Saturday, December 08, 2007

Memory Foam Mattress - an update

Those of you who follow this blog from month to month may be wondering how I am getting on with my loathed memory foam mattress. Not very well is the answer. I am now beginning to wonder if it wasn't all a plot on the part of my insomniac husband to inflict the same problem on myself, except that he's far too nice to do that to me. But sleeplessness induces paranoia you know. If pushed, I would say that I have 'got used to it' to some extent. That is to say that the smell has disappeared, and I also manage to fall asleep on it. But this is because I delay going to bed until exhaustion really sets in, and then read for half an hour or so. So I fall asleep at one or one thirty ....and then I wake up again. You know that feeling when you look at the clock, hoping and praying it will be morning, only to find it is three thirty, or four at the latest? At that point I will be (a) so hot that I feel as if the whole bed is going into meltdown and me with it (b) utterly uncomfortable with pains in various joints and (c) stuck. I now think that whether or not you can get on with these mattresses depends very much on the kind of sleeper you are. Some people move around more than others. My husband lies like a stone. I fidget. But you can't toss and turn with any ease on memory foam so you don't fidget, you struggle. It's like lying on very firm mud. It also seems to have the same effect on my lovely duck down pillows, so that they start to feel as though all the individual feathers have solidified. So I toss and turn (with extreme difficulty) and alternate between extremes of heat (under the duvet) and cold (outside the duvet). In the morning, Alan's side of the bed looks as neat as when he got into it. Mine, by contrast, looks like that scene in the M R James ghost story 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You' - you know - the horribly crumpled bedclothes in the spare bed. My sister in law, well warned by me in advance, tells me that they have just bought a new sprung mattress with a thin layer of memory foam on the top. She tells me it is extremely comfortable. This does not make me feel any better. I need sleep. I need to knit up my ravelled sleeve of care a bit. Dear God, I need a new bed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dry Rot - The Joys of Owning Old Property

Apologies for long silence on this blog. We have had dry rot. Invasion of the body snatchers. The curse of old houses everywhere. Dry rot was a late introduction to Britain and came in on imported timber in, I believe, the nineteenth century. If I could find the grave of the man who first imported it, I would dig him up and kill him all over again.
The spores lurk in the structure till conditions are just right. Then they germinate, and set off in search of water, through whatever happens to be in their way, stone walls in this case. When they find wood, they suck it dry (much like a Doctor Who or Star Trek alien) and continue on their merry way in search of more. The big 200 year old oak lintel over one of our windows was badly infected and had to come out. One end was like cheese. Unfortunately, the other end was rock solid and took forever to remove. The whole corner of the downstairs study had to be opened up, the infected wood removed - the stuff looks and smells alien as well as causing so much damage - and the walls treated with fungicide (and a blow torch, just to make sure!)
The only saving grace was that the chemicals are much less noxious than they once were and don't smell at all. Was this introduced for the benefit of humans? Not on your life. It was because dry rot treatments were adversely affecting bats. Call me old fashioned but I'd put human health before bats any day, but hey, what do I know?
We thought for a while that we would also have to dismantle our son's room - only just redecorated - but because ours is a very old cottage, with a great deal of space inside the walls, it wasn't necessary.
I think if I were starting all over again with this house (heaven forbid) I would open the whole thing out, taking much of it right back to its original stonework, which is beautiful. It would make a much bigger house, and there would be nowhere for the dry rot to hide. But since we have neither the time nor the money to do that, we'll just have to work with what we have. Even as I write this, my husband is starting to attempt to rebuild that corner of the room, and the window. And when he's finished what will amount to three week's intensive work, the room will look pretty much as it did before. Soul destroying or what?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Afternoon Tea

