Belhelvie Banter

A quarterly community magazine for the Parish of Belhelvie in which I have contributed article ‘Parish Threads’, for the last ten years.

What are the threads of a Parish I hear you ask? 


I have been finding that out as I write. Subjects that I see recurring are the land, it’s geography and natural history. I look at the relationships we parish folk have to Aberdeenshire, to community projects like Better Balmedie and the Sand Bothy. Travel recurs and I describe the ways and means of getting around the parish from the ancient paths, the turnpikes, to the new dual carriageway. The old belief systems and stories add another dimension as do birds, from wren alarm calls to ‘Sharkey’ the robin. So many birds inhabit our parish alongside us. The bickering Rooks and wild geese whose sky arrows fly over in spring and autumn remind us of the seasons. The blackbird and pheasant compete with the helicopters flying overhead. Then there are the filaments of my family and homelife to weave into the fabric of parish. I look out from Ardo at the western edge of the parish. It is the place we came to in 1986, not knowing then that there would be so many snowdrops and bluebells to delight us, and such firm friendships to hold us here. The weather and the views out into the wider world are a thread in themselves and when I am away, I hold on to the other end of the thread that ties me to my home of Belhelvie. I like to bring back to life past inhabitants of the parish. There are the celebrities like John Buchan and the Reverend Forsyth as well as more ordinary mentions from historical records. I see that colour is another thread that finds its way into the articles. No wonder, there are such glowing combinations to be seen here. The gold of gorse, against blue of sky, the deep grey clouds against creamy wheat or the silvery moon over an inky sea. I never quite know who or what is going to appear in a Parish Threads. I spin a yarn that along with scraps of literature weaves the words into the cloth we all use to help create security, our sense of place. In this fast-changing world, that web of connections is useful: as long as we don’t lose the thread.

No.1 Crystal Gardens

It’s glorious when the sun comes out in May. The newly arrived Swallows wheel and chirrup in the breezy blue sky, arguing over their traditional nest sites. I am working in the shelter of the old conservatory at Ardo, fingers in warm loam, happily potting on plants, a spring task that has taken place here for many generations. Nearly one hundred years has passed since someone around this spot, with the forefathers of my swallows flying overhead, might have said, “Bother me; if it wasn’t for this chilly wind it would be lovely working out here in the sunshine… I tell you what, why don’t we have one of those fancy glass houses they are going on about in my ‘Gardening Quarterly’ magazine.” 

An enticing advert from that magazine read: “Think of the pleasure one of these crystal gardens will add to your home. What enjoyable atmosphere the subtle bloom fragrance will lend, and what a cosy retreat it would make to entertain in”. 

History doesn’t relate how many conversations along the lines of “It’s going to cost HOW much?” or “Remind me again what’s the problem with wearing your good thick Gabardine coat and dubbined boots?” Anyway, eventually there must have been marital harmony, because in 1914, records show, plans were drawn up and planning permission was granted for a conservatory to be erected here. 

I know who built it because I can see his oval nameplate on the inside of the door. James Walker Hot House Builder Aberdeen. Aberdeen Council had already built the Palm House and Winter Garden in the Duthie Park by the turn of the century. It had followed on from the one at Kew, supporting the fashion for growing tender plants brought back by the Victorian plant collectors. 

One hundred years on, the Parish of Belhelvie is still on trend by creating energy from sun and wind. Several country homes are now sporting wind turbines, and this month I noticed a whole south-facing roof has been clad in photo voltaic cells to feed electricity into the grid. 

Wouldn’t you like to be the one to tell that person here tending the plants in 1911 that it would be possible to sell the wind or the sunshine from your house roof? A bizarre notion when the ultimate ambition of that time, was to entrap enough sun inside a glass room to produce a ripe peach. 

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No.2 Edges

It was early this summer when pulling nettles, that we uncovered scrap iron, well past its ‘any use at all’ date. It had long been at ease and off duty on the edge of the garden. A place where the paths are less tended, wheelbarrows are left parked and the chickens scratch. Years come …years go. 

It could be said that edges are where things are allowed to be more themselves, less contrived, more relaxed, as at the edge of a photograph, a room, a conversation with a friend or even a road verge at Balmedie, where the Northern Marsh Orchid still thrives. 

The parish of Belhelvie is on the edge of the City of Aberdeen. Once separated by half a day’s travel, it is now but 10 minutes away, part of the interface between city and countryside. Offering the urban population its farm produce and fish has given way to supplying the city with raw materials for roads and buildings. The Parish now also provides space for industrial storage, landfill and recreation. 

Utilitarian city edges are generally unloved by the population, but it’s possible that these places of essential function can develop a charm of their own if treated with the respect they deserve… Priorities change, the aesthetic ideal alters. Daniel Defoe described the Lake District as: ‘The most barren and frightful landscape I have seen’, reflecting the public’s taste of that time. 

With a garden wedding in the offing here and having heard the world price for scrap had risen, we decided to tidy up. We began by prising a 600-gallon oil tank out of its comfortable nettle and leaf-mould nest. Levering it onto rollers, we inched it along to the trailer and shoulder-shoved it up the ramp. We drove carefully down the dual carriageway, to the land of Panda Rosa. As one rounds the corner to the scrap yard, the view ahead can be a shock. It is as if some metal world has been torn apart to reveal its rusty interior. It’s an alternative landscape – piles of discarded metal are hills, valleys, gullies and ridges, bluffs and cliffs. Against the blue sky, the oranges, reds and browns of iron oxide, combine to be a visual delight. 

The routine for getting rid of the load is simple, but not to us. As in every workplace, the staff are oblivious to the eccentricity of their daily routine. We stop and stare as we take in the unusual surroundings. A workman on the ground nonchalantly crooks a finger to direct us forward. We drive slowly nearer the mountain of scrapped machinery and bump onto a metal surface. High up in the crane cab we are spotted, and a newspaper is put down. The big machine focuses, and down swings the grab. We sit in the car and hold our breath, ducking as it clunks down onto our trailer freight. Whump… with its three prongs it has pierced the thin iron of our big tank, locked on, whisked it up into the air and flicked it, yes flicked it, as if it were a teensy crumb on a finger, away up onto the pile of rusting junk. From where we are cowering, shocked at the precision just demonstrated, it now looks the size of a sugar cube. We get a ‘thumbs up’ from inside the crane, and back away from the danger zone. 

As we drive the empty trailer home, we discuss the experience of seeing the machines we use in a new way, not with their polite veneer of glossed enamel and plastic…but as their real selves …jagged corrodible objects. 

Back to tidying the edges at home and we debate what use our plentiful stinging nettles could be in the wider world. We know they are food for caterpillars and make a passable soup. They can also be a source of fibre, but the market in nettle cloth fashion has yet to take off. Apparently though, in times of austerity, it was retted like linen, and woven into cloth as soft as bunting to wrap a baby in. 

No.3 Hungry Gap

While we struggle with our fiscal problems and envy the precious metal find in Glen Cononish, we might remember that we have gold in Belhelvie parish. Yes, we do. Haven’t you driven down towards Whitecairns from Newmachar, when the Craigie hills are ablaze with Whin, and there is a dark grey blue sky, slanting sun and a rainbow? 

Actually, common gorse, Ulex europaeus, Whin, or Furze, is a country resource now forgotten. Flowering at all times of the year, (When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion), it’s a backdrop to our journeys around the parish. Now it’s only known as a prickly nuisance, a shelter for rabbits or lost golf balls. It is unloved, sprayed and grubbed up. However, the coconut-scented flowers are edible, loved by bees and the dry plant burns so fiercely it was used to fire baking ovens. 

It seems unlikely, but it was also a valuable cattle feedstuff here in Aberdeenshire. The months when grass is lifeless are long in Northern Britain and it was hard keeping farm animals going through the ‘hungry gap’ of late winter. Sheep will browse on gorse in snowy weather, and it is said farmers could tell a bad winter by the number of blood spots on a sheep’s face. It’s related to peas and beans so it’s no surprise that the food value of the gorse plant is twice that of turnips, but the prickles make it necessary to break it up for cattle who are grazers not browsers. For them to benefit from the free whin nutrition, the green branches had to be cut by hand and then flailed, chopped or ground which is hard work. There was a horse driven gorse crusher… a Whin Mill here in the parish. It was down at Menie House. There is a short film held by the Scottish screen Archive of it working as part of ‘Belhelvie Jubilee Gazette’. I am looking at it now on my ipad, courtesy of YouTube, a silent black and white clip from 1935. 

Miraculously, I have a new app called itimetravel, and as I concentrate on the grainy image I am swirled down into the ipad screen, back in time like Alice down the rabbit-hole. I find myself in the farmyard at Menie where a horse is trudging circuits, pulling around a large millstone. It is cold; a mean breeze is blowing of the North Sea. Low-lit, the tall beech trees are black against the light sandy dunes. Rooks are making their early spring ruckus. Two farm workers fork over the partly softened Whin, and in drab belted long coats, two women watch. The colour scheme has only moved from the shades of grey on the film, to shades of beige in reality. The horse is halted on the stone raised walkway to be re- harnessed to pull the great milling stone the other way. The iron trace-chains clink as the big wooden spindle is clipped onto his other side. The lad wearing a hat pulled down secures the reins to the nearside terret while he realigns the harness. Taking up the reins again, he makes the noise with his tongue and cheeks that every horseman knows. It moves the horse forward, into the leather collar. 

Times are hard; stores for the livestock are low this April. These people of Belhelvie Parish are struggling through the years of depression. The Great War, ‘the war to end all wars’, is a decent time behind them. Stanley Baldwin has still to manage the abdication crisis and the man who built the first computer at Bletchley Park is a young man learning his trade at the General Post Office. The first regular T.V. broadcast will be in two years. The inventor of the ipad won’t be born for twenty more years and Laurence of Arabia has one month to live… European politics are not a top priority here, but a cat’s whisker wireless set at the big house brings news from the wider world, and this month changes are afoot. Hitler is re-arming Germany, disregarding the Versailles treaty. The rise of Fascism continues, and there are rumbles in Spain. 

In my time travelling guise, I focus on what’s happening in front of me. There is a feeling of expectation on this cold April afternoon. A local man, from Ardo, Captain Harvey-Loutit has arrived in his motorcar. He sets up his bulky cine- camera and tells everyone to avoid looking at the lens. The filming begins and the workmen are suddenly keener than before. I watch the scene, knowing, yet not knowing that after the film will be shown at the Belhelvie Community Hall (now known as the Green Hut) for 6d to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George the fifth, the reels will be stored for more than fifty years. Then in the 1980s they will be found in a Kirk cupboard and given to the Scottish Screen Archive for safe keeping. 

I watch breath held, as the horse trudges, the men add water to the crushed spiny gorse, and the women pretend to watch the work but glance towards the camera. Their ambition to be on celluloid is transparent. I surreptitiously take pictures with my mobile phone and no one seems to notice. After a few more circuits of milling, the mix is deemed ready. The lad unhitches the horse and gives it a handful of the mossy milled Whin, with its little flecks of embedded gold. 

The filming and the entertainment over, the little crowd disperse. My time travel app times out. I am returned to my office desk through the ipad, to the present winter of 2011/12, to underfloor heating, a warm jacket made from recycled plastic, the European financial crisis, and the supermarket up the road selling strawberries all year round. Check out my iPhotos next time you see me… 

Aliens

I have just driven through the Parish of Foveran on my way home, next stop Omarama, then Aviemore and over the Lindis Pass. I know, I know, I’m tricking you, because I am in the South Island of New Zealand, until Easter. For this issue and perhaps the next I shall be the Belhelvie Banter Foreign Correspondent, (self-appointed). We are spending the rest of the Aberdeenshire winter visiting our son who lives near Queenstown. The summer sun is shining, and a little friendly fantail is squeaking in the Wisteria by the veranda. Apricots are ripening, cherries have been picked. It’s not just the place names that are familiar. Up here in Central Otago the 19th century settlers were from Scotland. One at least must have been from Foveran, since naming your new home after your old was one way of feeling less adrift. There are Community Councils here and a Presbyterian church. They drive on the left and everyone looks as if they could be your cousin with added suntan. Charmingly they have retained words we have dropped, in a sort of language Darwinism…. pottle for instance, the old word for half a gallon, tramping, meaning hiking and ‘wilding’ referring to a tree which is not indigenous, and superannuation whatever that was.

Around 150 years ago the council chairman was called Vincent, a Scot from south of Edinburgh. He asked the other council members to bring their suggestions for naming the many local creeks. Four weeks later, up came the item on the agenda. “Well let’s have your suggestions.” said he. No hands went up. We can imagine the usual hush, as people remembered the request, but due to their busy pioneering lives it had slipped their minds. ‘Right then,’ he most likely said, in the universal proactive chairman’s tone, ‘This is what we are going to call them’… He then brought out a list of the burns from his area of Scotland. We live near the one he named, Luggate Burn, and the village of Luggate is named after it. It is now quite a bit larger than its namesake near East Linton. In these parts the climate is much drier than in Scotland, and there is talk of irrigation, failing boreholes and more hydro-electric schemes. The lakes are 30 miles long, but the thirst of modern towns and agriculture is enormous. Long irrigation booms are on all day to make grass. Dairy cows have to be culled when the farm allocation of water has been used up. On the news, big dairy farms in the north island have been up for sale, and there is interest from Chinese buyers. They are keen to have a good clean source of dairy products. The government here is caught in a difficult dilemma… to sell seems like losing control, to a not entirely trusted nation, but not to sell, seems like racism, when there are German and American owners here already.

A local project, we can help with, is removing the unwanted weeds brought over from Europe. Who would have thought that weeding could be such a useful transferable skill? Yesterday we went to a Working Bee down by the river to chop back Poplars and plant Otago native species like Manuka, the tea tree, and Harikiki, the New Zealand Flax. They thrive in the dry soil here, which is perhaps why so many flax plants with their distinctive Kangaroo paws died in Aberdeen last winter. New Zealanders are very tired of cutting back thistles, gorse and willows that have done so well in the last century or two, and they loathe the rabbit. “Take ’em home with you when you go”, they say, with a hint of coolness.

There is one more thread that links us to home. During Scottish dancing sessions in the Forsyth Hall before Christmas, we met a couple who astonished us by saying they owned a plot of land here in the village of Luggate. Bought ten years ago as a retirement project, yet to be started, the land now looks neglected. Geoff the Community chairman and fellow weeder, is happy that we bring news from the owners and a cheque to cut their weeds back.

Now obviously you don’t need a lesson in geography, or the local politics of the South Island. You’re not in a great mood, it’s miserable weather and the only reason you are reading this, is because you are waiting for the kids to come out of school, or Football, or the Green Hut, or your fish supper to come out of the Balmedie chippy. This rather tatty copy of the Banter which you have rescued from the foot-well of the car is all you have to read. Oh dear, bad luck… what can I say?

The Peter Jackson team is up in the mountains near here at the moment filming the Hobbit. Some local people are extras in the crowd scenes. If it succeeds like the previous films, it may revitalize the Lord of the Rings tourism business here. When the film crew has gone, taking every scrap of scenery with them, enterprising bus drivers will rebrand themselves and their vehicles. They will invent little ceremonies on scenic hill sides with a sword and maybe a ring for enthusiasts to be photographed with, while shouting ‘Gon-doorrr’ into the wind.

Castaways

Dear Belhelvie, since I last wrote, we have visited an island where a leaf could be written on and posted until 1974. We have been given Black Boy peaches which stew down to a rich dark red colour, and been told the word for “Oh dear, this is twisted on so tightly I don’t seem to be able to undo it”: ‘Bloked.’ We have been shown the prickly shrub that was so thorny, horses had to wear leather chaps out mustering. We have volunteered planting native trees, and welcomed our neighbours visiting us from Belhelvie, at the bus-stop.

Our 40th wedding anniversary is coming up, and those neighbours from East Cannahars will be with us. There is a little island in Lake Wanaka called Ruby Island. It is about half a mile off shore and we intended to transport ourselves out there and picnic, in a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ sort of way. Plans had been going well. Having acquired a kayak and practiced paddling and swimming with wetsuits and life jackets…we were getting the feel of the alpine water and the distance. Then, when the kayak was minding its own business on shore, I ran over it when turning the car around. Yes, I know, don’t say it, someone else already has.

So, there has been a partly successful fibreglass first aid session, and a rethinking of our options. We have to fall back on our own resources. Resourcefulness is in the air here. It is an integral part of the local Scots bred mentality. The feeling of being cut off, making do and having to survive is never far away.

In the 1800s European ships regularly traded around the Southern oceans. They went south to catch the ‘Roaring Forties’ which helped speed them along, and on the whole, it was a very clear passage. Well nearly clear… often, they didn’t see the Chatham Islands or the Aucklands, (yes, I did say Aucklands) to the East and South of New Zealand before they bumped into them. The islands were tiny in the distance, but nasty and rocky if you had the misfortune to be in the dark or fog. Misfortune it was too, because even if you had navigated accurately by the stars, the island’s position on the maps, it turned out later, was as much as 35 miles out. So many people perished, through cold and starvation, that in the late 19th Century the New Zealand government had a health and safety discussion. They made arrangements to help survivors. Domestic animals were let loose on the islands, solving the food problem. Castaway relief stations were set up with necessities in a container. Boots, guns, clothing, tools, matches. A man’s three-piece suit was designed in Dunedin and woven to be especially warm and hard wearing. Finger posts were set up pointing to the provisions. How annoying it would be, searching for the box, when you are wet and cold.

Government agencies being their usual careful selves put this caveat on the survival boxes, hoping to deter thieves:

The curse of the widow and fatherless light

 Upon the man that breaks open this box

 Whilst he has a serviceable ship at his back.

 For some time after I read this I pondered what ‘fatherless light’ was.
It has a resonance and a poetic ring to it, but I couldn’t fathom the meaning.
It was only later that I realised the line should have ended at fatherless, and the word ‘light’ is, as in ‘alight’. Imagine for a moment you are the engraver. You need to keep the lines the same length to fit nicely onto the metal. Do you read the words and consider the meaning… probably not?

There is a memoir of a woman washed ashore with fourteen men from a ship called ‘The General Grant’. They had six damp matches. After the men struck and fizzled out five of them, she says, ‘I so nervous I had to step outside the cave’ while they argued about whether to use the last one or dry it out and try it another day. They decided to wait, and it lit, and they survived for eighteen months in reasonable comfort before they were rescued. The woman, (Mary she was called, as it happens) turned out to be good castaway material. She had ingenuity and skill, sewed sealskin clothes and together they created a small farm. Why should I be so intrigued at the notion of castaways and castaway boxes? Is it because I feel ‘castawayed’ or ‘casted away’ a bit myself? Not that there is any comparison. Here I am in 2012, only ten miles from a shop, writing on a laptop; with hot water, a fridge and a wheelbarrow behind me; but I am a long way from home in unfamiliar surroundings, separated from things and people I know.

Recreating one’s life from scratch is challenging. Separated from accumulated possessions, personal priorities are revealed. We may not have to struggle with matches here, but we still need the equivalent of a cooking pot, a gun and a sturdy hound’s-tooth, three-piece suit. Not sure about the fatherless light.

Swanning Around

St. Andrew reputedly rescued six ladies who had lived seven years in the form of white swans. Some of us are thinking that we might be better off as swans if this wet weather continues. We could paddle about to our hearts content outside, because inside a wet day seems to last forever. The sort of day you are reduced to dusting off the dullest book in the world, like Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’. It will have been in the bookcase since Noah was a boy. Eventually when your damp bored eyes look up at the window, and the rain is still coming down, even those ‘Lamps’ he describes: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience, won’t shed any light over Belhelvie. My Dad, who only had the one lamp, probably called Gedonwithit, used to say you can make hay with a stick when the sun shines, and I think we can guess what he meant. When conditions are right, life’s not too hard.

In this Parish we are rarely short of water even when it’s not raining. We have springs, wells, divined boreholes, bogs, burns and saturated peat. Belhelvie hugs water, from its high boggy ground to the spongy marshland by the sea. Water features in the old geographical names: Muirton, Middlemuir, Boghead, Damhead, Bridgeton, Butterywells, Dubbystyle and the several Mills and Mosses.

Our roads can be traced back to where animals were transported on foot, keeping to the dry upper levels. Sheils tells of shepherds stopping off with their flock. Causeyend is at the end of the old stone road from Aberdeen, the Causeway’s end. Cannahars refers to Cottongrass on the Muir or moor, Drum is a ridge and Reeve a fold. We have so many of these old poetic descriptive place names for our hills and valleys. They shape our sense of place and they are rooted in our landscape.

The name Belhelvie could be from ancient Scottish words meaning ‘the mouth of the rivulets. Edinburgh is built on seven hills and Belhelvie is known for a seven too… (not just seven waterproof jackets per person) because seven burns drain down to the coast: Newtyle, Menie, Orrok, Hopeshill, Eggie, Potterton and Blackdog all meander down to join the Seven Seas.

We could complain, drip even, that we have had more than seven weeks of rain and fog. We could say it’s hard to remember the views we used to enjoy over sea and land. Ward Hill, a high vantage point overlooking Ardo to the north and Broomhillock to the south, has a view of seven parishes. (I seem to be clinging to a seven theme) The word ‘Ward’ means ‘watch’ suggesting it was a beacon hill. It would have been good for passing a message up and down the coast and across to the Garioch, when it wasn’t raining. On the other hand maybe we should be more positive about our plentiful natural resource and listen to John Gough. In the mid 1800s the great temperance speaker wrote:

Here brews the beautiful water! And beautiful it always is. You see it glistening in the dewdrop, you hear it singing in the summer rain; you see it sparkling in the ice gem when the trees seem loaded with rich jewels…dancing in the hailstorm, leaping, foaming, dashing! See how it weaves a golden gauze for the setting sun, and a silvery tissue for the midnight moon.

Is it me, or does he sound as if he’s been turned into a swan?

It’s That Season Again

The prickly evergreen Holly, and the twining Ivy, are forever linked in our winter folklore and songs. You know the usual ones but there is also:

Holly with his merry men
They can daunce in hall
Ivy and her jentell women
Cannot daunce at all.


Well there you are then… men will dance, and women must watch. The Holly was king and Ivy his gentle lady. Our early images of Father Christmas look very like the Holly King of olden times, but images of Ivy has all but slipped away. We have forgotten that the Ivy umbels cast beautiful starry shadows against the wall and the druid mistletoe has crept into our decorations instead.

So ’tis the season again…have you thought where you will be getting your Holly branches to ward off the evil spirits this Christmas? Have you ordered the dried fruit from the grocer, and grated the beef suet for the pudding? Ladies, perhaps you have nearly finished making your Christmas gifts, and your husband is carving or whittling the toys for the family. You haven’t? Oh yes, that’s because you are living in the 21st century, not the Belhelvie of two hundred years ago. My goodness the shops stretch the season now, don’t they? Sometimes I think my eyes will bleed if I see one more sparkly blue plastic snowflake or cheery Santa. To use a modern idiom, the midwinter festival has well and truly ‘Jumped the Shark’? So many extraordinary things are being offered to us, combined with ridiculously mixed up notions of what we want. There was a time when a meal of roast goose with plum pudding was remarkable and receiving a toy car and a pencil-case was enough on a cold Christmas morning. Well, I am exaggerating a bit, as fifty years ago I needed Famous Five books and a toy microscope, as well as felt tip pens, a selection box and a spirograph to be thrilled. Oh yes, and a family Monopoly game to share. It was my father’s generation who made do with a torch and an orange, as did his friends. He says on Christmas evening after their third church service, they shone the beams up the bell tower to see who had the strongest light. Shake your heads children!

I still like to make the Holly wreaths to put on the family graves at Christmas. Quite why we do it is anciently mysterious, but it is nice to visit the grave, say hello and leave the circle of pagan greenery with its empty centre of loss. William Temple in his 1894 survey of the parish says: ‘two Druid circles, those stone reminders of our ancient beliefs, were removed in the early 1800’s when the land was taken in to be farmed’. I inherited the family wreath making from my father, and I carefully make them from fresh holly, moss and wire as he did. Wreaths probably have a connection to the time when Holly was propped on the picture frames at the festive season to keep away the evil fairies. At that time it was also believed that a Holly leaf placed under a pillow divined the meaning of your dreams, and water drunk from a Holly cup was thought to be medicinal. These days we have the Udny Medical Practice for medicine; and dreams? Well we don’t have time to dream, we are always out shopping in Union Square.

I have been looking at Holly trees as I go about the parish and although they are in the old woodlands around the farms, they are no longer planted in the new plantations or by houses to protect them from evil. We have outside security lighting to deter evil, and now by that silvery light, I shall go over to the workshop and see how the whittling is getting on.

B.C.N.U.

Protection

I have been a bit slack with the housework lately. First of all there was the month I spent hardly able to walk, after I was knocked over by an enthusiastic Labrador. Then I was writing a story about cleaning and growing older, and that sort of distracted me from actual work. Then there was Christmas and visiting our grandchildren in America. While we were with them, we sailed in a boat that once belonged to a Beverley Hillbilly. (If I was making that up, don’t you think I would have thought of someone more famous?) That meant more weeks of not cleaning here.

However the good news is; sometimes slackness pays off. One morning last week, one of my guests noticed that the middle diamond from her engagement ring was missing… gone. It had left a nasty black hole, if not of stellar proportion, she was at least several carats short of her usual crystallised carbon. The band of gold representing her marriage was damaged, and she was distressed. She went into work and searched the staff room but no luck. A kind cleaner there apparently vacuumed and then went through the bag of dust with a fork from the canteen. Perhaps he or she didn’t have a fine-toothed comb; who does any more? No joy, and my guest came back here, dismally thinking about loss, and insurance companies, St Anthony and shoddy ring makers. Then making her way to bed, past the shower she noticed a sparkle…yes, the diamond was lying there in the shower tray! It hadn’t swirled away to oblivion because I hadn’t addressed the slow draining water. The diamond had sunk, leaving the water to quietly creep away. I mention this as a shining reminder of frailty, and our value systems.

Talking of value systems, I was at a goodbye party recently for some young people relocating in the Oil and Gas industry. The subject of handbags came up; in particular a well-known brand Mull… no let’s say, Skye, berry’. Girls will know what I mean. These young women were thrilled about the possibility of owning a handbag that had a price tag of a good-sized diamond. ‘You should have one, they said ‘It makes you feel really great when you go out! Look at this one… Come over here Lauren’. They beckoned to their friend, and I was introduced to a large exquisite leather bag with a small girl behind it. Feather soft and beautifully made, I waited for my heart to beat faster. I tried to get excited and I tried again. Nothing fizzled within me, not a flicker. I don’t think I can be the right audience, or at the right stage in my life. When I go out, I don’t need the protective talisman of a special handbag. The places I visit are familiar; the lanes, the farms, the people, the streets. However I do remember when I was engaged and Tony Blackburn was playing ‘Band of Gold’ by Freda Payne most mornings, I felt different, unbalanced, young. Lonely during the week, I was dependant on my symbolic engagement ring to get me through.

In Belhelvie it’s a new year for the group of volunteers who continue to help nurture the Parish sense of identity. ‘Better Balmedie’, they are called, (go along, it’s fun). They help enhance the village and have developed a poly-tunnel gardening project behind the Leisure Centre. They are growing-on plants for the cheerful looking planters that have been appearing around the village. At Christmas it was renamed ‘The Enchanted Poly-tunnel’. Santa visited the group there, and advised them to Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!

When I went to see them this month, I discovered that a poly-tunnel does move me, stirs my heart. Why? Perhaps because it provides a shield against the thing that I can do the least about, the weather. As well as providing a warm place for work, chat and coffee for me, as the one in Balmedie does, less hardy plants will thrive there too. I have worked out that a medium sized one would cost less than a high-end handbag.

There is a plan afoot in Balmedie to raise funds for a sensory garden, but I think they may have created one already with what they have. Gardening engages all the senses, and working with the soil and plants is delightful enough. Lewis Grassic Gibbon called the smell of the farmyard: ‘fine and heartsome…’ and continued: ‘They sell stuff in Paris in little bottles, with just that smell, and charge for it handsomely, as they may well do for it is the smell that backgrounds existence.’

So, this season, I have rescued a diamond, avoided a handbag and committed to a poly-tunnel. Now I can look forward to spring, when our parish will be encircled by enchanting tubs of colourful flowers; Belhelvie’s own band of gold.

I Could See the Wind

Did you know that a long time ago there was a freshwater loch in Belhelvie? Yes there was. It stretched all the way from Ardo, down to Butterywells at Potterton. Then one long cold winter, rather similar to this long cold winter, a flock of geese came in to land, and the temperature dropped suddenly. It was so cold the water froze around their legs, and so, when those geese flew away, they took the loch with them… They say it is up beyond Methlick now.

This month the ice has retreated, and there’s been a flap on here in the garden. The pigeons are making themselves comfortable in the hedge noisily. When they murmur to one another, they are supposedly saying: ‘Tak twa coos Davie, Tak twa coos’.

During the cold and windy late spring, I took to armchair adventuring. I read John Buchan’s stories of the far North. His son, Johnny, inherited the title Lord Tweedsmuir, and came to live in Potterton House at Hogmanay 1952. Apparently, he resembled one of his father’s heroes, and he is reputed to have kept a badger and a barrel of oysters in his rooms at Oxford. He and his wife Priscilla were only able to enjoy their woodland home in Belhelvie, for three weeks before the great storm of January 1953 blew down most of the trees. They set about replanting enthusiastically, and the mature Canadian Maples growing near Potterton House date back to that time. Lady Tweedsmuir was the M.P. for South Aberdeen and the couple grew to love this area, especially the variety of birdlife. She was instrumental in the passing of the Protection of Birds Act in 1954. We have a variety of birds here in Belhelvie. Moorland and grassland, woodland and sea species, as well as migrant varieties are all here in Belhelvie. Maybe it takes an outsider like Lady Tweedsmuir to appreciate the beauty and variety of a familiar place. She presented Sunday school prizes at the church and some people in Belhelvie still remember her.

After last year’s wet autumn, more fields than usual have been ploughed up in the parish this spring. It’s been dry, and on a windy day last month I saw a sight as strange as a flying loch. Over a newly sown field near the dunes, dusty earth was hanging in the sky taking on the shape of the wind. The brown swirling cloud settled again in the field, but in Moray where the soil is lighter, they needed snowploughs to clear the sandy soil from the roads.

Beneath a pair of old ash trees, tucked deep into the leaf mould, we unearthed a green wine bottle with a deep punt in the base. It looked nearly as old as the trees. We pondered on who might have finished off a bottle of Burgundy in the corner of the garden by a couple of Ash saplings.

Standing in front of a waist high chopping log, billhook in hand, I reduced the mountain of Ash branches to a small hill of kindling. The job took time, but it was soothing and productive. With a bird-song accompaniment I was as happy as a monk with a manuscript.

EDITOR’S (Audrey Jeffries)REMINISCENCES

Mary’s reference to the Tweedsmuirs, reminded me of a fascinating day the Belhelvie Guides spent as Lord Tweedsmuir’s guests at Potterton House. This followed from an enquiry sent by a very young Morag Sutherland and simply addressed to his Lordship at the House of Lords. His prompt reply invited us to come and visit him. The next time he came north from London to Edinburgh he would make the journey, especially to greet us. We had free run of the house, garden and woodland and there we cooked him a camp style breakfast (in the rain!) which he ate with relish before showing us round the house and garden. Some girls were enrolled into the movement and made their Guide promise in the conservatory which I recall was completely steamed up with all the hot girls and wet cagoules.

The house was a treasure trove of artefacts from around the world. Not only gifts to his wife Lady Priscilla in her role with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from his life in Canada but also from his travels working in Africa and South America as well as in the high Arctic with the Hudson Bay Company and his year spent living with Inuit. There was even a great bell from the front of a Canadian train. The girls took great delight in giving that a boing!

Indeed there were also many items belonging to his father, the author John Buchan the 1st Lord Tweedsmuir. Our host ‘Johnnie’, the eldest of Buchan’s three sons, claimed that although this famous author did own a typewriter, he preferred the simple dipping pen, of which he had a collection and used these to write his many pieces including “The 39 Steps”. He claimed his father did not master anything more elaborate and technical than the simple pen preferring that to the more modern fountain pen. I seem to remember being told that the great man could not even master the technicalities of riding a push bike! But perhaps his adventurous son was using a bit of poetic licence to impress the girls. He was a truly charming host and very responsive to a barrage of questions from the girl guides. All thanks to Morag and her note to the House of Lords. AJ.

Sanguine

July has continued to be really warm. When the edges of the garden are being mown there is a foreign spicy fragrance, redolent of tobacco and old roses. The wild geranium Herb Robert has reddened in the dry heat, the three hens lie lethargically in their dust bath. When we were shown round this garden in February 1986 and the owner said, “It can get too hot in here,” we nodded and smiled politely. She was right though, because in the garden today, nearly thirty years later it is, at last, too hot.

To help combat climate change we have been trying to reduce our carbon footprint when considering a new heating system. We have read and researched, seen demonstrations and attended a seminar. We have committed to an Austrian boiler fuelled by wood pellets from Banff and are preparing for its installation.

Clearing out a dark corner we re-found an ancient wooden wheelbarrow. Made from timber and iron, it is wood-wormy and rusty, but the ash handles are still silky smooth from, well, hands. It’s so heavy that it’s no wonder gardeners didn’t seem to be in a hurry when they were pushing them. The iron wheel rim, the brackets and the fixings look as if they were made locally. At one time in this parish you were never far from a blacksmith. When sitting quietly, listening, at Belhelvie Kirk the other week I found myself contemplating the simple iron holders used to stow the empty communion wine glasses. They are attached to the pitch pine pew backs, at knee height, below the bible shelf. They look old and have a soft metallic patina. They are fashioned from two narrow straps of iron crossed and curled forward, not quite touching… like little arms. It’s tempting to imagine the ‘Belhelvie Blacksmith’, the Minister Alexander Forsyth forging, shaping and quenching by the little anvil, still kept in the porch of the Kirk, but the dates probably don’t fit so we must leave it there in our imagination although it’s true his skill was in making small iron components. During the early 1800’s he made locks and penknives, appropriate enough as ministerial activity. He would have helped to keep his congregation and their possessions safe and presumably enable them to lock-up their homes to attend services or sharpen quills ready for biblical instruction. Later though, he went on to develop the percussion lock so that guns could fire faster. This new technology replaced the old flintlock and loose gunpowder. ‘That’s a bit ironic for a minister.’ we say to one another in Belhelvie when the subject comes up.

