Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Christmas to All My Readers

with quite an unusual view of Glasgow Cathedral!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ayr Gaiety Theatre

A good deal of my time over the past week has been spent considering Ayr Gaiety, our wonderful old variety theatre, which is threatened with closure, and by extension arts provision, or lack of it, here in South Ayrshire. I'm on the committee of a fairly newly formed arts association called the Ayrshire Arts Network. We are hoping to represent a gathering of all the arts and arts practitioners across all three parts of Ayrshire, but I suspect it was despair at the relative lack of interest in the arts and culture of any kind in South Ayrshire itself that initially brought us together. We are by no means elitist. But we are saddened that some of our elected councillors can see no further than golf and whisky when it comes to tourism provision and the economic wellbeing of the area. Not, mind you, that I have anything against golf or whisky - the latter particularly! But as far as touring shows, interesting plays, and genuine arts events of all kinds are concerned, you could be forgiven for thinking that there had been a dreadful cataclysm and the whole of South Ayrshire had simply broken off and fallen into the Firth of Clyde. The potential Gaiety closure is in the nature of the stone that starts an avalanche. For years they seem to have been selling off the family silver for short term gain. But now, I think the council itself has been surprised at the strength of feeling generated by the proposal. Watch this space for further developments!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Nevermore The Antique Market

Most of last weekend was taken up with an antique market in Glasgow which we thought - heaven knows what possessed us - might be worth attending. I normally trade from an online shop but over the years I have also helped my artist/ craftsman husband when he exhibited or demonstrated at various events. Sometimes it can be great fun, as when you get free space or are actually paid a small sum to demonstrate. You get to put on a show, chat to people and hand out leaflets and postcards. They enjoy watching and often ask interesting questions.

But I don't think I had realised just how soul destroying antique markets can be for the stallholders - or perhaps things have become worse over the years. And I don't think it can all be laid at the door of the 'credit crunch'. TV shows where participants regularly beat prices down so that they can make a profit by selling items at auction have a lot to answer for. It is, when you think about it, completely the wrong way round, which is why they do it. It's very hard to make any kind of profit that way. And the dealers who capitulate 'for the publicity' (What publicity? They don't get any!) are only succumbing to the kind of pressure that TV companies are very good at exerting. It is, after all, their job.

TV shows and car boot sales, that's the problem. Boot sales are where you expect items to be cheap, although in my experience even those have become more than penny-pinching. I once saw a man chop up a nice little wooden table at a boot sale. He had wanted a couple of pounds for it. He didn't want to take it home. People had been offering him 50p. He said that he knew if he left it by the bin at the end of the day somebody would take it. So he chopped it into small pieces first. As a good recycler I didn't really approve, but I understood him completely. A day's quibbling over twenty penny pieces induces the sort of misery that can only be relieved by chopping up small tables.

Anyway, back to the antique market. We spent saturday sorting, labelling, pricing, packing and dismantling the car in driving wind and rain so that we could get everything in. On saturday night I made the picnic and put it in the fridge. On sunday morning we got up at 5.30 loaded up the car and were on the road by 6.45, also phoning our son, who had offered to help with the unloading, to give him a wake-up call.

We were forced to take a detour; a stretch of the main road was closed because of an 'incident' and we nearly lost our way because of road works in Glasgow but still arrived in good time. The weather forecast had been reasonably good, but an icy and torrential rain was falling. We stopped along the road from the venue and between cold showers, hefted boxes of stuff, piles of pictures, stands, easels etc down the steep ramp into the hall. Then I went and found a parking place while my husband started to assemble our stall. By 9.45 we were more or less there, and drinking a coffee, our son was on his way home (possibly back to bed?) and the first 'customers' were arriving.

We had what we thought was a good cross section of items. Not boot sale stuff, that's for sure. And not junk. We were showing a collection of Alan's paintings at very reasonable prices (£80.00 for an original acrylic isn't exactly extortionate- in fact these are print prices) We had a selection of costume jewellery, some vintage clothes, a few vintage toys, textiles, etchings and other artworks as well as some gorgeous Indian and Chinese embroidery and a few other curiosities.

Did we have any customers? No.

Well, we made the price of the stall and the petrol. And that was it. No profits.

But - and I have to say this is all uncharacteristic of Glasgow, which is my favourite city in the whole world - it wouldn't have been so bad if, with a few welcome exceptions, the people hadn't been so uncongenial. There was a handful of pleasant individuals, including the lovely man and his daughter who appreciated the paintings, couldn't afford to buy them, but asked interesting questions and seemed to enjoy what they were looking at. There were a few other smiley people who chatted, and passed the time of day.

Sadly, they were vastly outnumbered by an army of grim elderly ladies (I know, I know, I'm heading there myself, although definitely without the scowl) who handled the stock as if they were sorting through garbage, and baulked at paying anything for anything. The last straw was the young woman who spent the best part of ten minutes stroking, fingering, opening out and looking at an utterly stunning Indian wedding sari, one of the most beautiful textiles I've had the good fortune to find: five yards and more of gorgeous damask with a golden pallau, encrusted with beads and embroidery, all hand done as well. Its only faults were a few loose threads here and there. I could think of many uses for it, the most simple being draped as a curtain. It came with an equally beautiful beaded veil in gold silk satin which I've decided to keep for myself since it makes a lovely evening shawl. Because the girl seemed so taken with it (and because our takings were non existent) I offered it to her for £25.00 which is about what you would pay for a cheap voile curtain in one of our better known household textile chains. This - for five yards of vintage hand beaded silk - seems almost laughable in retrospect. I had obviously taken leave of my senses. But that's the 'market' effect for you. Her husband had his wallet in his hand. Then her mum, watching the proceedings from a safe distance, persuaded her that it would be a waste of money.

As they left, minus the sari, she said 'if it's still here next time, I'll have it.'

No, I thought and by this time I confess I was feeling a bit grim myself. You won't. Because it won't be here, I won't be doing another antique fair, and even if I was, I wouldn't be selling such a fine piece of work at such a crazy price. But I held my tongue. I knew for certain that she would regret it later on, because I've done exactly that kind of thing myself.

After that, the day just got worse and worse as our smiles got more and more fixed.

So it was with a huge amount of relief that we packed up, fetched the car, hefted everything back in (even colder, still rainy) and embarked on the long drive home where we had to offload everything and reassemble the car . Then, completely exhausted, we sat on the couch with a couple of large glasses of wine , looked at each other and said 'never, ever again!'

Actually, it isn't strictly true, because we do have one more craft fair coming up, but that's a charity event, we'll be showing mostly Alan's paintings, it's something we do every year and - because it's close to home - it doesn't present too many logistical problems. If we sell a couple of pictures all well and good. If we don't it won't be a disaster and we'll have done a bit of promotion in a good cause on the side.

What intrigued us though was just how many of the particants remarked that they had had a 'good day.' By which (since we could see exactly what was going on) they seemed to mean that they had made the stall money and a little over. But why on earth would anyone want to do a couple of days of hard labour - just to cover their costs and have a few quid over?

Our son, trudging back through the rain to help us load up again, remarked 'the world's changing mum. And this isn't the way of it.' I reckon he's right. There's a lot to be said - especially with antiques - for being able to see things, handle them, learn about them. It's one of the nicest things about buying in the saleroom, being able to see and touch interesting old items as well as being able to learn about them from more experienced fellow dealers. But it was significant to me at least that the vast majority of our fellow stallholders looked like retired people. And when they stop, I wonder if anyone younger will be willing to do it? Which would be a pity, since I rather like buying items at these Antique Fairs. But if I think somebody is asking a fair price, I don't try to beat them down to peanuts. And I always handle the objects as though they are precious - which to the stallholder they so often are.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Favourite Angel

I'm not a madly religious person, so I don't know why I love this angel (you can see him in the old citadel of Carcassonne) so much. He has been badly defaced, probably during the Mediaeval upheavals which involved the Cathars and the King of France and consequently has the look of a prize fighter after a particularly bad bout. But then perhaps he's Michael, who was - by all accounts - no mean contender himself.

