Monday, December 12, 2011

Decking the Halls - Christmas Preparations

One of our Christmas cards for this year.

I've been in the garden today, cutting holly and ivy and fir branches so that I can 'deck the halls' - which in my case means putting big vases and earthenware jugs of greenery through the house. A cheeky robin followed me everywhere, just in case I disturbed anything he might want to eat.

We've set up a feeding station for small birds this year, with feeders especially designed for the little ones, and we've had lots and lots of customers. In fact now, we can hardly keep up to them and I'm going to have to go in search of more wild bird seed tomorrow!

We also got down the boxes of decorations from the loft  (what my dear husband calls 'the Christmas tat') and he has already made a good job of trimming the tree, which was delivered from a small local nursery on Friday morning - not sure what kind of tree it is - it's quite tall, about 6ft, and compact, with thick, upwards turning branches, like a partly furled umbrella and I think it may be a Fraser fir - whatever it is, it's very nice indeed and it didn't cost a fortune, even delivered.

The presents are almost all acquired - many from eBay, some from Amazon, some of them home made. There will be a wrapping marathon this week. I'm still writing Christmas cards, which we had made from my husband's artworks. I have more trimming up to do, a bit more shopping, but nothing too big or expensive, and some home baking to do as well. We don't have a terribly commercial Christmas here, but we seem to enjoy it all the more for that reason. Tonight, the Round Table organisation will be bringing Santa round on his sleigh, (pulled by a tractor of course - this is a farming area) and next week, a group of us will be carol singing round the doors, for charity. I love this gap in the year when there seems to be time to draw breath and focus on other things: not just friends and family, but my own writing. It's often a time when I sit and think, draft things out, play around with words, get ideas. By the time the New Year holiday is over (which goes on for quite a long time, in Scotland) I'm usually champing at the bit and ready to get on with things - but now, I'm looking forward to the warmth and candlelight and the scents of cinammon and cloves, and the sound of Christmas carols. Talking of which - I like to read A Christmas Carol every Christmas - this year, I've already downloaded it to my Kindle!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Intriguing Gifts and Stocking Fillers from The Scottish Home

It's a busy time of year for The Scottish Home - the few weeks before Christmas always gallop along and as anyone who runs a small online business knows, almost everyone decides to buy vintage gifts and stocking fillers at the last minute, and it's a struggle to keep up with listing and posting, especially when you live deep in the countryside as we do. Although I do remember selling a handful of items back in October, to buyers who told me they were already Christmas shopping!

Because I collect textiles and textile related things as well as selling them and because they sometimes figure in my fiction, I generally have a few shelves full of  pieces I haven't been able to bring myself to sell, all stored up in tissue paper and lavender. At this time of the year I'll dig them out, gloat over them a bit, and decide whether to keep, sell - or give as a gift. Many of my gifts this year will come from that cupboard - there are a few items I've been hoarding with friends in mind.

A few things, like a very beautiful Cantonese embroidered shawl which I bought for a song, earlier this year, will probably be kept and may even be worn, over the holiday period. The Georgian hand embroidered christening cape will have to stay where it is, since it figures in a new novel called The Physic Garden, which I'm planning to finish some time during 2012 and I may want to use it as a cover image. But some pieces are definitely scheduled for rehoming. This beautiful length of lace - strictly speaking it's embroidered net of some kind - possibly Limerick Lace although I'm not certain  - has been kept for years and I think the time has come for it to find a new home. It's quite badly damaged, with lots of holes in the net, but as you can see from the pictures, the actual floral motifs are wonderful - one for a lace collector, perhaps.

Last week, I bought a small box of antique table linen at auction which - considering that the work is so beautiful - had been dreadfully treated, crumpled, dusty, dirty, smelly and full of hideous brown stains. They look like old - very old! - tea and coffee stains. Some of it is already washed and ironed and waiting to be sold but the two best pieces were the most marked, and they are currently soaking gently. The last time I looked, the marks seemed to be fading. Fingers crossed I can restore them to their former glory. Linen is very forgiving, but many dealers won't spend the time it takes to get it right. I'll post some pictures on here if all goes according to plan.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A bit of a mystery - is this a picture of nineteenth century Oban?


This picture has had a somewhat chequered history. I'm about to list it for sale in my online shop, but I'm still curious about it. We bought it some years ago, and it was a grim old oil painting with almost no details visible. It looked as though it had spent many years in a smoky environment and seemed to be pretty much caked with nicotine. (Anyone who has ever had any dealings with old pictures from homes where people smoke would think twice about taking up the habit!) You could see from the reverse side that it was very old - an old stretched canvas on a very old wooden frame

Eventually, we had it professionally cleaned, and saw that it was a very interesting old picture - unsigned and in a naive style. Sadly, then, disaster struck. We were having some work done in a room where the picture was stored and it was damaged. Now, my artist husband has repaired it beautifully, and it's very hard to see the damage, although you can see it from the reverse side.

We think it's Oban, but not Oban as we know it today. For a start. McCaig's tower, on the hill above the town, isn't there. This seems to be a thriving Victorian town, with high hills rising behind, and a busy harbour. You can see plenty of sailing boats, fishing cobles, and what looks like a steam powered herring drifter, with a red chimney. The fishermen would take their catch to these drifters, which could then transfer the fish to the big markets. 