We went to give blood for the first time the other day. I have never got around to it on my own, and pilots aren’t encouraged to give any of their bodily fluids away. Now he has retired from flying, we decided to brave it together. It turned out to be not too challenging but memorable. I found I was a universal donor, he fainted, and I left my jacket behind. Whilst down at Foresterhill, we saw from a distance the interesting looking white igloo of the nearly completed Maggie’s Centre by the Norwegian architect, Snohetta. Aberdeen is catching up with the other Scottish cities by providing beautiful surroundings for families enduring the cancer process.

We are looking forward to our American family visiting this summer with our grandsons. We have noticed that a lot of effort and attention is invested in the choice of language when interacting with children nowadays so I shall have to be on my toes. Let me share the following short play-let, sent to us via face book from their kitchen table.

Scene: Boys staring empty-eyed at their lunch, not eating.
Mom (stern):
 Seems like that donut earlier wasn’t a good idea.
Fin (5 year old in serious tone): – We’re not talking about the donut. We’re talking about this lunch.
and curtain.

We are thinking of local activities that would entertain them. We shall go to Balmedie beach of course and do the usual things there. We will take the opportunity to point out the five miles of absolutely flat land, at exactly 100 feet above sea level. Used by the Ordnance Survey as a baseline to take their calculations from, when they mapped the country in 1817. It will give their parents, the perfect opportunity to explain to those receptive children, the principles of trigonometry.

The North East of Scotland was late in the map-making department. Before the Ordnance Survey team arrived, we were largely map-less. There is a sketchy map overseen by Robert Gordon, drawn in the 1640’s (held by the National Library of Scotland) which shows our area. There are no roads marked, just little hillocks marked in brown ink. It was possibly used to show the aristocratic owners their territory. Ardo is the last place marked to the west before the unfinished blank area east to the coast. It is marked as ‘Glamis Ardo’, referring to its ownership by the Earl of Glamis from 1543 to 1653. After that, the Earl of Panmure incorporated Ardo into the Belhelvie lands. However Craibadonna, Bal-ne-kettill, Kyng seat, Achloune, Hillbrae and Tuliry are names marked on the map that we can still recognise today. This summer, visitors have had to use G.P.S. to find a way around the road works, including Panmure Gardens. These days the Earl would be able to look at Google maps to check his property.

Soon the weather will change and we Belhelvians, will again be wrapped up and be-scarved, watching beech leaves roiling in the wind against a bruised dark sky. Meantime here in the past I skip across dry lawns in bright sunshine chasing shadows, my tiny carbon feet leaving hardly a trace.

Earthly Delights

Have you noticed that earth just stays where it’s put? I mention this because a mystery mound at the base of a granite wall here at Ardo, was explained recently, when I watched a man scoop out the usual lump of leafy muck from our gutters and drop it below him. I reckon, over decades that action has been repeated many times. The vegetable matter just decomposes and stays ever so quiet as it solidifies and inches up the wall.

In the last few years more earth has been moved in Belhelvie than mankind managed in all the previous millennia. Whole hillsides have been altered. Lorry loads of waste have land filled in the spaces between sandy hills. Tons of subsoil and bluestone has been taken on unexpected journeys.

Hillside and seashore, crag and woodland, whin and muir, Belhelvie has such a variety of topography. Old droving ways, now tarmacked, curl around the parish avoiding the outcrops of Belhelvie rock that poke out of the earth like giant’s knees and elbows. Rooks caw, gulls mew. On showery days when there is accompanying sun, we have glorious cloud formations and rainbows. Rainbow we say not Spectrum of light or Heaven’s curve, because we named them long ago in the days when men carried a bow and arrow not a Samsung Galaxy.

It was only the other day I realised that Orion the hunter has a bow of stars up there in the sky as well as his sword and dog. He would have needed one, of course he would. Consider the impossibility of hunting without a bow. Trudging along, never getting close enough to the prey to catch and dispatch it, the heavy sword and scabbard clanking, the dog never bringing anything back…hopeless.

This summer from the garden we looked up at the sky near Orion. A friend and I sat in the chairs wrapped in blankets with hot toddies to hand, and watched the meteor shower before the clouds came over to bring the curtain down.

The bio fuel boiler has now been installed, to keep us warm and smug, sorry snug. We felt we were moving heaven and earth to get it done, having to take off a roof from the old dairy, so the hot water tanks could be craned in. However it’s done. The vacuum mole sucks up the wood pellets and sends them scuttling along plastic tunnels to the burner and sweet-smelling wood smoke comes out of the central heating chimney.

Our family from Michigan visited us as planned and we all had a good time although it’s hard to surprise world-weary young grand boys. They had been space-invaded and lego-ed out. They have been brought up with cartoon super heroes, been partied, swum, cycled and taken to fairground and circus. Never more than ten seconds from a distraction, few things move them to the edge of their seats. What could we, Grandma and Grandpa ‘Faraway’ offer in Belhelvie we wondered? Night adventure and curious vegetables that’s what, it turned out. With the parents away, we were left in charge. Leaving the house at dusk to visit the badger-set up on the hill, we carried torches and a favourite plastic pirate sword for protection. We all held hands and made our way through late summer grass to the old stone quarry. The stone here in the 18th and 19th centuries was dug out of the hill to make the field walls and the hedgerow up our lane on the West side of Ardo. Holding back the weight of the hill, part of the lane is lower than the field like an ancient hollow-way. Of course, we were making far too much noise to actually see a badger and even if they were at home, they would have been holding their paws over their poor badgered ears. The shrieks outside their front door were piercing when I had to wrangle a skinny five year old, hopping and scratching his leg, away from the edge of what was a surprisingly huge hole. I was trying to  prevent a ‘Child stuck in a Badger Sett’ incident on the news, whilst trying to answer the question ‘Why do badgers have stinging nettles by their front doors Grandma?’ Cows ambled over to see what all the fuss was about and loomed worryingly large over small boys in the gloom. We lost the pirate sword in the grass, whilst beating a slightly hasty retreat back over the hedge to the lane. There, while the cows watched us over the hedge, we were able to relax and relish the moment. Owls hooted and bats swooped against the moon. The boys ‘waved’ their lights up through the tree branches as we walked back down to the house and cups of reviving hot chocolate. In the retelling to parents, that outing sounded like a pretty decent adventure.

Next morning, we took them to the vegetable garden to find carrots. Picture this: Child in vegetable area standing amongst feathery foliage. Hands go out, flip over and are pushed outwards and upwards in the universal gesture that says: Oh Grandma, I’m afraid, (but not surprised), that you are wrong; carrots as we know them in America, are long and coloured orange and there are none to be seen here. ‘Ah ha,’ think I, ‘Watch this my little unbelievers’. I bend down, gather a few of the fronds together and pull. The soil releases a perfect carrot with a satisfying little ‘thwock’ and I hold it aloft. For an instant their faces showed complete surprise, quickly followed by a, ‘Yea, oh yea, that’s where you find them, we knew that all along’ but they happily set to, pulled more out of the ground and helped cook dinner.

Ghandi said: ‘To forget how to till the soil is to forget ourselves’.

I hope those little boys tucked those experiences into their sword belts of knowledge gathered up their bows of memory and returned to urban America with good stories to tell at their Primary School news time.

By the time you read this, my fellow Belhelvians, I shall be in New Zealand again but with luck and a following wind I will send you back musings from the far South for the March issue.

Meanwhile,
‘Til charcoal sprouts

Note: There was a while when I was intrigued enough with the sign offs in letters or any other communications, to use them at the end of the Banter articles. BCNU. Which is text for ‘be seeing you’ was one of them. To be fair to myself that was newish in texts at the time. My favourite one, and you will see some more before I gave up, was ‘Til charcoal sprouts, an old fashioned way of saying forever.

High up on the mountain something catches my eye. It’s Doreen’s fridge magnet: the little plastic red man that clamps the photos of her grandchildren. Wait a minute, says my brain, I am in a valley in South Island New Zealand and that fridge magnet is at Broomhillock in Belhelvie Parish. ‘Ahh’, my grey matter re-computes, ‘that red figure is a full sized climber spread-eagled across the rock face, far away’. We continue our picnic and watch. He slowly works his way across the grey schist, a tiny hand reaching for chalk from the bag around waist, his ropes invisible at this distance.

Adventurous activity is in the air here. The 60th anniversary of the accent of Everest in 1953 has been celebrated in the town, because Edmund Hillary climbed the mountains here as practice, before he went to the Himalayas.

So here we are again, busy in the summer sun, settling back into our New Zealand cottage. It was built for a sheep musterer’s family in the 1920s. It isn’t marked on a map. The best places never are. The external walls are made from flattened out oil cans. They have been painted and then forgotten for decades. The orangey rust colours against the soft blues of the lavender by the little green door are a perfect combination. We will continue to work on it during this visit. It’s called ‘Biscuit Tin Cottage’ because the foundations are old biscuit tins filled with concrete. Wooden plank floors have saw marks and there are later additions of flat tin, nailed down along gaps to deter rodents. Patches of old newsprint still stick to the walls. One readable headline says: ‘Glee Resumes’. I like that, it sounds positive, as if we were meant to be here, enjoying the combination of renovation and southern sun.

It has some similarities to our home in Belhelvie…It has history, there are trees around it, a hill behind for shelter, and nice neighbours. However, there are differences. Yesterday a problem with a floor was solved by lifting the corner of the building with a car jack. That doesn’t happen at home.

When William Morris travelled to Iceland in the 1870s, he noticed that there was a delight to be had in the differences of ordinary things. ‘ I’m looking at horses, the hats and the hellos’, he wrote home. We enjoy doing the same here, observing the similarities, seeing our own history in a different context.

At our native plant volunteer sessions, we hear tales from New Zealand locals. There was the one about the old climber interviewed in Dunedin not long ago about his ascent of one of the Southland mountains with his brother in the 1930s. ‘Have you any proof you reached the summit’? he was asked. ‘No because our camera film ran out.’ the old man replied. The disbelieving interviewer then went off to organise his own expedition, determined to claim the peak for himself. When his team eventually reached the top, they found a small cairn and inside there was a sardine tin containing the names of the old men.

??????was an old and treasured local character. He probably had ‘a smile like a burnt fence’ and ‘was as fit as a robber’s dog’. He won a ticket to fly in an aeroplane for the first time on one of the Air New Zealand sight-seeing trips to the Antarctic. Yep, it was the one that crashed into Mount Erebus…

We shared a meal with a man who told of a dog which when his owner says: “Do you fancy a bike ride? “jumps up onto his knee facing forwards and then when it’s ears are held like handlebars, makes a growling noise like a motor bike. Our neighbours here killed pigs for Christmas and hung them in the trees, like an etching by Goya, before butchering them. They were generous in their invitations to share the roast, but we had to walk around the pool of dried blood on the lawn to get to the table… Rosanna and Frank from Balmedie Farm came here on their Honeymoon last month, and mountain biked to us down the rugged Clutha river track from Wanaka. (Clutha is from the Gaelic for Clyde) Full of youthful energy, they would have zoomed past the site where Nathaniel Chalmers stood in 1853. He was the first white man to see this area. He had walked all the way up from the coast at Dunedin. He didn’t stay long. Having had diarrhoea for months, he apparently said to his Maori guides with typical explorer understatement, ‘In truth I am too fagged to proceed further’… and they rafted his almost lifeless body back down the river to Dunedin.

That would have been around the time that the new Kirk at Balmedie was being planned. The main house at Ardo with a smart new Rubislaw granite front, had just been finished, and The University of Aberdeen was several hundreds of years old.

.

Living Dangerously.

…Yes, we are living dangerously. Back in Belhelvie from a winter away in New Zealand we are outside wearing hard hats and carefully passing wodges of mortar from hand to hand. Gently tucking granite stones back into place, without dislodging the overhanging boulders that could fall on us.

Trees are like children they show us the passage of time. Walls on the other hand are frozen at the moment of their building. They exist in a state of somnolence. They just are, until they return to the ground in a hurry. Part of the front face of our eight-foot high garden wall collapsed four years ago, after a fall of snow. It was too big a job for us at the time, so we braced and propped the remaining stones. We hoped it would somehow mend itself. Of course it didn’t. It did what walls do…nothing, and it’s only now that we have summoned up the energy for mending it. Working underneath the stones is a delicate business. Our strategy is to do a small section, leave it to harden and return. We use the concrete mixer a decent distance away to avoid the vibration setting off a rock fall. We are watched by the Speedwell eyes of the Green Alkanet plants that have taken up residence in the spilled lime mortar. Plum blossom prettily floats around us, and the sun is shining creating long shadows along the rest of the wall. We make steady progress. I wonder where all this stone would have come from. It is a mixture of fieldstone and granite. Most likely it will have been quarried from the fields around here and brought in by horse and cart in the 1800s. The large quarry hole in the field in front of the house that the badgers have taken advantage of, is the best bet. The smaller hole where we once found pale green bottles behind the house is the second. I pick up shards of a brown pot by the wall that had tiny holes where the glaze has bubbled. Although old, it would be more recent than the beakers in the Aberdeen Museum that were found in graves near here. This area of the north east retained the habit of interring people, crouched up with a pottery urn, for two hundred years longer than the rest of Europe. Loyalty to the house of Stuart persisted long after the revolution of 1688. There is a theme here. Oxen were still used for ploughing in Belhelvie when horses became the norm in most other places. It has been said that in the North East the people have always been, not renegade exactly, but dissident, independent, able to keep secrets, and mind their own business.

Our history is still around, albeit in memory or underground. One of my friends was having some work done on her farm recently and the digger driver uncovered a small, handled granite implement. On examination, it turned out to be a hand-held oil lamp from the Stone Age. A small reservoir had been patiently pocked out of its centre and the handle had an indent for a thumb. Belhelvie has always had plenty of stone. As well as useful whinstone from the quarry and bricks from Seaton brick works, this parish has produced massive amounts of gravel and sand for concrete. They must be using plenty of Belhelvie for the expansion of the airport right now. Have you seen it lately? It’s hard to recognise this description of Friday night travel from London by Lord Tweedsmuir in 1963: ‘It’s another world dropping into the Aberdeen airport at dusk. It is a very cosy airport. Oyster Catchers sit on the runway and you smell the air of the hills as you come down the ladder and feel deep country around you. As it is only six miles from Potterton it is an almost miraculous way of reaching home on an end of week evening. We can do a whole day’s work in London and not leave the city ‘til five and still be back at Potterton at about 10 o’clock and on a summer evening admire the garden in daylight…’

We have been bored lately by conversations with our young people. We have been told about their gym sessions, and running times, core strength, food intolerance and power diets. Friends have had similar experiences. (hash-tag, Generation gap). When Chris returned from working away in Norway the other week, we exchanged our own variety of chit-chat and found it so much more entertaining. I described a programme I’d seen about dog-sledders who had carried diphtheria serum hundreds of miles across terrifying terrain, to save the people of Nome in Alaska. (It’s a dream of mine to drive a team of huskies.) He, a long-time fan of Irish folk music had found out why the Clancy brothers always wore those Arran sweaters on stage; chit-chat perfection.

There has been progress on our poly-tunnel. Bought last year, but with no time to put it up, this month, we have brought out the components and laid them on the ground. Stored in the shed over the winter we found that mice had eaten down through the folded edges of white plastic. Opened out there is a raggedy repeat pattern of tooth marks along one side. I could mend it with the white tape supplied for accidental damage, but I wonder if there is a possibility of patching it with clear coloured plastic. It might create a stained-glass effect. Just imagine, the sun shining over the newly mended wall and through the polythene, sending streaks of rainbow light over my lettuces and beans.

 Until next time.

Passing on the Baton.

On our way home from seeing the opening of The Kelpies, we stopped off to admire the new memorial at Bannockburn. A poem carved into the high curved oak beam is by Kathleen Jamie:

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says

You win me, who take me most to heart. …

It’s been quite a year for reflecting upon our country. Seven hundred years since Bannockburn, one hundred years since the First World War, and seventy years since ‘D’ Day. It’s also been a year for vicariously taking part in epic sporting events. From the Scottish Open down at the Aberdeen links, to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. We had the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and we still have the Referendum to look forward to when there will be all to play for.

Here lies our land: every airt.

The Queen’s baton travelled very close to our parish in June, on its way to Glasgow for the Games. Inside, it contained small pieces of blue granite from Ailsa Craig which were left as mementoes on its journey through the fiftythree countries taking part.

Aberdeenshire has a little-known connection to the First World War. Captain W.E. Johns wrote some of the ‘Biggles’ series here. He liked the area and rented a house for fishing and shooting trips. Those of us who remember those cheap hard-backed adventure books with the soft paper, know that they helped us learn about exotic foreign places, as well as the power of friendship, and how to win a dog-fight. Of course our attitudes to ethnicity and the countries we now call the Commonwealth, have changed since then, but the character of Biggles is still with us through the power of story recycling. Doctor Who’s Captain Jack, played by Glaswegian John Barrowman, keeps a character similar to Biggles alive, albeit in a longer coat.

This summer the subject of grandchildren and my relationship with them has been on my mind. ‘What do you remember of your grandparents?’ I have asked people. ‘Did you or do you know them, spend time with them, hear things about past

relatives, learn old fashioned things from them you never thought you’d need?’ ‘Did you appreciate them or wish you’d known them better?’
I have also been considering how much grandchildren need their grandparents as a base for their own emotional future. It’s when we become grandparents that we benefit from those memories of our own grandparents. They help to place us in context with our family. They enfold us into the fabric of ourselves.

We are mere transients who sing

Perhaps due to distance I have a romantic notion of being a Grandparent. The little boys in America call us ‘Grandma and Grandpa Faraway’, for obvious reasons. One day recently we watched a video of them on ‘you tube’ showing us how to build a Lego model. It was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me as I realised that they weren’t tiny anymore, and if we are to have more than a fleeting holiday relationship with them, we need to get on with it.

Small folk playing our part

If I were to see them more often, I could tell them about their great-great grandfather whom I knew well until I was thirty. He learned to design ships in Glasgow. He fought at the Somme, survived and lived ‘til he was ninety. I can remember how his false teeth squeaked when he chewed… Or their country great- great grandmother an expert goose-plucker, and baker. I can remember watching her take the hot iron from the open range, and spit on it to check the heat.

Seeing more of the grandchildren, will be a challenge logistically, but for the summer months in the next few years, Kalamazoo, Michigan is where I intend to be, allowing two small memory banks to top up with Grandparent–ness, which will include the reading of old fashioned 20th Century adventure stories in their red cardboard covers.

As for the challenge, I shall try to remember Biggles’ advice when his men were facing a new aviation problem: “If you can fly a Sopwith Camel you can fly anything”.

Come all ye’ the country (or parish or family) says, You win me who takes me most to heart.

Yours Aye,

The Future is Exciting

Someone told us that years ago, an owl flew into our kitchen and perched above the fireplace. It sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? ‘The Owl Who Lived on the Mantle-piece’… Maybe it really happened. It’s true there are Owls in the garden here. We have seen young ones hopping around the lawn on summer evenings. They do seem less orientated, so that I could imagine one dark night, the door could have been left open, and, in the morning, when the family got up there it would have been, blinking over the Rayburn.

I try not to be nostalgic for the time when we knew less about the world. Constantly being reminded of great change can be wearing. Even having to adapt to small changes is tiresome. It can feel like the very earth is shifting. Take the mystery of missing Linda, for instance. Linda has been at the Belhelvie quarry office, more or less in charge of things as long as we can remember. A reliable part of parish life. This year when we went to fetch our usual ton of sub-base, she wasn’t there. Gone. There was a man in her chair to and in front of him on the desk was this helpful sign: ‘still not Linda’.

Over in Africa we hear the ancient handshake greeting has been changed to a hand over the heart gesture, in an effort to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. How very touching, is that act of un-touching.
Our traditional spoken greeting: Hello from ‘Halloo!’ the old call from the hunting field, only arrived with the telephone (in the thirties here at Ardo). The new technology provoked the startled call, that was used to urge on the hounds when prey was seen. I think when the phone rang it felt as if the outside world might have been about to intrude or when calling, your voice was in danger of going off who knew where. I still feel a bit like that with our current telephone and broadband issues. Our signal comes and goes. ‘Hello… goodbye…hello’. Video clips of dogs or dolphins on social media sites come in uninvited to gobble up our gigabytes.

Work on the long-awaited bypass, has begun in the parish. Trees are being felled and land cleared. The sandy south of the parish will be re-landscaped. Men wearing more layers than an onion are directing traffic with their ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’ lollypops. Lorries are carrying stone hither and thither. The land is being cut to the bone. It’s no use me pursing my lemon lips in my ivory tower though, because easier road access to cities is needed; at the very least, so someone can come and fix our wi-fi problems. Commerce is important, they say, it’s the way forward.

That reminds me of a story about commerce that could have been set here in Belhelvie. Once upon a time three men called Bat, Bramble and Cormorant were in the wool business together. They borrowed money to invest in a ship to export the woollen cloth to… Edinburgh, let’s say.

Unfortunately the ship sank…on the sand bank off Balmedie I shouldn’t wonder… ruining all three of the businessmen. Which is why, the Bat, only comes out at night, to avoid his creditors, the Cormorant is always diving to salvage the wreck and the Bramble snatches wool wherever it can.

It was a long way to Edinburgh by road then; quicker by a ship (although they had to avoid the sandbanks). Fifty years ago this summer the road bridge over the Forth was opened to make the journey easier. Our neighbour Jeremy from East Cannahars says he watched the bridge construction from the ferry when he travelled to school in Edinburgh. Before 1890 when the rail bridge was opened, Edinburgh would have been a mere folk tale for people living here in Belhelvie. Everyone had to make do with the parish for entertainment… such as misplaced birdlife.

The poet Wallace Stevens said: ‘A man and a woman are one.
A man and a woman and a Blackbird are one.’

I like that don’t you? Here’s to a healthy heart and a wet glass.

Wild

In my studio when it’s cold outside, I burn timber scraps on a little wood burner. I can boil a kettle on the top and probably cook a Homity Pie if I were pushed. The outside cat loves it and stares ecstatically into the flames. Lighting a fire is so cheering. The success of getting it to draw, waiting for it to establish, boiling water and toasting bread, all make a day seem more positive. It’s as if a fire creates its own dynamic space. In his novel Waverley, Walter Scott wrote of adventure up here in the North. Writing in the 1800s he vividly described life in the Scottish Highlands sixty years before to entertain his southern readers with the ‘wildness’ of it all. He passed through Belhelvie collecting material. It was before the road was made so he would have ridden along the beach from Aberdeen. He noted down interesting facts to use in his stories. A village engulfed by dunes, (Forvie) and the dangerous quicksand of Belhelvie that engulfed a horse and rider in 1612. Travelling at all through Scotland at that time would have had its share of exotic adventure.

I have two wild friends with whom I enjoy adventuring. One of them is thrilled by the freedom of wild swimming, the more remote the better. I am her somewhat reluctant companion, helping to find the watery location then keeping watch holding her clothes. On one occasion we had to squeeze under security gates like Peter Rabbit, such was her keen desire to be the first to swim there. The truth is, I am more ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ than ‘Peter Rabbit’, enjoying my near surroundings whilst being tempted by the faraway.

With my other wild friend, Philippa, I can be more like Little Grey Rabbit. We cook and eat wild. We have carried a box of matches with bacon and fish in our coat pockets, walking along a riverbank like ragamuffins. Together we have boiled rice with her home grown saffron sprinkled into it or potatoes with butter and rosemary. We enjoy finding a place for the fire, propping kindling into a neat tee-pee and sniffing the fragrance of the burning wood. Recently she achieved funding for an art project down at Scott Base. She sent a picture of herself holding out a pancake in a frying pan, her pleased expression saying: I-AM-IN-THE- ANTARCTIC. Behind her pinned up on a shelf was a note saying … ‘Hi Mary’.

MY-NAME-WAS-THERE-IN-THE-ANTARCTIC.

Adventure in the wild has universal appeal. The other day I saw a nest of non-stick saucepans displayed in a well-known Bridge of Don store, called ‘The Adventure range of pans’. They didn’t seem over keen for adventure. They didn’t look as if they expected to be used on adventures at all. Maybe there are domestic adventures I don’t know about. Maybe they are meant to look so ordinary as to encourage adventure, as in: “This dull saucepan reminds me it’s time to get out and explore the world”.

Over in Copenhagen ‘Noma’ that much advertised super-restaurant links itself to the desire within us to experience our past. Their menu offers many tiny courses of foraged ingredients, beautifully arranged. It gives people an exquisite if expensive taste of their culinary and cultural history. Kelp and crushed beechnuts, smoked quail eggs, teal and sloes. Maybe they don’t have wild friends.

At the time ‘Waverley’ was being written many housewives were still choosing to use the old-fashioned spit for roasting meat. This was when ovens were available so there must have been nostalgia for the old ways. Maybe they were reluctant to give up the dogs. A muscular small dog called a ‘Turnspit’ had been bred for powering the machinery that turned the spit.

A caged wheel was hung on the wall above the fire connected to pulleys and the hot, smoky dog would be poked with a stick when it flagged. There would be a couple of these in the household to take their turn and we still say ‘Every dog has its day’, which goes to show that words have hollow places where the past sleeps.

The big road improvements underway now are hopefully going to improve our ability to get about. In the early 1800s the government introduced tolls in an attempt to make people pay directly for road improvements. In an attempt to prevent aggravated people jumping over the gates on their way to market they put pikes (spikes) on top, which is why roads in some places are still called turnpikes.

The Belhelvie turnpikes were dismantled in 1866. Around about the same time the last Aberdeenshire Turnspit dog would have been let out of his treadmill. He had had his last day. Those same roads are now part of the new future Energetica Corridor the latest effort to achieve a stream of income.

What do we do, but make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn”. – Jane Austen.

The Measurement of Dreams

Chris remembers being at home soldering rails for his Hornby Dublo railway, listening to radio Luxemburg when President Kennedy died. The subject of train sets came up because we are thinking of activities to keep us going through six weeks of school holidays with the grand sons in America. ‘What about your old train set’? I said. It has been kept safe, but apart from a brief outing in the late eighties it is packed away. The boys have nearly finished with Lego, and now play Mine-craft on their tablets. I’m thinking they would benefit from mastering the ancient skills of electricity and carpentry, making sponge trees and being introduced to manly swearing when things don’t work.

I have a Grandmotherly activity prepared too. I am going to offer cooking, and when that loses its charm, I have a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ up my sleeve. The great Rothschild collection is being rehoused in the British Museum this year and that reminded me to look at my collections. Those ‘Wunderkammern’ or ‘wonder rooms’ of the Baroque period sound so much better than nature table or a collection of penguins on a shelf. In the Renaissance, manly men with money, and time on their hands (no train-sets), created marvellous collections to show off to their friends. We all have something similar in miniature on our mantle-pieces. We are born to collect and be curious. There were five categories of wonder, and I shall encourage the boys to look at or bring me something for all of them: naturalia-the natural, arteficialia- the manmade, scientifica -new technology, exotica-finds from different realms, and mirabilia- the inexplicable. We may not have a unicorn’s horn, or a bejewelled chalice but I have enough weird and wonderful things to start our own thrilling collection. The pebble Nick brought back from Scout camp. ‘Err… I didn’t find anything to buy but I saw this in the loch, and it looked nice…’ is definitely one of my treasures. Then there is the ancient bottle we dug up at Ardo, and the silver apostle spoon from my great grandfather. I have just been clearing out my mother’s house so that it can be sold. She is bedridden at the care home, where she is comfortable but near the end of her long life. Years ago we made a contract that I would do the necessary with her things so I am doing it now, without discussing it further. We just exchanged wan smiles. Mum never embraced consumerism. She was a bit like Aunt Glegg in ‘Mill on the Floss’. She could only wear new clothes, if they had been laid down like geological strata in drawers for years.

Mum and Dad were both good at collecting. Old implements, letters, pressed flowers, scrapbooks of holidays, minutes of meetings, pencils, stationary. Our daughter joked when we were recycling the many, many, empty margarine containers that if there were an auction, one day would have to be devoted to paper clips, rubber bands and treasury tags.

A neighbour here in Belhelvie is relocating this summer, and we have helped to sift through her farm buildings. Old pieces of furniture were lurking like guests who had overstayed their welcome. We lit a bonfire and burned a sofa that had supported the family through so many years, we felt we should have gathered up the warm springs and put them in a casket. Among the old motors and scrap in the farm workshop there was a bundle of folded metal links tied up with tow. I somehow recognised it from deep within my peasant memory. You know the memory that tells you: ‘Ohh… an old blanket, better keep that’ or ‘Ohh… the blackberries are ripe, better pick them’. There it was, half a stone of metal, 22 yards of links to be laid out on the ground for measuring one tenth of a furlong, the furrow-long …the distance a horse could plough before a rest. A chain… the length of a cricket pitch, or an allotment. Before decimals we used imperial numbers that seem complicated now. However if you cut a pie and then halve it and halve it again you will see those numbers naturally appearing … 2 4 8 and 16. Some of you, at least those of you who remember the death of Kennedy, will remember them on the back of our school exercise books. Along with the chain there was the rod or pole, the length of a stick used to prod your team of oxen.

The new road around Aberdeen has been started at last. It will have been measured by now, but not with rods and chains. Sadly the satellites and lasers will be too big for my scientifica and exotica shelves. Imperial weights and measures along with the Magna Carta, which formed the basis of their constitution, were taken to America and they haven’t turned decimal so there will be a place there for the chain.

Think of us on a summer evening laying the links out straight in the Kalamazoo sunshine. We’ll put the cricket stumps up at either end before going inside to paint tiny figures for the station platform. In my dreams those little boys of nine and seven listen carefully to our notions of how to pass the time this summer, and they make little astonished sounds like pigeons round a crushed cake.

Live long and prosper.

Dried Cod with Mustard Sauce

 ‘How was it in Belhelvie while we were away?’ I asked, when we returned from America. ‘The world wept for you.’ replied my poetic friend from over the hill. ‘Yes’ I replied somewhat ruefully, ‘I see that, and the stars appeared too I see, in the form of seeding grass plants on our gravel paths’.

We did our best to be good grandparents in America. As well as being taxi drivers for the two boys, we looked after them while their parents worked. It wasn’t plain sailing; it has to be said. It’s one thing for their parents to hope that they would enjoy time with us so much that they stop playing on their tablets, it’s another for us to have the power to lure them away. Our weaponry to counteract their exciting virtual world, was, if you remember, playing cricket, the nineteen fifties Dub-lo train set, chess, the family curiosities I had taken with me… and gardening. Yes, I can hear the sound of your head bumping onto the table as you mutter ‘What was she thinking?’ Anyhow, we went over there, and did what we could. We showed them the depths of our naivety and did our best to engage with their little souls. In our different ways I hope we all enjoyed the companionship.

…And you are right, it was a hopeless task to imagine we would entice them with our archaic family pastimes. However they were close by the train set when it was running, saw their family tree being constructed and a Cabinet of Curiosities was painted and was left there with family objects tucked inside it. It was strange to see how far the boys ranged in the enticing digital worlds, and how little they were able to access the real world on their own. Of course, their restricted freedom now will be so much expanded as they grow up. They will be free to think and do what they please. They certainly aren’t committed to continuing their father’s line of work or to stay at a certain level of social order as previous generations were.

The Newburgh artist James McBey grandson of the Newburgh blacksmith walked to Aberdeen and back on his own to buy a box of paints when he was under 10 … around 1890. He went on to be well travelled away from familiy tradition but he was unusual for the time.

This text is from his autobiography showing how attached people were at the time into their place of birth and the social hierarchies. (Lots more about him of course in The Aberdeen Art Gallery when it reopens.)

Each farmer for miles around would be known by the name or contraction of the name of his farm- Piscaff, Linnie, Saak, Pitgersie, Ardo, Craibadonna, Drums Dubbystyle- and each had his pew. The pews of the prosperous wore cushions; those of the more humble worshippers had no padding. The collection was taken by the elders of the kirk, each of whom went to his appointed section bearing a pole like a broom handle with a square open box at the end. Deftly he would push this along in front of each pew. Meanwhile everyone listened to the fall of the coin into the box. All could tell if the coin were a penny a half penny or a threepenny piece. Our minister the Reverend J.S. Leutit (Captain Leutit of Ardo was the son of this minister.) was determined to change this mode of collection and at his own expense supplied velvet purple bags with handles that could be passed from hand to hand in a civilised manner. This created a schism and feeling ran high for months. Nearly half the congregation suspected this to be a ruse of the devil who had caught the minister off guard.”

We overheard the grandchildren, while they searched fussily for lunch possibilities. ‘I only like the French bread hot. … Oh, we don’t like that kind of pizza… Those carrots are the wrong shape. We only like the pancakes with chocolate chips…’
As a contrast, here is McBey on the food of his childhood at Foveran Smithy:

Our meals were frugal. The function of food was to keep the body alive and working: it was not to be enjoyed, and the changes were rung with oatcakes white bread, boiled beef, cabbages, kale, carrots, turnips, potatoes and tea.”

The grocery store in America was so large, we dared not split up. To find everything we walked the distance between Foveran and Belhelvie if not all the way to Aberdeen. When we eventually we got back in the car, we stowed items that were shipped from five continents including a very nice sauce to go with fish. It was in a convenient plastic container with a snap off lid. Here is McBey on his grandmother’s Mustard Sauce: “The entrance to the Ythan was difficult for small boats and gales were frequent in the winter so fish was not plentiful. The grocer kept a supply of dried codfish and on this we fed several times a year. By way of a treat my grandmother made for it a mustard sauce. She put a handful of dry mustard in a china washbasin with a pint or so of skimmed milk and a large cannon ball that was kept for this purpose. Seating herself on a stool, she held the basin on her lap, gripping it with her thighs, and then with a swaying rocking motion she kept the cannon ball swirling round the inside rim of the basin until it had crushed the mustard seeds which as it amalgamated with the milk became a paste. As more milk was added it became a sauce. Never once did it sag to the bottom centre nor did it ever shoot over the rim.”

That was some skill, don’t you think? I am off to practise so I can show the grandkids next year.

Granular Debate

One hand raised; I am holding on to my hat in a westerly wind. The wind that Mum and Dad joked kept our farm buildings up. I’m looking at a black and white photo from 1960 but I still remember the hat was blue, and the bolero I am wearing was angora. I can almost feel the softness on my arms. My brothers and I are lined up in front of a travelling drilling rig. The farm needed a better water supply, so the drill had been working to create a borehole deep into the hill. Some weeks before that a water- diviner had walked up and down, and across the field, putting in markers where she had felt the energy from the water pass up the forked stick and mysteriously through her body. Dad rarely took photos, but he would have wanted to record the moment when he had, at last, achieved a good reliable source of water.

