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.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Gone fishin'

Driving in from Ullapool the one-lane road twists and turns along an intriguing river. We'd always wanted to explore it so one lovely morning in March we went out to walk the banks of the Owskeich River. The views of the mountains from there were beautiful and there is an amazing variety of terrain from slow pools to rapids between high rock cliffs. It all looked very trouty and Jack lusted after a beat on it - but we knew the Royal Hotel in Ullapool owned the banks and the price would be way too high. Unlike the US where there is lots of public land to hunt and fish, in the UK everything is privately owned and you have to pay for the privilege of taking game of any kind.

So he settled for getting permission to fish Loch na Beiste - a small loch a short way from our cottage. The laird, Mrs. Longstaff, who owned the fishing rights in Coigach, was a keen fly fisherwoman herself and could often be seen in her tweeds and fore-and-aft hat casting the banks of one of the local lochs. It probably wasn't as much fun as the river - but we did get a few nice trout to grace our breakfast or dinner table.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Almost spring

The weather during February was glorious - even warm enough some days to explore and go on picnics. The jonquils, crocus, & snowdrops were coming into bloom. In Minnesota the snow would be up to our whatever, and it would still be bone chilling cold. But in Polbain there was a promise of Spring. We picnicked in the shadow of Ardvreck Castle in Loch Assynt, drove up the Wee Mad Road to Drumbeg and stopped in the pub (where the publican, MacKay, bought us a pint) and then gloried in the beauty of the drive home. The woods were full of spring flowers - like a Persian carpet.

Another day we drove up to Tain - a lovely old town made a Royal Burgh in 1066 - and then to Nigg where they were building a huge oil rig. That whole area was suffering from the closing of the smelter at Invergordon and the shops and pubs were worried about economic slowdown.

Jack was going out with our neighbor to work the prawn creels and we were having fantastic meals. They were catching quite a few spiny lobsters - little critters that were hard to clean and had no real commercial value. But sauteed in garlic butter or cooked in wine and cream they were delicious! I think we've been spoiled for life with the wonderful, fresh seafood we ate there in such abundance. Now we're about as far from the sea as you can get - and I still miss it!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Greeted by a doll

The first time we came to Coigach we noticed an old boat sitting by the sign to Polbain with a rather dilapidated one-eyed doll propped up on a seat and waving to those entering the village. When we moved there two years later, there she was - still waving - but looking a little more respectable. Jim Muir, our friend and storyteller, said that he'd found her in the sea and sat her in his boat. And somehow she stayed there - waving bravely through the gales and rain - summer sun and winter snows. Another man in the village took on the job of changing her outfits with the change in seasons.

I wonder if she's waving still.

And why is it that I missed taking pictures of so many things and people that were part of our lives there?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

And then there was Hogmanay

We have nothing like it in the US. It is delightful and exhausting and terribly social - at least a week of non-stop visiting and ceilidhs and music. The tradition of "first-footing" - the first time you step over a neighbor's threshold in the New Year - means that everyone in the village goes off on rounds of visiting everyone else. You either are entertaining guests at home or are off driving around going to other peoples homes and they entertain you and anyone else that shows up. And that means offering a dram and a bite to eat. The old people who don't go out serve sherry and tea and goodies to those who come to visit - and no one is forgotten. The rest of the people around the penninsula drive about and drop in wherever there's a light on.

After the pub closes most people go off to someone's house for a night of partying - lots of singing and playing all kinds of instruments - and everyone brings a bottle or a six-pack. This can go on all night and after a week we could hardly move - we just weren't in condition yet!

