30 Nov 2010

Dear Scotland: A love letter from an immigrant

Dear Scotland,

Each day around the world there are millions of people who pine for you. Not a wistful, day-dream pining but a yearning that lives low down in the belly. They take your name with them everywhere they go as if the letters were part of the landscape: high proud S, rocky and round c-o, mountainous tl, and the final whispering a-n-d…flowing out to sea.

I am trying to think of another country into which so much longing is poured. It is a never-ending stream, like all the pieces that were first taken away during the clearances have been melted down and are trying to be put back again. To go back, come back, go home.

A vast fabric of clichés has been woven over the centuries and a roaring business has been built upon it. Bagpipes, kilts, haggis and tatties, See you Jimmy. But these are like playthings that are tossed around the high street, and are not the threads which bind people to you.

Move beneath that false blanket and you will find it. It is the subtle combination of ancient stoicism and a myriad of windows though which a collective sense of mourning shines through.

It plays out in the far-away sorrow that takes over people’s features when they hear a slow lament on the fiddle. In that moment they are recognizing an ache from so long ago that the words to the story has been lost. All that is left is the feeling of it, like a old yet still contagious wound.

This is what people catch when they come here. It’s like you reach out and put a little scratch on them without them knowing. Even if their ancestors are not from this country, still you cause them to feel a little snag in their chests whenever they think of you.

It is what I caught, long before I moved here. Perhaps it is the Celtic influence that seeps through so much of Canadian folk music. However the seed was planted, a sense of relief has draped around me during the five and a half years I have walked this patch of the earth. From time to time things have been difficult, but always I have rested back on the grateful knowledge that I am here. In Scotland. Each and every day.

My only wish would be to speak with a Scottish accent. If my mouth could make the sound of this language I would speak poetry all day long, rolling vowels like marbles over my tongue and up the insides of my cheeks, and hurling my jaw forward with every ch like I was remembering some long-ago battlefield charge.

So this is it. My wee immigrant thank you for welcoming me like I was just the right cog needed to keep this mystery wheel moving. I can never repay you. But I promise to live my life here as an expression of joyful curiosity. Whatever I learn, I will tell the people who are reading this now. Because they love you, too.

Happy St. Andrew’s Day.

28 Nov 2010

Book winner and winter adventures

Sometimes the strangeness of blogging drops into my mind and stays for tea. For example it strikes me as bizarre that while the snow is falling and the temperatures in Scotland are below freezing, I will soon be posting a book about Edinburgh buildings all the way to Brazil, where it is currently 30C in Rio de Janeiro.

More than 30 of you lovely people put your names in the hat for the copy of David Torrance’s new book: Inside Edinburgh. I have loved reading the descriptions of the buildings around the world that have inspired you.

Nathália was the lucky winner chosen at random from the magic number thingy I found on the Internet. Nathália listed Brazil’s Imperial Museum as the building that most inspires her. I’m not surprised; I took the virtual tour on the museum’s website and I nearly swooned. 

Parabéns, Nathália! (That’s congratulations Nathália in Portugese). Thank you to everyone who shared stories, and again to Birlinn Publishers for sponsoring the giveaway. For those who have added Inside Edinburgh to their Christmas lists, it is also available on Amazon.

Now we leave the comfort of warm interiors behind and we venture out to where Scotland’s capital city is blanketed in a fresh layer of snowy white. The Christmas markets opened last week and this afternoon my beloved and I went for a wander through the mayhem.

From some angles the gothic spires of the Walter Scott Monument look to be caught in the spokes of the massive Edinburgh wheel. But turn towards the old town and you could be convinced that nothing has changed in this city for centuries.
Dotted here and there around the market, standing to attention in the middle of the pavements or propped precariously on handrails, are the snowmen. By the time we were leaving some of them were already starting to melt, taking on that drooping demeanour that will eventually spell their doom.

We spied one woman who was engaged in creating what turned out to be her first ever snow sculpture. Using branches for antlers, she lovingly shaped the body of her snow reindeer and its frozen cartoon grin.
When it is cold and dreich like this, it is the people who keep the warmth flowing through the cold air. The weather can be as bitter as it likes, but you will find no shortage of cheer as you make your way past the wee huts selling everything from glassware to a seemingly endless array of Scottish and German food treats.

Hot spiced wine? Check. Excellent selection of winter hats on display at the beer garden? Check. The happiest pretzel sellers in the land? Double check!