He's a large stone personage with very shapely arms, and a wide, sensuous mouth and he simply exudes peace. I found myself loitering beside him for ages, taking photographs which didn't quite capture what it was that was so beautiful about him, and eventually just gazing and gazing. The guidebook dismisses him in a few short lines which is a pity because I think whoever made this was an accomplished sculptor. The angel manages to possess qualities of raw, real humanity and an intense spirituality at the same time. He's warm and protective, injured and numinous, all at once. You can tell I was smitten, can't you?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Apologies for long silence!

I've been otherwise occupied with all kinds of work - and a ten day holiday in the South of France where - unlike Scotland this year - the sun shone most of the time and it was warm! Vive the 'Auld Alliance' is what I say, especially because I also bought a few lovely old textiles at the French equivalent of a boot sale - a vide grenier, or 'empty attic' sale. I'll post pictures on here in due course because the chintz in particular is stunning.
However, just a wee thought, from Scotland, in the current worldwide financial difficulties: woke this morning to a banking person rabbiting on, on Radio Scotland. She was heard to observe, among much else, that Scotland is attractive to businesses because it is 'cheap'.
Which got me thinking.
Housing throughout most of Scotland is as expensive as most of England and considerably more expensive than many desirable areas in England, even in the South.
The cost of living is pretty steep here. Food is no cheaper than in England and in the remoter parts of the country, very much more expensive.
Fuel costs are the same, and since it's undeniably colder, for longer, our bills are arguably a good deal higher.
The council tax we pay up here is phenomenally high. In fact conversations with friends in England have often included questions such as 'What do you live in? A castle?' when in fact we live in a nice old terraced cottage.
So what exactly can it be about Scotland that is so 'cheap' for businesses?
Oh yes. I've guessed it. Wages are exponentially lower up here. Which means that most of us, in the current climate, are struggling to survive, as compared to our friends in the south.
And if you can do something about that Mr Salmond, you'd definitely get my vote.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Beautiful Borders in the Walled Garden at Culzean

There is an absolutely stunning wild flower border to be seen in the walled garden at Culzean Castle just now. The mixture is called Bohemian Rhapsody and it fills a whole large bed just beside the old head gardener's cottage. There is something profoundly beautiful about this riot of colour and I have to say it reminds me of a textile design, particularly those wonderful old Indian prints that so often involve a multitude of colourful flowers. I've been back twice now, just to look at it and the second time I took my camera so that I could share it with you. The conventional herbacious border there is also fabulous, but there is something so engaging about the haphazard arrangement of these colours and textures - nature always does it better!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

One year on - I STILL hate my memory foam mattress!

Just realised that it is more than a year since we acquired the loathed MFM. And yes, folks, I still hate it, hate it, hate it! The only thing about it that has improved is the smell which has - I'm pleased to report - gone. Everything else about it is just as bad if not worse, and no - I haven't got used to it. In fact I have had the worst year's sleep of my entire life. Some nights I give up on it entirely and resort to my son's room (he is living elsewhere at the moment!) where I can sleep on his lovely, firm, big but undeniably bouncy sprung bed. I go to bed very very late in an effort to avoid the dreaded MFM, and get up very early because my sleep is so disturbed. I do sleep, obviously, but I never feel rested. I wake up with palpitations because I seem to get trapped in one spot, unable to move. I get a sore back and sore hips. But the very worst thing of all about it is the heat which is absolutely unbearable. I thought it was me, but it just doesn't happen on other mattresses.
Sadly, my husband still loves it. The only solution (I have investigated all possible options) would be to buy two matching single beds. He could have memory foam on one. I could have a nice normal sprung mattress on the other. That way I might resume some kind of normal sleep pattern. But at the moment, it's just too expensive to replace bed and bedding. Maybe some kindly bed manufacturer out there will take pity on me....

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tinder Box Britain?

Woke this morning, to BBC Radio 4's news programme, paraphrasing an article from the Observer in which somebody seems to have stated that - due to Global Warming, of course - much of Britain is tinder dry and in imminent danger of wildfires. As I listened to it the rain was beating against the windows yet again. You can read some more of this guff here.
I write this deep into one of the wettest summers I can remember (although I can certainly remember some which were equally wet!) Far from being tinder box dry much of Scotland is utterly and completely rainsoaked. So is much of Wales and Northern Ireland and a friend tells me that her garden in rural Oxfordshire is pretty much the same. The usual Atlantic fronts have beset us in unrelenting droves.
So which bits of Britain does he mean exactly? Last week the Scottish news was informing us in suitably alarmist tones that we could expect lots and lots of flooding nationwide - because of Global Warming. Nothing whatsoever to do with our national obsession with concreting over our gardens or building lots and lots of houses on the floodplains of our rivers and streams then?
Are we to fry or drown? Which is it?
No wonder we become cynical about so much that is written about the environment. Presumably the findings about tinder box Britain are based on some kind of statistical model which refers to the dry spells but doesn't include this year's torrents. Our weather is certainly behaving badly, but the analysts who are as changeable as the weather aren't helping.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

More information about an interesting old Paisley Shawl

A little while ago I was blogging about an interesting old Paisley Shawl which I'm currently listing on eBay. I didn't know whether it had been mended or not, because it seemed to fall into two semi matching halves. Now that it has finally stopped raining here I have been able to hang this fabulous textile up outside in the garden and get a better look at it. It seems obvious now (as it wasn't before!) that the divide is quite intentional. This would have been folded in the middle and then worn as a wrap, with one or other side showing - and as somebody pointed out to me, it would look as though the lady wearing it possessed two somewhat different shawls!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Glasgow East - just have to mention it!

'Catastrophe for Labour as SNP triumphs in Glasgow East · Nationalists overturn 13,500 majority in heartland.'
That was how the Guardian reported the results of the Glasgow East by-election today. And in a blog called The Scottish Home, even though I'm usually writing about textiles and gardens and things like that, I just have to say something about it before I go back to the latest novel - called the Physic Garden - which is progressing nicely at about 30,000 words.
I've said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again. I love Glasgow. It's my favourite city in the world. Its people are surely among the most friendly, bright, irreverent, inventive and creative in existence. But the city's east end has extreme problems of poverty and deprivation that all these many years of a Labour government have done little to address. The fact that this poverty sits cheek by jowl with the newly gentrified Merchant City, where £1000 handbags and designer chic are commonplace, doesn't really help.
I'm no political economist, but I remember attending a conference a few years ago and hearing somebody speak about how he had taken photographs of some of those sixties tower blocks in Glasgow with heat detecting cameras in an effort to assess why the buildings were so disastrous for the residents - full of damp and bronchitis-inducing black mould. Asthma was endemic among the children. Clothes were ruined. The residents themselves were always being blamed for this. They were boiling kettles, breathing, that kind of thing. (I kid you not!) He said 'we looked at the pictures and wondered what all those little blocks of insulation were. Then we suddenly realised that they were curtains in the windows. We had taken the pictures at night. The drawn curtains were providing infinitely better insulation for each of the flats than the walls!'
Over the past few weeks, the English press have sent representatives north to trash Glasgow's east end. And they've made a pretty good job of it. A.A. Gill (gonnae stick to cookery pal?) in the Sunday Times produced a predictably glib piece of non analysis. None of it has gone unnoticed. The East End has serious problems but it is by no means as wholly bleak a dystopia as was painted. And this from guys who live in London for God's sake. A wee biblical quote comes to mind: 'And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?' Away and consider a few beams, eh?
All of which amounts, I suppose, to a lot of votes for the SNP. As a lifelong and instinctive Labour party supporter myself, I voted for them (the SNP that is) in the Scottish parliament and will probably vote for them in a general election too unless Labour stops marching us relentlessly backwards towards 1984 and lecturing us about how we don't really understand them.
I started watching the election results programme last night but when Labour demanded a recount at about 1.30 I decided that enough was enough and went to bed. Still I put on the radio only to realise that Radio Scotland stops broadcasting around midnight and switches to Five Live which is the general UK news programme. I drifted off to sleep only to wake up in the early hours when the results were being announced. We got a wee chat with a professor from Strathclyde University, and then suddenly we were off on the Obama trail. No more analysis or comment from Scotland. And it's that sort of thing, folks, that really gets your goat when you live north of the border. That and the relentlessly London centred news. Wall to wall Boris when it was the London mayoral elections. SATS disasters which we don't have in Scotland. (We don't have the dreaded SATS up here but we do have assessments in reading, writing and maths, pupils are tested "when ready" and there's no big deal made of it. It's marked internally. The results are private. Teachers do their job. It works. )
And don't get me started on the new weather maps which condense the whole of this huge country into a distorted squidge at the top end of the screen. And as somebody pointed out recently on a comment programme, Glasgow has had a knife problem for years, but it's only when it starts happening in London that the politicians suddenly start focussing their hand wringing on it.
So food and fuel prices may have a lot to do with the election result as Labour would like to believe. But a general dissatisfaction with Westminster, coupled with the perception that the SNP have done pretty well so far is surely an even bigger factor.
Enough politics for one day. I'm away back to my textiles and my book.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Glasgow River Festival

