Thursday, November 20, 2008


Summer was drawing to a close and autumn was coming on - the end of our first year in Coigach. Time again for the last dipping before the fall sheep sales in Dingwall. The young ewe lambs were taken back out to the islands and the government issue rams were ready to be brought into the parks to start the sheep cycle over again.

And it was time for the annual influx of the Klondykers - large factory ships from all over Europe who would come every year to anchor in Loch Broom and buy fish that they would process right there on the boats. Other large fishing boats would come into Loch Broom and the Minche to net and dredge and sell their catch to the factory ships. This could pose a problem for local fishermen who would sometimes have their prawn fleets dragged and damaged by the bigger boats. There were a lot of complaints about the dredgers because the locals thought they dug up and ruined the bottom - damage that could take years to repair itself. We could see the results of overfishing - population declines of herring and mackerel were obvious even in the short time we were there. And the advent of the EU with its regulations putting the Scottish fisheries at a disadvantage has made it even harder for local fisherman to make a go of it.

Russian and East German ships would lie at anchor for weeks but not let their men off the boats - just in case they'd decide not to come back. There was one East German captain that did come ashore, caught a bus to Inverness and then a ship to West Germany - his way to get across the wall. However, there was one Eastern European gang that was allowed to come into town - the Bulgarians evidently weren't unhappy with their lot and could be trusted to return to the boat. We were in the Ceilidh Place one night for dinner when about 10 Bulgarians decended on the place - all square, mustachioed, dressed in black leather and looking like trouble. But they sat and talked quietly like gentlemen - then went off to the stores to buy them out of coffee, nylons, and other stuff hard to get in the East.

From our front windows we could see the boats anchored in Loch Broom - they were all lit up at night and looked like a floating city. It was really quite pretty and made the scene festive while they were anchored there.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Music and friends

Throughout the summer and for the rest of our stay in Scotland we were incredibly lucky to meet many wonderful musicians who became close friends and made our lives joyful. They came with their families and friends to stay with us and play in the pubs and village hall - and we stayed with them on their home ground and went to concerts and pub sessions and generally had a great time.

Wendy Stewart and Alan James came with harp, concertina, whistle and guitar. I'll always remember one particular morning sitting in the sun outside Castlehill listening to the two of them play and gazing out at the islands and the sea - and when the wind blew it would play its own fairy music on the harp strings. It was magical!

Jimmy and Ruth Philp would come with their kids from the east coast, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends who, along with Pete Taylor (our local musical phenomenon), had a band that played gigs together around the area. Each had their signature songs - called for over and over again on ceilidh nights. And as the whisky went around we would lapse into old gospel songs or just plain silly stuff. We made a wonderful tape called "The Last Castlehill Ceilidh" which has some great music recorded at our house - and some incredibly awful but very funny attempts - obviously recorded very late in the evening.

Dik Banovich, who sang Fats Waller-type songs and played a mean jazz guitar, came with his friend Tiny (who was way over 6 feet tall - must have been imposing in a kilt) - to visit us when they were in between busking forays on the Continent. We had a great trip with them to a music festival and highland games weekend on Skye. This was when we were introduced to the dreaded call by those well-oiled folks in any pub audience who always called out - ad nauseum - "Play 'Flower of Scotland'". Cringe. But Dick always handled it very well and patiently - and actually - I like the song.

And so they filled our home with music - flute, recorder, harp, squeezebox, bodhran, mandolin, guitar, pennywhistle, violin - and always singing. What could be better?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Click go the shears, boys...

The best of the summer days were spent at the shearing. Jack was originally a Chicago boy, used to ethnic restaurants, concerts, theater, some of the best museums in the world - a city lad through and through. He'd never known the soft contours and sharp edges of something as foreign to his experience as a real sheep. But he fell in love with a pair of shears and the smell of warm wool and the company of men in touch with the earth. So he learned to clip a fleece with the hand blades - and over the course of the next 3 summers became a creditable shearer.

