So Vast A Distance

moon 2

An English guy I was sharing a taxi from the airport with told me this story about his mother. Great storyteller. Hard not to listen to him. He had one of those rich, brown voices and it was a sort of ghost story. I could see the taxi-driver leaning back in his seat so as not to miss a word…Anyway this is what he told me in that James Mason voice of his:

Valerie, my mother, he said , had reached the stage where she had to be put into sheltered housing. She was becoming increasingly deaf but poo-pooed the suggestion that being fitted with a discreet  hearing aid would improve her social life and without her glasses she was blind as a bat so if she mislaid them they remained mislaid. When the phone went and I saw who it was I guessed (usually correctly) that she needed me to find them for her, had probably spent hours groping on and under chairs and cushions in a fruitless search for them. Not that she called very oftenShe’s a very independent lady, dislikes being what she called ‘a burden’ to anyone.  It must be like taking your dog for a walk, she told me  the last time we went for a very slow stroll round the park.
Her new flat was only a 5-minute drive away. If you have any problems, just call me, I told her. Anything at all just give me a call. Seriously. Anything at all.
You’ve done quite enough for me already, she said. I’ll be fine.

The first night on her own in her new flat she called.
Richard, she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
I’m hearing voices, she said.
From the street? I asked. From the neighbours’ flat?
Have you switched your computer off?
No reply.
Have you checked that you haven’t just left the TV on?
No reply. I could hear her rapid breathing.
From where then?
You’ll think I’m losing my mind.
From where?
From the ceiling.

I switched on the bedside lamp. It was 3 am.
What are the voices saying?
Voice, she said. A woman’s voice.
What’s she saying? I asked. It was 3 am. and I was tired.
Richard, she’s frightening me, she said. She  knows who I am. She knows my name.
That woke me up. She’s not the type to imagine things. But a voice emanating from the ceiling…..
This woman, what is she saying? Is she saying something nasty?
The same thing over and over.
What same thing? There was a pause then her voice dropped even lower. A little less than a whisper.
Hello Valerie. 

Hello Valerie?
Yes, my mother said with a quiver in her voice. That’s what she says. That’s all she says. Hello Valerie. Over and over again. Hello Valerie. Hello-
Okay, I said. I could hear her panic. I’ll be round in quarter of an hour, I told her. Don’t worry. Trust me, there’ll be some simple explanation.
When I got there I quickly located the voice.
Right enough, it came from the ceiling.
It was the smoke alarm’s automated voice saying  L o w   B a t t e r y  at 15 minute intervals.

When I got home I told this story to my Mary but either I told it badly or I screwed up the ending or something. Any how she didn’t find it funny. It’s one of these Reader’s Digest urban myths, she said, not even looking up from her computer. Like the legend that Kennedy made a trip to Germany in the 60′s and in a speech in Berlin, trying to win over the crowd,  he told them, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  According to the myth however, a “Berliner” is also a type of  doughnut so the crowd just laughed at him. They thought he was telling them, ‘I am a doughnut’.
She finished whatever she was doing on the computer and  looked up at me. What do you think? Fact or fiction?  She shook her head. 
All nonsense, she said. Fiction. Fantasy. All of it. I’m surprised that people let themselves be taken in by that sort of stuff.
I just shrugged. She says the same thing about my religion – Fiction. Fantasy. All nonsense.

A hot bath and a generous glass of Glenmorangie later, I went for a stroll round the garden, watched the stars, heard a skein of geese honking their V-shaped way to wherever, whatever, somewhere South…..
Summer where have you gone?
And what was the name of that James Mason film with the Hungarian guy on the zither and Orson Welles coming out of the shadows to ask what have the peace-loving Swiss ever done apart from invent the cuckoo clock? (Which they didn’t; it was the Germans, according to Mary when I asked her what the film was called. It was called The Third Man she informed me. And James Mason wasn’t in it. Joseph Cotton was. And the Hungarian zither player was called Anton Karas. And…..)

I sometimes wonder how a husband and wife can become separated by so vast a distance.


Scottish Independence Day 18 September 2014

                         “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

du 7

YES yes


                      “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

du 8a

 NO no


Today Scotland has to make a choice  between becoming a responsible, grown-up nation,
with all that that entails
or staying put, safe, dependent,
with all that that entails….

(Result: Yes …….45%                                                No………55%)

The Last of the Free

It is hard to look at these strange stones and their strange carvings and not wonder who and why and wherefore and when…these cryptic messages from an ancient  world of strange happenings and brave deeds….
Sometimes the message is mythic:
On a certain day of the year in the Springtime just before dawn if you’re there early enough and awake enough, you will see the second stone from the left – Muckle Tam –  suddenly leave his appointed place in the line and transport himself down to the loch and back up again just as the sun elbows itself over the hilltops.

St stanes pic

Sometimes the message is historic.
Under these stones
lie a swordsman’s bones
who died to keep men free
        AD 83  

wee stanes oil

This stone circle is said to mark the burial place of  Calgacus, the  Caledonian leader who was killed in AD 83 fighting at the battle of Mons Graupius.
In his pre-battle speech(according to Tacitus),  he had reminded his men that they were 
the last of the free‘ and that their enemies, the Romans,  ‘ had given  the name of empire to robbery and plunder; had made a desert and called it peace ‘. 

