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Memories in a bottle

Denmark was smørrebrød, bikes, bacon-wrapped dates, Carlsberg, chocolate-covered liquorice, green fields, grand architecture. And great people.

Our camino memories came flooding back; the laughter, pain, churches, pilgrims, bedbugs and blisters  – enhanced, perhaps, by the Spanish vino tinto on the table and a dram of Benromach, the malt from my “home” distillery in Moray.

No matter where in the world you are, everyone is prepared to try whisky at least once and this one evokes memories.

I grew up near Speyside and when I was little I’d sit on my father’s knee as he drove a tractor and trailer the five miles from our farm to Benromach distillery to collect draff, the distillery by-product that’s used for cattle feed. And as we waited for the trailer to be loaded a half glass of clear liquid would be poured out by the distillery manager for Dad.

Back in those days a bottle would last a year in our house  but Dad drank this full-strength  alcohol neat every time. And then back on the tractor and on his knee, driving at 20 mph up the road to home, he would  be so happy!  It took another ten years before I equated that merriment with the liquid that looked like water.

Benromach closed down for a few decades but has re-entered the market with whisky that’s distinctive amongst the other  Speyside malts. That’s why I always take it as a present on international adventures.

Well no,  if I’m honest, it’s all about the memories; it’s link to the best of times in a blissful childhood.

Visiting Elmelunde

There’s a kirk on the island of Møn in the south east of Denmark that’s special – and not just because it’s where my camino friend Nikolaj was christened.

The tall white church in Elmelunde is famous for its outstanding frescos which were painted in the fifteenth century and then hidden below layers of whitewash for centuries. The gentle drawings were restored in the 1960s and they appeal to me because they seem so honest and simple, and use natural colours to depict everyday rural activities like harvesting, ploughing and hunting. Flowers and plants delicately separate the scenes and there is religious symbolism too, with illustrations of stories from the Bible.

While I knew, of course, that the main area of worship in a church is the nave, I’d forgotten the Christian metaphor of comparing the church itself to a ship. And at P1000146Elmelunde I also discovered the Danish tradition of hanging ships in a religious building, a custom which originated with pagan beliefs that offering a miniature version would offer safe voyage for the full sized vessel and its crew.

I thought of the Viking longboats which sailed with such acquisitive intent to Shetland and other parts of Scotland and the fear these blessed ships once engendered in my ancestors. It’s just a few days, after all, since I was hearing about the Danish “visitors” from a very different perspective.

I loved the sense of simplicity at Elmelunde. I can admire the glorious rich gold altarpieces of French and Spanish cathedrals and the creativity of the spectacular Sistine Chapel ceiling, but these whitewashed P1000151walls topped with quiet frescos naturally drew my gaze heavenwards and I felt surprisingly at home here.

“Takk” , Nikolaj, for taking me. I too have a home church that’s very special and understand how much it means to share it.

Danish fairytale on wheels

We cycled down Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. And every other street in Copenhagen. We biked to the Little Mermaid, through Christiansborg Palace (Borgen), past the elephants at the zoo and the ones holding up the Carlsberg Brewery.

We took the bikes on ferries from the opera house, pushed them through the cannabis vapors of Christiania, lay them on the grass as we listened to live music and drank beer in the park and finally, late at night, we peddled fast and a little unsteadily back home from the pub.

I saw a road sign which said 25,237 cyclists had passed the check point in the previous 24 hours and wondered if it had just been us going round and round. And around.

P1000101But what a fantastic city for pedal power. Everyone has at least one bike, the lanes are wide and cyclists take priority over vehicles and pedestrians.

Forget the camper van. I’m now lusting after a set of wheels.

Camino reprise in Copenhagen

I’ve been lured east by the Vikings for a catch up with the camino contingent in Scandinavia.

We’ll be meeting up again many miles from Santiago and minus our boots, blisters and bed bugs although I, for one, am travelling with the same backpack and (fumigated) sleeping bag.

I’ve passed through the city before, en route to a press jolly in the Faroes and I’ve watched every single episode of Borgen and The Bridge on television but I still can’t wait to experience it in the company of locals – who are friends.

And (unlike Scotland) it’s not snowing!

Just saying …

My new pal, Granville-the-photographer-who-doesn’t-like-to-walk, sat down beside me as I sheltered from the rain in the Lerwick museum coffee shop.