The sailing boats are beautifully realised, very detailed and accurate. The picture has a strange vibrancy, the light in it is wonderful, and although it's by no means an 'old master', it has huge charm. As I say - we think it's probably Oban, although we did wonder about Tarbert, Loch Fyne. If anyone has a definitive answer, I'd be very glad if they would let me know! We'd also love to know when it was painted, and obviously, the clue to that would lie in the buildings that are, or are not, there. We suspect a date of about 1870s but that's just a guess. If you know better, do let me know.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

St Mungo - A Mystical Picture

My husband, artist Alan Lees, completed this picture of Glasgow's 'patron saint', Mungo (or Kentigern as he is sometimes called) a few weeks ago. There's something really special about it - but I think it's probably the strangest image he has ever created. Mungo was a (late sixth century) holy man of the early celtic church, who built a church next to the Molendinar Burn - where the magnificent cathedral now stands - calling it his 'dear green place' which is the meaning of the name of the city.
His legend traditionally involves a bird, a tree, a bell and a fish.
Mungo restored life to the pet robin of Saint Serf, which had been killed by some of his fellow classmates, who were hoping to blame him for its death.
When left in charge of a fire in Saint Serf's monastery, he fell asleep and the fire went out. Taking branches from a tree, he restarted the fire.
The bell was said to have been used in services and to mourn the deceased - many holy men at the time had these 'square' bells to call the faithful to prayer.
Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde was suspected of infidelity by her husband. King Riderch who asked to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. In reality the King had thrown it into the River Clyde himself. She appealed for help to Mungo, who ordered a young man to catch a fish in the river. On opening the fish, the ring was miraculously found inside.
The bell, the bird, the fire - but not the fish - are all in Alan's picture. Presumably, the fish is still in the river! However you look at it, this is a strange and evocative piece of work.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Old Floor Tiles In Winchester Cathedral

This post has little to do with Scotland or homes, but when you're interested in antiques, just occasionally you find yourself completely smitten with love for some object or other. This summer, we found ourselves visiting Winchester Cathedral for the first time - a wonderful experience, especially for somebody like me who used to be a Mediaevalist to trade (I have an honours degree in Mediaeval Studies, from Edinburgh University) and is still to some extent a historian, although most of my interest tends to manifest itself in fiction, these days. The cathedral is - unlike some others - quite plain from the outside, (well, plain for a cathedral!) but the inside is amazing - full of light, air and beauty. But amid all the stone and woodcarving, the things I liked most of all, (well, other than the books, in the library, which were amazing!) were the floor tiles - this cathedral has the largest surviving area of Mediaval tiles in the UK, and there is something about the colours and patterns of these that is so enticing.

Look at the stars in the section above for instance? Why the seemingly haphazard arrangement? Did it have some significance? Or was it simply that some tiles wore away and had to be replaced? You can read about them and much more about this amazing floor, on a fascinating website here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Apples, Apples and More Apples (And Some Grapes!)

It's that time of year again, and the venerable old apple tree at the bottom of our garden is full of fruit, and also keeping us well supplied with windfalls in the rough weather. Of which we have had far, far too much, this summer, here in the West of Scotland. The apples are, according to Nigel Deacon, who knows about these things, an old variety called Golden Noble, and wonderful for cooking. Naturally sweet, they turn fluffy when cooked and are fabulous in pies and jams and cakes. The longer you keep them, the more they live up to their name and turn a gorgeous pale golden colour: a noble fruit indeed!

We also have a grape vine, with the root outside, and the fruit under glass, which produces lots of sweet black grapes each year, and this year is no exception.

Most of them aren't quite ripe yet, and we could do with a bit more sunshine over the coming week, which we are seemingly going to get, so we'll be donating some to the village shop, as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, I've been doing rather a lot of apple cooking! We have frozen several boxes of blanched apples, and I've made several jars of a low sugar preserve, with apples, plums (from a friend in Oxfordshire) and a few strawberries thrown in for good measure, boiled up with some sugar, but not as much as you would put in jam. This has made a gorgeous pale pink 'butter' which is now stored in the fridge, in jars - it doesn't keep for more than a couple of months, but we'll have finished it by then.

I've made apple pudding, with suet pastry, and apple pie, and I'm planning an Eve's pudding for some mid-week visitors, sponge baked on top of stewed apple, which I always associate with my lovely late mother-in-law who made so many delicious traditional puddings.  But today, I made a scrumptious Apple Potato Cake, following a recipe from an old book called Talking About Cakes With an Irish and Scottish Accent, by Margaret Bates. This is one of those much loved cookery books that I've had for years. There are recipes written in the back from when I was a teenager, and it's quite nostalgic to look at them, all these years later.