I have been catching up on a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ book that I missed fifty years ago – (too much posing for photos). It describes the adventures of the ‘Coot Club’ on the Norfolk Broads. I was entertained by the familiar low-tech activities. Fictionally, it was possible to achieve so much with those simple elements of bicycles, jam sandwiches, good chums and an old-fashioned camera. Occasionally there was a need for additional extras that would be found in their pockets: a pencil, scraps of paper, string, a torch or a penknife. In this story there was much cycling around dusty roads to take messages there, and back again, getting thirsty and ‘puffed out’ in the process. When the young adventurers found they needed to take a photograph at night, one of the children, there was always a boffin one, built a homemade flash device out of a biscuit tin, magnesium powder (thankfully not in pocket) and a sparking emery wheel. It was all so vintage, so very down to earth.

Every now and then, when digging in my Belhelvie garden, I come across a lump of pure clay to play with. It’s not a rich Kincardine red, it’s more Whitecairns beige with ochre streaks. I like to knead this smooth earthiness in my hand and mould it into thumb pots or balls. I let them dry out in the summer sun and then leave them to collapse and dissolve in the winter. Mixed with linseed oil I could make a good weather-proof glazing putty with it, or I could if I liked tread it with sand and straw to make ‘cob’, and plaster a wall with it.

The varied geology around us in Aberdeenshire has been able to provide many of the raw materials we used to depend on. As well as stone and slate for houses, there was fire clay, peat, brick-clay, limestone, and sand. All quarried and transported to where they were needed. A rare mineral, diatomite was found at Muir of Dinnet. In the 1860s Alfred Nobel was driven to find a way to make nitro-glycerine safer after his brother was killed during experiments.

Alfred discovered that with the addition of Diatomite, (the chalky remains of tiny sea creatures), the explosive was stabilised. Nobel renamed the mixture dynamite. Diatomite was quarried and transported from Muir of Dinnet until 1919.
Throughout Belhelvie Parish and beyond we are all driving extra carefully to avoid trucks containing stones and gravel that has been blasted out of local quarries. The material is being transported to the new ring road construction sites, when ironically the need for such a road is in a lull due to falling oil prices.

Over the summer we met a man who said: ‘Ah, I remember Belhelvie… how is it doing?’ He told us he was a student here in the 1960s and bicycled from Potterton into Kings College. ‘It was so quiet on the road’, he said, I used to read my newspaper on the handlebars.’

The roads from Potterton and Balmedie to the new road are being worked on day and night. The modern high-tech machinery and G.P.S. must be helpful but it is still a huge project. Moving countless thousands of tonnes of material to support the new roads are changing the contours of the land. You have to admire the complexity of the endeavour, so much labouring, all to make our journeys easier. ‘Journey’ from the French ‘Jour nee’ a day’s work or a day’s travel for the journeymen who worked for a day’s pay. So much dedicated equipment and material managed in dust or mud. Then just when it gets easier and the roads are metalled, they all move on to a new site. It must feel like keeping wasps: All the trouble of keeping bees without the bother of collecting the honey.

Maureen Ross and I went over to Ballater, to see the splendid replica stagecoach the Royal Highlander with its team of horses. It was on a two-day charity fundraiser journey to Aberdeen. They were celebrating the time in the early 1800’s when the development of coaches and metalled roads meant that mail could be delivered in a day along the 58 miles of the Deeside road. Metalling is from the Latin metallium meaning a mine or a quarry. The roads were made with granite chips in the middle section to support the horse’s hooves. There was tightly packed smaller gravel and earth at the sides to be smooth for the wheels. At the staging points the horses were speedily changed so that they could keep up an average speed of ten miles an hour. This way of transportation was a great success… until the Deeside railway was built.

I am off now, travelling south to resume my job as your foreign correspondent. One winter’s day, when you are dodging those big trucks and the sky is as grey as a shark’s armpit, think of me. I’ll be in the New Zealand sunshine, working out what interesting nuggets to share with you for the Banter Spring Edition.

When I live my dreams, I will take you with me. David Bowie

Too much travel causes my equilibrium to leak away. It takes time to adapt to new concepts of normality. Then more time to rebalance the gimbal in my head and retrieve escaped silvery swirls. I’m sure coping with this side effect of travel would have made James McBey’s grandmother laugh a hollow laugh as she swung that cannonball in the enamel basin between her knees. (Reference here to a previous Parish Threads).

We are staying in the South Island of New Zealand again. The village has a pub but no shops. The people are friendly, and security isn’t an issue, except when it’s that time of year when everyone has too much garden produce. If you don’t lock your doors then, you might find a bag of courgettes on the kitchen table. Early one morning we hear a ‘snap snap’ of a silenced gun that tells us the spirit of pioneering lives on. The neighbour shoots rabbits from his bathroom window and will have them skinned and minced for his dogs before we are up.

We go searching for the source of the stream up on the stony hill above our cottage. The rainfall has been so low it has dried up. (Yes, I can hear you telling me you have had more than your fair share  of rain back at home in Aberdeenshire). We climb over the boundary fence and work our way higher to see what has happened to it.

In the 19th century hopeful miners dug and sluiced there in search of gold. Two brothers from my family left the UK in the1860’s to work on the goldfields near here. Young men, their minds and bodies greedy for hard work, have always been in the first phase of migrants. Keen to change their circumstances with limited resources the brothers travelled on foot from Dunedin carrying their tools and meagre supplies. They set up tents beside their allocated squares of land. A swinging bucket on a pole was erected over their diggings to move the soil away to be sluiced. They struggled because gold was elusive. They were hungry enough to eat Starling Turnovers apparently and suffered the full range of pioneer difficulties from Scurvy to Tin Pest.

John McGlashen optimistically told potential Scottish immigrants in 1848.

“If your prospects are bad then I can safely say that you would be ten times better off in New Zealand where, if you are able and willing to work, to keep yourself sober, you would in a little time be surrounded with abundance of bacon and eggs, bread, butter, milk and puddings, biscuits, fowls and all kinds of vegetables.”

Living off this great new land wasn’t straightforward. The weather was fierce, the land was mountainous and parrots with bright orange under-wings tore flesh from a sheep’s back. Around this time and not much more than a biscuit toss, away from Belhelvie, a certain Mr Stephenson was telling stories to his godson during a wet holiday in Braemar. This story was of Jim Hawkins and his adventure to find treasure.

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It became ‘Treasure Island’ of course, and thrilled readers, when the suggestion of travel across oceans was as exotic as a parrot’s wing.

Fruiting cherry plum trees, offer clues to the line of the old stream so we climb on up to the hot outcrop of grey schist. We bend down underneath the branches avoiding the worst of the thorns. Stepping stickily in the fallen ripe plums we cut our way through and find damp earth beyond. Dampness turns to mud and then… there it is, a trickle of water emerging from between the rocks. Nearby I see an old rusty pick head half buried. The handle has rotted away. I pull it out and I shall keep it outside our cottage as a memento of past hunger for gold.

When an ounce of gold was found in a bucketful of soil on those early goldfields the celebratory cry went up: ‘Gin and Raspberry to all hands!’ The words ‘Gin and Raspberry’ have survived as the name of a pub over in the resort of Wanaka and went to meet our son there. Nick, schooled as he was in Balmedie and Bridge of Don, is a descendant of one of those boys from my family. The one who found a pocketful of gold, enough to pay for his passage back home. When I watched Nick put out his tongue to a friend and they touched foreheads in a Maori greeting, I realised his life was here now and I looked down at my glass… and saw a silvery swirl.

There’s more than one way to pickle a beetroot.

When the sea at Balmedie was keeping itself busy purling waves under a bone white moon and the Belhelvie sky was slinging threads of sleet over the Sand Bothy, we began our journey home. Before we left, we dealt with a skink that had stranded itself in a saucepan, its body reflecting like liquid silver as it circled in the pan. After letting it loose onto the warm rocks outside, we upturned all the pots and pans to allow safe wandering in our absence.

Moving on to see the family in Michigan we were as usual caught out by slight cultural differences. On our first shopping trip I asked grandson one to get the trundler, accidently reverting to the Kiwi name for said shopping aid. ‘What the heck’s that dude’?’ He said, in that modern ever so casual way the younger generation use to address their elders. ‘Err,’ I said, ‘You know… the shopping trolley’. I struggled against a fog of jet lag. ‘…The thing you push …to get stuff… from the shop’. ‘Oh that,’ said he smartly, ‘you mean the shopping CART’.

It’s hard to keep up with things. Scotch pancakes, hot cakes, drop scones, pushchair, buggy, and stroller… whatever. Local names have to be respected though, so I gave the grandson and the sky a smile, and moved on. It’s ironic that the older you get and the further you go, the less you know. Leaving the door open to the unknown is important. We all know that. The irony is, that the things we need to transform us, like wisdom, love and grace, are out there waiting until we get uncomfortable. When Baldrick was asked if he knew what irony meant he replied that it might be something like bronzy but made of iron. Well sometimes things do seem a bit bronzy. Take the moment when we were eating our sandwiches by a New Zealand river with a group of ‘Ten pound Pom’ retirees, born in the U.K. A packed canoe glided by with two men paddling. ‘Are the natives friendly?’ boomed one of the paddlers in an English voice…. ‘Yes,’ We called back politely. ‘In that case,’ he continued, ‘I claim this land in the name of King George,’ and he and his equipage was borne away on the current.

Back in King George’s time, near where we were staying in Michigan, James Audabon was painting birds. He would shoot them with lead pellets and then wire them into realistic poses to paint. Some of those species (partly due to him) are now extinct. In 1826 he struggled to find publishers for his four-volume set and it was Scotland in the form of an Edinburgh engraver who took on the challenge of turning them into the magnificent folios of bird prints that are still the best of their kind. They inspired John Muir, the environmentalist who spent his first eleven years in East Lothian. In collaboration with president Roosevelt, he designed laws to create the first American National Park. Modern American politics are not so easy to understand. Maybe we should be more interested now that we have a possible president owning land in our parish. Somebody told us that if we were going to America, we’d need cheese in our ears…. a mysterious notion until you hear the ideas on the election campaign. Some of the candidates do seem to have what Burns called ‘whigmaleeries in their noddles’.

Avoiding talk of Republicans and Democrats with the boys, I discussed the new film ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ along with the story of ‘Moby Dick’ that it predates. It didn’t go terribly well. Melville’s themes of man’s hubris and lack of understanding of the great unknowable natural world was hard for them to grasp, especially when the second part of the whale’s name was so very amusing.

As oil production slows here in Aberdeenshire and the world struggles for balance it is challenging for us to understand too. It is quite something that only 200 years ago entire cities were lit by whale oil. At the end of the film there is mention of the rumour that oil had been found by digging in the earth… ‘A likely story,’ was the reply. We cannot see into the future, but it wasn’t that long ago that people believed that if a duck’s bill was put into the mouth of a sick child the duck could breathe away the sickness.

Home is where one starts from.

Does anyone else feel tired of living in a parish snake pit? Our Landscape that had minded its own business since the last ice age is now writhing and rearing around us. Stones and soil are being wrenched out by diggers and bulldozed into new road patterns. This civil engineering project is bigger than most of us realised. Let’s hope it settles into a useful addition to our infrastructure. On the news we are hearing the discussion about the Hinkley Point Nuclear power plant. ‘It is too huge to fail’ says a pundit ‘but too big to succeed’.

The last time there was so much activity tearing through the North East was when the Buchan railway was constructed. Opened on the 18th July 1861 it was a great help for the farmers of the North East to get their animals and produce to the markets. From Dyce the line was apparently engineered northwards not to take heed of the geography, but to follow a route dictated by local landowners. It was they who bankrolled the project. The Earl of Aberdeen apparently didn’t fancy noisy industry, or tourists coming near his land, so you won’t find any sign of stations near Haddo. Maybe he wasn’t impressed by new technology. In the event the railway didn’t last long, as only a hundred years later Mr Beeching pulled most of the branch lines, including the Buchan one, leaving us a useful 29-mile footpath to enjoy.

The political landscape in Europe and the presidential possibilities in America are surprising us this year. Our new prime-minister, Theresa May has been depicted in a cartoon pulling a sword from a stone. At the same time, I have been reading about the skeuomorphing of ancient legends. It means that truth in old stories isn’t immediately obvious, because it has been morphed over time. Take that particular Arthurian legend. It is the molten iron from stone hillsides that represents the sword. The king may have pulled out the material which gives him king status not the actual sword. The story of an army under a hill may be referring to the weapons as yet unmade.

When we arrived here in Belhelvie, thirty years ago, the view northwards from our ferrous rich Ward hill was as black as the inside of a bag. With its view over seven parishes, security lights, new houses and roundabouts have pierced many more holes in that bag. The new roads will add even more for the Watch hill to watch.

Recently one of my more competitive acquaintances said it was about time I made my mark on the creative world as the clock was ticking… adding ‘Tick tock,’ presumably for emphasis, in reference to my advancing years. For a moment I felt a psychological dart coming for my chest, but I was able to raise my shield and deflect it. I am thinking of giving that person a book on Wabi-Sabi; the Japanese study of non-competitiveness, imperfection and simplicity.

The other day on a rare hot day we had an energetic little grandson to entertain for the afternoon. Looking for simplicity we went to a local burn to paddle. The naked three-year old, fished out wet shining pebbles. Back lit by sunshine filtered through trees he tossed them a couple of feet away defending an islet. He vibrated with delight as his (and our) ambition met pleasure in a perfect splice and we left the place without leaving a mark.

Most of the summer we have been having breakfast looking out at a garden that has been cool and misty. Wrens dart, pigeons amble and blackbirds flick their tails as they go about their day whatever the weather. Appearing in this tableau is a robin we have nick-named Sharky. Sharky the Robin has a strange misalignment of feathers. It’s as if a finger has been drawn up his back, leaving feathers sticking out. It doesn’t seem to bother him. His flight is balanced, he pops into the kitchen for a snack sometimes and seems to live his life unaware of his strangeness.

Julian of Norwich said in the 1300s: All shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.’   Let us hope she meant now.

Sometimes We Have to be a Little Bit Mighty – Matilda

Once there was a man who had several parrots. He taught them all tricks except one called Billy who refused. It just sat and fluffed out its feathers like a little owl. When people came and admired the other birds the owner worried that Billy was feeling left out, so he would say “You will hurt poor Billy’s feelings” then he would turn to the parrot and say, “Come, do your ‘Little Owl’ my dear”.

I am writing this in a field in Kalamazoo, Michigan, half watching grandsons playing soccer. Picture me. In the cool breeze I am hunched over in one of those wide folding chairs with deep holes on the arms too narrow for my thermos cup of tea. My Star Wars socks (trying to be American?) are half hidden by the touchline grass. The leaves on the trees edging the sports fields are pale amber through to ruby red. Tapping away on my iPad, I am hoping I don’t miss one of the boys scoring a goal. They are wearing team tunics that reach down below their knobbly little knees. I can hear the coaches calling encouraging instructions. ‘Way to go Ryan.’… one of them shouts… ‘Try not to look like a run-over Raccoon, Blair!’ calls another.

This evening towards the end of our stay I shall be doing my own modest but precious ‘Little Owl’. I shall read the book I have written for the grandchildren… out loud… in front of the family and neighbours. The rhymes and pictures combine stories of the children’s life in the style of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ that both my parents could quote from.

During our time in America we have travelled up to ‘Hiawatha’ country near the Canadian border, inadvertently following in some Belhelvian footsteps. Layne Wright, until recently living at Potterton Home Farm, was brought up in North Michigan. Two Governors General of Canada had links to the North East too. The Earl of Aberdeen, John Hamilton-Gordon was Governor from 1893 to 1898 and you can see the sleds he used, hanging on the walls at Haddo. John Buchan as Lord Tweedsmuir, whose son lived at Potterton house held the same post in the 1930s.

As we travelled north, we learned about the First Americans. A ‘Witness Quilt’ made to celebrate their culture was hung for Catherine and William to see on the Royal visit to Montreal in September. One poignant square showed an image of a doll fashioned from rags and sticks that a resourceful little girl had made to replace the doll the authorities had taken from her. The Canadian government made indigenous peoples give up their children to be educated in residential centres, cutting them off from their families and culture from the 1800s onwards. The last residential centre closed in the nineties, yes nineteen nineties. Here at the soccer field we met a man whose wife is a first nation American, a Cherokee. He boasted that he had an ancestor on the Mayflower and told us that at her family gatherings he wears a tee shirt they gave him that says: DO NOT FEED THE PILGRIMS.

In 1957 I remember being taken to the Mayflower steps in Plymouth and seeing a replica of the Mayflower, before it sailed to be on display at the Cape Cod Pilgrim museum. Mayflower had a sister ship, the Speedwell. The ships set off together, but Speedwell was misnamed. She was anything but speedy. She had a leaking hull that delayed the expedition for months. Mayflower travelled alone, and in the end landed late in the year 1620. With little knowledge or supplies to protect them from the Massachusetts winter they relied on the kindness of the Native Americans. Even so during their first year, half of them died. I think we could say those early settlers have gone from strength to strength, however just recently there has been a feeling that some descendants of those settlers, have got too big for their boots. Some may be thinking it would have been better to have followed that tee-shirt instruction back in 1620.

Looking back but not quite that far … In the winter of 1887, Belhelvie people, (those close enough to get to Foveran and home again in the evening) were invited to a talk at the Kirk entitled ‘America and Americans’ as part of a series called ‘Popular Lectures at Foveran.’ It followed one the previous month called ‘Aberdeen 140 years ago.’ That would have been interesting.

I hope you have enough to amuse you during this winter season. Maybe you have been busy enough in the absence of popular lectures. Perhaps you have even managed to take an opportunity to fluff up your feathers and do your own ‘little owl’ like Billy.

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Driving over to Newmachar from Belhelvie the other morning; you know where the view opens up to the west, I saw an extraordinary sight. There were two Bennachie ranges in the distance. To the right of the usual hills were clouds in the very same shape. Not having heard of Orographic lifting, I felt I had witnessed the miraculous. How unlikely would it be I thought that clouds would mirror the shape of the surrounding geography so perfectly? I was delighted to be able to tell the story at teatime like a kid who has just seen a chick hatching. ‘It was ex-actly the same shape as the hills…’ I said breathlessly. ‘Well it would be’, I was told and was informed about adiabatic cooling, dew points and cloud formation. So now I have been able to extend my already reasonably large collection of anoracky material.

I was brought up by a sturdy-shoe wearing mother who confused conversation with the imparting of information before spectrum issues were common knowledge. All her life she absorbed facts about natural history, literature, geography and ancient stones. She has just died in a Cornish nursing home aged 96, (thank you but I am OK) and I am preparing readings for her funeral. It’s a delicate business to get right, even though I have had plenty of preparation time.

She lived her life well into very old age. She was even able to laugh when she really did have to roll up her trousers as per the poem by T.S. Elliot. In a bizarre coincidence, my brother’s children lost their other grandma the same week, and she was also called Ann. “Grim Reaper accidental duplication?” we said to each other, sotto voce.

Back in October the subject of the Grim Reaper came up as a choice for a grandson Halloween costume. I felt I couldn’t agree to making a cardboard and stick scythe and black cowl without first imparting information about the beliefs around the Grim Reaper. There was scything, reaping, death, souls and skeletons, a whole caboodle of ancient belief systems to chat about ….cue ten-year-old grandson’s eyes rolling back into blank sockets.

Now it’s true there is slight aspergerical streak in our family. Luckily, as you know I am untouched by it…if that is, you discount my interest in 19th century Scottish brick-marks…. and of course, scythes and reaping.

I have a picture book called ‘Cry Heart but Never Break’ to give to the grandchildren. It’s a story that begins when the Grim Reaper arrives at a cottage to collect a grandma. He leaves his scythe leaning against the wall outside, to respect the fact that there were only children inside (The grim reaper isn’t a bad guy really). The four children, who the grandmother had brought up, hoped they could distract him by keeping him talking over coffee all night …he plays along, but in the end puts a bony finger over the cup, and says: ‘No more’ and tells them a story. There were two sad grey boys, called grief and sorrow, he tells them, and two pink happy girls, called joy and delight. All of them realised something was missing from their lives. They of course meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. You can’t have one without the other, he says and leaving the children he goes upstairs. They hear the window open and when they go up, sure enough Grandma has passed away. The G.R. is still there though and finishes by telling them that although they will be sad, they will always have memories of her and the wind blowing the curtain at the open window will bring a reminder.

I have devised a plan for Mum’s remembrance service. I shall use readings from books on her own shelves, books that she kept all her life. From the Flower Fairies I shall take, The Song of the Snowdrop Fairy:

Deep sleeps the winter cold wet and grey Surely all the world is dead spring is far away

In Croydon in the 1920s, Cecily Mary Barker was drawing her young kitchen maid and much younger children who modelled for the pictures in draped muslin. It would probably be frowned upon now.

From Tales of an Empty Cabin by ‘Grey Owl’ her fifth form school prize from 1936; I shall take a few lines from Longfellow describing the passing of the gentle Chibiabos:

From the homes of those who knew him Passing silent through the forest

Like a smoke-wreath wafting sideways Slowly vanished Chibiabos.
Where he passed, the branches moved not Where he trod the grasses bent not,

And the fallen leaves of last year, Made no sound beneath his footsteps.

The handsome Native American Grey Owl who so impressed John Buchan in Canada in the 20s also gripped the imagination of Mum’s family when they saw the author speaking in London in the thirties. He told thrilling stories about protecting the wilderness, birch-bark canoes and his two tame Beavers.

In the end he turned out to be an alcoholic, bigamous ex fur trapper called Archibald Belaney from Hastings, but his ability to connect with the natural world impressed everyone and they forgave him his deceit.

Forgiving deceit is in the air at the moment as the people of America and Europe cope with what the majority voted for. In the end all we will have left will be a defiant Skimmington Ride. I have my pots and pans ready.

Who knows what more duplicity I may find on mum’s shelves within the copies of Homer’s Odyssey and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, to say nothing of Dulac’s fairy stories and her Bible? However, it would be a rich selection of literature to take to a desert island …if she were going to one.

Maybe she is.

Aliens Living Among Us

If I were designing a coat of arms for the Belhelvie Parish, it would have rooks rampant against a sea blue. There would be a sprig of gorse to represent the land and I might add a flourish to suggest all the new roads that have come to dwell among us.

At the moment Gorse is flowering across the parish fit to burst. This winter turned out to be mild. None of us have needed the snow digging shovel kept in the kitchen overnight as recollected to me by a Belhelvian this week, neither have we needed the acre of Gorse to feed and shelter the cattle as recommended to farmers in 1820. At one time Gorse had so many uses it was considered indispensable, in and out of the

house. The hungry gap at the end of winter opened its jaws wider up here in the north and the early soft growth on the Whin was valuable fodder. A law had to be passed to say a person could only harvest as much from the common lands as he or she could carry. A more vigorous variety Ulex Europaeus was even brought over from Spain to supply the needs of the people.

I have been continuing the Gorse/Whin/Broom nomenclature debate. Over the winter, during tea breaks at Scottish dancing in the Belhelvie church hall, I have had conversations with local farmers about the difference between the three names. These chats have been circuitous with no definite conclusion but now I think I’ve nailed it. Whin is the name for the genus Ulex in the North and is of Scandinavian origin. The name Gorse is from medieval English ‘Gorst’ meaning uncultivated land. Broom, as we know, is not prickly and is called Broom, but why it’s also Broom as in Broomhillock, the farm adjacent to Ardo, has been a mystery. There the hill is covered in Gorse not Broom and the question has been, why would you name a place after a poisonous plant that isn’t much use to man nor beast, apart from making sweeping tools? To continue with the naming issue, Whin is Whin, as in Gorse and Whin Chat; Whin stones were used for grinding Gorse into fodder. However it isn’t to do with the Whinstone quarried at Balmedie quarry because that refers to a dark hard rock nothing to do with a prickly plant… unless there is a Scandinavian connection way back in the dark, stone ages.  To solve the conundrum I referred to, a book published in 1676, called ‘Farewell to Husbandry. It refers to the two leguminous plants as Broom and Prickly-Broom. So there you have it… I am able to conclude that the two plants with their very similar flowers were anciently known as Broom. The one with inedible foliage but useful for making brooms was Broom. The other with tasty thorny foliage was separated from the former by a precise preceding adjective ‘prickly’ that was then dropped for ease of use.

I have been reading about another talented non prickly natural
phenomenon that resides closer to the parish than you
might think. It is the Octopus. I have been writing children’s stories
about a particular octopus that lives around the wreck of
the Archangel, a mile offshore from the Sand Bothy, I have
looked at their many talents. An octopus can camouflage
itself, is an escape artist, uses tools and can tell the
difference between keepers in an aquarium. It can regrow
an arm and is reputed to be as clever as a dog. Because it
has a very different brain, biologists say it is as close to meeting an alien on earth, as you will find. One of its behaviours is to turn dark while standing tall and still, making it look intimidating. This is called ‘The Nosferatu pose’ because it looks devilish. The word, meaning devil from Romania was popularised a silent movie.

Now it won’t surprise you that Belhelvie Parish and the devil have no connection whatsoever… but I have discovered a tentacle like thread for you from not so very far away. It is said that Bram Stoker visited Slains, and the castle helped inspire his story of Dracula. This story was then blatantly half inched by a German filmmaker in 1928. He made a film called ‘Nosferatu’ with Count Orlok in the title vampire role. There was a court case, brought by an indignant Mrs Stoker. She won and all copies of the counterfeit story were to be destroyed. However, the film had already travelled across to America and the characters had entered into the world’s cultural memory…Count Orlok even appeared recently with SpongeBob SquarePants… Now… where were we? Oh yes, with the octopus down in the sea by the wreck of the Archangel in a devilish pose waiting for a story to unfold. Let’s move on

To safer dry land at Ardo. As a counterpoint to my hectic reading life, we have been renovating a small outbuilding. It has been quite an archaeological dig. In among the stones, broken glass and slates we unearthed pieces of glazed earthenware. They look as if they are part of a dairy bowl, possibly from the old local brickworks and pottery at Seaton. I have set the pieces into the new cement floor where they are now enshrined as a link to times past when all the farms round here milked cows to supply the parish.

I have heard that when the new roads are finished there will be some information released about interesting archaeology uncovered during the earth moving process. We may well have some new Parish stories. I will let you know.

I am bound I am bound for a distant shore

By a lonely isle by a far Azore.
There it is, there it is, the treasure I seek
On the barren sands of a desolate creek. Henry Thoreau

We are in Kalamazoo with the grandchildren. Since last year the neighbourhood has sprouted yard signs declaring that ‘Hate has no Home Here’. Ten dollars can apparently buy that promise. Our sign has had its wire legs broken, we hope, by the wind. Luckily a neighbour who paid ten dollars, but no sign turned up, has a painted bicycle outside her door that supports our legless sign.

We are trying to operate within the Overton Window. In Belhelvie, Overton is the name of a useful breakers yard. Here, the Overton Window is a yardstick measuring the range of acceptability in politics. Both ends are set at the unthinkable. The middle is the acceptable area of government policy. I have moved it to deal with our intergenerational family behaviour. (Only in my mind you will be relieved to learn.)

On these hot summer days when the boys aren’t at summer extra-curricular classes (bang in the centre of the window), we take them on simple expeditions, (probably a little to one side). The boys already have access to water parks and sports fields, so we find the lazy town creek at a place called Celery Flat. (F.Y.I. the town of Kalamazoo was settled by the Dutch who grew a lot of celery.) In what I hope is Huck Finn style I paddle into the water with my shoes on. I wade out and enjoy the feel of the water and the sight of the tree lined creek up ahead. I hear hesitance behind me. ‘Are we allowed?’ The boys enquire, sounding worried as if they are sitting on an Overton Window ledge. … ‘Well… I am.’ I say and move off through a cloud of iridescent dragonflies. Negotiating the silt and the mild current, not knowing what’s around the corner is a new experience for them and in its own way as thrilling as it gets. Sure enough, they asked to go back for a longer trip. So we located lifejackets, hats, inner tubes and paddles to create rudimentary creek transport. To keep within the centre of the Overton window we needed to pay attention to safety. We did a reconnoitre to find safe entry and exit places. The outing went well. We surprised frogs and a family of muskrats who swam ahead of us like small beavers. Things nearly went awry when a decent sized leech was found attached to a boy’s ankle. I hadn’t covered leech removal on my recent first aid course in Inverurie, but it came off with a severe grandma pinch. Having flicked it onto the creek bank we all watched it flip-flop revoltingly. There was a cry of ‘Oh Grandma it will die up there.’ as they tried to rescue it. Grandchildren seem to be the most erinaceous of creatures. They have so many hedgehog-like spines, pointing in all directions, from empathy and carelessness, to selfishness and generosity.

Exploring the Kalamazoo creek is good practice for our real adventure we have planned for this trip to America. Next week we go north into Canada to pay our respects to the place where my grandparents met. Mum’s parents met on canoeing parties with a group of Canadian and London young people before the First World War. Married and back in London in the twenties, they used Canadian canoes on the Thames and taught their children to paddle. Grey Owl the fake Indian chief, toured England soke eloquently about the Canadian wilderness and the family went to hear him. His books were bought and read  to us in Cornwall. On holidays at Bude in the sixties Mum then taught us the ‘proper’ way to paddle a Canadian canoe. We had to kneel up and our paddling stroke had to curve at the end to keep the canoe straight. We sniffed at people who sat down to paddle. We will be travelling to Prince Albert Park, north of Saskatoon. Mum would love to have travelled more, but her life didn’t turn out that way. The cabin of ‘Grey Owl’ is preserved 20 miles along a walking trail on the shore of Lake Ajawaan. Carrying anti bear-spray is advised there and with Chris awaiting hip surgery our chances of outwitting a bear are slight. However, we will try to get to the edge of the lake. There we will fashion a little boat from leaves perhaps with a twig as a mast. Into it we will put a tiny amount of her ashes. Then in the land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, her great grandsons will launch the little vessel and as it floats towards Grey Owl’s cabin, we will wish her Godspeed.

The day we met Dream Angus

Dreams to sell, fine dreams to sell,
Angus is here with dreams to sell.
Hush now wee bairnie and sleep without fear,

For Angus will bring you a dream, my dear

Scotland had Dream Angus before Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant. Angus is the Celtic god of dreams who goes about the country with four birds flying around his head delivering unsettling dreams of love. Most of us receive dreams that fly higher than our ability to wrestle them into reality. Leaving a rather large office and

workroom-tidying job we drove to Bennachie the other day. We hadn’t been up to Mither Tap for a few years. Normally as you know there is a breeze up there, at worst there’s a cold driving drizzle but that day we were lucky. There is a devotional aspect to a summit climb. On Mither Tap cloistered trees open up to a long pious walk. Then over the brow comes the reward of the imperious summit view. Then there is the submissive plod up the slope our heads bent in supplication. While I walked, I was thinking of a friend. From Australia, she came to stay with us along that well-trodden path of forbear searching. A keen reader at home, she had discovered the books by Nan Shepherd and was captivated by those tales of grit and glitter up on the high plateau. She dreamed of seeing where Nan Shepherd had walked and to feel in a poetic and lyrical way where she ‘entered into the hills.’ When she arrived, our friend enjoyed seeing the new slippery fiver with Nan’s head on it but that’s as close to Nan as she got. Knees that so enjoyed reading about the Cairngorms in Melbourne, were completely unable to climb any of the paths to the actual Cairngorms. She could not make her dream of Nan and the mountains into a reality.

Reaching the barbican entrance to Mither Tap’s inner fortress I looked to the west. There was Belhelvie in the far distance, and if I squinted, there were my overcrowded shelves and my worktable. The height gave a better perspective, so they didn’t look so cluttered from up there.

Lately I have been outwitted by my own things. Travelling can muddle one’s memory and it can take a while to recalibrate. It’s hard to remember the location of the stapler/grater/leaf-blower or even recall what they look like after a long time away. This was witnessed by one of our children this year and I didn’t like the look I saw in his eyes, a mix of LOL and OMG as his mind jumped to the future and having to cope with us.

Maureen from the Balmedie Library has found me a philosophy book where the ‘thingness’ of things is explained. Things or ‘tings’ from the Scandinavian are what we can experience with our physical selves… a doorway we can go through, a spoon to be touched by hand and lip or a Balmedie sand dune the children can slide down. Objects on the other hand, the book ever so quietly confided to me, are things that have ceased to be used. In my home surroundings, objects have accrued and accreted, on floors, on shelves and even in doorways. I leant closer to hear and understand. The ‘thing’ that once beckoned, the philosopher continued as an ‘object’ now blocks… Ah-ha. Sitting up there on the volcanic granite plug with tea and cake in the fresh-air there was nothing that blocked.

From that high vantage point none of the A.W.P.R. could be seen, but there are stretches that are now linked into a curving pale gash across the county. On the way back down the devils causeway, I remembered that we can be nourished by other people’s journeys, so by Hosie’s Well, I picked up a small stone to take to Melbourne. At that moment four black grouse whirred out of the heather, and that’s when we knew Dream Angus was with us.

In Pursuit of Spring

In March 1913 the poet Edward Thomas set off from London on a journey to cycle and write about the coming of spring. Near the edge of the city he passed a shop selling birds. He bought a cock-chaffinch for sixpence, and took it away in a brown paper bag. When he got to the countryside, he opened the bag and set it free.

I am imagining the Belhelvie Gorse flowering in March sunshine, and the parish bees yawning and stretching. There will be pollen and nectar to harvest from Orrock all the way down to the edge of Home Farm Potterton; from the Sand Bothy across to the top of Beauty Hill. Here in New Zealand we are helping to harvest honey from our son’s bee- hives. It is very hot. I am dressed in a white beekeeper’s suit watching him wheedle up the lid of his first hive. Quicksilver skinks have twitched away into the shade. Using his grandfather’s hive tool, he breaks through the seal of bee glue. Propolis, a mixture of wax, tree-sap and saliva that bees use to gap fill their homes. In his other hand he holds a new hive tool. Both are iron and painted yellow but the new one hasn’t the feathered edge or the heft of the old family one. Because of the heat, the bees are queuing at their doorways, giving the hives a bearded look. Liquid honey drips out of waxy comb and I step away to avoid annoyed bees trying to take back their property. I am aware Nick is new to apiarian skills. He has the love though so he’s confidently working with bare hands.