The Shetland Isles are littered with professional and amateur photographers from all over the world and you trip over them in graveyards, on hillsides, behind cliffs and down by the shore snapping otters and seals.

I first met Granville lurking round a standing stone on Unst. Next it was on the Yell ferry crossing. And then he turned up again today. We’re clearly old friends now so I suppose he felt he could be blunt.

Anyway, we’d been sitting talking about places we want to visit and he mentioned Venice. I said it was high on my list too but because it was such a romantic destination I was putting off and waiting to go with someone special.

He raised an old grey eyebrow. “Well, if you’ve still to find him I wouldn’t leave it too long,” he mused.

Just say it as it is, why don’t you, Granville of the great name.

North by north

When it takes not one but two ferries to reach an island the feeling of remote otherworldliness is intensified. When the culture there speaks more of Norse history, of viking longhouses and longboats, and when rocks are all that break up a sub-Arctic desert landscape, you know you’ve travelled a long way from the familiar in your own country.

So it is with Unst.

I drove as far north as the road would take me, past wild Shetland ponies, freshwater lochs and the bemused-looking native sheep and lambs that freely roam, then walked a long way out across open peaty moors to a wildlife haven to sit, buffeted by the relentless Shetland wind, above the high Hermaness cliffs on the northernmost edge of these isolated  islands.

In the near distance, just past the frantic nesting colonies of gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmers was the reassuring solid white form of  Muckle IMG_6773Flugga lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s father in 1854. And then, north by north to the Arctic Circle, nothing but white-topped grey waves breaking turquoise over the rocks. The birds whirled in the gusting wind then the rain changed its mood from gentle to battering, driving me to find shelter in a hollow near the cliffs.

I met a German photographer there who shared his hot tea as we huddled against the banks and watched the weather develop . We had both been up here before, had developed impressions, images and ideas in our imaginations, and were returning after IMG_6690many years in search of the atmosphere and conditions in which to create new work. As the weather worsened I figured my job was easier than his and retreated back over the moors in search of a bed and a dry place where a pen would work.

The bonxies, the notorious Pirates of the Sea, were brutal beasts; bigger, beefier and much more prolific than I had imagined. They didn’t attack as I walked through their nesting grounds along the path to the cliffs, but wanted me to know they could if they felt like it and had a sinister glint in their eyes as they carried out arrogant reconnaissance missions just above my head. They looked as though they could do serious damage if provoked, or maybe even just for random  fun on a day when too many twitchers dared to disturb their far-flung garrison.

I’ve run out of roads, ferries and even moorland as Muckle Flugga is the very last, most northerly rock in the UK . I can now only turn round and travel south.

In the land of the Simmer Dim

My head is full of clouds. And that’s not a metaphor.

After two days in Shetland my eyes are reeling from the clarity of the light and the intensity of a vast, rapidly changing sky. There’s a never-ending cloudscape drama playing out here between the wind, the sun and the weather and it’s set against a backdrop of turbines, gravestones, rocks and ruins. As I travel I’m constantly stopping to take photographs then to stand still and just watch the movement cross the sky.

Up here on the far northern edge of Europe there are no trees or shrubs to soften the bare starkness of the islands so every feature stands out, defined sharply against  sea and sky. I’m no fan of wind farms and oppose their unchecked development throughout mainland Scotland yet here their cold linearity somehow seems to fit the landscape and add to its drama. And they’re efficient here too, the most productive in the world.

I’ve done a lot of wandering round ancient brochs and buildings and spent hours reading gravestones. On the outskirts of Lerwick there’s a IMG_6557graveyard on the hill tiered down to the edge of the sea so that every grave has a view of the islands and cliffs. A beautiful place.

When it rained I visited the new museum in Scalloway with its captivating exhibition on the “Shetland Bus”, the small scale wartime missions masterminded here and conducted by sailors who took small fishing vessels between these islands and Norway, fuelling the Resistance there and rescuing people from the tyranny of German occupation. The stories of bravery, of boats lost with no survivors and voyages made in horrendous weather make for powerful reading.

Tomorrow I’m tempted to head further north to the island of Unst, and its most northerly point at Hermaness to see the puffins and Bonxies. And I’ve been advised to take a stick to protect myself from attacks by these Great Skuas which dive-bomb and attack as you walk across the moors.

Ah Shetland, whether it’s birds, landscapes or men, you’re not for the faint-hearted.


Highland Gypsy?

I test drove one of these today, in a fetching shade of blue.