My favourite photo of the day is the simplest. Perhaps I love it because it makes me feel quiet and at ease. While walking home we saw a bush of ice-covered berries outside of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The plump buttons of warm flamingo pink against the backdrop of ornate stonework was the perfect ending to a day in Edinburgh in the snow.

Stay warm, everyone.

23 Nov 2010

A rather luscious book giveaway

When was the last time you were passing a bookshop and a title in the window made you stop in your tracks and gasp? It happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I was heading home from work. I gawked at the book in the window and I think I may have audibly moaned with longing.

From the first glance I already knew the smooth feel of the cover, the way the deep brown of old wooden banisters would seem to leach through full-page photos. I knew the clean lines that would surround succinct descriptions to compliment the images. And I knew just how each page would fall open with the tiniest whoosh and come to settle with a sigh against its neighbour.

It was the most beautiful book I had seen in a long time. It was this book:

David Torrance is an Edinburgh-born freelance journalist who roped photographer Steven Richmond into undertaking the mammoth project of capturing the intricate interiors of Edinburgh’s most stunning buildings.

The front cover, which features The Dome, gives you a sense of what is to come inside. The book is split into sections, covering shops, restaurants and hotels, clubs and societies, domestic interiors, banks, schools, colleges and institutions, government and civic buildings, and churches.

David credits his mother “for unconsciously giving rise to this book by dragging me around stately homes as a child.”

For me, this book fits perfectly with the sentiments of this blog because it goes against our modern-day rush-around natures and invites us to slow down and take deep pleasure in our surroundings. 

From the plush red and pink tones of Leslies Bar, to the chocolate coloured panelling at the Library of the Royal College of Physicians, or the gold-panelled ceiling of the Advocates Library, this soft-bound tomb is a reminder that books are more than just forms of entertainment or escapism. They are also beautiful objects, and often downright luxurious.

Inside Edinburgh has been published by Birlinn, Scotland’s Largest Independent Publisher. I couldn’t resist asking them if perhaps they could sponsor a copy for one of my Edinburgh-loving readers to win in a giveaway. They said YES! In thanks, please take a moment with me to send them page-turning sensual vibrations.

So yes, I have a copy of Inside Edinburgh to send to one very lucky person.

To enter to win this 200+ page dream book:

       Leave a comment below about the interior of a building that has inspired you. Any building, any country - just something that fills you with pleasure and awe that you would recommend to others to see.

       If you don’t have a blog to link back to, you can email me your inspiring interior comment to scotland4thesenses@gmail.com Please include “Inside Edinburgh” in the subject line.

Deadline for entries is Saturday, 27 November. I shall draw the name and announce the winner on Sunday 28 November. Also, if you would like to peruse more of Birlinn’s titles, you can visit their website. They have a write-up about Inside Edinburgh on their blog.

21 Nov 2010

A seat at Charlie and Evelyn's Table

When it comes to food, never (well, maybe sometimes) be afraid to try something new. On Saturday night I attended a dinner with a difference. Edinburgh’s first private dining club has been running for nearly a year, and since all of the weekend events are sold out until 2011, I feel lucky to have gotten a seat (thanks to a cake obsessed friend with her pulse on any eccentric foodie events going in Edinburgh).

This is Charlie and Evelyn’s Table, run by husband and wife team Chris and Rachel. Charlie and Evelyn are Chris’ grandparents. They are the ones who bought the table at which the guests dine and Chris and Rachel have named their food-loving venture in their honour.

I love the concept of two people who love to cook wanting to share their passion with others. Even more I love how they don’t let the lack of a grand kitchen or restaurant seating stop them from getting their dreams off the ground.

I always look to restaurants to inspire my own cooking. This was an opportunity to see how Chris and Rachel would interpret seasonal cooking in Scotland (and look for ideas I could nick).

There were wee canapés served on homemade oat biscuits and a little mug of mushroom heavy soup, which made me think of how versatile simple foods can be.

Later there came the potato and cabbage pancakes to accompany the pheasant (November is pheasant season in Scotland), and my mind swirled with ways to give that refined edge to my own rustic style of cooking.
Some may think it odd to go to dinner in a stranger’s home and sit at a table with even more strangers. At the start, it was. But by the time the main course was served the conversation was flowing easily.

Because the room was subtly lit, taking photos was difficult so it was decided I would turn the main light on momentarily. This brought on a good natured chorus of “aaaahhh” and “my eyes,” which broke the ice a little further.

