Just a little misap on a roundabout

The sun is shining and the patch of sky I could see through my window while working on the most dastardly home-admin tasks imaginable is a beautiful shade of blue. Just before I’d finished the critical tasks, the call of the outdoors became too strong and I determined to escape to my happy place, about 15 mins drive away, where the heather would be turning purple all along the winding edge of the Lang Craigs.

I called Tina and , on the spur of the moment, she joined me too and we set off along the great Western road, the sun blazing directly ahead. About 5 miles from home, in the middle of a roundabout on the A82’s dual carriageway section, our plans came to an abrupt halt.


With the screaming of metal on metal and the scorched smoke of burnt brakes we screeched to a stop in the middle of the roundabout in Drumchapel.

At first I thought it was another car that was making the noise and then, when it stopped and, after a moment, the horns started blaring all around me, I realised that it was me. The car was immobilised and no amount of revving the engine could persuade the car to move an inch forward or back.

I panicked and rang 999. “What service do you require” asked the woman at emergency HQ and that was when I realised I hadn’t even thought – “erm police please” I said and added in a stream of consciousness, “But there’s no danger to life here actually – I’m just sitting in a car in the middle of a roundabout”

I had just started to explain the situation and try to describe where I was when a police van came up behind us, put its lights on and pulled up just in front of my stranded car. “Wow that was quick” I said to the woman in emergency HQ “how did you know where I am?”

By this time Tina had managed evacuate the car safely and with Hugo the dog had trotted up to the van to explain the situation. I, meanwhile, had rung off the 999 call thanking them for their help.

It turned out that they weren’t the police at all “we just do the railways, we don’t do roads” said the man, who looked indistinguishable from a proper police man. They were passing on their way to some other incident.

The traffic had now slowed down to look at the spectacle and it was safe for me to clamber out of the car in the centre lane of the roundabout. The police van and its flashing lights had the opposite effect on some though who couldn’t help themselves revving their engine, hooting their horns and spinning their wheels as they passed – I imagined my teenager rolling her eyes and saying ”Glasgow Bams” in a weary tone of voice. Each of the policemen got into the car in turn and tried to move it. Unsurprisingly to me, it stayed exactly where it was.

I started calling my breakdown people. I knew I had some breakdown people, but couldn’t quite remember who they were. At one point their phone number had been written on a piece of paper and Sellotaped to the dashboard – or that might have been a previous car…. whatever…. It certainly wasn’t there now.

It was definitely something to do with my bank so I searched up ‘Bank of Scotland breakdown cover’ on the internet and called the first number I saw. After a while on hold, during which another set of police arrived, this time the bone fide police, and parked their miniscule car directly behind mine on the roundabout, and having given all my personal details to the call handler, almost down to the scale of my first pet, we established that I had called the RBS breakdown cover rather than Bank of Scotland. With obsequious apologies and thanks I rang off.

After a few minutes establishing that the first set of police had called the second set to deal with my problem then driven off, I called BoS breakdown and had a very similar conversation. No I didn’t know my membership number sorry, no I didn’t have my bank details handy sorry, I said apologetically just as a slew of cars jostled past hooting their horns. It wasn’t until I had opened up the banking app on my phone “I hope its OK if I put you on hold” (I’ve always wanted to say that to a call handler LOL! …) to look up my account details, that it dawned on me that my breakdown assistance was actually with the Coop bank and not BoS after all. By this time the police were losing their patience and they called the police pick up people just as I had managed to find the correct number to call.

We waited at the road side chatting about the joys of Glasgow policing of teenagers in parks – Balloch was on their beat and they related their tales of teens congregating in pandemic unfriendly hordes, while I wondered what my kids did on their regular trips to Balloch. Every now and again one of the police would get back in my car and just check to see whether it could be moved. It couldn’t. As we awaited the pickup vehicle one of the policemen retreated to the car to eat his dinner – the MacDonald’s that they had bought immediately before being summoned to my aid.

After 20 minutes there was no sign of the pickup vehicle but some further police had shown up – ah ha these were the roads police. They parked their large landrover thing in the middle of the roundabout along with the tiny police car and came over to get an update. We were just getting started when another of the screeching, wheel spinning, boy racers sped through the roundabout, revved past the two police cars and then stopped abruptly when a nearby pedestrian crossing light turned red and a family started crossing the road. “Aye-Aye?” exclaimed one of the roads police – “Let’s go” said the other as they waved the guy into the next layby and spent the next fifteen minutes booking him at length and in great detail (I presume).

After at least a further 20 minutes of waiting in which Tina got picked up, the rescue vehicle arrived with a driver that looked remarkably like the Anonymous mask man in matching top and bottoms fleecy fluorescent yellow suit (hood up). He was devastatingly efficient. The enormous truck was parked up, ramp extended and he was hammering plastic nylon wedges (sparks flying off the road) in under my back tyres all in a matter of seconds.

Next thing I knew, the car was on the rescue vehicle and I was issued with instructions – it would be at the depot just off the M74 at Polmadie, I would need to attend in person with cash to retrieve it. Hold on Hold on. – Aren’t we in a pandemic? – Aren’t you removing my means of transport to get to locations just off junctions of motorways? – Who on earth is taking cash only at times like this? – Look, can’t I pay you now by card or bank transfer (or even, for goodness sake, cash) and you just drop the car at my garage which just happens to be 4 miles along the road on your way back to the depot?

They were actually rather sympathetic and a lot of time was then spent on phone calls to ‘the boss’. The recovery guy tried first, then one of the policemen, then the recovery man again. No luck. My car was impounded. Can you at least give me a lift home (it’s also on the way). No can’t do that either.

So I’m left at a large roundabout between Drumchapel and Clydebank to make my way home. Look on the bright side Kat, it’s only 5 miles home. It could be worse – this could have happened on Rannoch Moor, and that would be a proper long walk home. But fortunately Tina very kindly came out to rescue me, and a very large glass of wine was waiting for me when I got home.

Of course that isn’t the end of the story because I’ve spent the whole day today intermittently phoning and then emailing the 911 Recovery centre in an attempt to work my way around the ‘come in person, come with cash’ rules. I sent photos of every document I own relating to the car, and my licence and insurance, and that seemed to go down Ok, and eventually they even sent me an invoice. By now the car had been in past 12pm and I had incurred a day of storage costs on top of my recovery costs. So it was a race against time to call the correct breakdown assistance company (it turned out to be RAC) and get the car collected before they shut at 4pm. That was when I hit the final and un-achievable hurdle. I could only get a pickup from RAC if I was there in person. I tried – but there was absolutely no way I could talk my way around this one. I had lost.

So tomorrow morning I will be heading off, again getting a lift from Tina, to Polmadie 911 depot to retrieve my car. Next time, perhaps it will be easier if I just stay away from cars and Tina and I just have a wee walk around Victoria Park …..

Remembering Teresa 

Tomorrow would have been Teresa Brasier’s 48th birthday and it seems the right time to reflect, over a breakfast of my first ever batch of home made marmalade (whisky of course), on what her friendship and loss has meant to me.   

I first met Teresa in 1997 when I arrived in Glasgow as a new PhD student and she was working for an orchestra, and I last saw Teresa 10 days before she died at the start of December in her small miners cottage in Leadhills, where she had lived for a decade.  