Had the pleasure of a real old fashioned 'afternoon tea' last weekend, courtesy of some friends who live in an old farmhouse. The home baking was fabulous - scones, several sorts of cake, buns, home made jam, clotted cream, millions of mouthwatering calories heaped on one long damask tablecloth! (and a perfect use for these tablecloths, I might add.) Among the offerings, all served with pots of good leaf tea, was a chocolate cake so rich and dark and dense and gooey that somebody aptly described it as a nuclear reactor among chocolate cakes. Not that anybody could manage more than a thin slice. This lead to speculation about a possible 'chocolate cake' diet - one slice of said cake for breakfast, with a couple of indigestion tablets for good measure, and you wouldn't want to eat anything else at all for the rest of the day. Worth it though. Definitely worth it.
The other revelation was to do with the classic British 'cream tea' which is normally a combination of home made scones, good jam and clotted cream. There are regional arguments as to which goes on first, cream or jam, but it does rather depend upon the consistency of the cream, which can vary from very thick and buttery, to slightly softer, depending upon where y0u acquire it. Either way, it's a delicious dish, but another one that does rather take the edge off any desire to eat for many hours afterwards. As well as the traditional scones, however, our friends also served small, fluffy, white rolls (freshly home baked, naturally, with just that faint tang of yeast that seems to be disappointingly absent from bought bread). A 'cream tea' on a bread roll instead ofa scone is a revelation. Light as a feather, not remotely sweet and sickly. It should have a name all its own but I can't think of one at the moment.
Afternoon tea seems to be making a bit of a comeback here in the UK: a very civilized meal although , unlike our more robust Victorian and Edwardian forebears, most of us can't really manage to eat dinner or indeed anything else, for the rest of the day!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Scottish Cottage Wall

A few weeks ago we stripped all the plaster off one of the walls in our old cottage sitting room. This was a wall which had been slightly damp for years and years, and every possible cure had been tried, inside and out, on roof, chimney, walls. Eventually our friendly builder intimated that the plaster itself had turned 'sour' and the only cure was to strip the whole thing off, with the possibility of adding a false wall, with a space behind to allow air to circulate. In the event, the stonework behind the plaster (which was indeed very sour) was so beautiful that we decided to point it up and leave it. It became clear, moreover, that when the cottage was built (some time between 1808 and 1811) it was never intended that these walls should be plastered at all - hence the problems on this, the chimney wall. What really fascinated us though, was the sight of the 200 year old lintel stone, which had once sat on top of an enormous old fireplace - you can see it in the picture, with a layer of ancient soot along the edge. This would have been the kind of fireplace where all the cooking went on, possibly, back then, with an old fashioned metal 'swee' to swing the pans in and out, over the flames. High in the wall to the left is a very definite space - either for a lamp, or a candle, or just possibly for keeping the salt dry. We're not sure - but a candle looks very nice sitting in it!
The other surprise is just what a change it makes to the room - opening it out somehow, and making it, possibly the darkest room in the house, seem much lighter and altogether warmer. The stonework will, I hope, look even nicer at Christmas time, when I get going with the holly and ivy!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Went out for a very posh lunch yesterday. My main course was salmon with 'scallop' which turned out to be just that: a single (albeit delicious) scallop, used as a garnish. And no wonder. Commercially, they cost a fortune.
Which took me (inevitably) back to Gigha, earlier this summer. We were given a large bag of cleaned scallops by a fisherman friend. We took them to our self catering cottage, and Alan cooked them, flash frying them in a little olive oil and pressed garlic. We ate them at the picnic table outside the cottage, looking down into the bay, at the turquoise blue waters from which they had been dredged. We divided them between five of us, one each, and another, and another, until they were all gone. Fortunately the teens in our party didn't like the look of them. We didn't press the point. We must have had about seven or eight each. They were completely delicious, tender, and with a real tang of the sea about them - that faintly astringent taste of really fresh shellfish from clean salty waters....
Afterwards it struck me that all my most memorable meals seem to have been fishy: sardines with salty potatoes and spicy sauce in a small restaurant in Candelaria on Tenerife, mussels in Bruges, and again, this year, in the south of France, fresh crab on Gigha, and now scallops from the same place. But the scallops were most definitely the winner.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Hate My Memory Foam Mattress