According to Margaret Bates, this dish is from Armagh and the recipe is quite vague, but certainly works. One of those marvellous recipes that turns unpromising ingredients into something magical. You take a quantity of cold mashed potato (leftovers are ideal) and mix it with some fine, plain flour and a little melted butter. I used about four rounded tablespoons of flour to about a quarter kilo or half a pound of mashed potato. There are no hard and fast measurements, but it should be a soft, pliable dough, like a soft pastry. Divide it in two, and roll each piece into a circle. Finely chop some cooking apple - enough to make a good thick layer - spread it on one circle, top with the other and pinch the edges together, so that it makes a big 'cake'. Cook this very slowly on an old fashioned 'girdle' - but a good, heavy non-stick pan will do the same job - oiled with a little butter. Turn it over half way through the cooking - easiest to do this by sliding it onto a plate and then flipping it back onto your pan. It takes about 15 - 20 minutes. When you think it is almost cooked, and the apple is beginning to bubble, lift the lid a little, sprinkle with brown sugar and dot with a little butter, lower the lid and leave for a few more moments. Serve very hot. If you add the sugar too soon, it will spill over your pan and caramelise.

Eat it immediately. Then make another. So many apples, at this time of the year, that it's justified!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Absolutely Gorgeous Printed Silk Gauze Paisley Shawl

I could hardly believe it, when I saw this amazing shawl hanging up in the saleroom. It's a printed paisley shawl in finest silk gauze, as light as a feather and probably dating from the 1840s or 50s. It's very very long, with the colours as fresh and warm as the day it was made,  and clearly designed to be worn over a crinoline, but probably for evening wear. There's no warmth in it, only great beauty. The lady who wore it must have considered herself fortunate to possess such a fabulously beautiful item. I hope it was a gift from somebody she loved! These are rare items. They come along once in a blue moon, for the simple reason that they are so fragile, so featherlight, that they didn't often survive. This one has a few - but only a few - faults - a few places where the silk has worn a little thin, where the slight weight of the fringe has tugged at the fragile silk threads, but to be honest, these are small matters. It's the kind of textile that gives your heart a little lift when you see it - the kind of textile that makes the whole business of trying to source and rehome these wonderful old things, so often women's things, as I point out in my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, so very much worth while! Gathering this up gently, touching it, is like touching a little bit of the past.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Intriguing Old Scottish Sampler

I came across this sampler in our local saleroom in the West of Scotland, and am currently listing it in my eBay shop, here.  It is naive, not especially old or neat, but charming and very intriguing indeed.  It was made by one Maggie Blackhall in 1887 and from the look of it, I reckon she was quite a little girl. As well as the more usual alphabets, the house, a tree - with a nice red bird sitting on top of it - a characterful cat and various match-stick figures, there is a sailing ship.The ship (detail below) has its name stitched under it although half the name is obliterated by the frame.

It is, however, unmistakably the Lusitania. Most of us equate that name with the ship which was sunk in 1915, but this was clearly a much older Lusitania - a clipper of some sort. A little online research reveals that a ship called The Lusitania arrived in Albany, Australia, in November of 1887, sailing from London. She had only twelve passengers which suggests that she was a cargo ship of some kind. I couldn't find young Margaret Blackhall anywhere online, but the sampler was sourced here in Scotland and the Blackhall family of Greenock were associated with shipping - there is still a West Blackhall Street close to the waterfront, in that town. It was at this point, of course,that my novelist's imagination started to work overtime! Why was Maggie Blackhall sewing a picture of the ship into her sampler, early in 1887? Was somebody she loved very much - an elder brother perhaps - setting sail on the Lusitania? What became of him? What became of her, for that matter? And did she ever see him again?  These are the kind of questions writers always find themselves asking, and it is in this way that stories are born!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Gorgeous Shawls, Tartan and Early Edinburgh

This week, in my ebay shop, I'm listing a couple of amazing and very old shawls - great textile and costume survivals. One is - as you can see from the picture - a beautiful old tartan crinoline shawl. The craze for tartan probably originated with Queen Victoria who loved all things Scottish (including, allegedly, John Brown!) The shawl is such beautiful colours, although it has bits of damage in the shape of moth holes and a couple of little tears, here and there. But something to be treasured, all the same.

 And the second shawl of the week is this delicately beautiful paisley patterned Kashmir style shawl but I'm told that this one is, in fact, a very early Edinburgh hand woven shawl, from about 1820. I hardly ever find something so old and so beautiful, so it's really exciting for me, and my imagination is working overtime on it! I can feel some stories coming on.  It's square, designed for a slimmer silhouette than a crinoline and when I think about it, it dates from the time when this cottage was newly built. The woven border is delicate and intricate and floral while the soft fabric itself is very fine with a wonderful sheen to it.

When you look at the back, (see picture below) you can see that the weaving technique is quite different from later paisley shawls. Amazing and moving to find something which has survived for almost 200 years in reasonably good condition. And something which would have been worn not long after the death of Robert Burns. Which could even have been worn - for example - by Nancy McLehose, Burns' Clarinda, in her later years.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Brenda's Beautiful Fruit Sculpture

We hosted a summer barbecue in our garden yesterday. It started at 2 in the afternoon and finished at about 11 o'clock at night so it was a busy, sociable day. Since barbecue food is quite rich, I'd bought masses of fresh fruit, especially strawberries and stone fruits such as greengages and apricots, and when my friend Brenda Kevan, who was staying with us over the weekend, asked if she could do something, I suggested that she make a fruit sculpture, using a beautiful big turned wooden bowl that Alan bought me a while ago. Here it is:

Isn't it beautiful?