It was during this first Hogmanay we had our first Castlehill ceilidh. We made popcorn for the first time - no one had ever tasted it except for the disgustingly sweet stuff they serve in movie theaters in the cities. People were leery of tasting it - then said it tasted sort of like styrofoam - then pollished off many batches - just to be polite! It was the start of a ceilidh tradition, for our house became a regular ceilidh house and many a night after the pub closed people would drift in and our home was always filled with music.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Our Merry First Christmas

When we moved to the Highlands the last thing we thought of packing was Christmas ornaments, and there really was nothing available in our area. So I set about making my own out of paper and yarn and whatever. A friend sent me crocheted stars and some village friends brought us cookies pierced for hanging. And though our tree was the closest thing I've ever seen to Charlie Brown's poor pathetic specimen, by the time we finished hanging our decorations it was really quite festive. It was the first Christmas tree ever in Castlehill.

Jack's birthday is right before Christmas and Joanie made him one of her famous Clootie Dumplings - so rich and spicy and good. We went to the panto (see our book for details) and Jack played Father Christmas at the kiddie party - they seemed to enjoy it even if he had a funny accent. I think people were extra kind because they knew we'd be missing home and family. Joanie came in on Christmas eve laden down like Santa Claus with two bottles of wine, a chicken for the freezer, two etched glasses and beer mug that Aileen Muir (owner of the local gift shop) had made, and a little poem just for us. There was an especially beautiful star over Tanera that night.

On Christmas day we went down to Joan and Murdo's for a wee sherry and to bring them their gifts. Wilf and Wendy had us over for a beautiful turkey dinner and in the evening we went to Irish Ann's for a fantastic ceilidh - singing and dancing into the wee hours. We still missed our family - but the people in Coigach were so warm and welcoming that it made our first Christmas here one of the best ever!

Friday, August 8, 2008


As winter drew on I decided that it had to be the most beautiful season of the year. The sun was low in the sky - getting light around 9:00 a.m. and setting around 3:30 (we were on the same latitude as Fairbanks and Novosibursk). The daylight hours were like one long sunrise-sunset with the colors changing from pink and gold to blue and gold and back again, reflecting on the silver sea and the snowy peaks across the loch. Just before Christmas we had a week of snowy weather - and with the sheep dotting the hillsides, the cottages with their smoking chimneys and our red gates at the bottom of the garden, it was like looking out at a beautiful Christmas card.

On one particularly lovely day we took a picnic and went up on the mast hill behind our house. The air was clearer than I'd ever seen it. We could see that the Isles of Lewis and Harris stretched across almost the whole horizon and displayed some spectacular cliff scenery. We saw islands that we didn't recognize at all, and to the south we could see Steor, Quinag and the Cuillins on Skye - unbelievable visability in all directions!

People in the village kept telling us that this was truly unusual winter weather - and if we stayed around long enough we'd find that out. Naive as we were we felt it couldn't possibly be worse than a Minnesota winter with its 30 below temps and piles of snow to shovel. Ha!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Countdown to the holidays

So - we were approaching our first holiday season away from our families. For me at least it was the first time in 40 odd years I hadn't spent Thanksgiving and Christmas surrounded by family and friends - the first time in 22 years we hadn't given our traditional Christmas party. We had started our party tradition the 2nd year of our marriage and the same people were still coming - their one commonality being our party. They'd see each other once a year and catch up with the year's happenings - have a great time with each other - then it was "see you next year". So I was feeling a bit lonesome and homesick as the holiday season approached.

As it turned out - our Thanksgiving was quite an experience (see the whole crazy story in our book) - and I didn't have time to sulk! We then decided to go down to London for a few days in December to shop and enjoy the city lights and decorations (Christmas was not celebrated much in Coigach) and maybe see a show. We were lucky and got a special price (130 pounds for the two of us for train and 2 nights at the St. Irmin's in Westminster). As it turned out the day we left for London was the coldest and worst weather in 30 years. The water pipes had frozen on the train so there was no water or heat - but the compartment was comfy with lots of blankets so we slept well. The St. Ermin's is a beautiful hotel and decorated for Christmas it was a real pleasure. We shopped, had lunch with London friends, went to a carol concert at Royal Albert Hall, evensong at St. Paul's, saw the Great Japan exhibit and ate at a charming Czech restaurant.