My job is to gently brush the bees away from the wooden frames as he replaces them. The paintbrush he has handed to me is not the delicate goose feather my father used. I clumsily fluff across a line of bees and they get cross and attack the backs of his hands. He stays quiet behind the bee veil but I can sense his teeth are clenched. 

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Enjoying New Zealand sunshine far away from cold Belhelvie

 Beekeepers here don’t dare to use smokers to calm hives, because of the fire risk. Instead they try to be quick and quiet, spending no more than seven minutes sorting through each hive.

While you were slipping on tenacious ice In Belhelvie, unable to walk confidently around your own purlieu, I was making fire flappers out of carpet squares and broom handles. 200 hectares of hill burned off above the town we are living near. Helicopters worked for three days trying to stop it travelling onto countless miles of dry scrub. There is now a scent of charred sadness hanging over the town, and an ugly arc of blackened hillside fills the view.

This week I found myself having a hair-cut and head massage by a dark eyed young man. (The head massage was unexpected, but delightful, I will be recommending it to the Hair Shack girls in Newmachar.) He talked about his feelings of being stuck here and his hopes to be an actor. He was in the first series of ‘Top of the Lake’, filmed not far from here. He was the boy with a hoodie who falls of the cliff when we all thought it was the girl called Tui. More acting parts haven’t been forth-coming so he has decisions to make, and a girlfriend working in the coffee shop opposite to consider. I think to myself while my scalp is being exercised, that in some ways it’s easier to be older. These contemporary tensions the young have around staying put or moving on is hard. He will have to, as Edward Thomas said, about the coming of spring, ‘Catch at the dreams as they hover’.

While our grandchildren were here from America, for Chris’s 70th birthday we took them on different river trips near the top of the lake. Knowing the boys were coming, I painted up our rinky-dink homemade raft. I added a cardboard flag and a sun motif and as a family we tackled a couple of miles paddling down the Clutha River at a regal pace. In the clear blue alpine water, there were no Kalamazoo leeches or the chalybeate of Belhelvie burns. For contrast we took them on a fast boat too. Danielle the fearless jet-boat driver, whizzed us up a river to the back of beyond at sixty miles an hour, then suddenly halted the boat and we swirled to a halt. ‘Sorry’ she said, turning around to face us, ‘Something hit my sunglasses and fell down my front and it’s buzzing against my tummy, I’m worried it might be a bee.’ We all watched from our strapped in seats while she, in a brave demonstration of captaincy, unzipped her layers of clothing and released…. a fly.

Wind, Sand and Stars

Everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1939.

Belhelvie, previously lightly scribbled upon by roads and bridleways, now has the firm imprint of dual carriageway roundabouts and a wind-farm offshore at Black Dog. All the previous wandering journeys, lie underneath this dramatic coastal statement, creating our very own parish palimpsest. With its five habitations, a hand spread on a map, Belhelvie has always been an area for wandering, with a history of connections and strangers passing through. Beaten tracks appeared as there was a need for them. We know that when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell rode from Marischal College through the parish to Slains Castle in 1774, Boswell recorded that the road beyond Aberdeen ‘grew more and more stony and was naked of all vegetable decoration.’

By the 1820s the road had been improved and mail coach passengers in the cheap seats on top would have been bumped and jostled up the coast road from Aberdeen to Ellon. Wrapped up against the brisk wind they would have looked out over bleak dunes to the German Ocean, and up to the Beaker burial mound at Hare Cairn. There would have been much relief when the coachman pulled the team up at the Blairton Inn, for warmth and refreshments. It was the feet of the Beaker people 2000 years B.C. who made the first lines of desire between shelter, work and food-sources. Not much had changed by 1890 when James McBey, walked the 15 miles from his grandparents’ forge near Foveran to Aberdeen to buy a paint box and brushes. At the same time Rev. William Temple travelled all over the area on horseback to compile a history published as ‘The Thanage of Fermartyn’. He reported that the land of Belhelvie was stony and poorly drained and there were many cobblers but barefoot children.

In 1926 the parish was a section of a healthy hike north to Ellon for W.M. Henry a teacher at Aberdeen Grammar School. In his ‘Byways Round Aberdeen’ he describes the land north of the Milden Burn as being, ‘away from the frousty accumulations of domestic hibernation, the sea of chrysoprase, broken only by a line of snowy breakers below a pearly lather of cloud’. Remember that if you will! Up to the war it was enough for parish children to be taken by charabanc for their annual picnic along meandering tracks down to Black Dog or to the hill above Ardo for tea and races.

Would St Colm recognise this land now with all the changes wrought upon it? St Colm was Belhelvie’s sixth century Christian tutelary, the protector of our area. His name remains in the old Belhelvie churchyard, but his memory has faded, and his name didn’t travel to the new church at Drumhead. Most things fade into the darkness of black holes (even Steven Hawking) although recently on a visit to an observatory I was shown the four bright moons of Jupiter. Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. ‘…and the view we are seeing now,’ a young scientist enthused breathlessly into the telescope, ‘is the same that Galileo saw in 1610.’ ‘Unless’ he added, in an attempt to be amusing ‘Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster is passing by.’

I have continued with the writing of my family’s history and maybe by the time Elon Musk has set up his settlement on Mars my great grandchildren will be appreciating it. To add context to my mother’s story I have been adding events that occurred during her lifetime. For instance in the year she was born, 1921, Amelia Earhart bought her first plane. As usual, life has a way of adding odd synchronicity. Just as I was finishing the text, there was news that bones found in the Pacific had been re-examined, and are now considered to be those of the long lost aviator. I could never have predicted that the stories of Mum and Ms Earhart would intersect in such a curious way? Then I remembered the story of the man who was interviewed for two available jobs. He lost to the other applicants: a Mr Fische and a Mr Kettle. He said afterwards he could never be sure why he didn’t get the job.

“I discovered windows one afternoon and after that, nothing was ever the same.”

(Anne Spollen, “The Shape of Water”)

 “It’s like a circus out there.” I say, as we look out at the garden over breakfast. Sure enough we see the jackdaws doing their wobbly clown walk across the lawn while above them swallows are flying trapeze style, carving long curves in the air. Rooks jeer from the cheap seats but all are keeping an eye on the prowling ringmaster cat ushered in by the wren’s whip crack alarm. During the lovely weather, so unusual in our Belhelvie world, I have been cleaning my windows inside and outside. I have evicted surprised spiders and removed dusty webs that were holding onto the long dead husks of their relations. Later glancing towards the light my peripheral vision recorded nothing between the room and the outside. For half a second it relayed the message. ‘window glass has been stolen!’ You could almost hear spiders tittering from their hidden corners. The house paintwork has been really dry, for the first time in years, and so gaps have opened up. We needed more putty, but B&Q had run out. ‘It must be the weather.’ I said. The young assistant looked puzzled, too young to know that when the weather’s this good it’s time to get puttying and painting and window cleaning.

Of course, there is always a dark side and the farmers who harvested good hay in June are now having to feed it back to their cattle before August. Cracks have opened up in Belhelvie fields and I even saw a dust devil pass through the yard. The hens are very happy though, they have had the best baths in the dry earth.

Are we all getting used to the sight of the wind-turbines in the bay? They went up so quickly they were a surprise, even though we knew they were coming. For a few weeks when they weren’t turning, someone joked that they were fake ones made of cardboard ready for Donald Trump’s visit. They have given me the problem of needing to edit my Octopus and a Mermaid stories. In the stories at no time does Sandy the octopus remark to Meridith the mermaid , that there are wind turbines just off-shore from the Sand Bothy. I shall need to create new dialogue to reflect the reality of the new surroundings. When we have tired of new sights, there are still ancient ones like that corner of the River Don that floods, where cattle still amble along the sloping earth bank and drink from the river as they must have for hundreds of years. Driving past into Kintore one day the river was mirror flat. The brown and white cattle were perfectly reflected as they stood in the shallows as if they were in a Dutch oil painting.

There are more historic images over at the new Garioch Heritage Centre. The Diaspora Tapestry has been on show there for the summer (see photograph). Stories from 34 countries have been sewn into 305 panels like so many windows onto the history of the emigrating Scots people. Driving back along the brand-new road towards Belhelvie, we admired the fresh panoramic view of the parish those emigrants could never have imagined. Our old friend the Haar was hanging

just off shore at the height of the new wind farm. The top blades were sticking out of the bank of cloud like so many giant fiddle bows. Perhaps they were heralding the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention that was held across Aberdeenshire in July. In the  Canadian Hall at Haddo, we watched a three-part orchestral work about the Scots from Ullapool who emigrated first to Canada and then to New Zealand in the 1800s. The ‘SCAT’ (Scottish Culture and Traditions) group played their socks off and the music reverberated up into the Douglas Fir rafters. Forgive my panglossian view but I was so encouraged to hear sounds of harmony, inclusion and positivity in these times of European division and all the wider political shenanigans.

Shortbread and the Whitecairns’ Fire Ball

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‘Looks like a storm’s brewing, I’ll just go and move Dad’s car’ said Sydney Rose one morning in the early nineteen fifties. He walked outside the Whitecairns Hotel in a darkening sky. Having moved the car, he saw a small ball of sparkling light floating up the road towards him. He had never seen anything like it. Car keys in his hand he stood and stared while the strange apparition continued its journey up to his roof. To his astonishment it vanished down one of the hotel chimneys. As he ran back inside to tell the family, there was an explosion closely followed by the sound of falling masonry. Sydney hurried from room to room to see what had happened. His wife Audrey appeared at the top of the stairs looking startled… ‘I was upstairs in the passage and the sitting room fireplace just fell in.’ She said through a dusty cloud. ‘What did you do?’ She most likely added loudly. ‘Nothing,’ he would have replied or quite likely ‘I-didn’t-do-anything.Upstairs their family sitting room was a mess of dust and plaster. It had been a close call for Mrs Rose and now where was Katy the maid? They searched and hallooed. Katy, a nervous girl who came daily from the Kingseat hospital to work, could not be found.

Through the decades the story of Sydney’s fireball that deliberately flew down a chimney, along with the disappearing maid, stayed in the family as one of the tallest tales ever at the ‘Whiteys’ bar.

Last month we saw other red balls. I watched a grandson floss dance across a frozen yogurt store having half filled his carton from the machine. I’ve left room for the bobas.’ he said, ‘They’re great’. ‘Bobas’ were new to me… it made as much sense as the new dance he is able to do so fast. ‘You know like bubble tea’ he added unhelpfully. He went to the counter where the sweet toppings were lined up. ‘Look’ he said as he spooned as many glistening red globules as would fit and then some more that rolled back into the tray. ‘Try some,’ he generously offered before we’d bought them, ‘They’re truly delicious’. And so I did. The round berries burst into sweet juice that tasted too sweet to be natural but otherwise were very like red currants. I realised this was the new phenomenon of engineered food. All the way home I wondered how they had been made. Cellulose as a skin I thought, but how? Frozen? Dipped? I googled it and discovered ‘molecular gastronomy’. If Sydney had owned a computer, he would have found that the fire ball he saw was an unusual form of lightning called a plasmoid and, although rare, it has been recorded attaching itself to high points like church towers and going down chimneys. In ‘Little Women’ they try to stamp on one when it appears out of their hearth. (Not a good idea by the way). ‘Bobas’ or bubbles, it turns out are made by dropping syrup and sodium alginate into a salt solution where the liquids work like oil and water. The materials for making them were available online and it turned into a fun activity, part chemistry, part family memory in the making.

As you know the weaving of personal experience and the history of Belhelvie is never far from my mind. Before I left home, Innes Christie said the reason the Reverend Forsyth had invented the percussion cap was not to help the British Army (which it did) but so that he could shoot ducks more efficiently down in the marshes of Belhelvie near the Manse. In America we were invited to a grandson’s school cultural exchange evening. Families were encouraged to ‘show and tell’ their favourite food. I wrote a pretty piece about how shortbread came to be, being neither short nor bread. Apparently, leftover scraps of dough sweetened and re-baked became ‘bisquite’ (twice baked) bread and then with shortening added became short biscuit bread which was a bit of a mouthful so was shortened to short bread. Shortbread is still given at Christmas and in some parts, it was broken over the heads of newly married couples. Along with the description of the petticoat tail shape based on the pattern for the hooped skirt as would have been worn by Mary Queen of Scots, my description was most engaging if I say so myself. I left a piled tray of the Scottish delicacy on the classroom table and set about a cultural exchange. With my back to some challah bread, I was enjoying a plate of Afghan Pilau rice when I found myself chatting to one of the Dads who turned out to be an exiled member of the Mujahedeen. As I listened to his sad tale of war and cultural loss, I could only nod and chew over how different lives can be. Although he never mentioned it, I think there would have been many times when he would have used the Reverend Forsyth’s invention (still used in grenades) up in the hills of his home country. I turned away to see how my shortbread was going and saw it had been devoured by 12-year-old wolves… my typescript remained untouched.

The maid at the Whitecairns Hotel was found safe by the way. Val, Sydney’s daughter says that when Katy heard the noise upstairs, she had run to a cupboard and held her hands over her ears.

Dancing without Wolves

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The new roads have been finished now and the dayglo army has moved on to bother some other parish. We are getting used to the new route home from Ellon and a little bit of disputed untarred path in Balmedie has been resolved. Now there is a circular path alongside the trees planted by the children of Balmedie School nearly thirty years ago.

This spring I have enjoyed exercising my medieval inclinations. Soon we will be off to Northern Spain to walk the Way of St James. Well not so much walk as saunter. I am not a good hiker I am more of a wanderer. I agree with John Muir when he said: ‘Hiking? I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains not hike.’

In the middle ages people went on pilgrimages and when asked where they were going, would reply: ‘A la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land and so they became the saint-terre-ers or saunterers. It will be my first time as a pilgrim unless you count the walk my mother took us on in the 1950s. She packed egg sandwiches and a thermos of tea and walked us to our local holy well a mile and a half away. I remember the walk as summery but we picked periwinkles so it must have been in early spring. I remember sitting on a gritty granite wall holding the bunched flowers as blue as the sky. I was given a safety pin to drop into the dark holy water as an offering. These were permissible as holy well currency in those days, when no one had silver coins to spare.

Since time began or at least since the seven streams of Belhelvie began running down to the sea there have been birds in our skies. Shape shifting flocks of starlings still loop and twist at dusk. They have to be adaptable. This past year or two, they have been getting to know a new landscape beneath them. Last week we saw a flock of geese over by the pond near Dubbystyle. They located it and dropped down out of the sky in such perfect unison they looked like a patterned blanket.

I have been wearing a blanket this week although not with geese on it, while learning to sword fight. Well mock sword fighting, with homemade wooden swords. It is preparation to perform in a revived Galoshin play. To make my tattered costume, I used a blanket as well as a stash of  old pillowcases and shirts with worn out collars that Chris had saved for a rainy day. All were cut into strips and sewn onto a beloved old jacket. The Scottish folk play Galoshins was traditionally performed like the English mumming plays, door to door by disguised players. It was outlawed by Oliver Cromwell along with other fun things like the Maypole and Nine Men’s Morris on the village green. In the Galoshins play, two young men fight for the hand of a lady. Galoshin the favourite, is killed but is then miraculously revived by a quack doctor with a bottle of ‘Hoxy Croxy’. The quaint name of this remedy is from the old plant- based drink ‘oxycroceum’ that contained saffron crocus. It was supposedly ‘drawing, cleansing and resolving’ but when I met Dr Forbes recently, he said his practice has never prescribed Hoxy Croxy or indeed any medication with saffron in it although he didn’t rule out its efficacy. At the end of the short folk play everyone is happily reconciled. They bow, praise the goodness of the audience and are given money in exchange for good luck for the coming year, (safety pins definitely wouldn’t do in this case.)

Many of the old folk customs are being revived now we have room for cultural variety. Doric classes are now being offered to adults and children are being encouraged to speak it at school. Apparently more Doric speakers are needed as teachers. In the past the Doric and the Scots language were so discouraged on the grounds that it interfered with the speaking of English that it wasn’t allowed to be spoken in schools. As some of you will remember this requirement for linguistic uniformity was upheld at the end of the tawse. In this way, it was hoped that Doric, from an English word meaning rustic, would be quashed. Generations of Northeast Scots children learnt one language for home use and one for school. Now however the Doric is being supported from the government and the university. Sheena Blackhall has been awarded an honorary degree. From reading a book called ‘North East Identities and Scottish schooling’ I see it says Buchan Doric is of special interest because it has a close association with a well-defined regional culture and a literature of size and quality. We know that of course: from Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song to Jessie Kesson and David Toulmin’s tales of the northeast. We have Bothy Ballads – the songs of the Corn Kisters. To lose foggie toddlers, pollywag, plowter and bosie now would be inconceivable.

The northeast has never been as isolated as some people think. Around the time I was using the luck caused by dropping a safety pin into a holy well, I would have been reading (or just looking at the pictures) of George MacDonald’s book ‘The Princess and the Goblin.’ MacDonald was a Huntly loon and a friend of Mark Twain. As well as writing stories in the last half of the nineteenth century, criticising the schooling of the northeast, he wrote fantasy fiction. It is said he influenced C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The green and gold copy of ‘The Princess and Curdie’ with Pre- Raphaelite watercolours hanging loose from thick paper pages was too precious for me to be allowed to read in bed but I would have given thanks to George had I known he had inspired the writing of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. When the Narnia series came out in paperback around that time, it was a glorious bedtime read under the blankets. Perhaps that’s where I got my taste for the medieval.

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‘When the Blackbird flew out of sight it marked the edge of many circles.’

(Wallace Stevens)

Around a hundred years ago telegraph wires were brought over from Newmachar. The process of connecting Belhelvie to the world in real time had begun. As the men dug holes and hauled up tarred pine poles with a steam driven engine, no doubt the plough horses looked up in astonishment and cows swished their tails. Our current landline number still has the single number that was allocated then within its current six digits. Last month that same phone line got mis-connected to Belhelvie Quarry. (I hope they didn’t lose too much business.) After the usual telephone argy bargy with someone from another country, a helpful young man from ‘Open Reach’ turned up in a van and sorted out the muddle. ‘It’s your copper wires,’ he said, ‘You’re so far away from the exchange. But there’ll be fibre here soon.’ he continued in a conciliatory tone. ‘Really?’ we said.

‘Yea, you’ll get 20 mega-bits’ he added, as if that would transform our lives.

How much our connection to the world has transformed us, is hard to tell. Certainly, we are changed from the people who approached a jangling phone nervously and picked up the Bakelite receiver, saying ‘Halloo’ loudly: the old fox hunting alarm call. Over the years we have got used to the world’s surprises although there are still things out there that are startling us.

When thinking about how much the world of communication has altered, I am reminded of the story of Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s Fool. He was more than just the Laird’s witty entertainer. He was a trusted messenger. On one occasion he was given a letter to deliver to the Laird who was staying in Edinburgh. Jamie got to the bustling city, then realised he didn’t know where his employer was lodging. He thought for a while and then by using his unusual talent for initiative, walked the streets staring at all the dogs. Eventually he spotted the Laird’s dog. The dog recognised him, and it jumped into his arms. Then Jamie set it down and tied a cord around the dog’s neck. ‘Awa hame w’ ye’ said Jamie and followed it to where their master was staying. Recently I made a trip to Black Dog village. I wanted to see the rock after which the village was named. When I have been before, the tide was in or I hadn’t been focused on the beach, so I have never seen it. The village has had its character mightily changed lately. There is the windfarm offshore and the big new interchange outside its front door. I imagine the Black Dog Rock would have been an aid to navigation on our otherwise plain but treacherous coastline between Bridge of Don and the Ythan estuary. When I was standing by it on the wet sand, I could see the dog shape had floppy ears but really it was not much of a dog. ‘Ah well,’ my friend said later, ‘a lump of it fell off a long time ago, and that might have been its head’. The history of this area, when the black dog still had or had not his head, was brought alive for us this month when Chris was helping a friend with technical support. It was a Power-Point talk about his Ellon solicitor father. Those days he was illustrating seem quaint to us now, when everyone knew one another, and men walked about in tweed suits tipping their hats but perhaps we shouldn’t imagine that time ever stands still. Apparently, his father was so nervous of the new writing technology that he always carried a spare pen in his top pocket. The filling of new fountain pens was so nerve wracking for him that his wife had to be called to the office to refill the pen with ink. Using our reconnected landline last month, I was pontificating to my daughter about the need for children to be exposed to poetry if they are to enjoy it later, when I realised the line had gone quiet. Wondering if I was through to the quarry again, I gave it a little ‘halloo.’ Yes, she was still there. In a tired voice she said perhaps I would like to solve the problem by sending poetry. So, I have. Every week or so, I post off something that catches my eye. I have copied out poems in my best longhand, using a fountain pen I might have borrowed from the Ellon Solicitor. First there was, ‘The Knight Whose Armour Didn’t Squeak’ and now I am working on the subject of Blackbirds. I have put the blackbird into a helpful cultural context by adding information about its melodious song by day and its chink chink, calls in the evening, how blackbird eggs are a subtle speckled blue and of course how it came to have a golden beak. I scribbled a picture of the naughty male Blackie trying to steal the dragon’s treasure. The blast of flame issuing from the dragon’s mouth that blackened its feathers and melted gold onto his beak was delicately drawn in one corner of the page. Then I wrote out the ‘13 ways of looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens. Out of all the little word pictures those blackbird images paint, I like the fourth one best, A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a Blackbird Are one. I agree it’s a mental leap for a Lego and Star Wars obsessed five-year old to make but in my imagination those pages will be safely put away. Then in several decades, they will be found, unfolded and smiled over, before a little manly tear falls onto the paper to smudge the ink.

It Takes Time to be Too Clever by Half

In the spring of 1969, B.C. (Before Chris), I left home. All sorts of things happened. Neil Armstrong made a giant step for mankind, the Beatles stepped away from touring and Robin Knox Johnston completed his voyage around the world with hardly any steps. While I was being homesick in Hertfordshire, and lonely in Leicester, the death penalty was abolished, Jimmy Hendrix played Woodstock, and oil was found in the Ekofisk field, 180 miles South East of Aberdeen. Jump forward 40 years to 2009 and the first edition Belhelvie Banter landed in the Parish.

A lot of water has passed down the seven parish rivulets since then.

Up on the Belhelvie hills, a farmer of the parish has been planting trees. He needed to protect them with a high fence. Badgers don’t damage young saplings but bark eating rabbits were queueing to use the tunnels they had been dug underneath the wire. Small expensive swinging metal gates were bought and installed above the badger runs. They were too heavy to be pushed open by rabbits. Good idea… except badgers are habitual animals and overnight they re-dug their Belhelvie tunnels under the new gates. I wonder if they planted any Aspen trees. There is a replanting scheme for them in Scotland now. I sat under one recently and I read that the name is from the Greek word for a shield, the shape of their leaves. The same tree can spread itself into a grove so huge it can be seen from space.

In an attempt to improve my service to the Belhelvie Banter I have signed up for a PhD at the Elphinstone Institute. Nothing much needs to change, you can see it’s already embedded in ParisThreaDs. My grandmother would say I was still trying to be too clever by half or ask what I thought was doing at my age, but times have changed. The script of what we grandmothers can do has got longer and broader.

Grandma saw the moon landing on a small black and white telly. She left school at twelve around the turn of the twentiethcentury. She didn’t travel much except for the annual church charabanc trip to the coast. She could apparently swing herself over a gate and was a dab hand at driving a pony and cart. By the time she was seventeen her life had taken on the shape it was to keep for the rest of her active life. Her attitudes and beliefs stayed put too. By the middle of that century, she had been made irritable by deafness, life, and us, the next generation thoughtlessly squandering the housekeeping by buying things like bread and butter that could so easily be made at home. She had been brought up to support the family business from her earliest days. Children with time to read, and then stay on at school was a new concept. Over stale bread and sour butter, beside a cup of tea so strong you could run a mouse across it, she taught me how to darn socks. If she saw me reading, she’d tell me I’d end up being too clever for my own good.

Now I am a grandma myself, I try to be less surprised at changing cultural habits. I look at the bigger picture, add to it, and be amused by it. I wish I could see the look on her face, if she had seen what I saw at a wedding recently. A baby wearing headphones during the speeches, listening to music blue-toothed from Spotify. 

Recently I was watching an American grandson draw a squiggly figure. It looks like ‘the scream’ by Munch’, I say. ‘What’s that?’ He asked. ‘A Norwegian artist called Munck…’ I begin, then elaborate elegantly, ‘…painted a picture that is considered to be one of the most vivid portrayals of the human condition there is.’ I show him a description and an IPad picture. It still looks like ‘Munch’ to me he said. I could feel we were sliding off the point. ‘Well, the Norwegian pronunciation of Munch is Moonk, I counter. ‘I think you’re wrong there, grandma.’ he said, with eleven-year-old confidence, ‘I can read, and it’s definitely Munch. ‘That’s how it is over here.’ 

Tim told us he took part in a team building expertise at an Escape Room over there. The idea, rather like The Crystal Maze, is, that you are locked into a puzzle room and have to get out in an hour, or something terrible will happen. He and four architect colleagues began by trying to decode a series of numbers on the wall. There were levers, steps, a bowl of water, and holes in a wall. Together they brought to bear all their combined expertise… they worked on the Fibonacci series, square routes and trigonometry. Nothing clicked or whirred to let them out. Reluctantly they accepted a clue, and embarrassingly another, but in the end the time ran out and they all ‘perished’ in an inferno. ‘What should we have done?’ they asked as they trooped out… ‘Reach up, put your hand in the hole and pull the lever. No calculations required. The numbers were a distraction.’ was the annoying answer. The truth was, they had been too clever for their own good. 

So, there I was in 1969, fifty years ago, seventeen years old. The age I could become a qualified wizard at Hogwarts, the age to begin driving on the roads of Belhelvie, or the perfect number of syllables to describe a moment of subtle human experience in a Haiku; although as John (too clever by half) Cooper Clark says: ‘To-con-vey-one’s-mood-in-sev-en-teen-syl-a-bles-is-ver-y-dif-fic.’

When Santa’s Reindeer Run out of Puff.

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In 1901 James McBey made his first etching. It was of Aberdeen lads fishing at the harbour. He used a waxed coated plate to draw on and a mirror to turn the view around, then shyly hid the drawing in his pocket. He used acid and a mangle to print the image at home. A couple of years later while he was working as a bank clerk in Aberdeen, he painted a beautiful oil portrait of his grandmother. He was still only 18. She is wearing a Shetland shawl over her shoulders as he recalled she routinely did, and a white cotton mutch frames her wrinkled face. I once described her in a ‘Parish Threads’ making mustard sauce for the winter meal of salted fish by rolling a cannon ball around in enamel bowl to crush mustard seed into a paste with milk. She looked after James in his Aberdeen lodging in the days when a man was not expected to look after himself. He went on to be a famous artist and traveller, selling an etching for a record price in 1928.  His estate endowed money to Aberdeen Art Gallery for the McBey Room. Even now, the revamped Gallery which re-opened on November 2nd has had recent funding from the McBey Trust. 

I showed the Balmedie Friendship Group the portrait of McBey’s grandmother recently. She had lived most of her life at the Foveran Smithy not far from Belhelvie. We were talking about the experience of being a grandmother today and how much it has changed over the last generation. Some of us have to use Skype and travel through a lot of airports see them. I told the friends group, that when I was sorting out some family treasures to hand on, I had been keen to save an old-fashioned suitcase. It was the brown cardboard kind that everyone used in the fifties. The ones that fitted in the overhead rack on a train. It felt too nice to give away, so I cleaned it, looked at the 1961 newspaper lining, read the advertisements for indigestion pills and shoe polish and then had an idea. If it was set upon four legs it could be transformed into a little side table with hidden storage. I found some turned wooden legs that had been left in the shed by the previous owners of Ardo. They looked as if they had once supported the low benches in the conservatory from circa 1914. Four of them when stripped and repainted, fitted onto the suitcase in such an elegant way, I realised I had made the perfect ‘Magic Suitcase’. I shall use it when I am being Grandma Faraway. To finish up we had a grandmother quiz, and in the month when it has become illegal in Scotland to smack your child, the group had stories about being regularly punished in their schooldays with tawse and ruler. Two or three of the members remember when Christmas was not a school holiday. Hogmanay was the focus of the midwinter celebrations up to the 1920s and I see from the Craigie (Whitecairns) school records that in the Christmas week of 1901 the children attended all week. … ‘Wednesday was so dark that no sewing was attempted.’ Reported the headmaster. Christmas hymns were practised and recited instead’.

I don’t think a Jolly Santa and his Reindeer would have flown over the parish in those days.

I took a stroll along the path through the Sensory Garden in Balmedie this month. The hand built raised planters are doing so well and are gradually being filled with fragrant and decorative plants. The trees planted by school children 30 years ago have grown high above providing a pleasant leafy walk.

It’s the time of year for the Guisers to come out again. Who remembers guising in the old days before all the bought costumes? McBeys’s grandmother in her white mutch would have seen them at Foveran, young men going door to door at Hogmanay with seasonal jokes and tricks hoping to cadge a penny or two off the neighbours.

 I shall wear my homemade jacket of coloured tattered rags again this Christmas in a Galoshins play. It’s a short tragic comedy. Wearing paper crowns, one actor kills another in a mock sword fight and the loser is made better by a quack doctor using hoxy-croxy, the old remedy of saffron water. The actors then traditionally line up in front of the homeowners and chant rhymes hoping for silver coins. There was most likely singing and drinking involved. It’s thought that it was mainly performed in the Borders but appeared as far north as Ballater in the 1890s. Probably as a result of visitors who came to be cured by the spring water at Pannanich.

 I have been out and about investigating Scottish culture on your behalf. The Highland Folk Museum, at Newtonmore, was a lovely day out. I was able to see so many remnants of Scottish cultural heritage. The old schoolroom that wouldn’t have surprised some of the Balmedie Friendship Group, with the strict teacher, inkwells and the desks in rows. One thing that stuck with me was that they said, one year of BBC Alba costs as much as one episode of Top Gear.

wasn’t better done at home. While she couldn’t be the best judge of that, and abroad for her was anywhere outside her parish, travelling does change a person. We become less confident of the land beneath our feet. We notice more, we are alert for differences, and the unexpected. To protect us from harm, we may feel the need to carry talismans, a scallop shell necklace, a sprig of white heather or a St. Christopher medallion.

I see there is a Scottish pilgrimage book recently published, that links up, landmarks, chapels, holy wells, and ancient stones. It would seem there is a need for walking holidays with a spiritual aspect, so we can explore the landscape in our down time, in a more attentive way.

We have an easier way to walk out of the parish, now that the cycling track is to be extended to Black Dog. In the late summer I see a stranger took up residence in the parish. It came with the new roadside planting. It is a wildflower I haven’t seen in

Belhelvie before. Queen Ann’s lace or Wild Carrot, a flower of the old umbellifer family, now renamed Apiaceae. The pale cream flower differs from its umbel cousins; cow parsley, lovage, hogweed et al. because it’s the shape of an umbrella, but blown inside out.

What would we do without the exciting stories brought back on the warm breath of people who return, having dared to travel?

This time abroad, I shall bring back more grandmother stories for my research project. Stories of how faraway grandmas pass on their family history. The journey south felt longer for us this time, but not as long as the Scots settlers must have felt spending 14 weeks aboard ship as they ate oatcakes they had made at home in Scotland. In a year where we are being exhorted to eat less meat to combat climate change, perhaps I could tell you that plentiful meat has not been around for long. In 1868 a Scottish pioneer living near here, wrote home to report that he was astonished that meat was so plentiful in the new country. ‘They kill another pig before they have finished the first!’ he excitedly told his mother. Grandma raised her own pigs during the two world wars, so

she would have understood the value of finishing one, before killing the next.

Now by leaving a video link open on

the pillow, people can have virtual sleepovers when they are apart, to have the comfort of a partner’s partial presence. I wonder how the recent New Zealand stories of separation will differ from my grandmother’s. She experienced an unfriendly world, that gobbled up her loved ones, leaving basket of family, in need of repair, in need of tamping down while taking out the spite.

The Black Hole of Covid 

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My general knowledge can be patchy. I know that all odd numbers have an ‘e’ in them, ‘swims’ is the same upside down, and a lie can travel around the world before the truth has put its trousers on. However I can be somewhat vague about geography.

 Somewhere in the north of England, the village of Eyam famously self-isolated itself in 1666. On their boundary was a well, where outsiders left food in exchange for money left in purifying vinegar. It has been in the news a lot lately, as has the 1918 flu epidemic, as people struggle to connect the past to their present experience of quarantine. The old meaning of forty days may be too short, now as the virus continues to spread around the world and lockdown has been extended

Somewhere in the South Island of New Zealand before all this started, we were at an Agriculture and Produce show. It wasn’t as big as the Turriff show, but big for the South Island. We had seen the speed shearing and found ourselves in front of a line-up of seven fine Merino Rams. At the horns end, were scorched southern farmers in blue shirts. All the shirts were different, but it looked like an informally adopted uniform. The judge, also in a blue shirt, worked his way over the dusty brown backs of the sheep one by one looking at sheep attributes. From where we were standing the important bits of the rams were hanging impressively. I watched and wondered how those particular woolly sacs could be judged. But we will never know because the process is taking too long, and we moved on to the craft tent to see what the local people had been making. Although we didn’t know it, that sunny day with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop was just before the ban on public gatherings. It was the last chance to see a vegetable rabbit with ears made from a sliced courgette, hand sewn patchwork, and a leek dressed as a fairy. There were rows of chutneys, bottled peaches, pickled cucumbers and jam. Things that demonstrated the skills of an old way of life… the skills that kept housewives busy supporting the family. Our new way of life, the life where we set our women free, relied on the supermarket to supply our needs, before our even newer life where that reliance on a supply chain looks risky.

Two days after the show, just as we were due to return to Belhelvie, there was a reported case of the virus somewhere over the mountains, and suddenly the New Zealand supermarkets joined the world of emptying shelves of sanitizer and tissue. In homes, the remaining autumn fruit was hastily bottled or frozen. Adjustments were made to cope with families working and studying at home. We were locked down for a month there before a repatriation flight brought us home. During that time I continued writing my Banter article then received a message from Ms. Petrie to say the Banter wouldn’t be publishing the summer edition. Since I had already started, I finished it and it can be known as: ‘The article that never was’, or ‘the one that disappeared somewhere into the black hole of Corvid.’