The dessert was a melting chocolate risotto. Melting. Chocolate Risotto. Served with this was a shot of melted white chocolate goodness, to pour over the melting chocolate risotto. I don’t know what country this comes from. I don’t care. All I know is I never used to like risotto and now I think it is marvellous.
It was a unique and memorable evening. I had gone there hoping to be inspired and I certainly was. I also got a chance to peruse their collection of cookbooks and have added a new title to my wish list. I shall have to have a word with Santa…

20 Nov 2010

Bookshop heaven in Perthshire

We arrived at The Watermill bookstore in Aberfeldy just as it opened. The sun was glaring off the sheen of fresh rain and a chill hung in the air, the kind that digs into your bones if you don't keep moving.

The door handle creaked as we went in and the first thing that hit my senses was the scent of wood smoke from the stove in the café downstairs. Right away I knew that this was my kind of place.

Before it became a bookshop, The Watermill, which is on three floors, was restored from a derelict state by a miller who used it to produce oatmeal in the traditional way. When he died the mill was put up for sale and was reinvented again as the bookshop.

Shelves and tables have been constructed around the dark sturdy beams and machinery from the old mill. This gives much of the main floor the kind of intricate clutter that book lovers adore, because we can get lost in it and still feel completely at home.
The feeling of contentment continued as we went upstairs, which houses an art gallery. I loved the sparse display of art books among the steel gears or propped against the stone wall.

The occasional white wall and the peaked ceiling with a well-placed skylight helped to give the space a gentle glow.

I could hear the intermittent murmuring of voices from downstairs, but as there was no one else in the gallery it seemed a world apart. Great moments of silence pushed against the walls.
Whoever designed this bookshop is a retail genius. For example, the children’s section on the main floor is reached by going through an open doorway that leads into a long, enclosed room with shelves right to the floor a high number of books facing the viewer.

It is the modern equivalent of walking into a painted cave. What imaginative child wouldn’t want to spend an entire afternoon tucked into one of those corners with some magnificent tale propped up on her knees?
Another brilliant move was deciding to house the travel section downstairs next to the cafe.

Think about it: there you are in your wee world of escape, sitting on a big sofa with your coffee and your fresh scone. Surrounding you are stacks of books tempting you with tales of even greater escape and adventure.
Every element of this bookstore has been planned with the pleasure of the customer in mind, using many of the structure’s original features. I like to think it was in honour of the miller who first lovingly restored the unique historical building.

Perhaps you have a love of old stone buildings. Perhaps you also enjoy bookshops. Or cafes. Well this is a gorgeously designed bookshop inside of a quaint stone building in the middle of stunning Perthshire, with a café (with a woodstove)! I think I may have to move in. Who’s coming with me?

To read more about Scotland’s unique bookshops, check out this list in the Guardian. The Watermill's own site is http://www.aberfeldywatermill.com/

17 Nov 2010

Winter is here with a cuddle and a quiz

The cold is drawing in. It’s like we skipped autumn and have gone straight into winter, complete with biting winds and the feeling that at any moment it could start to snow.

Some time ago I was visiting a art exhibit and fell in love with two teddy bears which sat sturdy and cozy in their full-body woollen jumpers. This was my first introduction to Burra Bears, a small company started 13 years ago by Wendy Inkster.

It all began when Wendy decided to salvage the fabric of a worn-out, hand-knitted Fair Isle patterned Shetland woollen jumper and turn it into a bear for her sister. The response she got from the people who saw it was so dramatic that Burra Bears was born.

They come in three sizes: original Burra Bear, the Peerie Burra bear (Peerie means small in the Shetland dialect) and the six-inch high Peerie Oolet (Oolet means naughty - a small naughty one). No two bears are the identical and they are all given names inspired by Shetland.

I find this to be such an inspired way to recycle and celebrate the heritage of Shetland wool. Do I want one? Oh yes.

To learn more about Burra Bears you can visit Wendy’s site here.

Quiz time: How much do you know about Edinburgh?

Now, if you are also feeling the cold and can do what a lot of folks do during the dark season and stay in playing quiz games. And wouldn’t you know it, I happen to have one, particularly if you're an Iphone user. It was sent to me by Dan, an iPhone software developer with GPSmycity.com, which focuses on self-guided city walking tour applications.

One of their more recent additions is a tour guide application for the city of Edinburgh and they are sponsoring a wee quiz for Scotland lovers. Quiz masters who email correct answers to quiz@gpsmycity.com will be awarded three city walk iPhone applications to cities of their choice. At the moment there is no deadline for entries so no need to rush your answers.

Here we go…good luck!