Brenda, incidentally, is absolutely brilliant at interior design and all kinds of associated 'vintage' things. She and her husband John have worked as wedding photographers for many years, and very good they are too, but I think Brenda's first love has always been design - creating a 'look' just for pleasure. Whenever you get a gift from Brenda, it will be beautifully wrapped and embellished with some wonderful and original little extra. One Christmas, for instance, all our gifts had small, flat beach pebbles with our names and the year written on them. I have them still, tucked into my Christmas pot pourri. She has made a design paradise of a little studio at the bottom of her garden in Lancashire, and her house is full of fascinating corners and collections including an outdoor 'room' where - whenever we're visiting - we eat and drink in inspiring surroundings. She's so full of excellent ideas that I always think it's a shame that she doesn't do this kind of design full time. I suspect if given the opportunity, she would be able to provide material (and illustrations) for a dozen interesting books! 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Old Roses in Books and in Reality

There are so many books in this house that they tend to migrate all over the place, and there are even a few in the bathroom. The book propped up here is all about Victorian gardens. I love this picture of old roses. I have something similar in my own garden and here they are, in a little vase, echoing the picture behind. I'm not sure what the deep pink rose is - one of David Austen's wonderful scented old roses whose name I now forget -  but the beautiful white rose (also scented) is from a cutting, given to me by my next-door-neighbour, and she calls it the Jacobite Rose - a very old Scottish rose, very hardy and prolific. Far from minding our last cold winter, this one seems to have loved the weather, and is full of gorgeous blooms this year.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Old Crochet Lace from Ireland

I've blogged about traditional Irish Crochet before, but from time to time, another form of Irish crochet lace comes along, usually in a box of old linens, bought at auction. The very pretty tea tablecloth on the left is one such, consisting of a small Irish linen centre, with a deep and dense trim of what looks, at first glance, like old needlelace. It is, in fact, incredibly neat and beautiful crochet, and I suspect that like many of the linens I find here in the West of Scotland, this one may have originated in Ireland, or at least may have been made by somebody working in an Irish tradition. People migrated to Scotland, and brought these wonderful skills with them. Often women were taught to do this kind of work in convents, or at school, where they may have been taught by nuns. This latest batch of linens, a huge boxful, were in very grubby condition. I think they had been stored away in an attic, perhaps in an old chest. Fortunately, the moths hadn't got to them, but they smelled stale, not so much dirty as just incredibly dusty. It's a joy to wash linens like this, since it transforms them in every way and their true beauty shines through. They are not particularly valued or appreciated here in Scotland, although when you consider the amount of hard work and skill which went into the making of them, you have to wonder why, but I sometimes think it's just that the skills of women are consistently underrated. Fortunately, there's a wider market out there, and it's a joy to 'rehome' some of these fabulous old pieces with an appreciative new owner.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Making Old Fashioned Pot Pourri.

Today, I've been gathering old fashioned scented rose petals and spreading them out to dry in our conservatory, so that I can make pot pourri for the winter months  - it's like preserving a little bit of summer. If I can make enough, I'll give some as gifts, too. Our problem here in Scotland has been the rain - really you need a dry, sunny day to pick your flower petals to make pot pourri, but I'm persevering! 
There's no great mystery to making this traditional mixture for scenting a room, and you can add whatever you like to it, experimenting with different herb leaves and scented flowers. I favour a very old fashioned mixture of various rose petals and a few tiny rosebuds which look very pretty, with dried lavender and - this year, because they are so prolific and so heavily scented - some sweet peas as well. I leave them on a tray to dry in the sunshine, and hope to carry on gathering the flowers for some weeks yet. I buy orris root powder in small quantities on eBay, which I use as a fixative, to stop the pot pourri from getting damp, and also to carry the scent. I mix a small amount of this with my dried petals, and a little rose and lavender essential oil, both of which have a wonderfully calming and cheering effect - another reason why home made pot pourri is so much better than the synthetic bought kind!
Once the dried petals, oils and orris root have been combined, I've found that the most effective way of 'curing'the pot pourri is to put it in an old fashioned paper bag, shake it up gently, and leave it for a few days to mature. Avoid plastic, which encourages mould. After that, you can use your imagination in finding a container for your pot pourri. My own favourite is a big, antique Mason's Ironstone bowl that used to belong to my mother. It seems like the perfect container, and you'll certainly see bowls like this containing pot pourri in country houses. But in fact you can use any bowl or dish, ornate or simple. If you're short of antique or vintage dishes, your local charity shop or car boot sale will usually have a good selection at bargain prices! Even the odd crack or chip doesn't really matter. Those single, fragile Victorian or Edwardian china cups you sometimes find, make excellent little containers for pot pourri. If you want to give your pot pourri as a gift, you can package it prettily in small cellophane bags, tied with ribbon and sealed with flower stickers - or even assemble a little collection of vintage cups and dishes and give them ready filled with your pot pourri.

Although I generally favour rose and lavender pot pourri, it's interesting to experiment. I've got so many different varieties of mint in pots this year that I'm thinking of trying a herb pot pourri with pineapple and spearmints, marjoram flowers, and maybe some scented geraniums.I've made a successful 'seaside' pot pourri in the past, with lots of little shells and pebbles, and those tiny white pieces of driftwood you sometimes find on the beach. ('The bones of a Goddess', as one of my artist friends calls them!) There are some lovely, astringent 'seaside' type oil mixtures on the market, but you could also try coconut - anyone who lives close to the sea will know that when the gorse bushes are in full bloom (or whins as they are called in Scotland) they smell very strongly and sweetly of coconut and for me, at least, it's a scent that always reminds me of the West of Scotland and one that I've used in the past to evoke that particular landscape in a novel. I've often had ideas of trying gorse flowers in a a seaside pot pourri, but the spines have usually deterred me!