He apprenticed himself to Alisdair West, who was a model of patience and forbearance as Jack went through the first, sometimes disasterous, ascent of the learning curve. He was bloodied when his shears were driven into his arm by a poorly tied ewe, causing an emergency trip to the village nurse who kindly bound up his wounds. He was embarrassed when the ewe he was clipping escaped and went dancing over the hill trailing a veil of half-sheared fleece behind her. Once, while he was taking so long to clip one of those first sheep, one of the other men came over with a handful of grass which he gave to the ewe saying "I was afraid she was going to starve to death".
Jack could take it all in good humor. And he loved every minute of it.

As for me - I learned to roll fleeces which came off each animal in a sheep-shaped blanket of warm, lanolin enriched wool. I would fold and roll each fleece into a cylinder, twist the neck wool into a rope long enough to tie around it to make a neat package and place it with others by the wall or stuff it into a wool bag for collection by the Wool Board. It was hard work but those days in the sun with the sea and mountains as a backdrop, a cool breeze to keep the midges off, a welcome dram of whisky or a break for tea and sandwiches brought out by Alisdair's wife, Margaret, were wonderful. Those were days in our lives.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Up the republic

Celebrating the 4th of July became a tradition at Castlehill. We would fly old glory from a staff made from an old oar that Jack found in the barn and attached to the gate posts at the bottom of the garden. Jack started the tradition in the 1st year we were in Polbain - and by the second and third year it was expected - and everyone would be at the Summer Isles Pub, waiting for the festivities to start. We would begin by buying 50 whiskeys - one for each state - and passing them around to all gathered. The first year it was a surprise and as the glasses filled, conversation dropped and all attention was riveted on the growing array of golden glasses. Then Jack would raise his glass and say "Who will drink a toast with me to freedom from English rule?", and there would be a cheer and all would drink.

The second year everyone in the village had heard about it and were there to partake. They would start singing "The Star Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful" when we came in the door - at least as many of the words as they could remember. We would then all repair to Castlehill for a real American 4th picnic supper - ham, potato salad, chocolate cake (chocolate imported from America) and dill pickles (found in Inverness at a specialty store). One year a friend came dressed in cowboy hat and boots with a star pinned to his shirt that said "Deputy" (he didn't know how to spell "Sheriff"). And the music would start, and the ceilidh would go on through the night. What fun!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Summer friends

And so the spring wound into summer - and the light came back full throttle. In fact, it never really got dark. By midsummer you could read a newspaper at midnight, and the ceilidhs would start and end in sunlight. The rythm of life picked up and the B&B's were full of visitors - many of whom returned year after year and became familiar faces around the village. Neville and Mavis, who owned the Lord Nelson Inn down in northern England, made it known that we had usurped their favorite cottage (they'd rented Castlehill for their holidays for years). We were sorry - but not very. So we had them to lunch, became friends, and stopped to visit them at their pub one summer when we went south (we were delighted with its traditional cozy ambience).

We met people who owned croft houses in Coigach but only came up for their holidays - and we forged friendships that have lasted through all the years since we left - friends that we still meet when we can, and talk and write to between visits. Some have visited us here, and we have been made welcome in their homes, scattered now throughout the UK from north to south. We have shared their lives from when they were young and single, through marriage and growing families. They have made our lives infinitely richer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another island

One fine warm day we took a picnic and went up the coast to see if we could get to the island of Handa - a bird sanctuary and breeding ground. We took a small boat from Tarbet and landed on a beautiful beach. There's a path that goes across the middle of the island where the great skuas nest on the open hilltops. Half the island is rimmed with cliffs and sea stacks hundreds of feet high. Sea pinks, many different kinds of seedum, and beautiful wild flowers in all colors cling to the cliff sides and cover the tops of the stacks. Puffins dig their burrows and build their nests on the stack tops - and I had never seen a real puffin. But I had heard about them all my life and wanted desperately to see one. When I was little I would often ask my mother to recite my favorite poem:

"There once was a puffin just the shape of a muffin,
and he lived on an Island in the bright blue sea.
He ate little fishes, which were most delicious,
and he had them for supper and he had them for tea.