 Sometime before the virus lockdown, I interviewed Faraway grandmothers for my Grandma research.  I heard about those who perished in the holocaust and grandmas who went to live abroad and never saw their family again. My generation may only have kept in touch with their own grandmothers on birthdays and Christmas but can now connect with their grandchildren twice a day on WhatsApp. I have been shown all sorts of ways of telling stories to the grandchildren. One of my favourites, is the invisible storybook. ‘Let me see if I have remembered to bring it with me,’ a grandma says, and she brings up her hands in the shape of a book, ‘Oh yes I have.’ she smiles, and tells her ‘hand tales’, her page hands turning as she speaks.

There will be many stories told about this time of 2020. We, who were there, will remember. We will bring out sanitized stories from the vinegar of preserved memory and tell our hand tales.                                                     

Somewhere in the future, children who have been locked down in Belhelvie, will be able to tell their story about 2020 too. A time when the world, seemed to go crazy for a while. They may tell of painting pebbles that they left to cheer passing strangers. How teddies and rainbows appeared in windows, to offset the isolation. They may remember their parents spending more time with them at home, or being told to ‘shhhh,’ while work video meetings were happening in their front rooms.

In ‘The Little Prince’, a character says, ‘It’s only with your heart that you can feel, because the essential is invisible to the eye.’ During this embattled time, when we have been drawn to metaphors like moths to a flame, we have all learned that in times of global adversity, it’s our communities that matter. Those little Balmedie rocks may be cold as ice but are proof that our hearts are as warm as toast.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Mary Cane

Losing my Whittle

The blackcap’s fluting warble is the closest sound to a nightingale we have in Belhelvie. In this time of semi-quarantine with less traffic and helicopters, we have been able to hear it loud and clear. Birdwatchers have even come to listen to it down our lane. Out in the locked down world, where travel has slowed right down, wildlife has thrived, and people have even seen wolves in the streets; well not here in Belhelvie unless I missed something. Cyclists are more common down the Ardo road than cars now. Not that I have been cycling or even driving, because during this time of anthropause, I may not have lost my whittle, (penknife) but a flare up of Sciatica means I haven’t had the power to get on with anything that requires physical strength

My whittle’s lost! yet I dinna ken; / Lat’s ripe – lat’s ripe my pouch again…

Losing something, has been a familiar theme this year. I imagine we have all had to search through of our life pockets for something. The lamenting lad in the poem has plenty of other things that he lists from his pocket, but the whittle is the most precious. The old words are unfamiliar to me. I am missing being able to ask Innes Christie, who sadly passed away in June, what they are. I hope you can make them out without translation:

…’

A bit cauk and a bit red keel, the clamp I twisted aff my heel—

A bit auld shoe to make a sling—a peerie and a peerie string

The big auld button that’ I found, when crossin’ through the fallow land—

A bit lead and some pickle thrums, and last of all some oat-cake crumbs…

The image of the lost knife has stayed with me. Who doesn’t remember carrying their first knife? I remember a bone handle and short stubby blade, held safe in a sheath that was threaded onto my leather belt. I felt it could help solve problems. It was a totem maybe, something I hoped would protect me beyond the farm boundary. It did turn out to be handy when manoeuvring my pony through gates tied with binder twine,or clearing a path through brambles and the pigpen smelling hogweed.

I used the point to scrape under my dirty fingernails as I’d seen my father do, tried to whittle a spoon and practised flinging it like a whirling dart against a tree stump.

I am looking down at the same hands now; they are so much older and holding a curved stainless-steel straw to help me sip tea while I am stuck on my back.

Church services are now online, and I hear that Brew Dog’s ‘Castle Barnard Eye Test Beer’ is doing well for our local economy. The proceeds of it and a certain ‘Cummings and Goings’ ale, is funding free hand sanitizer. I hear from a young friend who is working on the beer company’s customer service computers, that she has had to explain the unexpected delivery of beer to surprised recipients. ‘I refer you to your email written at 2:13 in the morning of last Sunday’, she has had to write…then the email trail, she says, goes quiet.

When Einstein said, time was invented so that everything didn’t happen at once, I don’t think he had heard of home-schooling and working from home, during a time of quarantine. Now in the summer break perhaps home life, without a school curriculum to follow will be less pressured and some outings will be allowed. I have harvested long nettle stems to make twine, (I can walk about a bit) and brought bluebells bulbs in from the badger snuffle pits where they had been unearthed. I have learned that sliced bluebell bulbs were an early form of Pritt stick. The anonymous author of that broadside ballad would have known that. If locked down children had been here, I could have delighted them by showing them how to glue nettle twine to a whittled piece of wood.

  Up in our polytunnel, with its make-believe of a climate further south, the apricot tree has flourished and borne fruit. It has provided a fragrant, colourful destination to limp towards in the mornings, and luckily has needed no attention except from pollinators. I even had a zoom meeting up there with the family. Normally we only see each other once a year, so it’s been quite something to see their dear faces more often. We all try to enter into the halting digital chit chat gracefully, and bring out old photos, play bingo, talk about birdwatching, and watch each other’s hair getting longer.

It doesn’t seem long since I was carrying that knife as a twelve-year-old, and I can still imagine the handle in my palm, and the strong desire to cut and slice. Now as my back recovers and lockdown eases, I need to find a whittle, and cut a stout walking stick, so I can get out and about, that is if brambles and the smelly hogweed aren’t blocking the way.

I have edited all of these 38 articles

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Aliens

I have just driven through the Parish of Foveran on my way home, next stop Omarama, then Aviemore and over the Lindis Pass. I know, I know, I’m tricking you, because I am in the South Island of New Zealand, until Easter. For this issue and perhaps the next I shall be the Belhelvie Banter Foreign Correspondent, (self-appointed). We are spending the rest of the Aberdeenshire winter visiting our son who lives near Queenstown. The summer sun is shining, and a little friendly fantail is squeaking in the Wisteria by the veranda. Apricots are ripening, cherries have been picked. It’s not just the place names that are familiar. Up here in Central Otago the 19th century settlers were from Scotland. One at least must have been from Foveran, since naming your new home after your old was one way of feeling less adrift. There are Community Councils here and a Presbyterian church. They drive on the left and everyone looks as if they could be your cousin with added suntan. Charmingly they have retained words we have dropped, in a sort of language Darwinism…. pottle for instance, the old word for half a gallon, tramping, meaning hiking and ‘wilding’ referring to a tree which is not indigenous, and superannuation whatever that was.

Around 150 years ago the council chairman was called Vincent, a Scot from south of Edinburgh. He asked the other council members to bring their suggestions for naming the many local creeks. Four weeks later, up came the item on the agenda. “Well let’s have your suggestions.” said he. No hands went up. We can imagine the usual hush, as people remembered the request, but due to their busy pioneering lives it had slipped their minds. ‘Right then,’ he most likely said, in the universal proactive chairman’s tone, ‘This is what we are going to call them’… He then brought out a list of the burns from his area of Scotland. We live near the one he named, Luggate Burn, and the village of Luggate is named after it. It is now quite a bit larger than its namesake near East Linton. In these parts the climate is much drier than in Scotland, and there is talk of irrigation, failing boreholes and more hydro-electric schemes. The lakes are 30 miles long, but the thirst of modern towns and agriculture is enormous. Long irrigation booms are on all day to make grass. Dairy cows have to be culled when the farm allocation of water has been used up. On the news, big dairy farms in the north island have been up for sale, and there is interest from Chinese buyers. They are keen to have a good clean source of dairy products. The government here is caught in a difficult dilemma… to sell seems like losing control, to a not entirely trusted nation, but not to sell, seems like racism, when there are German and American owners here already.

A local project, we can help with, is removing the unwanted weeds brought over from Europe. Who would have thought that weeding could be such a useful transferable skill? Yesterday we went to a Working Bee down by the river to chop back Poplars and plant Otago native species like Manuka, the tea tree, and Harikiki, the New Zealand Flax. They thrive in the dry soil here, which is perhaps why so many flax plants with their distinctive Kangaroo paws died in Aberdeen last winter. New Zealanders are very tired of cutting back thistles, gorse and willows that have done so well in the last century or two, and they loathe the rabbit. “Take ’em home with you when you go”, they say, with a hint of coolness.

There is one more thread that links us to home. During Scottish dancing sessions in the Forsyth Hall before Christmas, we met a couple who astonished us by saying they owned a plot of land here in the village of Luggate. Bought ten years ago as a retirement project, yet to be started, the land now looks neglected. Geoff the Community chairman and fellow weeder, is happy that we bring news from the owners and a cheque to cut their weeds back.

Now obviously you don’t need a lesson in geography, or the local politics of the South Island. You’re not in a great mood, it’s miserable weather and the only reason you are reading this, is because you are waiting for the kids to come out of school, or Football, or the Green Hut, or your fish supper to come out of the Balmedie chippy. This rather tatty copy of the Banter which you have rescued from the foot-well of the car is all you have to read. Oh dear, bad luck… what can I say?

The Peter Jackson team is up in the mountains near here at the moment filming the Hobbit. Some local people are extras in the crowd scenes. If it succeeds like the previous films, it may revitalize the Lord of the Rings tourism business here. When the film crew has gone, taking every scrap of scenery with them, enterprising bus drivers will rebrand themselves and their vehicles. They will invent little ceremonies on scenic hill sides with a sword and maybe a ring for enthusiasts to be photographed with, while shouting ‘Gon-doorrr’ into the wind.

Castaways

Dear Belhelvie, since I last wrote, we have visited an island where a leaf could be written on and posted until 1974. We have been given Black Boy peaches which stew down to a rich dark red colour, and been told the word for “Oh dear, this is twisted on so tightly I don’t seem to be able to undo it”: ‘Bloked.’ We have been shown the prickly shrub that was so thorny, horses had to wear leather chaps out mustering. We have volunteered planting native trees, and welcomed our neighbours visiting us from Belhelvie, at the bus-stop.

Our 40th wedding anniversary is coming up, and those neighbours from East Cannahars will be with us. There is a little island in Lake Wanaka called Ruby Island. It is about half a mile off shore and we intended to transport ourselves out there and picnic, in a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ sort of way. Plans had been going well. Having acquired a kayak and practiced paddling and swimming with wetsuits and life jackets…we were getting the feel of the alpine water and the distance. Then, when the kayak was minding its own business on shore, I ran over it when turning the car around. Yes, I know, don’t say it, someone else already has.

So, there has been a partly successful fibreglass first aid session, and a rethinking of our options. We have to fall back on our own resources. Resourcefulness is in the air here. It is an integral part of the local Scots bred mentality. The feeling of being cut off, making do and having to survive is never far away.

In the 1800s European ships regularly traded around the Southern oceans. They went south to catch the ‘Roaring Forties’ which helped speed them along, and on the whole, it was a very clear passage. Well nearly clear… often, they didn’t see the Chatham Islands or the Aucklands, (yes, I did say Aucklands) to the East and South of New Zealand before they bumped into them. The islands were tiny in the distance, but nasty and rocky if you had the misfortune to be in the dark or fog. Misfortune it was too, because even if you had navigated accurately by the stars, the island’s position on the maps, it turned out later, was as much as 35 miles out. So many people perished, through cold and starvation, that in the late 19th Century the New Zealand government had a health and safety discussion. They made arrangements to help survivors. Domestic animals were let loose on the islands, solving the food problem. Castaway relief stations were set up with necessities in a container. Boots, guns, clothing, tools, matches. A man’s three-piece suit was designed in Dunedin and woven to be especially warm and hard wearing. Finger posts were set up pointing to the provisions. How annoying it would be, searching for the box, when you are wet and cold.

Government agencies being their usual careful selves put this caveat on the survival boxes, hoping to deter thieves:

The curse of the widow and fatherless light

 Upon the man that breaks open this box

 Whilst he has a serviceable ship at his back.

 For some time after I read this I pondered what ‘fatherless light’ was.
It has a resonance and a poetic ring to it, but I couldn’t fathom the meaning.
It was only later that I realised the line should have ended at fatherless, and the word ‘light’ is, as in ‘alight’. Imagine for a moment you are the engraver. You need to keep the lines the same length to fit nicely onto the metal. Do you read the words and consider the meaning… probably not?

There is a memoir of a woman washed ashore with fourteen men from a ship called ‘The General Grant’. They had six damp matches. After the men struck and fizzled out five of them, she says, ‘I so nervous I had to step outside the cave’ while they argued about whether to use the last one or dry it out and try it another day. They decided to wait, and it lit, and they survived for eighteen months in reasonable comfort before they were rescued. The woman, (Mary she was called, as it happens) turned out to be good castaway material. She had ingenuity and skill, sewed sealskin clothes and together they created a small farm. Why should I be so intrigued at the notion of castaways and castaway boxes? Is it because I feel ‘castawayed’ or ‘casted away’ a bit myself? Not that there is any comparison. Here I am in 2012, only ten miles from a shop, writing on a laptop; with hot water, a fridge and a wheelbarrow behind me; but I am a long way from home in unfamiliar surroundings, separated from things and people I know.

Recreating one’s life from scratch is challenging. Separated from accumulated possessions, personal priorities are revealed. We may not have to struggle with matches here, but we still need the equivalent of a cooking pot, a gun and a sturdy hound’s-tooth, three-piece suit. Not sure about the fatherless light.

Swanning Around

St. Andrew reputedly rescued six ladies who had lived seven years in the form of white swans. Some of us are thinking that we might be better off as swans if this wet weather continues. We could paddle about to our hearts content outside, because inside a wet day seems to last forever. The sort of day you are reduced to dusting off the dullest book in the world, like Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps of Architecture’. It will have been in the bookcase since Noah was a boy. Eventually when your damp bored eyes look up at the window, and the rain is still coming down, even those ‘Lamps’ he describes: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience, won’t shed any light over Belhelvie. My Dad, who only had the one lamp, probably called Gedonwithit, used to say you can make hay with a stick when the sun shines, and I think we can guess what he meant. When conditions are right, life’s not too hard.

In this Parish we are rarely short of water even when it’s not raining. We have springs, wells, divined boreholes, bogs, burns and saturated peat. Belhelvie hugs water, from its high boggy ground to the spongy marshland by the sea. Water features in the old geographical names: Muirton, Middlemuir, Boghead, Damhead, Bridgeton, Butterywells, Dubbystyle and the several Mills and Mosses.

Our roads can be traced back to where animals were transported on foot, keeping to the dry upper levels. Sheils tells of shepherds stopping off with their flock. Causeyend is at the end of the old stone road from Aberdeen, the Causeway’s end. Cannahars refers to Cottongrass on the Muir or moor, Drum is a ridge and Reeve a fold. We have so many of these old poetic descriptive place names for our hills and valleys. They shape our sense of place and they are rooted in our landscape.

The name Belhelvie could be from ancient Scottish words meaning ‘the mouth of the rivulets. Edinburgh is built on seven hills and Belhelvie is known for a seven too… (not just seven waterproof jackets per person) because seven burns drain down to the coast: Newtyle, Menie, Orrok, Hopeshill, Eggie, Potterton and Blackdog all meander down to join the Seven Seas.

We could complain, drip even, that we have had more than seven weeks of rain and fog. We could say it’s hard to remember the views we used to enjoy over sea and land. Ward Hill, a high vantage point overlooking Ardo to the north and Broomhillock to the south, has a view of seven parishes. (I seem to be clinging to a seven theme) The word ‘Ward’ means ‘watch’ suggesting it was a beacon hill. It would have been good for passing a message up and down the coast and across to the Garioch, when it wasn’t raining. On the other hand maybe we should be more positive about our plentiful natural resource and listen to John Gough. In the mid 1800s the great temperance speaker wrote:

Here brews the beautiful water! And beautiful it always is. You see it glistening in the dewdrop, you hear it singing in the summer rain; you see it sparkling in the ice gem when the trees seem loaded with rich jewels…dancing in the hailstorm, leaping, foaming, dashing! See how it weaves a golden gauze for the setting sun, and a silvery tissue for the midnight moon.

Is it me, or does he sound as if he’s been turned into a swan?

It’s That Season Again

The prickly evergreen Holly, and the twining Ivy, are forever linked in our winter folklore and songs. You know the usual ones but there is also:

Holly with his merry men
They can daunce in hall
Ivy and her jentell women
Cannot daunce at all.


Well there you are then… men will dance, and women must watch. The Holly was king and Ivy his gentle lady. Our early images of Father Christmas look very like the Holly King of olden times, but images of Ivy has all but slipped away. We have forgotten that the Ivy umbels cast beautiful starry shadows against the wall and the druid mistletoe has crept into our decorations instead.

So ’tis the season again…have you thought where you will be getting your Holly branches to ward off the evil spirits this Christmas? Have you ordered the dried fruit from the grocer, and grated the beef suet for the pudding? Ladies, perhaps you have nearly finished making your Christmas gifts, and your husband is carving or whittling the toys for the family. You haven’t? Oh yes, that’s because you are living in the 21st century, not the Belhelvie of two hundred years ago. My goodness the shops stretch the season now, don’t they? Sometimes I think my eyes will bleed if I see one more sparkly blue plastic snowflake or cheery Santa. To use a modern idiom, the midwinter festival has well and truly ‘Jumped the Shark’? So many extraordinary things are being offered to us, combined with ridiculously mixed up notions of what we want. There was a time when a meal of roast goose with plum pudding was remarkable and receiving a toy car and a pencil-case was enough on a cold Christmas morning. Well, I am exaggerating a bit, as fifty years ago I needed Famous Five books and a toy microscope, as well as felt tip pens, a selection box and a spirograph to be thrilled. Oh yes, and a family Monopoly game to share. It was my father’s generation who made do with a torch and an orange, as did his friends. He says on Christmas evening after their third church service, they shone the beams up the bell tower to see who had the strongest light. Shake your heads children!

I still like to make the Holly wreaths to put on the family graves at Christmas. Quite why we do it is anciently mysterious, but it is nice to visit the grave, say hello and leave the circle of pagan greenery with its empty centre of loss. William Temple in his 1894 survey of the parish says: ‘two Druid circles, those stone reminders of our ancient beliefs, were removed in the early 1800’s when the land was taken in to be farmed’. I inherited the family wreath making from my father, and I carefully make them from fresh holly, moss and wire as he did. Wreaths probably have a connection to the time when Holly was propped on the picture frames at the festive season to keep away the evil fairies. At that time it was also believed that a Holly leaf placed under a pillow divined the meaning of your dreams, and water drunk from a Holly cup was thought to be medicinal. These days we have the Udny Medical Practice for medicine; and dreams? Well we don’t have time to dream, we are always out shopping in Union Square.

I have been looking at Holly trees as I go about the parish and although they are in the old woodlands around the farms, they are no longer planted in the new plantations or by houses to protect them from evil. We have outside security lighting to deter evil, and now by that silvery light, I shall go over to the workshop and see how the whittling is getting on.

B.C.N.U.

Protection

I have been a bit slack with the housework lately. First of all there was the month I spent hardly able to walk, after I was knocked over by an enthusiastic Labrador. Then I was writing a story about cleaning and growing older, and that sort of distracted me from actual work. Then there was Christmas and visiting our grandchildren in America. While we were with them, we sailed in a boat that once belonged to a Beverley Hillbilly. (If I was making that up, don’t you think I would have thought of someone more famous?) That meant more weeks of not cleaning here.

However the good news is; sometimes slackness pays off. One morning last week, one of my guests noticed that the middle diamond from her engagement ring was missing… gone. It had left a nasty black hole, if not of stellar proportion, she was at least several carats short of her usual crystallised carbon. The band of gold representing her marriage was damaged, and she was distressed. She went into work and searched the staff room but no luck. A kind cleaner there apparently vacuumed and then went through the bag of dust with a fork from the canteen. Perhaps he or she didn’t have a fine-toothed comb; who does any more? No joy, and my guest came back here, dismally thinking about loss, and insurance companies, St Anthony and shoddy ring makers. Then making her way to bed, past the shower she noticed a sparkle…yes, the diamond was lying there in the shower tray! It hadn’t swirled away to oblivion because I hadn’t addressed the slow draining water. The diamond had sunk, leaving the water to quietly creep away. I mention this as a shining reminder of frailty, and our value systems.

Talking of value systems, I was at a goodbye party recently for some young people relocating in the Oil and Gas industry. The subject of handbags came up; in particular a well-known brand Mull… no let’s say, Skye, berry’. Girls will know what I mean. These young women were thrilled about the possibility of owning a handbag that had a price tag of a good-sized diamond. ‘You should have one, they said ‘It makes you feel really great when you go out! Look at this one… Come over here Lauren’. They beckoned to their friend, and I was introduced to a large exquisite leather bag with a small girl behind it. Feather soft and beautifully made, I waited for my heart to beat faster. I tried to get excited and I tried again. Nothing fizzled within me, not a flicker. I don’t think I can be the right audience, or at the right stage in my life. When I go out, I don’t need the protective talisman of a special handbag. The places I visit are familiar; the lanes, the farms, the people, the streets. However I do remember when I was engaged and Tony Blackburn was playing ‘Band of Gold’ by Freda Payne most mornings, I felt different, unbalanced, young. Lonely during the week, I was dependant on my symbolic engagement ring to get me through.

In Belhelvie it’s a new year for the group of volunteers who continue to help nurture the Parish sense of identity. ‘Better Balmedie’, they are called, (go along, it’s fun). They help enhance the village and have developed a poly-tunnel gardening project behind the Leisure Centre. They are growing-on plants for the cheerful looking planters that have been appearing around the village. At Christmas it was renamed ‘The Enchanted Poly-tunnel’. Santa visited the group there, and advised them to Hoe! Hoe! Hoe!

When I went to see them this month, I discovered that a poly-tunnel does move me, stirs my heart. Why? Perhaps because it provides a shield against the thing that I can do the least about, the weather. As well as providing a warm place for work, chat and coffee for me, as the one in Balmedie does, less hardy plants will thrive there too. I have worked out that a medium sized one would cost less than a high-end handbag.

There is a plan afoot in Balmedie to raise funds for a sensory garden, but I think they may have created one already with what they have. Gardening engages all the senses, and working with the soil and plants is delightful enough. Lewis Grassic Gibbon called the smell of the farmyard: ‘fine and heartsome…’ and continued: ‘They sell stuff in Paris in little bottles, with just that smell, and charge for it handsomely, as they may well do for it is the smell that backgrounds existence.’

So, this season, I have rescued a diamond, avoided a handbag and committed to a poly-tunnel. Now I can look forward to spring, when our parish will be encircled by enchanting tubs of colourful flowers; Belhelvie’s own band of gold.

I Could See the Wind

Did you know that a long time ago there was a freshwater loch in Belhelvie? Yes there was. It stretched all the way from Ardo, down to Butterywells at Potterton. Then one long cold winter, rather similar to this long cold winter, a flock of geese came in to land, and the temperature dropped suddenly. It was so cold the water froze around their legs, and so, when those geese flew away, they took the loch with them… They say it is up beyond Methlick now.

This month the ice has retreated, and there’s been a flap on here in the garden. The pigeons are making themselves comfortable in the hedge noisily. When they murmur to one another, they are supposedly saying: ‘Tak twa coos Davie, Tak twa coos’.

During the cold and windy late spring, I took to armchair adventuring. I read John Buchan’s stories of the far North. His son, Johnny, inherited the title Lord Tweedsmuir, and came to live in Potterton House at Hogmanay 1952. Apparently, he resembled one of his father’s heroes, and he is reputed to have kept a badger and a barrel of oysters in his rooms at Oxford. He and his wife Priscilla were only able to enjoy their woodland home in Belhelvie, for three weeks before the great storm of January 1953 blew down most of the trees. They set about replanting enthusiastically, and the mature Canadian Maples growing near Potterton House date back to that time. Lady Tweedsmuir was the M.P. for South Aberdeen and the couple grew to love this area, especially the variety of birdlife. She was instrumental in the passing of the Protection of Birds Act in 1954. We have a variety of birds here in Belhelvie. Moorland and grassland, woodland and sea species, as well as migrant varieties are all here in Belhelvie. Maybe it takes an outsider like Lady Tweedsmuir to appreciate the beauty and variety of a familiar place. She presented Sunday school prizes at the church and some people in Belhelvie still remember her.

After last year’s wet autumn, more fields than usual have been ploughed up in the parish this spring. It’s been dry, and on a windy day last month I saw a sight as strange as a flying loch. Over a newly sown field near the dunes, dusty earth was hanging in the sky taking on the shape of the wind. The brown swirling cloud settled again in the field, but in Moray where the soil is lighter, they needed snowploughs to clear the sandy soil from the roads.

Beneath a pair of old ash trees, tucked deep into the leaf mould, we unearthed a green wine bottle with a deep punt in the base. It looked nearly as old as the trees. We pondered on who might have finished off a bottle of Burgundy in the corner of the garden by a couple of Ash saplings.

Standing in front of a waist high chopping log, billhook in hand, I reduced the mountain of Ash branches to a small hill of kindling. The job took time, but it was soothing and productive. With a bird-song accompaniment I was as happy as a monk with a manuscript.

EDITOR’S (Audrey Jeffries)REMINISCENCES

Mary’s reference to the Tweedsmuirs, reminded me of a fascinating day the Belhelvie Guides spent as Lord Tweedsmuir’s guests at Potterton House. This followed from an enquiry sent by a very young Morag Sutherland and simply addressed to his Lordship at the House of Lords. His prompt reply invited us to come and visit him. The next time he came north from London to Edinburgh he would make the journey, especially to greet us. We had free run of the house, garden and woodland and there we cooked him a camp style breakfast (in the rain!) which he ate with relish before showing us round the house and garden. Some girls were enrolled into the movement and made their Guide promise in the conservatory which I recall was completely steamed up with all the hot girls and wet cagoules.

The house was a treasure trove of artefacts from around the world. Not only gifts to his wife Lady Priscilla in her role with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and from his life in Canada but also from his travels working in Africa and South America as well as in the high Arctic with the Hudson Bay Company and his year spent living with Inuit. There was even a great bell from the front of a Canadian train. The girls took great delight in giving that a boing!

Indeed there were also many items belonging to his father, the author John Buchan the 1st Lord Tweedsmuir. Our host ‘Johnnie’, the eldest of Buchan’s three sons, claimed that although this famous author did own a typewriter, he preferred the simple dipping pen, of which he had a collection and used these to write his many pieces including “The 39 Steps”. He claimed his father did not master anything more elaborate and technical than the simple pen preferring that to the more modern fountain pen. I seem to remember being told that the great man could not even master the technicalities of riding a push bike! But perhaps his adventurous son was using a bit of poetic licence to impress the girls. He was a truly charming host and very responsive to a barrage of questions from the girl guides. All thanks to Morag and her note to the House of Lords. AJ.

Sanguine

July has continued to be really warm. When the edges of the garden are being mown there is a foreign spicy fragrance, redolent of tobacco and old roses. The wild geranium Herb Robert has reddened in the dry heat, the three hens lie lethargically in their dust bath. When we were shown round this garden in February 1986 and the owner said, “It can get too hot in here,” we nodded and smiled politely. She was right though, because in the garden today, nearly thirty years later it is, at last, too hot.

To help combat climate change we have been trying to reduce our carbon footprint when considering a new heating system. We have read and researched, seen demonstrations and attended a seminar. We have committed to an Austrian boiler fuelled by wood pellets from Banff and are preparing for its installation.

Clearing out a dark corner we re-found an ancient wooden wheelbarrow. Made from timber and iron, it is wood-wormy and rusty, but the ash handles are still silky smooth from, well, hands. It’s so heavy that it’s no wonder gardeners didn’t seem to be in a hurry when they were pushing them. The iron wheel rim, the brackets and the fixings look as if they were made locally. At one time in this parish you were never far from a blacksmith. When sitting quietly, listening, at Belhelvie Kirk the other week I found myself contemplating the simple iron holders used to stow the empty communion wine glasses. They are attached to the pitch pine pew backs, at knee height, below the bible shelf. They look old and have a soft metallic patina. They are fashioned from two narrow straps of iron crossed and curled forward, not quite touching… like little arms. It’s tempting to imagine the ‘Belhelvie Blacksmith’, the Minister Alexander Forsyth forging, shaping and quenching by the little anvil, still kept in the porch of the Kirk, but the dates probably don’t fit so we must leave it there in our imagination although it’s true his skill was in making small iron components. During the early 1800’s he made locks and penknives, appropriate enough as ministerial activity. He would have helped to keep his congregation and their possessions safe and presumably enable them to lock-up their homes to attend services or sharpen quills ready for biblical instruction. Later though, he went on to develop the percussion lock so that guns could fire faster. This new technology replaced the old flintlock and loose gunpowder. ‘That’s a bit ironic for a minister.’ we say to one another in Belhelvie when the subject comes up.

We went to give blood for the first time the other day. I have never got around to it on my own, and pilots aren’t encouraged to give any of their bodily fluids away. Now he has retired from flying, we decided to brave it together. It turned out to be not too challenging but memorable. I found I was a universal donor, he fainted, and I left my jacket behind. Whilst down at Foresterhill, we saw from a distance the interesting looking white igloo of the nearly completed Maggie’s Centre by the Norwegian architect, Snohetta. Aberdeen is catching up with the other Scottish cities by providing beautiful surroundings for families enduring the cancer process.

We are looking forward to our American family visiting this summer with our grandsons. We have noticed that a lot of effort and attention is invested in the choice of language when interacting with children nowadays so I shall have to be on my toes. Let me share the following short play-let, sent to us via face book from their kitchen table.

Scene: Boys staring empty-eyed at their lunch, not eating.
Mom (stern):
 Seems like that donut earlier wasn’t a good idea.
Fin (5 year old in serious tone): – We’re not talking about the donut. We’re talking about this lunch.
and curtain.

We are thinking of local activities that would entertain them. We shall go to Balmedie beach of course and do the usual things there. We will take the opportunity to point out the five miles of absolutely flat land, at exactly 100 feet above sea level. Used by the Ordnance Survey as a baseline to take their calculations from, when they mapped the country in 1817. It will give their parents, the perfect opportunity to explain to those receptive children, the principles of trigonometry.

The North East of Scotland was late in the map-making department. Before the Ordnance Survey team arrived, we were largely map-less. There is a sketchy map overseen by Robert Gordon, drawn in the 1640’s (held by the National Library of Scotland) which shows our area. There are no roads marked, just little hillocks marked in brown ink. It was possibly used to show the aristocratic owners their territory. Ardo is the last place marked to the west before the unfinished blank area east to the coast. It is marked as ‘Glamis Ardo’, referring to its ownership by the Earl of Glamis from 1543 to 1653. After that, the Earl of Panmure incorporated Ardo into the Belhelvie lands. However Craibadonna, Bal-ne-kettill, Kyng seat, Achloune, Hillbrae and Tuliry are names marked on the map that we can still recognise today. This summer, visitors have had to use G.P.S. to find a way around the road works, including Panmure Gardens. These days the Earl would be able to look at Google maps to check his property.

Soon the weather will change and we Belhelvians, will again be wrapped up and be-scarved, watching beech leaves roiling in the wind against a bruised dark sky. Meantime here in the past I skip across dry lawns in bright sunshine chasing shadows, my tiny carbon feet leaving hardly a trace.

Earthly Delights

Have you noticed that earth just stays where it’s put? I mention this because a mystery mound at the base of a granite wall here at Ardo, was explained recently, when I watched a man scoop out the usual lump of leafy muck from our gutters and drop it below him. I reckon, over decades that action has been repeated many times. The vegetable matter just decomposes and stays ever so quiet as it solidifies and inches up the wall.

In the last few years more earth has been moved in Belhelvie than mankind managed in all the previous millennia. Whole hillsides have been altered. Lorry loads of waste have land filled in the spaces between sandy hills. Tons of subsoil and bluestone has been taken on unexpected journeys.

Hillside and seashore, crag and woodland, whin and muir, Belhelvie has such a variety of topography. Old droving ways, now tarmacked, curl around the parish avoiding the outcrops of Belhelvie rock that poke out of the earth like giant’s knees and elbows. Rooks caw, gulls mew. On showery days when there is accompanying sun, we have glorious cloud formations and rainbows. Rainbow we say not Spectrum of light or Heaven’s curve, because we named them long ago in the days when men carried a bow and arrow not a Samsung Galaxy.

It was only the other day I realised that Orion the hunter has a bow of stars up there in the sky as well as his sword and dog. He would have needed one, of course he would. Consider the impossibility of hunting without a bow. Trudging along, never getting close enough to the prey to catch and dispatch it, the heavy sword and scabbard clanking, the dog never bringing anything back…hopeless.

This summer from the garden we looked up at the sky near Orion. A friend and I sat in the chairs wrapped in blankets with hot toddies to hand, and watched the meteor shower before the clouds came over to bring the curtain down.

The bio fuel boiler has now been installed, to keep us warm and smug, sorry snug. We felt we were moving heaven and earth to get it done, having to take off a roof from the old dairy, so the hot water tanks could be craned in. However it’s done. The vacuum mole sucks up the wood pellets and sends them scuttling along plastic tunnels to the burner and sweet-smelling wood smoke comes out of the central heating chimney.

Our family from Michigan visited us as planned and we all had a good time although it’s hard to surprise world-weary young grand boys. They had been space-invaded and lego-ed out. They have been brought up with cartoon super heroes, been partied, swum, cycled and taken to fairground and circus. Never more than ten seconds from a distraction, few things move them to the edge of their seats. What could we, Grandma and Grandpa ‘Faraway’ offer in Belhelvie we wondered? Night adventure and curious vegetables that’s what, it turned out. With the parents away, we were left in charge. Leaving the house at dusk to visit the badger-set up on the hill, we carried torches and a favourite plastic pirate sword for protection. We all held hands and made our way through late summer grass to the old stone quarry. The stone here in the 18th and 19th centuries was dug out of the hill to make the field walls and the hedgerow up our lane on the West side of Ardo. Holding back the weight of the hill, part of the lane is lower than the field like an ancient hollow-way. Of course, we were making far too much noise to actually see a badger and even if they were at home, they would have been holding their paws over their poor badgered ears. The shrieks outside their front door were piercing when I had to wrangle a skinny five year old, hopping and scratching his leg, away from the edge of what was a surprisingly huge hole. I was trying to  prevent a ‘Child stuck in a Badger Sett’ incident on the news, whilst trying to answer the question ‘Why do badgers have stinging nettles by their front doors Grandma?’ Cows ambled over to see what all the fuss was about and loomed worryingly large over small boys in the gloom. We lost the pirate sword in the grass, whilst beating a slightly hasty retreat back over the hedge to the lane. There, while the cows watched us over the hedge, we were able to relax and relish the moment. Owls hooted and bats swooped against the moon. The boys ‘waved’ their lights up through the tree branches as we walked back down to the house and cups of reviving hot chocolate. In the retelling to parents, that outing sounded like a pretty decent adventure.