 Cones, large and small, are good carriers for pine or cinammon scented oil, and can be mixed with dried leaves and seed heads to make a spicy winter pot pourri. I still bring out an old Christmas pot pourri I made some years ago, with dried orange slices, little fir cones, shiny brown horse chestnuts, cloves and cinammon sticks along with the spicy essential oils (a mixture of cinammon and orange is particularly good) which most shops stock around Christmas time. That - mercifully - is a long way off at the moment but you could bear it in mind if you see any pretty seed heads that could be dried and added to the mix. 
Finally, pot pourri keeps for a very long time. The only thing that spoils it is dust and damp but if the scent fades, as it will, over time, you can simply refresh it with a few drops of whatever oils you prefer.  

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Little Snippet of Gigha, Willie McSporran, and a memory of Vie Tulloch

Here's a little snippet of the wilderness at the north end of the Isle of Gigha - we were there last weekend, staying with our friends Willie and Ann McSporran for a couple of nights. If you listen carefully, you can just catch the plaintive note of the oystercatcher down on the shore. The weather was wet and windy when we arrived and stayed showery all weekend, but it didn't matter too much. We still made our usual pilgimage the length of the island, and also visited the grave of another old friend, woodcarver Vie Tulloch, who died earlier this year. I left a little posy of wild flowers there, which seemed a suitable offering.
Vie was a wonderful, vibrant, astringent personality, and what she didn't know about the flora and fauna of this little island wasn't worth knowing. We miss her still, miss those lovely long lunches down at her tiny cottage at Gallochoille, her seashore garden, her gorgeous dog - a whippet - (I vividly remember him stealing and eating a half pound pack of butter, which didn't seem to phase her at all!) her spinning wheel, her fabulous paintings, and her even more wonderful carvings. The cottage was simply furnished, tumbledown, by no means luxurious, and yet it seemed to suit Vie to a tee. She always reminded me of the Lady Artist, in Marie Hedderwick's Katie Morag books.
She was still carving well into her eighties, and she and my woodcarver husband, Alan, used to enjoy talking about the intricacies of the craft. Her eyesight and strength were gradually failing - but you would never have known it. Her mind was sharp, and you would still arrive to find her yomping over the heather with some seashore find to show you. She once astonished us by producing a collection of the wings of the birds of Gigha, garnered from the seashore over the years - wings and dried bones which she would examine in order to lend accuracy to her amazing wooden sculptures - I later used the scene in a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet.
Vie had lived on Gigha for many years and she will be sadly missed on the island. Never afraid to speak her mind, she had many loyal friends, was present at every community occasion, every celebration, dancing, laughing, always forthright but never intentionally unkind.
Meanwhile, last weekend, we had time to listen to the incomparable storytelling of the redoubtable Willie McSporran MBE, (below) many of whose accounts of life on the island in the old days, I have included in another book, a piece of non-fiction this time, God's Islanders, my history of the people of Gigha. There is nobody who can relate a story quite like Willie McSporran - long may he continue to tell them!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flowers From My Garden

It's a lovely time of year for cutting flowers from our cottage garden - lupins, peonies, an old rose, some philadelphus and I think there's a bit of salvia lurking at the back. The combined scent of these is absolutely gorgeous. I don't think people always consider lupins as good cut flowers but they last reasonably well, and the peppery scent mixes nicely with other things. Also, if you cut off the blooms before they start to die, the plant can carry on flowering for a surprisingly long time, well into the summer. I really ought to make pot pourri and sometimes I do, but it depends upon the weather and whether I can find the time to cut roses and other flowers when it's nice and dry. Scotland, this year, has been very wet.  
I'm always rather sad when the spring flowers are over, the daffodils and narcissi and hyacinths and tulips, but the early summer flowers are just as attractive in their own way. This garden posy reminds me of one of the brightly coloured embroidered tablecloths which are so popular with my customers!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Kirkmichael Community Shop and Jock's Cafe

If you're looking for somewhere to spend a few tranquil hours, you could do worse than visit the Ayrshire conservation village of Kirkmichael, have lunch and browse in the not-for-profit shop and cafe there. This became a community-run concern just over a year ago, when the proprietor of the shop and restaurant decided to retire, which would have left the village effectively without a shop. With the help of grants and loans from the local community, from the Plunkett Foundation, the Leader Fund and the Co-op bank and with a great deal of hard work and energy on the part of many volunteers, both shop and cafe have grown in popularity.
 The cafe is pretty, cosy, and inviting. It serves simple but excellent country cooking, and truly scrumptious home baking which can also be bought  to take away. There are cafetieres of good quality coffee and freshly baked croissants, for those who want to linger over a newspaper or magazine (or select a book from the little Book Exchange, and leave a donation). There are various teas, and a full range of soft drinks. There are freshly baked croissants and scones and home-made soups as well as sandwiches with locally sourced meat and salads. The shop has a nice line in local produce, including fresh fruit and vegetables (luscious Ayrshire tatties are in at the momen, Epicures from Dowhill near Girvan!) jams, local honey, meats, and free range eggs.