This poor little puffin, he couldn't play nothin',
cause he hadn't anybody to play with at all.
So he sat on his island and he cried for a while,
And he felt very lonely and he felt very small.

Then along came the fishes, and they said if you wishes
you can have us for playmates instead of for tea.
Now they all play together in all kinds of weather,
And the puffin eats pancakes like you and like me."

I always wondered how they made the pancakes but the story was very satisfactory to a young animal lover.

Anyway, the island has huge, high cliffs where thousands of birds were nesting, flying and fishing. The skuas lived off the eggs and young birds - the divers, kittywakes, razor bills, guillemots, and gulls eat the many small fish swimming below. The water was so clear we could lie on the cliff edge and watch the guillemots playing games in the water below. They fly under water, chasing eachother, and sneaking up behind eachother to tweak a tail as they surface.

Every ledge, nook and cranny was packed with birds, some on eggs, some courting, some pairs grooming eachother. We found two broken eggs up where the skuas nest - one a greenish blue with brown spots, the other white with brown spots. The whole island was so beautiful - and we picnicked, hiked and sunned ourselves on the white sand beaches until the last boat back to the mainland took us away.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Of ceilidhs and books

This has been a good week so we're still on a bit of a high. Saturday we went to the McCracken Ceilidh - a Scottish Club celebration of the life of George McCracken who for many many years taught and promoted Scottish ceilidh dancing in the Twin Cities. The dancing mantle has fallen on his son, Andy, and a tradition has developed of holding a typical ceilidh evening in his memory with dancing and amateur music, readings etc. This one was held at Kieran's Pub in Minneapolis and we ate shepherds pie, drank good ale, and as part of the program, Jack did a short reading from our book. It was a delightful evening.

On Sunday Jack and I gave a talk at the St. Paul Public Library downtown. In spite of the beautiful fall weather and a Vikings game, a fair number of people came - some of whom were friends we hadn't seen for many years. Liz and Paul had visited us when we were living in Coigach, and we had been in a cross-country ski club together for many years before that. The audience was very responsive, asked a lot of good questions and we had a lot of fun. As usual our dear daughter, Eileen (, came and helped out with the book signing afterwards - she has been a great help and supporter!

And then this morning we got another wonderful e-mail, this time from a reader in Australia who had been captured by Coigach as we had, and had spent at least a year there - something she hadn't planned on at the time. She had been a good friend and helper for Alasdair West (Jack's mentor during our Coigach years, and a beloved friend) and had stories to share. She had come across our book while visiting Coigach this summer and since every copy was sold out there, had to order it when she got home to Australia. It is such a day brightener and joy to hear from people who knew the folks we tell about in the book - and to have them say that yes - these are the people they knew and loved - and our stories brought them some tears and laughter. That's really why we wrote the book - to celebrate the lives and stories of a passing generation that was so very special and so worth remembering.

Friday, October 17, 2008

All that glistens......

Our friend, Jim Muir, who lived just down the road from us in Polbain, kept us supplied with salt herring, salmon and stories. We would be walking down to the store and Jim would be working out in his shed - usually mending salmon nets since he had the rights to the wild salmon fishing around the coast. We would stop and say hello and before we knew it we would be in Jim's kitchen with a cup of tea, caught again in his web of Coigach lore.