But as much as we enjoyed the city life, we were glad to go back to Coigach. We arrived back and were met at the gate by 6 sheep and a cat - a most vociferous welcome. And spread across sky and sea - the most glorious sunset we'd ever seen. It was good to be home.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Laundry was definitely not us

Castlehill was furnished with a washing machine - of sorts. It was the same kind my family had when I was a kid - my mother's pride and joy (it still worked after my sister plugged it right through the label with a 22 rifle slug - but that's another story). Ours in Castlehill was a mixed blessing. It would stop working - either in whole or in parts - for no discernible reason. One day it had given up the ghost (again) and we thought there might be something gumming up the works so we got a coat hanger to make a fishing device and from the spinner part removed several green, slimy socks - must have been years in the making. Some friends who had stopped in for tea took one look at what we were doing and beat a hasty retreat.

When the spinner didn't work we had to drag out an old hand-powered ringer we found in the old barn. Then - drying was the fun part. If it wasn't bucketing down rain, or blowing hard enough to snatch the clothes off the line and carry them off to the Black Isle, we could hang them out on lines strung beside the house. This was often complicated by the pet sheep we had visiting in our garden, whose digestive systems were working quite efficiently thank you. Dropping the edge of a sheet or a sock on the ground meant that we would have to face the *!#$% washing machine again. So mostly the wet laundry was hanging in strategic locations around the house - usually strung on a wooden rack blocking one source of heat or another. We lived in a miasma of wet wool - inside and out.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Ceilidh Place

As the autumn progressed there were more musicians and entertainers coming into the West Highlands - many of them sponsored by the Highlands and Islands Arts Board. Sometimes a band would come out to Coigach and play at the village hall, but more often they would go to what had become our favorite Ullapool haunt, the Ceilidh Place. It was a wonderful place for us - it had everything: hotel, pub, restaurant (where they played classical music tapes), bookstore and performance space. It was owned by Robert (of acting fame) and Jean Urqhart - lovely, friendly people who always made us feel welcome. The place was cozily traditional - and the food was the best. It was always a treat to go there.

We saw several plays at the Ceilidh Place, and musicians from the Scottish National Orchestra played there several times during the years that we lived in Coigach. It was the first time I became aware of the wonderful horn player, Barry Tuckwell. I feel privileged to have heard him play in such an intimate venue. They also had a folk club - a smaller space for local and traveling folk musicians to come and play together. It was altogether a haven for us - good restaurant food and entertainment being in rather short supply in that part of the country.

Now although Robert is no longer with us, his wife, Jean, is still the hostess and the Ceilidh Place is still going strong - and if you visit Ullapool be sure to drop in - you're bound to find something to please your fancy.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Murdo & the Fuaran

Meanwhile we were getting to know our neighbors and spending many an evening at our local pub (the Fuaran which is in Altandhu - the next little village up the road) - playing darts, talking and singing. One night we met Donny Darling's brother who told us of his experiences in the war. He was captured during the blitzkrieg in France and spent two years in a German POW camp mining coal. He escaped to Poland and joined the resistance and fought with them until he was recaptured. Again he escaped and spent the rest of the war foraging in Russia. He owns a house in Polbain just a few doors down from us but now lives with his wife in England.

Old Murdo loved to go to the Fuaran - he would go every Saturday before he had his stroke. He always loves to hear our reports about who was there and what they said and who's doing what. Wilf and Wendy never go to the pub - we never have figured out why.

Murdo and Joanie were becoming dearer to us all the time. Joan gave us a photo of Murdo as a younger man that was on the front cover of "Ross Shire" magazine - so I decided to use it to do a painting of him with his beloved Tanera in the background. I framed it and gave it to them to put up in their lounge - then did another one for us to keep. I would have loved to have known Murdo then - although maybe we wouldn't have become so close or heard all the wonderful old stories if he had not always been there to visit with.