Next morning, we took them to the vegetable garden to find carrots. Picture this: Child in vegetable area standing amongst feathery foliage. Hands go out, flip over and are pushed outwards and upwards in the universal gesture that says: Oh Grandma, I’m afraid, (but not surprised), that you are wrong; carrots as we know them in America, are long and coloured orange and there are none to be seen here. ‘Ah ha,’ think I, ‘Watch this my little unbelievers’. I bend down, gather a few of the fronds together and pull. The soil releases a perfect carrot with a satisfying little ‘thwock’ and I hold it aloft. For an instant their faces showed complete surprise, quickly followed by a, ‘Yea, oh yea, that’s where you find them, we knew that all along’ but they happily set to, pulled more out of the ground and helped cook dinner.

Ghandi said: ‘To forget how to till the soil is to forget ourselves’.

I hope those little boys tucked those experiences into their sword belts of knowledge gathered up their bows of memory and returned to urban America with good stories to tell at their Primary School news time.

By the time you read this, my fellow Belhelvians, I shall be in New Zealand again but with luck and a following wind I will send you back musings from the far South for the March issue.

Meanwhile,
‘Til charcoal sprouts

Note: There was a while when I was intrigued enough with the sign offs in letters or any other communications, to use them at the end of the Banter articles. BCNU. Which is text for ‘be seeing you’ was one of them. To be fair to myself that was newish in texts at the time. My favourite one, and you will see some more before I gave up, was ‘Til charcoal sprouts, an old fashioned way of saying forever.

Glee Resumes

High up on the mountain something catches my eye. It’s Doreen’s fridge magnet: the little plastic red man that clamps the photos of her grandchildren. Wait a minute, says my brain, I am in a valley in South Island New Zealand and that fridge magnet is at Broomhillock in Belhelvie Parish. ‘Ahh’, my grey matter re-computes, ‘that red figure is a full sized climber spread-eagled across the rock face, far away’. We continue our picnic and watch. He slowly works his way across the grey schist, a tiny hand reaching for chalk from the bag around waist, his ropes invisible at this distance.

Adventurous activity is in the air here. The 60th anniversary of the accent of Everest in 1953 has been celebrated in the town, because Edmund Hillary climbed the mountains here as practice, before he went to the Himalayas.

So here we are again, busy in the summer sun, settling back into our New Zealand cottage. It was built for a sheep musterer’s family in the 1920s. It isn’t marked on a map. The best places never are. The external walls are made from flattened out oil cans. They have been painted and then forgotten for decades. The orangey rust colours against the soft blues of the lavender by the little green door are a perfect combination. We will continue to work on it during this visit. It’s called ‘Biscuit Tin Cottage’ because the foundations are old biscuit tins filled with concrete. Wooden plank floors have saw marks and there are later additions of flat tin, nailed down along gaps to deter rodents. Patches of old newsprint still stick to the walls. One readable headline says: ‘Glee Resumes’. I like that, it sounds positive, as if we were meant to be here, enjoying the combination of renovation and southern sun.

It has some similarities to our home in Belhelvie…It has history, there are trees around it, a hill behind for shelter, and nice neighbours. However, there are differences. Yesterday a problem with a floor was solved by lifting the corner of the building with a car jack. That doesn’t happen at home.

When William Morris travelled to Iceland in the 1870s, he noticed that there was a delight to be had in the differences of ordinary things. ‘ I’m looking at horses, the hats and the hellos’, he wrote home. We enjoy doing the same here, observing the similarities, seeing our own history in a different context.

At our native plant volunteer sessions, we hear tales from New Zealand locals. There was the one about the old climber interviewed in Dunedin not long ago about his ascent of one of the Southland mountains with his brother in the 1930s. ‘Have you any proof you reached the summit’? he was asked. ‘No because our camera film ran out.’ the old man replied. The disbelieving interviewer then went off to organise his own expedition, determined to claim the peak for himself. When his team eventually reached the top, they found a small cairn and inside there was a sardine tin containing the names of the old men.

??????was an old and treasured local character. He probably had ‘a smile like a burnt fence’ and ‘was as fit as a robber’s dog’. He won a ticket to fly in an aeroplane for the first time on one of the Air New Zealand sight-seeing trips to the Antarctic. Yep, it was the one that crashed into Mount Erebus…

We shared a meal with a man who told of a dog which when his owner says: “Do you fancy a bike ride? “jumps up onto his knee facing forwards and then when it’s ears are held like handlebars, makes a growling noise like a motor bike. Our neighbours here killed pigs for Christmas and hung them in the trees, like an etching by Goya, before butchering them. They were generous in their invitations to share the roast, but we had to walk around the pool of dried blood on the lawn to get to the table… Rosanna and Frank from Balmedie Farm came here on their Honeymoon last month, and mountain biked to us down the rugged Clutha river track from Wanaka. (Clutha is from the Gaelic for Clyde) Full of youthful energy, they would have zoomed past the site where Nathaniel Chalmers stood in 1853. He was the first white man to see this area. He had walked all the way up from the coast at Dunedin. He didn’t stay long. Having had diarrhoea for months, he apparently said to his Maori guides with typical explorer understatement, ‘In truth I am too fagged to proceed further’… and they rafted his almost lifeless body back down the river to Dunedin.

That would have been around the time that the new Kirk at Balmedie was being planned. The main house at Ardo with a smart new Rubislaw granite front, had just been finished, and The University of Aberdeen was several hundreds of years old.

.

Living Dangerously.

…Yes, we are living dangerously. Back in Belhelvie from a winter away in New Zealand we are outside wearing hard hats and carefully passing wodges of mortar from hand to hand. Gently tucking granite stones back into place, without dislodging the overhanging boulders that could fall on us.

Trees are like children they show us the passage of time. Walls on the other hand are frozen at the moment of their building. They exist in a state of somnolence. They just are, until they return to the ground in a hurry. Part of the front face of our eight-foot high garden wall collapsed four years ago, after a fall of snow. It was too big a job for us at the time, so we braced and propped the remaining stones. We hoped it would somehow mend itself. Of course it didn’t. It did what walls do…nothing, and it’s only now that we have summoned up the energy for mending it. Working underneath the stones is a delicate business. Our strategy is to do a small section, leave it to harden and return. We use the concrete mixer a decent distance away to avoid the vibration setting off a rock fall. We are watched by the Speedwell eyes of the Green Alkanet plants that have taken up residence in the spilled lime mortar. Plum blossom prettily floats around us, and the sun is shining creating long shadows along the rest of the wall. We make steady progress. I wonder where all this stone would have come from. It is a mixture of fieldstone and granite. Most likely it will have been quarried from the fields around here and brought in by horse and cart in the 1800s. The large quarry hole in the field in front of the house that the badgers have taken advantage of, is the best bet. The smaller hole where we once found pale green bottles behind the house is the second. I pick up shards of a brown pot by the wall that had tiny holes where the glaze has bubbled. Although old, it would be more recent than the beakers in the Aberdeen Museum that were found in graves near here. This area of the north east retained the habit of interring people, crouched up with a pottery urn, for two hundred years longer than the rest of Europe. Loyalty to the house of Stuart persisted long after the revolution of 1688. There is a theme here. Oxen were still used for ploughing in Belhelvie when horses became the norm in most other places. It has been said that in the North East the people have always been, not renegade exactly, but dissident, independent, able to keep secrets, and mind their own business.

Our history is still around, albeit in memory or underground. One of my friends was having some work done on her farm recently and the digger driver uncovered a small, handled granite implement. On examination, it turned out to be a hand-held oil lamp from the Stone Age. A small reservoir had been patiently pocked out of its centre and the handle had an indent for a thumb. Belhelvie has always had plenty of stone. As well as useful whinstone from the quarry and bricks from Seaton brick works, this parish has produced massive amounts of gravel and sand for concrete. They must be using plenty of Belhelvie for the expansion of the airport right now. Have you seen it lately? It’s hard to recognise this description of Friday night travel from London by Lord Tweedsmuir in 1963: ‘It’s another world dropping into the Aberdeen airport at dusk. It is a very cosy airport. Oyster Catchers sit on the runway and you smell the air of the hills as you come down the ladder and feel deep country around you. As it is only six miles from Potterton it is an almost miraculous way of reaching home on an end of week evening. We can do a whole day’s work in London and not leave the city ‘til five and still be back at Potterton at about 10 o’clock and on a summer evening admire the garden in daylight…’

We have been bored lately by conversations with our young people. We have been told about their gym sessions, and running times, core strength, food intolerance and power diets. Friends have had similar experiences. (hash-tag, Generation gap). When Chris returned from working away in Norway the other week, we exchanged our own variety of chit-chat and found it so much more entertaining. I described a programme I’d seen about dog-sledders who had carried diphtheria serum hundreds of miles across terrifying terrain, to save the people of Nome in Alaska. (It’s a dream of mine to drive a team of huskies.) He, a long-time fan of Irish folk music had found out why the Clancy brothers always wore those Arran sweaters on stage; chit-chat perfection.

There has been progress on our poly-tunnel. Bought last year, but with no time to put it up, this month, we have brought out the components and laid them on the ground. Stored in the shed over the winter we found that mice had eaten down through the folded edges of white plastic. Opened out there is a raggedy repeat pattern of tooth marks along one side. I could mend it with the white tape supplied for accidental damage, but I wonder if there is a possibility of patching it with clear coloured plastic. It might create a stained-glass effect. Just imagine, the sun shining over the newly mended wall and through the polythene, sending streaks of rainbow light over my lettuces and beans.

 Until next time.

Passing on the Baton.

On our way home from seeing the opening of The Kelpies, we stopped off to admire the new memorial at Bannockburn. A poem carved into the high curved oak beam is by Kathleen Jamie:

Here lies our land: every airt

Beneath swift clouds, glad glints of sun,

Belonging to none but itself.

We are mere transients, who sing

Its westlin’ winds and fernie braes,

Northern lights and siller tides,

Small folk playing our part.

‘Come all ye’, the country says

You win me, who take me most to heart. …

It’s been quite a year for reflecting upon our country. Seven hundred years since Bannockburn, one hundred years since the First World War, and seventy years since ‘D’ Day. It’s also been a year for vicariously taking part in epic sporting events. From the Scottish Open down at the Aberdeen links, to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. We had the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and we still have the Referendum to look forward to when there will be all to play for.

Here lies our land: every airt.

The Queen’s baton travelled very close to our parish in June, on its way to Glasgow for the Games. Inside, it contained small pieces of blue granite from Ailsa Craig which were left as mementoes on its journey through the fiftythree countries taking part.

Aberdeenshire has a little-known connection to the First World War. Captain W.E. Johns wrote some of the ‘Biggles’ series here. He liked the area and rented a house for fishing and shooting trips. Those of us who remember those cheap hard-backed adventure books with the soft paper, know that they helped us learn about exotic foreign places, as well as the power of friendship, and how to win a dog-fight. Of course our attitudes to ethnicity and the countries we now call the Commonwealth, have changed since then, but the character of Biggles is still with us through the power of story recycling. Doctor Who’s Captain Jack, played by Glaswegian John Barrowman, keeps a character similar to Biggles alive, albeit in a longer coat.

This summer the subject of grandchildren and my relationship with them has been on my mind. ‘What do you remember of your grandparents?’ I have asked people. ‘Did you or do you know them, spend time with them, hear things about past

relatives, learn old fashioned things from them you never thought you’d need?’ ‘Did you appreciate them or wish you’d known them better?’
I have also been considering how much grandchildren need their grandparents as a base for their own emotional future. It’s when we become grandparents that we benefit from those memories of our own grandparents. They help to place us in context with our family. They enfold us into the fabric of ourselves.

We are mere transients who sing

Perhaps due to distance I have a romantic notion of being a Grandparent. The little boys in America call us ‘Grandma and Grandpa Faraway’, for obvious reasons. One day recently we watched a video of them on ‘you tube’ showing us how to build a Lego model. It was a ‘light bulb’ moment for me as I realised that they weren’t tiny anymore, and if we are to have more than a fleeting holiday relationship with them, we need to get on with it.

Small folk playing our part

If I were to see them more often, I could tell them about their great-great grandfather whom I knew well until I was thirty. He learned to design ships in Glasgow. He fought at the Somme, survived and lived ‘til he was ninety. I can remember how his false teeth squeaked when he chewed… Or their country great- great grandmother an expert goose-plucker, and baker. I can remember watching her take the hot iron from the open range, and spit on it to check the heat.

Seeing more of the grandchildren, will be a challenge logistically, but for the summer months in the next few years, Kalamazoo, Michigan is where I intend to be, allowing two small memory banks to top up with Grandparent–ness, which will include the reading of old fashioned 20th Century adventure stories in their red cardboard covers.

As for the challenge, I shall try to remember Biggles’ advice when his men were facing a new aviation problem: “If you can fly a Sopwith Camel you can fly anything”.

Come all ye’ the country (or parish or family) says, You win me who takes me most to heart.

Yours Aye,

The Future is Exciting

Someone told us that years ago, an owl flew into our kitchen and perched above the fireplace. It sounds like a children’s story doesn’t it? ‘The Owl Who Lived on the Mantle-piece’… Maybe it really happened. It’s true there are Owls in the garden here. We have seen young ones hopping around the lawn on summer evenings. They do seem less orientated, so that I could imagine one dark night, the door could have been left open, and, in the morning, when the family got up there it would have been, blinking over the Rayburn.

I try not to be nostalgic for the time when we knew less about the world. Constantly being reminded of great change can be wearing. Even having to adapt to small changes is tiresome. It can feel like the very earth is shifting. Take the mystery of missing Linda, for instance. Linda has been at the Belhelvie quarry office, more or less in charge of things as long as we can remember. A reliable part of parish life. This year when we went to fetch our usual ton of sub-base, she wasn’t there. Gone. There was a man in her chair to and in front of him on the desk was this helpful sign: ‘still not Linda’.

Over in Africa we hear the ancient handshake greeting has been changed to a hand over the heart gesture, in an effort to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. How very touching, is that act of un-touching.
Our traditional spoken greeting: Hello from ‘Halloo!’ the old call from the hunting field, only arrived with the telephone (in the thirties here at Ardo). The new technology provoked the startled call, that was used to urge on the hounds when prey was seen. I think when the phone rang it felt as if the outside world might have been about to intrude or when calling, your voice was in danger of going off who knew where. I still feel a bit like that with our current telephone and broadband issues. Our signal comes and goes. ‘Hello… goodbye…hello’. Video clips of dogs or dolphins on social media sites come in uninvited to gobble up our gigabytes.

Work on the long-awaited bypass, has begun in the parish. Trees are being felled and land cleared. The sandy south of the parish will be re-landscaped. Men wearing more layers than an onion are directing traffic with their ‘Go’ and ‘Stop’ lollypops. Lorries are carrying stone hither and thither. The land is being cut to the bone. It’s no use me pursing my lemon lips in my ivory tower though, because easier road access to cities is needed; at the very least, so someone can come and fix our wi-fi problems. Commerce is important, they say, it’s the way forward.

That reminds me of a story about commerce that could have been set here in Belhelvie. Once upon a time three men called Bat, Bramble and Cormorant were in the wool business together. They borrowed money to invest in a ship to export the woollen cloth to… Edinburgh, let’s say.

Unfortunately the ship sank…on the sand bank off Balmedie I shouldn’t wonder… ruining all three of the businessmen. Which is why, the Bat, only comes out at night, to avoid his creditors, the Cormorant is always diving to salvage the wreck and the Bramble snatches wool wherever it can.

It was a long way to Edinburgh by road then; quicker by a ship (although they had to avoid the sandbanks). Fifty years ago this summer the road bridge over the Forth was opened to make the journey easier. Our neighbour Jeremy from East Cannahars says he watched the bridge construction from the ferry when he travelled to school in Edinburgh. Before 1890 when the rail bridge was opened, Edinburgh would have been a mere folk tale for people living here in Belhelvie. Everyone had to make do with the parish for entertainment… such as misplaced birdlife.

The poet Wallace Stevens said: ‘A man and a woman are one.
A man and a woman and a Blackbird are one.’

I like that don’t you? Here’s to a healthy heart and a wet glass.

Wild

In my studio when it’s cold outside, I burn timber scraps on a little wood burner. I can boil a kettle on the top and probably cook a Homity Pie if I were pushed. The outside cat loves it and stares ecstatically into the flames. Lighting a fire is so cheering. The success of getting it to draw, waiting for it to establish, boiling water and toasting bread, all make a day seem more positive. It’s as if a fire creates its own dynamic space. In his novel Waverley, Walter Scott wrote of adventure up here in the North. Writing in the 1800s he vividly described life in the Scottish Highlands sixty years before to entertain his southern readers with the ‘wildness’ of it all. He passed through Belhelvie collecting material. It was before the road was made so he would have ridden along the beach from Aberdeen. He noted down interesting facts to use in his stories. A village engulfed by dunes, (Forvie) and the dangerous quicksand of Belhelvie that engulfed a horse and rider in 1612. Travelling at all through Scotland at that time would have had its share of exotic adventure.

I have two wild friends with whom I enjoy adventuring. One of them is thrilled by the freedom of wild swimming, the more remote the better. I am her somewhat reluctant companion, helping to find the watery location then keeping watch holding her clothes. On one occasion we had to squeeze under security gates like Peter Rabbit, such was her keen desire to be the first to swim there. The truth is, I am more ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ than ‘Peter Rabbit’, enjoying my near surroundings whilst being tempted by the faraway.

With my other wild friend, Philippa, I can be more like Little Grey Rabbit. We cook and eat wild. We have carried a box of matches with bacon and fish in our coat pockets, walking along a riverbank like ragamuffins. Together we have boiled rice with her home grown saffron sprinkled into it or potatoes with butter and rosemary. We enjoy finding a place for the fire, propping kindling into a neat tee-pee and sniffing the fragrance of the burning wood. Recently she achieved funding for an art project down at Scott Base. She sent a picture of herself holding out a pancake in a frying pan, her pleased expression saying: I-AM-IN-THE- ANTARCTIC. Behind her pinned up on a shelf was a note saying … ‘Hi Mary’.

MY-NAME-WAS-THERE-IN-THE-ANTARCTIC.

Adventure in the wild has universal appeal. The other day I saw a nest of non-stick saucepans displayed in a well-known Bridge of Don store, called ‘The Adventure range of pans’. They didn’t seem over keen for adventure. They didn’t look as if they expected to be used on adventures at all. Maybe there are domestic adventures I don’t know about. Maybe they are meant to look so ordinary as to encourage adventure, as in: “This dull saucepan reminds me it’s time to get out and explore the world”.

Over in Copenhagen ‘Noma’ that much advertised super-restaurant links itself to the desire within us to experience our past. Their menu offers many tiny courses of foraged ingredients, beautifully arranged. It gives people an exquisite if expensive taste of their culinary and cultural history. Kelp and crushed beechnuts, smoked quail eggs, teal and sloes. Maybe they don’t have wild friends.

At the time ‘Waverley’ was being written many housewives were still choosing to use the old-fashioned spit for roasting meat. This was when ovens were available so there must have been nostalgia for the old ways. Maybe they were reluctant to give up the dogs. A muscular small dog called a ‘Turnspit’ had been bred for powering the machinery that turned the spit.

A caged wheel was hung on the wall above the fire connected to pulleys and the hot, smoky dog would be poked with a stick when it flagged. There would be a couple of these in the household to take their turn and we still say ‘Every dog has its day’, which goes to show that words have hollow places where the past sleeps.

The big road improvements underway now are hopefully going to improve our ability to get about. In the early 1800s the government introduced tolls in an attempt to make people pay directly for road improvements. In an attempt to prevent aggravated people jumping over the gates on their way to market they put pikes (spikes) on top, which is why roads in some places are still called turnpikes.

The Belhelvie turnpikes were dismantled in 1866. Around about the same time the last Aberdeenshire Turnspit dog would have been let out of his treadmill. He had had his last day. Those same roads are now part of the new future Energetica Corridor the latest effort to achieve a stream of income.

What do we do, but make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn”. – Jane Austen.

The Measurement of Dreams

Chris remembers being at home soldering rails for his Hornby Dublo railway, listening to radio Luxemburg when President Kennedy died. The subject of train sets came up because we are thinking of activities to keep us going through six weeks of school holidays with the grand sons in America. ‘What about your old train set’? I said. It has been kept safe, but apart from a brief outing in the late eighties it is packed away. The boys have nearly finished with Lego, and now play Mine-craft on their tablets. I’m thinking they would benefit from mastering the ancient skills of electricity and carpentry, making sponge trees and being introduced to manly swearing when things don’t work.

I have a Grandmotherly activity prepared too. I am going to offer cooking, and when that loses its charm, I have a ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ up my sleeve. The great Rothschild collection is being rehoused in the British Museum this year and that reminded me to look at my collections. Those ‘Wunderkammern’ or ‘wonder rooms’ of the Baroque period sound so much better than nature table or a collection of penguins on a shelf. In the Renaissance, manly men with money, and time on their hands (no train-sets), created marvellous collections to show off to their friends. We all have something similar in miniature on our mantle-pieces. We are born to collect and be curious. There were five categories of wonder, and I shall encourage the boys to look at or bring me something for all of them: naturalia-the natural, arteficialia- the manmade, scientifica -new technology, exotica-finds from different realms, and mirabilia- the inexplicable. We may not have a unicorn’s horn, or a bejewelled chalice but I have enough weird and wonderful things to start our own thrilling collection. The pebble Nick brought back from Scout camp. ‘Err… I didn’t find anything to buy but I saw this in the loch, and it looked nice…’ is definitely one of my treasures. Then there is the ancient bottle we dug up at Ardo, and the silver apostle spoon from my great grandfather. I have just been clearing out my mother’s house so that it can be sold. She is bedridden at the care home, where she is comfortable but near the end of her long life. Years ago we made a contract that I would do the necessary with her things so I am doing it now, without discussing it further. We just exchanged wan smiles. Mum never embraced consumerism. She was a bit like Aunt Glegg in ‘Mill on the Floss’. She could only wear new clothes, if they had been laid down like geological strata in drawers for years.

Mum and Dad were both good at collecting. Old implements, letters, pressed flowers, scrapbooks of holidays, minutes of meetings, pencils, stationary. Our daughter joked when we were recycling the many, many, empty margarine containers that if there were an auction, one day would have to be devoted to paper clips, rubber bands and treasury tags.

A neighbour here in Belhelvie is relocating this summer, and we have helped to sift through her farm buildings. Old pieces of furniture were lurking like guests who had overstayed their welcome. We lit a bonfire and burned a sofa that had supported the family through so many years, we felt we should have gathered up the warm springs and put them in a casket. Among the old motors and scrap in the farm workshop there was a bundle of folded metal links tied up with tow. I somehow recognised it from deep within my peasant memory. You know the memory that tells you: ‘Ohh… an old blanket, better keep that’ or ‘Ohh… the blackberries are ripe, better pick them’. There it was, half a stone of metal, 22 yards of links to be laid out on the ground for measuring one tenth of a furlong, the furrow-long …the distance a horse could plough before a rest. A chain… the length of a cricket pitch, or an allotment. Before decimals we used imperial numbers that seem complicated now. However if you cut a pie and then halve it and halve it again you will see those numbers naturally appearing … 2 4 8 and 16. Some of you, at least those of you who remember the death of Kennedy, will remember them on the back of our school exercise books. Along with the chain there was the rod or pole, the length of a stick used to prod your team of oxen.

The new road around Aberdeen has been started at last. It will have been measured by now, but not with rods and chains. Sadly the satellites and lasers will be too big for my scientifica and exotica shelves. Imperial weights and measures along with the Magna Carta, which formed the basis of their constitution, were taken to America and they haven’t turned decimal so there will be a place there for the chain.

Think of us on a summer evening laying the links out straight in the Kalamazoo sunshine. We’ll put the cricket stumps up at either end before going inside to paint tiny figures for the station platform. In my dreams those little boys of nine and seven listen carefully to our notions of how to pass the time this summer, and they make little astonished sounds like pigeons round a crushed cake.

Live long and prosper.

Dried Cod with Mustard Sauce

 ‘How was it in Belhelvie while we were away?’ I asked, when we returned from America. ‘The world wept for you.’ replied my poetic friend from over the hill. ‘Yes’ I replied somewhat ruefully, ‘I see that, and the stars appeared too I see, in the form of seeding grass plants on our gravel paths’.

We did our best to be good grandparents in America. As well as being taxi drivers for the two boys, we looked after them while their parents worked. It wasn’t plain sailing; it has to be said. It’s one thing for their parents to hope that they would enjoy time with us so much that they stop playing on their tablets, it’s another for us to have the power to lure them away. Our weaponry to counteract their exciting virtual world, was, if you remember, playing cricket, the nineteen fifties Dub-lo train set, chess, the family curiosities I had taken with me… and gardening. Yes, I can hear the sound of your head bumping onto the table as you mutter ‘What was she thinking?’ Anyhow, we went over there, and did what we could. We showed them the depths of our naivety and did our best to engage with their little souls. In our different ways I hope we all enjoyed the companionship.

…And you are right, it was a hopeless task to imagine we would entice them with our archaic family pastimes. However they were close by the train set when it was running, saw their family tree being constructed and a Cabinet of Curiosities was painted and was left there with family objects tucked inside it. It was strange to see how far the boys ranged in the enticing digital worlds, and how little they were able to access the real world on their own. Of course, their restricted freedom now will be so much expanded as they grow up. They will be free to think and do what they please. They certainly aren’t committed to continuing their father’s line of work or to stay at a certain level of social order as previous generations were.

The Newburgh artist James McBey grandson of the Newburgh blacksmith walked to Aberdeen and back on his own to buy a box of paints when he was under 10 … around 1890. He went on to be well travelled away from familiy tradition but he was unusual for the time.

This text is from his autobiography showing how attached people were at the time into their place of birth and the social hierarchies. (Lots more about him of course in The Aberdeen Art Gallery when it reopens.)

Each farmer for miles around would be known by the name or contraction of the name of his farm- Piscaff, Linnie, Saak, Pitgersie, Ardo, Craibadonna, Drums Dubbystyle- and each had his pew. The pews of the prosperous wore cushions; those of the more humble worshippers had no padding. The collection was taken by the elders of the kirk, each of whom went to his appointed section bearing a pole like a broom handle with a square open box at the end. Deftly he would push this along in front of each pew. Meanwhile everyone listened to the fall of the coin into the box. All could tell if the coin were a penny a half penny or a threepenny piece. Our minister the Reverend J.S. Leutit (Captain Leutit of Ardo was the son of this minister.) was determined to change this mode of collection and at his own expense supplied velvet purple bags with handles that could be passed from hand to hand in a civilised manner. This created a schism and feeling ran high for months. Nearly half the congregation suspected this to be a ruse of the devil who had caught the minister off guard.”

We overheard the grandchildren, while they searched fussily for lunch possibilities. ‘I only like the French bread hot. … Oh, we don’t like that kind of pizza… Those carrots are the wrong shape. We only like the pancakes with chocolate chips…’
As a contrast, here is McBey on the food of his childhood at Foveran Smithy:

Our meals were frugal. The function of food was to keep the body alive and working: it was not to be enjoyed, and the changes were rung with oatcakes white bread, boiled beef, cabbages, kale, carrots, turnips, potatoes and tea.”

The grocery store in America was so large, we dared not split up. To find everything we walked the distance between Foveran and Belhelvie if not all the way to Aberdeen. When we eventually we got back in the car, we stowed items that were shipped from five continents including a very nice sauce to go with fish. It was in a convenient plastic container with a snap off lid. Here is McBey on his grandmother’s Mustard Sauce: “The entrance to the Ythan was difficult for small boats and gales were frequent in the winter so fish was not plentiful. The grocer kept a supply of dried codfish and on this we fed several times a year. By way of a treat my grandmother made for it a mustard sauce. She put a handful of dry mustard in a china washbasin with a pint or so of skimmed milk and a large cannon ball that was kept for this purpose. Seating herself on a stool, she held the basin on her lap, gripping it with her thighs, and then with a swaying rocking motion she kept the cannon ball swirling round the inside rim of the basin until it had crushed the mustard seeds which as it amalgamated with the milk became a paste. As more milk was added it became a sauce. Never once did it sag to the bottom centre nor did it ever shoot over the rim.”

That was some skill, don’t you think? I am off to practise so I can show the grandkids next year.

Granular Debate

One hand raised; I am holding on to my hat in a westerly wind. The wind that Mum and Dad joked kept our farm buildings up. I’m looking at a black and white photo from 1960 but I still remember the hat was blue, and the bolero I am wearing was angora. I can almost feel the softness on my arms. My brothers and I are lined up in front of a travelling drilling rig. The farm needed a better water supply, so the drill had been working to create a borehole deep into the hill. Some weeks before that a water- diviner had walked up and down, and across the field, putting in markers where she had felt the energy from the water pass up the forked stick and mysteriously through her body. Dad rarely took photos, but he would have wanted to record the moment when he had, at last, achieved a good reliable source of water.

I have been catching up on a ‘Swallows and Amazons’ book that I missed fifty years ago – (too much posing for photos). It describes the adventures of the ‘Coot Club’ on the Norfolk Broads. I was entertained by the familiar low-tech activities. Fictionally, it was possible to achieve so much with those simple elements of bicycles, jam sandwiches, good chums and an old-fashioned camera. Occasionally there was a need for additional extras that would be found in their pockets: a pencil, scraps of paper, string, a torch or a penknife. In this story there was much cycling around dusty roads to take messages there, and back again, getting thirsty and ‘puffed out’ in the process. When the young adventurers found they needed to take a photograph at night, one of the children, there was always a boffin one, built a homemade flash device out of a biscuit tin, magnesium powder (thankfully not in pocket) and a sparking emery wheel. It was all so vintage, so very down to earth.

Every now and then, when digging in my Belhelvie garden, I come across a lump of pure clay to play with. It’s not a rich Kincardine red, it’s more Whitecairns beige with ochre streaks. I like to knead this smooth earthiness in my hand and mould it into thumb pots or balls. I let them dry out in the summer sun and then leave them to collapse and dissolve in the winter. Mixed with linseed oil I could make a good weather-proof glazing putty with it, or I could if I liked tread it with sand and straw to make ‘cob’, and plaster a wall with it.

The varied geology around us in Aberdeenshire has been able to provide many of the raw materials we used to depend on. As well as stone and slate for houses, there was fire clay, peat, brick-clay, limestone, and sand. All quarried and transported to where they were needed. A rare mineral, diatomite was found at Muir of Dinnet. In the 1860s Alfred Nobel was driven to find a way to make nitro-glycerine safer after his brother was killed during experiments.

Alfred discovered that with the addition of Diatomite, (the chalky remains of tiny sea creatures), the explosive was stabilised. Nobel renamed the mixture dynamite. Diatomite was quarried and transported from Muir of Dinnet until 1919.
Throughout Belhelvie Parish and beyond we are all driving extra carefully to avoid trucks containing stones and gravel that has been blasted out of local quarries. The material is being transported to the new ring road construction sites, when ironically the need for such a road is in a lull due to falling oil prices.

Over the summer we met a man who said: ‘Ah, I remember Belhelvie… how is it doing?’ He told us he was a student here in the 1960s and bicycled from Potterton into Kings College. ‘It was so quiet on the road’, he said, I used to read my newspaper on the handlebars.’

The roads from Potterton and Balmedie to the new road are being worked on day and night. The modern high-tech machinery and G.P.S. must be helpful but it is still a huge project. Moving countless thousands of tonnes of material to support the new roads are changing the contours of the land. You have to admire the complexity of the endeavour, so much labouring, all to make our journeys easier. ‘Journey’ from the French ‘Jour nee’ a day’s work or a day’s travel for the journeymen who worked for a day’s pay. So much dedicated equipment and material managed in dust or mud. Then just when it gets easier and the roads are metalled, they all move on to a new site. It must feel like keeping wasps: All the trouble of keeping bees without the bother of collecting the honey.

Maureen Ross and I went over to Ballater, to see the splendid replica stagecoach the Royal Highlander with its team of horses. It was on a two-day charity fundraiser journey to Aberdeen. They were celebrating the time in the early 1800’s when the development of coaches and metalled roads meant that mail could be delivered in a day along the 58 miles of the Deeside road. Metalling is from the Latin metallium meaning a mine or a quarry. The roads were made with granite chips in the middle section to support the horse’s hooves. There was tightly packed smaller gravel and earth at the sides to be smooth for the wheels. At the staging points the horses were speedily changed so that they could keep up an average speed of ten miles an hour. This way of transportation was a great success… until the Deeside railway was built.

I am off now, travelling south to resume my job as your foreign correspondent. One winter’s day, when you are dodging those big trucks and the sky is as grey as a shark’s armpit, think of me. I’ll be in the New Zealand sunshine, working out what interesting nuggets to share with you for the Banter Spring Edition.

When I live my dreams, I will take you with me. David Bowie

Too much travel causes my equilibrium to leak away. It takes time to adapt to new concepts of normality. Then more time to rebalance the gimbal in my head and retrieve escaped silvery swirls. I’m sure coping with this side effect of travel would have made James McBey’s grandmother laugh a hollow laugh as she swung that cannonball in the enamel basin between her knees. (Reference here to a previous Parish Threads).

We are staying in the South Island of New Zealand again. The village has a pub but no shops. The people are friendly, and security isn’t an issue, except when it’s that time of year when everyone has too much garden produce. If you don’t lock your doors then, you might find a bag of courgettes on the kitchen table. Early one morning we hear a ‘snap snap’ of a silenced gun that tells us the spirit of pioneering lives on. The neighbour shoots rabbits from his bathroom window and will have them skinned and minced for his dogs before we are up.

We go searching for the source of the stream up on the stony hill above our cottage. The rainfall has been so low it has dried up. (Yes, I can hear you telling me you have had more than your fair share  of rain back at home in Aberdeenshire). We climb over the boundary fence and work our way higher to see what has happened to it.