A few weeks ago, we finally bit the bullet and got rid of our much-too-old mattress, replacing it with a brand new 'memory foam' mattress - hyped to the eyeballs, Nasa technology and all that.
If you google 'memory foam' in an effort to research your purchase beforehand you will find lots of positive comments, most of them put there by the manufacturers. In the interests of fairness, I have to report that my husband loves it. He lies very still, and he has arthritis. He thinks it is wonderful. I, on the other hand, toss and turn. And I cannot tell you how much I hate, loathe and detest it. It is like sleeping on warm quicksand. It sucks you in. It moulds itself to your body, right enough, but when you move, or try to turn over (difficult, on this awful stuff) you find residual lumps and bumps in your new position. It is incredibly hot. And it stinks. In fact this disgusting smell was seemingly why Nasa didn't use it on the space shuttle for which it was originally intended. They tell me the stench fades with time, but two weeks have gone by, and in spite of frequent airings, it's still there. Fly tipping is beginning to seem like an attractive option, but hey, this ghastly thing cost a lot of money. This wasn't the cheapo option. If you are considering one of these, try before you buy, and I don't mean a three minute 'test' in the shop. You have been warned.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Have just spent the last fifteen minutes watching an aerial ballet of a dozen or more swallows, catching small insects, above our garden. It was a dazzling display of skill, making the Red Arrows look like rank amateurs. Often you thought they would collide - air misses all over the place - but they didn't. Sometimes it seemed as though they were almost skimming my head, deliberately, and joyfully, just to demonstrate their own extraordinary deftness. Meanwhile, the multitude of sparrows that throng our hedges at this time of year (hedges = sparrow high rises. Too many people grub them up these days. Sad, sad.) could only look on with what seemed like avian envy!

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Weather

Everyone up here has been complaining about the wild inaccuracy of our official weather forecasts this year. I know it's a thankless task, predicting the weather in the UK, but this summer there have been complaints on two 'fronts' so to speak!
Firstly, our London centred media keep banging on about the truly awful summer (and it has been and continues to be appalling in parts of the UK) that we have had, as usual lumping the entire country into one sweeping assessment. This can't be doing our Scottish tourist industry much good especially since here, we have had reasonable weather - reasonable for the West of Scotland anyway - our usual mix of sunshine, rather frequent showers, some lovely days, some downpour days, and - with a couple of chilly exceptions - quite a bit of warm weather. Condition normal, in other words. Not a brilliant summer, and absolutely no sign of the drought that was confidently predicted by those same knowledgable media types (what price all those 'plan your drought friendly garden' articles now?) but not the worst I have seen either. And I believe that some of the Scottish isles have had lots of wonderful sunny weather - which never gets reported at all.
The second complaint though has been about a frustrating day to day inaccuracy. You look at the TV weather forecast for the next day, plan accordingly, and then find that - in Scotland at least - none of what has been predicted bears any relation to what happens in reality. Worse, even their real time forecasts can be wrong. I have often watched a television weather forecast, which is confidently telling me that it is pouring with rain outside, while in reality the sun is shining fiercely from a blue sky. Strong winds are forecast and don't arrive. Sometimes too there is a complete discrepancy between the forecasts on different TV channels. On the whole, the trend seems to be to predict much worse weather, here in the Scotland at any rate, than we are actually experiencing on the ground. All of which leads people to wonder if there is some conspiracy afoot to deter tourists from heading north. Which can't possibly be true. But why are they hedging their bets so much?
One more little thought.
The terrible flooding will no doubt be labelled as 'climate change' related. Of course it could have nothing whatsoever to do with greedy developers increasingly building on the flood plains of rivers, and planners allowing them to do it. Could it?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Quartet of Old British Teddy Bears