I was at the Glasgow River Festival with my son yesterday (husband is away sailing, or rather wind bound in Balamory, sorry Tobermory at the last count) and can't post any pictures because I forgot my camera but you can visit the official website here! Ever since the traditional shipbuilding industries failed it seems to me that Glasgow has turned its back on its fabulous river, successive councils not recognising that a great river can be the finest asset a city will ever own. Go to any of the great European cities from Paris to Vienna and the river is part of many of its best visitor attractions - as well as a thoroughfare in itself. For many years Glasgow was the exception. Well, no more it seems. Over the past few years Glasgow has rediscovered its river: new developments, new bridges, new attractions. Yesterday there were free shuttle buses from the city centre down to the big exhibition centre on the banks of the Clyde. There was jet ski racing, historic and interesting vessels of all kinds, including tall ships, exhibitions, and displays which included old fire engines (peculiarly attractive these!) - and beach volley ball which son insisted on watching for a bit, only to retire disappointed - by the relative tameness of the sport, if not the skimpiness of the girl's attire. But it was a windy day, so maybe that was the problem!
Later in the afternoon we got a bus back to the city centre and ate a very late lunch/early dinner in Dino's in Sauchiehall Street (something of a Glasgow/Italian institution this, excellent food, even more excellent service.)
One of the nicest things about the day from my point of view was that it was a brief return to the time when my son was a wee boy and suddenly stopped being a baby and started being a really pleasant companion. Obviously he has grown up and away and independent, and I wouldn't want it any other way but just sometimes it's lovely to have a real mother/son day - wander about with absolutely no agenda other than enjoyment and conversation. Standing on one of the footbridges over the river, and watching the seaplane landing - an enchanting and emotional moment - was one of the high points of the afternoon. For a brief moment I don't think it mattered whether we were this middle aged woman standing with a viking at her side - or a much younger mum with the wee blonde lad in glasses he used to be!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Yet another interesting old Paisley Shawl

There is a 'mystery' about this very large paisley shawl which I'm currently listing in my eBay store. I'm sure somebody out there may be able to solve it for me. There is a small black centre panel - but it is really only a 'half' panel as you can see from the photograph. And when you look closely, you can see that the shawl consists of two large and definitely matching pieces, which have been joined together. Even the pattern on the epaulette ends matches - but they have been woven together, and not stitched! I've never come across one like this before. The story with these paisleys is that the early shawls had very large centres. In fact the earlier shawls were much more delicate affairs altogether, longish but much narrower, with highly decorated ends, designed for wearing over those lovely 'Jane Austen' fashions.
There were square shawls too, and you can see one here, but with the advent of the crinoline, a certain size became necessary if they were to be worn over those huge skirts as warm winter wraps. Even so the early shawls followed the theme of having a large centre panel with a beautiful woven border, the 'boteh' or wonderful fern patterns often intruding into that centre. I sold one like that earlier this year, and very beautiful it was too.
But as the century progressed the centres got smaller and smaller until with the later nineteenth century shawls there was no centre panel at all. When I hung this up to examine it more closely, I wondered at first if it had been stitched together, but the two pieces have definitely been woven together. I love these textile mysteries and - being a writer - I got to imagining that perhaps this had been a shawl with a full centre panel which sustained some damage early in its life. And perhaps - this being discovered very close to the area where the shawl might have been made in the first place, ie the West of Scotland - it was taken back to a Paisley weaver who simply cut out the small bit of damage and did a brilliant weaving restoration job on the two halves. This was not a throw away society, and a shawl would have been a precious item, so make do and mend was the only option!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Hotpoint Fridge Freezer, Curry's, and call centre hell.

Even as I write this there is an engineer in the kitchen attempting (for the third time) to fix our 18 month old Hotpoint Fridge Freezer. Bought because we thought the name some kind of guarantee of quality. Hmmm. Yesterday, when I opened the freezer door to take out the ice cream to eat with the strawberries for lunch (we had a visitor!) I had that sinking feeling you get when you realise that everything has gone slightly soggy. On the previous two occasions it was the opposite problem - everything in the fridge was freezing - frostbitten lettuce and tomatoes included. Overnight things just got worse until by this morning it was clear that although the motor seemed to be running, and the light was on, there was nobody home in terms of chilling power.
Overnight too, it quickly became obvious that after the last engineer's visit, I had mislaid the service policy documents. Aaaaargh. They probably, said my husband, went the same way as the car tax disc. That was eventually found, still in its envelope, at the bottom of the dustbin. Not the nice clean blue recycling bin, you understand but the slightly smelly green household waste bin.
A frenzied search of all folders, drawers, cupboards, and even the insides of cookery books, lasting several hours eventually resulted in the discovery of the original receipt, service numbers and handbook, filed away under a completely non intuitive heading. But still no policy documents. Nevertheless, knowing that I had paid to renew the service agreement earlier this year (about three weeks before the damn thing started to go wrong - phew!) I got up, made coffee, phoned the recommended number clipped onto the fridge receipt and immediately entered the Kafka-esque universe of the call centre.
It was one of those voice recognition processes which never can quite recognise my voice. It understood Hotpoint, and Fridge Freezer but baulked at the date of purchase. Eventually, on option one, I got through to a polite human being who told me that I was definitely insured, but since I was calling a service centre, I would need an authorisation number, and that could only come from Curry's. He gave me a number to call which would allow me to confirm said number, as well as agreement number and possibly replacement documentation. I dialled the number he had given me and realised, half way through the same voice recognition process that I was back where I had started, calling the service centre. I spoke to a different polite human being (one with either a summer cold, or such ferocious hay fever that she was practically incoherent). She confirmed that I would have to get an authorisation number from Curry's and gave me a number which I realised was the same number. Option six, she said, helpfully.
I dialled again. More voice recognition. It was beginning to understand me, familiarity I suppose.
But - dear God - I was back where I started, with the service centre. Moreover, there was no option six. There were only four options. I listened again and decided to try a different option. Can't remember now whether I pressed three or four, but I got through to another nice polite human being who said 'the whole system has changed.' He quickly summoned all my policy details, gave me my agreement number (I am insured until 2012!) and an authorisation number to boot.
He has promised to send me new policy documents within the next few days.
I called back to give the service centre my precious authorisation number and book an engineer's visit and pointed out (politely - the whole transaction was extremely polite!) that the information they might be giving customers in similar circumstances was somewhat out of date. The number worked but there was no option six. I honestly don't think she believed me.
The moral, I suppose, is - whatever you do, don't lose the documentation! When the new agreement arrives, I'll be filing it under home insurance. And not in the bin.
The fridge freezer is working again.
For how long? That's the question.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Son and Scenery

Thought you might like to see a few nice pictures of my large viking like son, who is currently looking for work, preferably in the computer games industry - although I reckon he could be a model, but then I'm his mum so I would, wouldn't I? He's blonde, blue eyed and a nice lad too. He trains regularly at karate. Martial arts are - as well as the whole world of creative computer games - his main passion in life, both doing and writing about them but he's mad about other sports as well: squash, rowing, ice skating and weight training, to name but a few.
You'll find his own video games blog online at There's a bit of Scottish scenery in here as well, of course. The gunnera plants are at Culzean Castle on the Ayrshire coast, and still bigger than he is, although he's all of 6ft 4 inches tall. Like all mothers, I find myself wondering where on earth the time goes. It seems like only last week that I was taking pictures of him toddling about at Culzean in his wee red boots!