In the 19th century hopeful miners dug and sluiced there in search of gold. Two brothers from my family left the UK in the1860’s to work on the goldfields near here. Young men, their minds and bodies greedy for hard work, have always been in the first phase of migrants. Keen to change their circumstances with limited resources the brothers travelled on foot from Dunedin carrying their tools and meagre supplies. They set up tents beside their allocated squares of land. A swinging bucket on a pole was erected over their diggings to move the soil away to be sluiced. They struggled because gold was elusive. They were hungry enough to eat Starling Turnovers apparently and suffered the full range of pioneer difficulties from Scurvy to Tin Pest.

John McGlashen optimistically told potential Scottish immigrants in 1848.

“If your prospects are bad then I can safely say that you would be ten times better off in New Zealand where, if you are able and willing to work, to keep yourself sober, you would in a little time be surrounded with abundance of bacon and eggs, bread, butter, milk and puddings, biscuits, fowls and all kinds of vegetables.”

Living off this great new land wasn’t straightforward. The weather was fierce, the land was mountainous and parrots with bright orange under-wings tore flesh from a sheep’s back. Around this time and not much more than a biscuit toss, away from Belhelvie, a certain Mr Stephenson was telling stories to his godson during a wet holiday in Braemar. This story was of Jim Hawkins and his adventure to find treasure.

It became ‘Treasure Island’ of course, and thrilled readers, when the suggestion of travel across oceans was as exotic as a parrot’s wing.

Fruiting cherry plum trees, offer clues to the line of the old stream so we climb on up to the hot outcrop of grey schist. We bend down underneath the branches avoiding the worst of the thorns. Stepping stickily in the fallen ripe plums we cut our way through and find damp earth beyond. Dampness turns to mud and then… there it is, a trickle of water emerging from between the rocks. Nearby I see an old rusty pick head half buried. The handle has rotted away. I pull it out and I shall keep it outside our cottage as a memento of past hunger for gold.

When an ounce of gold was found in a bucketful of soil on those early goldfields the celebratory cry went up: ‘Gin and Raspberry to all hands!’ The words ‘Gin and Raspberry’ have survived as the name of a pub over in the resort of Wanaka and went to meet our son there. Nick, schooled as he was in Balmedie and Bridge of Don, is a descendant of one of those boys from my family. The one who found a pocketful of gold, enough to pay for his passage back home. When I watched Nick put out his tongue to a friend and they touched foreheads in a Maori greeting, I realised his life was here now and I looked down at my glass… and saw a silvery swirl.

There’s more than one way to pickle a beetroot.

When the sea at Balmedie was keeping itself busy purling waves under a bone white moon and the Belhelvie sky was slinging threads of sleet over the Sand Bothy, we began our journey home. Before we left, we dealt with a skink that had stranded itself in a saucepan, its body reflecting like liquid silver as it circled in the pan. After letting it loose onto the warm rocks outside, we upturned all the pots and pans to allow safe wandering in our absence.

Moving on to see the family in Michigan we were as usual caught out by slight cultural differences. On our first shopping trip I asked grandson one to get the trundler, accidently reverting to the Kiwi name for said shopping aid. ‘What the heck’s that dude’?’ He said, in that modern ever so casual way the younger generation use to address their elders. ‘Err,’ I said, ‘You know… the shopping trolley’. I struggled against a fog of jet lag. ‘…The thing you push …to get stuff… from the shop’. ‘Oh that,’ said he smartly, ‘you mean the shopping CART’.

It’s hard to keep up with things. Scotch pancakes, hot cakes, drop scones, pushchair, buggy, and stroller… whatever. Local names have to be respected though, so I gave the grandson and the sky a smile, and moved on. It’s ironic that the older you get and the further you go, the less you know. Leaving the door open to the unknown is important. We all know that. The irony is, that the things we need to transform us, like wisdom, love and grace, are out there waiting until we get uncomfortable. When Baldrick was asked if he knew what irony meant he replied that it might be something like bronzy but made of iron. Well sometimes things do seem a bit bronzy. Take the moment when we were eating our sandwiches by a New Zealand river with a group of ‘Ten pound Pom’ retirees, born in the U.K. A packed canoe glided by with two men paddling. ‘Are the natives friendly?’ boomed one of the paddlers in an English voice…. ‘Yes,’ We called back politely. ‘In that case,’ he continued, ‘I claim this land in the name of King George,’ and he and his equipage was borne away on the current.

Back in King George’s time, near where we were staying in Michigan, James Audabon was painting birds. He would shoot them with lead pellets and then wire them into realistic poses to paint. Some of those species (partly due to him) are now extinct. In 1826 he struggled to find publishers for his four-volume set and it was Scotland in the form of an Edinburgh engraver who took on the challenge of turning them into the magnificent folios of bird prints that are still the best of their kind. They inspired John Muir, the environmentalist who spent his first eleven years in East Lothian. In collaboration with president Roosevelt, he designed laws to create the first American National Park. Modern American politics are not so easy to understand. Maybe we should be more interested now that we have a possible president owning land in our parish. Somebody told us that if we were going to America, we’d need cheese in our ears…. a mysterious notion until you hear the ideas on the election campaign. Some of the candidates do seem to have what Burns called ‘whigmaleeries in their noddles’.

Avoiding talk of Republicans and Democrats with the boys, I discussed the new film ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ along with the story of ‘Moby Dick’ that it predates. It didn’t go terribly well. Melville’s themes of man’s hubris and lack of understanding of the great unknowable natural world was hard for them to grasp, especially when the second part of the whale’s name was so very amusing.

As oil production slows here in Aberdeenshire and the world struggles for balance it is challenging for us to understand too. It is quite something that only 200 years ago entire cities were lit by whale oil. At the end of the film there is mention of the rumour that oil had been found by digging in the earth… ‘A likely story,’ was the reply. We cannot see into the future, but it wasn’t that long ago that people believed that if a duck’s bill was put into the mouth of a sick child the duck could breathe away the sickness.

Home is where one starts from.

Does anyone else feel tired of living in a parish snake pit? Our Landscape that had minded its own business since the last ice age is now writhing and rearing around us. Stones and soil are being wrenched out by diggers and bulldozed into new road patterns. This civil engineering project is bigger than most of us realised. Let’s hope it settles into a useful addition to our infrastructure. On the news we are hearing the discussion about the Hinkley Point Nuclear power plant. ‘It is too huge to fail’ says a pundit ‘but too big to succeed’.

The last time there was so much activity tearing through the North East was when the Buchan railway was constructed. Opened on the 18th July 1861 it was a great help for the farmers of the North East to get their animals and produce to the markets. From Dyce the line was apparently engineered northwards not to take heed of the geography, but to follow a route dictated by local landowners. It was they who bankrolled the project. The Earl of Aberdeen apparently didn’t fancy noisy industry, or tourists coming near his land, so you won’t find any sign of stations near Haddo. Maybe he wasn’t impressed by new technology. In the event the railway didn’t last long, as only a hundred years later Mr Beeching pulled most of the branch lines, including the Buchan one, leaving us a useful 29-mile footpath to enjoy.

The political landscape in Europe and the presidential possibilities in America are surprising us this year. Our new prime-minister, Theresa May has been depicted in a cartoon pulling a sword from a stone. At the same time, I have been reading about the skeuomorphing of ancient legends. It means that truth in old stories isn’t immediately obvious, because it has been morphed over time. Take that particular Arthurian legend. It is the molten iron from stone hillsides that represents the sword. The king may have pulled out the material which gives him king status not the actual sword. The story of an army under a hill may be referring to the weapons as yet unmade.

When we arrived here in Belhelvie, thirty years ago, the view northwards from our ferrous rich Ward hill was as black as the inside of a bag. With its view over seven parishes, security lights, new houses and roundabouts have pierced many more holes in that bag. The new roads will add even more for the Watch hill to watch.

Recently one of my more competitive acquaintances said it was about time I made my mark on the creative world as the clock was ticking… adding ‘Tick tock,’ presumably for emphasis, in reference to my advancing years. For a moment I felt a psychological dart coming for my chest, but I was able to raise my shield and deflect it. I am thinking of giving that person a book on Wabi-Sabi; the Japanese study of non-competitiveness, imperfection and simplicity.

The other day on a rare hot day we had an energetic little grandson to entertain for the afternoon. Looking for simplicity we went to a local burn to paddle. The naked three-year old, fished out wet shining pebbles. Back lit by sunshine filtered through trees he tossed them a couple of feet away defending an islet. He vibrated with delight as his (and our) ambition met pleasure in a perfect splice and we left the place without leaving a mark.

Most of the summer we have been having breakfast looking out at a garden that has been cool and misty. Wrens dart, pigeons amble and blackbirds flick their tails as they go about their day whatever the weather. Appearing in this tableau is a robin we have nick-named Sharky. Sharky the Robin has a strange misalignment of feathers. It’s as if a finger has been drawn up his back, leaving feathers sticking out. It doesn’t seem to bother him. His flight is balanced, he pops into the kitchen for a snack sometimes and seems to live his life unaware of his strangeness.

Julian of Norwich said in the 1300s: All shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.’   Let us hope she meant now.

Sometimes We Have to be a Little Bit Mighty – Matilda

Once there was a man who had several parrots. He taught them all tricks except one called Billy who refused. It just sat and fluffed out its feathers like a little owl. When people came and admired the other birds the owner worried that Billy was feeling left out, so he would say “You will hurt poor Billy’s feelings” then he would turn to the parrot and say, “Come, do your ‘Little Owl’ my dear”.

I am writing this in a field in Kalamazoo, Michigan, half watching grandsons playing soccer. Picture me. In the cool breeze I am hunched over in one of those wide folding chairs with deep holes on the arms too narrow for my thermos cup of tea. My Star Wars socks (trying to be American?) are half hidden by the touchline grass. The leaves on the trees edging the sports fields are pale amber through to ruby red. Tapping away on my iPad, I am hoping I don’t miss one of the boys scoring a goal. They are wearing team tunics that reach down below their knobbly little knees. I can hear the coaches calling encouraging instructions. ‘Way to go Ryan.’… one of them shouts… ‘Try not to look like a run-over Raccoon, Blair!’ calls another.

This evening towards the end of our stay I shall be doing my own modest but precious ‘Little Owl’. I shall read the book I have written for the grandchildren… out loud… in front of the family and neighbours. The rhymes and pictures combine stories of the children’s life in the style of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ that both my parents could quote from.

During our time in America we have travelled up to ‘Hiawatha’ country near the Canadian border, inadvertently following in some Belhelvian footsteps. Layne Wright, until recently living at Potterton Home Farm, was brought up in North Michigan. Two Governors General of Canada had links to the North East too. The Earl of Aberdeen, John Hamilton-Gordon was Governor from 1893 to 1898 and you can see the sleds he used, hanging on the walls at Haddo. John Buchan as Lord Tweedsmuir, whose son lived at Potterton house held the same post in the 1930s.

As we travelled north, we learned about the First Americans. A ‘Witness Quilt’ made to celebrate their culture was hung for Catherine and William to see on the Royal visit to Montreal in September. One poignant square showed an image of a doll fashioned from rags and sticks that a resourceful little girl had made to replace the doll the authorities had taken from her. The Canadian government made indigenous peoples give up their children to be educated in residential centres, cutting them off from their families and culture from the 1800s onwards. The last residential centre closed in the nineties, yes nineteen nineties. Here at the soccer field we met a man whose wife is a first nation American, a Cherokee. He boasted that he had an ancestor on the Mayflower and told us that at her family gatherings he wears a tee shirt they gave him that says: DO NOT FEED THE PILGRIMS.

In 1957 I remember being taken to the Mayflower steps in Plymouth and seeing a replica of the Mayflower, before it sailed to be on display at the Cape Cod Pilgrim museum. Mayflower had a sister ship, the Speedwell. The ships set off together, but Speedwell was misnamed. She was anything but speedy. She had a leaking hull that delayed the expedition for months. Mayflower travelled alone, and in the end landed late in the year 1620. With little knowledge or supplies to protect them from the Massachusetts winter they relied on the kindness of the Native Americans. Even so during their first year, half of them died. I think we could say those early settlers have gone from strength to strength, however just recently there has been a feeling that some descendants of those settlers, have got too big for their boots. Some may be thinking it would have been better to have followed that tee-shirt instruction back in 1620.

Looking back but not quite that far … In the winter of 1887, Belhelvie people, (those close enough to get to Foveran and home again in the evening) were invited to a talk at the Kirk entitled ‘America and Americans’ as part of a series called ‘Popular Lectures at Foveran.’ It followed one the previous month called ‘Aberdeen 140 years ago.’ That would have been interesting.

I hope you have enough to amuse you during this winter season. Maybe you have been busy enough in the absence of popular lectures. Perhaps you have even managed to take an opportunity to fluff up your feathers and do your own ‘little owl’ like Billy.

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Driving over to Newmachar from Belhelvie the other morning; you know where the view opens up to the west, I saw an extraordinary sight. There were two Bennachie ranges in the distance. To the right of the usual hills were clouds in the very same shape. Not having heard of Orographic lifting, I felt I had witnessed the miraculous. How unlikely would it be I thought that clouds would mirror the shape of the surrounding geography so perfectly? I was delighted to be able to tell the story at teatime like a kid who has just seen a chick hatching. ‘It was ex-actly the same shape as the hills…’ I said breathlessly. ‘Well it would be’, I was told and was informed about adiabatic cooling, dew points and cloud formation. So now I have been able to extend my already reasonably large collection of anoracky material.

I was brought up by a sturdy-shoe wearing mother who confused conversation with the imparting of information before spectrum issues were common knowledge. All her life she absorbed facts about natural history, literature, geography and ancient stones. She has just died in a Cornish nursing home aged 96, (thank you but I am OK) and I am preparing readings for her funeral. It’s a delicate business to get right, even though I have had plenty of preparation time.

She lived her life well into very old age. She was even able to laugh when she really did have to roll up her trousers as per the poem by T.S. Elliot. In a bizarre coincidence, my brother’s children lost their other grandma the same week, and she was also called Ann. “Grim Reaper accidental duplication?” we said to each other, sotto voce.

Back in October the subject of the Grim Reaper came up as a choice for a grandson Halloween costume. I felt I couldn’t agree to making a cardboard and stick scythe and black cowl without first imparting information about the beliefs around the Grim Reaper. There was scything, reaping, death, souls and skeletons, a whole caboodle of ancient belief systems to chat about ….cue ten-year-old grandson’s eyes rolling back into blank sockets.

Now it’s true there is slight aspergerical streak in our family. Luckily, as you know I am untouched by it…if that is, you discount my interest in 19th century Scottish brick-marks…. and of course, scythes and reaping.

I have a picture book called ‘Cry Heart but Never Break’ to give to the grandchildren. It’s a story that begins when the Grim Reaper arrives at a cottage to collect a grandma. He leaves his scythe leaning against the wall outside, to respect the fact that there were only children inside (The grim reaper isn’t a bad guy really). The four children, who the grandmother had brought up, hoped they could distract him by keeping him talking over coffee all night …he plays along, but in the end puts a bony finger over the cup, and says: ‘No more’ and tells them a story. There were two sad grey boys, called grief and sorrow, he tells them, and two pink happy girls, called joy and delight. All of them realised something was missing from their lives. They of course meet, fall in love and live happily ever after. You can’t have one without the other, he says and leaving the children he goes upstairs. They hear the window open and when they go up, sure enough Grandma has passed away. The G.R. is still there though and finishes by telling them that although they will be sad, they will always have memories of her and the wind blowing the curtain at the open window will bring a reminder.

I have devised a plan for Mum’s remembrance service. I shall use readings from books on her own shelves, books that she kept all her life. From the Flower Fairies I shall take, The Song of the Snowdrop Fairy:

Deep sleeps the winter cold wet and grey Surely all the world is dead spring is far away

In Croydon in the 1920s, Cecily Mary Barker was drawing her young kitchen maid and much younger children who modelled for the pictures in draped muslin. It would probably be frowned upon now.

From Tales of an Empty Cabin by ‘Grey Owl’ her fifth form school prize from 1936; I shall take a few lines from Longfellow describing the passing of the gentle Chibiabos:

From the homes of those who knew him Passing silent through the forest

Like a smoke-wreath wafting sideways Slowly vanished Chibiabos.
Where he passed, the branches moved not Where he trod the grasses bent not,

And the fallen leaves of last year, Made no sound beneath his footsteps.

The handsome Native American Grey Owl who so impressed John Buchan in Canada in the 20s also gripped the imagination of Mum’s family when they saw the author speaking in London in the thirties. He told thrilling stories about protecting the wilderness, birch-bark canoes and his two tame Beavers.

In the end he turned out to be an alcoholic, bigamous ex fur trapper called Archibald Belaney from Hastings, but his ability to connect with the natural world impressed everyone and they forgave him his deceit.

Forgiving deceit is in the air at the moment as the people of America and Europe cope with what the majority voted for. In the end all we will have left will be a defiant Skimmington Ride. I have my pots and pans ready.

Who knows what more duplicity I may find on mum’s shelves within the copies of Homer’s Odyssey and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, to say nothing of Dulac’s fairy stories and her Bible? However, it would be a rich selection of literature to take to a desert island …if she were going to one.

Maybe she is.

Aliens Living Among Us

If I were designing a coat of arms for the Belhelvie Parish, it would have rooks rampant against a sea blue. There would be a sprig of gorse to represent the land and I might add a flourish to suggest all the new roads that have come to dwell among us.

At the moment Gorse is flowering across the parish fit to burst. This winter turned out to be mild. None of us have needed the snow digging shovel kept in the kitchen overnight as recollected to me by a Belhelvian this week, neither have we needed the acre of Gorse to feed and shelter the cattle as recommended to farmers in 1820. At one time Gorse had so many uses it was considered indispensable, in and out of the

house. The hungry gap at the end of winter opened its jaws wider up here in the north and the early soft growth on the Whin was valuable fodder. A law had to be passed to say a person could only harvest as much from the common lands as he or she could carry. A more vigorous variety Ulex Europaeus was even brought over from Spain to supply the needs of the people.

I have been continuing the Gorse/Whin/Broom nomenclature debate. Over the winter, during tea breaks at Scottish dancing in the Belhelvie church hall, I have had conversations with local farmers about the difference between the three names. These chats have been circuitous with no definite conclusion but now I think I’ve nailed it. Whin is the name for the genus Ulex in the North and is of Scandinavian origin. The name Gorse is from medieval English ‘Gorst’ meaning uncultivated land. Broom, as we know, is not prickly and is called Broom, but why it’s also Broom as in Broomhillock, the farm adjacent to Ardo, has been a mystery. There the hill is covered in Gorse not Broom and the question has been, why would you name a place after a poisonous plant that isn’t much use to man nor beast, apart from making sweeping tools? To continue with the naming issue, Whin is Whin, as in Gorse and Whin Chat; Whin stones were used for grinding Gorse into fodder. However it isn’t to do with the Whinstone quarried at Balmedie quarry because that refers to a dark hard rock nothing to do with a prickly plant… unless there is a Scandinavian connection way back in the dark, stone ages.  To solve the conundrum I referred to, a book published in 1676, called ‘Farewell to Husbandry. It refers to the two leguminous plants as Broom and Prickly-Broom. So there you have it… I am able to conclude that the two plants with their very similar flowers were anciently known as Broom. The one with inedible foliage but useful for making brooms was Broom. The other with tasty thorny foliage was separated from the former by a precise preceding adjective ‘prickly’ that was then dropped for ease of use.

I have been reading about another talented non prickly natural
phenomenon that resides closer to the parish than you
might think. It is the Octopus. I have been writing children’s stories
about a particular octopus that lives around the wreck of
the Archangel, a mile offshore from the Sand Bothy, I have
looked at their many talents. An octopus can camouflage
itself, is an escape artist, uses tools and can tell the
difference between keepers in an aquarium. It can regrow
an arm and is reputed to be as clever as a dog. Because it
has a very different brain, biologists say it is as close to meeting an alien on earth, as you will find. One of its behaviours is to turn dark while standing tall and still, making it look intimidating. This is called ‘The Nosferatu pose’ because it looks devilish. The word, meaning devil from Romania was popularised a silent movie.

Now it won’t surprise you that Belhelvie Parish and the devil have no connection whatsoever… but I have discovered a tentacle like thread for you from not so very far away. It is said that Bram Stoker visited Slains, and the castle helped inspire his story of Dracula. This story was then blatantly half inched by a German filmmaker in 1928. He made a film called ‘Nosferatu’ with Count Orlok in the title vampire role. There was a court case, brought by an indignant Mrs Stoker. She won and all copies of the counterfeit story were to be destroyed. However, the film had already travelled across to America and the characters had entered into the world’s cultural memory…Count Orlok even appeared recently with SpongeBob SquarePants… Now… where were we? Oh yes, with the octopus down in the sea by the wreck of the Archangel in a devilish pose waiting for a story to unfold. Let’s move on

To safer dry land at Ardo. As a counterpoint to my hectic reading life, we have been renovating a small outbuilding. It has been quite an archaeological dig. In among the stones, broken glass and slates we unearthed pieces of glazed earthenware. They look as if they are part of a dairy bowl, possibly from the old local brickworks and pottery at Seaton. I have set the pieces into the new cement floor where they are now enshrined as a link to times past when all the farms round here milked cows to supply the parish.

I have heard that when the new roads are finished there will be some information released about interesting archaeology uncovered during the earth moving process. We may well have some new Parish stories. I will let you know.

I am bound I am bound for a distant shore

By a lonely isle by a far Azore.
There it is, there it is, the treasure I seek
On the barren sands of a desolate creek. Henry Thoreau

We are in Kalamazoo with the grandchildren. Since last year the neighbourhood has sprouted yard signs declaring that ‘Hate has no Home Here’. Ten dollars can apparently buy that promise. Our sign has had its wire legs broken, we hope, by the wind. Luckily a neighbour who paid ten dollars, but no sign turned up, has a painted bicycle outside her door that supports our legless sign.

We are trying to operate within the Overton Window. In Belhelvie, Overton is the name of a useful breakers yard. Here, the Overton Window is a yardstick measuring the range of acceptability in politics. Both ends are set at the unthinkable. The middle is the acceptable area of government policy. I have moved it to deal with our intergenerational family behaviour. (Only in my mind you will be relieved to learn.)

On these hot summer days when the boys aren’t at summer extra-curricular classes (bang in the centre of the window), we take them on simple expeditions, (probably a little to one side). The boys already have access to water parks and sports fields, so we find the lazy town creek at a place called Celery Flat. (F.Y.I. the town of Kalamazoo was settled by the Dutch who grew a lot of celery.) In what I hope is Huck Finn style I paddle into the water with my shoes on. I wade out and enjoy the feel of the water and the sight of the tree lined creek up ahead. I hear hesitance behind me. ‘Are we allowed?’ The boys enquire, sounding worried as if they are sitting on an Overton Window ledge. … ‘Well… I am.’ I say and move off through a cloud of iridescent dragonflies. Negotiating the silt and the mild current, not knowing what’s around the corner is a new experience for them and in its own way as thrilling as it gets. Sure enough, they asked to go back for a longer trip. So we located lifejackets, hats, inner tubes and paddles to create rudimentary creek transport. To keep within the centre of the Overton window we needed to pay attention to safety. We did a reconnoitre to find safe entry and exit places. The outing went well. We surprised frogs and a family of muskrats who swam ahead of us like small beavers. Things nearly went awry when a decent sized leech was found attached to a boy’s ankle. I hadn’t covered leech removal on my recent first aid course in Inverurie, but it came off with a severe grandma pinch. Having flicked it onto the creek bank we all watched it flip-flop revoltingly. There was a cry of ‘Oh Grandma it will die up there.’ as they tried to rescue it. Grandchildren seem to be the most erinaceous of creatures. They have so many hedgehog-like spines, pointing in all directions, from empathy and carelessness, to selfishness and generosity.

Exploring the Kalamazoo creek is good practice for our real adventure we have planned for this trip to America. Next week we go north into Canada to pay our respects to the place where my grandparents met. Mum’s parents met on canoeing parties with a group of Canadian and London young people before the First World War. Married and back in London in the twenties, they used Canadian canoes on the Thames and taught their children to paddle. Grey Owl the fake Indian chief, toured England soke eloquently about the Canadian wilderness and the family went to hear him. His books were bought and read  to us in Cornwall. On holidays at Bude in the sixties Mum then taught us the ‘proper’ way to paddle a Canadian canoe. We had to kneel up and our paddling stroke had to curve at the end to keep the canoe straight. We sniffed at people who sat down to paddle. We will be travelling to Prince Albert Park, north of Saskatoon. Mum would love to have travelled more, but her life didn’t turn out that way. The cabin of ‘Grey Owl’ is preserved 20 miles along a walking trail on the shore of Lake Ajawaan. Carrying anti bear-spray is advised there and with Chris awaiting hip surgery our chances of outwitting a bear are slight. However, we will try to get to the edge of the lake. There we will fashion a little boat from leaves perhaps with a twig as a mast. Into it we will put a tiny amount of her ashes. Then in the land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, her great grandsons will launch the little vessel and as it floats towards Grey Owl’s cabin, we will wish her Godspeed.

The day we met Dream Angus

Dreams to sell, fine dreams to sell,
Angus is here with dreams to sell.
Hush now wee bairnie and sleep without fear,

For Angus will bring you a dream, my dear

Scotland had Dream Angus before Roald Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant. Angus is the Celtic god of dreams who goes about the country with four birds flying around his head delivering unsettling dreams of love. Most of us receive dreams that fly higher than our ability to wrestle them into reality. Leaving a rather large office and

workroom-tidying job we drove to Bennachie the other day. We hadn’t been up to Mither Tap for a few years. Normally as you know there is a breeze up there, at worst there’s a cold driving drizzle but that day we were lucky. There is a devotional aspect to a summit climb. On Mither Tap cloistered trees open up to a long pious walk. Then over the brow comes the reward of the imperious summit view. Then there is the submissive plod up the slope our heads bent in supplication. While I walked, I was thinking of a friend. From Australia, she came to stay with us along that well-trodden path of forbear searching. A keen reader at home, she had discovered the books by Nan Shepherd and was captivated by those tales of grit and glitter up on the high plateau. She dreamed of seeing where Nan Shepherd had walked and to feel in a poetic and lyrical way where she ‘entered into the hills.’ When she arrived, our friend enjoyed seeing the new slippery fiver with Nan’s head on it but that’s as close to Nan as she got. Knees that so enjoyed reading about the Cairngorms in Melbourne, were completely unable to climb any of the paths to the actual Cairngorms. She could not make her dream of Nan and the mountains into a reality.

Reaching the barbican entrance to Mither Tap’s inner fortress I looked to the west. There was Belhelvie in the far distance, and if I squinted, there were my overcrowded shelves and my worktable. The height gave a better perspective, so they didn’t look so cluttered from up there.

Lately I have been outwitted by my own things. Travelling can muddle one’s memory and it can take a while to recalibrate. It’s hard to remember the location of the stapler/grater/leaf-blower or even recall what they look like after a long time away. This was witnessed by one of our children this year and I didn’t like the look I saw in his eyes, a mix of LOL and OMG as his mind jumped to the future and having to cope with us.

Maureen from the Balmedie Library has found me a philosophy book where the ‘thingness’ of things is explained. Things or ‘tings’ from the Scandinavian are what we can experience with our physical selves… a doorway we can go through, a spoon to be touched by hand and lip or a Balmedie sand dune the children can slide down. Objects on the other hand, the book ever so quietly confided to me, are things that have ceased to be used. In my home surroundings, objects have accrued and accreted, on floors, on shelves and even in doorways. I leant closer to hear and understand. The ‘thing’ that once beckoned, the philosopher continued as an ‘object’ now blocks… Ah-ha. Sitting up there on the volcanic granite plug with tea and cake in the fresh-air there was nothing that blocked.

From that high vantage point none of the A.W.P.R. could be seen, but there are stretches that are now linked into a curving pale gash across the county. On the way back down the devils causeway, I remembered that we can be nourished by other people’s journeys, so by Hosie’s Well, I picked up a small stone to take to Melbourne. At that moment four black grouse whirred out of the heather, and that’s when we knew Dream Angus was with us.

In Pursuit of Spring

In March 1913 the poet Edward Thomas set off from London on a journey to cycle and write about the coming of spring. Near the edge of the city he passed a shop selling birds. He bought a cock-chaffinch for sixpence, and took it away in a brown paper bag. When he got to the countryside, he opened the bag and set it free.

I am imagining the Belhelvie Gorse flowering in March sunshine, and the parish bees yawning and stretching. There will be pollen and nectar to harvest from Orrock all the way down to the edge of Home Farm Potterton; from the Sand Bothy across to the top of Beauty Hill. Here in New Zealand we are helping to harvest honey from our son’s bee- hives. It is very hot. I am dressed in a white beekeeper’s suit watching him wheedle up the lid of his first hive. Quicksilver skinks have twitched away into the shade. Using his grandfather’s hive tool, he breaks through the seal of bee glue. Propolis, a mixture of wax, tree-sap and saliva that bees use to gap fill their homes. In his other hand he holds a new hive tool. Both are iron and painted yellow but the new one hasn’t the feathered edge or the heft of the old family one. Because of the heat, the bees are queuing at their doorways, giving the hives a bearded look. Liquid honey drips out of waxy comb and I step away to avoid annoyed bees trying to take back their property. I am aware Nick is new to apiarian skills. He has the love though so he’s confidently working with bare hands.

My job is to gently brush the bees away from the wooden frames as he replaces them. The paintbrush he has handed to me is not the delicate goose feather my father used. I clumsily fluff across a line of bees and they get cross and attack the backs of his hands. He stays quiet behind the bee veil but I can sense his teeth are clenched.

Beekeepers here don’t dare to use smokers to calm hives, because of the fire risk. Instead they try to be quick and quiet, spending no more than seven minutes sorting through each hive.

While you were slipping on tenacious ice In Belhelvie, unable to walk confidently around your own purlieu, I was making fire flappers out of carpet squares and broom handles. 200 hectares of hill burned off above the town we are living near. Helicopters worked for three days trying to stop it travelling onto countless miles of dry scrub. There is now a scent of charred sadness hanging over the town, and an ugly arc of blackened hillside fills the view.

This week I found myself having a hair-cut and head massage by a dark eyed young man. (The head massage was unexpected, but delightful, I will be recommending it to the Hair Shack girls in Newmachar.) He talked about his feelings of being stuck here and his hopes to be an actor. He was in the first series of ‘Top of the Lake’, filmed not far from here. He was the boy with a hoodie who falls of the cliff when we all thought it was the girl called Tui. More acting parts haven’t been forth-coming so he has decisions to make, and a girlfriend working in the coffee shop opposite to consider. I think to myself while my scalp is being exercised, that in some ways it’s easier to be older. These contemporary tensions the young have around staying put or moving on is hard. He will have to, as Edward Thomas said, about the coming of spring, ‘Catch at the dreams as they hover’.

While our grandchildren were here from America, for Chris’s 70th birthday we took them on different river trips near the top of the lake. Knowing the boys were coming, I painted up our rinky-dink homemade raft. I added a cardboard flag and a sun motif and as a family we tackled a couple of miles paddling down the Clutha River at a regal pace. In the clear blue alpine water, there were no Kalamazoo leeches or the chalybeate of Belhelvie burns. For contrast we took them on a fast boat too. Danielle the fearless jet-boat driver, whizzed us up a river to the back of beyond at sixty miles an hour, then suddenly halted the boat and we swirled to a halt. ‘Sorry’ she said, turning around to face us, ‘Something hit my sunglasses and fell down my front and it’s buzzing against my tummy, I’m worried it might be a bee.’ We all watched from our strapped in seats while she, in a brave demonstration of captaincy, unzipped her layers of clothing and released…. a fly.

Wind, Sand and Stars

Everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1939.

Belhelvie, previously lightly scribbled upon by roads and bridleways, now has the firm imprint of dual carriageway roundabouts and a wind-farm offshore at Black Dog. All the previous wandering journeys, lie underneath this dramatic coastal statement, creating our very own parish palimpsest. With its five habitations, a hand spread on a map, Belhelvie has always been an area for wandering, with a history of connections and strangers passing through. Beaten tracks appeared as there was a need for them. We know that when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell rode from Marischal College through the parish to Slains Castle in 1774, Boswell recorded that the road beyond Aberdeen ‘grew more and more stony and was naked of all vegetable decoration.’

By the 1820s the road had been improved and mail coach passengers in the cheap seats on top would have been bumped and jostled up the coast road from Aberdeen to Ellon. Wrapped up against the brisk wind they would have looked out over bleak dunes to the German Ocean, and up to the Beaker burial mound at Hare Cairn. There would have been much relief when the coachman pulled the team up at the Blairton Inn, for warmth and refreshments. It was the feet of the Beaker people 2000 years B.C. who made the first lines of desire between shelter, work and food-sources. Not much had changed by 1890 when James McBey, walked the 15 miles from his grandparents’ forge near Foveran to Aberdeen to buy a paint box and brushes. At the same time Rev. William Temple travelled all over the area on horseback to compile a history published as ‘The Thanage of Fermartyn’. He reported that the land of Belhelvie was stony and poorly drained and there were many cobblers but barefoot children.

In 1926 the parish was a section of a healthy hike north to Ellon for W.M. Henry a teacher at Aberdeen Grammar School. In his ‘Byways Round Aberdeen’ he describes the land north of the Milden Burn as being, ‘away from the frousty accumulations of domestic hibernation, the sea of chrysoprase, broken only by a line of snowy breakers below a pearly lather of cloud’. Remember that if you will! Up to the war it was enough for parish children to be taken by charabanc for their annual picnic along meandering tracks down to Black Dog or to the hill above Ardo for tea and races.

Would St Colm recognise this land now with all the changes wrought upon it? St Colm was Belhelvie’s sixth century Christian tutelary, the protector of our area. His name remains in the old Belhelvie churchyard, but his memory has faded, and his name didn’t travel to the new church at Drumhead. Most things fade into the darkness of black holes (even Steven Hawking) although recently on a visit to an observatory I was shown the four bright moons of Jupiter. Callisto, Io, Europa and Ganymede. ‘…and the view we are seeing now,’ a young scientist enthused breathlessly into the telescope, ‘is the same that Galileo saw in 1610.’ ‘Unless’ he added, in an attempt to be amusing ‘Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster is passing by.’