Have spent most of the afternoon gently cleaning up a quartet of very old British bears, with a view to listing them on eBay, some time in July. To tell the truth, I quite often buy them and then find myself hanging onto them for a while, like rescue dogs in foster homes, getting to know them better. Sentimental, I know, but there you go. The one on the left - in good condition, though he does have a little trouble with his neck - is probably an old Chiltern. He has a little sewn in label at the back, which only says Made In England, but he is very like my own, elderly Mr Tubby Bear (who I would never ever dream of selling) and he (ie my own bear) is definitely a Chiltern Hugmee - with typically grumpy good looks. The bear in the picture looks as if he once had a solid nose, which has fallen off. His mohair is excellent, thick, and in good condition. When I was cleaning him, I turned him over, and he gave a little grunt, so his growler is working - sporadically. None of the others have labels of any sort and I've spent time with reference books, considering what they might be. The two in the middle could be old Chad Valley teds - they have that look, particularly the sweet faces and the rexine pads. The big bear on the right is difficult, because he is missing an ear, his nose is replacement felt, and so are his pads. A tiny bit of archaeology, at the side of one of the felt pads, reveals what looks like a knitted pad beneath - but there could be something below that. His head with its broad benign forehead, and low set eyes, looks like a Merrythought, as do his chubby legs and well shaped ankles - but - he has a very definite hump on his back, which I didn't think Merrythought bears had! It can be really hard to identify old bears, particularly when certain recognisable features are missing or have been replaced. Quite often I'll list them on eBay with some question marks, and people will email me with information about them.
If they are very grubby clean them gently with a soft cloth with foam from the top of a mild soap solution - you should never soak old bears. Then I wipe them with a clean damp cloth and dry them with a hair dryer and a very soft clothes brush. A bear collector tells me that she sometimes gives them a little final spray with a weak solution of fabric conditioner before drying, and I've done this on long haired bears, with great success. If a bear is very dirty, you may have to repeat this process a few times - it can be very effective.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Old Roses

I've been neglecting The Scottish Home for a while, partly because I've been away in France, and partly because I've been too busy with various writing projects. Now I'm in the process of getting my eBay shop up and running again and plan to add a few textile articles to this blog - but meanwhile, the roses in the garden are at their very best. I love roses, though I must say I'm not the world's best at looking after them, don't use chemicals on them at all, but tend to feed them and let them get on with it. Which is another reason why I grow nice, strong, old roses! Some of the best roses I have ever seen can be found at Holker Hall near Cartmel in the North of England, which was where I got the idea of growing large Himalayan roses through trees. The simple flower illustrated is from a bush called Rosa Richardii, or the Crusader Rose, also known as the Holy Rose of Abyssinia, one of the oldest roses in the world, with a fascinating history. I bought it years ago from the wonderful David Austin Roses. It forms a low, dense bush, like a wild rose, and although it doesn't repeat flower, it does remain in bloom over quite a long period. Every so often I grow impatient and hack it back a bit, but it always comes again - and like the historian I am, I appreciate it as much for its history as for its unique beauty!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Apple Blossom, May Blossom and Golden Trees

We have a very old apple tree at the bottom of our garden. It is now on a two year cycle - perhaps because of its advanced age, it paces itself, and only fruits every second year - in between we get the odd apple, but that's all. This year, I'm happy to relate, is definitely an apple year. Usually our tree is very cautious - only bursting into bloom when the much more impulsive ornamental cherries are long gone. But we have had a very mild and sunny spring, and the apple tree is full of the most beautiful blossom. At the same time the big hawthorn or may tree at the bottom of the garden is just blossoming, so the whole place smells fabulous. This blossom is the source of the old saying 'Ne'er cast a clout till may be out' which means don't take off your winter woollies till the may is blossoming, and not, as people sometimes think, before the end of May. So if it's a warm spring you can cast a few clouts a month earlier!
Meanwhile, the tree at the top is growing a few hundred yards from here. When the leaves are new, it looks golden - and always reminds me of those Mallorn trees which Tolkien wrote about! I always found that bit of the Lord of the Rings incredibly sad - the fact that once the elves were longer on Middle Earth, the magic of those trees would fade and die. Celts loved trees, and sometimes worshipped them - or the spirits which inhabited them. Anyone with a knowledge of Celtic history will realise how much of his inspiration for all things elvish Tolkien took from the Celts. I have no idea, incidentally, what variety the apples are. They are what are known in the UK as 'cooking apples' ie quite large, greenish apples, which are good in pies and puddings. But they aren't Bramleys, which are the most common cooking apples to be found in our supermarkets. These are a bit smaller, and much sweeter than Bramleys. When the autumn sun gets on them, the skins have a golden tint. The flesh cooks wonderfully - at once juicy, sweet, fluffy - and has the advantage that you hardly need to add any sugar at all!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Grapes in Carrick

