Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas Ted

This is one of my favourite teds. He's very old, and - as you can see - a bit fragile, but immensely loveable.

He does feel the cold a bit, however, hence the blanket and the woolly scarf. Got to look after our venerable old bears ...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christmas Trees

I have to have a real Christmas tree. I'm certain it's because my dear, late, Polish dad wouldn't have an artificial tree in the house. I would rather have a few pine boughs in a vase than a plastic tree. My husband, on the other hand, isn't particularly bothered, though he is willing to trail around after me while I look for exactly the right tree. Preferably one that doesn't cost a small fortune. This year, we visited Homebase and B & Q before finally finding what we were after in Dobbie's. The thing that irritated me about the first two stores was that almost all their trees were in nets already, and there was absolutely nobody about who could be asked to unwrap them, so that I could look at them. Call me old fashioned, but I'm not going to spend £20 - £25 without having a good look at what I'm buying. I've since compared notes with a friend from the North of England, and she has had the same problem. The stores are getting lazy. In Dobbie's on the other hand - where the trees were no more expensive - there were two obliging young people on hand, to show off the trees, net them up, and make sure you had help loading them into your car. Good for them.
Alan had been insisting that we needed a narrower tree this year. He has a point. At various times over the holiday season, we have a number of visitors and the tree is in danger of being knocked over in the rush. But the one he confessed he would have brought home himself looked as if it had been put through a shredder. I told him that if he had come home with it, I would have cried. What we eventually bought is something called a Lodge Pole Pine - an elegant, umbrella shaped tree. I confess to a few misgivings of the ecological variety, but then I'm aware that even these trees need to be thinned out! It is a truly beautiful Christmas tree and now that it is trimmed, I'm even happier. Oh and it smells lovely too.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Laundering your linens for Christmas

- or - perhaps more to the point -laundering your linens after Christmas, when somebody has spilled a glass or a bottle of red wine, or when your lovely damask tablecloth is a warzone of turkey fat, squashed sprouts and Christmas pudding stains.
Actually, the old linen damask cloths can be very forgiving, as I've found over the years. It's possible to persuade even fifty year old stains to fade. I favour a UK product called Vanish. For most immediate marks, you can simply add some to your wash, and launder in the usual way - though for linens, I've also found that a hot, but not boiling, cotton wash is best. A boil wash is supposedly possible, but I've always found it a bit too harsh and it will result in creases that are very hard to get out.
There are other versions of the same product on the market which will allow you to target localised stains - you spray on, and then leave for a little while before washing. For the worst cases, I soak in a solution of the same product, and change the water occasionally, before washing in the machine in the usual way. The trick is to make sure that the tablecloths are well rinsed - which a machine will probably take care of for you! And handle them very carefully when they are wet.
I don't starch the cloths for storage - the starch goes a bit sour, and doesn't seem to do the cloths a lot of good - but for special occasions, I will use a spray starch as I'm ironing.
Frost is good for whitening these old linens, as is sunshine. Outdoor air - if you can peg them outside in the old fashioned way - will freshen them. And I'm told that, in big houses, the damask banqueting cloths were stored wound around broom handles, so that they wouldn't be creased.
Anything more delicate - of course - has to be handled with extreme care. When in doubt, please do ask the experts. If you decide that you must launder old lacy cloths (and the dust and dirt can be very damaging) then please don't wring them, or use chemicals. Use a dedicated soap solution of some sort, and rinse them with warm water from a shower head. Gently, gently. Dry flat between soft towels, press (gently again!) on the wrong side, preferably with some kind of cotton cloth on top - and store away from sunlight in acid free tissue paper. I wash almost everything, because I have a great many textiles through my hands, and many of them are, literally, filthy with age and dust. But I have had one or two disasters. Very few though. Handle everything with care, think before you act, remember that old dyes are probably not colourfast and will most likely run - and watch out for candlewax! You can press most of it off with a hot iron, with blotting paper underneath, but it will still leave marks. Best to sit your candles on a Christmas plate or tray of some sort!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

New Christmas Picture - Glasgow in the Forties.

Our Christmas Card for this year is called 'Hope' - and it's a scene from Glasgow, in the immediate post war period. I love the picture - the original is in acrylics, on canvas board - and think that this new, complex, vibrant and yet intimate style is Alan's best yet. There's nothing sentimental about this, and yet it is at once nostalgic, heart warming and moving.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Gorgeous Madeira Tablecloth

This is one of the nicest old Madeira tablecloths I have ever seen - and certainly one of the largest. It has scalloped edges, and the most fabulous Madeira needlework and embroidery all over - including these amazingly detailed 'cornucopia' panels in all four corners, and lots of dense floral cutwork, as well as many 'bridges'. It must have taken weeks, if not months, to complete. There is also the most beautiful colour variation in the embroidery, random, but obviously intentional, from brown to cream. The work is almost as beautiful on the reverse as it is on the top side. Although it is very old - it came in an auction lot of extremely good (and expensive!) antique linens, which had obviously come from a special collection - it is in superb condition. It was, I think, professionally laundered, many many years ago, and then put away as the precious item it undoubtedly was and still is. Sometimes a piece of linen comes along that has been so beautifully laundered, that you can't bear to wash it again, even though you suspect it might be a bit dusty. It's almost impossible to get this kind of finish with domestic equipment! Given its age, it actually smells quite fresh. Can't imagine anyone serving food on this, though! But what a statement it would make, on a large dining table.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Pipe, A Dream and an Ice Cream

Just added another gorgeous new picture by Alan to our online gallery - A Pipe, A Dream and an Ice Cream. I'm particularly fond of this one and wouldn't mind living with it forever, but on the other hand, I rather hope it sells instantly - we could do with the money! I've added a detail since the 'dream' in the photograph isn't too clear - the little boy is actually looking at a distant yacht, sailing on the horizon. Don't know quite why I like this one so much - perhaps because it's such a lovely illustration of that magical relationship between grandparents and a grandchild, perhaps because the people are so pleasantly plump. And perhaps because the sea is so evocative of those occasional West of Scotland days when things are calm and dreamy and the light is so beautiful. Whatever the reason, I think this is one of Alan's nicest pictures so far.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A 1950s Arrow 'Supermarket' Doll