You can see Jock in the picture above - he was the village blacksmith and handyman, and the cafe is situated in the building which was once his workshop. He knew everything there was to know about all the old houses in the village, and there are some who say that he's still around, keeping an eye on things! 

Kirkmichael itself is a fascinating old Carrick village, a picturesque conservation village nestling at the foot of the Galloway Forest Park, with many of the houses dating from the eighteenth century, and a few buildings even older than that. The Kirk in particular is believed to stand on the site of a 13th century building and there are many archaeological remains round about. The current church has a fine Arts and Crafts window by Christopher Whitworth Whall. There is a famous Coventanters Grave, in the idyllic kirkyard, and an intriguing story to go with it. The Kirkmichael Village Renaissance group is currently working on a series of 'walks' to encourage people to explore the beautiful countryside round about, and a history leaflet is being written, which will allow visitors to walk around the centre of the village and learn a little about the place as they go. The Kirkmichael Arms pub, closed for some years, is undergoing extensive renovations and is due to open later on this year (2011), while the village has just got the go ahead for an eco friendly new school, which will be built over the next few years.

A Himalayan Rose in One of the Village's Amazing Back Gardens.

The very active Three Village Garden Club (Kirkmichael, Crosshill and Straiton) has managed to secure funding for a new art project which will allow a major artist to work with village children in the near future to design and install a set of unique and intriguing signs for each of the villages. The garden club is also responsible for planting and maintaining the pretty flowering tubs which adorn the village, summer and winter alike, and a special community garden is planned for the new school. Last year, (2010) Kirkmichael hosted a hugely enjoyable 'Garden Snoop' (much less formal than an open gardens event) to allow visitors to have a special peek inside the variety of stunning back gardens which lie hidden behind so many of these cottages. The event was so successful that it will be repeated every second year, with a big Garden Bring and Buy sale planned for later this year. Watch this space for more news - Kirkmichael is certainly going places! And meanwhile, please visit and 'like' the shop's page on Facebook for lots more information, updated on a regular basis.

 A view from the bridge over the picturesque Dyrock Burn which runs through the village

Monday, June 06, 2011

A Village Kirkyard, Carved Stones and Running Water

There's something quite magical about an ancient village graveyard, and I spent a little while walking round ours with some visiting friends last week. There has been a church on this site for many years - our eighteenth century building was by no means the first and many of the gravestones predate the present building, including - I think - the one below, which follows the old custom of carved emblems to tell us something about the deceased. There's a wheel, on this one, which looks like a mill wheel, and there were certainly plenty of mills of one kind or another in this area, but I'm not sure what the other symbols represent. It's a deeply impressive piece of art, though.

Meanwhile, as we wandered about the kirkyard, I took the photograph below of the burn that runs through the village. For some reason, I've never taken a picture from this angle, nor even peered over the wall at this point in the kirkyard - probably too busy looking at inscriptions - but the view over the old wall is very beautiful and very soothing - a little piece of woodland which probably hasn't changed for many years.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fine Art Prints from Alan's Pictures - Saint Patrick and Turnberry

We're just in the process of having some lovely fine art prints made from a small range of Alan's pictures including this one of Saint Patrick, which I've posted on here before. He's work a second look! Also, Alan's charming depiction of golfers at Turnberry with Ailsa Craig in the background.

Initially, they will be available from The Scottish Home, on eBay. These will be signed prints. We haven't come to any firm decision about limited editions, yet, although with some of his future paintings, we'll definitely be going this way. But at the moment, we plan to hang onto this original of Patrick (unless somebody makes us an offer we can't refuse!) and sell the prints, which are very beautiful. Smaller than the original, but made with care by a company called Splitting Images, here in Ayrshire. Watch this space, since we're planning a few other interesting additions to The Scottish Home over the coming months.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Storms and Tempests

As I write this, it is blowing what is generally known as a 'hoolie' out there, even though this is normally quite a sheltered little village. The house feels, in the words of poet Ted Hughes, as if it was 'far out at sea.'  We've had a terrible May - normally a wonderful month for us. In fact, I don't think there has been a single day without rain in this part of the world, and very few without wind, all while friends in the South of England have been complaining about drought and too much sunshine, as they packed up yet another picnic. I wish things were a little more evenly distributed!

One thing we're not short of up here is water. Not right now, anyway. And wind.  Friends all over Scotland are posting messages on Facebook about trees and branches blowing down, rubbish bowling along the streets, and bits falling off roofs. Here too. And the wind chill is making it feel very cold.  Between the Icelandic volcano sending ash in our direction, and springtime gales sending all kinds of other things in our direction,, it would be rather nice if things calmed down - and heated up - a bit!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Cath Kidston, a Triumph of Vintage Desirability

I visited the new Cath Kidston shop, in Glasgow, recently and was deeply impressed - what a triumph! Just about everything in the shop looks hugely desirable. The place was busy, and sales looked brisk, especially among foreign tourists, who were gathering up small but gorgeous retro fabric covered items, like there was no tomorrow. The shop itself is welcoming, with strategically placed vintage items adding to the overall luscious look - I particularly liked the old bread and butter and cake plates, with a miscellany of pretty patterns, displayed on the walls. Given a purse full of cash, I would have wanted to buy up half the stock, but especially the very beautiful embroidered canvas messenger bags at £55.00. Would love one of those!

