Not the best castles in Scotland

VisitScotland recently released the results of a survey about castles. The headline figure was 49%, the percentage of people from the UK who haven’t been to a castle in Scotland. Of those who had been to a Scottish castle, Edinburgh was voted the most recognisable, closely followed by Balmoral. The best castle in Scotland is apparently Edinburgh, followed by Stirling then Urquhart. I’m only sharing this just so I can dismiss it. Edinburgh is a recognisable place, fine. A fair proportion of people in these islands have never been to Scotland. Probably even more haven’t been to a castle in Wales, for example, or even England. Big wowsers.

The big one for me is best castle. My favourite big castle in Scotland is Stirling. Edinburgh Castle (shown above, from Craigmillar) is busy and not really that interesting. Urquhart is perfectly fine but there are nicer lochs in Scotland than Loch Ness. There are certainly nicer castles. Instead of Edinburgh, go to Craigmillar; swap Stirling for Doune; instead of Urquhart, how about Inverlochy Castle? That’s without trying. Craigmillar has lots of ways round it. Doune has been in a Monty Python film and Outlander as well as being beautiful. Inverlochy sits in the shadow of Ben Nevis.

As a public service, here is a list of some amazing castles you should go to in Scotland instead of Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart:

Kilchurn

Tantallon

Dirleton

Hailes

St. Andrews

Castle Campbell

Lochleven

Bothwell

Caerlaverock

Dunnottar

These are of course ruined castles, the kind I like. Boring National Trust castles with scones and tartan tat and that, they are the kind that tend to be more popular. A lot of our ruined castles are also in nicer settings than a lot of the NTS ones, with the notable exception of Culzean, which is rather stunning.

Of the list I gave above, Caerlaverock (shown above) is probably my favourite, despite three of the others being in East Lothian. Caerlaverock just looks like a castle. It has loads of towers, different lodgings, interesting decorative architecture, a moat, an old bit in the woods. It’s not far south of Dumfries. It is quite reachable from most places in this country, especially from Englandshire. I’ve been there a few times, most recently in 2016. It is the closest castle in Scotland to something out of Disney, with the possible exception of Kilchurn or Eilean Donan.

Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart aren’t bad places. It’s just that there are better castles in Scotland, beyond the Central Belt and beyond the A9. Go out and see some. You’ll be glad you did.

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The last train

Where I grew up, the last train home was often ridiculously early. On a Saturday night, the last train from Edinburgh to Dunbar used to be at 7pm. It’s now around 11pm, I believe, but when I went on day trips on Saturdays, I usually had to make sure I was back at Waverley Station for 7 or else I would be sitting on the bus going home the long way, stretching a 20-minute journey out to an hour and a half. Since I moved west, though, the last bus to Dunbar has also gone a bit later and takes less time. Bastard. All those nights willing the bus to go faster through Musselburgh, Wallyford and Tranent, all in vain.

Dunbar, by day

Being a late bedder, I prefer the last train to the first one. I’ve done that too, though. From Dunbar, the first train in the morning was to London, arriving nearer 11am. From where I stay now, the first train into town is around 6, except on a Sunday when it is just after 9. The first train means getting out of the house on time, The last train is easier to catch, since I’m out already. But in defence of getting up early, it is possible to see the city waking up at that time of day. It has a lot of the same qualities in that it is so often quiet and with fairly limited transport options.

Now, I live in suburban Glasgow. The last train home, six nights a week, is at ten to midnight. I am on it fairly often, usually heading back from a football match in Edinburgh. Glasgow is never, ever quiet. I’ve seen buskers singing Taylor Swift songs on Buchanan Street at half eleven at night. The last time I got the last train was the night before the new iPhone X came out. There were people queuing outside the Apple shop even at that hour. And the last train that night had a few guys who had been out on the piss and were much louder than they really had to be. Usually it is quiet, barely half-full with people as tired as I tend to be but more than once my music has been turned up to drown out folk.

Buchanan Street, by night

The last train leaves from Glasgow Central. There’s a few trains going out even as the clock nears midnight. My favourite, and I’ve managed to be on it a couple of times, is the Caledonian Sleeper down to London, arriving at breakfast time in the morning. More than once I’ve been tempted on my way home to buy a ticket and climb aboard, never quite succumbing, probably because my bed is stationary and four miles away. Most of the other trains are heading down the coast, including mine which ends up in Gourock. Others are bound for Ardrossan and the very last to Ayr. You can also go to Motherwell, if you really want.


The last train

The station usually has a few staff scattered around, maybe a police officer, some fellow travellers and only one shop open, Boots. Central is the busiest station in the country and I like being there that time of night with the feeling that things are beginning to wind down all around me. I get on the train and after 7 minutes, I’m off. Getting off the last train is usually just a relief, the end of a long day, right around midnight when it really feels like the night is slowing down. The last train pulls out of the station and away down the coast. Soon it will be morning but in the meantime I’m bound for bed, not sleeping immediately, but just glad to be home.

Before I go, I’ve revised and updated the most popular post on the blog, It’s a grand thing to get leave to live, which is about the RBS £5 note featuring Nan Shepherd. People seem to Google that a lot and that post seems to get read as a consequence. Have a wee read.