 She left a legacy in so many people’s lives and hearts, but I want to write here a little of the legacy that she left me. I think that, what stays with me, above all, is the experience of life and death as two facets of a whole: her determination to live life to the full, while accepting death as part of life. And how her experience of death was transformed by her deep and active faith in God. 

I was fortunate to be able to spend some special moments with Teresa over the past year, since her cancer returned in a much more aggressive form. We’d had regular lunches, walks, when her health allowed, and even spent some time up north with her and her partner Mary in their favourite place The Holy Tree Inn, somewhere we had discovered as a warming haven after visits to our bothy. Teresa was inseparable from her beloved black lab Poacher, except for the times I’d seen her in hospital when, instead of a snoring dog and a bookshelf of single malt whiskies, she would be surrounded by a crowd of friends sharing stories, anecdotes and a packet of biscuits. You’d always know where Teresa was in the hospital because you could hear the laughter.   

 Teresa left behind her so much joy and such a legacy. When she moved to Leadhills and heard that the instruments of the Leadhills Silver Band were sitting unused in the Miner’s library, she decided to re-establish the century old tradition. Bringing together beginners and seasoned experts, seven year olds and seventy year olds she brought back to life the historic instruments that had, for years, lain silent. She raised the money needed for new instruments for the band and conducted them until she became too ill to continue. She and Mary worked together to help deaf children learn and play music, and she also worked as a councillor and facilitator. 


Teresa lived the last year of her life as she’d lived all her life – completely to the full. She saw friends, and had many an adventure with Mary: they took an autumn trip to the Canaries, flew in a tiny plane to Barra landing on the beach to visit friends, returned to her favourite places, took a camper van adventure on the Western Isles, and of course, participated in many a communal whisky tasting, always posted by either her or Mary on social media for us to enjoy vicariously. And she printed out the pictures in a photo-book she had beside the sofa labelled ‘Memories’.

   I, meanwhile, was in denial – how could someone so full of life not be alive anymore?


She held a 50th birthday party in Wanlockhead village hall preceded by a service of thanksgiving. “But you’re not even 48 yet” I said. 


I continued to be in denial visiting her in hospital while she was participating in a trial of a new drug, and when, following a sudden downturn in her condition, I visited her still groggy and in the high dependency unit after an emergency operation. Her hand that I held seemed somehow transparent, her voice little more than a whisper and she was very weak. But this was the outside, on the inside was her characteristic enduring strength and a remarkable acceptance of the situation, she was confident of where she was going. 


Spending time with T in those final weeks was an incredible privilege, like being invited to glimpse into mysteries way beyond us. Teresa opened a box full of frightening stuff and didn’t find any fear in it. She was so at peace, lived with such faith and had such confidence in what comes next she simply emanated that to those she spent time with. Sitting with her on the sofa, praying with her or just sitting together, would be like seeing a flash, just out of the corner of your eye, of incredible light and then turning to find the ordinary and earthly.


Two weeks before she died, a mutual friend was looking after her at home and I went over to visit a few times over the course of the weekend. 


We sat and read through some liturgy, praying and singing. It was a beautiful time. It seemed to me that heaven was stooping very close. You could reach out and almost touch it. 

“You missed a career as a vicar” I joked afterwards as we had a cup of tea 

“I know. God was calling me for a long time and I never heeded the call and now it’s too late” she said sadly, thoughtfully resigned to the fact. We sat in silence for a while after that.


When I visited her that last time she was extremely frail but very much herself, down to earth and matter of fact and rooted deep in her faith. We talked about Christmas and her plans and then she asked me if I’d like to have her skis. 


We’d had so much fun together skiing in Scotland and even once in the Alps.

   “I couldn’t take them Teresa” I said “what if you want to use them again?”

   “Kat” she said looking at me half exasperated “just take the skis. And boots. I’ll not be needing them!”

She then asked her brother, Stephen, who was staying for the week, to fetch them for me. I took them obediently, just as I had taken her last pot of her dad’s home made marmalade when I’d seen her the week before. 


On that visit our friend Catherine was making her a marmalade on toast in her own earnest and perfectionist way, ensuring the butter was just the right thickness and the marmalade was spread right to the edges.


Meanwhile, I was musing on how much I love homemade marmalade, “My parents used to give me marmalade and now they don’t” I wailed.

  “Why don’t you make it yourself?” she’s asked perfectly reasonably. As you can imagine I didn’t really have a good answer to that. 

Tired of waiting for the perfect slice of toast and, never backward in coming forward, Teresa said “Just give me the toast Catherine!” then bent down awkwardly and got her other jar out of the cupboard and gave it to me.

I didn’t want to take it “you might want it Teresa, I feel bad taking treats from a sick person”

“Take the sodding marmalade Kat, she said patiently “I am not going to eat it all”.


I took the marmalade and said I’d be back the following Monday. On the Sunday she sent me a voice message saying she wasn’t well enough to see me and on the Tuesday I received a phone call telling me she had died. 


On the day of Teresa’s funeral we drove south from Glasgow and the southern uplands rose on either side of the motorway with the huge arc of blue sky above. As we gained height up to Leadhills, the thin smattering of snow on the hills became thick drifts by the side of the road. We parked on the main road, not daring to stray far from the route of the snowploughs.


In the peaceful burial ground on the edge of the village, deep in snow and encircled by the rounded forms of the North Lowther hills, we said our goodbyes to Teresa and my younger daughter, Teresa’s goddaughter, left her a snow angel. 


The very next day my we took Teresa’s skis to Glencoe and had our earliest season’s skiing since we’ve been in Scotland. The sky was still blue and the snow lay as thickly as I’d seen it in December (I got a couple of new scratches on the skis though – souvenirs of a special day you might say and which Teresa would no-doubt have approved of) “Teresa would love this” we agreed. And I felt that she was somehow there with us. That it all fitted. 


Writing this, something that Julian of Norwich, the 14th century nun and mystic said after a vision of talking with Christ came to mind. 


“All will be well, and all will will well. And all manner of things will be well”


And I did decide to make marmalade at last. Why wouldn’t I? And I put a few giant slugs of single malt whisky in there too (Islay if you’re wondering). 


Why indeed not? Life’s too short. 

Girls are wearing the trousers (at last)

This week we had a letter home from the school, it looked like any other letter the schools sends home to us, this one was entitled ‘Scottish Standardised National Assessments (SSNA)’. Unusually I read the letter immediately, rather than relegating it to the ever-growing pile. It was the usual stuff around updating us on the developing assessment system for school children in Scotland and then, to my surprise, came a very significant announcement thrown in at the end. Our children’s school was lifting their ban on girls wearing trousers.


The school which has stoically held out against the march of progress and female sartorial emancipation was, at last, changing its policy. I actually felt rather emotional. When my younger daughter, who hasn’t worn a skirt or dress since she was old enough to say ‘no’, was about a year away from moving up to secondary school I had a conversation with her. I had heard that other parents and pupils had failed in requests to wear trousers and I was worried. There would be no chance at all that Natalie would be able to wear a skirt – the most upset I had ever seen her was when someone was trying to get her to wear a skirt or a dress, when her identity as a shorts wearing, football playing, wear-a-tie-on-a-smart-occasion, sport-loving girl is squeezed into someone else’s idea of what her identity should be.