Of course, if you want this 'look' - and it is a wonderful, warm, cheerful, nostalgic look - at budget prices, you could do worse than visit eBay, especially my shop, The Scottish Home, where I generally sell a variety of hand embroidered linen cloths from the 1950s or 60s. There's a nice little selection on there this week! Not only can these be used for tea tables or picnic cloths - they are very forgiving and easy to launder - but if you don't mind cutting them up (I don't recommend it, but I'm aware that people DO it!) you could easily make yourself some fabulous cushions or even bags in the Kidston mould. Watch out too, for old pieces of fabric, chintzes, tartans, or even gorgeous old tweeds, which can also be made into cushion covers and other interior pieces. But if you're in central Glasgow, do go and have a browse around Kidston's lovely inspirational shop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Angelica at the Bottom of our Scottish Garden

When we had our village 'Garden Snoop' last summer, which was a sort of Open Gardens event, but without the added pressure of having to get everything just perfect, the plant on the left caused a bit of consternation. Lots of our visitors seemed to think that it was Giant Hogweed, which is a beautiful plant, but one which has its dangers, with sap which can cause skin to blister and become photosensitive. This, however, is both safe and edible - it's a cultivated angelica and - in my opinion - one of the most lovely plants in my garden. A friend gave me a plant many years ago and now it self seeds every year. It starts early, grows tremendously tall, with great big flower heads and lasts just about all summer long. Even in the autumn, when the seed heads are drying on their stems, it looks amazing. The whole plant smells wonderful too, even when you're cutting back the dead heads. It does, however, need a lot of space, since it's very tall - one for the back of a border. Mine grows at the bottom of our cottage garden, at the back of my little rose bed, but the roses are all species roses, which I tend to leave to 'get on with it' so it fits in pretty well. I'm by no means a precise gardener - this is verging on a wild garden, but - so long as you don't look too closely, at the ground elder and mare's tail - it is very beautiful, and absolutely full of wildlife: bumble bees, hedgehogs, birds of all kinds. I always intend to candy some of the angelica stems so that I can use them in my Christmas cake - but somehow I never quite get round to it. It has to be done with young, fresh stems and I always seem to be too busy, and before I know it, the plant has become too monumental to use. I believe the seeds can be used to flavour alcoholic drinks. I remember bringing  a bottle of Angelica Schnapps back from a trip to Iceland, many years ago - so perhaps that's something I can plan for this year!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Ne'er Cast a Clout till May be Out

The may blossom - i.e. hawthorn - is well and truly out in this part of the world. That's the meaning of the old rhyme - not that you have to wait till the end of May, to 'cast' your winter woollies, but that you have to wait till the may blossom blooms - except that, sadly, and although April was warm enough for us to cast any number of clouts, May itself is proving to be so chilly, here in the West of Scotland, that I'm sitting here wearing several layers, with a heater on, and looking out at my shivering plants. But all the same, the house martins are nesting and the may blossom is blooming, dazzling creamy white in all the hedgerows, and the scent of it, blown on the considerable breeze, is absolutely gorgeous, sweet and heady and powerful. I love this time of year and always want to drag my feet a bit, to slow time down!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Apple Tree Follow Up - Golden Noble

Many thanks to Nigel Deacon, with his amazing Sutton Elms website and his knowledge of apples, for identifying our old apple tree as a Golden Noble and here's the link to the page .  One of the excellent uses of Facebook, of course - contacting people in the know. The apple turns from green to a lovely golden colour - the golden apples of the sun, indeed! Nigel knows all there is to know, not just about apples, but about radio drama as well, which you'll also find on his fascinating website, among much else. But I've wondered for years what variety our apple tree is, and now I know. It's a wonderful fruit, full of flavour, sweet enough to eat without cooking, fabulous in pies and crumbles. It's a very old variety, and - although it isn't a good 'keeper' - when you can do as we do, blanche it, or puree it and freeze it, it is still a very useful and delicious apple. When our son was a baby, we used to puree the fruit for him, and he loved it - it was one of the first 'solid' foods he ate, and it didn't really need any sweetening.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

May Day and Apple Blossom in our Cottage Garden

The weather continues to be warm and dry here in the West of Scotland - and our ancient apple tree is in full bloom at the bottom of the garden. It's so old, that it is essentially on a two year cycle. It takes a rest every second year and only produces a few pounds of apples, but on alternate years, we have a glut, and it looks as though this is going to be a good apple year! I've no idea what variety this is - all I know is that it's very old, and that it produces a good sized greeny-gold cooking apple, which is sweet enough to be cooked without sugar, but just tart enough to make wonderful pies and crumbles. Every year, I resolve to take some fruit to Culzean Castle's annual 'apple day' to try to find out exactly what it is - but I've never yet managed to do it!
Meanwhile, the garden is full of birds as well as blossom. There's a young female blackbird who loves to rummage in the pond weed that Alan skims off the top - here she is - quite tame.