The day when the trains stop

Every few minutes, my house shakes. I don’t live in an earthquake zone or anything. I understand we get them every so often but the authorities require special equipment for anyone to notice them. I live very close to a busy train line in suburban Glasgow and it is very busy, with most trains whirring straight past in haste for the city or the coast. If we can’t hear that then there is the constant hum of cars on the M8 just beyond the railway. There is of course one day a year when all this stops. The trains just don’t run. There are much less cars. There aren’t even any buses to be found anywhere in the greater Glasgow area. I spent that day within 200 yards of my house and I was the only person around me who noticed. I am writing this the day after, Boxing Day, and since I started writing, at least two trains have passed, plus a plane overhead bound for Glasgow Airport.

The majority of trains in Scotland don’t run on Boxing Day either. If I wanted to go on a day trip today, and I don’t, incidentally, the furthest I could get by train is Croy, in North Lanarkshire. I’ve been there before and I wouldn’t encourage it. The buses are on, though, on a Sunday service and I could go use the Subway but frankly I don’t want to.

Where I grew up is strangely well connected on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. East Lothian Council subsidises buses to run over the festive period. Unlike where I live now, Dunbar is served by hourly buses on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Edinburgh area is considerably blessed with buses too. No trains either, mind, but still something.

Everything is constant in our society. There is no let up. It is good, however, to realise that things can just stop, even for a few hours, even in the biggest city in the country, and there is simply no place to go. That’s okay, at least until the 27th.

Digest: December 2017

December gets forgotten as a month in the whole whirl of Christmas. I myself was focused on getting done with work. Still I managed to be out in the world a wee bit over the time, even with the ice, with a few rovings shoehorned into an otherwise busy existence.

Friday 1st December I went to see a friend who was over in Edinburgh for the weekend. We’ve had many good adventures over the years, usually involving loads of good chat too, and this time was no exception. We went to the Portrait Gallery, a good favourite place of both of ours, and there was a nice exhibition of portraits of modern Scots, including a fair few writers, poets and folks of all backgrounds. The Portrait Gallery cafe also does good cake. We also headed out to Portobello where we had lunch, went to a few shops and wandered along the Prom. After we parted, I went on a long urban ramble from the Botanics to Waverley Station via Leith.

The following day Hibs were playing at Partick Thistle, only a few miles across the river from the house. I didn’t have to leave until 1, getting the bus to Dumbarton Road then walking up Byres Road from there. It was a nice sunny afternoon so I dawdled the mile or so to Firhill, stopping on Queen Margaret Drive to look up and down the Kelvin. I also paused not far from the ground to look at one of the Stalled Spaces that have emerged to try and make artworks or gardens out of forgotten corners of our cities and towns.

That Sunday, instead of staying in bed like a sensible person, I was to be found on my way to Kirkcaldy to my favourite art gallery. It felt like an art gallery sort of day and I wandered around my favourite rooms and sat by my favourite paintings. I also took a few minutes to walk down to the sea and felt refreshed after being witness to the stunning sunset over the Forth, particularly looking towards Edinburgh. That day I also undertook two Streets of Glasgow walks, which will appear here later in January, I think, Hope Street and Nelson Mandela Place, the latter in the dark.

The following Sunday Hibs were playing Celtic at Easter Road. It was cold, very cold. After the game, which was at lunchtime for the benefit of those watching in the pub or their hoose, I walked along the Water of Leith as far as Canonmills. The Water was frozen over at several points, including by the Shore in Leith. It was a beautiful walk all the same, all the better, due to the cold. I took a bus across town from Canonmills to George IV Bridge, managing to get a sneaky peek at the new Muriel Spark exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, which was marvellous, arranged chronologically telling the story of Spark’s life through manuscripts, images and text. NLS also had a cracking display of documents out relating to the Reformation.

That Wednesday Hibs were playing The Rangers, again at Easter Road. I took the scenic route to the capital, travelling from Central via Shotts and Livingston rather than the usual Queen Street via Falkirk and Linlithgow route. I like a change of scenery. This one was notable for a delay getting into the East Stand at Easter Road due to ice. Apparently Hibs, Edinburgh City Cooncil and the polis had forgotten that the slope that leads from Hawkhill Avenue to the stand would be very icy. So, those of us who get to the football early were treated to a formation of Edinburgh’s finest with shovels and salt bags in their hands gritting the slope. It was a formation, something that wouldn’t have gone amiss on a battlefield. Better than the football, as it turns out.

That Friday I was in Edinburgh again. On my way back from my shopping, I walked up Regent Road and in the low winter sun the view across Edinburgh city centre was gorgeous.

The following day, Hibs were playing at lunchtime in Aberdeen. Aberdeen. ABERDEEN. Yep. I was there. I left Glasgow at an agriculturally early hour and made it to the frozen north in time to slide across the ice to Pittodrie in time to see Hibs get absolutely gubbed. The pies were decent, though. Rather than hang about, owing to the cold, ice and foulness of my mood, I went to buy a bus ticket straight home. I have never been happier to see Glasgow. I have nothing particular against Aberdeen as a place. It was just baltic, beautifully so as you will see below, and my faith in my fellow humanity had been shaken just a bit too.

I wasn’t well for much of the end of December. My first trip out, besides work and Christmas family stuff, was a spur-of-the-moment trip for a wander at Fisherrow Harbour. On the way back through, I went the long way, via the Forth Road Bridge and Dunfermline, bopping around on buses, just watching the world go by.