I explained that there were two options for us: we could start our own campaign and get the school to change; or we could send her to another school where she would be able to wear trousers. I have to admit I was kind of relishing a bit of a fight, a chance to deliver a small blow for justice and equality. Having delivered many a campaign through work and in my spare time I already had the campaign strategy worked out in my head and it even had a name “Operation Girls Wear the Trousers”. But it would be hard work, could take a while and would mean that Natalie would be in the spotlight and would need to be a full partner in the project.  


She was all for taking on the school – ‘let’s change it’ she said, and I did a little dance. It seemed to me that this should be a relatively easy campaign to win. I looked up other cases of parental challenges to schools that refused girls to wear trousers (and those where boys had campaigned to wear skirts) and they all had something in common, if they went as far as lawyers getting involved, in every case the school had backed down before it reached court on legal advice that the case was unwinnable. This meant that there was no case law on the subject, however I read clear guidance from the Scottish Government to schools that there should not be gender specific uniform policy, and (utterly ignorant on matters of law) surmised that, if Natalie showed up at school in trousers and the school sent her home, thus denying her an education, they could be breaking the law in the form of the Equalities Act 2010 (Scotland) and I could justifiably call the police.


However this was the stuff that would be rolled out if all else failed, the final stages of our campaign. At the moment we needed to get everything else in line – first a direct appeal to the school and then, if that failed, drawing local councillors, MSPs and the media into the campaign. Natalie did some ground work and wrote to all the councillors standing in the local election and asked their views on girls being allowed to wear trousers to school. She had a great response and offers of help with her campaign. Then we heard back from the school, they would meet with me and Natalie to discuss the issue.


We showed up to the school office at the allotted time, Natalie very smart in her primary school uniform: dark shorts (she always wore shorts then), smart shirt and a tie, short back and sides.  The Deputy Head invited me in, for now Natalie would wait in the office. After the starting pleasantries and explaination that Natalie would never, could never, wear a skirt he said thoughtfully, “So….Would you say that this is a gender issue?” (pronouncing ‘gender issue’ in the same, half whisper that Miranda would use when saying ‘sexual’).

‘If you mean that Natalie is a girl who wants to wear trousers and she isn’t allowed to because she’s a girl. Then yes I would say it is definitely a gender issue’ I was thinking, But I said “What do you mean by ‘gender issue’”

   “Erm….what I mean” he said delicately “is whether there is a …erm…gender identity issue”

   “Well Natalie is very happy, she plays football, she wears trousers, climbs trees, hangs out with boys, she’s happy being herself. You could say she’s a tomboy”.

   “Well in that case school policy clearly states that she will need to wear a skirt” was the reply. 


I was a little floored at this so tried to clarify that Natalie absolutely wouldn’t wear a skirt, it just wasn’t a possibility. She couldn’t bring herself to, it just wasn’t, well …it just wasn’t her.


But the policy was immovable. She would just have to wear a skirt if she was attending the school.


   “So you are saying to me that I need to tell Natalie that she’ll just have to wear a skirt, no discussions, unless she wants to be a boy. In which case she can wear trousers?” I said.

   “Do you really think that telling my happy, well-balanced eleven year old that she will have to become a boy if she wants to keep on wearing trousers is in her best interests?” I asked, getting perhaps a little shrill as I thought through how that conversation would go. 


How ludicrous, I thought, that we cannot allow the possibility of a trouser-wearing girl; that someone who wears trousers must actually secretly want to be a boy. We are in the world of 2017 where some of the world’s most powerful people are girls in trousers: Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkle. For crying out loud I wear trousers all the time, half the female teachers at the school wear trousers and I am supposed to go home and talk to my daughter about whether she actually wants to be a boy. Even Enid Blyton, hardly the most feminist of authors had a tomboy character in the Famous Five books, the short-haired, shorts and sensible shoe-wearing George.


   “Well, when you put it like that” said the Deputy Head “I suppose it does sound a bit strange.” We brought Natalie in and chatted about her ambitions and plans. She was determined to attend the school she explained because it had such a good reputation and she wanted to be an engineer, or an accountant or perhaps an architect. She chatted a bit about football and why she always wears trousers or shorts ‘just because that’s what I wear’ she said.

We went home, Natalie having had a good meeting, me having had an extremely draining and stressful one, and awaited the verdict. It arrived in a week, bearing news that yes Natalie would be able to wear trousers at school. What a relief. But also a disappointment that it was the end of our campaign. We had won the battle for Natalie to wear trousers, but we hadn’t won the war and I thought of all the people that would come after us having to have that awkward, strange and potentially damaging meeting. However now we had nothing to fight against. I assured Natalie that if she wanted to campaign when she got to the school I would roll out Operation Girls Wear the Trousers with glee, but until that moment, the campaign plan would be mothballed. 


I was still waiting for that opportunity when the letter came through. First I was really happy; I cried a little; I was filled with relief for all the girls and their families that would come after us that wouldn’t have to go to ‘that meeting’*. And then I laughed and laughed when I read those three paragraphs again, slipped in nonchalantly at the end of a letter about something completely different. To announce the news that they were belatedly entering the 20th century, they had chosen to use archaically 19th century language. 


 ‘Some may see trousers as modest, comfortable and practical’. Eh?!!? Do all the others think trousers on women are shockingly provocative? Like women riding astride a horse rather than side saddle, or going out without a chaperone?


And that conference where they met to discuss emerging practice? A friend was wondering about what that conference agenda contained…


“After a short break for luncheon Miss Euphemia Fotheringay-Burnett will discuss “Trousers: comfortable, practical and modest – but not the only option”


Finally, there’s that extraordinary last paragraph where they seem to suggest that allowing girls to wear trousers could be a slippery slope to boys demanding to wear skirts, as if women wearing trousers is some new experiment and hasn’t been common in society for considerably more than 70 years.


And all this in a country where a skirt is the national dress for men. I simply give up….


However I feel Natalie and I won’t be able to hang up our campaigning sensible shoes just yet. As Natalie’s 15 year old sister gleefully reminds her on a regular basis, next year, while the boys are timetabled basket ball coaching, the girls will do cheerleading. It goes without saying that this is anathema to Natalie… I can’t help feeling that compulsory cheerleading for girls may be the next bastion of sexism in the school to fall.


names have been changed to protect the innocent….

*I have, since, discovered another family from the school who had ‘that meeting’ and, judging by their description, it had a similar content to ours.  
I know many, many pupils and parents from the school have campaigned for the right to wear trousers over many years.  Please feel free to add your own experiences to the comments section. 

Cayoning in the Cold

There are, perhaps, more sensible things to do on a wet morning in early April with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the summits than to head to a waterfall rushing with meltwater and fresh rain and plunge in. 

However this is the Easter holidays and I had two teenagers and an 11 year old to entertain. A morning of canyoning should keep them occupied, I thought, and even perhaps tire them out.


We all felt pretty cold when we arrived to the Vertical Descents barn in the woods at Inchree falls, just by Onich. Although, with hindsight, that was nothing. I refer to what the 13 year-old said as we returned from the adventure “If anyone complains of being cold ever again I will say ‘you don’t know cold. You haven’t been canyoning at Inchree. I really KNOW cold'”.