Monday, July 07, 2008

Marks and Spencer and Saving the Planet.

On Saturday afternoon I trudged wearily down the High Street of our nearby town and went into Marks and Spencer's food department. I needed something quick and delicious for the evening meal, it was late, the town was impossibly busy, and I was tired. There is no real car park in this particular Marks and Sparks. It is a town centre store with a single horrendous lane where you can pull in to pick up your shopping, if you are brave. Otherwise, it's a case of hauling everything with you to the nearest car park.
Now before I go any further, let me say that I'm all for recycling. My whole eBay business is based on recycling and nobody is happier than me to see a piece of lovely old linen being given a new lease of life, used and treasured by a new owner. I'm no fan of plastic bags either, having done a fair bit of sailing in my life, and seen the mess they make of certain West of Scotland beaches. I usually have a reusable shopping bag, and in fact the back of my car is always full of bags, wine carriers etc.
But on this occasion, I had nothing with me except my handbag. I filled a wire basket with more than I had intended of course. The delicious meal (Marks and Sparks food is undeniably good, though pricey) plus some strawberries, plus yoghurt and their strong leaf tea, of a kind which is getting harder and harder to find here in Scotland. I queued at the check-out and when I got there, the assistant said in what can only be described as accusing tones 'Don't you have your carrier bag with you?' This is what happens, you see. Our politicians used that horrible, hectoring, nannying tone, and it's infectious.
'Oh, no' I said, waking up from what had been a queue induced trance. 'I'm sorry. I don't.'
'Well' she said, 'Do you want a 5 pence carrier or a 15 pence carrier?'
I looked at my far too expensive shopping. I looked at her. I looked at the long queue behind me.
'Do you mean' I said, 'That you are proposing to charge me for a bag?'
'Yes' she said, a little smugly.
I did a very quick assessment of the situation. The long haul back up the town flashed before my eyes. The fact that I could buy just about everything on there in Morrisons, much more cheaply. The fact that I don't believe for one instant that Marks and Sparks really care all that much about saving the planet. The fact that they didn't have - for instance - brown bags for people who might have genuinely forgotten their reusable, environmentally friendly carriers. The fact that there was a long queue behind me. The fact that the assistant was unfriendly. It took seconds.
I said - quite politely, I think - 'In that case, I don't think I'll bother thank-you' turned on my heel and walked off. I could hear the assistant ringing for help, even as I left the store.
It was the single most satisfying thing I had done all weekend.
As I said at the start - I don't really hold with plastic carriers and often shop in Lidls, where the food is cheap and excellent, and where I am completely happy to trolley all my stuff to the car and pack it for myself in an assortment of bags and boxes.
But - here in the UK at least - environmentalism has infected some of our big commercial organisations with a kind of smug 'take it or leave it' attitude which sits very ill with the fact that they are expecting us to spend more and more of our hard earned cash.
It is exactly like a bunch of slightly overweight politicians who have just voted themselves a vast sum in additional 'expenses' presuming to lecture us on wasting our food....

Friday, July 04, 2008

Affordable Art

Have just started to build a wee gallery entry for my husband Alan Lees on the lovely 'Affordable British Art' website. This is a brilliant venture, easy to use, and the paintings look smashing on there. What's also good about it is that you can change things around frequently, and can also list prints and even sculptures as well.
It's also a site that seems to be getting a good deal of publicity. I've been browsing some of the work on there, and it's very impressive - a site that welcomes you in, and is very easy to use both for artists and those thinking of buying an artwork. You buy direct from the artist as well, which allows the public to commission a piece of work if that's what they want to do. I'm convinced that online is very much the way forward for art sales, so we'll see what happens!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Graduation at Glasgow University

Our son graduated from Glasgow University with an Honours BSc in Mathematics this week - we attended the deeply impressive ceremony on tuesday, fairly bursting with pride! He's the big blonde Viking in the middle of the picture, wearing his kilt and his robe. The ceremony - which was preceded by a reception in the maths department - was held in the university's stunningly beautiful Bute Hall. Glasgow, which is among the top 1% of universities in the world, has more listed buildings than any other university. The ceremonial was fabulous - everything running like clockwork (well, they have had 600 years to get it right!) even down to a wee rehearsal of the singing of the academic hymn, Gaudeamus Igitur, for the audience of proud parents, grandparents etc. Then the students went up one by one to be 'capped' and have their silk lined hoods placed over their heads. Frankly, it was magical.
Afterwards we gathered in the quad (bit showery, as you can see, but very warm) to drink buck's fizz and indulge in congratulations all round. It was lovely to see so many fine young people gathered in one place. It was lovely too to hear the Vice Chancellor impressing upon them all the sheer magnitude of their achievement. I think for the youngsters it was the first time they had really paused to think about exactly what this was - the culmination of so many years of trying, of working, of overcoming all kinds of problems. Esssentially, he was telling them that they ought to be proud of themselves, ought to take their learning out into a wider world, and continue to surprise themselves and those around them in all kinds of positive ways. Our son's wonderful advisor - long past retirement age, but staying on to help his students - was waiting to take lots of photos of his advisees. He was an academic advisor in the old style, keeping in touch with his students, caring about them, writing to them and even taking all his final year students out for a meal - and it was obvious that the respect was mutual, for they all loved him too, not just for his fine mind, but for all the time and trouble he took with them. Afterwards we went off to a restaurant called The Ubiquitous Chip for a long, leisurely and very pleasant meal, before heading home. Our son, meanwhile, went off to party into the early hours....
Now, of course, the hunt is on for a job. We woke up wishing we could have the whole day over again.

Monday, June 23, 2008

A Walk in the Woods

Earlier this year, my husband, sculptor Alan Lees, completed a group of four wildlife woodcarvings for a woodland walk. It was the official opening today - after which we all - visiting dignitaries, plus a group of children from one of the local primary schools, who had been involved with the project from the outset, plus assorted villagers and dogs, all tramped through the glen (beautiful at any time of year, but stunning just now) to admire the carvings and the scenery. Nice to see a wee group of kids so involved and interested. Alan is trying desperately to stop carving at the moment . The work is so heavy and dirty that his health suffers. Every time he undertakes a big commission like this, he seems to be floored with arthritis and breathing problems for a few weeks after. He is now making a determined effort to divide his time between painting and willow sculpture. He keeps being offered carving work but now tries to persuade likely customers that a willow sculpture might be a better option. They don't last as long as solid oak, for sure, but if they are treated they will keep going for many years - they can be very beautiful, like drawings in the air that work with line and light - they aren't half as heavy and dirty to make, they are cheaper and they are made with sustainable locally grown willow - so they are good for the environment as well! What more could you ask for?

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Lovely Old Printed Paisley Shawl

I'm currently listing a very beautiful old printed paisley shawl here on eBay. These are usually deemed to be less collectable than the woven variety and they were certainly a cheaper option, but these days they are still rare - they were quite a delicate item, and it isn't often that one survives in this condition. A closer examination of this particular piece illustrates why it has survived. Possibly dating from as early as 1850 (it has a large cream centre, with long 'boteh' or ferns at each end, and the pattern intrudes prettily into the middle) it has obviously been cherished. The colours are as bright and clear as the day it was made, and the few holes - a couple in the middle, and a little patch of wear in the coloured border - have been very carefully darned. I like to imagine that this might once have been a wedding gift from a young husband to his wife. These fine wool shawls, printed in lovely clear colours, would have been used as a lighter option in spring and summer. Nowadays people use them as throws and wall hangings. So long as you keep them out of direct sunlight and away from moths, they could last for another hundred and fifty years - although I doubt if many people nowadays could do this wonderful subtle neat darning! I certainly couldn't.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Culzean on a Windy Day