On Saturday 30th, Hibs played Kilmarnock. I was there. Before going to the game, I walked via the New Town, down Dublin Street and along East London Street to Gayfield Square, a nice saunter through the lesser-spotted bit of the New Town.

In blog business, I had three spurts in numbers in December. The Streets of Glasgow posts about Ingram Street and Edmiston Drive were particularly popular in December, as was the Books of 2017 post, which ignited a fair bit of interest. Nearer Christmas, the Best of 2017 post got shared a bit owing to its mention of the Glasgow Women’s Library.

So, that’s the December digest. I have a post backlog again so Wednesday will be a two-post day too. The morning one will be about natural light this time of year, the evening one about the trains stopping but one day a year. It’s nice to be back.

Posts this month –

Digest: November 2017

Streets of Glasgow: Edmiston Drive

Paisley!

Why the south side is the best side

Clearing out my inbox

Books of 2017

The turn of the year

The places you end up caring about

Power

Ice, ice baby

The Living Mountain

The Harbour

Best of 2017

Best of 2017


Yay, it’s Christmas time! In this time of repeats and newspapers full of filler material, here’s a blog post written a fair bit ahead of time with the highlights of my year travelling around this fine land. Like last year and the year before, this post sums up my 2017 with some awards for the best experiences I’ve had this year. There are eight categories:

Best museum

Best art gallery

Best historic place

Best library

Best place to watch football

Best fish supper

Best park

Best beach

2016 was a very busy year for me. I also covered more ground than this year. I went to England a lot more and also to Ireland. This year I haven’t been that far. Far enough but not enough to earn Airmiles, if such a thing still exists. I have been very busy with work. I now work full-time. I am also studying and writing a lot. In between all that, I go to the football and try to live a rich and full life, occasionally succeeding in that regard. This year has been a consolidation of those things I am and enjoying those places I love, occasionally getting to new ones along the way.

Best museum –

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh –


The National Museum of Scotland is a place I know very well, having visited regularly since I was a kid. I’ve been known to slag it off but my recent visits have brought me back in love with the place and its great and varied exhibits. I am always due a return visit but that’s always the case, even if I’ve only been there the previous day or week.

Runner-up –

McManus Galleries, Dundee –


A very fine place. It has art in it too but I think of it more as a museum. Very fine it is too, with a clear sense of Dundee and its place in the world as well as giving a broad appreciation of its local area, in its history, science and nature. The hall upstairs with artefacts from various societies is glorious, while the room downstairs about the modern history of Dundee is excellent, with the cases on local politics a particular highlight. Go to the McManus, if only for the cafe and of course the architecture.

Best art gallery –

Kirkcaldy Galleries, Kirkcaldy, Fife –


My favourite gallery on the planet. I have that in common with Jack Vettriano, the Leven-born artist who lists his two favourite art galleries as the Uffizi in Florence, and Kirkcaldy.  I went there on my birthday this year. I tend to get there at least three or four times a year, never getting sick of the 19th and 20th century art in its rooms, including the glorious McTaggart paintings and those by the Colourists and Glasgow Boys. McTaggart’s wave painting is endlessly soothing, while those of Iona take me back to that wonderful island. The Glasgow Boys exhibition at Kirkcaldy this year was excellent too, a selection of Fife’s own collection, creatively put together.

Runner-up –

Fergusson Gallery, Perth –

The Fergusson is always a favourite, even just for its building, an old water tower by the river Tay. It is like Kirkcaldy in that it is clear the curators are on the ball, putting together each exhibition with a great deal of thought and care. I was there a few weeks ago and enjoyed the exhibition about Fergusson and his friend, the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Best historic place –

The Battery, Victoria Harbour, Dunbar, East Lothian –


This was the hardest category this time. It could have been about three different castles or the walls at Berwick. In the end I picked the Battery because it is a place at the heart of my own history as well as being steeped in the history of where I grew up. The Dunbar Shore Neighbourhood Group has done an excellent job developing the Battery, putting in some apposite and beautiful art installations as well as interpretation boards about the surrounding harbour, sea and history. It was truly brilliant to be there and I long to be back again.

Runner-up –

Dryburgh Abbey, near St. Boswells, Scottish Borders –


I tend to get to Dryburgh once a year and usually it is on a beautiful summer’s day. This year’s certainly was and I loved just wandering around the stunning ruins and sitting awhile by the Tweed, reading and pondering. Scottish and British history intertwine at Dryburgh with the Abbey being the burial place of both Sir Walter Scott and Earl Haig. Even without the history, it is one of the great places of Scotland. Thank goodness it is a wee bit hidden away and it isn’t more crowded. Plus it sells ice cream.

Honourable mention –

Seton Collegiate Church, near Longniddry, East Lothian –


A return visit to Seton, which I had only been to once previously. Worth it for the peace, architecture, book-stuffed cludgie and little, apposite quotes dotted around the site.

Best library –

Glasgow Women’s Library –


Libraries are sacred places and the GWL particularly so. It nestles in a fine Carnegie library building in Bridgeton, recently restored, and houses a considerable archive and museum collection, in addition to a fair few books into the bargain. A truly amazing place, plus they offer you a cup of tea when you walk in.

Runner-up –

The National Library of Scotland –

Purely for the exhibitions. NLS do good exhibitions, most recently the one about the Antarctic. It’s always worth going to the Treasures gallery, usually housing manuscripts and books about authors, including Hugh MacDiarmid recently.