Vertical Decents have two bases in the area: Inchree where they do canyoning and Kinlochleven where they deliver canyoning and a couple of other activities. We were presented with wetsuits (wet being the operative word) and invited to take part in the undignified struggle to get them on. After a good fifteen minutes of straining and groaning and wailing and a bit of lying exhausted on the ground, we’d made some progress but, as the only adult in the party, it seemed to be down to me to get everyone’s neoprene socks on, which was the worst bit. 

When we emerged, somewhat warmer from the exertions, and feeling like seals ready for a fishing trip under the sea-ice, I found out we had the wetsuits on inside out. ‘Sod it!’ I said. ‘We’re not taking them off.’

The neoprene jackets that zip right up into the hood came next and, with help, I managed to get the zip done up, which pretty much prevented me breathing and rendered my sports bra utterly pointless.  
Danny, our guide, took us to get kitted out with helmets, harnesses and buoyancy aids “What’s the shiny black plastic over the bum?” asked the 11 year-old. 
“It’s to stop the wetsuit being damaged as you slide over the rocks” said Danny. “And to keep the poo in and the rocks clean if you get really really scared”, leaving the kids wondering whether he was being serious.  
I borrowed a pair of wet trainers from ‘dead man’s wall’, around 40 sets of trainers hanging on a board. 

“Someone took a brand new pair of Nikes out of a box and then left them here after canyoning” said Danny. “People come up from London or Glasgow with more money than sense”.

“We’re from Glasgow”, piped up the 11 year-old. And at that moment I was certain I had more money than sense, as it dawned on me that I had just paid a lot of money for the privilege of struggling into a wet wetsuit and have someone shove me down a freezing cold waterfall.
We walked up past the falls to the point at which we got into the raging torrent. Dog walkers looked at us pityingly as we passed. The series of waterfalls was simply spectacular and in full flood. 


The kids took to the water like a row of ducklings. I followed squeaking involuntarily (and embarrassingly) as I hyperventilated in the freezing water. The first couple of obstacles were to get us into the groove: being swept across a plunge pool in the current and then sliding down a water chute on a rock face and into a pool. The kids went for it with gusto. I somehow got stuck and ended up dangling on my back between Danny’s legs, rather helplessly trying to get a purchase on the slippery rocks. 
Next there was a little scramble down wet rocks (tied on via Ferrara style you’ll be pleased to know) then edging along a rock blade above another waterfall (not tied on you’ll be horrified to hear). As I wondered whether the children were safe, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone fall, hit the water and disappear. I screamed, frantically checking to see which of the precious children were lost forever. They were all three looking back at me, wide eyed, wondering why I was screaming blue murder. It turns out Danny had jumped in and he bobbed back to the surface at the base of the rocks looking cheery. 
After a couple of obstacles my 11 year-old, (who happens to be rather lacking in body fat) started to feel chilled and after half an hour or so was so cold I needed to take her back to base camp. We clambered up a semi vertical bracken slope and headed back to the barn. The two thirteen year-olds continued valiantly onward, full of glee and shrieking joyfully as only teenagers can.

  This isn’t us. But it’s a nice photo from the web
Once the 11 year-old was safe in the barn colouring in and eating chocolate with Ellie, who (wo)mans the base camp, I hurried back up to the falls to rejoin the main party. I’d missed much of it but got an amazing view of the kids doing the zip line down the main waterfall in the series. 

We then swam across the plunge pool and sat behind the waterfall. I should have been grinning and feeling pleased with myself, like my daughter, but I was actually just rather worried about the children. 

Once back at base we were back to grunting, straining and wailing as we wrestled once again with the wet suits. 
“In all my time working here,” said Ellie, “I’ve never come across people who make so much noise and drama out of getting into and out of wet suits”. 

Damn right, I thought, and resolved that next time canyoning should be segregated into adults in one session and children in another. Because it is hard to enjoy yourself when you are constantly worrying about your kids (and other people’s kids). And it’s easier to help children with their wetsuits when you are warm and your hands aren’t curled into solid frozen claws. 

And to add to all that I’d also put a minimum body fat index on those taking part.  

Vertical Descents 

Broomhill Community Land 

This morning, on the way to work, I popped into the hardware store. It wasn’t for the usual light bulb “erm… I can’t remember type it is, what did I get last time?” or washer “can I just get one of those?”. No, it was for a pile of paper dating from 1976 (and 1955) which could be the start of a community-led plan for use of some land in Broomhill. 


After a long campaign from parents and many others, we have managed to secure the rebuilding of the Broomhill school. The school has been on two sites since the Annex was built as a ‘temporary’ measure in the 1950s. It was still in use until last year when construction on the new school started at last, 60 years after the temporary prefab was built. 


The school will, once again, be on one site and the land where the Annex is, will become vacant.  


This is a great opportunity for creating a resource for the community and so a project to look into the options we have for the site has just started.  


We only just have a name ‘The Broomhill Project’ tag line ‘Annex: What Next?’ And we haven’t even started collecting ideas and opinions from the community, but when I tweeted about the plans things started to get interesting. 


Turns out these are potentially quite interesting documents suggesting that the land was given over from park to school on the understanding  that it would be returned to use as a park afterwards: see this extract  

However there is an awful lot of impenetrable legalese in these pages and a lot more paperwork as well so it’s probably hard to draw conclusions yet. Suffice to say, it’s all a pretty good start to the project and that’s all before we have even properly got started. 


Over the next few months the plan is to speak to as many groups as possible around Broomhill to gauge ideas and then start working up options and business plans. We’ll be looking for people with specific skills to input to the project too. Soon we’ll have a website with information and mailing list and ways of getting in touch (look out for us at the school summer fair). But in the meantime, if anyone can translate these documents into words of one syllable, that would be much appreciated. 


Losing it (again) 

I’ve got quite used to losing bikes. It’s been a theme in my life for the past 25 years. I’ve left a bike in Balloch after a meeting and only realised when I was getting off a train in Edinburgh; I’ve lost more than one bike after a night out at university because I forgot where, in a vast array of parked bikes, I’d left it; I’ve had many stolen – mainly through leaving them unlocked- and one I’d locked up and someone just picked up and walked off with.   

But that was the old days, now I have a Brompton and I don’t let it out of my sight. It really is the apple of my eye, long wished-for over many years for its ability to fold up. I can take it onto any train, even those that only accept bike bookings, and on buses and even into shops. (Though obviously you wouldn’t need to take it into a shop  if they weren’t so sodding valuable- you’d just lock it outside). 


But the joys of having a folding bike are slightly tempered by the challenges: imagine ‘Mr Bean’s Brimpton Bike Commute’ and you’ve pretty much got the picture of my daily struggles. There’s a strict order to do all the folds, rather like origami but without the easy-to-use instructions. If you do something wrong it just doesn’t work and you have to fold it up and start again. So if I’m in a rush, feel like I have an audience, or in mid-conversation I inevitably do it wrong.  


A few weeks ago I was visiting a friend in Edinburgh and we walked together into town, me pushing the Brompton and chatting away. Just at the top of the Mound we parted company and as I prepared to get on the bike she asked where my helmet was. “Oh dear I must have left it in Glasgow,” I said, “but don’t worry, you only really need a helmet if you’re a total idiot and fall off, because if you get run into by a bus or a lorry you’d just be dead anyway and a helmet won’t help you”

“Right. Ok then” said Jo uncertainly as she turned to wave goodbye “be careful!” 