He told a story about a ship that had been torpedoed off the coast during WWII, its cargo floating away on the tide. Some of that cargo was found by Murdo and Angus who were out fishing in the area some days later - a wooden crate bound with brass. The men were excited - they thought the contents must be valuable - and sure enough, when they pried the crate open it was full of money! Bundles of bills, consecutively numbered. Although they didn't recognize the bills, they thought they had made their fortune and took a sample to the bank in Ullapool. Unfortunately they were told that what they had was newly minted Nationalist Chinese currency - virtually worthless in Scotland. What they did with some of that money is a story told in our book - it did afford them some fun - but it was a fortune quickly found and lost. Sort of like our 401K's.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Life is good

This is my favorite season. It is fleeting and beautiful and full of memories. Both of my parents died in autumn so the gorgeous display of color is tinged with some sadness and the feeling that the season - and life itself - passes all too quickly. But while it lasts we can "seize the day" and take off along the river to revel in what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful drives in the country.

For the last two days we have enjoyed the best of what autumn has to offer and wound our way down the Mississippi from St. Paul to Wabasha. All the way the high bluffs are covered with flaming reds and yellows, and little farms nestle in hidden valleys. Hawks and eagles fly above the river - and in Wabasha at the National Eagle Center we were lucky enough to walk in just as the program was starting.

Here they nurse injured bald and golden eagles back to health and release them if they can - and the program was fascinating. Minnesota has the largest number of nesting eagles in the lower 48. In March the native population is joined by migrants and there are hundreds of these majestic birds gathered along the open water at Wabasha. We plan to go back at that time to see it.

Two of our favorite lunch places are also there - one is in the Wisconsin town just across the river at Nelson. The Cheese Factory has great ice cream, soup and sandwiches and - our favorite - bags of garlic cheese curds (squeek, yumm). The other is a charming old inn - the Anderson House in Wabasha. (Wabasha is where they filmed "Grumpy Old Men" by the way.) The rooms here are all decorated with different quilts and antique furniture - and come, if you choose, with a complimentary cat for comfort. For two days in a row I got to eat their lemon meringue pie - not too sweet or too sour - with a cloud of perfect meringue. It is to die for.

Life is good.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A perfect day

Our friend Bill, whose family owned the cottage above Old Dornie Harbor, had a buddy up for the summer to help do some building and repairs, and the four of us often shared dinners, boat trips and long evenings solving the world's problems - along with a fair bit of silliness. Bill had a boat, which he took out among the islands to set lobster traps and do some fishing - and he would often share his bounty with us. Picture meals with platters heaped with fresh lobsters, prawns and crab - as much as you could want to fill the empty spaces. It was fantastic!

One of my most treasured memories is of a day we spent with Bill and Ian on the boat - a day as idylic as I will ever have. We started out in the morning packing a picnic - potato salad, home-baked bread, fresh raspberries, and wine. We set out for Bill's family island, Glas Leac Mor, stopping along the way to check Bill's lobster traps and catch a few nice fish for grilling. The sea was calm so we had no trouble landing and climbing the rocks to our picnic spot with our booty.

The day was warm but with a cool sea-breeze. The views back toward the peninsula and out at the islands and mountains across the loch were stunning - as always. We grilled the fish and spread out our picnic - a most sumptuous repast - the raspberries with double cream serving for dessert. We lazed around in the sun and hiked a bit to explore the island - then back with the evening sun glowing on the horizon and turning the islands to soft green velvet. Funny how clear it is after all these years - and how sweet to remember.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Escape to the north

One of the great things about being retired is that you can jump into your car when you get up one morning and the sky is blue and the air is crisp and the leaves are glowing - and you can just go. Which is what we did last week. We packed up the bad dog and a change of clothes and high-tailed it up to the north shore of Lake Superior, stopping along the way to visit friends and do a little grouse hunting and a lot of leaf-peeping.

With all the uncertainty in the world right now, it's life affirming to see the trees blazing on the high rocky cliffs, the rivers tumbling down the rocks in falls and cascades to the great lake, and to hear the breakers beating on the rocky shore. Life is good.

We found a funky little lodge at Cascade River with faded tartan carpeting, a grand piano in the lounge, lots of "Up North" kitsch, and a comfy porch with a great view of the lake. And with helpful, friendly hosts - what more could one ask? I'm sure we'll be back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The scent of remembrance

Why is it that the sense of smell seems to bring on the most vivid visions of the past? I am making oatmeal bread - probably for the first time since we came back from Scotland. The yeasty smell of the rising dough brings me back to the kitchen in Castlehill and I remember....and I miss it.