Some varieties of grape vine do rather well in Ayrshire. We grow one under glass, in our cottage garden, but not fully indoors, and the root is outside. Frosts don't seem to do it any harm. It is an old vine, which originally came from a cutting from an even older vine which grew in the garden of a big house in Maybole. Artist Gordon Cockburn who has just moved into the flat above his art gallery in Maybole High Street tells me that there is an old vine in his garden too. Wouldn't it be interesting if some of these grapes date from the years when Maybole was home to the town houses of the old Scottish Kennedy family?
I have no idea of the variety, but it gives many bunches of sweet black seeded grapes, which if I can be bothered to prune the fruit out, grow very large and juicy. Usually there are far more than we can eat. One year somebody made wine from them and gave us a few bottles. More often, we eat what we can, give some away, and leave the rest for the blackbirds who become adept at flying up into the glass roofed 'arbour' where the vine grows, snatching a grape, and flying away to eat it in peace.
Of course at this time of year our vine is only just coming into green leaf. At Culzean, the National Trust for Scotland has restored the lovely old glass houses in the walled garden - and the gardeners have planted many interesting old varieties of grapes in there. The photograph was taken a week ago. The notice reads
Buckland Sweetwater.
Bunches - very large shouldered, ripen early.
Berries - large, round, thin-skinned, golden or amber.
Flesh - melting, juicy, and richly flavoured.
And if that doesn't make your mouth water, nothing will!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More Pictures of Culzean

Looking utterly beautiful at this time of year - the gardens of Culzean Castle, here in Ayrshire. It's a busy place at the weekends, but go early, on a week day if you can, and you can imagine that the whole place belongs to you. We skived off work the other day - myself, and my husband, and wandered through the gardens to admire rhodies, and camellias and magnolias in full bloom. Much is being made of how early spring has come to the UK this year, but it doesn't seem that early to me, here in South West Scotland - a week or two perhaps. We often have mild springs, and although scaremongering journalists are trying to tell us that the daffodils should still be in bloom just now, there is an old English nursery rhyme which goes 'March brings breezes, loud and shrill, stirs the dancing daffodil' while it's April that 'brings the primrose sweet, scatters daisies at our feet.' OK, so the fleecy lambs have been here for some time, but then early lambing is pretty much commonplace! So I don't think the spring has come unnaturally early. In fact there has been no sign of our swallows and house martins yet, and I'm beginning to wonder what has become of them - you usually see a few of them some time in April! Meanwhile, we are also being told that bumblebees are under threat - and so they are in parts of the UK. But we have a bumblebees' nest somewhere in the garden and they seem to be everywhere at the moment: huge, furry, noisy and beautiful. We seem to be on constant bumblebee watch, rescuing them from our conservatory - my husband had to close his workshop door because he was spending so much time assisting panic stricken bees.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Magnolias at Culzean Castle

Culzean Castle, the National Trust's top attraction in Scotland, has a fine display of Magnolias and Camellias at this time of year - although it is always a bit hit and miss as to whether the late frosts will turn the flowers brown before you can get there to admire them! This has been a wonderfully mild spring. I refuse to moan about global warming in this respect, since we so often have these lovely, early, mild springs, in the West of Scotland, but they can just as often be interrupted by sudden and unexpected frosts. The good thing about early sunshine is that it seems to prolong the summer so effectively.
Culzean, one of the houses of the Kennedy family, and a very beautiful one at that, is pronounced 'Cullane'. You often find this 'z' pronounced as a 'y' or some variation of it, in Scottish names. (eg Menzies). It's because the original letter wasn't a 'z' at all, but an old, now obsolete letter like a 'z' with a long tail, known as yog, and pronounced as a 'y'. Not a lot of people know that.....

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Before and After Bathroom

So here it was, left, our cottage bathroom, about fourteen months ago, and there it is now.

