textiles and plants. At the moment, they are having a long drink since they were completely dried out. I only intended to buy the Prunus (Pruni?) but the Cotinus more or less demanded to be rescued. Now I have to clear a space for them, which will prompt me to do the necessary work in my overgrown, summertime garden.
But it also prompted me to think about my favourite plants, ones which seem to characterise a Scottish cottage garden in summer. Roses come first, of course. Both I and my next door neighbour have a lovely old white Scottish garden rose called The Jacobite Rose, which is said to date from the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Besides that I have a Himalayan rose, Paul's Himalayan Musk, bought many years ago from rose grower par excellence, David Austin, down in England. It seems to thrive in the mild, wet climate of the West of Scotland.
Lavender is my other 'must have' - but I tend to grow them in pots. Our garden is 200 years old and the soil is a bit rich for lavenders, besides which we usually have rather a lot of rain. I grow different varieties, including the wonderful named 'fathead' in pots, so that I can keep them reasonably dry. And some of them are rather frost sensitive so I bring them into shelter (although not indoors) in winter.
I have a a huge scented jasmine, growing up the side of the house which at this time of year, July, is at its best. This originated in a tiny pot plant (another bargain) bought from a local supermarket, as a house plant. I found that it did very well outdoors, and gradually the size of the pot increased. Now, it sits on an old patio, which is covered with small and very pretty Victorian flagstones, but the roots have gone through the bottom of the pot, and through the flagstones too. At the moment it seems amazingly healthy, and the scent, which floats through my study window every evening, is wonderful, so I'm not about to tamper with it!
I love lupins too. I know people almost consider them to be weeds these days, but they are prolific, and colourful, and the smell reminds me of my childhood. And if you cut off the dead heads pretty consistently, they will repeat flower right through the summer.
One of my all time favourite summer garden flowers is the cheerful pot marigold, not to be confused with its stiffer, starchier and (in my opinion) less attractive French cousin. You should look for calendula seeds - it isn't too late to plant some even now, because they flower well into the autumn. As their name suggests, they grow very well in pots, as well as among other annuals, and if you dead head them they will flower for months. The calendula is a highly desirable herb, with lots of health giving properties - calendula ointment is particularly valued for its healing properties.
Finally borage, with its bright blue flowers, is a must. Its old name of 'bee bread' tells you how much these busy insects are attracted to it. The leaves and flowers were once used to add a cool cucumber scent and flavour to summer drinks, but - if I can find the time - I will freeze the bright blue flowers into ice cubes, one per compartment in a tray - and then keep them for Christmas. If you remember that you have them, and bring them out for Christmas drinks parties, your guests will be amazed!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Scottish Shortbread

