Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas In Scotland

I suppose every nation spends the mid-Winter festival in a different way, even those that share the same religious sentiments. Would Scotland be so very different from its next door neighbour I wondered? In small and subtle ways it indeed has its own character. I had heard the rumours but nothing quite prepared me for the liquid nature of the festivities. The supermarkets were heaving right until Christmas Eve. Struggling shoppers bent double and tempted back injury heaving extra large trolleys out to their cars. But it wasn't obscene amounts of food that weighed them down, it was prodigious amounts of booze! Vodka shots and beer seem to be the new national drinks and every trolley had its share of luridly coloured multipacked glass bottles. It wasn't unusual for a third of each trolley to be stacked with alcohol in various forms. Its hardly surprising as the TV was running a concerted campaign to market Gordon's Gin and Smirnof Vodka; the latter made to the authentic Russian method. I wouldn't be able to vouch for that but I do know its made here in Leven in Europe's biggest distillery. Huge tankers of gin and vodka leave from the giant complex every few seconds to keep the entire nation insensate over the holiday period.

Having booked a late lunch out, we headed for Elie and the rocks by the sea wall. Out came the little camera and we tried to take a picture on the timer.With just a few minutes to accomplish this we did a rapid about turn and headed for our hotel Christmas Lunch.

The Scottish Turkey Dinner has its own variants too. Gone are the Yorkshire Puddings of old and the roast potatoes and parsnips that I used to look farward to with such enthusiasm. Instead there was a curious bright yellow roll of......well that's the whole point. I had no idea, although Chris thought it might be swede by its appearance. But we were both deceived. It turned out to be some form of potato, neither grated, mashed or steamed. And then this curious item was dippped in a bright yellow dye that might have been turmeric. The turkey itself came in three half inch thick slices that bore no resemblance to an actual bird but seemed to have nicely rounded corners and a uniform size. Was that stuffing or the dreaded Lorne sausage on top of it? There was far too much pepper to tell. My mouth burnt and I surrendered the battle, laying down my weapons. The hotel staff couldn't have been kinder and didnt want me to be disapointed. I was offered anything I wanted - some roast beef perhaps? My mouth screamed "No!" at the thought of heavily peppered beef. I opted for a dish of sliced melon - which brings a whole new main course to traditional Christmas Lunch.

This years must have gift is the 3G Mobile phone. Across the large room two small children couldn't contain themelves for the length of the meal and began to text each other as their meal was consumed. Chris is electrosensitive and his severe headache began as the gibberish texting occupied the giggling kids. Eventually he asked the waiter to speak to the parents and the phones were put away whilst we ate. But they were clearly angry that someone had stopped the children amusing themselves quietly, so they finished their meal and moved into the next room to begin again. Microwave radiation is not stopped by internal walls and so we left soon after. The saddest thing of all is that we at least know how vulnerable young children's brains and immune systems are to these powerful phones. I do hope none of them go on to develop leukemia from their Christmas presents.

Despite the minor disappointments its been my best Christmas in decades. The big and mysterious box wrapped up in silver and gold turned out to contain a wonderful telescope - my dream for many years. Its cloudy tonight but we shall go to the beach tomorow and try it out in daylight. If it can see craters on the Moon and the rings of Saturn, what detail will we see across the Firth of Forth?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Autumn to Winter

It hardly seems possible that just four weeks ago Chris took this picture of the Bridge at Ceres. Within a few hours the first of the Autumn storms has blown much of the leaves from the trees, and today Winter snow made its first intrusion. We had been told that Largo Bay has its own micro climate and if it snows here then the rest of Fife is already covered. So it proved this morning as flakes the size of half crowns quickly covered the ground. But in an hour it was clear with just slush as a memory. That is until we set off outside the Bay where the snow and slush were thick and driving treacherous.