I can see the view from my kitchen window - the old stone shed with the wall full of bright birds coming to the seed I'd put out for them - the rowan tree with its red berries - the fence between us and our neighbors croft (visions of little Christopher climbing over that fence, coming to visit and savor ice cubes). Remembering kneading bread at the table and watching Jack sprinting out of that shed with his pail of coal, pursued by an amorous, very determined ewe (if you want the full tale - it's on our website).

My kitchen today has all the mod cons - but I miss the white wainscoating, the wellies by the door, the old wooden cupboard with it's array of flowered crockery, the far view of mountain and sea - a room warm and cozy and smelling of fresh-baked bread and self-sufficiency. I do miss it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hi Ho, come to the fair

This was the weekend of the North Country Fiber Fair in Watertown, SD. We packed up our books and display stuff and headed west on Friday, dropping our bad dog with our good friends on the way.

Autumn in southwestern MN is a feast for the eye. The soybean fields stretch to the horizon in shades of gold, russet, yellow and green. Here and there they form an undulating checkerboard with alternating fields of tall beige standing corn. Red barns and charming farm houses dot the rich prairieland looking prosperous and well tended. It's a peaceful scene of abundant harvest and it lifts the heart.

We had a great weekend in spite of the small turnout (vendors figured that the frightening economic outlook along with the high price of gas kept many customers and vendors at home). The venue was spotlessly clean and bright - easy to set up our display. And people seemed to enjoy the Scottish music we played along with our slideshow - even though we only thought to bring 2 CD's which cycled endlessly. Next time we'll bring at least half a dozen.

As usual, we loved talking to people and hearing their stories. There were several women who had lived in Norway in an area where they put sheep out on the islands as we did in Coigach. Many customers had been to Scotland and had loved it - several had started reading our book on Saturday and came to tell us how much they were enjoying it. That's always a day brightener.

Many knitters and weavers among the vendors and students keep a small flock of sheep or goats to supply their craft. Jack was delighted because he got to talk hand clipping with one of the best blade shearers in North America. Kevin Ford had come to give a 2 day class in blade shearing and he and Jack hit it off - had read many of the same books, knew the same essoteric song ("Shearing in a Bar") and it was the first chance Jack has had since Scotland to talk to someone who spoke hand clipping. He was a most happy fella.

I loved seeing all the different types of spinning wheels and varieties of yarn - and especially enjoyed the gal who was spinning directly from the rabbit. The organizers had set up a spinning circle so people could go and sit there in between classes or after supper and spin and talk - it was homey and relaxing. And all day they had delicious food cooked by the local guild members - all available for voluntary donations. We especially enjoyed the lamb stew and goat cheeses, along with veggies fresh from the garden.

Book sales went surprisingly well, and all too soon it was Sunday evening and we were packing up to head home. The trip back was even prettier with the the golden fields bathed in sunset light. We had spent a thoroughly enjoyable and relaxing weekend and were ready to face the contractors and torn-up house again. It's good to get away and remember that there is still beauty and bounty in the world.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Of bugs and nicer things

I have not written a post for a while. Some of this is because of family health problems (thankfully now resolved for the moment) and then there are the ants. We are having the tile in our bathroom replaced and when they tore the old stuff off - there were carpenter ants all over the wall behind the insulation. EEuuuuw - gross!! So needless to say the ant men (supply your own mental image here) are coming (I hope) today. So somehow I haven't felt like blogging.

But on the bright side, last night we did a reading at the Anodyne Coffee Cafe, and although we had a smallish crowd, we had an absolutely delightful time. This was mostly because we had a chance to talk to the people who were there and hear the stories of their own "wee mad road" adventures. One of the women had spent several years teaching in a remote Eskimo village in Alaska. Another had spent a year teaching for the Peace Corps in Mauritania, West Africa - quite a coincidence, as Jack had worked on a documentary there many years ago. I think we enjoyed hearing about their lives as much as they did about ours. I'd love to hear about your "special time" if you want to leave a note.