And yes, that is the lavatory that you can see perched in the middle of our much loved Victorian cast iron bath, in the 'before' picture. It even has ball and claw feet - the bath, I mean, and not the loo. Bathroom renovations are horrendous to live with and this one involved moving all kinds of plumbing about, rescuing some rather nice vintage Laura Ashley tiles, that we didn't want to lose, and replacing our tired old flooring with ceramic tiles. The Edwardian sink had a crack in it, which became terminal as soon as it was moved - but we found a reasonably priced (and suitably old fashioned) replacement from a company called Screwfix.The sink taps too came from Screwfix, and cost so little that I couldn't believe they would work - but they have, and they do, and they also look suitably vintage. The bath stayed, of course, although it had to be moved, a major undertaking. My husband spent hours and hours on his knees, doing the floor, and we spent January and February 2006 trotting along to the cottage next door for showers. (Bracing!)

This was the start of a year long period of renovations for us. We've proved that you can make a vast difference without spending a fortune and we've learned a huge amount in the process. In fact in the course of the year, we have sometimes realised that we knew more about some of the projects than the so called professionals. This is alarming and reassuring at the same time. The single piece of advice we could give to those embarking on this kind of project would be to learn all you can about what you are going to do - even if you are going to be employing somebody else to do it!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

A Tartan Quilt.

It's in bad condition, the backing cloth - a big printed paisley - almost in shreds and even the front is sadly faded in places. But I bought this fascinating old textile at auction today - a patchwork quilt, constructed of pieces of tartan cloth, which are said to be pieces of kilt which date from the First World War, and which were worn by soldiers of the time. The cloth is fine wool, and I wonder if some of these tartans date from the nineteenth century - people would often keep kilts for many many years. There is a thistle emblem embroidered in the middle. I've never seen anything like this before, but there is something indescribably evocative about such pieces of textile history - as though events themselves were somehow woven into them - their emotional charge is unbelievably powerful.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Many More Signs of Spring

Lots more. And since our year long attempt to renovate and renew our 200 year old cottage is almost coming to an end, I should be able to spend a little more time on this blog, in tandem with many more listings in my eBay shop. I have a cupboard full of wonderful embroidered tablecloths which will look fabulous on an Easter or summer table. Even nicer, though, is the possibility of using them for picnics - classy picnics of course, with wicker picnic baskets, real glasses, and perhaps the odd bottle of champagne. Not, mind you, that I manage many picnics of that kind. I suspect that the box of sandwiches, and the flask of coffee, perched on top of a heap of old stones, with the wind blowing the rain into horizontal lines is more my style, but one can dream!
Yesterday a friend invited us to her annual 'crocus' party, which is always a herald of spring. It was a fabulous afternoon, with good food, and good company, and the cheering sight of drifts of purple crocuses in her garden. There are so many signs of spring in our own garden now, that it is impossible to count them all - snowdrops in the hedges, daffodils almost in bloom, and the birds courting each other in every tree and shrub. There are sticky green buds everywhere, and the smell of fresh green in the air. Sadly, our internal renovations (not quite finished yet!) have created mayhem in the bit of garden near the house, and since we're sociable, and like to sit out there with friends right through the summer, we are going to have to get going on it. Even as I write this, my husband is out there labouring with reclaimed Victorian flagstones. More, meanwhile, about our 'Country Kitchen' as soon as it is finished.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Signs of Spring

I hesitate to write about early spring, because I know that somewhere the climate change doom mongers will be down on me with a vengeance. But it generally happens about now, at least it does here in the mild West of Scotland. One day you will be driving along with nothing but naked trees and mud to look at, and then overnight or so it seems, the verges will be white with snowdrops. It happens just as the sparrows, which like to nest in the old house martins' nest just above my study, start to sit on the roof and make a noise (hardly singing, but it is a very welcome sound!) and just about the time that you glance outside at five o'clock in the afternoon and realise that it is still (more or less) light. And it happens at about the same time every year. Not much earlier, not much later.
Of course there will be frosts and winds to come. Of course there will maybe even be snowfalls. But we have seen the signs and we know that the year is on the turn.
Meanwhile, here's a lovely Scottish village sunrise for you. We look forward to the sun coming up each day, because Scottish Power, a company with little efficiency, and less customer care, has seen to it that our street lights have been off for four nights now. South Ayrshire Council tell me that it is Not Their Fault. They wash their hands of the matter. They have reported it to Scottish Power, or Scottish no-power as it is beginning to be called round here, but they have done zippo, zilch, nada about it. When one of my elderly neighbours keels over and breaks a leg, who will be responsible, I wonder?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gifts from Scotland?