This week, one of the listings in my Ebay "Scottish Home" Shop, is a shortbread mould, carved with a thistle. I find that these little wooden pieces of Scottish kitchenalia are always very much in demand, although I'm never very sure whether people want them to use, or simply to decorate a rural kitchen.
Shortbread is one of those deceptively simple things that can turn out as variable as the people baking it. It was one of the first things we ever made at school, right after the 'fairy cakes' I seem to remember, but it was quite tricky. Essentially though, you need good butter, fine sugar (so called caster sugar) and plain white flour, not strong bread flour, which will give your finished shortbread too coarse a texture.
I can only remember recipes in ounces. but shortbread works on proportions, ie 12 oz flour, 8 oz butter and 4 oz caster sugar. If you can use sugar which has been flavoured with a vanilla pod in the jar, so much the better.
You sift your flour into a bowl, with a good pinch of salt, and then rub in the butter until the mixture 'resembles fine breadcrumbs' as our teacher used to say! Gently stir in the sugar, and then (here's the tricky bit) carry on rubbing. You should find that the mixture gradually begins to come together, as the butter becomes softer, until - kneading it gently - you will find that you have a ball of dough. Set it aside in a cool place for a while, to firm up, before you try to roll it out, otherwise it will be a bit sticky. The trick to using the wooden shortbread mould is to roll out your shortbread quite thickly, flour your mould, and then gently lift the shortbread slab over the mould, and press it in, (You can do this with a floured rolling pin if you like) cutting off the residue round the edges with a knife, much as you would if you were making a pie. This remaining dough can be rolled out again to make more rounds. Our teacher used to tell us that shortbread was fatty, so the baking tray didn't need greasing, but if you aren't using a non-stick tray, it would do no harm to grease it a little. Prick the biscuits with a fork so that they don't bubble up during the cooking process, and if you like, you can also mark them with a sharp knife, into the little triangles known in Scotland as 'Petticoat Tails' because of their shape.
Of course you can make perfectly good shortbread without using a mould, but using biscuit cutters instead. The shortbread should be baked in a moderate to cool oven (180C or less)- you are not looking to brown it, but simply to crisp it, while keeping it a nice pale straw colour. Cooking time depends on thickness of the biscuit but can be anything up to 20 - 25 minutes. Chunky shortbread will take longer than thin biscuits, but all of them are lovely. You can also experiment with different flavourings - caraway seeds are one of my favourite traditional additions. The biscuits should be cooled on a wire tray - they will crisp up as they cool. And if you are making Petticoat Tails, the traditional way is to break the cooled shortbread into pieces by hand, rather than using a knife.
Shortbread rounds can be piled up with strawberries or Scottish raspberries and whipped cream, to make fruit 'shortcakes'. Thin biscuits are delicious with a variety of summer sweets, or just fresh fruit and good vanilla ice cream. One other use for shortbread dough at this time of year is for making a wonderful summer crumble. Stop just short of the point where the dough becomes a ball, ie 'coarse breadcrumbs' and sprinkle over stewed apricots or gooseberries, or a mixture of cooked cherries and raspberries, in an earthenware dish, with a little brown sugar on top. This pudding should be baked in a moderate oven until it is golden brown, and served with good old fashioned custard or (my favourite) Greek Yoghurt. Yum.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Rare Old Piece of Scots Tartan

One of my listings in my Ebay 'Scottish Home' Shop this week will be a wonderful old Scottish tartan shawl, something of a rarity, since most of these old shawls were eaten by moths, wore out, or were cut up and used for other purposes. But this one has survived with just one small hole - a textile miracle. Most Scots afficionados will know that named or clan tartans were an eighteenth century invention. Before that, natural dyes were used, and the wool would have been hand spun and woven, so although the Gaels were always fond of bright colours, structure and uniformity would have been impossible. Long ago, as I discovered when I was researching my new book 'God's Islanders, A History of the People of Gigha' (to be published by Birlinn in October) the Celts on both sides of the Irish sea favoured bright yellow plant dyes, to the point where, like the fate which befell tartan later on, the Irish were banned from wearing them. These were called 'saffron' dyes, although it is a moot point whether saffron was ever used, since there are a number of more readily available native plants which can be used to obtain the favoured yellow dye. When I was researching this subject, it occurred to me that for large parts of the year, the highlands and islands are covered with bright yellow gorse, so these saffron garments would have made excellent camouflage. (See my posting 'When the Gorse is in Bloom.')
Later, the old Scots plaid, the traditional and highly useful garment of the highlands and islands would have been hand woven in the simple checked pattern which is to be found worldwide, wherever climate dictates the need for a warm wrap of some sort. The wool of which these original plaids were woven would have been pretty much waterproof as well, so the plaid was a practical textile, having something of the outdoor coat, and something of the warm sleeping bag about it! It was only in the first half of the nineteenth century that the Scottish highlands became imbued with a certain romance, in the imaginations of the British public. George IV visited Scotland in 1822, and then Queen Victoria was positively obsessed with the place (although that could have had something to do with a certain handsome John Brown.) Suddenly tartan was classy and everybody seemed to want to get in on the act. At the same time the industrialisation of the dyeing and weaving processes made uniformity - and mass production - possible. Tartans began to be classified and the fashionable elite began to want to know what was the 'correct' tartan to attribute to a particular clan.
Ladies wanted to get in on the act as well, and it is probably to this period, the mid 1800s, that I would date the spectacular shawl, which I photographed hanging out in my garden to get a little genuine Scottish air. It is a huge rectangle, which echoes the large rectangles of traditional Scottish Paisley Shawls, which, in their prime, would have been used as outdoor wraps, over the voluminous crinoline shape. I'm pretty sure that this tartan probably had a similar fashionable purpose, rather than as a man's practical plaid. Sadly, no young man would have 'row'd' (ie rolled) his sweetheart in this plaid, as poet Robert Burns was wont to do, although those wonderfully romantic masculine textiles do crop up from time to time. But all the same, this huge mid nineteenth century tartan shawl is a real collector's item, and one with a multitude of modern uses as a throw or hanging, as well as a piece which you might occasionally like to wrap yourself in and imagine yourself as a Victorian heroine!

