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.