Honourable mention –

Any library I work in –

Well, obviously. The people make the place, ken.

Best place to watch football –

Easter Road Stadium, Edinburgh –


No Scottish Cup Finals this year. I just have to settle for the two derby victories I had the pleasure of witnessing from my very lovely seat high up in the East Stand.

Runner-up –

East End Park, Dunfermline –

Purely for the steak bridies. Never mind the football.

Best fish supper –

Tailend, St. Andrews or Edinburgh –

The Tailend is one of the finest chip shops in the nation and they have two branches, one in St. Andrews, the other on Leith Walk in the capital. A very decent fish supper can be had there, best consumed on a bench nearby.

Runner-up –

Giacopazzi’s, Eyemouth, Scottish Borders –

One from my youth. I’ve been there a couple of times this year and they do a very decent fish supper, best consumed looking over the harbour.

Best park –

John Muir Country Park, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


I had a particularly good walk in this dear, familiar place in April, ending up at Hedderwick before turning back towards Dunbar. The walk was varied, with views across the Tyne towards Tyninghame, the Bass and the May, as well as old WWII-era bunkers and of course loads of trees. It washed my spirit clean, in the best possible sense.

Runner-up –

Benmore Botanic Garden, near Dunoon, Argyll –


I was there in the rain but it was still amazing. The walk amidst the sequoias is braw.

Honourable mention –

Lochend Park, Edinburgh –

I often sit in Lochend Park before Hibs matches, most recently a few weeks ago working through a book with a fly often thwarting my progress. It is an urban park but one with a view to Arthur’s Seat and of course the Holy Ground.

Best beach –

Embleton Beach, near Embleton, Northumberland –


I was there in January. The beach is in a beautiful setting, overlooked by Dunstanburgh Castle. The path goes on for a fair few miles, running along the beach from Low Newton eventually to Craster. It is hard to successfully encapsulate how wonderful a place Embleton is. Go. Look at a photograph if you can’t go. It is one of those places.

Runner-up –

Bamburgh Beach, near Bamburgh, Northumberland –


Again, there in January, overlooked by a castle, though with incredible views to Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands. Cold, very bright day, blessed in that baltic afternoon to be alive.

Honourable mention –

Belhaven Beach, near Dunbar, East Lothian –


Where else? My favourite place on the planet. I couldn’t not mention it here.

So, that’s 2017. After I wrote the historic place section, I realised I didn’t mention two of the best places I’ve been to this year, namely Kilchurn Castle in Argyll and Dunnottar Castle, near Stonehaven. Both in very dramatic settings and with fascinating histories. Of those places I hoped to get to in 2015 and 2016, I managed to get to Dunnottar and Tantallon this year, still not to Oxford, Bristol and Stornoway. In 2018, I hope just to be able to travel anywhere. In an ideal world, I would love to get back to Northumberland but also finally to make it to Shetland. This year has been a rollercoaster ride, busy but worth it for the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met.

As ever, many thanks to all readers and followers for reading, commenting and everything else. It has been a privilege. If you celebrate, a very Merry Christmas, the best of wishes if you don’t, and a very peaceful and prosperous New Year when it comes. See you in January.

Power

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Prestongrange

In 1174 the monks of Newbattle Abbey got a charter from King David I to dig for coal at Prestongrange. History doesn’t record if the monks dug for the coal personally but for the next 800 years or so that part of East Lothian, around Tranent, Prestonpans and inland towards Musselburgh and Midlothian, was built on coal. Bricks forged from the clay that came with the coal went to build the town houses of Edinburgh’s New Town and even to Jamaica. Until recently, coal still played a crucial part in the economy of East Lothian, right until Cockenzie Power Station closed in 2013. By then, it was one of only two coal-fired power stations left in Scotland, the other, Longannet, just up the Forth near Kincardine, closed in 2016. For two years, the chimneys of Cockenzie still stood high against the landscape until eventually they were levelled in the summer of 2015. They had been a familiar part of my life for as long as I could remember, passed twice a day as I went from where I lived in Dunbar to primary school in Edinburgh. Even after I moved to Glasgow and coursed down the A1 or sat on a train as it speeded by, the chimneys at Cockenzie were still there. The chimneys seemed like they could be seen from space. They certainly could be seen from all around, from Calton Hill and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh to Gullane, even from the Fife coast at the other side of the Forth. Then one day they were gone. They fell with an embrace and then swiftly to earth in a hail of rubble and smoke.

I walked by there recently. I hadn’t been to Cockenzie for a few years though I liked to visit the harbour there and Port Seton along the way. The space where the Power Station once stood is now a vast crater, fenced off with dire warnings for safety and security pinned to the barriers. The only part that still survives, being worked at by demolition crews, is a turbine building. There have been talks about using the site for a combined cycle gas turbine station or for a cruise ship terminal, to tap into new technologies or just the tourism industry that increasingly fuels our country’s economy. As I walked along the coast road that day, it just felt eerie. It also felt sad. Cockenzie was a coal-fired power station and it was one of the major polluters of Scotland. It was also a major employer and people lost their jobs in an already quite deprived area. A place that bustled with activity now had just a handful of workers. It had reinvented itself before, though. The power station had been built on the site of Prestonlinks Colliery, one of two collieries at either side of Prestonpans at one point. It will certainly do so again if Scottish Power get their way and the combined cycle gas turbine station emerges.