Monday, July 10, 2006

An Ancient Scottish Lintel Stone

Talking of stories in stone, as we were a couple of postings back, I saw a fascinating old stone on the Isle of Gigha when I visited the island in the spring. Some of the older cottages in the north of the island were being renovated when a strange archaeological discovery was made: a large stone, which was being used as a lintel over an old fireplace. When the workmen carefully extracted it, they realised that they were looking at a whole section of island history encapsulated in stone. The lost language of these carved stones always fascinates me. It is as though we have lost the key to it - or to most of it. Previous inhabitants of the Scottish islands may have understood these symbols much more clearly than we do, but the enigmatic quality of these things still fascinates us.
The large slab of stone was literally covered in carvings which seemed to date from many different periods. There was an ancient 'cup' mark, thought to date from Stone Age times, as well as a traditional sun symbol (shown above) There was an obviously Christian cruciform shape; early Celtic saints would often 'christianise' pagan stones by adding appropriate holy symbols, presumably as part of some ceremony of blessing , without defacing the earlier inscriptions.
There were also the faint remains of what may have been a hunting scene (possibly Mediaeval) and another strange outline which looked like nothing so much as a stylised whale. And then there was much later lettering, perhaps added by those who had incorporated this stone into their house - possibly because they recognised its age and sanctity, and thought that it might bring luck to hearth and home. Gazing at this mysterious survival of an ancient, symbolic language, I wondered just how many other magical stones may have been removed from old buildings and carelessly demolished over the years.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stories in Stone - Scottish Cottages (1)