Spent a few hours at Culzean (pronounced Cullane) Castle today and as you can see from the picture, it was brilliantly sunny but windy beyond belief. Not a good day for sailing though husband points out that it is on days like this that people tend to remark 'nice day for a sail' as if anyone would enjoy bouncing along in the teeth of a screaming gale with white horses on all the waves... But it was beautiful at the castle. Son and I walked and talked and sat outside the little cafe near the castle, (in a brisk wind) drinking coffee and eating scones and dropping crumbs for the cheeky chaffinches. Then we went to the poetry reading in the walled garden and then we walked down to the beach and back, mainly to discuss a wee literary project we're considering which will involve a certain amount of collaboration. Culzean is a National Trust property and very beautiful though it seemed surprisingly quiet today, the sunday before a May bank holiday monday. Perhaps it was just that we were there quite early and left before mid afternoon. Also, the estate is so big that it can swallow large numbers of people and still not appear busy. We're members of the National Trust so visit the place regularly, but it isn't a particularly cheap afternoon out for a family. Not that it's not worth it, because it is. But if I wasn't a member of the Trust (and perhaps if I didn't live so close to one of its major attractions in Scotland, I wouldn't be) I doubt very much if we would have gone there today. Instead, we would probably have gone to Maidens or Dunure or Girvan and walked along the beach looking at the same lovely view.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Late Eighteenth Century Christening Cape

I bought this at auction here in Scotland some time ago. Having loved it and looked at it for a while, I've decided to sell it - so I'm listing it on the Scottish Home this week. It is a very late eighteenth century christening cape which was made by one Elizabeth Ann Barlow, who died in 1829. She made it herself, this wonderful tiny 'sprigging' - a myriad of little flowers, including pinks and rosebuds and violas - for her babies and for her descendents. It is kind of sad that it ended up in the saleroom but I think it's wonderful and am hoping that somebody will buy it who also thinks it is wonderful and who may be able to conserve it and display it in the right setting. It would have served to keep a baby warm - being worn over the light lacy baby gowns of the period. An expert has confirmed to me that it is an eighteenth century piece, but 'only just' - ie it dates from the very late 1700s, and probably looks forward in style to nineteenth century christening capes, ie Elizabeth was ahead of her times! I considered keeping it because I am currently writing a novel called The Physic Garden about a gardener and a baby from exactly this period or just a little later, but all the same, it is probably time for it to go elsewhere, and be properly cared for!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Picture of Edwardian Ayr, the Pavilion on the Green

Here's the latest of Alan Lees' 'naive' studies of - mainly - Ayrshire and Renfrew, with a few wee excursions elsewhere. The Pavilion which you can see in the background was built in 1911. I used to go to dances there when I was 16 (ie a long time ago but not quite as long ago as that!) It was very very respectable in those days, no alcohol as far as I remember. After that it seemed to go downhill a bit but more recently it has been nicely restored as 'Pirate Pete's' aimed at children and the exterior looks much as it must have done back in the early twentieth century when the tourist trade on the Clyde was flourishing and many Glasgow people came 'Doon the Watter' on holiday. This is a lovely detailed artwork which you can also find here. Alan Lees, having moved from sculpture to painting over the last few years, is finding these old Clyde Coast scenes particularly inspirational and particularly popular. This one has a variety of people including an ice cream seller, a wee lad with his 'gird and cleek' at the bottom right, an elegant young couple, two wee lassies at the drinking fountain and a variety of other children skipping, playing football, etc. He can hardly keep up to the demand for these pictures, which seem to strike a chord with so many people. 'They make you feel happy' said one customer recently - which is no bad thing. Because of the demand, he is considering having prints and greetings cards made but is also trying to work towards an exhibition for next year, for the great clan Homecoming and the Robert Burns anniversary. If you own a likely Clyde Coast venue (preferably one with a historic holiday connection, eg a hotel or restaurant or traditional cafe) and would like to host such an exhibition for summer 2009 please do contact us via Alan's website

Monday, May 05, 2008

Spring has Sprung

and the swallows have come back. This morning we went down towards Girvan and stopped off for an early coffee at Dowhill Farm Shop which sells the best pineapple fruit cake in the world. The birds were fluttering among the eaves of the old farm buildings with that peculiar excitement with which they seem to greet their old haunts when they return, for all the world as if they're delighted to be back. And we're certainly glad to see them.
Arran was just emerging from the morning mist and Ailsa Craig was floating on its own cloud, like Tir Nan Og, in the distance. We were taking photographs as inspiration for paintings so you'll probably see some of them on here in due course. The whins are in golden, coconut scented bloom and the hedgerows are full of bluebells - it really is an idyllic time of year. For the first time ever, we walked down towards the lighthouse at Turnberry, which was built on top of Robert the Bruce's castle (well, one of them anyway!) - you can just see the remains in the picture. It involves a pleasant walk across one of the most famous golf courses in the world, and you get the distinct feeling that the right to roam is an ever so slightly unwelcome concept for some of the golfers - but the path is a good one and access is through a well made wooden style so the hotel is certainly amenable to civilized walkers, which is what we were!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pretty Linens on the Line

I bought a fabulous box of vintage linen tablecloths at auction last week, all very beautifully embroidered, and here they are hanging on the line! I've been using the dryer for my linens all winter, but now that the weather has improved, there's nothing like a little fresh Scottish air - and it's environmentally friendly as well! Nobody up here in Scotland rates these much at the moment - dense and clever floral embroideries which are so evocative of the 1940s and 50s. I remember my late mother working on cloths like this, and still have her old 'Stitchcraft' pattern books - so I love them for the memories they bring if nothing else. But in fact the home magazines this year - particularly those of a 'rural' disposition have been full of glowing pictures of kitchens and dining rooms and conservatories adorned with lovely old embroidered linens like these - there is nothing quite so simple and beautiful as one of these cloths on an old pine kitchen table with a vase of flowers - gorgeous tulips at this time of the year, or even drooping bluebells from the woods - to pick up the colours in the cloths.
You can also use them as picnic cloths for those special occasion outdoor meals! Picnics fall into two categories in my book - those ordinary everyday sandwiches in a plastic box and tea from a flask affairs where you've taken the kids, the dog, or just yourselves on a hike and need sustenance - or those more elegant summer events where you might indulge yourself with nice food from a wicker basket, and dare I say it - champagne in glasses - all served on a cheerfully retro tablecloth. Not that we manage it very often, but when we do it's always memorable. I'm about to list a heap of them in The Scottish Home - so why not spoil yourself and make plans for an old fashioned civilized picnic?

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Scent of Old Textiles and a Chinese Silk Shawl

I was reflecting on the peculiarly evocative scent of old textiles today when I was listing an antique Chinese silk 'piano shawl' on eBay. It has that distinctive scent which all textile collectors will know and - if you are like me anyway - grow to love! There are, of course, a number of smells associated with old textiles, and not all of them are pleasant. Sometimes, when rummaging through a box of old linens, you can be sent reeling by the horrible aromas of old, stale starch emanating from them. Often, this can result in sinister brown stains on sheets, pillows, tablecloths, but it's surprising how such marks will disappear with a good soaking, followed by thorough laundering - and of course linen is very forgiving. Then there's the sneeze provoking and astringent aroma of old dust, lodged among the fibres. As soon as you immerse these fabrics in water, you can smell it rising to meet you - I always feel triumphant when it has gone, knowing how it can eat into the fibres. Worst of all, I think, is cigarette smoke. You can get rid of it when fabrics are washable, but when - for example - old embroideries have lived with smokers over some years, the stench of smoke (and the yellowing) becomes both hideous and virtually ineradicable.
But there is another peculiar, not unpleasant scent, which is often to be found clinging to old silk and lace. I found myself pointing it out in my listing earlier today and remarking that I love it, although I'm aware that not everybody does! It is a strange, musky and magical scent that I invariably associate with lovely old things, like this heavily embroidered shawl. The first time I became aware of it was many years ago when a Polish cousin gave me an old lace collar from a box of treasured family items. There was this peculiar scent still clinging to it - slightly herbal - a trace of very old lavender perhaps? Musky, feminine, nostalgic. This shawl smells the same. I've aired it and the scent is fading. A little fresh lavender will almost but not quite mask it. To me it is as precious and emotive as the scent of old books - which I also love!
The closest thing I have ever found to it is Hungary Water or "the Queen of Hungary's Water" an ancient perfume distilled from rosemary and thyme with - variously - lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, orange blossom and lemon. Crabtree and Evelyn used to - but no longer seem to - make it, and I used to buy it. You can, however, read more about it here. The other scent which I have written about in a long poem called The Scent of Blue, and which seems to have something of the same timeless quality about it, is l'Heure Bleue by Guerlain, which is one of my all time favourites.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Edwardian Scottish Beach Scene