We have decided we must settle here at least for a year or two, for with every passing month the housing market moves beyond us. The council tax bill on our rental home has arrived at last and threatens to cripple us. The situation is far from ideal but we must make the best of what we have for now. So the search has begun for a home we can afford and possibly turn a profit upon. Getting a mortgage was not so bad and provided an opportunity for Chris to wear his new suit. The tricky bit is finding a property that has not already been sold, or as the Scots put it is not yet “Under Offer”.We bid upon one but the foolish owner wanted what he needs and not what it is worth. The “Offers Over” system here is currently working at offers between 10% to 15% over the base price – he wanted 25% over minimum!

There is another complication. The never ending matrix of mobile telephone and Tetra masts that covers Fife and indeed the whole of the UK blankets most of the land with microwave signals. Most people aren't even aware of the electrosmog they produce, but Chris and I are both electro-sensitive. We have to find a way of locating a home we can afford and that is also hidden away from these microwave discharges. We have a monitor that helps us locate the safer areas but house hunting has become many more times difficult than just finding a suitable property we can afford. Suddenly things have taken a serious turn for the worse. But we will accomplish this.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Last Images From the Trip Way Out West

Here are two images from our little handheld camera taken from the Corran Ferry at the beginning of our trip earlier this month to Loch Sunart and area.

Village of Ardgour guarded by the Corran Lighthouse.
(click image for larger version)

Loch Linnhe looking north at dusk. Taken from the Corran Ferry in
mid-crossing the Corran Narrows in mid-November about 4:30pm.
(click image for larger version)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Down by the Bay

Yacht, Largo Bay, Firth of Forth, Scotland.
(click for large version)

Spotted on a brief trip down to a local beach where member's of the local yacht club were actively competing in races around the bay.

West Coast Interlude

River Strontian, Strontian, Argyll.
(click image for larger version)

Two weeks ago we packed up our wagon, harnessed up the oxen and headed west for a week. The journey was musical with two Siamese cats in performance the whole way. Our destination was Strontian on the Ardnamurchan peninsular. The five hour drive was momentous enough in itself, particularly the journey through Glencoe. Ben Ettive was shrouded in clouds as we drove through the dark and eerie Glen Coe. Other mountains were topped in deep mist as the water almost fell out of the sky, but the clouds on Ben Ettive were of a totally different order. Heavy black and spiraling down the sides of the mountain like evil black ribbons, they were incredibly spooky and threatening. We just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Some people find GlenCoe wild and beautiful; we found it haunting and deeply depressing.

The the route to the Ardnamurchan peninsular has a short cut over the Corran ferry. The one hundred yard crossing saves a thirty mile detour via Fort William. We arrived just as she was loading to sail and the journey was fun. Coming back in an approaching storm three days later the swell was four feet high and the water raced through the tidal narrows. You had to admire the skill of the captain as he manoevered the fully laden ferry up onto the concrete jetty in the waves.

Loch Sunart at low tide, Strontian, Argyll.

(click image for larger version)

We had booked a short break in a log cabin in Strontian and initially it lived upto expectations. What had us puzzled is that we had told the owner that we had come to look at one of the cabins he had for sale. In the absence of other holiday makers it seemed strange that we were booked into a cabin that was not on the sale list. It was cozy and warm, if a little small, immaculately clean and with everything to make our stay comfortable. That lasted until bedtime when we both realised the mattresses were so old as to give no support to our backs at all and sleeping was going to be a painful affair. Chris took a spare mattress from the third room and doubled it up with his. I tried to get away with using the extra duvet for padding. Chris was right and I was wrong. He did at least get some sleep. I spent the night between the living room sofa and my bed of nails, and in the morning neither of us was walking too well.

The next day we headed for Fort William and the council planning department there. Our alternative motive for looking in Strontian was an advert for three quite reasonably priced building plots. That was the first illusion to disappear – Planning knew nothing about them and could not find them on any map. The developer it seems was flying a kite. It was such a disappointment for Strontian was a truly beautiful place and the people were so friendly and kind. But more disappointment was waiting for us back at the holiday lodges. A quick walk around the lodge for sale showed us it was rotten and that it needed substantially if not wholly rebuilding. It had already been patched many times but now the crossover end timbers had rotted through and had been boxed in to conceal the damage.