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Dunbar. I don’t have a picture of Torness. Torness is to the south or over the hill.

The East Lothian coastline, like that of the Forth more generally, was dotted with power stations. One functioning power station remains, Torness, near Dunbar. The stories and memories remain of others that once dominated the landscape. I remember being at a Jack Vettriano exhibition at Kelvingrove a few years ago, standing in front of a painting that depicted a courting couple standing by a power station’s chimneys, Methil in Fife, now also demolished. The painting’s label noted that this painting was an historical record of a place that was no longer there, with couples having to go elsewhere to satisfy their yearnings. Portobello in Edinburgh is now seen as being a trendy seaside enclave within the capital with house prices to match. It once had a power station, though, looming high above the flats and businesses of Seafield, Porty and Joppa. Apparently its chimney was a landmark that reminded Edinburgh folk they were close to the beach. There’s a photo on Canmore, Historic Environment Scotland’s website, from 1980 when the power station’s demolition was in progress, of the shell of the building standing in front of the tenements of King’s Road, with rubble all around the foreground. Today it is all houses and a five-a-side football complex. There is a restored pottery kiln nearby, a reminder of an even earlier past of textiles traded across seas. But not much trace of the power station that once powered the homes of the city beyond.

Torness Power Station is hard to love, regardless one’s feelings about nuclear power. It is boxy and stands starkly on fields close to the North Sea, still in East Lothian but close to Berwickshire. Torness is in a stunning setting. From the surrounding walkway, part of the John Muir Link from Dunbar to the start of the Southern Upland Way at Cockburnspath, it is possible to see for miles and miles, to the Isle of May and Fife, to St. Abbs Head and Siccar Point, all from a vast concrete sea wall. Torness can also be seen from afar and when it is passed, be that on the A1 or the train, it is, like Cockenzie was, a landmark that home is near, even if my home is now further away than just the few miles to Dunbar.

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Soutra
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Soutra towards Edinburgh

The Lammermuir Hills sit above Torness, separating East Lothian from the Scottish Borders. Recently I stood at Soutra, at the western end of the Lammermuirs overlooking East Lothian and Edinburgh. Soutra was once a medieval hospital, run by an Augustinian order. I looked towards Cockenzie and of course the chimneys were gone. The many pylons remain. In those hills are not gold but wind turbines, an ever more familiar part of the landscape today. There is very little historical about wind turbines. They are controversial, aesthetically and for their effect on wildlife and the surrounding ecosystem. Most power generation is. Cockenzie, like Longannet, like Methil, was on the list of the top 10 polluters in Scotland. Torness harnesses nuclear power and that has its great share of dangers. In 1174, coal was the answer. Now, it isn’t so certain. The skyline has changed considerably over that time with power stations having sprung up and been demolished all along the Forth, mines dug low into the earth and millions of tons of coal brought up to fuel homes and factories. Walking around today, there are still some traces of this, even if now they are mostly just memories growing more vague with each passing day.

Source and further reading –

Canmore (Historic Environment Scotland), Portobello Power Station, view during demolition, accessed via https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1308748

The turn of the year

Yes, it’s December. The lights are up, the adverts are on, the end of the year is in sight. The daylight is brief but vivid. The night lights are garish. At the moment, it’s cold, bracing and just plain baltic. The leaves are on the pavements and yet autumn is behind us. Winter is upon us.

I find this time of year difficult. I like natural light and the fact we have had cold, bright days recently helps me get over that it’s dark before ‘The Chase’ comes on. I also heartily dislike the Christmas build-up. I like the day, the time off is wonderful. I don’t like that it starts earlier and earlier. Plus the forced jollity. Plus the lights and the loudness. I was stood, thankfully in daylight, by the Edinburgh Christmas extravaganza in Princes Street Gardens for a few minutes the other day and it was bad enough. The cheesy 80s pop music being pumped out the speakers was possibly in breach of the Geneva Convention. This time of year is hard for a great many people. It’s a time for reflection as the year slows down and it can be about what we don’t have rather than what we do. The newspapers last Friday had a statistic about how 60,000 older people in Scotland will spend Christmas on their own. Too many people are lonely in our society. There will be many people just wishing for January. I’m definitely one of them.

This year I have almost a fortnight off. Last year I managed a couple of day trips over the time and greatly enjoyed the quieter buses and trains. A few years ago, I even went to Dublin right at the very start of January before I went back to work. This year the football fixture list has plonked three Hibs games between Saturday 23rd December and Saturday 30th December. Between those I hope just to sleep, read, write, spend time with my family. I am genuinely indifferent to presents – I also have far more stuff than I actually need – so I will enjoy other people’s instead, since as ever you can’t buy inner peace or world peace. A freezing cold day in North Berwick, which I enjoyed last year, or a trip anywhere else is worth more to me than anything you can wrap up in paper, in any case.

December is the end of the year. A new year will begin soon. As we look back, it’s nice to look forward too, resting up for the new adventures that will soon ensue. The piercing blue of the sky this time of year is enough light for me, never mind all the bulbs and LEDs.