Here's another of Alan's nicely evocative and faintly nostalgic paintings - an Edwardian beach scene, with children paddling - inspired by Barassie Beach. These naive and colourful paintings are - slightly to our amazement - selling well although admittedly the prices are highly competitive. I think people find them cheering - as I do myself - pictures you can live with, pictures that remind you of a long lost world where the pace was slower, and pleasures were simpler. Well - that's what we like to think anyway!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Alan Lees in The Scots Magazine

There's a lovely piece in the new edition of the Scots Magazine - an article by Hannah Adcock about Alan's woodcarving and willow art work. Oddly enough, we switched on the Scottish television news this morning to see a shot of Alan's huge carving of 'Tam and Meg' at the Burns Centre in Alloway. Alloway's 'Auld Haunted Kirk' is being reopened today after extensive renovations, and the film crew were obviously looking for an interesting indoor shot. The carving has - sadly - been a bit of a sore point for us since the shop which comprises most of the centre has been using it as what probably amounts to the most expensive 'point of sale' fitting in the history of the world. This huge and beautiful carving that represents many months of work for Alan has invariably been surrounded by souvenir miff maff - tartanalia in other words. We have had various enraged Australians and Americans fetching up on our doorstep to complain that they wanted photographs of themselves with Tam and Meg, but couldn't get close enough to the statue. And this is a woodcarving which is meant to be stroked and touched - half the charm of woodcarvings is in their tactile quality. Latterly, because the future of the centre was in doubt, and because the carving is very firmly set into the floor, we had even begun to wonder if whoever took the centre over might decide to chop it up. However, since the National Trust are set to take over Burns Centre, and undertake extensive renovations, it doesn't look as if this is going to happen. Alan has offered his advice - essentially the statue would have to be moved (with extreme difficulty) and stored under cover - it's made in lime, so can't be left outside - until a new setting in the new building can be found for it. We noticed to our amusement that the statue appeared to be completely in the clear today - perhaps for the benefit of visiting dignitaries?

The First Minister is due to be in Alloway for the opening - good for him. Was Alan invited? No way. However, I may be sending a wee note to Alec S, pointing out that the statue has been somewhat sadly treated over the years. I don't have a picture of it online, so can't post it here - but I'll post one of the impressive willow stork instead.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Ironing Old Linens

When you deal in old linens, ironing always looms large and isn't my favourite occupation. Or wasn't until now. I have to confess here that the 'ironer in chief' for The Scottish Home is my husband. Well, he's an artist and there has to be something artistic about ironing hasn't there? But over the years we seem to have accumulated a collection of steam irons, none of which have worked well, or for very long.

When people see me buying old linens at auction, their most frequent comment is something like 'oh yes, lovely stuff, but what about the ironing?' In the old days, of course, the linen tablecloths would be processed by commercial laundries - most of them have their old laundry marks or tapes still in place - or perhaps by servants in the bigger houses, working mangles, to realign the fibres before pressing.

Wash an old linen tablecloth these days (a process made much easier by modern stain removers - they can even cope with ancient teastains, with a little care) but once dried it will seem crumpled beyond redemption. It's one of the ways of telling the difference between good cotton - which, whatever anyone tells you, can feel as smooth and dense and cool as linen - and real linen. In fact a little investigation online shows that on occasions the only way to tell is to examine the textile under a microscope. But if you wash it, linen will mostly crumple as it dries. Cotton will mostly stay reasonably smooth.

But now, we have discovered the steam generator iron, and our lives have been transformed.
These are, it has to be said, expensive. We bought one for the business, and we keep it for the business so that the lovely smooth ceramic sole plate stays clean. It sits on a reservoir of water, which generates steam under pressure. This comes down a cable and you literally iron using pressured steam. It works, even on crumpled linen, which comes out unbelievably smooth and beautiful. But it's a temptation to use it on everything, because the difference is truly amazing. Never has ironing been such an effortless pleasure - friends, I could SELL these things. We bought ours from Tefal and although it was one of their cheaper models, (the Tefal Pro Minute, if you want to look for it online) we have been absolutely delighted with it.

So if you want to use wonderful old linens in your house, on your tables, and beds - and really, there is nothing quite like them - perhaps you should consider investing in something more sophisticated by way of an iron. Never thought I could be this enthusiastic about ironing, but I suppose it's all about having the right tools for the job!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

In a Cold Scottish Springtime Garden

April, and I'm thinking about our small kitchen garden, the one we established last year in a couple of raised beds. The beds have been dug over and are waiting to be raked. I've bought seeds - lettuces and salad stuffs of all sorts, radishes, red and white, salsify, kohlrabi, mustard, parsnips. I've planted courgettes indoors - they were hugely successful last summer and for quite a long time we ate courgettes with everything - a friend gave me a pasta sauce recipe consisting mostly of fresh courgettes and creme fraiche and it was wonderful: green and delicate and delicious. The chives are growing, as is the rosemary I established last year. The little blueberry bush has survived the winter. I've bought a white currant bush that I'm hoping to plant this week. But at the moment there seems little point in sowing any outdoor seeds since the ground is just too cold. Instead I planted some lily bulbs, and repotted some chocolate mint (smells just like Mint Chocolates, fabulous!) and a big pot of basil. Can never sow basil without thinking of Isabella and Lorenzo in the story - and in Keats' poem - and the Holman Hunt Picture . Gruesome but wonderful all the same!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Switching off the Lights - A Rant.

Google, please do not sit in your nice centrally heated, brightly lit offices and ask me to switch off my lights for a token hour to save the planet when I have just spent a chilly Scottish winter switching on the central heating only for a scant two hours a day, in spite of working from home, lighting fires (with smokeless fuel, natch) and running about with extra sweaters, Ayrshire blankets etc, because it now costs £429.00 to fill our smallest sized tank with central heating oil in this country. I drive a small, energy efficient car. I live in a listed building which is as insulated as it is possible to be - but of course replacement windows must be sliding sash, and quite right too, otherwise the council will cut up rough. There is no mains gas to the village, and the bottled sort is even more ruinously expensive to run than oil. We close doors, use shutters to keep the heat in, recycle religiously. But hell mend you when you ask me to make empty gestures.
A much better option would be for everyone to agitate for all new houses to be built with solar panels. This is, on the whole, a very sunny country and the new energy efficient houses on the Isle of Gigha - for example - are both cheap to heat, and almost too warm. Yet in this village alone, we have a small estate of new houses, none of which have solar panels as standard. Installing them later is an expensive business, especially for what essayist Slavenka Drakulic calls the already 'ecological poor'.
If developers could be forced to include them from the off, it would make far more difference to the future inhabitants of the houses than tokenism of this sort. But of course that might eat into their already healthy profits. Grrr.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Mighty Gulf of Corryvreckan - a Scottish Whirlpool

I'm currently listing this dramatic sunset over Corryvreckan for my husband, here, on eBay. In the distance is the notorious 'Gulf of Corryvreckan' or the 'Mighty Gulf' as it is sometimes called - a genuine Scottish whirlpool. You can find some excellent photographs of it here at a website called Hebridean Wild. The name, seemingly, comes from the Gaelic Coirebhreacain which means "cauldron of the speckled seas" or possibly "cauldron of the plaid", the latter name originating with legends of a Scottish goddess who used these turbulent waters for washing her great plaid. You can read more about it on Wikipedia but for many people their first encounter with it comes in that fabulous Powell and Pressburger movie "I Know Where I'm Going' in which it figures at a dramatic high point of the film. It is possible to navigate these waters with care - but you have to know what you are doing. Local knowledge is essential.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Old Scottish linens for the bathroom