It rarely stopped raining and it quickly became apparent that the life expectancy of any timber building in that climate was severely limited. Meanwhile the pain of trying to sleep was telling on us both and since Chris had a permanent unexplained headache things got rather gloomy. So we decided to take a trip around Loch Sunnart to Lochaline to look up some old friends. We hadn't gone more than a mile when Chris stopped to take some photos of the stunning waterfall that cascades down the mountain into Loch Sunnart. In the dead silence at night the noise of the waterfall can be heard for miles.

Sunart Waterfall
(click image for larger version)

Looking back across to our cabin, Chris spotted two mobile masts just behind the cabins, but hidden from view by the trees. Instantly we knew where his headaches were coming from and that they would be there for as long as we stayed, for Chris is very electrically sensitive indeed and those damned masts make him ill.

"Sense of Scale", Molvern, Argyll.
(click for larger version)

The journey to Lochaline and the ferry to Mull was over stunning landscapes. We stopped for lunch at a great restaurant and Chris took photographs (see above) that take your breath away.

Lochaline to Mull Ferry
(click image for larger version)

But next morning after another excruciating night harsh reality really hit us. Wooden homes were not for the wild west, building land didn't exist, the combination of the dreadful mattresses and the proximity of the phone masts made stopping any longer pointless. The winds were rising, a storm was clearly on its way and we would be housebound for several days. So we packed up, put the cats back in their traveling boxes and headed home on the Saturday morning only half a week into our stay.

Rainbow, Loch Linnhe
(taken when awaiting the Corran Ferry on the way back)

(click image for larger version)

They say the most valuable experience is often the most painful. This was in more than the obvious sense. Much as the beauty of the west is mesmerizing, it is not a suitable place to invest in timber housing. Nor is it a place for the electrically sensitive. The masts may not be so numerous as they are elsewhere, but each has double or more strength signal to cover the longer distances. The pain of living close to them then brings with it increased risk of being made more seriously ill by the microwave radiation.

We need to get back into the housing market as soon as possible – how is going to be the difficult bit.

Secret Waterfall

Two images, same waterfall. I spotted this waterfall in a secret ,half forgotten valley not far from Cupar in Fife.

I went back the next day and took these two images. They were my first attempt at long exposure photography, as I wanted to blur the falling water. I think the shutter speed was approx. 1.6 seconds.


(click images for larger versions)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A Break In The Weather

Autumn has come to Fife in a riot of colour. Every shade of yellow, green and orange meet the traveller along the roads. We took advantage of a break in the rain to have a trip to St Andrews, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Scotland. Although Prince William has moved on to other things its status as an old and prestigious University city has continued and walking along the High Street you hear voices from every corner of the Earth.

Built right at the very tip of the East Neuk of Fife St.Andrews is approached from the surrounding hills. The views of this ancient city as it clings to the coast with the North Sea beyond are just breathtaking every time I see them. Today we went down to the ancient harbour so that Chris could take the photograph you see here. Foolishly I tried to spin silk in the sea breeze and had considerable difficulty as it flowed out and over my shoulder like a purple banner. But the air was clear and pure and the sun shone – both of which brought a priceless bonus to our health.

Lead On MacDuff

Its two weeks now since I set off on the expedition to all points North in Banff and Buchan. The long drive upto and beyond Aberdeen was sometimes reminiscent of the journey along the Lincolnshire Coast to Skegness – but without the caravans. The main A road becomes a ring road around the city and is curiously devoid of petrol stations or anywhere to take a break on the long journey. Worse lurks further along the road at the aptly named Black Dog. Mobile phone masts appear like trees from every available tall building in Aberdeen but in Black Dog there is an array within 50 yds of the road. Its possible to feel like a rapidly baking potato as you speed past as quickly as possible.

Pennan Cliffs at Sunset (Click Image for Larger Version)

Up in Banff the locals assured me that the planning department was run by lunatics. The locals are honest people and not given to exaggeration or hyperbole. One local couple had been trying to convert a disused Victorian Church into a home for three years. Currently the planners have told them to cover up all traces of the stonework inside the church with an inner plasterboard shell that obliterates all traces of the building's original purpose. Then one of the planners had the natty idea that an inner circular door “Hobbit Style” would just top the whole conversion off. I shall not repeat the comments I heard from the locals.