Tomorrow we leave for Watertown, South Dakota to sell books at the North Country Fiber Fair. We had so much fun at the Shepherd's Harvest here that we thought we'd try it again. They are offering a 2 day class on shearing sheep with the hand blades - a subject dear to Jack's heart, although he no longer practises that activity. We'll also be selling some skeins of beautiful hand-spun yarn for my daughter ( We'd love to see you there!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good-bye to the Red Terror

In mid-May poor Ho Chi Mini went to that big rustpile in the sky and we bought the only car we could afford that was comfortable for Jack to drive and might actually be ok to take onto the continent. We were planning to take a trip through France, Switzerland and Italy in the fall with J's mom and aunt so we needed a car that would hold 4 people and their luggage. Luckily for us the 2 ladies as well as their luggage were all diminutive!

Our new car (new used that is) was a DAF-cum Renault-cum Volvo. It had a Renault engine, a DAF transmission (continuous belt like a sewing machine - could run as fast backwards as forwards), and a Volvo body and seats. We actually bought it for the seats which could accomodate Jack's 6'2" frame easily, with plenty of headroom. He would sure miss the Mini's handling on our twisty roads though - this car would enforce sanity (unless he decided to drive it backwards - he does mirror-writing easily and might actually think it could be fun!).

Monday, September 8, 2008

The clock is alarming

May 8th and the first call of the cuckoo. I had never heard the real bird call. When my beloved grandmother died she left me a small amount in her will so we decided to buy something that would remind us of her and her heritage. So when we went to her funeral in New Prague, MN, we went to our favorite wonderful Czech hotel where we fell in love with a beautiful old cuckoo clock - just the thing!

When I woke up that May morning in Scotland, my first thought was that I was back in America wakening to my old clock. But this was the real bird - and it was 5:00 in the morning. We'd gotten to bed after a great ceilidh at 2:00 a.m. I was wondering if the bird's clear call would get to be not all that delightful if it continued to wake us up at that ungodly hour (the sun was coming up about 4:00 and setting about 11:00 p.m.).

And the solstice wasn't until June.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Pretty young things

With the birth of the lambs came the time of fostering off the orphans. Some were fostered onto mothers who had lost their lambs - and some were adopted by human "mothers" who warmed and bottle fed and nursed the little stuffed toy-like lambies until they became "pet sheep". These sheep usually lived a life of pampered leisure - at least until market time in September. That is how Wilf and Wendy acquired their little flock - which lived to see their "golden years" and I'm sure died of old age.

Our little 2 year old neighbor, Christopher, one of the more beautiful children I'd known (with his big dark eyes and blond hair) had three orphan lambs that year. One he named "Little Jack", after the big American next door, who was beginning to have what was to his father an unfortunate influence on Christopher's vocabulary.

Anyway, Christopher liked to visit us and would often come over the fence to sit in our kitchen and have a glass of lemonade or just water - with (wonder of wonders) ice cubes (no one there put ice in drinks - only us odd Americans). One warm sunny morning I came down to start breakfast and found little Christopher already in the kitchen - dressed only in his little wellie boots. I figured I'd better call his mom since to get home he'd have to crawl back over our rock and wire fence - and having negotiated it once without damage - I figured he'd better not tempt fate by trying it again.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


It was May, and May brought the lambs. During the rest of the year the sheep ran wild on the hills but at lambing time the ewes were brought into fenced parks. Shepherds walked the parks every day looking out for mothers or babies in trouble. In our city-bred lives, Jack and I had never had any experience with livestock cycles of birth and growth - but we were curious, and anxious to do anything that fit into the life of the community. So we walked the parks with the shepherds and helped where we could in our clumsy way.