Just after Christmas, a friend from England told me how she had been given a beautifully packaged set of soap, body lotion etc purporting to be 'naturally Scottish.' It was only when she examined the bottles more closely that she saw the 'Made in China' label. A quick scan of the company's website revealed that although they have premises in Scotland which work on synthesising and creating these 'naturally Scottish' scents, the products are made elsewhere.
This is relevent to The Scottish Home for several reasons. One is that we are exploring the possibility of including some Scottish made gift items with the lovely old Scottish and Irish textiles we already sell. To that end, we visited a Scottish Gift and Food Fair in Glasgow, last sunday. It was a huge show and we tramped doggedly around, trying to be inspired. But the truth was that so much of it wasn't Scottish, in fact wasn't even English, but consisted of stalls full of imported 'stuff' - the kind of things that my dear late mother used to call 'toecovers' - those utterly useless articles that people bring back from holiday. These are known as 'wee minds' in Scotland, as in 'Och it's just a wee mind.' Which is nice, but it would be nicer still if the wee mind hadn't come half way round the world to the gift shop in Inveraray, Braemar, Pitlochry or wherever else you might chance to visit, only to return half way round in the other direction, in the baggage of some unsuspecting visitor.
Don't get me wrong. There were many stalls with beautifully (and genuinely) Scottish made pottery, knitwear, and jewellery. Actually, there was lots of jewellery - it is a rather oversubscribed area. But we know from past experience as crafters (my husband is still working as a woodcarver) that this is a very expensive show. Not only does it cost a good deal for a stall, but for a small crafter there is the added burden of losing several days' work, as well as the cost of transport, and possibly accommodation.
I'm not talking about the one off artwork, high value end of the craft spectrum here. Such makers are never going to benefit from what is essentially a trade show. And in fact the Scottish Arts Council caters for them reasonably well since they are viewed as part of the arts establishment. But still, there must be many small indigenous businesses - soap and candlemakers, textile artists, cheese makers, honey producers, to name but a few, who couldn't possibly afford to attend. A quick trawl of the internet proves this to be the case. People are out there, making genuinely Scottish, genuinely desirable items. But I wonder how many busy buyers from the various gift shops are prepared to go online, in an effort to support their home industries, when they can buy so many cheap imports in spuriously Scottish packaging.
It would be nice to see the Scottish Executive putting a little money into a smaller scale 'real Scottish Gift Show' for a change. If we don't value our home grown product, who else will?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Blow the wind....

