Highland Dancing at Hogmanay


We are driving from Pitlochry to London to start back to work tomorrow. It’s been a great New Year break or ‘Hogmanay’ as its called in Scotland.

Yesterday the main street of the town was closed to traffic as a large highland dance took place.

Tweedy, blue-rinsed ladies danced with baffled Italian tourists while white haired highlanders in regulation kilts gave novice dancers a crash course in rock-n-reel.

As I ordered a haggis roll, (yep that is haggis in a white bread roll) I met a man who knew my Aunt. She used to be a teacher in small highland schools.

The man and I didn’t spend long reminiscing, he was particularly concerned that he’d seen a number of men with kilts that were ‘too long at the knee’.

He was shocked that people nowadays didn’t know (or worse care) how to wear the kilt. So top tip from Pitlochry pie shop is: when you next put on your kilt to go dancing in the streets you should kneel on the floor and swipe two fingers between the hem of the kilt and the floor before leaving the house.

And the good news is that even if your kilt is a little long, you are still allowed to enjoy yourself. At one point there must have been around three hundred dancers all bouncing, whirling and laughing around the street.

Highland hospitality, culture and community at its very best.


Silver Birch on New Year’s Day

I’ve been majorly neglecting the blog. Amongst my rather ambitious list of New Year resolution’s is to update the blog more. So here goes. These are Silver Birch trees caught in winter sun on the banks of Loch Faskally in the Highlands of Scotland.


The Old Toon

Makes You Proud

There has been a lot of stuff happened to me since Dad died. After the frenzy of organisation around the time of his death, the funeral and the rush back to work, I was suddenly silenced by grief. Left floundering in a way I have never experienced. I’ll write more about this but the good news is, I am beginning to lift my head and smile at the world again.

Despite the occasion it was good to spend time in my old home town of Greenock in Scotland. The support from friends in the community was an inspiration. It’s a community that has suffered badly from the death of the shipbuilding industry followed by the decline of IBM, the other major employer. It’s a tough town in tough times but nonetheless people were incredibly supportive.

Still, I was reminded just how mad the place can be when a friend sent me this clipping (not sure which newspaper it first appeared in). It perversely made me proud to come from the old toon.

Winter Wonderland

Rosehaugh Estate

We’ve just returned from an fantastical festive break in the Highlands of Scotland. It had an ominous start though. We kept just ahead of the worsening weather on the train from London to Glasgow. But when we set out from Greenock with my doom-saying 89-year-old dad as co-driver the white out began in earnest.

Red Kite Cottage, Rosehaugh Estate

While we inched our way up the blizzarding A9 my snow hating Dad, ” the only place for snow is on a bloody christmas card”,  made constant pleas for sanity and a hasty retreat south. But when we finally slithered our way through the forest of the Rosehaugh Estate late at night to Red Kite Cottage we were as relieved as we were exhausted.

Birch forests in Rosehaugh

Our own little gingerbread house was everything we’d hoped for on the inside inside but it was only with the morning sun that we realised how lucky we were on the outside. Regular heavy snow falls and freezing temperatures, (down to -16 degrees celsius) meant we woke to find ourselves in a winter wonderland. The area north of Inverness that is known as the Black Isle had become the White Isle.

Trees bent under continual snowfalls

Despite living, working and playing in the north for  years I’d never seen conditions like it. Everywhere, trees bent under the weight of continual dumps of snow. Ice crystals grown by  frost glistened all around as drifts of freezing mist added to the drama of the landscape.

Snow crystals grown big by frosts

Day after day the conditions became more awe-inspiring. A lovely Christmas  with family, warming visits to friends, great meals burnt off by long walks and suicidal sledging made for the perfect holiday.

The Black Isle at dusk


Perseverance is an Overrated Virtue

Even Scobby has to admit defeat on occassion

Perseverance can be fatal

There’s a lot of talk about perseverance these days. How it maketh the man and what a supreme virtue it is. Like our beleaguered Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, I come from a Presbyterian background where perseverance is everything. Parents stay together and work at their misery. The phrase try, try and try again is employed when any failure may occur, no matter how ludicrous the challenge or futile the effort. Admitting defeat is anathema. The only acceptable excuse for failure is death through blind devotion and overwork.

There was a time in my life where I ticked just about all the boxes of Calvinist indoctrination (except the actual religion); a time when I came dangerously close to paying the ultimate price of blind perseverance. I knew I should have admitted defeat but years of diligent programming told me it was unthinkable, fate would decide my future.

In the end an escape committee of friends, intuition and luck came together and sprang me from the dour and endless maze of work and guilt. People who know me in the post-perseverance age still think of me as a workaholic. But I’m recovering and a million times happier to have stared Presbyterianism in its awful dead eyes and won.

Knowing when to fight and when to retire gracefully is the hardest but best lesson that life has ever taught me.

The Shining Feis

The Feis movement was founded in the early eighties in response to a resurgence of interest in traditional music.  At that time I worked as a freelance photographer and film maker in the Highlands and Islands. Then it was impossible not to be drawn to what was happening at the various Feisean that were springing up all over Scotland.

Fiddle classes at Feis Bharraigh

Fiddle classes at Feis Bharraigh

The first Feis I went to was in Barra in the summer of 1988.  As I wandered from class to class in Castlebay school, it was clear that there was something fundamental happening to traditional music. Fiddles screeched, drums beat, children danced – an energy I’d never witnessed before was being unleashed.

Dansers at Feis Bharraigh

Dancers at Feis Bharraigh

It wasn’t just at the children’s Feis, but all around, amongst the tutors and those attending adult Feisean and events: there was a real feeling of optimism.

Clarsach classes at Feis Rois

Clarsach classes at Feis Rois

The following summer, I went to Feis Rois in Ullapool. Same again, kids running towards school, not away from it; eager, enthusiastic and enjoying every moment of learning.

Feis Rois organisers and tutors

Feis Rois organisers and tutors - Bryan Beattie far left, Cathy Ann MacPhee centre, Lauren MacColl right and Sim Mackenzie far right

Over the years since then, a hard core of dedicated enthusiasts from all walks of life around Scotland have ensured that many of the wee ones of the Feis movement have become the big names of the traditional music scene in Scotland and much further afield. The Feis movement is a shining example of people working togther in communities to produce something far larger than the sum of the parts.

The Wondering Factory

Self Portrait in Harris, 1988

Self Portrait in Harris, 1988

Should the boy,
visit the wonder factory,
hug you in the glass and sun,
hold your hand, 
walk past the pelicans,
smile through your eyes,
and say,
my world is you.

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