1.Scotland has some 790 islands, from which 130 are:

A. Haunted
B. Inhabited
C. Slowly sinking

2. Edinburgh ws the first city in the world which had its own:

A. Police Department
B. Beauty Parlor for Pets
C. Fire Brigade

3. One of the most popular cures for baldness in the 17th century Edinburgh was the application of the burnt excrements' ashes of a:

A. Cat
B. Dove
C. Rabbit

4. The first animal to be bought by Edinburgh Zoo, which now appears on the crest of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was a:

A. Gannet
B. Pinguin
C. Racoon

5. A difficult time for dogs in the 1700s came as the result of an Edinburgh butcher’s dog going mad. Magistrates ordered then all dog population be:

A. Slaughtered
B. Burned to ashes
C. Stuffed and displayed for the public

6. General John Reid tried to combat the stress of military campaigns in the 18th century by:

A. Dressing in women's clothes
B. Composing flute sonatas in his tent
C. Hiring a French cabaret

7. In the 16th century, a disease raged in Edinburgh which was mysteriously called "The New Acquaintance". Now thought as an old acquaintance, the mysterious disease is nothing else but:

A. Pneumonia
B. Tuberculosis
C. Influenza

8. Edinburgh minister Rev. John McQueen caused a scandal in the 1600s when he became so besotted with local beauty Mrs. Euphame Scott that he stole her undergarments from the washing line and had made from them:

A. A waistcoat and drawers
B. A robe for his mistress
C. A dress for his little niece

9. Crowds lined the streets of Edinburgh in 1650 to see the arrival of Oliver Cromwell, victor of the Battle of Dunbar. The talk in the High Street hostelries was predominantly about the size of his:

A. Ears
B. Feet
C. Nose

10.Which was the the most popular sport in Scotland in the 18th century, especially knowing that it was banned from the streets of Edinburgh because huge crowds were bringing traffic to a halt?

A. Kickball
B. Cockfighting
C. Cheese rolling

12 Nov 2010

The lonely legacy of Birnam Wood

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.

(Macbeth, Act 4 Scene 1)
In 1589, a company of English strolling players were permitted to put on a play in Perth. Although no names were recorded, tradition holds that William Shakespeare was among the actors and that his visit to Birnam Wood inspired him to write his famous tragedy.

Today a gentle trail leads from Birnam village centre down to the banks of the River Tay, where the ancient forest’s last surviving oak still lives.

In the play, it was from Birnam Wood that Malcolm III’s army cut branches to conceal their attack on Dunsinane Hill. In reality their target would have been more than 15 miles away, but once we are near to the river with the cool autumn air surrounding us, theatrics win out over geographical facts.

First we have to find the tree. Luckily some kindly volunteers have erected helpful signs to keep over-excited visitors from posing beside the wrong friendly giant. “It’s not me, I’m a sycamore,” says one. A little way down the path another notes: “Not me either…keep going."

Finally it is there, so apparent in its gnarled frozen dance, like a disco-loving octogenarian whose arthritis medication has worn off. Crutches have been placed to hold up the weak lower branches, giving the tree an appearance of weary grace. Bright green moss carpets most of the branches and wide sections of the trunk, while mushrooms sprout from between the crusted lines of bark.
A nearby information board provides details of the tree’s girth (7 metres) and facts about the tree as a habitat for wildlife (“A mature oak is home to around 300 different insects and provides food and shelter for more living creatures than any other European tree”).

The hollowed core of the trunk creates a musty cave large enough to crouch in during a storm. When the rain has passed the drops from the branches create a slow, irregular percussion on the forest floor.

Macbeth is set in the 11th century but it is unlikely the tree is quite that old. But it is still wondrous to imagine what the woodland would have looked like when it was a Royal Forest belonging to Duncan, Earl of Fife, who received it as a wedding gift in 1160.

It is even more wondrous to think that Duncan was a descendant of Macduff, who in the play had been “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,” thus upending the witches’ prophecy that “none of woman born” could defeat Macbeth.

The Birnam Oak is one of those sights which draws out gratitude and sadness in equal measure. Gratitude that it is still here, a capsule of natural, social and theatrical history. Sadness at its frail and solitary state.

Between the grandiose tourist attractions that can be hurridely ticked off a to-do list, a visit to Scotland is enhanced when it is peppered with stops at places like Birnam. And if you are so inclinded, imagine taking with you your copy of Macbeth, and reading aloud in the shadow of these twisted brances.

11 Nov 2010

Remembrance Day: Black Watch Memorial

Gazing out over the Perthshire landscape next to where Wade’s Bridge crosses the River Tay, the stone monument of a Black Watch soldier stands on the outskirts of Aberfeldy.