I know all about the doll on the left because she was mine. Once upon a time, I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, but sadly, I was never really a 'doll' person. Teddies - now they're a different matter, and I would never ever sell my lovely old Teddy Tubby and Teddy Robinson. They are two of my most precious possessions. I've added to the collection over the years and will blog about them in future! But although I was very fond of this doll, I didn't love her with the same intensity. And I'm currently selling her on eBay, in an effort to find her a better home. She is interesting though - an 'Arrow' supermarket doll from the late 1950s - and I suspect she may even predate Barbie by a year or so, but she is certainly a similar type. These 'supermarket' dolls were inexpensive, well made dolls which, in the USA, could be purchased in supermarkets. She has a little lozenge shape with an arrow on the back of her neck, and the number 15. I'm not sure how my parents acquired her in Leeds, which was where we were living at the time, because she arrived from Santa one Christmas in the late 1950s when I was a little girl. And I can't now remember what clothes she wore, because they disappeared many years ago, but I do remember that I christened her Rose.
She has a hard plastic body and a soft plastic head. She is very tall indeed and she has rooted blonde hair, blue eyes with black lashes, a very curvy figure with an impossibly slender waist and long long legs, with feet designed to wear high heeled shoes. She has both finger and toenails painted, and even has eyeliner on her big blue eyes. She is articulated at the waist which swivels but not at the knees, so she can only sit down with her legs stretched out in front.
When I rediscovered her, she had been stored away in a tea-chest and - sadly - a mouse had nibbled her little nose. He must have found her unpalatable, because the damage is only small! I also cut her fringe - probably thinking it might grow back. (All little girls do this at some time or another with their dolls!) It would be nice to see her dressed again in appropriate 1950s/early 60s clothing, and I've thought about it over the years, but have never managed to clothe her, mainly because - although I love textiles and vintage clothes, sell them and write about them - I'm not a particularly good seamstress. So, regretfully, I'm looking for a new home for her, and am currently listing her in my eBay store. Where else would you find a doll with full provenance - and one owned by a real life writer, at that!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Hidden Treasures

Happiness is an unsuspected paisley shawl. And it's not just a good line for a poem either! Let me explain.
Last week, I bought a couple of boxes of old linen at auction. Even after so many years of buying things at auction, there is still nothing quite so thrilling as sorting through a big box and wondering what you are going to find there. Of course on viewing day - if you're wise - you have a good rummage, but sometimes the boxes are big, and stuffed with items, some of them in less than clean condition - marked with teastains or even mould, because people have a habit of putting things away while they are not especially clean, or even still damp from a cursory wash - and then forgetting about them for the next fifty years. Part of our job, as dealers in old textiles, is the careful laundering of precious items. Or knowing when not to launder at all, but to freshen up a little and leave things as they are, for the experts to deal with if they wish. If I were a better seamstress, I might do repairs, but I'm not and I don't - again, I leave that to the experts.
Last week, I staggered home with just such a box of not-very-fresh old linen, and had the extreme pleasure of sorting through it and finding a number of interesting pieces. But somewhere in the middle of the carton was one of those re-sealable plastic bags that people use for storing woollies, and in it was what looked like one of those coarse 'dust sheets' that DIY stores sell for home decorating. Now when I'm sorting through a box of old linen, like this, I have a 'charity shop' bag ready and into it I put all the smaller bits and pieces which are in reasonable condition, but which I don't want to either sell or to keep. I lifted this plastic bag and thought 'hmm, charity shop'. I hadn't opened it in the saleroom, because it was very firmly fastened, and I already knew I wanted to bid on the box. But a wee voice whispered in my ear 'don't be daft, open it and see what it is!'
Which was just as well, because when I unzipped the plastic, and unfolded the linen cloth inside, what emerged, like a butterfly from a chrysalis, was a vibrant printed paisley shawl - silk gauze, summer weight, light as a feather and stunningly beautiful! At some time, a few years ago, somebody had very carefully stored it away - but what she hadn't done was label the bag. So when - presumably - her house had been cleared (and it's a sad task for relatives, I know - I've done it myself) nobody had realised what was lurking beneath the plastic. How could they? It had simply been lumped in with all the other linens. What makes me shudder is that this gorgeous 150 year old textile might have finished up in a skip. It's safe now, and it will eventually go to somebody who will love it as much as I do. But it's an object lesson in not getting complacent - when you are buying at auction you quite literally never know what might be lurking at the bottom of the box!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Millport, Bicycles and Art at the Garrison

Just back from a weekend spent at Millport, on the Isle of Cumbrae where Alan was demonstrating painting in the newly refurbished Garrison. We were staying with our old friends the Mapes - of bicycle rental fame. Over the years, it seemed impossible to visit this lovely little Clyde island without hiring a bike and cycling round - always from Mapes of Millport. They had the toy and joke shop too - and it was always a favourite with the kids who visited - still is, I'm sure. The business is now run by Frank and Anne's son. When our son was little, we generally found ourselves doing this on the last day of the summer holidays - ice creams, fish and chips, the crocodile rock and a long but mercifully flat cycle ride ten miles round the perimeter of the island. It was a special treat and now, visits to the island are imbued with a kind of nostalgia that has, I'm sure, a lot to do with those long, lost and lovely summers. I was never glad to see the end of the summer holidays - they always came much too soon for me! And I can never hear Abba's wonderful 'Slipping Through My Fingers'
What happened to those wonderful adventures
The places I had planned for us to go
Well some of that we did but most we didn't
And why, I just don't know
without thinking of Cumbrae - which was, at least, one of the things we did.