I have continued with the writing of my family’s history and maybe by the time Elon Musk has set up his settlement on Mars my great grandchildren will be appreciating it. To add context to my mother’s story I have been adding events that occurred during her lifetime. For instance in the year she was born, 1921, Amelia Earhart bought her first plane. As usual, life has a way of adding odd synchronicity. Just as I was finishing the text, there was news that bones found in the Pacific had been re-examined, and are now considered to be those of the long lost aviator. I could never have predicted that the stories of Mum and Ms Earhart would intersect in such a curious way? Then I remembered the story of the man who was interviewed for two available jobs. He lost to the other applicants: a Mr Fische and a Mr Kettle. He said afterwards he could never be sure why he didn’t get the job.

“I discovered windows one afternoon and after that, nothing was ever the same.”

(Anne Spollen, “The Shape of Water”)

 “It’s like a circus out there.” I say, as we look out at the garden over breakfast. Sure enough we see the jackdaws doing their wobbly clown walk across the lawn while above them swallows are flying trapeze style, carving long curves in the air. Rooks jeer from the cheap seats but all are keeping an eye on the prowling ringmaster cat ushered in by the wren’s whip crack alarm. During the lovely weather, so unusual in our Belhelvie world, I have been cleaning my windows inside and outside. I have evicted surprised spiders and removed dusty webs that were holding onto the long dead husks of their relations. Later glancing towards the light my peripheral vision recorded nothing between the room and the outside. For half a second it relayed the message. ‘window glass has been stolen!’ You could almost hear spiders tittering from their hidden corners. The house paintwork has been really dry, for the first time in years, and so gaps have opened up. We needed more putty, but B&Q had run out. ‘It must be the weather.’ I said. The young assistant looked puzzled, too young to know that when the weather’s this good it’s time to get puttying and painting and window cleaning.

Of course, there is always a dark side and the farmers who harvested good hay in June are now having to feed it back to their cattle before August. Cracks have opened up in Belhelvie fields and I even saw a dust devil pass through the yard. The hens are very happy though, they have had the best baths in the dry earth.Are we all getting used to the sight of the wind-turbines in the bay? They went up so quickly they were a surprise, even though we knew they were coming. For a few weeks when they weren’t turning, someone joked that they were fake ones made of cardboard ready for Donald Trump’s visit. They have given me the problem of needing to edit my Octopus and a Mermaid stories. In the stories at no time does Sandy the octopus remark to Meridith the mermaid , that there are wind turbines just off-shore from the Sand Bothy. I shall need to create new dialogue to reflect the reality of the new surroundings. When we have tired of new sights, there are still ancient ones like that corner of the River Don that floods, where cattle still amble along the sloping earth bank and drink from the river as they must have for hundreds of years. Driving past into Kintore one day the river was mirror flat. The brown and white cattle were perfectly reflected as they stood in the shallows as if they were in a Dutch oil painting.There are more historic images over at the new Garioch Heritage Centre. The Diaspora Tapestry has been on show there for the summer (see photograph). Stories from 34 countries have been sewn into 305 panels like so many windows onto the history of the emigrating Scots people. Driving back along the brand-new road towards Belhelvie, we admired the fresh panoramic view of the parish those emigrants could never have imagined. Our old friend the Haar was hangingjust off shore at the height of the new wind farm. The top blades were sticking out of the bank of cloud like so many giant fiddle bows. Perhaps they were heralding the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention that was held across Aberdeenshire in July. In the  Canadian Hall at Haddo, we watched a three-part orchestral work about the Scots from Ullapool who emigrated first to Canada and then to New Zealand in the 1800s. The ‘SCAT’ (Scottish Culture and Traditions) group played their socks off and the music reverberated up into the Douglas Fir rafters. Forgive my panglossian view but I was so encouraged to hear sounds of harmony, inclusion and positivity in these times of European division and all the wider political shenanigans.Shortbread and the Whitecairns’ Fire Ball

‘Looks like a storm’s brewing, I’ll just go and move Dad’s car’ said Sydney Rose one morning in the early nineteen fifties. He walked outside the Whitecairns Hotel in a darkening sky. Having moved the car, he saw a small ball of sparkling light floating up the road towards him. He had never seen anything like it. Car keys in his hand he stood and stared while the strange apparition continued its journey up to his roof. To his astonishment it vanished down one of the hotel chimneys. As he ran back inside to tell the family, there was an explosion closely followed by the sound of falling masonry. Sydney hurried from room to room to see what had happened. His wife Audrey appeared at the top of the stairs looking startled… ‘I was upstairs in the passage and the sitting room fireplace just fell in.’ She said through a dusty cloud. ‘What did you do?’ She most likely added loudly. ‘Nothing,’ he would have replied or quite likely ‘I-didn’t-do-anything.Upstairs their family sitting room was a mess of dust and plaster. It had been a close call for Mrs Rose and now where was Katy the maid? They searched and hallooed. Katy, a nervous girl who came daily from the Kingseat hospital to work, could not be found.

Through the decades the story of Sydney’s fireball that deliberately flew down a chimney, along with the disappearing maid, stayed in the family as one of the tallest tales ever at the ‘Whiteys’ bar.

Last month we saw other red balls. I watched a grandson floss dance across a frozen yogurt store having half filled his carton from the machine. I’ve left room for the bobas.’ he said, ‘They’re great’. ‘Bobas’ were new to me… it made as much sense as the new dance he is able to do so fast. ‘You know like bubble tea’ he added unhelpfully. He went to the counter where the sweet toppings were lined up. ‘Look’ he said as he spooned as many glistening red globules as would fit and then some more that rolled back into the tray. ‘Try some,’ he generously offered before we’d bought them, ‘They’re truly delicious’. And so I did. The round berries burst into sweet juice that tasted too sweet to be natural but otherwise were very like red currants. I realised this was the new phenomenon of engineered food. All the way home I wondered how they had been made. Cellulose as a skin I thought, but how? Frozen? Dipped? I googled it and discovered ‘molecular gastronomy’. If Sydney had owned a computer, he would have found that the fire ball he saw was an unusual form of lightning called a plasmoid and, although rare, it has been recorded attaching itself to high points like church towers and going down chimneys. In ‘Little Women’ they try to stamp on one when it appears out of their hearth. (Not a good idea by the way). ‘Bobas’ or bubbles, it turns out are made by dropping syrup and sodium alginate into a salt solution where the liquids work like oil and water. The materials for making them were available online and it turned into a fun activity, part chemistry, part family memory in the making.

As you know the weaving of personal experience and the history of Belhelvie is never far from my mind. Before I left home, Innes Christie said the reason the Reverend Forsyth had invented the percussion cap was not to help the British Army (which it did) but so that he could shoot ducks more efficiently down in the marshes of Belhelvie near the Manse. In America we were invited to a grandson’s school cultural exchange evening. Families were encouraged to ‘show and tell’ their favourite food. I wrote a pretty piece about how shortbread came to be, being neither short nor bread. Apparently, leftover scraps of dough sweetened and re-baked became ‘bisquite’ (twice baked) bread and then with shortening added became short biscuit bread which was a bit of a mouthful so was shortened to short bread. Shortbread is still given at Christmas and in some parts, it was broken over the heads of newly married couples. Along with the description of the petticoat tail shape based on the pattern for the hooped skirt as would have been worn by Mary Queen of Scots, my description was most engaging if I say so myself. I left a piled tray of the Scottish delicacy on the classroom table and set about a cultural exchange. With my back to some challah bread, I was enjoying a plate of Afghan Pilau rice when I found myself chatting to one of the Dads who turned out to be an exiled member of the Mujahedeen. As I listened to his sad tale of war and cultural loss, I could only nod and chew over how different lives can be. Although he never mentioned it, I think there would have been many times when he would have used the Reverend Forsyth’s invention (still used in grenades) up in the hills of his home country. I turned away to see how my shortbread was going and saw it had been devoured by 12-year-old wolves… my typescript remained untouched.

The maid at the Whitecairns Hotel was found safe by the way. Val, Sydney’s daughter says that when Katy heard the noise upstairs, she had run to a cupboard and held her hands over her ears.

Dancing without Wolves

The new roads have been finished now and the dayglo army has moved on to bother some other parish. We are getting used to the new route home from Ellon and a little bit of disputed untarred path in Balmedie has been resolved. Now there is a circular path alongside the trees planted by the children of Balmedie School nearly thirty years ago.

This spring I have enjoyed exercising my medieval inclinations. Soon we will be off to Northern Spain to walk the Way of St James. Well not so much walk as saunter. I am not a good hiker I am more of a wanderer. I agree with John Muir when he said: ‘Hiking? I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains not hike.’

In the middle ages people went on pilgrimages and when asked where they were going, would reply: ‘A la Sainte Terre,’ to the Holy Land and so they became the saint-terre-ers or saunterers. It will be my first time as a pilgrim unless you count the walk my mother took us on in the 1950s. She packed egg sandwiches and a thermos of tea and walked us to our local holy well a mile and a half away. I remember the walk as summery but we picked periwinkles so it must have been in early spring. I remember sitting on a gritty granite wall holding the bunched flowers as blue as the sky. I was given a safety pin to drop into the dark holy water as an offering. These were permissible as holy well currency in those days, when no one had silver coins to spare.

Since time began or at least since the seven streams of Belhelvie began running down to the sea there have been birds in our skies. Shape shifting flocks of starlings still loop and twist at dusk. They have to be adaptable. This past year or two, they have been getting to know a new landscape beneath them. Last week we saw a flock of geese over by the pond near Dubbystyle. They located it and dropped down out of the sky in such perfect unison they looked like a patterned blanket.

I have been wearing a blanket this week although not with geese on it, while learning to sword fight. Well mock sword fighting, with homemade wooden swords. It is preparation to perform in a revived Galoshin play. To make my tattered costume, I used a blanket as well as a stash of  old pillowcases and shirts with worn out collars that Chris had saved for a rainy day. All were cut into strips and sewn onto a beloved old jacket. The Scottish folk play Galoshins was traditionally performed like the English mumming plays, door to door by disguised players. It was outlawed by Oliver Cromwell along with other fun things like the Maypole and Nine Men’s Morris on the village green. In the Galoshins play, two young men fight for the hand of a lady. Galoshin the favourite, is killed but is then miraculously revived by a quack doctor with a bottle of ‘Hoxy Croxy’. The quaint name of this remedy is from the old plant- based drink ‘oxycroceum’ that contained saffron crocus. It was supposedly ‘drawing, cleansing and resolving’ but when I met Dr Forbes recently, he said his practice has never prescribed Hoxy Croxy or indeed any medication with saffron in it although he didn’t rule out its efficacy. At the end of the short folk play everyone is happily reconciled. They bow, praise the goodness of the audience and are given money in exchange for good luck for the coming year, (safety pins definitely wouldn’t do in this case.)

Many of the old folk customs are being revived now we have room for cultural variety. Doric classes are now being offered to adults and children are being encouraged to speak it at school. Apparently more Doric speakers are needed as teachers. In the past the Doric and the Scots language were so discouraged on the grounds that it interfered with the speaking of English that it wasn’t allowed to be spoken in schools. As some of you will remember this requirement for linguistic uniformity was upheld at the end of the tawse. In this way, it was hoped that Doric, from an English word meaning rustic, would be quashed. Generations of Northeast Scots children learnt one language for home use and one for school. Now however the Doric is being supported from the government and the university. Sheena Blackhall has been awarded an honorary degree. From reading a book called ‘North East Identities and Scottish schooling’ I see it says Buchan Doric is of special interest because it has a close association with a well-defined regional culture and a literature of size and quality. We know that of course: from Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song to Jessie Kesson and David Toulmin’s tales of the northeast. We have Bothy Ballads – the songs of the Corn Kisters. To lose foggie toddlers, pollywag, plowter and bosie now would be inconceivable.

The northeast has never been as isolated as some people think. Around the time I was using the luck caused by dropping a safety pin into a holy well, I would have been reading (or just looking at the pictures) of George MacDonald’s book ‘The Princess and the Goblin.’ MacDonald was a Huntly loon and a friend of Mark Twain. As well as writing stories in the last half of the nineteenth century, criticising the schooling of the northeast, he wrote fantasy fiction. It is said he influenced C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. The green and gold copy of ‘The Princess and Curdie’ with Pre- Raphaelite watercolours hanging loose from thick paper pages was too precious for me to be allowed to read in bed but I would have given thanks to George had I known he had inspired the writing of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’. When the Narnia series came out in paperback around that time, it was a glorious bedtime read under the blankets. Perhaps that’s where I got my taste for the medieval.

‘When the Blackbird flew out of sight it marked the edge of many circles.’

(Wallace Stevens)

Around a hundred years ago telegraph wires were brought over from Newmachar. The process of connecting Belhelvie to the world in real time had begun. As the men dug holes and hauled up tarred pine poles with a steam driven engine, no doubt the plough horses looked up in astonishment and cows swished their tails. Our current landline number still has the single number that was allocated then within its current six digits. Last month that same phone line got mis-connected to Belhelvie Quarry. (I hope they didn’t lose too much business.) After the usual telephone argy bargy with someone from another country, a helpful young man from ‘Open Reach’ turned up in a van and sorted out the muddle. ‘It’s your copper wires,’ he said, ‘You’re so far away from the exchange. But there’ll be fibre here soon.’ he continued in a conciliatory tone. ‘Really?’ we said.

‘Yea, you’ll get 20 mega-bits’ he added, as if that would transform our lives.

How much our connection to the world has transformed us, is hard to tell. Certainly, we are changed from the people who approached a jangling phone nervously and picked up the Bakelite receiver, saying ‘Halloo’ loudly: the old fox hunting alarm call. Over the years we have got used to the world’s surprises although there are still things out there that are startling us.

When thinking about how much the world of communication has altered, I am reminded of the story of Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s Fool. He was more than just the Laird’s witty entertainer. He was a trusted messenger. On one occasion he was given a letter to deliver to the Laird who was staying in Edinburgh. Jamie got to the bustling city, then realised he didn’t know where his employer was lodging. He thought for a while and then by using his unusual talent for initiative, walked the streets staring at all the dogs. Eventually he spotted the Laird’s dog. The dog recognised him, and it jumped into his arms. Then Jamie set it down and tied a cord around the dog’s neck. ‘Awa hame w’ ye’ said Jamie and followed it to where their master was staying. Recently I made a trip to Black Dog village. I wanted to see the rock after which the village was named. When I have been before, the tide was in or I hadn’t been focused on the beach, so I have never seen it. The village has had its character mightily changed lately. There is the windfarm offshore and the big new interchange outside its front door. I imagine the Black Dog Rock would have been an aid to navigation on our otherwise plain but treacherous coastline between Bridge of Don and the Ythan estuary. When I was standing by it on the wet sand, I could see the dog shape had floppy ears but really it was not much of a dog. ‘Ah well,’ my friend said later, ‘a lump of it fell off a long time ago, and that might have been its head’. The history of this area, when the black dog still had or had not his head, was brought alive for us this month when Chris was helping a friend with technical support. It was a Power-Point talk about his Ellon solicitor father. Those days he was illustrating seem quaint to us now, when everyone knew one another, and men walked about in tweed suits tipping their hats but perhaps we shouldn’t imagine that time ever stands still. Apparently, his father was so nervous of the new writing technology that he always carried a spare pen in his top pocket. The filling of new fountain pens was so nerve wracking for him that his wife had to be called to the office to refill the pen with ink. Using our reconnected landline last month, I was pontificating to my daughter about the need for children to be exposed to poetry if they are to enjoy it later, when I realised the line had gone quiet. Wondering if I was through to the quarry again, I gave it a little ‘halloo.’ Yes, she was still there. In a tired voice she said perhaps I would like to solve the problem by sending poetry. So, I have. Every week or so, I post off something that catches my eye. I have copied out poems in my best longhand, using a fountain pen I might have borrowed from the Ellon Solicitor. First there was, ‘The Knight Whose Armour Didn’t Squeak’ and now I am working on the subject of Blackbirds. I have put the blackbird into a helpful cultural context by adding information about its melodious song by day and its chink chink, calls in the evening, how blackbird eggs are a subtle speckled blue and of course how it came to have a golden beak. I scribbled a picture of the naughty male Blackie trying to steal the dragon’s treasure. The blast of flame issuing from the dragon’s mouth that blackened its feathers and melted gold onto his beak was delicately drawn in one corner of the page. Then I wrote out the ‘13 ways of looking at a Blackbird’ by Wallace Stevens. Out of all the little word pictures those blackbird images paint, I like the fourth one best, A man and a woman are one. A man and a woman and a Blackbird Are one. I agree it’s a mental leap for a Lego and Star Wars obsessed five-year old to make but in my imagination those pages will be safely put away. Then in several decades, they will be found, unfolded and smiled over, before a little manly tear falls onto the paper to smudge the ink.

It Takes Time to be Too Clever by Half

In the spring of 1969, B.C. (Before Chris), I left home. All sorts of things happened. Neil Armstrong made a giant step for mankind, the Beatles stepped away from touring and Robin Knox Johnston completed his voyage around the world with hardly any steps. While I was being homesick in Hertfordshire, and lonely in Leicester, the death penalty was abolished, Jimmy Hendrix played Woodstock, and oil was found in the Ekofisk field, 180 miles South East of Aberdeen. Jump forward 40 years to 2009 and the first edition Belhelvie Banter landed in the Parish.

A lot of water has passed down the seven parish rivulets since then.

Up on the Belhelvie hills, a farmer of the parish has been planting trees. He needed to protect them with a high fence. Badgers don’t damage young saplings but bark eating rabbits were queueing to use the tunnels they had been dug underneath the wire. Small expensive swinging metal gates were bought and installed above the badger runs. They were too heavy to be pushed open by rabbits. Good idea… except badgers are habitual animals and overnight they re-dug their Belhelvie tunnels under the new gates. I wonder if they planted any Aspen trees. There is a replanting scheme for them in Scotland now. I sat under one recently and I read that the name is from the Greek word for a shield, the shape of their leaves. The same tree can spread itself into a grove so huge it can be seen from space.

In an attempt to improve my service to the Belhelvie Banter I have signed up for a PhD at the Elphinstone Institute. Nothing much needs to change, you can see it’s already embedded in ParisThreaDs. My grandmother would say I was still trying to be too clever by half or ask what I thought was doing at my age, but times have changed. The script of what we grandmothers can do has got longer and broader.

Grandma saw the moon landing on a small black and white telly. She left school at twelve around the turn of the twentiethcentury. She didn’t travel much except for the annual church charabanc trip to the coast. She could apparently swing herself over a gate and was a dab hand at driving a pony and cart. By the time she was seventeen her life had taken on the shape it was to keep for the rest of her active life. Her attitudes and beliefs stayed put too. By the middle of that century, she had been made irritable by deafness, life, and us, the next generation thoughtlessly squandering the housekeeping by buying things like bread and butter that could so easily be made at home. She had been brought up to support the family business from her earliest days. Children with time to read, and then stay on at school was a new concept. Over stale bread and sour butter, beside a cup of tea so strong you could run a mouse across it, she taught me how to darn socks. If she saw me reading, she’d tell me I’d end up being too clever for my own good.

Now I am a grandma myself, I try to be less surprised at changing cultural habits. I look at the bigger picture, add to it, and be amused by it. I wish I could see the look on her face, if she had seen what I saw at a wedding recently. A baby wearing headphones during the speeches, listening to music blue-toothed from Spotify. 

Recently I was watching an American grandson draw a squiggly figure. It looks like ‘the scream’ by Munch’, I say. ‘What’s that?’ He asked. ‘A Norwegian artist called Munck…’ I begin, then elaborate elegantly, ‘…painted a picture that is considered to be one of the most vivid portrayals of the human condition there is.’ I show him a description and an IPad picture. It still looks like ‘Munch’ to me he said. I could feel we were sliding off the point. ‘Well, the Norwegian pronunciation of Munch is Moonk, I counter. ‘I think you’re wrong there, grandma.’ he said, with eleven-year-old confidence, ‘I can read, and it’s definitely Munch. ‘That’s how it is over here.’ 

Tim told us he took part in a team building expertise at an Escape Room over there. The idea, rather like The Crystal Maze, is, that you are locked into a puzzle room and have to get out in an hour, or something terrible will happen. He and four architect colleagues began by trying to decode a series of numbers on the wall. There were levers, steps, a bowl of water, and holes in a wall. Together they brought to bear all their combined expertise… they worked on the Fibonacci series, square routes and trigonometry. Nothing clicked or whirred to let them out. Reluctantly they accepted a clue, and embarrassingly another, but in the end the time ran out and they all ‘perished’ in an inferno. ‘What should we have done?’ they asked as they trooped out… ‘Reach up, put your hand in the hole and pull the lever. No calculations required. The numbers were a distraction.’ was the annoying answer. The truth was, they had been too clever for their own good. 

So, there I was in 1969, fifty years ago, seventeen years old. The age I could become a qualified wizard at Hogwarts, the age to begin driving on the roads of Belhelvie, or the perfect number of syllables to describe a moment of subtle human experience in a Haiku; although as John (too clever by half) Cooper Clark says: ‘To-con-vey-one’s-mood-in-sev-en-teen-syl-a-bles-is-ver-y-dif-fic.’

When Santa’s Reindeer Run out of Puff

In 1901 James McBey made his first etching. It was of Aberdeen lads fishing at the harbour. He used a waxed coated plate to draw on and a mirror to turn the view around, then shyly hid the drawing in his pocket. He used acid and a mangle to print the image at home. A couple of years later while he was working as a bank clerk in Aberdeen, he painted a beautiful oil portrait of his grandmother. He was still only 18. She is wearing a Shetland shawl over her shoulders as he recalled she routinely did, and a white cotton mutch frames her wrinkled face. I once described her in a ‘Parish Threads’ making mustard sauce for the winter meal of salted fish by rolling a cannon ball around in enamel bowl to crush mustard seed into a paste with milk. She looked after James in his Aberdeen lodging in the days when a man was not expected to look after himself. He went on to be a famous artist and traveller, selling an etching for a record price in 1928.  His estate endowed money to Aberdeen Art Gallery for the McBey Room. Even now, the revamped Gallery which re-opened on November 2nd has had recent funding from the McBey Trust. 

I showed the Balmedie Friendship Group the portrait of McBey’s grandmother recently. She had lived most of her life at the Foveran Smithy not far from Belhelvie. We were talking about the experience of being a grandmother today and how much it has changed over the last generation. Some of us have to use Skype and travel through a lot of airports see them. I told the friends group, that when I was sorting out some family treasures to hand on, I had been keen to save an old-fashioned suitcase. It was the brown cardboard kind that everyone used in the fifties. The ones that fitted in the overhead rack on a train. It felt too nice to give away, so I cleaned it, looked at the 1961 newspaper lining, read the advertisements for indigestion pills and shoe polish and then had an idea. If it was set upon four legs it could be transformed into a little side table with hidden storage. I found some turned wooden legs that had been left in the shed by the previous owners of Ardo. They looked as if they had once supported the low benches in the conservatory from circa 1914. Four of them when stripped and repainted, fitted onto the suitcase in such an elegant way, I realised I had made the perfect ‘Magic Suitcase’. I shall use it when I am being Grandma Faraway. To finish up we had a grandmother quiz, and in the month when it has become illegal in Scotland to smack your child, the group had stories about being regularly punished in their schooldays with tawse and ruler. Two or three of the members remember when Christmas was not a school holiday. Hogmanay was the focus of the midwinter celebrations up to the 1920s and I see from the Craigie (Whitecairns) school records that in the Christmas week of 1901 the children attended all week. … ‘Wednesday was so dark that no sewing was attempted.’ Reported the headmaster. Christmas hymns were practised and recited instead’.

I don’t think a Jolly Santa and his Reindeer would have flown over the parish in those days.

I took a stroll along the path through the Sensory Garden in Balmedie this month. The hand built raised planters are doing so well and are gradually being filled with fragrant and decorative plants. The trees planted by school children 30 years ago have grown high above providing a pleasant leafy walk.

It’s the time of year for the Guisers to come out again. Who remembers guising in the old days before all the bought costumes? McBeys’s grandmother in her white mutch would have seen them at Foveran, young men going door to door at Hogmanay with seasonal jokes and tricks hoping to cadge a penny or two off the neighbours.

 I shall wear my homemade jacket of coloured tattered rags again this Christmas in a Galoshins play. It’s a short tragic comedy. Wearing paper crowns, one actor kills another in a mock sword fight and the loser is made better by a quack doctor using hoxy-croxy, the old remedy of saffron water. The actors then traditionally line up in front of the homeowners and chant rhymes hoping for silver coins. There was most likely singing and drinking involved. It’s thought that it was mainly performed in the Borders but appeared as far north as Ballater in the 1890s. Probably as a result of visitors who came to be cured by the spring water at Pannanich.

 I have been out and about investigating Scottish culture on your behalf. The Highland Folk Museum, at Newtonmore, was a lovely day out. I was able to see so many remnants of Scottish cultural heritage. The old schoolroom that wouldn’t have surprised some of the Balmedie Friendship Group, with the strict teacher, inkwells and the desks in rows. One thing that stuck with me was that they said, one year of BBC Alba costs as much as one episode of Top Gear.

wasn’t better done at home. While she couldn’t be the best judge of that, and abroad for her was anywhere outside her parish, travelling does change a person. We become less confident of the land beneath our feet. We notice more, we are alert for differences, and the unexpected. To protect us from harm, we may feel the need to carry talismans, a scallop shell necklace, a sprig of white heather or a St. Christopher medallion.

I see there is a Scottish pilgrimage book recently published, that links up, landmarks, chapels, holy wells, and ancient stones. It would seem there is a need for walking holidays with a spiritual aspect, so we can explore the landscape in our down time, in a more attentive way.

We have an easier way to walk out of the parish, now that the cycling track is to be extended to Black Dog. In the late summer I see a stranger took up residence in the parish. It came with the new roadside planting. It is a wildflower I haven’t seen in

Belhelvie before. Queen Ann’s lace or Wild Carrot, a flower of the old umbellifer family, now renamed Apiaceae. The pale cream flower differs from its umbel cousins; cow parsley, lovage, hogweed et al. because it’s the shape of an umbrella, but blown inside out.

What would we do without the exciting stories brought back on the warm breath of people who return, having dared to travel?

This time abroad, I shall bring back more grandmother stories for my research project. Stories of how faraway grandmas pass on their family history. The journey south felt longer for us this time, but not as long as the Scots settlers must have felt spending 14 weeks aboard ship as they ate oatcakes they had made at home in Scotland. In a year where we are being exhorted to eat less meat to combat climate change, perhaps I could tell you that plentiful meat has not been around for long. In 1868 a Scottish pioneer living near here, wrote home to report that he was astonished that meat was so plentiful in the new country. ‘They kill another pig before they have finished the first!’ he excitedly told his mother. Grandma raised her own pigs during the two world wars, so

she would have understood the value of finishing one, before killing the next.

Now by leaving a video link open on

the pillow, people can have virtual sleepovers when they are apart, to have the comfort of a partner’s partial presence. I wonder how the recent New Zealand stories of separation will differ from my grandmother’s. She experienced an unfriendly world, that gobbled up her loved ones, leaving basket of family, in need of repair, in need of tamping down while taking out the spite.

The Black Hole of Covid 

My general knowledge can be patchy. I know that all odd numbers have an ‘e’ in them, ‘swims’ is the same upside down, and a lie can travel around the world before the truth has put its trousers on. However I can be somewhat vague about geography.

 Somewhere in the north of England, the village of Eyam famously self-isolated itself in 1666. On their boundary was a well, where outsiders left food in exchange for money left in purifying vinegar. It has been in the news a lot lately, as has the 1918 flu epidemic, as people struggle to connect the past to their present experience of quarantine. The old meaning of forty days may be too short, now as the virus continues to spread around the world and lockdown has been extended

Somewhere in the South Island of New Zealand before all this started, we were at an Agriculture and Produce show. It wasn’t as big as the Turriff show, but big for the South Island. We had seen the speed shearing and found ourselves in front of a line-up of seven fine Merino Rams. At the horns end, were scorched southern farmers in blue shirts. All the shirts were different, but it looked like an informally adopted uniform. The judge, also in a blue shirt, worked his way over the dusty brown backs of the sheep one by one looking at sheep attributes. From where we were standing the important bits of the rams were hanging impressively. I watched and wondered how those particular woolly sacs could be judged. But we will never know because the process is taking too long, and we moved on to the craft tent to see what the local people had been making. Although we didn’t know it, that sunny day with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop was just before the ban on public gatherings. It was the last chance to see a vegetable rabbit with ears made from a sliced courgette, hand sewn patchwork, and a leek dressed as a fairy. There were rows of chutneys, bottled peaches, pickled cucumbers and jam. Things that demonstrated the skills of an old way of life… the skills that kept housewives busy supporting the family. Our new way of life, the life where we set our women free, relied on the supermarket to supply our needs, before our even newer life where that reliance on a supply chain looks risky.

Two days after the show, just as we were due to return to Belhelvie, there was a reported case of the virus somewhere over the mountains, and suddenly the New Zealand supermarkets joined the world of emptying shelves of sanitizer and tissue. In homes, the remaining autumn fruit was hastily bottled or frozen. Adjustments were made to cope with families working and studying at home. We were locked down for a month there before a repatriation flight brought us home. During that time I continued writing my Banter article then received a message from Ms. Petrie to say the Banter wouldn’t be publishing the summer edition. Since I had already started, I finished it and it can be known as: ‘The article that never was’, or ‘the one that disappeared somewhere into the black hole of Corvid.’

 Sometime before the virus lockdown, I interviewed Faraway grandmothers for my Grandma research.  I heard about those who perished in the holocaust and grandmas who went to live abroad and never saw their family again. My generation may only have kept in touch with their own grandmothers on birthdays and Christmas but can now connect with their grandchildren twice a day on WhatsApp. I have been shown all sorts of ways of telling stories to the grandchildren. One of my favourites, is the invisible storybook. ‘Let me see if I have remembered to bring it with me,’ a grandma says, and she brings up her hands in the shape of a book, ‘Oh yes I have.’ she smiles, and tells her ‘hand tales’, her page hands turning as she speaks.

There will be many stories told about this time of 2020. We, who were there, will remember. We will bring out sanitized stories from the vinegar of preserved memory and tell our hand tales.                                                     

Somewhere in the future, children who have been locked down in Belhelvie, will be able to tell their story about 2020 too. A time when the world, seemed to go crazy for a while. They may tell of painting pebbles that they left to cheer passing strangers. How teddies and rainbows appeared in windows, to offset the isolation. They may remember their parents spending more time with them at home, or being told to ‘shhhh,’ while work video meetings were happening in their front rooms.

In ‘The Little Prince’, a character says, ‘It’s only with your heart that you can feel, because the essential is invisible to the eye.’ During this embattled time, when we have been drawn to metaphors like moths to a flame, we have all learned that in times of global adversity, it’s our communities that matter. Those little Balmedie rocks may be cold as ice but are proof that our hearts are as warm as toast.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Losing my Whittle

The blackcap’s fluting warble is the closest sound to a nightingale we have in Belhelvie. In this time of semi-quarantine with less traffic and helicopters, we have been able to hear it loud and clear. Birdwatchers have even come to listen to it down our lane. Out in the locked down world, where travel has slowed right down, wildlife has thrived, and people have even seen wolves in the streets; well not here in Belhelvie unless I missed something. Cyclists are more common down the Ardo road than cars now. Not that I have been cycling or even driving, because during this time of anthropause, I may not have lost my whittle, (penknife) but a flare up of Sciatica means I haven’t had the power to get on with anything that requires physical strength

My whittle’s lost! yet I dinna ken; / Lat’s ripe – lat’s ripe my pouch again…

Losing something, has been a familiar theme this year. I imagine we have all had to search through of our life pockets for something. The lamenting lad in the poem has plenty of other things that he lists from his pocket, but the whittle is the most precious. The old words are unfamiliar to me. I am missing being able to ask Innes Christie, who sadly passed away in June, what they are. I hope you can make them out without translation:

…’

A bit cauk and a bit red keel, the clamp I twisted aff my heel—

A bit auld shoe to make a sling—a peerie and a peerie string

The big auld button that’ I found, when crossin’ through the fallow land—

A bit lead and some pickle thrums, and last of all some oat-cake crumbs…

The image of the lost knife has stayed with me. Who doesn’t remember carrying their first knife? I remember a bone handle and short stubby blade, held safe in a sheath that was threaded onto my leather belt. I felt it could help solve problems. It was a totem maybe, something I hoped would protect me beyond the farm boundary. It did turn out to be handy when manoeuvring my pony through gates tied with binder twine,or clearing a path through brambles and the pigpen smelling hogweed.

I used the point to scrape under my dirty fingernails as I’d seen my father do, tried to whittle a spoon and practised flinging it like a whirling dart against a tree stump.

I am looking down at the same hands now; they are so much older and holding a curved stainless-steel straw to help me sip tea while I am stuck on my back.

Church services are now online, and I hear that Brew Dog’s ‘Castle Barnard Eye Test Beer’ is doing well for our local economy. The proceeds of it and a certain ‘Cummings and Goings’ ale, is funding free hand sanitizer. I hear from a young friend who is working on the beer company’s customer service computers, that she has had to explain the unexpected delivery of beer to surprised recipients. ‘I refer you to your email written at 2:13 in the morning of last Sunday’, she has had to write…then the email trail, she says, goes quiet.

When Einstein said, time was invented so that everything didn’t happen at once, I don’t think he had heard of home-schooling and working from home, during a time of quarantine. Now in the summer break perhaps home life, without a school curriculum to follow will be less pressured and some outings will be allowed. I have harvested long nettle stems to make twine, (I can walk about a bit) and brought bluebells bulbs in from the badger snuffle pits where they had been unearthed. I have learned that sliced bluebell bulbs were an early form of Pritt stick. The anonymous author of that broadside ballad would have known that. If locked down children had been here, I could have delighted them by showing them how to glue nettle twine to a whittled piece of wood.

  Up in our polytunnel, with its make-believe of a climate further south, the apricot tree has flourished and borne fruit. It has provided a fragrant, colourful destination to limp towards in the mornings, and luckily has needed no attention except from pollinators. I even had a zoom meeting up there with the family. Normally we only see each other once a year, so it’s been quite something to see their dear faces more often. We all try to enter into the halting digital chit chat gracefully, and bring out old photos, play bingo, talk about birdwatching, and watch each other’s hair getting longer.

It doesn’t seem long since I was carrying that knife as a twelve-year-old, and I can still imagine the handle in my palm, and the strong desire to cut and slice. Now as my back recovers and lockdown eases, I need to find a whittle, and cut a stout walking stick, so I can get out and about, that is if brambles and the smelly hogweed aren’t blocking the way.

Until next time this is:

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