I waited for the dense crowds on the Royal Mile to clear and then mounted my bike to take to the steep hill down the Mound. I pressed gently down on the right pedal to start and then the handlebars collapsed over the front of the bike and the front wheel folded around at right angles to the direction I wanted to go in. I went flying over the folded handlebars, hit the road and rolled over. 


Scrambling out of the tangle, part bike part human, some horrified German tourists helped me out of the path of the oncoming traffic. They seemed a bit traumatized and extremely concerned for my wellbeing while I, on the other hand, was more concerned to check whether Jo had seen the incident. Once I was sure she was’t doubled over laughing at my famous last words and posting it all to Facebook, I turned back to the Germans. No I wasn’t hurt (only a little), yes I was fine, no I didn’t need to go to hospital, yes the bike is supposed to do that (just not when I’m riding on it). Then I asked them the all important question “So what did it look like?”


“You flew through the air” said the German woman “like a stunt man”. 

 Reassured that I was more Mr Bond than Mr Bean, I reassembled the bike, tightening the joints I had failed to in the excitement of chat with a friend, and cycled off. 


But this blog is supposed to be about losing bikes, not falling off bikes so back to the subject. 


Despite the care and attention I’d given my beloved Brompton since I bought it second hand from a bloke at Hamilton Station, my tireless folding and unfolding to take it into work, shops, meetings, my attention somehow lapsed and I ended up leaving it on a train. In my defence I was distracted with ravenous hunger and an altercation with a vending machine at Dundee station. It wasn’t until I was home that I realised it was still on the train. The horror. The realization that I had, yet again, lost a bike. The heavy sighs and rolling of the eyes of long-suffering husband. 


A check of the timetables suggested the bike was now well on the way to Edinburgh and there was no point to returning to the station. It was also nearly midnight. 


So what does a girl do? I called lost property but it was, of course, shut. I could have gone to bed and thought about it in the morning but it was my BROMPTON. I tweeted a desperate tweet into the twitterverse. 

I didn’t expect to hear anything. I just couldn’t face the ‘not another bike’ face of the very long suffering husband (who has lived through double figures of lost bikes over the years). 


Then, suddenly and against all the odds, a tweet arrived. “I’ve got your bike” it said. I hardly believed it. It turned out to be the guard on the train I’d been on and she would pass the bike to a colleague coming back to Glasgow. I could pick my bike up from him at 2:10am. It was too good to be true. I raced around the house looking for wine or chocolates to give to the guard but could only found a pack of macaroons hidden behind a box in a kitchen cupboard. I set my alarm for 130am and had an hour of fitful sleep. 

When I arrived at Queen street having negotiated Sauchiehall street at 145am, dodging between hundreds of taxis and trying not to run over drunken revellers spilling all over the street, the station was all shut up. I wandered around until I found a sliding door I could prise open and found the station deserted except for two police officers. 


“How did you get in here?” said a burly station employee who appeared as the train drew in “you managed to pry open a door? An’ with the Polis here an aw”


And all of a sudden I was joyfully reunited with my bike. I tried to hand over the macaroons but the guard refused to take them. I tweeted profuse thanks to the  Dundee train guard who was now off-shift and headed home. 


The next day Ruedi was extremely surprised that I had actually managed to retrieve my bike but rather perturbed at the loss of some macaroons he has secreted away. I directed him to the car, “The guard wouldn’t accept them” I explained. 


“Oh” he said, a little puzzled, fetching them and handing them back to me. “Happy Anniversary.”

Vending Machine Venting

Right. This is going to be a rant. A hypoglycemic rant as it goes. A veritable raging hangry rant.  

I’ve just found out what the most effective way of getting a hungry person off on a rant. It’s a vending machine that just eats money. Yes it swallows it whole and refuses to regurgitate a snack. A vending machine in a station late at night with no prospect of nutriment between here and Glasgow. (With here being Dundee). 

 And not only that, Ladies and Gentlemen, a jobsworth station employee with his jobsworth flourescent tabard and his hipster beard. 

 It’s the perfect storm. 

 So I put in my £1 in and it swallows it. I exclaim to noone in particular that the machine has stolen my money and a man standing along the platform looks round and says “it stole my money too”. So we drag the aforementioned station person over to the machine and he says “not my responsibility mate”

 “But it’s swallowing everyone’s money” said the man. 

 “Can’t do anything about it mate. I can’t touch the machine” says the beard. 

 “You could put a sign on it” I suggest. “It would stop that guy chucking his money into it” I say, pointing at another man with his coin poised over the slot. 

 “DONT PUT YOUR MONEY IN THERE” we shout at him in unison, he looks startled and scuttles away. 

 We turn back to the station employee 

“I can’t touch the machine, it’s not station property” he says. 

 “Would you be able to touch it if you wanted to buy something from it?” I ask, genuinely interested in his philosophical position. “What about if it were about to fall and crush your granny, could you touch it then?”

 “I can’t help you” he continues increasingly desperately. 

 “Ok” I say “How about you just stick a wee notice on it. You don’t even need to touch the machine. Just stick it on with blue tack or double sided sticky tape.” I am beginning to get slightly manic in my sugar-deprived state.  

I decide to take direct action and switch the machine off at the wall. 

  “You can’t do that” the station man says

 “But you haven’t touched it and I solved the problem of you being complicit in this fraud”

 He switches it on again. 

 I spot a couple of policemen with a group of drunken football fans and march over to get their legal advice. 

 “Is the train station responsible if that machine is committing fraud? And they know it and refuse to shut it down or label it out of order?” I ask. 

 But I don’t have time to hear the answer. The train has pulled in and I have to sprint up the platform to fetch my bike and jump on. Switching the vending machine back off again in the dash. 

 But just as the train fires up to leave I spot a man with a beenie hat and a forlorn looking collie dog on a lead by the vending machine. He has switched it back on and is poised to put some money in once he has decided on an item. I throw myself back to the closing doors of the train and shout. “STOP. Don’t put your money in there.” He turns to me with a look of mild surprise then turns back to contemplating the crisp selection. 

“No it will swallow your money. I turned it off to stop people doing it”. 

He now looked as folorn as his dog, “Really? Will it definitely not work? I’m so hungry I actually feel like putting the money in anyway.” He said as the doors closed and the train pulled away.

 By now I really REALLY need some food. But what are the chances that there will be a snack trolley on board. 

But miraculously there is. And I even find enough cash, despite the criminal vending machine, for a packet of crisps and a twix. 

  Back at my seat as I munch happily away I contemplate submitting the conundrum to Radio 4s “Moral Maze” to solve. I imagine Michael Burke’s soporific voice 

 “And today on Moral Maze we are discussing the agency of an out of order snack machine. 

Stay tuned in while we put the case to the panel”








  Kat 24/11/2017 

The mysterious case of the disappearing clothes. 

It’s not often us conservationists get to dress up and go to a fancy meal in an extremely fancy hotel. And that’s what makes the Nature of Scotland awards so special: a fabulous meal with sparkling company and wearing shoes that certainly wouldn’t be practical for the day-job. 