Alan had a good weekend too - considering that on sunday the weather was as appalling as a wild day in December - and consequently visitors were few and far between - the people who did make it to the Garrison were certainly appreciative of his slightly strange, vividly naive works of art - lots of praise, which is certainly welcome, especially when the reception from the art establishment is sometimes less than congratulatory.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vintage Fashion: a Touch of Deja Vu

Not quite Scottish this - but certainly relevant to all things vintage! I was clearing out some old papers the other day and came across a wonderful (and pristine) issue of Honey and Vanity Fair magazine from 1972. It makes fascinating reading, not least for how similar media obsessions are then, and now. ('For lovelier nails, smooth away ugly cuticles.' 'We don't promise any overnight miracle cures for spots and pimples.' 'Soften yourself all over with baby oil' ...)

Even more interesting to me, though - since I'm pretty obsessive myself, where vintage fashion is concerned - is the undoubted fact that you could take just about all the clothes and (if you were young enough!) wear them without anyone batting an eyelid. This row of coloured tights and shoes for instance. Did I topple off shoes like that? Well I'm pretty sure I did. But do they look particularly dated? Don't think so. As for the coats, the wonderful 'coats Garbo would be proud to wear' - I'd be quite happy to find them in my wardrobe even now.
Actually, I've got two even older pieces in my wardrobe and I do wear them quite often. One is a Dereta tweed coat from the sixties which would have looked impossibly middle aged to me back then, when I was a girl, but now just looks stylish and slightly quirky. The other - also from the sixties - is my favourite: a beautifully cut, pale, pure wool coat with a curly lamb collar. It looks exactly like something Samantha would wear in those later episodes of Bewitched. It fascinates me to watch how the fashions change through the episodes of that series - since it spans that time during the sixties when everything, including fashion, underwent such profound changes. I paid about £10.00 for it in a charity shop and whenever I wear it people ask me where I managed to find it.

The other thing that interests me about this old issue of Honey is the amount of text it contains. There are wonderful images, for sure, but there is also a great deal of reading in it: blocks of text that editors of magazines aimed at young women - which Honey undoubtedly was - would almost certainly shun nowadays, on the grounds that their readers couldn't cope with it. And perhaps they couldn't. There are two decent pieces of fiction as well - a short story and a serial. It is, though, the ephemeral things that take you back with heartrending clarity: the ads for everything from Christy's lanolin facepacks to Mary Quant astringent. Nostalgia, thy name is surely advertising!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Wonderful visit to Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries and Galloway a few days ago. Hard to say which was more beautiful - the house or the gardens. The house is open only during the summer although I believe tours can be arranged at other times. The house is full of unexpected delights - like the ancient leather wallcovering, and the needlework said to have been done by Mary Queen of Scots. Mind you - if all the pieces of needlework said to have been done by the unfortunate Queen of Scots were to be laid end to end, they would stretch a considerable distance! - however, this one is fabulously authentic and the castle is a likely enough home for it, with all the family's royal associations.
Drumlanrig is also full of fine artworks, the most renowned of which is probably Rembrandt's 'Old Woman Reading' which is well displayed and lit. You can see it here. According to the guide, opinion divides as to whether she looks faintly sinister or marvellously restful. I'm of the latter opinion - there is something soothing and reassuring about this old lady, so absorbed in her book - a picture that you want to stand and gaze at for a very long time. One other thing that struck me: it was so lovely to see this picture in a domestic setting, however grand! It was a reminder that such artworks were not, in the main, intended to be hung in galleries, surrounded by other pictures, and certainly not surrounded by labels telling us what we ought to think about them. The castle tour was excellent value for money - the gardens were beautiful, so were the little craft and food shops in the courtyard, there were plenty of picnic tables (but if you're taking a picnic, do buy your fresh sausage rolls in the food shop at the castle!) and as a bonus, the cycle museum was unexpectedly enthralling - who would have thought that bicycles could be so fascinating?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Expanding the Scottish Home

For some time now I've been writing two blogs: Wordarts is all about the business of writing and The Scottish Home is loosely linked with my online store of the same name, mainly dealing in the antique textiles I love, but also with other items including artworks and antiquarian books, many of them with a Scottish or Irish provenance. I've also been making the occasional contribution to a fascinating magazine blog about video games: passion4games .

Over the past few months, however, it has become clear that I'm spreading myself much too thinly and the result is - inevitably - that I'm not doing anything very well. And that includes blogging! Perhaps even more importantly, I find that I'm spending far too much time writing about writing, and not half enough time doing the actual creating - and that's not good for somebody who, first and foremost, likes to think of herself as a writer of fiction.

I've spent a few days taking stock, making notes but above all thinking. And the results of all that thinking are that I'm planning to cut down, consolidate and organise my time better.
I'll be taking a break from Wordarts for a little while, although I'll still be making the occasional contribution to passion4games, because that whole area of video game development, with all its implications for creativity, interests me enormously.
For roughly half the week, I'll be working on The Scottish Home, expanding my antiques business in various new directions. I have a few fledgling plans for sourcing interior design statement pieces, and tackling the newly fashionable idea of 'upcycling' - i.e. recycling with style. The freelance life being what it is, we've been doing that in this particular Scottish home for years!
This blog will be expanded to reflect these new interests, although most of my posts will retain a very definite sense of Scotland. I don't write much about Golf and Whisky (neither of which I have any aversion to, especially not a good island malt!) but I also think there is more to Scotland than those two attractions. And more to textiles than tartan. And more even to tartan than you might believe!
When I'm not working in, for and with the Scottish Home, for the other half of the week, I'll be finishing a new collection of short stories and writing a new piece of historical fiction. Not all my creative writing is set in Scotland of course, but even when it isn't, I often find that artefacts, things which people have possessed and loved, things which people have perhaps even made or embellished themselves, can play an important part in the stories I tell. I find myself weaving them in, just as fascinating designs can be woven into - or printed on - the old paisley shawls that are another of my passions!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Logan Gardens