Further reading –

The Humanist Society of Scotland publish a very good newsletter called Humanitie and they have an article in the current issue about how humanists celebrate Christmas. On the website, they illustrate the article with one of the ways I like to celebrate the festives, the wonderful ‘Muppet Christmas Carol’. Here’s a link – https://www.humanism.scot/what-we-do/humanitie/humanists-celebrate-christmas/

Books of 2017

A place where I read this year. Sitting by the river Tweed at Dryburgh Abbey

I like books. I give them to people for a living. Some words I wrote even appeared in a book this year. I have too many books. I still seem to acquire more. I have instructed relatives not to buy me books (or anything) and they don’t listen. Books are a very good thing, whether digital or in print, and now and then I actually get to read some. Usually that’s when I’m travelling. Since it’s near the end of the year, I’ve decided to share some books I’ve liked this year, no less than seven, which is of course the most magical number according to the Harry Potter universe. Plus it was a famous Hibs scoreline against Hearts. Doubly magical.

Some words I wrote in a book. Download your copy today!

These are in no particular order and reflect simply the order in which I remembered them. Two were by female authors, two by the same publisher. Four were by Scottish authors. One I bought a decade ago. Four of them actually came out this year. Unlike the Book of the Year lists that appear in the papers, I have no stake in any of these books. I don’t know their authors personally. Since I don’t have a literary agent, I can hardly share them with one of these people. Some of them, shockingly, have been out for a while. In short, I just like these books. So, let’s begin.

Nasty Women, by various authors, edited by Heather McDaid and Laura Jones, 2017, Edinburgh: 404 Ink – 

Nasty Women is a collection of essays about what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, covering a panoply of subjects including class, race, politics, religion, sexuality, and foraging, amongst others. I read it and there were times I felt uncomfortable and aware of my privilege as a white cisgender man, times when I felt angry and even times when I felt inspired. This year I have bought three copies of this book. I donated one and I own two, one on eBook and the other in print since I don’t take a tablet when I go to the football. It was deservedly the bestselling book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year. Read it. It’s a good start for making any sort of sense of the world right now.

Hings by Chris McQueer, 2017, Edinburgh: 404 Ink – 

404 Ink also published probably my favourite book I’ve read this year, or for a long while. I first became aware of Chris McQueer on Twitter. His book of short stories, Hings, came out in July and I bought a copy. I took it to the football and had to stop reading it on the train as I was laughing so hard and I got looks. It is incredibly warped and inspired. Another one I own two copies of. Plus I bought one for my dad. And I have a copy of the recently released zine of stories that were cut from Hings. I love Glasgow and Chris McQueer’s Weegie stories just make me love it more.

The Passion of Harry Bingo by Peter Ross, 2017, Dingwall: Sandstone Press – 

The title article of The Passion of Harry Bingo originally appeared in issue four of Nutmeg, a Scottish football periodical I am partial to. It is a rather cheering look at why quite a few of us go to football each week, slightly affectionate but not mocking. The star, Harry Bingo, sadly died just after the book was published – he supported Partick Thistle and had been going for at least six decades. Peter Ross writes feature articles for much of the Scottish press and this is the second collection of them, including drag artistes, Herring Queens (not the same thing), Common Ridings, the Bass Rock, Ramadan and the business of a sex shop. It is a good cross-section of our great country, gathering, as Hugh MacDiarmid wrote, ‘all the loose ends of Scotland…attempting to express the whole’.

Now We Are Dead by Stuart MacBride, 2017, London: HarperCollins – 

Stuart MacBride writes crime novels set in and around Aberdeen. That shouldn’t put anyone off. Aberdeen might not be Las Vegas, it might not even be that nice, but Stuart MacBride writes cracking books. Now We Are Dead features one of his main characters, the recently demoted but still utterly great DS Roberta Tiberius Steel. MacBride even used his recent experience on ‘Celebrity Mastermind’ to title the various chapters of this one in the style of AA Milne. (I hope they repeat it. His wide, sarcastic humour was a great antidote to John Humphrys.) The world seems a bit more twisted, but utterly better, when DS Steel is on the go, even if Logan didn’t appear until the end and even if she still can’t get the right type of bra.

Saturday, 3pm by Daniel Gray, 2016, London: Bloomsbury – 

I read Saturday, 3pm on my lunch break one Saturday I was at work. As I finished it, I Tweeted in praise of the book, as I often do, and how it made me feel better that I wasn’t getting to Easter Road that afternoon to see Hibs play Falkirk. (I missed a cracker too. James Keatings scored a free kick to win the game in the 90th minute. Poor Peter Houston. What a shame.) Daniel Gray proceeded to Tweet me back, thank me and say he was going to that very game that afternoon with his daughter, which was incredibly random.

Saturday, 3pm is a collection of fifty short essays about the footballing experience, from the programme to away games and everything else in between. I could relate to a lot of it, especially those bits where Hibs got a mention. His newer book, Scribbles in the Margins, which is a collection of fifty essays about books and reading, is similarly joyful.

Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane, 2008, London: Granta – 

Robert Macfarlane first came onto my radar a long while ago when he wrote an article about John Muir in the Guardian. He writes brilliant books about nature, The Old WaysThe Wild PlacesLandmarks and Holloways, plus the introductions to some of John Muir’s books and The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, which is the book I would take to a desert island. This one was his first book and I’ve had the same copy for years. I remember buying it not long after it came out in a bookshop that doesn’t exist any more, Borders in Fort Kinnaird, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. I started it and didn’t finish it. This happened more than once until a few months ago when I finally resolved to read it in full. Macfarlane is best when he’s writing about where he’s been but this one is more literary, not a bad thing with lots of references thrown in to reflect what it’s like on a mountain and how people have written about it over time. When one of Robert Macfarlane’s books comes out, like with Stuart MacBride, I stop everything. Landmarks came out and I had two copies on the go, eBook and print, until I finished it. His books broaden one’s appreciation of the world, simple as that.