It’s always a memorable event but this year will be memorable for another reason: between arriving at the venue and leaving a few hours ago, I have somehow lost my clothes. Not the clothes I am currently wearing I hasten to add, the clothes I had arrived in before changing into my finery.

When I went to change back into them for the dash to the train they weren’t in my bag. “Why wouldn’t they be here?” I thought, indignantly. Surely someone wouldn’t rifle past my wallet to steal a pair of brown trousers and a top I got 5 years ago from the Salvation Army shop. 

Truly a conundrum. I thought my way back through the evening. I’d arrived in work clothes and gone straight to the toilets to change so I went back to check. The toilet I’d changed in was engaged. I waited. But time was marching on and the last train to Glagsow was going in 15 minutes. I contemplated shouting over the door “Erm excuse me. Have I left my clothes in there?” Then I thought better of it and sprinted off for the train. I stopped on the way out at reception to ask if any clothes had been handed in.

 The concierge kept a totally straight face as he received the information and then turned to a colleague saying “this lady has lost her, um, some, well, items. And wonders if they have been handed in” 


“My clothes” I quickly clarified in case they thought it was something worse. But no-one had seen them. I dashed off.

Fortunately I hadn’t lost my comfortable boots with my clothes as there would have been no sprinting in those shoes: skyscraper platforms. A type of shoe I have neither worn before nor owned (the extent of my previous high heels experience extending to a vertiginous one and a half inches above floor level). 

No, these completely unsuitable and almost unwearable shoes actually belong to my 14 year old daughter who, having discovered it was a black tie event, poured scorn on my choice of shoe. 


“You can’t go out dressed like that mum.” She said, perfectly horrified, in almost the same tone I’d use as she struts out to a party in a lacy midriff-bearing ensemble. “See those shoes, they are just awful. Mum” she says “Awful granny shoes. Yuk”


Well what else will I wear then? I blustered. 

“Theeeeese” she purred appearing cradling a pair of ridiculously high black suede heels.


I squeaked at them in parental shock, demanding what they were and why a 14 year old owned them. My daughter recoiled theatrically.  “My babies” she said defensively as she stroked the shoes like a Bond villain with her cat. “And you certainly won’t be borrowing them them.”

It needed a bit of negotiating but, eventually, after agreeing to pay for a new dress for the school Christmas dance, I got to wear the shoes. 

 Still musing over the whereabouts of my clothes I ran, Cinderella-like, in full length party gown (heels in bag) through Edinburgh in fear of missing the last train. And on the platform, when I arrived in a whirl of stress, I found three people from my table at the dinner. We greeted each other and I casually commented that I wished I was wearing the clothes I’d arrived in but couldn’t find them. 


“Sooooo. You mean you’ve lost your clothes at the hotel?” Asked one of the women slowly, as if to make sure she caught what I’d said correctly and then everyone fell about laughing. 

“Oh I found some clothes in the ladies loo” piped up another woman. 

“When I came in to the toilet there were two women discussing the clothes.” She said “one was asking ‘Is it just a coat?’ And the other said it was definitely a full set of clothes. And socks.”


She said that the three of them were musing over how on earth someone’s clothes got to be in a toilet cubicle and what had happened to the owner. 


“I thought we should take them to reception as lost properly” she said “but then we thought – what if the owner comes back for them and they aren’t there? So we left them. They’re probably still there.”

And perhaps they are still there… It’s now late and the party is over. I think I’ll need to make an awkward phone call to the hotel in the morning to try and retrieve them. The explaining is going to be fun. 










Summer and Autumn in the Engadine 

St Moritz isn’t just for skiing. There is so much to do when the snow isn’t around. Here are some ideas.

screenshot2019-01-31at12.41.43 photo from ponteresina.ch

Lej da Staz 

This lake, a picturesque 45 minute walk from St Moritz Bad, is one of the most beautiful lakes in the area. Each season has its own attractions. In autumn, the larch turns yellow and nutcrackers, the specialist bird of these forests, and red squirrels are especially active searching out pine kernels and hiding them for their winter food. In summer the lake is a perfect swimming hole with a small beach and rustic wooden changing rooms. The old pier is a perfect spot for sun bathing and throwing yourself off, there’s even a plank for diving.

In winter the footpaths are cleared so you can walk in the forests even after heavy snowfall and feeding stations for the birds and stocked with seed which you can take for a donation in the honesty box. The coal tits and marsh tits come and feed from your hand, sometimes two or three scuffling for access to the food. Created tits are never far away and even sometimes come to your hand too.

 The restaurant/cafe at Lej da Statz is open all year round and has an ample terrace and sun seating where you can drink in the view (and a local beer)
It takes around 45 minutes to walk from St Moritz Bad to Lej da Staz. Take the path along the lake shore (either way around the lake) and it is well signposted.

You can either walk back to St Moritz bad by a circular route around Lej and then continuing around St Moritz lake the other side. Or you can walk on through the forests to Ponterisina. Either way will take around 50minutes.

Milli Weber House 

Milli Weber was a children’s illustrator and artist and this house, built a century ago by her brother and father, was her life’s work. It is covered with murals she painted, with walls, ceilings, furniture and and even an organ intricately illustrated. The house has collections of her art, and an intricate dolls house. It’s an unusual and interesting place to visit. It is only open Wednesday – Sunday afternoons and it it is best to make an appointment.

It’s a 30 minute walk from St Moritz bad or 10 minutes from the station.

Mountain Biking 

St Moritz has been developing its infrastructure for mountain biking over the past 10 years. On the mountainside above the town are plenty of trails including three downhill ‘flow trails’ of varying difficulty. Take the Corviglia mountain railway up or, for those who like a fitness challenge, cycle up the tracks via Salastrains and the top of the Signal gondola. More information about the Mountainbike highlights here

There are a huge number of trails through the woods in the valley for those who want a more relaxing bike ride and a stunt track in Pontresina for testing your skills.


You can hire bikes and get all the local information from Engadine bikes at the roundabout just at the end of via Salet and turn right.

Interactive map.
Via Ferrata

These climbing trails with fixed gear, ladders and protection give more of a thrill to the experienced walker’s mountain experience. Bring your own gear or hire the requisite helmet, harness, via Ferrata slings and gloves at the Diavolezza Gondola.
At Diavolezza there are two via Ferrata of two levels of difficulty which take you to the top of a prominent rocky peak just above the top station and below the towering, glacier clad mountains of Piz Bernina and Piz Palu.

 There is another via ferrata at Pontresina which takes you up cliffs to a point 15 minutes walk from the cafe Languard where you can take the chairlift down or walk down on paths.
You do these climbs at your own risk. Please follow local advice as to when they are open as they can close if there is an early snowfall.
Pontresina also has mountain guiding for those who are not familiar with the mountain environment

Amazing views of the Piz Benina and Palu and their glaciers. There is a gorgeous sun terrace at the mountain restaurant and lovely walks to two small peaks nearby – Munt Pers which is around an hour’s walk and Sass Queder which is only 30 minutes. You can also walk down the mountain past a couple of stunningly beautiful mountain lakes which takes around 2 hours.

A guided glacier tour will take you down onto the Morteratsch glacier and bring you out at the railway station to take you back to St Moritz.