It may not have the kudos of a vintage VW camper but it’s cool. And sleek. And you can stand up in it.

I told the salesman I would be living in it full time and he said I was mad. I suggested that was an unusual sales pitch.  He insisted it just wouldn’t be big enough and made me  look at others which were cumbersome, cheap and oh so ugly.

But this baby has everything I’d need, including room for my tent, walking gear and a bike, which would all fit under the fixed bed at the back. There’s a mini wardrobe, space for books, my camera and possibly even a couple of pairs of shoes. It has a loo and shower, a tiny little kitchen with a fridge and ICE BOX and a table with a revolving armchair (the driver’s seat) where I could sit and write. And there would be a very strong incentive never ever to put on any weight or I wouldn’t fit into my home. Ticks all the boxes really.

It does cost a lot of money though: too much probably. So I’ll need to ponder on whether or not to upgrade my nomadic life to such luxurious levels or to stick to Plan D (or possibly F or G)  … anyway, the one where I use a combination of my tent and Youth Hostels for the summer.

That’s very appealing too.

Shetland Calling

I’ve been writing a fictional story for the last few months which is set in Shetland and I’m about to fly up there for a few days to do some research.

Writing is something I’ve done every day all my life, but for the last 30 years or so it has been as a journalist, working for newspapers, magazines and BBC radio and television. Getting out and meeting folk, interacting with them and hearing their stories has always been the best bit of the process so sitting in front of a laptop inventing it all can be a poor (and often lonely) substitute.

So that’s why I’m taking time away from my desk to get out and meet people who can give me the information I need to add credibility to my story. Already I’ve interviewed several professionals who have been extremely generous with their time and information and incredibly supportive and encouraging when I’ve outlined the plot – or the parts of it that are relevant to them.

One former detective I consulted two weeks ago got so involved he’s still trying to work out how he can “nail” a character he has taken a violent dislike to! And that sort of passionate response has been immensely helpful because there are many days when I sit down in the morning and know that pursuing this dream is a crazy gamble. All around me friends are rushing around earning a living and saving towards their pensions, meanwhile I’m living nomadically; housesitting and camping and cautiously exploring the possibility of making a campervan my future home. Am I insane?

Possibly. But for the moment I’m going to stick with my story and am excited about the travel to Shetland. We did a lot of filming there when I worked in television and I always loved the starkness of the place, the hardness of the land, the contrasting softness of the voices and the warmth and generosity of the people. I’m looking forward to finding locations for my drama by walking around Lerwick, revisiting Unst and going to Whalsay for the first time. I’m hiring a car and hopefully a bike for the islands to get me closer to the landscape and the smell of the place.

And it will be so light up there in the land of the Simmir Dim when the sun dips below the horizon for only a few hours a day. Islands, summer, writing, water, travel; I intend to make the most of it.

Sutherland Trail: Camping at Lone Bothy


When you welcome the sight of an open-sided agricultural shed  spattered with wet hen dung as though it’s a four-star hotel you know you’re in trouble.

It had been a long day and Lone Bothy was locked (and uninhabitable anyway), the rain was bucketing down, a gale was howling and we were chilled and hungry. Options were somewhat limited. So we brewed up some soup in the shed and debated what to do. My main objection to sleeping there was the strutting cockered who P1030837was  proclaiming his presence and would do so again, repeatedly, from around 4am. I also figured the tent could only be warmer.

The stalker turned up in his truck and we chatted about deer numbers on the high hills while we cooked our dinner in his shed. He described the growing pressure from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to cull ever higher numbers of hinds to protect vegetation – something he was reluctant to do.

He seemed pretty relaxed about us using his Argocat as a clothes drying horse and makeshift P1030840sitting room then he looked out at his hills, cheerfully forecast more snow, wished us luck and headed off to a cosy house somewhere down the glen. We looked at one another and laughed but the tent ended up doing a great job and we were warm and dry in the morning.

We didn’t take time to search for fresh eggs for breakfast (although he said we were welcome to them if we could find them) but the cockerel and his small harem tucked in to our leftovers.

We looked around and considered. The weather was closing in and we would have no more shelter for another two days so reluctantly we decided to pull out and complete the route another time.

There would be one bus passing through Achfary at 9.30am which would take us to Lairg and from there we could catch a train to Inverness.

I left the glen reluctantly, looking wistfully up to Ben Stack, Arkle and Foinaven. And vowed I’d be back.