My copy of The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark, 2016, Edinburgh: Canongate – 

I’ve been on a Muriel Spark kick lately. I’ve gone off to Edinburgh today with another of her novels for the train. Ian Rankin wrote recently that:

Her books are like a Tardis, they are much bigger on the inside than they are on the outside.

I was told once that reading Muriel Spark would help me learn how to write. Her novels are small but perfectly formed. Her essays are class too. The Finishing School I read and liked, despite not caring that much normally about the goings-on in a boarding school in Switzerland. I came for the writing, the one-liners, the characters and the fully enclosed world therein. There is a new exhibition just opened at the National Library about Muriel Spark and I can’t wait to get through to Edinburgh to see it. Here’s a blog post about Muriel Spark from a few months ago.

So, that’s our show. I’ve really enjoyed writing this post, not that I don’t usually but the words just flowed that bit easier. Before I go, an honourable mention must go to the two books I have by my bed that I’ve started but not finished yet: Turning: A Swimming Memoir by Jessica J. Lee and The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District by James Rebanks. Our post today has been soundtracked, for what it’s worth, by Skipinnish, Dion, John Martyn, Kacey Musgraves, Foster The People, Runrig and the Monkees. Now you’ve read this, pick up a book or two!

Clearing out my inbox

Whenever I see an idea that might work for my writing, I usually send myself an e-mail. Sometimes they come from Twitter or the Internet more generally. It means that my inbox gets clogged with potential ideas, some goers, others really not. A wee while ago I wrote a post which sought to get some of them out there – Commonplace inbox – and I felt it’s time to do it again. Some might still appear in a post sometime in the future, however, but I have the feeling the time might have passed for others.

Forth Bridges from Silverknowes

At the start of September, the new Queensferry Crossing opened, the third bridge across the Forth between South Queensferry in Edinburgh and Fife. It’s a stunning structure, fitting in quite well with the existing Forth Road Bridge and the mighty Forth Bridge, the one with the trains. Everybody and their granny in the Scottish press was writing about the new bridge and briefly I was going to but didn’t get round to it. One angle, covered in The Scotsman, was about how 50 years ago the Forth was traversed by a ferry, only stopped by the opening of the Forth Road Bridge.

Berwick

Another potential idea was derived from a piece from The Daily Telegraph, entitled ‘Why do so few people visit Berwick-upon-Tweed?’ Since I read it, I’ve been to Berwick and I have a lot of time for the place more generally. It is a strange place, not quite Scotland, not quite England, and it has a lot of fine buildings, plus the views to the Cheviots, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne as well as out to sea. LS Lowry went there for his holidays. Plus it has a brilliant old-fashioned stationers where on my last visit I bought an OS map which got put in a black paper bag. Go to Berwick.

I also had a notion to write about the Caledonian Sleeper, the night train that runs from London to various parts of Scotland. I’ve been on it three times, from Edinburgh to London in the seats then from Glasgow to London and back in a bed, which was a fair bit more comfortable. The seated journey was memorable because I didn’t sleep at all. Get a bed, if possible. It was worth it, however, because I was then (and still am) an Open University student and at some ungodly hour I saw Milton Keynes Central out the window and waved at my university’s campus as I passed by. My preferred mode of travel to London is an early train down then the last one back, since at least I can sleep in my own bed without the juddering of wheels over train tracks.

Steve Silberman is an excellent writer, writing with insight about autism, amongst other things. I follow him on Twitter and in my inbox just now is a link he Tweeted to a TED talk with the wonderful heading: ‘Why autism is sexier than you think’. It can be, in the right context, you know. Good lighting in my case.

Sticking with Twitter, I follow the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, who has recently taken to Twitter with charming missives about words and their resonances. Much nicer than all the other miserable bollocks happening in the world right now. Two recent favourites are ‘geophany’ and ‘genius loci’, defined as an epiphany of insight about a particular place and the atmosphere and character of a particular place respectively.

Kevin McKenna writes for various newspapers including The Scottish Daily Mail (boo, hiss) and The Observer. I don’t always agree with his politics but I’m a believer you should read folk you disagree with. One of his Observer pieces that struck a chord with me was about whether Scotland’s islands are experiencing a resurgence due to tourism and infrastructure advances. I also have in my inbox just now a brilliant feature article from Susan Swarbrick in The Herald about the plane landing on the beach at Barra, something I would dearly like to see one day.

Partick Subway

I also have quite a few articles and links about this great city of Glasgow. Two relate to a Streets of Glasgow walk I would like to do but haven’t managed yet along Cumberland Street in the Gorbals, which has some interesting architecture and public art. I also have a link from the excellent History Girls about murals in Possilpark Library, which I still haven’t seen – read their blog for more details. More controversially, an article also nestles in my inbox from Friends of the Earth about air pollution on the Glasgow Subway. In the pipeline, so to speak, is an idea I’ve had to walk the length of the Subway above ground so that will be relevant for that. What might also be relevant is an article from BBC News where the owners of the bus company McGills complain that government should do more about getting folk on buses than trains. In some of that, they have a point, though as a frequent user of McGills services myself, I would humbly suggest they stop making passengers their enemy and consider giving many of its drivers customer service training plus in some cases route knowledge.