We are in the middle of renovating and extending a 200 year old lowland Scottish cottage (pictured before renovation, left) which used to belong to my much loved, much missed mother-in-law Fay, who died last summer. She lived there for many years and it was a wonderfully happy little house, often crammed with family and friends of all ages, who managed to squeeze in somehow and all of whom she entertained with characteristic generosity. Her 'Happy Hours' were legendary, and much as we try to replicate them, they are never quite the same in her absense.
The house was tiny: a granny cottage, adapted for one marvellous, courageous lady, although it had a large garden looking across the beautiful mixed woodlands of the nearby 'big house'. Small as it was, somebody in the village once told us that her own granny had brought up twelve children there. We couldn't begin to imagine where they all slept. My mother-in-law loved the place, and although the family occasionally suggested renovations, she could hardly be persuaded to vacate it for long enough even to let her grown up children decorate it for her. They had to resort to various subterfuges - including taking her away on holiday - to get any work done at all.
Faced with the prospect of selling the house after her death, the family decided to extend and renovate it first - partly because none of us could bear for anyone else to do it, and partly because it seemed like a good thing to do in the face of our overwhelming sadness at her passing. As it stood the house didn't meet current building regulations. We weren't in the business of spoiling the roofline, or extending it unsympathetically - just planning to turn it into a slightly bigger, more convenient cottage, perhaps suitable for a youngish retired couple. The resulting design included two bedrooms, one upstairs to take advantage of the fine view, a much bigger sitting room - also with a lovely rural view - and a brand new bathroom and kitchen as well as plenty of storage space, new central heating, plumbing, wiring and so on.
Although we are used to the vagaries of listed buildings, it has still proved to be something of a learning curve for the whole family. We dealt sensitively with the planners (after all, we no more want to ruin an old and venerable building on the edge of a conservation village than they do) and found one of the best builders we have ever had the good fortune to work with - by word of mouth, of course. He's a young man who is gaining such a reputation for reliability and fine craftsmanship at an affordable price that we doubt if he will be available when next we might want him!
But still, the bottom line is that old buildings don't much enjoy being tampered with. They are settled, and like their human inhabitants, dislike being disturbed. I have the distinct impression that they resent it, and present the unwary developer with sneaky problems.
One such problem involved settling the actual boundaries of the land itself. Old deeds can be surprisingly vague. Our own deeds on our 200 year old Scottish cottage are very precise (we spent an interesting afternoon measuring them out, a few years ago) but Fay's cottage was different. 'The land to the west thereof' could mean anything from a few feet to half an acre. Eventually we negotiated with a friendly local farmer, to buy a little extra land, which meant that the house could have its own garage, and the small stream which ran rather too close to the original building could be diverted away from the extension. It was what my own dear dad used to call 'a hell of a job' but the results will be entrancing - a cottage with a stream in its garden and a view of fields and traditional woodland, that changes with the changing seasons.
The other challenge was in dealing with the very fabric of the building. These old Scottish cottages are built with the most enormous blocks of stone, some of them granite. Installing an extra window in what had become the kitchen, involved what the builder called a 'slap-out' - one of those expressions that is so evocative that it has immediately entered the family vocabulary. Among the stones 'slapped out' were some that looked as though they may originally have been part of an even older building - we know that the village is much older than most of the present two hundred year old houses. There is a huge rectangular block, an old lintel perhaps, which might, with a little stretch of the imagination, be a section of an ancient standing stone. All these stones have been preserved, of course, and will be used somewhere on site, perhaps in the garden.
Passing the cottage the other day, I thought that Fay would have been very proud of the work. A lovely, positive lady, widowed in her early thirties, and left with four children to bring up alone, she had made a good job it. But she never lost her sense of adventure. I always think of her as being wise, loving, and up for anything. I think she would approve. The huge jobs - building, slating, plumbing, wiring - are almost complete, but the finishing off is yet to come. Bookmark The Scottish Home for more news of this particular Scottish Home as it happens.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Scottish Cottage Garden in Summer

The cottage gardens of Scotland are often deceptive, hidden places. Walk down a village street in the rural south of England, as I did a couple of weeks ago, and you will be assaulted by a wonderful amalgam of scents, and sights and sounds. But as anyone who has visited Scotland will know, many Scottish villages consist of one or two streets of terraced cottages, some long and low, some two storey, often whitewashed. There are few front gardens – although increasingly there will be hanging baskets and tubs and window boxes – and it is very easy for the casual visitor to drive past, without giving a thought to the secret gardens that lie beyond the quiet village streets.
Behind these old cottages, you will often find a wonderland of large, sheltered gardens, containing ancient apple trees, old roses, riotous flower beds and luscious vegetables. Our own sheltered, south facing garden has been cultivated for some 200 years, and the soil is almost disturbingly fertile. Plants can assume gigantic dimensions, with very little help from me. I almost never use chemicals – the occasional organic greenfly spray is the most that I allow myself – because so many of the plants are tough as old boots, and besides the garden is home to all kinds of birds, beasts and insects that I have no wish to harm or discourage. There are newts in the pond, a family of hedgehogs in the hedge, bumble bees (a threatened species now) nesting somewhere in the depths of an old stone seat and the occasional woodpecker, who pays a visit to the bottom of the garden and startles us with his tapping. Oh, and there are sparrows galore. They nest in an old swallows nest which they clean out vigorously each year, and then raise several broods, using our little glass roofed pergola beneath, as a kind of larder - I think they believe that the trapped insects are provided solely for their convenience.
I’m a passionate but rather lazy gardener – not as steady as I should be, but I get there in the end. How else would I have discovered that it is best to plant your tulips very late, in this part of the world, so avoiding the prolonged rainfalls of October which used to rot my bulbs in the ground!
The west of Scotland is warm but can be wet and windy, even in summer. This year though, has been exceptionally fine and dry so far, with just enough rainfall (usually at night) to keep the plants happy. The cottage gardens, ours, and those that we can see from our windows, are as lovely as I have ever seen them and the subtly scented Himalayan rose that clambers up through an old conifer is such a riot of pale pink that each sight of it makes my heart leap. You know the feeling – you want to grasp it, and hold onto it, but the season passes and the petals fall. Now, however, at the start of July, there are still a good many buds left, and many more blossoms still to come.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