We drove south yesterday, to visit Logan Gardens in Galloway. This smallish botanical garden is one of my favourite places, full of plants which - almost anywhere else in the UK - would have to be grown under glass, but which flourish here in this wonderfully warm corner of Scotland. True to form - although the weather forecast was fairly horrible, and we set off in wind and driving rain - by the time we had reached Cairnryan, the skies had lightened. Stranraer was sunny and the gardens themselves were basking in warmth under blue skies. It stayed like that for the rest of the day. Logan Gardens are small enough to be accessible, but varied enough to be fascinating. For me though, it is the trees, the Eucalyptus that flourish here, that are a marvel. I could revisit them again and again - and probably will.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tissue Issues

Interesting observation today, about how easily business is lost. Because I post vintage linens all the time, I try to wrap them in good quality acid free tissue paper. For some years now, I have been buying my packs of tissue online from Lakeland. At the same time, I would always find myself buying 'something else' - usually a treat for me: good quality vanilla essence, a little box of Brodie's chocolates (the best chocolates in the world!) or a kitchen gadget.
Today, with tissue paper running low, I went to the Lakeland site to find that they no longer stock it! I've emailed them to ask why, and if they plan to reintroduce it. But meanwhile, of course, I had a look at eBay, to find somebody supplying larger quantities of what looks like excellent quality sheets of acid free tissue - at a slightly cheaper price. I've promptly ordered them. If they live up to expectations, I'll be buying from them in future. If they don't, then there are plenty of other options on the site. And of course, I doubt if I will be buying my little Lakeland 'treats' in the future, since the main reason for going to the site no longer exists, and - times are hard! Besides, I can buy lovely gadgets in my local T K Maxx for a fraction of the price.
I doubt, of course, if my defection will worry a company as big and prestigious as Lakeland. All the same - they should consider that I'll spread the word, that if you multiply me by a number of other customers, who may encounter similar problems - sooner or later, it will begin to show on their bottom line.
Customers are hard to win and extremely easy to lose. We are a fickle lot out here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Apologies for Long Silence

The Scottish Home is back! So much has been going on in terms of work and family life for me, over the past few weeks, that blogging has been the very last thing on my mind. My propensity for writing lists spiralled out of control, and involved the creation of a Mega List, but at last I seem to be getting on top of things, before they comprehensively get on top of me! Meanwhile, over the past few weeks, I have acquired - from various sources, including the South of France, as well as here in Scotland - a great deal of truly wonderful old linen. Some of it is whitework, and some of it is gorgeous colourful embroidery. Some of these little tablecloths in Irish Linen and bright colours are so beautifully embroidered that they could almost be framed up. Yet they are hard wearing and forgiving. You can use them and wash them and they still look lovely - although bear in mind that direct sunlight will certainly fade these spectacular colours.
Some of the linen had been well cared for, some of it was quite new, but had obviously been stored away in an attic or similar for sixty or seventy years and was consequently discoloured, while some of it was in a dreadful state, with mould spots etc. When you get a piece of old linen that is so discoloured, it becomes a case of 'kill or cure' - I soaked a huge old damask for about a week in a solution of Vanish and water, changing the water occasionally, then washing it twice and hanging it outside to dry. To my surprise, even the mould spots have disappeared, leaving only a few faint marks. This is not, of course, to be tried on anything precious or delicate, and you should ALWAYS consult an expert, when in doubt. But when a piece of inexpensive table or bedlinen is so defaced that the alternative is to make it into a dustsheet, then you might as well experiment with modern stain removers, sunshine, or - in winter - frost! You might be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Is This Any Way to Treat a Sculpture?

Some years ago, my woodcarver husband, Alan Lees, was commissioned to make a life size carving of Tam o' Shanter and Meg the Mare. It was duly installed, with great ceremony, in the Tam O' Shanter Experience in Alloway. Almost from the day it was installed, however, the staff of the shop seem to have treated it as a dreadful inconvenience. Perhaps it was put in the wrong place - that wasn't our fault. Sculptors make statues to commission and generally put them where they are told!
But it has now become one of the most beautiful and expensive display stands in the history of the world. Whenever I have set foot in the centre over the past years, it is to find the statue surrounded by what can only be described (for want of a ruder word) as miff maff. As somebody remarked of this picture, the tartan napkins are surely the ultimate insult for poor old Tam.
Not only that, but when my husband, who carved this piece over some six months of blood, sweat and tears, sets foot inside the place, he is treated as some kind of pariah, with borderline rudeness. They have never promoted the statue, never used it in any of their publicity, never asked him to come and do any maintenance on it (it needs a little refurbishment) never expressed anything but complete and utter distaste for it and for the artist who made it.
The public, on the other hand, love it. If it was used as it was intended, people should have been able to get up close to it, have photographs taken, touch it and stroke it (wood is nothing if not tactile) and generally interact with it. They have done what they can - the horse's nose has a lovely patina, as has it's big bum, which has obviously been patted a good deal. But the horrible clutter means that people seldom can get up close. We have had people coming to this house, Australians, Americans of course, literally raging about it - but of course there's nothing we can do.
Now, the old Tam o' Shanter Experience is due for demolition. There is some talk of the statue going to Prestwick Airport - which would be good. There's plenty of room for it. But it will be hard to move (it is cemented in place) and it will need a certain amount of renovation. We have deep misgivings. Nobody has contacted Alan about it for months, and we wonder just exactly what will become of it when the centre is demolished round it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra

Went to a concert by the Ayrshire Fiddle Orchestra, in our village hall last night. In one sense it was a typical village event of the kind that we don't seem to have half enough of these days. When I first moved here in 1980, the whole village year was punctuated by one get together or another - the bonfire, the Christmas craft fair, the daffodil tea, the wine tasting, the gala day, the Minister's garden party... Far too many of them have fallen victim to health and safety regulations, or lack of interest or both. But last night was different. The village hall was full of familiar faces. There was a brilliant concert by a lovely group of talented young people, there was a raffle, and then tea and home baking at the end. It was a real pleasure, it was a genuine rural get-together and it doesn't happen often enough these days. We are well aware that our local council would like any possible excuse to close our village hall, but it is one of the few resources left to us. And the fact that last night it was full to capacity only goes to prove the truth of the 'if you build it they will come' maxim. Lay on some good entertainment, publicise it properly, spread the word, provide a pleasant evening out, reasonably close to home - and a surprising number of people will tear themselves away from the television, come out - and socialise.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Burns on the Solway in the Scottish Review

I've just written a piece for the Scottish Review about Brow Well on the Solway, which probably counts as one of the least known places with which Robert Burns was associated. This isn't surprising, since he spent the last few weeks of his life there, desperately ill and horribly worried about his wife, who was heavily pregnant, and about the possibility of being sued for money he didn't have. As soon as he was dead, however, the great and the good of Dumfries came out to mourn him - and pestered poor Jean for pieces of manuscript, written in his own hand: disgraceful but not entirely unexpected behaviour. You can't help thinking that exactly the same kind of thing would happen nowadays.
Anyway, this part of the Solway Coast is bleakly beautiful and I find myself returning to it again and again in my writing.
Meanwhile, the same issue contains an elegantly acid piece about Swine Flu panic. If you're into Scotland, and all things Scottish, why not sign up to receive regular online issues of the magazine?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

An Old Scots Mohair Blanket from Newton Stewart

I recently came across this lovely old mohair blanket or throw, made in Cree Mills, in Newton Stewart - possibly in the 1950s or 60s although it's impossible to be sure. These old Galloway woollen mills closed in 1986 having been active for most of the century. They replaced a much older cotton mill on the same site, on the banks of the River Cree. People had told me about these wonderful old textiles in the past - how soft and light and fluffy they were, how warm, how stylish. But I hadn't seen one until this turned up. It was a little stale, having been stored, so I washed it, carefully. It's huge, and utterly gorgeous and I wish - in these somewhat straitened times - that somebody would start making more of these fabulous throws and blankets in Scotland again. I use old Ayrshire blankets all winter in this house - nothing quite so cosy against the drafts. I also put a couple of beautiful sixty year old Yorkshire blankets over our couches for the winter - leather can be chilly, but old wool with subtly colourful designs, transforms them. This vibrant and cosy Scottish throw is really a winter item - but I can imagine that it would make an excellent picnic blanket or a comfortable throw on a futon, or spare bed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


If I had to pick a favourite flower, other than roses, which kind of goes without saying, it would have to be tulips. I adore them and find the season all too brief. Earlier this year, my good friend (and ace interior designer) Brenda Kevan arrived with a huge bowl of tulips - the bulbs just sprouting. That's them, the gorgeous pink and white ones on the left, massed on one of our garden tables, with some smaller purple blooms and a mixture of scarlet parrots and pale pink tulips which I bought at Ayr Flower Show last year, and which Alan planted late in the year, when I hadn't got round to doing it and he thought I never would! They've been steadily flowering for a couple of weeks now and I find the colours - which seem to me so close to those found in old textiles - truly inspirational.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tam o' Shanter Teeshirt

Here's The Scottish Home's new 'Tam o' Shanter' Burns Anniversary teeshirt - you can just see the illustration which is of Nannie, hauling on poor Meg's tail. The shirt is modelled by our son!
There will soon be another image available on cards and teeshirts and prints - the 'after' illustration, in which the Meg has lost her tail - see the original artwork above.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Very Happy Easter

to everyone who visits the Scottish Home from time to time!

I was sitting in our conservatory this afternoon, drinking a glass of wine, and listening to the sounds of children playing, coming from a neighbouring garden. It was a fine afternoon, a lovely sound and very welcome. It reminded me of when our children were young. It may be a cliche, but it seems like yesterday that the garden was full of running, swinging, shrieking kids. So it felt just a little sad as well. Time fairly races along. Enjoy it while you have it folks. And a very happy holiday to all our readers!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Frog Songs

It isn't only birds that sing at this time of year. I was digging over the vegetable patch yesterday (which explains why I'm tired today!) and my efforts were accompanied by a froggy song coming from the little garden pond. S/he was a good sized creature as well. I could see her wee head poking out from the vegetation, but whenever she realised that somebody was watching her she would disappear beneath the lily pads. I would go back to my digging (watched with extreme interest by the robin that lives here too). After a moment or so the froggy serenade would begin all over again. Notice that there is some frogspawn in there. Three cheers. I love frogs, even if we do sometimes find them hopping up the hallway!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Owls and others

I was late to bed last night. Standing cleaning my teeth, with the window slightly ajar I became aware of a strange noise. It sounded like a gang of unruly teenagers whooping and calling in the night, but we don't have very many of those in this village - a handful, but not many! And anyway it seemed much too late (or early, as Miss Jean Brodie might have put it) for them to be marauding about the playing fields. Then I realised what it was - owls.
We hear them often in our village, usually in spring and autumn. There are a number of mature trees and old buildings and the owls seem to be thriving. I'm not sure which kind they are and suspect there are several different sorts because there are differences in the calls. Last night's though was a resonant, spooky, traditional 'whoo whoo' sound with responses from elsewhere. You don't see them very often, although driving home late you will occasionally glimpse pale wings floating through the night. Nice to listen to them though.
Having gone late to bed, I woke early. Didn't get much sleep at all last night and a long day's work to get through. But the dawn chorus was in full swing. It always fascinates me how gradually the silence of winter gives place to all this singing. By April it will be deafening. Last weekend, I seized the opportunity of a fine sunday to do a bit of gardening and noticed that the garden was alive with birds, including a fat thrush. He seemed to be leading the chorus this morning, higher, sweeter and more varied than all the rest.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sad but inevitable truth about Ayr.