The Tay Bridge Disaster

The Tay Bridge is a railway bridge approximately 2.75 miles long that spans the Firth of Tay in Scotland, between the city of Dundee and the suburb of Wormit in Fife.

At 7:15 p.m.,  28 December 1879, the central spans of the Tay bridge collapsed into the Firth of Tay at Dundee, sending a train including six carriages and 75 people into the water below. At the time, a gale – force 10 to 11 – was blowing down the Tay estuary at right angles to the bridge. The collapse of the bridge, opened only 19 months earlier and passed safe by the Board of Trade,  is still the most famous bridge disaster in the British Isles.

It is the subject of a long poem by William Topaz MacGonagal, famous for being the world’s  best bad (published) poet:

“Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay

Alas! I am very sorry to say

That ninety lives have been taken away

On the last sabbath day of 1879

Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv’ry Tay

I now must conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay

That your central girders would not have given way

At least many sensible men do say

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses

At least many sensible men confesses

For the stronger we our houses build

The less chance we have of being killed”

Understanding Stones

This is the Craw Stane standing on its own above Rhynie in Aberdeenshire. The carving below the salmon  is called the Pictish Beastie. What it means nobody knows. The stone is either a boundary  marker or a memorial plinth.

These are what’s left of a stone circle near Kirriemuir in Angus. It marks a burial site

These are gneiss stones  which  form an avenue leading to some central significant location.


These are the Callanish Stones in Lewis which form a circle round a central pillar and are part of a lunar clock.
Local tradition says that giants who lived on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were turned into stone as a punishment. Another local belief says that at sunrise on midsummer morning, the “shining one” walked along the stone avenue, “his arrival heralded by the cuckoo‘s call.” This legend could be a folk memory recalling the astronomical significance of the stones.

And full circle – back to Rhynie’s Craw Stane…..The cows in the field  find the Craw Stane an ideal rubbing post and it is in grave danger from theme

Signs of the Times (and the Courier and the Record)

The bees were worth several thousand pounds.

This cat had been taken by a couple from Cupar on their round the world in 80 days (approx)   luxury cruise. 

I saw this sign in Glasgow’s Byres Road and followed the arrow to the shop it was pointing at  but it was a barber’s shop. I think it was some sort of  Glasgow joke.

Meanwhile, up in Stromness, this plaque tells of a more heroic age, when men vented their energies and bravado on feats of endurance and stoicism even though death was an ever present alternative.

And how did the Khyber Pass find its way from India to this little Orcadian  alleyway ?

Dear kind compassionate Mrs Humphrey,

                                                                                     This is just a note of thanks and appreciation for all the care and thoughtful nursing you gave to poor sailors and whalers and explorers and ordinary fisher folk who caught diseases of the sea at a time when little attention was given to these diseases or to those who were afflicted by them. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,



My great-grandfather, a good old-fashioned Presbyterian elder, believed that all who weren’t of his religious persuasion would end up on Judgment Day tumbling head over heels into the darkest and deepest depths of the fiery abyss, shouting out as they fell headlong and helpless Lord-Lord-we-didnae-ken-we didnae-ken!  and in reply they would hear the good Lord’s cheery voice  booming down from on high – “WEEL, YE KEN NOO!

For him Judgment day held no fears. Quite the opposite. As one of The Elect he would be able to watch his enemies receive their just and merited punishments for  his God was indeed a vindictive god, made in his own image.

My grandfather on the other hand reacted against this Calvinistic vision.  When he was 16, he left home, school, church, country for Canada – Dawson City – and returned after 20  silent years, not in a big, flashy car,  not splashing money about,  not loud-mouthed and full of tales of bravado but what you see in a vulgarised form nowadays on television – a secret millionaire. He posted money to people who for whatever reason seemed in dire need of it and to those who could benefit others by being better off – all this coming to light only after his death. God, for him, was other people; like in the John Lennon song – Imagine – no hell, no heaven

And then we come to my father. He went to St. Andrews University, took a degree in geology then seemingly in his father’s footsteps went abroad – Australia – mining – the bowels of the earth – the other side of the world, far and deep enough away to be thought of as a fairly permanent move. But something happened. At some stage in any family history, something ( kept vague, mysterious, side-of-the-nose-touching stuff) h-a-p-p-e-n-s and life can never be the same again. Something happened and he came ‘home’ again. His favourite saying was the title of a book by Thomas Wolfe – ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’. I think he felt he’d taken the correct first step – going to Australia – then chickened out, run home to Mummy, back to his comfort zone, and been ashamed of his lack of  determination and purpose ever since. God, for my father, was that inner sense of purpose and direction with which he had unfortunately lost contact.

And me? I went to Africa. Kenya. Kiambu. A coffee Farm. Loved it all. Three marriages. I wasn’t good at marriage. Two children. I wasn’t the best father in the world. No religion. Never felt the need for it.