When the Gorse is in Bloom

Do you know that the Scottish word for gorse is 'whin'? And that there is an old saying which goes 'When the gorse is in bloom, kissing's in season'. The reason for that, is that there is some kind of gorse, or whin, in bloom here in Scotland, almost the whole year round! Even on winter walks through the countryside, you will see a scattering of cheerful yellow blossoms.
But springtime, May, of all months, is the best time of the year to see the Scottish whins in full, astonishing bloom - visit the Western Isles of Scotland and you will be dazzled by vistas of gold accompanied by the headiest of scents . Did you know that the whins smell of coconut oil? I always wonder what the travelling Scots thought when they had their first scent of coconut. Did it remind them of the whins, back home?
In the old days, on the Hebridean islands, blankets would be left out on the whins to air. The thorns would hold them in place, and prevent them from blowing away. But one unwelcome side effect, as somebody told me from bitter experience, was that you might get a thorn in an uncomfortable place, in the night! For make no mistake - these shrubs may be very beautiful, but they are also full of sharp thorns.
I love old woollen blankets and throws, finding them warm, attractive and full of character. Not surprisingly, in view of our winter weather, the Scots were pretty good at weaving blankets. As well as using them in my own home, thrown over a couch or bed or tucked cosily around my knees, in this rather drafty old cottage, I sometimes sell them in my Ebay Shop, but I'm never tempted to throw them over a neighbouring gorse bush. However, I do hang them outside whenever I can. If you have the means to do it, don't forget that - just like us - many old textiles can benefit from a little fresh air and light, now and then!

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Welcome to The Scottish Home

Not just my Scottish home, of course, but lots of others as well. I hope that the Scottish Home will be a source of pleasure, and a useful resource for all those with a Scottish connection, as well as for those who - like me - simply love the place.
We moved up here when I was barely thirteen years old. That was a long time ago, and although I've travelled a good deal since then, I always return to Scotland with a sense of delight at coming home.
I'm a writer but I also collect and deal in antique textiles. I'm married to a sculptor, and we live in a 200 year old Scottish cottage (It just manages to be Georgian, rather than Victorian!) in a small Scottish conservation village. I've been involved in renovating several old properties, so I know some of the pitfalls involved. Besides that, with a Masters Degree in Folk Life Studies, I find myself fascinated by local and social history and folklore as well as what the academics please to call 'vernacular architecture.' (Traditional buildings, to you and me.) I've also written audio material for various heritage sites in Scotland, including Culross and Falkland Palace in Fife, and have been enchanted by the wealth of detail I uncovered.
And finally, with a large cottage garden to contend with on a daily basis, I still, somehow, manage to find the time to be passionately interested in other old Scottish gardens, their layout, their history, and their characteristic plants.
So why the Scottish Home? Well, partly it's because I so seldom find the kind of informed pieces which I myself might like to read about Scottish houses and their contents, from cottages to castles, with everything in between. And partly because as a freelance writer I find the freedom and immediacy of the blog exhilarating. I can keep my postings seasonal, and well up to date without having to think about Christmas in midsummer, as I would have to do if I were contributing to a regular magazine. I can post longer pieces, or informative snippets. And I can indulge my interest in researching all kinds of things that we perhaps take for granted, here in Scotland, and then go on to share the results with you. I hope to build my blog, and a Scottish Home website which is currently under construction, into a useful and entertaining resource for all those who might wish to bring a little piece of Scotland into their own home.