That May started out cold with driving wind and hail like shrapnel. With no barns or shelter available, everyone feared for the lives of the new lambs. One day we had gone into Inverness to look at used cars (Ho Chi Mini was dying) and while we were there we got a call from Wilf and Wendy asking us to pick up some lamb-macs - little plastic raincoats that come on a roll. When we got to the Vet's he was frantically trying to locate more because of a run on them on the West Coast. When he found out we were from Achiltibuie he asked if we would take the orders he'd gotten from three other crofters there.

Naturally when we got back, the sun came out and we had a string of beautiful sunny days. It's sort of like the old axiom - when you take your umbrella it never rains.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

To make my garden grow

Spring was coming, the daffodils were fading and I missed tending a flower garden. So I thought I'd put in a rock garden, figuring I wouldn't have to import any rocks - I'd just dig out the ones that were already in the ground. I was somewhat apprehensive about this because it would mean that Wilf and Wendy's sheep would have to be banned from the front yard and they would lose their traditional vacation spot. However, it would also mean that without the sheep we wouldn't have to keep shoveling off the path and I could hang clothes outside again.

So on the first of May, a beautiful sunny morning, I started removing the turf from my chosen spot. I'd taken off my jacket, sweater and cap - at which point it started to snow. The rest of the day was snow, hail and gales, alternating with short bursts of sun. But I got about half of the turf removed and started lifting rocks. No wonder there's so little in the way of agriculture in Coigach - it's all rock!

I piled the rocks into a semblance of a rising circle and during the next month gathered sea pinks from the islands, heather from the hills, and purchased a lovely foamy type of gorse for the crown. Neighbors gave me primroses and other plants from their gardens - they liked seeing the garden grow. And for the three years we lived in Castlehill it was a real pleasure for me to look out through the gales and rain at that rainbow of color - a promise that the sun would return again.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

South to the border

The spring moved into a nasty run of gales and rain and we began to yearn for sun and warm weather. So we decided to take a few days and go down to the Borders. Picking a route through the middle of the country we took the Cockbridge - Tomintoul road. Every morning, all winter, the weather forecasters would predict closings on that route due to snow and blizzard conditions. So curiosity got the better of us - and it was a high and imposing crossing even at this time of year. We passed Balmoral Castle, but Prince Charles was there fishing, so we couldn't go in.

Arriving at the eastern coast in the evening we found Dunnottar Castle perched on a high crag, cut off from the shore and reachable only by a narrow rock causeway. Its imposing battlements rose through a ghostly mist - all it needed was a drawbridge and Igor beckoning us into its dark hall. We loved it.

Then there was the folk festival in Edinburgh (Eric Bogle was our vote for best performance) and on to the ruined abbeys at Melrose & Jedburgh. The border country was lush and green, velvet hills dotted with sheep and new spring lambs. There were beautiful rivers and lots of big old trees for me to lie under while Jack fished trout in the Tweed. It was hard to leave that soft country and head back to the wet and windy north.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Spring has sprung

I had a birthday this month and my sister, Mary, who lives in San Diago sent a beautiful flower arrangement. I liked it so much I decided to paint it . My other sister, Diane, took me out to lunch at a delightful restaurant, plying me with wine and good food. My daughter, Eileen, gave me water color paper and neat painting stuff to try - ergo the flower arrangement. Aren't I lucky?

But back to Scotland. March had come with its alternating days of gales, sleet and sun and the daffodils were breaking through the cold ground. There were banks of them along the small rill that ran down through our garden. We took walks up to Suilven starting in several different locations. The mountains were still covered with snow and the rivers in full spate. We ran across herds of red deer whose heads and necks had turned much darker than we'd seen them before. The trees were full of birds singing their spring songs, and it was good to be alive.