If you go into a certain supermarket in the Scottish town of Ayr, you will see a set of old photographs of the town on one of the walls. Among them is a view of Burns Statue Square from 1956. It may be a black and white picture, but what it shows is a neat, well kept and pleasant burgh with interesting shops, and a general air of seaside prosperity - a town you might be glad to visit for a holiday, or a day trip. We moved to the town in the early 1960s while I was still a child and that's the town I remember: a wee bit conservative, (well, very conservative, if I'm honest) but in general, a good place to be.
No longer. There is, I'm afraid, no polite way of putting this. The town centre is a dump. Gradually, over the years, all the small, independent shops (the kind that make, for example, small towns like Castle Douglas such a joy to visit) have disappeared to be replaced by chain stores, 'pound' stores and banks, paying vast rates for town centre premises - or charity shops. The fish market was moved to Troon and the harbourside has been built over with new flats which just about block the view of the sea from the bridges over the river.
We might just have managed to put up with all that but worse was to come. There is, quite simply, no reason for tourists to visit the town. There is nothing to do except shop, and you'll find far better shops in Glasgow. There's a good beach, but there are good beaches elsewhere. If you're looking for a walk along the sands, you might as well carry on to any one of a number of picturesque villages to the south of Ayr, or head north where Largs has so much more to offer.
You could go out to Burns Cottage. But if you're in 'history' mode, you'd be better to 'do' the Cottage and then go on to Kirkoswald, to Soutar Johnnie's cottage - and to Culzean. Why on earth would you want to linger when Ayr is dirty, dilapidated, and depressing. Public lavatories? You must be joking. A theatre? Oh no - the old Civic is a wreck and they just closed and boarded up the Gaiety, which in any case had weeds sprouting from every orifice. Museum? What museum? There's a fine gallery out at Rozelle, but again, if you're headed that way, you might just as well keep going south. There's a swimming pool in a building of sixties municipal ugliness down by the seashore, but that too looks as though it might be on its last legs. There was one of the best ice pads in the UK out on the road to Prestwick, but they've just demolished it. You can't walk in Craigie Park for fear of being mugged and if you go out to Belleisle House, the wonderful Victorian conservatory, which I remember as being such a pleasure to visit, is out of bounds, falling down. Even pets corner is closing.
Meanwhile, as fine a set of Georgian buildings as you have ever seen, beside the New Bridge, buildings of great historical significance, which anywhere else would be treasured, home to galleries, shops, cafes - are (and have been for many many years now) in a state of dilapidation which seems nothing short of criminal.
I live in South Ayrshire. The council tax bill just came in. It is not small. So what, in the name of all that's unholy, are they spending it on? Question councillors and you will be told 'education' - but my son went to a local school, and believe me, the school in question wasn't having very much spent on it. Now, over the whole of South Ayrshire, the council have just closed a tranche of venues which provide exercise and occupation for youngsters - Girvan swimming pool and various sports and activity halls in the smaller, less well off villages, places from which the children have no hope of travelling, because the bus services are dreadful as well. With Girvan swimming pool goes the canoe club, which kept a big group of kids safely occupied through the winter months. With Dailly sports hall goes the karate club that used to meet there. And all while local government - and national government too - bleat hypocritically about vandalism and - God help us - rising levels of obesity. This is nothing short of iniquitous.
There were more public loos in ancient Rome, than there are now in the whole of South Ayrshire. They are in the process of closing Council offices in the smaller towns, so that elderly people will have to travel miles to register a death or pay their council tax. Well, maybe they can use the post office for that. Oh, hold on a minute, those have all closed as well although it was the UK government who sanctioned that one. An elderly friend who was rushed into hospital recently, and was a little late with ONE month's payment of council tax because she couldn't get to the post van - received a letter from South Ayrshire Council threatening her with sheriff's officers! Not too strapped for cash to send threatening letters to pensioners then?
The One Stop Shop which offered such excellent advice about all kinds of issues, including benefits, to the people of Maybole has also shut, deprived of funds. Now, they are going to charge us to uplift heavy pieces of refuse (Fly tipping anyone? And won't clearing all those sofas and fridges from the roadsides cost just as much in the long run?) Mind you, if you do attempt to drive anywhere, you will find potholes the side of craters in all the county's rural AND urban roads. Lots and lots and lots of them. Walk through the town and the empty shops, the kilos of dog dirt and the general ill kempt look of the whole place will soon get you down. It is exactly this kind of neglect which spawns more vandalism. God help the poor traders who struggle on, paying exorbitant rates for this, while heads of services still receive 70k salaries.
This is an area whose main industry is tourism. Walking through the streets of Ayr, right now, you would have no inkling that this might be the case. Credit crunch or no, you don't destroy everything that might help to sustain that industry. What's the good of having tourist signage if there's nowhere left for it to point to?
Oh yes. The sea. That's about it. Perhaps some of our elected members past and present (because this kind of thing doesn't happen overnight) might do us all a favour, head down there, and take a running jump.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Robert Burns - Tam O' Shanter

It is, let's face it, one of Robert Burns' best loved poems -and here is Alan Lees' contribution to the anniversary year - a wonderful evocation of the key moment in the poem. Poor Meg is just about to lose her tail to Cutty Sark. As for me, I rather like the little devil sitting in the tree down on the right, quite unpeturbed by everything that is going on above him - but with his attention distracted by the eyes under the bridge. I wonder who's living under there?!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Scottish Craftsmen versus English Heritage

Fascinating piece in last week's Sunday Time here, about English Heritage, fireplaces, and what looks like a certain amount of unfairness. Owning period properties is a bit of a minefield for owners anyway, without this kind of behaviour from bodies which really ought to know better. And as the wife of a fine craftsman who for many years was competing with cheaper imported products, I know whose side I find myself on. More power to Thistle and Rose's elbow!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Light Bulb Horrors