VisitScotland recently announced that they intend to close 60% of their tourist information offices across the country. There is an element of sadness in that, since folk will lose their jobs and there will be some who will lose out on information about Scotland who may not have Internet access or a phone signal, come to think of it. I myself have used their services regularly over the years, though not for a while, plundering their stocks for the occasional day trip idea or bus timetable. Their staff are always very helpful and knowledgeable so it’s a shame that VICs will be closing. Then again the iCentre in Glasgow seems to move every year which seems counter-intuitive.

I think that’s my inbox a fair bit emptier now. I’m not sure how to keep it from filling up again, maybe saving links to Facebook instead or just writing them down in my notebook. Or simply reading less but I’m quite sure that won’t catch on.

Digest: November 2017

George Street, Edinburgh, in the sunset on 2nd November

So, it’s December. How on earth did that happen? This year has been so busy that I still think it’s some time in September and folk have their Christmas lights up too bloody early. Then again I think mid-December is too early for Christmas lights but I don’t think I’ll win that battle. The November digest will be a wee bit shorter than normal because I haven’t been roaming as much. Thankfully normal service should be resumed in December.

Nourish. Get it read!

Thursday 2nd November was the day of the launch of the Nourish eBook, published by the Scottish Book Trust for Book Week Scotland. As regular readers may hopefully know, I was very lucky to have some words in that there publication and the launch was held in a bistro called Spoon in Edinburgh’s south side. Apparently JK Rowling used to write there sometimes. Social things very often make me nervous but this one was further complicated a week beforehand when the Scottish Book Trust asked me if I would care to read my piece out at the launch. I am fairly adept at speaking to people but I had never read my own work out to other people. I spent much of the week preparing and reciting. We rocked up at Spoon and found seats. I was reading second, after Ginny Clark’s Bramble Jam and before Elaine Loch’s story about porridge and Eleanor Fordyce’s wonderful onion rant. I walked up, all shaky, and was handed the microphone. I burbled out how much I had enjoyed reading the stories, made a suitably self-deprecatory joke, then read my bit. I know I’m okay when I can go off script and I did, making a couple of asides about sweary words and how the seagull had wrested the bridie out of my hand. It was a very nice night, with pleasant people and good words. Words about the steak bridie caper appear here or download the eBook or audiobook at http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/reading/book-week-scotland/nourish/ebook.

My next trip oot was to watch Hibs play Dundee at Easter Road. It was cold. I resolved to wear even more clothes next time.

Renfrew Ferry

The following Tuesday, I decided to go for a walk at lunchtime and ended up down by the Clyde. At Renfrew, the Clyde is quite industrial but much less so than it once was. I liked just being able to sit and eat my lunch and watch the ferry go back and forth. Looking back up river to Glasgow was pleasant too, a reminder of the scale of the west of Scotland that I could see Clydebank, the Kilpatrick Hills, Glasgow and the Cathkin Braes in one fell swoop.

That Saturday Hibs weren’t playing so I fulfilled an ambition to watch Queen’s Park play at Hampden, a lower league game in a 52,000 capacity ground. It was made more interesting because that week reports emerged that the SFA might ditch Hampden and hold big cup matches and internationals at Ibrox, Parkhead or Murrayfield. For what it’s worth, Hampden isn’t perfect but it’s ours. It could do with the stands being closer to the action but that’s about it. Anyway, I liked watching QP, even if they lost to Arbroath, and it was nice to watch a football match without my blood pressure rising. I wrote a post about it, which appears here.

St. Andrews

The following day, I ventured out for a rare Sunday bus trip to St. Andrews. I was thinking of Dunbar but time was marching on. I like sitting on the bus as it wends its way through Fife and this time I spent much longer on the bus than I did actually in St. Andrews. It was beautiful in the cold November sunshine and I returned to Glasgow refreshed. Blog post here.

James Wilson statue on Edmiston Drive

A week or so later, on a day off, I had the notion to go to Asda in Govan, which is about a mile or so away on foot. On the way I ended up doing a Streets of Glasgow walk along Edmiston Drive, which is part of the route. I hadn’t done a psychogeographic walk in a wee while but I liked this one. Hopefully you’ll like the result – it is published here this coming Sunday, if memory serves.

Hibs played St. Johnstone the following day. I wore more layers. My feet were clad in two layers of socks and were still cold. Hibs got beat. I listened to Johnny Cash on the train home. It made things better.

That is the extent of my November wanderings. I was due to go to Durham last weekend but I fell on the ice and hurt my wrist so it didn’t happen. My wrist is fine, it was just a bit sore for a day or two. As I say, I hope to be able to report more wanderings in December’s digest. Also appearing here in December will be the annual Best Of post, which in true blogging tradition I wrote about a month ago, which will be about the best places and experiences I’ve had this year.

Thanks as ever to all readers and followers.

Posts published –

Programmes

Digest: October 2017

Back to studying

Streets of Glasgow: West Nile Street

Reading and podcasts 

Playing for the love of the game: Queen’s Park vs Arbroath

Non-obvious photographs of places

Streets of Glasgow: Union Street

St. Andrews

Bridies

Tea or coffee? Neither, thanks

Zines

Platform 9 3/4

Nourish is out!

Random photos