In the community a new phase of life was beginning with the run-up to the Easter holiday (a big thing in the UK). The tourists would soon be back in their numbers - something we had missed by moving in after the season was over. We really didn't know what to expect.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A night at the opera

Jack's maniacal Italian electric typwriter (Benito) had struck again (for full story see book) so we were off to Glascow to strangle the repair guys. It actually turned out to be a great trip. The weather was beautiful down through wild Rannoch Moor and Glen Coe. The pipers are playing laments in memory of the the MacDonalds who, if they hadn't been slaughtered in their beds, were forced to hide in those cold, bleak mountains to escape from their murderous B&B guests.

The typewriter guys gave us a manual machine - abandoning all hope for electric model repair. Oh well - at least the manual didn't have its own agenda and only wrote what it was told, unlike the Olivetti which I guess had decided to exert its own literary criticism.

As long as we were in town we stayed over night for an excellent dinner and the Scottish National Opera production of Tosca at the ornate Edwardian-style opera house. We were able to get good seats and the singing, costumes and scenery were special enough to make it a memorable night out. Not as memorable, however, as the night we saw a production of the same opera staged years later by the Minnesota Opera Company in St. Paul. That night, at the end of a spectacularly fine performance in the title role, Tosca jumped from the parapet and the opera came to its inevitable tragic end. The audience, Jack and I included, jumped to its feet errupting into wild applause - waiting to give the well deserved curtain call ovations. But the curtain stayed stubbornly closed - the applause fading uncertainly - until we all left the theater in utter confusion. We found later that the soprano had missed the mattress behind the parapet which was to break her fall, and hit the hard floor breaking several ribs and other bones. Now that was a memorable performance!!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More war stories

We had friends -two older couples - with whom we would get together to share a meal and spend the evening by the fire solving the problems of the world - discussing books, politics and the virtues (or lack thereof) of the Scottish National Party. Arthur, a retired anesthesiologist, recounted some of his WWII experiences. He was in a medical unit with the British forces at Dunkirk. He was detailed to stay with the periphery defense but was allowed to leave at the last moment. They weren't allowed to take out the wounded.

Arthur had several stories of near-death experiences. Once he was almost killed by a cup of tea. I don't remember where they were at the time, but they had been staying in a house near the front when one of his orderlies decided they needed a cup of tea, so he lit a fire in the fireplace. The smoke gave away their position and the Luftwaffe bombed the house, blowing it up - but the men were able to dig themselves out of the rubble. Another time he was sheltering in a basement when a bomb hit right next to the wall throwing up dirt and debris - but it didn't explode, so once again he survived.

Another story told of when he was at a staff meeting and all of a sudden got a strong premonition that something bad was about to happen - so he got up and left the building. The other men laughed at his premonition - but as he was leaving he heard the incoming shell and threw himself to the ground. The shell landed right where he'd been sitting and all of the others were killed. Arthur figured he was probably working on the 4th of his seven lives. I'm glad we were around during those next lives to share his tales and his friendship.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Cat That Shall Remain Nameless

Our next door neighbors harbored a cat. She was about 8 yrs. old when we moved in - solid muscle and beautifully dressed. Despite her age, she had never been given a name. Christopher, our neighbor's two year old son, called her At-nun because for some reason he couldn't pronounce the word "cat". So At-nun she became but she remained truly nameless.

For some reason At-nun adopted us and spent many hours every day visiting and bringing us gifts. Just about every morning we would open the back door and find the back ends of rabbits or mice that she had lined up neatly on the doorstep. She was very companionable but looked on us as equals and considered our attentions her rightful due. We never fed her - that she got at home. But she was a warm cuddle on a cold evening by the fire and a comforting presence when I was working around the house. We grew to love her and look forward to her arrival.

We had gone back to MN in our third winter to make some money and visit family, and when we got back in the spring At-nun looked very thin and had slowed down noticably. We worried about her and found out that she had some internal problem that could not be treated. One day we realized that she hadn't been around for a while and were discussing it at breakfast when At-nun came in, meowed and rubbed up against our legs - then went back out the door. The next day we found that she had gone off to a corner of the garden and died. We knew then that she had come to say good-by. We missed her.