We move on from the memory foam mattress, folks, to the light bulb horrors. When and why did life become so complicated? I'm not sure what the situation is in the rest of the world, but our masters in Europe have, with the connivance of our government, inflicted the low energy lightbulb upon us. Now I'm as eco friendly as the next woman. In fact I suspect my carbon footprint is a good deal lower than most. I seldom fly, I run a very small and efficient car, my house is usually pretty cool (I can't really afford to heat it adequately) and I recycle as much of my rubbish as it's possible to fit into the assorted bins and boxes provided by my council. Moreover, most of my wardrobe these days seems to consist of 'vintage' pieces, also recycled from various sources. (It's pretty stylish. Where did you get that wonderful coat, somebody asked me last week. Actually, I got it from a local charity shop, for a fiver. It must have sat in somebody's wardrobe, hardly worn, since the 1950s. It's beautiful, but that's another story...) Anyway, to resume our tale of lightbulbs...
Europe has dictated that we shall not have old fashioned lightbulbs. Never mind that the new variety contain mercury, inflict health problems on those of a sensitive disposition and are downright dangerous for the visually impaired. We must do our bit to save the planet. And we have been given no choice in the matter. Meanwhile, visit any UK city and see the government departments, the banks, the big business headquarters positively ablaze with light, throughout the night....
A few days ago, the upstairs hall lightbulb having expired, we replaced it with a new energy- saving bulb from a local branch of Morrisons supermarket - one of those curly spirally things. Going up to bed later that night, I found myself wondering about two things: why my eyes were sore after just a few seconds exposure to the hideous yellow light which the thing gave off - and why my red staircarpet seemed suddenly leeched of all colour. Then it clicked. These are the bulbs which a certain chain store uses in their lavatories, and you know why they use them in their lavatories? I'm reliably informed that - apart from their singular cheapness - the real reason has little to do with saving the planet, but mostly because the quality of light deters junkies from 'shooting up'. They can't find a vein. Which may be a very good reason for installing them in chain store loos, but not in my upstairs hallway thank-you.
I have now, by devious means, found a shop which still sells the old banned bulbs. And I am stockpiling. I feel a bit like a junkie myself, searching for a fix. If I manage to get my hands on enough of them, I figure they will see me out. Or at least they will last till the technology improves. (But I'm not telling you the whereabouts of the shop - at least not until I buy a few more for my own store-cupboard. For God's sake, get some for me too, said a friend on the phone tonight) Actually, the day when the technology improves may well be closer than I think. I'm told there is something called an 'eco-bulb' which gives out pure, bright, white light, at a fraction of the cost. The only trouble is that the bulbs themselves, even when bought on eBay, cost a small fortune. Not a lot for Sir Fred, perhaps - his house is probably chocca with the things - but quite a lot for me. A tiny price to pay, you may say, for saving the planet. And you may well be right. But perhaps if our government offices, national and local, used them as well as all our big businesses, our banks even, the price might go down so that the rest of us could actually afford to buy them for ordinary domestic use. Meanwhile, I'm locking my hoard of the lovely, shapely, soft old lightbulbs away where nobody else will find them.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Heron

I came down to make the early morning cup of tea this morning, to be met by a flurry of grey wings and prehistorically long legs trailing behind, as the heron flapped away from our rather small and shallow garden pond. There are no goldfish left in the pond since over the years he has had all of them. He doesn't seem to enjoy them very much since he deposits most of their corpses in the garden, the remains of his extremely expensive fish suppers. We tried netting the pond but it seems kind of counterproductive to have something so pretty covered in ugly netting. Now that the goldfish are gone he is probably after frogs or newts, although the sight of the occasional (and somewhat revolting) piece of frog in the garden would indicate that he isn't so keen on those either. Perhaps it's the time of year and he's just hungry, after anything he can get, which would be understandable.
Herons are an increasingly common sight here in the West of Scotland - they used to be exceedingly rare but now you can even encounter them standing beside the road, tall and solitary and very very still, as though in a state of deep meditation. When I'm working in the upstairs study, I'll sometimes lift my head to see one flapping past the window, heading for the lake up at Kirkmichael House. There's a wonderful old tapestry at Falkland Palace in Fife, which has a depiction of what looks like a pterodactyl - but must be a heron. And it's true, they do look like a creature from another time and place. In Scotland, the bird is invariably referred to as 'The Heron' in the singular, as though there is only one of them. 'I saw the heron today' you say. He's getting pretty ubiquitous, that heron. Gets about a bit. But all the same he is known to be a solitary creature, more fond of his own company than other birds of a feather - the jackdaws which flock together among our chimneypots for instance!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Memory Foam Solution

Even I'm getting bored with this one - but here's a possible solution, which was inspired by a kind person who commented on a previous post - thanks Tana! - and if you can't afford to replace your double bed with twin beds and different mattresses, it certainly helps.
This is what you do.
Buy a common or garden Yoga Mat. In the UK, these are available for about £10.00 in Tesco's but you can get them anywhere. Go for the smooth ones, not the lumpy ones. Not too thin either.
You're looking for a good layer of foam, but not memory foam! Stretch out the mat on top of the dreaded memory foam mattress. Then cover the whole mattress with a blanket of some sort, and then on top of that, put a good thick mattress topper - but not plastic in any form, and certainly NOT memory foam! - you're looking for cotton or fleece or something similar. Again these are available in most bedding shops, some supermarkets and online. The bed may be looking like something from the Princess and the Pea by this time, but this worked for me. Cover with a cotton or linen sheet, and make the bed in the usual way. The trick is to put as much as possible between yourself and the dreaded memory foam. Not only does this help to ease the 'quicksand effect ' - you don't sink into ordinary foam the way you sink into memory foam and yoga mats are designed to be quite firm - but it also helps with the heat, since the blanket and mattress cover don't 'draw' in the same way as the memory foam. It isn't the perfect solution - but it certainly helps and I'm sleeping properly for the first time in a year and a half!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Mountmellick Top Sheet