Unveiled in 1887 at Taybridge, it had been intended to be erected on the other side of the river, the actual site of original mustering of the regiment’s troops. However with the fields prone to flooding, the closest practical spot was chosen instead.

In 1910 a lightning strike split the monument from top to bottom and repairs included the addition of a lightening conductor.
The monument depicts a soldier wearing the old regimental uniform. The companies wore dark tartans in order to distinguish them from the “Red Soldiers” and this led to them being known as “Freiceadan Dobh” or “The Black Watch.”

Away from the lights of the town centre, dusk descends like a blanket around the monument. The small green space that surrounds it descends to the river bank and draws the eye towards the stunning view of the snow-dusted hills.

If you don’t already know it is there, you have to be quick to turn off before you are already over the bridge. If you have a chance, it is a perfect spot to stop and enjoy a moment of reflection, looking over the fields where those men would have first gathered all those years ago.

9 Nov 2010

A rainy day visit to Craigie's Farm Shop

The cold and damp have crept in and are hugging the world around Edinburgh. With the rain lashing and the last of the leaves clinging precariously to their branches, I want to go somewhere I can feel warm and surrounded by a sense of bounty.

Because Craigie’s Farm is located between Edinburgh and South Queensferry, tucked away up a narrow road, I hadn’t expected it to be as busy as it is. But with the weather so dark and gloomy, it seems there are many others who felt the need to escape.

The first thing I notice are the wooden crates and wheel barrows that are piled high with root vegetables and apples. There are huge leeks and carrots, ropes of garlic and massive sacks of potatoes. It is like a shrine to the harvest.
Inside looks like a mini supermarket, complete with meat counter, cheese, eggs, preserves and bread. But here you can buy things like local rabbit, pheasant, homemade sausages, breaded veal schnitzel, and beef strips marinated in Mexican spices.

There is one section dedicated to Craigie’s own jam kitchen range. The shelves are loaded with selections of marmalades (thick cut, three fruits, grapefruit), vinegars (raspberry, blackberry, redcurrant), chutneys (Beetroot and Horseradish, green bean relish, plum chutney, green tomato and chilli), jellies (mint and apple, Scottish grape, Rowan berry) and of course - jams (blackcurrant, gooseberry & elderflower, rhubarb and ginger, and the shop’s most popular, raspberry).
Foodie Hint: Plan your arrival at Craigie’s for 11.45 am. Lunch will just be starting and if you are very lucky there will be steak pie on offer with roasted potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and seasonal veggies including the sweetest butternut squash, which will wash together with the steak pie gravy with such perfection that you will be able to do nothing else but smile vacantly at those around you.
There are no paintings on the walls of the Craigie’s Farm Café. Talking to Kirsteen, who owns Craigie’s with her husband John and their family, I learn that the lack of artwork is a purposeful omission in order to focus people’s attention out of the huge picture windows that look out over the farm and beyond to the Firth of Forth.

As you sit there with your lunch or your coffee, you cannot help but feel wrapped in the landscape.

If the weather was better I would delight in walking some of the nearby trails around the farm. Dog owners can even treat their beloved pet to a meal at the “canine café.”
Shops like Craigie’s are my favourite places to treat myself. You can feel the time and energy that has gone into all the products and the food that is served, and even into creating the atmosphere of continual attachment to the natural world. I would go there again (and again and again) just to eat lunch and take it all in.

I just had to take home a couple of items from the jam kitchen: a bottle of raspberry vinegar and a jar of raspberry jam. Sampled on some good sourdough bread, the jam is the finest raspberry jam I have ever eaten. Honestly, if I think about it too much I may swoon. I have yet to try the vinegar but I've opened the lid to have a sniff and it is heavenly.

Farm shops and local produce of all kinds are featured in the new edition of The Larder, which I shall be picking up this week. Do you have a favourite farm shop or farmers’ market in Scotland? What do you think are Scotland’s greatest strengths when it comes to food?

7 Nov 2010

Photo of the day: Charlotte Square

On a bright cold day, Edinburgh seems to glow with charm. We went for a long walk this morning but I only took one photo, between the heavy wrought-iron fence that locks the public out of the Charlotte Square Gardens. The only time we are allowed through is after the marquees go up for the Edinburgh Book Festival in August.

I love the way the Albert Memorial is centred between trees that are scattering their leaves around the gentile lawn. This wee patch of green is one of my favourites spots in the city.

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