Meanwhile it was made explicitly clear to me that the planners would fight any application to build a house that was not in the vernacular white/grey roofed style. Even if I bought a plot with an absolutely derelict croft house on it, no wooden replacement would ever be allowed to rear its ugly head in Banff and Buchan without a lengthy fight all the way to the highest authority.

Back at my highly recommended B and B the regular proprietors were away on holiday in France, leaving the caretaking to “Uncle George”, a charming elderly man who divided his life between Australia and the UK and who had once been bitten by an extremely poisonous spider and survived – just. Alas George was not too familiar with the workings of the kitchen and had cooked some vegetables before discovering that the chicken ready meal was in the oven, whilst he had turned on the grill. But we got by and he was a most interesting man.

The B and B was in a completely hidden valley, invisible to all on the main roads to the North and South. It was so quiet you really could hear yourself think whilst overhead an eagle circled. Along the coast the terrain changed dramatically and gradients should be calculated not as “1 in 5” or “1 in 4” but as “1 in a mountain goat.”

Overlooking Pennan at Dusk (Click Image for Larger Version)

On my last night I explored along the coast from Pennan, through Gardenstown and on to MacDuff and finally Banff, where in desperation I had fish and chips as there were no restaurants. It was a great chippy and I sat talking about Scottish property prices to a knowledgeable lorry river and the owner of the chip shop. The news is not good. Fuelled by the boom in oil prices, property values are spiralling in Aberdeenshire and are now way beyond the means of first time buyers. I should have known. Earlier in the day I had visited every property shop in Banff. Each had some version of the disinterested receptionist sitting filing her nails behind and expensive desk. Each left me in no doubt that as a potential buyer I should get in the queue and stop interrupting her manicure. No one had offered me property details and most insisted I check the web site rather than take one of their newsletters that were already out of date.

No experience is ever wasted. At least I know now that this beautiful but harsh coast is too rugged for us as well as being in the grip of hyper inflation when it comes to land prices. After I came home we talked it over and decided to turn our attention to the West Coast. Taking advantage of the low season prices we have booked a short break on the Ardnamuchan Penninsular where there is no TV reception and the approach requires a five minute ferry crossing across Loch Sunnart. So soon the two of us and our operatic felines will set off for a mini holiday in a log cabin.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Glenduckie to Perth

On our second trip to Perth we tried the less than obvious route via Cupar and Newburgh – well its never more than six miles from Cupar as you know! Tucked away in this less populous region is some of Fife's prettiest countryside. In the bottom of otherwise quiet valleys there are lovely villages that the main road avoids by half a mile or so. My favourite is Glenduckie – perhaps because of Chris' lifelong attachment to Daffy Duck whose stuffed effigy hangs in the hall at home like some Shinto household god. Hanging out of the window with just a tiny digital camera, Chris tried to capture an image for you.

Glen Duckie

This time we went into the city centre of Perth and stopped for an hour for a late lunch. Most of the main street are pedestrianised but we found plenty of disabled parking – something the planners often forget. Perth must have ambitions to win the best kept city award, for the flowers, window boxes and hanging baskets were truly spectacular. Considering its late September they were full of brighly coloured blooms in tip top condition, and they billowed down the walls and supports everywhere. I don't think I've ever seen such a well kept display at this late time of year. Just a few yards away the River Tay scrambles over a field of rocks, producing a display of white water as it flows under one of the city's bridges.

Chris has photgraphed an unusual piece of street sculpture. I wasn't sure at first – why would city dwellers want to lean against a suspended metal ring? But then a South American trio started to play the music of Los Paraguyos and leaning on the steel ring to listen seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. Perth I will visit again – it was a most welcoming place.

Perth Street Sculpture.

What next? Its time to put some serious effort into finding a building plot. I have booked a B and B for Sunday and Monday night in Aberdeenshire. It was recommended by friends. But it seems the owner is in France and only a caretaker will be there. He “thinks” he can cook a basic breakfast as long as I don't want Waldorf Salad ? It was apparently an allusion to Fawlty Towers – a T.V. program I have never watched. Alas the joke fell on the wrong ears. Perhaps I should take my own ingredients just to be sure?