Quite often, when I buy a box of old linens at auction, I will find a little pile of Irish linen guest towels at the bottom of the box. Some of them will be well used and rather worn, but just occasionally I'll find some lovely old pieces of bathroom linen with hemstitching, damask patterns and finely hand made crochet edging. I always imagine that they were somebody's pride and joy, eighty or more years ago, perhaps made by a young woman before her wedding, when she was dreaming of setting up house for the first time. Generally, although not always, the crochet is at one end with perhaps the damask and hemstitching continued at the other end. The main fabric of these towels is of the type that I think is known as 'huckaback' in the USA - a nicely textured linen that makes them both useful and beautiful. People sometimes say to me 'but nobody uses these nowadays, do they?' Well, they do. I have a good friend - for instance - with a real flair for interior design. I'm contemplating asking her to do the occasional guest post on this blog. Whenever we visit her lovely old Lancashire house, I notice that she uses these old linen guest towels in her downstairs cloakroom. And I always find myself thinking how beautiful they look, in situ as it were. But I have also known her to use them to line shelves, with the crochet edging visible - particularly if you are displaying old glassware they look wonderful. And like all these old linens, they launder beautifully!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Tulips Tulips Tulips

I love all the spring flowers - but I think that of all flowers I probably love tulips most - and although the verges and parks are currently full of daffodils - a little later than elsewhere in the UK, this being Scotland - the shops are full of big bright bunches of tulips which I find completely irresistable. And soon, the garden will be the same. They are, on the whole, a bargain buy because they look good even when they are slightly past their best. Don't be in too much of a hurry to throw them away. Daffs shrivel and look sad - tulips just open out ever more elegantly, to show the dark heart of each flower. Even their foliage fades to a subtle yellow, and so long as you keep the water fresh, you can get a week or more out of a large and lovely bunch of them. I have an old Dutch Delft tulip holder - a rectangular blue and white container with a removable top, with holes in it, into which you can slot individual tulips - although obviously it looks more impressive with the large old fashioned parrot tulips - the kind that were once sold for a king's ransome a few hundred years ago. Once the bigger, brighter garden tulips are in bloom, I'll add a photograph of it to this blog.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More Naive Art - Scottish Golf - Turnberry

More delightful Scottish 'naive' art from Alan Lees - this time with a golfing theme. These are pictures of Turnberry golf course, with the Turnberry lighthouse in the background. The picture on the left has Ailsa Craig in the background as well, and the kind of stunningly vivid light which is not unknown in the West of Scotland. The picture on the right is a windy day in spring. The gorse is in full vivid bloom, and one or two players have lost their balls among the spikes! An umbrella has been blown inside out and the players are struggling in a stiff breeze from the sea - all too common in this part of the world. I love these brilliantly evocative pictures - there's a lovely simplicity about them, but the memories they evoke, the atmosphere they create is all too true - and in this instance undeniably cheerful - art which may well remind you of happy days, and none the worse for that. Go to The Scottish Home on eBay to see more of Alan's pictures.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Happy Easter from Scotland!

And here's an Easter photograph to go with the wishes. The plate - one of my all time favourite possessions - belonged to my dear late mother, who gave it to me years ago. She had bought it at auction, along with other items, and it was always the thing I coveted most, along with a pair of very old and comfortable oak framed chairs, which now sit in my living room. It looks like Maling, probably is Maling, though it has no backstamp to prove the point. The blue and white jug, the wee bird, and the bowl that you can just glimpse on the right, are all modern slipware, made in the 1980s by a superb Scottish potter called Jason Shackleton. I adored his work and still do, although I don't think he continued making this wonderful slipware, perhaps because not everyone appreciated it with quite my passion about it! We have a number of pieces - these sit on an eighteenth century Scottish dresser, such as Robert Burns might have possessed. We bought this one at auction, in terrible condition. It had obviously spent many years in a shed, and Alan did a magnificent restoration job on it. It is wonderful storage space, swallowing almost anything you might like to put in it. Our other, much older dresser, the oak press cupboard mentioned elsewhere on this blog, is where the rest of the modern slipware sits, in the kitchen. It includes this fabulously monstrous teapot, also by Jason Shackleton, which has, on occasions, been pressed into service, during large family gatherings. Filled, it is almost too heavy to lift. But it is a beautiful, beautiful item and one which I treasure.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

New Scottish Art - A Day at the Shore

Alan's painting seems to go from strength to strength at the moment. The painting above (acrylics on canvas board - 20 inches by 16) is one of my all time favourites. It's titled 'A Day at the Shore'. A young woman in a long red dress and sunhat, walks along the sand of what is very obviously a West of Scotland beach. She is pushing one of those big, old fashioned, comfortable prams with one hand, while with the other, she holds the hand of a toddler, a little lad in blue, who is carrying his bucket and spade. In the background you can just make out a misty Ailsa Craig, while a paddler steamer motors along on its way 'doon the watter.'
I don't know why I like this one so much, except that there seems to be something wonderfully evocative and atmospheric about it. The composition is lovely - the eye goes straight to mother and child, but then picks up on the paddle steamer - quite detailed - and drifts across to the distant Craig. There is something so typically West of Scotland about this day - warm but not sultry - always a little breeze in the Clyde. And the little boy with his bucket and spade has, I think, had his attention caught by the paddle steamer. (As anyone who has seen the Waverley pass by knows, they are impossible to ignore - just beautiful vessels.)
The painting is currently for sale in our eBay shop - but when it sells, as I'm sure it will, I'll be very sorry to see it go. He'll just have to do me another one like it!
Alan has been fairly desperate to get away from woodcarving for a little while now. It's not that he doesn't enjoy it, and - as you can see if you visit his site - he is very good at it. But he was constantly being asked to make ever larger carvings for ever lower prices, and each time it seemed to effect his health adversely - carving on this scale is definitely a young man's game. He had always sketched - most of his carvings began life as a series of sketches - and painted, but he himself was aware that his paintings were too stilted and photographic. As a sculptor, a certain meticulous quality was in them. I've been bending his ear for ages to try to get him to free his imagination, but it was when he began to paint in acrylics that things started to go right for him. What he was aiming for, I suppose, was that sense of freedom that he managed to encompass when he was doodling and sketching for a carving - the drawings he produced then were lovely. Acrylics demanded a certain speed. He couldn't possibly hang about! And at the same time he began painting not what he saw but what he felt. There is a certain narrative in these pictures - but there is an evocative quality about them - sometimes nostalgic and timeless, as with this one - but sometimes right up to the minute.
Now that he has begun, he has almost more ideas than he can cope with - so watch this space!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Edinburgh - The Royal Yacht Britannia

We're just back from a weekend in Edinburgh which involved a number of touristy things, The Royal Yacht Britannia, Holyrood Palace, The Queens Gallery, and a handful of good pubs.
Britannia is beautiful, particularly the engines (I have a really soft spot for these stunning elderly Clyde built engines!) How could they ever have thought of scuttling her? The tour is well done and informative and because it's still early in the season we had plenty of time and space to look around. You'll find all kinds of useful information on the link above, but I have a couple of personal observations - one is to wonder why on earth, as a Clyde built vessel, she isn't berthed on the Clyde? And the other interesting observation is the relative lack of opulence aboard her. I mean there are some pretty opulent pieces of table silver, usually of some historical significance (they always make me think of that quote from Dickens, I forget which novel, where the silver is assumed to be saying 'wouldn't you like to melt me down?') But the interiors are relatively simple. No gold bath taps here. And all, so they say, at the Queen's behest. No fuss. It is a very restrained interior, much like (one assumes) Her Majesty. The other wonderful place is the vast laundry. All those uniforms, all that linen to be laundered every single day. They never closed. And it still smells of soap powder.
More about Holyrood in another post.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Frost Flowers

These were taken in our conservatory the other morning - and a very cold night it had been too. If I had been just a little earlier, I would have captured these amazing frost flowers before the windows misted over. The insulation worked well - the conservatory was quite warm and the insides of the windows were totally clear - but you could see the most amazing natural forms covering the glass on the outside - like seaweed or ferns perhaps, more than flowers. I remember these beautiful shapes all too clearly from my early childhood. My parents used to say that 'Jack Frost' had been and breathed on the windows in the night, and I vividly remember running my fingers over the glass to melt the patterns. But back then, the frost flowers were on the insides of all our windows - since central heating was unheard of for all but the wealthy few. The water in the glass beside your bed was known to freeze over in the night as well. However did we survive, I wonder?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Steam and Sail on the Clyde and a Wee Observation about the Weather.