She managed to toss most of the weed back into the pond, as she rooted for insects and other tasty morsels!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Old Crochet, Tatting and Embroidery Pattern Books

My mum taught me to knit and crochet when I was young. And back in the late sixties, early seventies crochet because a useful craft, because crocheted dresses and smocks were very much in fashion. Somewhere among my vast quantities of books (every room in this house has books in it!) there are my mum's old Stitchcraft Pattern Books - she used to buy the magazine, and had them bound together. Just glancing at them takes me back to a more innocent but - for me, anyway - very happy time. My mum could knit, embroider, sew and crochet and the clothes she made for me back then, some of which I still have tucked away, were the envy of all my friends. In fact I wore the pink crocheted smock (below) which she made for me back in the very early 70s, to a 1960s party only a couple of years ago!


Sometimes, I'll find a bundle of old pattern books at the bottom of a box of vintage linens and I'm currently listing some of these in three lots, in The Scottish Home on eBay. Some of them are instructions for tatting, which I find very pretty, but still don't know how to do. Many of them are for crochet doilies, edgings, gorgeous filet crochet trims for tablecloths - I recognise some of the patterns from various items of old linen and lace which I have listed over the years. And some of them are wonderful survivals from the 1930s,  paper transfers for all kinds of embroideries, including instructions for Mountmellick embroidery.

The ads at the back of these booklets are fabulous. 'Every lady knows the pleasure derived from the making of dainty underwear, the embroidery of which is enhanced by using Briggs Trousseau Pure Silk, for fine embroidery on underclothing,' says one. How times have changed! There are ads for Old Bleach linens from Ireland, 'bleached by the sun' and for wool from Templeton's Mill in Ayr, sadly long gone.

I love ephemera such as these - they are the kind of things that transport you straight back to the past. You can read as many history books as you like, but nothing beats the immediacy of these booklets that recreate so vividly a world we have lost.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

House Martins

I've been looking out for them for a little while now, although it's still quite early, for Scotland. We said goodbye to the house martins that congregated in the village, way back in September. It's always a sad day when the last one leaves, because it's a sure sign that winter is on its way. And then we forgot about them, and fed the robins and sparrows and most of all the jackdaws that populate our chimneys right through the winter. I love these birds - they seem to be such characters, such individuals, as I watch them out of my bathroom window! Perhaps they appreciate the central heating. Smoke doesn't seem to bother them, and they have been replenishing their nests for some months now. But round about now, we generally remember the swallows and the house martins and hope they make it back again. Then a friend said that the swallows and martins were on Arran and I thought it wouldn't be too long before they were back here, too.

Sitting out in the garden tonight, drinking a glass of wine with relatives, we saw the first of them, three or four, those characteristic shapes silhouetted against the sky. More will come. And soon. There is the remains of last year's nest, on our gable end, and the fiery little sparrows have not yet commandeered it. So we're hoping that the house martins hurry up, that soon we'll see them swooping past, that they will build here again. They're lucky birds, you see. Or that's what we believe. It's a lucky house that shelters them. And we're always glad when they choose our house for their summer season!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Our Cottage Garden - Angelica and Rhubarb Fool.

Have spent the week struggling to divide my time between work and gardening. Not that gardening isn't work - just that it isn't paid work, or even potentially paid work. But our large cottage garden is just at that point in the year where it all suddenly starts to get away from us- and since were away last week, it's doubly urgent to try to get on top of the ground elder (hollow laugh) before it gets on top of everything else.
It's the time of year when the angelica starts to grow with a vengeance. It's also the time of year when I promise myself that I will candy some stems before they get too 'woody' - but so far, I haven't done it. Maybe this will be the year. I'm a bit haphazard in my country pursuits. I love making things, but the need to earn a living does rather get in the way of my attempts to float about the garden with sunhat and trug, looking elegant and gathering my own produce in the manner of those illustrated magazine articles or television programmes that make country life seem so enticing.
You can see the fresh green leaves in among the tulips and hyacinths, and a fair mixture of weeds, in the picture. A friend from England gave me an angelica plant a few years ago, and now it self seeds at the bottom of the garden. I let it grow where it wants, just pulling up the odd plant when it gets too prolific. It smells wonderful, good enough to eat, and forms a very beautiful plant - tall and stately with enormous seed heads which I cut and use in flower displays. Last summer, when we had our village 'open gardens' event, it was the big talking point among the steady stream of visitors - hardly anyone knew what it was, which makes me think it might not be very common up here in Scotland. It certainly likes our garden though.
The big clump of rhubarb alongside the angelica is also growing at a rate of knots. I made a luscious rhubarb fool yesterday, cooking the rhubarb in the slow cooker with brown sugar and some chunks of crystallised ginger, draining off most of the juice and making it into extra syrup, with a bit more sugar, (Nigella suggests adding this to champagne. I may give it a go with Prosecco since we don't quite run to champagne yet) and then folding the fruit and ginger through a mixture of whipped cream and Greek yoghurt. You have to chill it, preferably overnight. Not exactly low calorie, but delicious!
Whenever my late mum served up something from the garden, even if it was only one vegetable in a whole meal, my dear late dad, who loved his garden, loved to grow fruit and vegetables of all kinds, would heave a sigh of satisfaction and say 'Everything home grown then?'
This lunch time, my husband ate a mouthful of rhubarb fool.
'Mmm,' he said. 'Everything home grown then?'