By this time next week I should at least know if its the area want to settle in at the prices I can afford.

Six Miles From Anywhere You Like

Travelling around in the magical Kingdom, we soon became aware that all signposts tell the same story. It might be only a mile and half to a small village, or two miles to the coast, but in general all the major towns are advertised as being only another six miles further on. Now this is patently not true as six miles stretches beyond credibility to eight and sometimes ten. We gave it some thought and decided that the council lost all the other stencils for road signs and so has to make do with no number bigger than six until it gets into the teens. So coming back to Cupar from Newburgh the other day I was wondering how long the journey would be on our unexpected detour. “That's easy,” said Chris, “its just six miles!” And so it was.

The weather here is exceptionally mild and kind. It may howl with wind and rain all day elsewhere but in the Kingdom it rarely lasts more than two hours, then shortly afterwards the sun breaks though. I have been told that if there is snow or severe frost in Leven then all of the east of Scotland is pretty well locked up. Its one of the the mildest places in Scotland – apart from the West. Now I know where exotic place names like Largo Bay come from, with their intimations of Bermudan climate.

Alas we cannot stay here – thousands of others have discovered what a beautiful place this is to live. Next week I set off north and begin the search for land. Chris stays put to look after the felines. I have already heard of a huge plot as a very reasonable price, but it may be too much for us to manage. Life gets exciting again from here on in!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Life's a Beach

Leven Beach & Power Station
(click for larger image)

The tide may look fairly well out, but in reality I was just 20ft from the surf. The tripod legs were constantly sinking into the wet sand. The Power Station dominates the landscape locally, but is thankfully redundant and rumour has it shortly to be demolished.

Three Steps Forward

What an amazing week – full of ups and downs and twists and turns.

By Monday late afternoon I was reading the riot act to my old firm of solicitors who had hung on to the proceeds of our house sale all over the weekend because they had “lost” a form I signed back in August. The money turned up at the last possible moment when I asked for the interest it was accruing.

Tuesday I went in search of a mortgage for the build, only to be turned down by all 20 companies working through a large independent mortgage broker. But all was far from lost and I approached the Ecology Building Society by e mail. It seems they had already done stress tests on Fin Lammelli building logs and given them their seal of approval. Following a direct phone call we got the verbal agreement for the funding we need. Hooray!

Not wanting to let the grass grow under our feet I began to research the building regulations in Scotland. Before building can commence and alongside Planning Permission, every new build must have a BuildingWarrant which will add another thousand to the bill! But even that pales into insigificance beside the technical tests involved.But I'm learning not to panic and e-mailed the house suppliers UK Agent. Its all been done before for someone else and passed with flying colours. Another problem solved. Next step is to talk to planners in likely areas.

Meanwhile we went to St Andrews, a world religious shrine for all golfers. I found a branch of Ottakars (the booksellers) and a Costa Coffee shop and so was in my own private Heaven. Crossing the street was less fun. The High Street in St Andrews must be one of the oldest and uneven cobbled streets left in the world, and definitely not made for arthritics.

Chris passed a real cheese and home cured hams shop, so smelly he thought the sewers had backed up. But as he made his way back to the pavement his eye was caught by a display of unusual yarns on a pole. Down a narrow ginnel (passageway) was the shop of a designer of high quality fashion knitwear made from unique yarns a prices you can only imagine. Looking at the yarns Chris wasn't impressed - and neither was I when he took me there. Space dyed pencil roving at £30 for a hundred grams – phew. Plucking up my courage I sent the designer twelve samples of my own hand spun and designed yarns, (some wool, some pure silk, others blends of merino and acrylic or cashmere and alpaca). Two days later came an excited phone call from her assistant asking if I could meet her and bring some larger batches of yarn. When I mentioned the spun silk and the knitted hats she grew even more enthusiastic.So now I think I know what I shall be doing through these long Winter evenings.