Snow is forecast here for this afternoon and tomorrow. Certainly it's cold, and we've had the occasional unpleasant hail shower, but so far the snow has only amounted to a few flakes. And as I type this, the sun is shining. Every single year at this time, we have a wee media frenzy to do with the weather. What happens is this. In February we generally have a warmish spell. The wind blows and the smell of spring is in the air. The snowdrops are in full bloom, the trees are in bud, the very earliest of the blossom, essentially 'winter flowering' is on the trees, and a few timid daffodils are beginning to show yellow blooms instead of green spikes. You may even manage to do a bit of gardening without getting trussed up in warm coat, hat and gloves. At this point there will be a sudden outbreak of articles in the press about Global Warming and the ridiculously early spring and how we are all about to go to hell in a handcart. A couple of weeks later the temperatures will fall again, quite dramatically, and we will be well and truly back in winter. A meteorologist will be trotted out on the television to discuss it. Boringly (from the interviewer's angle) he or she will point out that all this is completely normal, par for the course, all part of a typical Scottish winter weather pattern, and so on, but nobody will really listen.

I actually heard an interviewer asking a seismologist last week if the (quite large) English earthquake had been caused by climate change. No, he explained, patiently, although you could hear his inward sigh. No, that's on the surface of the earth. This is deep inside. Sometimes the media chatter (to which I suppose I am contributing here and now) is so loud that nobody ever stops to listen.

Here, meanwhile, is another picture, this time of Steam and Sail on the Clyde - one for those who loved Para Handy, and his Puffer, The Vital Spark, I think!

Monday, February 25, 2008


Now there's a good Glasgow word for you - though it's virtually untranslatable. It means daring, mischievous, cocky, self confident, iconoclastic, all of the above, and more. Often coupled with 'dead' as a suitable intensifier. A story to illustrate: when my son was first living in Glasgow, he and a friend were walking home late one night. They met a man coming the other way, slightly the worse (or better) for drink. He brandished a couple of broken bottles at them and as they recoiled in horror he grinned and said 'Only joking!' and went on his way. That's gallus. In fact it's probably dead gallus.
I've been writing a piece about Glasgow, and the word has been much in my mind. But I was thinking about it even more today, when I posted what I thought was a faintly humorous observation about something on a professional website, to be met with a series of what can only be described as spiky responses. And it struck me that I have been living in Scotland for so long (we moved up here when I was twelve - it's my country, my home) that I now take ironic self deprecation coupled with a certain gallus sense of mischief completely for granted. It never occurred to me that somebody might actually take me seriously. The Scots I know and love regularly puncture pomposity with a few well chosen words. I'm used to it. It's a baseline for all interactions. But I had forgotten that not everyone understands or approves and I do sometimes wonder if this isn't one more symptom of the chasm which seems to be slowly but surely opening between our countries.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Painting Scotland

My husband, Alan Lees, who has spent many years working as a woodcarver and sculptor, is doing more and more paintings these days - although he's working on some carved 'waymarkers' for a woodland walk at Straiton in South Ayrshire, even as I type this. However, it's hard and dirty work, with - as usual for craftsmen and women of all kinds - poor remuneration for the effort put in, never mind the actual artistic skills involved. Increasingly then, he is turning to paintings, and increasingly he's working in acrylics, liking the speed and vivid, 'primitive' colours. The pictures too have a primitive, folk art quality about them, and other people seem to like them too. One of his recent feedbacks, in our online shop, The Scottish Home says that he will be 'famous' one day. We certainly hope so! He's quite famous already for his carvings - people are forever coming up to him and shaking his hand when they find out what he does - but I think at the moment, he would rather be painting, and the vivid, graphic and very Scottish quality of some of these makes them ideal as interior design pieces, as well as for people who may want to be reminded of Scotland - industrial Glasgow, as well as the landscapes of the west.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Burns Supper an Amazing Damask and a Spooky Observation

A few weeks ago, we hosted a Burns Supper for a group of sixteen friends. The table took a bit of time and trouble to get right - what with candles, Burns napkins (had to scour Glasgow for those - couldn't find any in Ayrshire, though doubtless there were some, just not where I was looking!) tartan ribbons for the whisky bottles and heather from the garden - there is always heather of some sort in bloom in the garden even in February. I used one of the Scottish Home's tablecloths, an enormous banqueting cloth which has been sitting in my 'stock cupboard' for a couple of years, and which I have not yet brought myself to sell, partly because I always suspected it would come in handy one day. It is a lovely, lovely old damask, with a stunning design of game birds, stags and so on woven into it, and I reckon it probably came from a hunting lodge somewhere, and was used for those mammoth dinners that people would once have had after a day out on the hills. It is truly enormous - you can see just how big, from the picture on the left: 12 feet long by just under 8 feet wide. Unfortunately it does have a little damage, mostly along the edges, one or two worn places, and a few very small cuts, but nothing that anybody noticed while it was in use.
We provided the venue, the cock a leekie soup (traditional, with prunes) home made oat bread, potatoes and cheese. The rest of the meal was brought by assorted friends, including haggis, home made steak pie, and three spectacular trifles, all different. As we sat there over coffee, there was a sudden power cut, but since we had a great many candles already lit, nobody much cared. There is a sense in which this old house comes to life when the electricity goes off. I always feel it, and it seemed peculiarly powerful that night. When our guests had left, I pottered about by candlelight, gathering up glasses and dishes. I paused in the sitting room, listening - and as always, felt that there are people living here still who prefer candlelight. The next day, I wrote a poem about it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Arran from Maidens Bay

Alan titled this recent picture 'Digging for Worms' and it reminds me of doing just that, years ago, when our son was a wee boy, and we spent a happy but hectic morning on the beach at Ardminish, on the Isle of Gigha, digging for worms in the sand to use as bait for fishing. Not, mind you, that they ever caught very much, he and his dad. My own father was a more successful fisherman and used to take his beloved grandson to local trout lochs, with the permission of various owners (my Polish dad used to be able to charm the birds out of the trees, as the saying goes, so getting permission to fish was a piece of cake. Or trout. ) But whenever Alan and our son went sea fishing they very seldom caught anything. They did enjoy the process. And digging for worms was peculiarly satisfying, though not - I suspect - for the worms. But most of them escaped as well. And at least our son liked to eat the fish that he did manage to catch - usually barbecued with herbs and lemon and black pepper.
Today feels like the first day of spring, although it is still January - but for once the rain has stopped, the sun came out (briefly) and the hedgerows seemed to be suddenly full of snowdrops. The colours in the picture above - although they look exaggerated - are, as anyone who has visited the West of Scotland will know - absolutely true to some days and times. Lovely!

Monday, January 21, 2008

New Scottish Artworks Available Online

Here at The Scottish Home we have decided to take the plunge and devote a section of our online shop to Alan's artworks. We've tried selling them this way with varying degrees of success but feel that we've never been wholehearted enough about it before. And besides, he's working in a new and interesting way. For the last six months or so, he has been painting in oils and acrylics rather more than he has been woodcarving - although he hasn't abandoned the carving altogether and is still available for commissions, here. He has worked his way through horses and cattle, tackled the odd illustration for Tam O' Shanter, painted a selection of boats and is now obsessively painting scenes from Clydeside and Glasgow - semi-industrial scenes, with various 'naive' figures going about their business. Of everything he has done, I find I like these pictures very much - there is a sort of primitive, folk art quality about them which seems quite original to me - most commercial Scottish art these days tackles a Scottish rural landscape, particularly that of the highlands and islands. But these are urban, full of life and interest and charm (like the picture of a football match in the snow above) and I suspect they might appeal to a worldwide audience, particularly of people with a Scottish ancestry - and there are a great many of them about!

The prices, at the moment, are exceedingly reasonable, mainly because we are aiming to build a market so have a look at them and let us know what you think.