So far, it has been a windy winter here in Scotland by any standards, which may go some way towards explaining why we have had more power cuts than I can remember for a very long time.
The latest was last thursday night, when everything suddenly went off at about two o'clock in the afternoon. I had been planning a whole lot of work on my PC, so was fairly frustrated. We got out the candles and the gas ring again, lit the fire, and waited. The wind howled and wailed dementedly around the house. At times like this, it does more than just howl. It rattles at the sash windows, creeps inside and raps smartly on the doors, like somebody demanding immediate admittance. Doors swing open unexpectedly. Bits of the roof creak and groan. Sometimes you would swear that you can hear footsteps rushing up and down the stairs. Which is all decidedly spooky.
I wrote by hand, but sitting upstairs in my study was like being on the bridge of a ship, in a storm. I went downstairs, read, listened to the radio. We took a couple of flasks through to the elderly lady next door. She has a gas fire and plenty of candles, so was very cosy, but there is something about a power cut which instantly makes tea a necessity.
It grew dark. And cold. Had to don cardigans and blankets for sorties out of the living room, into the rest of the house. This old house had no central heating when first we lived in it. Had forgotten just how cold these old stones grow, and how quickly, particularly when there's a wind chill factor involved.
At about 6 o'clock the lights suddenly came on. Not fully though. All the bulbs were dim, slightly better than candlepower but not much. Enough to watch TV but not enough to boil a kettle. At the other end of the village my sister in law could use her PC, but down our end, a couple of hundred yards away, there wasn't enough power. The phone in the kitchen, which has a base unit, went haywire and had to be switched off completely.
We went out to visit some friends. No streetlights. What with the wind and the dark the village had assumed a strange unfamiliarity. We passed a gate behind which a dog was lurking, but he too seemed thrown by the darkness and only wagged his tail, tentatively.
Half way though the evening, everything went off again. And just before midnight, quite suddenly, it all came on. Another friend got home to his farmhouse a little while later, to find that everything had just gone off and stayed off for some twenty hours. They have horses, and he said mucking out in the early morning, with lanterns in the stables, gave him a good idea of what it must have been like years ago. We have, of course, got soft and spoiled, but at least as rural dwellers we know that we can cope if we have to!
So far, we have had few explanations from Scottish Power. The winds were, of course, a factor, but Christmas Day was calm and we were still without power for half the day. A few years ago, there were loud protests about rural powercuts in our neck of the woods. Scottish Power vowed to improve matters and for a few years, everything went smoothly. Now we are back to the bad old days. Right through the autumn, there have been series of mini powercuts, in the middle of the night. Now, a completely disrupted holiday period. Even making allowances for the high winds, somebody somewhere must be cutting corners with manpower and maintenance.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Year, New Book, New Home

Well not quite, but my explanation for my long silence - more than a month - is that we are still involved in major renovations to our very own 'Scottish Home', then Christmas happened, and now I am in the middle of revising an old novel, and writing a new one, as well as formulating an idea for a brand new (and related) non fiction project. When you add to that the fact that we are also working on a relaunch of the whole 'Scottish Home' business, of which more soon, you can see that our feet have barely touched the ground although we did manage to celebrate a traditional family Christmas, with a real tree, holly and ivy, home made Christmas cake, mulled wine and all, in the midst of the upheaval.
To facilitate this, we moved heaven and earth to restore order to our poor house in time for the holidays. The new conservatory is finished, and our conservatory company have moved on to inflict their own particular brand of misery on some other householder. The building itself (more accurately called an 'orangerie' I'm told, because of its construction, though so far I haven't managed to acquire an orange tree) is beautiful. We had no quarrel with the tradesmen; just with the way in which the project was managed, or not managed to be more precise. It was worth it though, just to see it in all its glory with a traditional Christmas tree, big jugs of holly and ivy, fir boughs, candles, pine cones and all the trappings of a rural Scottish Christmas.
The candles came in really handy on Christmas day and again on New Year's Eve, when we had massive power cuts. On New Year's Eve, it was understandable, because it was blowing a gale right across Scotland. Christmas day, calm and fine, was far less explicable. There were several power fluctuations on Christmas Eve. Then we woke up on Christmas Morning to find all the power off. It came back on at 8.30 and went off again at 10.30.
There is no piped gas in our village, only the bottled variety. A few Agas. People were rushing about with turkeys and other joints of meat, like in Dickens' day. My sister in law, who was doing the family Christmas Dinner was one of them. Her daughter has a gas oven, but it's hard to light them without ... well yes, without electricity. Power was restored at 1.30pm in good time for the sprouts and the bread sauce. Still no explanations forthcoming from Scottish Power.
Our old house looks lovely by candlelight, as though this is the way it was meant to be seen. The four hundred year old oak press, with its rich and varied colouring, and wonderful patina looks even better. We set small candles carefully along the 'candle shelf' for Christmas Eve. I remember sitting chatting to the last few guests, watching it out of the corner of my eye, and thinking how very alive it looked at this time, and in this mellow, magical light. When first we bought this piece of furniture, I said that it felt like having an elephant in the kitchen; it was so huge and so strange. There was something very disturbing about it. Now it has settled in, and I find it not just beautiful but inexplicably comforting. There's a tactile, human quality to it. You can lean against it, breathing in the scent of ancient oak and beeswax, and feel in tune with its intricate past, with the hands that made it and polished it. Time has no meaning, and there is something infinitely reassuring about such a presence in a domestic setting.