A while ago, I added a blog post about Mountmellick Embroidery, which has always fascinated me. Now I've come across another much bigger piece in the shape of an old coverlet or top sheet which you can find here. It isn't as intricate as the last piece, which was a nightdress case, but it isn't often I find something as large as this either. It is embroidered in quite a coarse white thread on dense white cotton, with huge passion flowers, the stamens of which are like little shamrocks and leaves. I come across a great many lovely linens and laces with an Irish provenance in this part of the world - or at least with an Irish background. In the nineteenth century, or so the 1838 Statistical Account tells us, the village of Crosshill had many Irish inhabitants:
' A great proportion of the inhabitants of Crosshill, 800 out of 1000, are either Irish or of Irish extraction. In many instances it must be confessed, they exhibit too common characteristics of their countrymen, indolent, improvident, and passionately addicted to spirits and tobacco. At the same time, it is but doing them justice to say, that they have visibly improved in these respects. They are beginning to appreciate the excellence of quiet and orderly habits, and can now spend, in healthful exercise and rational amusement, those hours that were previously consumed in degrading sloth or sensual indulgence. Not a few take a pride in copying the example of their Scottish neighbours, have a wish to possess a suit of better clothes for the Sabbath, and to appear like other people at church.'
These were, it should be pointed out, less politically correct times!
You can read more about it here.
Many of the women were talented seamstresses, and so much of the embroidered linen which is found here shows a distinct Irish influence. The shamrock abounds. And I'm sure at least some of these women and girls would have gone on to learn Ayrshire whitework in their adopted home. It would be a natural progression, and a development of their already considerable talents.


Just to prove that we do occasionally get snow in this part of the world - but not very often, I must admit - here is the view from our upstairs windows this morning. Isn't it beautiful? Sadly, the street out in front is a slushy mess, and although I'm supposed to be going away this weekend, I am now having serious second thoughts because the forecast for sunday in particular is for more heavy snow. All the same, when I stuck my head out of the door this morning, (and withdrew it pretty quickly, because it was so cold out there!) I could hear what sounded to me like a passable imitation of a dawn chorus - or the start of one. So with Valentine's day coming up, at least the birds are having thoughts of spring. And there are snowdrops everywhere - but currently buried under blankets of real snow!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Update on the Loathsome Memory Foam Mattress

I keep banging on about this because the more I blog about the subject, the more people contact me to tell me that they have the same problem. We all hate memory foam mattresses and most of us have partners who love them. Perhaps we should form a self help group! Yesterday, after a week of particularly broken nights, followed by days spent popping painkillers for sore neck, sore arms, mild sciatica, headaches and general wretchedness, I decamped to my son's bedroom (he's away from home at the moment) and had the most blissful night's sleep I've had since well before Christmas. There's an oldish but still good sprung mattress on his bed - very firm, deep and quite bouncy. I slept like a baby and woke up feeling well rested and completely pain free.
The only solution (to my health and our marriage) will be to replace our double bed and double memory foam mattress with two single beds, two different mattresses and two single quilts. I started pricing it up and fairly blenched at the costs involved. We simply can't afford to do it at the moment.
One thing which some of my correspondents have pointed out is the complete dearth of negative comment on the internet. Apart from a few questions on message boards concerning the smell of these mattresses (which is the least of my worries - that dissipates soon enough) every single reference to them seems to come from companies who turn out to be selling the fiendish things. Even those sites which are masquerading as medical advice sites turn out to have links to bed sellers - so of course they will be punting them like mad. They purport to have all kinds of 'medical evidence' but there's no way of following this up, or questioning their statistics.
I know lots of people who can't stand memory foam at any price - but when I look online, I hardly ever find their comments.
So here are my thoughts - which are probably just as 'scientific' as most of the claims which are out there. Memory foam is said to reduce the time you spend moving about during sleep. I'm sure it does. But is this necessarily a good thing? If we do move about in our sleep, might it not be that we're meant to move about in our sleep?
I can succeed in falling asleep on this horrible substance, but find myself waking up several times a night, because I'm embedded in the foam, and I'm struggling to turn over. I wake up sweating, with my heart racing. It takes a long time to get back to sleep again, only for the same thing to happen, several times a night. I just get hotter and hotter and more and more uncomfortable and latterly I've had more and more aches and pains - all of which more or less disappeared over one night's good sleep on a sprung mattress. I repeat - I know I'm not alone. But is anyone out there researching this independently? I'm sure for certain patients with acute health problems they are a good idea. My husband has arthritis, and is, in any case, a very static sleeper. But for so many of us they are a nightmare and yet these expensive items are being promoted online and in stores as the solution to all sleep problems. I wish.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The Victorian Farm

Not strictly speaking a Scottish topic, but last night marked the start of a new BBC TV series called The Victorian Farm. I began by trying to do something else, with the television on in the background, but gradually became so enchanted by the whole programme that I just sat down and drank it all in. The presenters are informative and engaging, the setting is wonderful, the filming is consistently excellent - one for buying on DVD I think. Also, speaking as somebody who writes historical fiction, this series constitutes an invaluable research resource just as The Victorian Kitchen , some years ago. That older series has stayed with me and I still occasionally find myself using little nuggets of practical information in pieces of writing. I'm sure I'll do the same thing with The Victorian Farm. These programmes tread a fine line between Heritage History (and believe me, I've written audio tours and I know the pitfalls!) and originality. There have been a number of programmes about aspects of Scottish history very recently and none of them have held my attention as much as The Victorian Farm. But it's hard to explain exactly why. Sometimes I think it's to do with how portentously or otherwise the presenters wear their learning. There was a sense of the sheer enjoyment of history that flowed from the screen with The Victorian Farm - a genuine delighted enthusiasm from all concerned. It's irresistible. Watch it if you can.