Swimming lakes and walks in the woods. 

There are two lovely lakes for swimming to the west of Lake St Moritz. They are shallower that Lake St Moritz and so get warmer. Lej Marsch is close tho the road and so gets busy but Lej Nair is around a 15 minute walk into the woods. The trails through the woods are great for walking or cycling and are well signposted.


Water sports 

Lake Silvaplana is ideal for watersports and the Maloja wind, which blows regularly in summer from around midday until sunset,  ensures perfect conditions for kite surfing and wind surfing. You can rent windsurfers and get lessons at Windsurfing Silvaplana and learn to kitesurfing at the Swiss Kitesurf School


On St Moritz Lake a few minutes walk from the flat there is a yacht club where you can hire sailing boats.

Wildflower meadow

The garden that, during the build, and for months afterwards, was a total mudbath is now a beautiful meadow. I thought I’d share some photos.  

I haven’t managed to found many before shots as it just looked so awful I didn’t take photos. But here’s some just after the digger had been to smooth it all out and it looked not too bad. 


We planted Scotia Seeds wildflower seeds. Flowering lawn and pond edge mix. Also wet meadow for the wet bits. Somehow I madly did it months and months before the fencing was done (see blog) do it is now pockmarked with cow footprints on all the ‘lawn’. Which is annoying. 

 And here is Jamie the farmer making the fence at last back in March.    
This is just an interim photos as the grass grew in early spring. 

But here it is now. Beautiful! 








Grousing with the Family 

I usually keep Facebook for observations on family life, anecdotes of personal disasters and tales of losing my wallet/keys/phone. It isn’t somewhere I usually post political comment, keeping that for Twitter. Last week, however, the publication of the report on 131 satellite tracked golden eagles showing that a third of them had gone missing in suspicious circumstances drove me to Facebook. It wasn’t long before the extended family had picked up on it. “Something to discuss at the family gathering on Saturday?” posted a cantankerous relative, highlighting it to a cousin who works in the driven grouse business.  

He was probably hoping for a repeat of a discussion at a similar event, five years previously, when, sat at a trestle table in a large marquee, he had watched while the cousin and I had an animated argument pitting conservation against driven grouse moors.


We nearly missed the opportunity to revisit that discussion, when, just before setting out, I realised the family railcard had expired and renewing it seemed to be beyond the capacity of the ticket office. After a lot of faff and an aborted attempt, it became clear that wouldn’t happen. Following a moment of horror when we found they couldn’t sell us tickets to England either, and some very quick thinking we managed to buy tickets to Carlisle and scurried to the train like shrews on amphetamine.  


The journey to Derbyshire seemed even longer than usual given that I had spent much of the week up in Speyside for work. Grouse were on the menu there too in the form of discussions about Capercaillie conservation. There was anxiety that the heavy rain that welcomed our visit would affect the young chicks, which are prone to waterlogging for a couple of weeks after hatching.


At our destination, with children swarming all over a small playpark, I fell into conversation with my cousin, not over our differences, but over our mutual concerns for baby grouse. He was concerned that the wet weather would be doing the red grouse chicks no good either. We shared tales of early mornings watching black grouse leks and it turned out that he could do a very plausible impression of the bubbling sound of a lekking black grouse and that both our hearts are lifted by the sounds of displaying waders. 


We talked about my experiences earlier that week in Speyside where I had been fortunate enough to visit Glen Feshie estate, where deer numbers had been reduced to a level that was allowing the natural regeneration of the pine forests, and trees were advancing in all directions, and wildlife with them. How could grouse estates create a more realistic experience of nature on their moorlands, I asked. Perhaps there would be fewer grouse but there could be more of other wildlife for people to enjoy. But before we could explore this further, as it is so often in circumstances where children outnumber adults, something vitally important interrupted the conversation. 

There really was so much more to talk about. Perhaps we will just need to pick it up again on Facebook.





Letter to Sainsbury’s CEO 

This evening I read that Sainsbury’s  supermarket are moving towards creating their own standards and away from the Fairtrade mark. The pilot is with tea and the Fairtrade Association is concerns that it waters down the  principles of Fairtrade, especially in community empowerment where, instead of communities receiving the Fairtrafe premium direct to decide how to spend it, the premium will be retained by Sainsbury’s foundation and spent by them on projects.

There is a petition to sign here.
But from my own personal experience. There is nothing that gets things done more effectively than a barrage of emails and letters to senior figures. So I have written emails to the CEO Mike.coupe@sainsburys.co.uk  and the Chair david.tyler@sainsburys.co.uk.

Here is the letter and below the response from the CEO and my reply to him.

25 June 2017

Dear Mr Coupe
I am a very long-time and loyal customer of Sainbury’s supermarket. Although I try to shop in local shops as much as I can I have been going to the XXXX, Glasgow store for my supermarket shopping since I moved to the area as a student 17 years ago. I like that Sainbury’s was one of the first supermarkets to stock Fairtrade and I always choose Fairtrade tea, coffee, bananas, sugar and other items like Fairtrade wine from time to time, also buying it from our church Fairtrade stall.
As someone with an interest in how we, as consumers, can have the most positive effect on the world- through trade with developing nations and also minimizing impacts on the environment – I am aware of the huge positive effect that Fairtrade has had on the livelihoods of small farmers and communities in the developing world. I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that I was absolutely horrified to read that Sainsbury’s will be abandoning the Fairtrade mark for your own standards. This decision betrays both an organisation that has steadfastly for decades worked to better the livelihoods of those creating products for consumption in the global north, and the farmers and cooperatives themselves.
I am asking you, as CEO to reconsider this decision.
Although it will be a huge deal for me, I have decided that if this decision is not reversed I will no longer be able to shop at Sainsbury’s.
Many of my friends locally also shop in Sainbury’s and I will be talking to them about my concerns.
I urge you to reconsider.
Yours sincerely
Dr Katherine Jones

Reply from Mike Coupe 26 June 2017

Dear Dr Jones
Thanks for your email. I’m sorry you’re disappointed with our recent decision regarding our tea and I welcome the opportunity to address your concerns.
As you’re aware, we’ve announced a new approach to sustainable sourcing that is aimed at helping our farmers and their communities meet the increasingly complex challenges of the 21st century and improve their quality of life, at the same time, securing the future of the UK’s most popular products.
Please be assured our Fairly Traded tea pilot gives farmers all the benefits that they receive through Fairtrade, as well as some really important added extra commitments and support. Along with the same level of funding they will also have longer-term relationships and receive expert advice and practical support on the ground. This will help them build resilient and sustainable businesses for the future.
By guaranteeing the minimum price for their tea crop, as well as a social premium for their investment along with building longer-term relationships, individually-tailored advice and practical support, the pilot of our Fairly Traded scheme aims to boost tea farmers’ resilience and ability to adapt to face these challenges. This will ensure a better quality of life for their workers and communities too.
Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards use existing standards like Fairtrade as their base, but add to this starting point incremental enhancements that fill the gaps in these existing schemes to ensure we and our suppliers, farmers and growers are addressing all of the important Ethical, Economic and Environmental issues.
I would like to confirm we are the biggest Fairtrade retailer in the world and will continue to be so. Even without tea, this is a pilot project on one product. The purpose of our Fairly Traded Tea pilot is to build upon the Fairtrade model and, by using our wider experience, offer our tea farmers more to empower them to build resilient businesses and communities. We will be monitoring this project very closely and have no current plans to extend the pilot further.
I’m grateful to you for taking the time to contact me, giving me the opportunity to explain our position.
Yours sincerely
Mike Coupe
Mike Coupe | Chief Executive Officer

Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd | 33 Holborn, London | EC1N 2HT

Reply to Mr Coupe 27 June 2017 

Dear Mr Coupe
Thank you very much for your swift response. I have posted it on my blog alongside my original letter.
In your letter you emphasise Sainsbury’s commitment to Fairtrade and, indeed, this is one of the reasons that Sainsbury’s has been my supermarket of choice for 17 years (foregoing the considerable benefits of a loyalty card in favour of shopper anonymity).
However the letter doesn’t address the reasons for the change. The Fairtrade Foundation has expressed concern that the standards your supermarket are putting in place reserve the ‘premium’ to the Sainsbury’s Foundation to distribute rather than giving communities the decision making powers over the money they make. This goes against Fairtrade principles of community empowerment.
When a supermarket sets its own Fairtrade standards and governance structures it also opens up the possibility that standards could be watered down further in future, for the sake of profits or from pressure from shareholders. The Fairtrade mark gives shoppers the confidence that an independent body, one that has shown longevity and commitment to the small farmer coops it supports, for decades, has audited the product.
Your move undermines the Fairtrade movement as you are the biggest buyer of Fairtrade goods, and with tea presumably being just the start of your plans. I feel let down by a retailer who I considered to one of the more ethical food retailers.
I cannot see how this will help either shoppers or yourselves as ditching such a well recognised brand as Fairtrade will confuse shoppers who are looking for high quality products that can also do some good in the world. It will also hugely damage your reputation in something that you justifiably have a unique selling point in – your support for Fairtrade and ethical principles.
I urge you to reverse your decision and reinstate the Fairtrade mark for your tea and not to publicly rule out  extending the scheme further .
Yours sincerely
Katherine Jones

And the response:

Dear Dr Jones

Thanks for your further email to Mike Coupe, I’ve been asked to reply on his behalf.

The tea suppliers, farmers and growers who supply Sainsbury’s have welcomed our engagement and the discussions with them on this initiative and we are working closely with them as we build the pilot. I can only emphasise that those suppliers and farmers within Sainsbury’s supply chains, whether that’s our dairy farmers in the UK or the parts of tea sector in Africa and Asia that we are working with, have to be our focus, and doing what’s right for those farmers, their communities and our customers.  We aim to bring far more benefits to them and their communities, this is a cost neutral programme for us – we are not making any savings.

I understand your concern around the empowerment of these farmers, however there are a number of views on what empowerment means in reality. From our perspective the most empowered communities are those that are the best informed, connected and up to date, able to access the best information, and those that are supported to decide upon and produce the best investment plans.  Empowerment comes from longer term commitments, and as a consequence the ability to make longer term investments, providing more certainty in what I becoming a more uncertain world.

All of the social premium will be ring-fenced transparently for our producers and only available for them, for their investment plans, created and owned by our farmers. By working with experts on the ground and with the independent guidance of our Sainsbury’s Foundation Advisory Board, we will be further challenged to ensure our farmers and their communities have had the best support and that they build plans that will deliver sustainable and resilient communities and businesses.

There are a plethora of certifications across hundreds of products in our stores and our Sustainability Standards will recognise and build on these as opposed to diluting the progress already in place, they have been co-authored and peer reviewed by our key suppliers, producers, industry experts and from more than 50 independent organisations and we have benchmarked in recognition for over 70 existing standards, frameworks and programmes. They ensure we are covering the full breadth of social, economic and environmental issues, further using data to support benchmarking, continuous improvement and the sharing of best practice. Participation in the Standards framework will also provide our suppliers, farmers and producers with cutting-edge information to help identify, measure and manage all aspects of their own unique businesses, and to ensure resilience in the face of escalating global challenges. These insights will enable farmers to develop strategic action plans to improve their business performance and the well-being of their workers and communities. Far from adding to any confusion, the new Sainsbury’s Sustainability Standards, across 35 of our key crops and ingredients, could make it even simpler and easier for our customers to understand. We will be supporting the introduction of our pilot with comprehensive information available for customers and as these products won’t carry the Fairtrade logo, (which has been stated as a well-recognised mark), are confident in ensuring our customers have all the information they need.

Thank you for the time you’ve taken to further share your concerns. We have committed to sharing transparently the work as we move forward, we will ensure that we increase the level of transparency and disclosure around our investment activity and the progress we make, in the belief that we should be judged on our results.

Kind regards

Jessica Wilcock | Executive Office
Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd

Collateral damage in the Brexit conflict

From Scotsman 27 March 2017
Last week a small parcel arrived addressed to the husband. It sat by the door forlornly, Husband assuming it was a birthday present which he shouldn’t open. After a few days, when we couldn’t work out which relative it could be from, he opened it to discover his EU/EEA residency card.

This is the first stage of Husband becoming a UK citizen, not that he wants to, but because we fear for our family life. Despite 20 years living in Glasgow, married to a UK citizen and with two Scottish children, Brexit throws our never-questioned security into uncertainty.

My anxiety over our family’s security in this country started, not with the turn in the polls towards Brexit in mid-june, but three years before when Switzerland voted in a referendum to come out of the Schengen agreement.

No free movement of EU citizens into Switzerland would mean no free movement of Swiss into the UK and I became worried. Husband started inching his way towards complying with the bewildering and, as time passed, more and more complex, requirements to apply for citizenship. He took the “Life in the UK test” or as we like to call it, “The date of the Battle of Bosworth Field test”.

Playing mock tests in the evenings he always triumphed, while I would sometimes scrape through. When he took the test he was done and out before they had finished registering the other participants.

Then came the English test, the equivalent of the oral part of a GCSE English exam. For someone who teaches niversity courses in English, edits English language scientific journals and whose main language in the house he has shared with his family for 18 years is English, this is obviously ludicrous.

Next was the application form, a challenge even to our combined form-filling expertise. It was immense and needed spurious information like every single time he’d been out of the country since he moved here.

It was a long time coming and so we were overjoyed, and very relieved, when we opened the parcel, “Well it did turn out to be a birthday present” we joked “victory at last”.

But what a Phyrric victory it is: we have won Husband the right to stay in a country in which he has had the right to live for many years, and we are celebrating the security of knowing that he can live in his home, with his wife and children.

All over the UK 3.5 million EU/ EEA citizens will be experiencing the same worries and insecurities as us, many will be jumping through the ludicrous hoops, deliberately put in place to make becoming resident in Britain as difficult, stressful and hard to achieve as possible, and many will be leaving, not seeing a future in Britain.

This is all a completely unnecessary tragedy as EU citizens become pawns for brokering favourable terms for Brexit.

Beloved partners, irreplaceable parents, treasured friends, esteemed colleagues: these are the collateral damage.

 Kat Jones is passionate about Scotland’s wild-places and wildlife, she works for an environmental NGO and lives in Glasgow.

A walk through St Moritz with an IKEA armchair 

It would have been good to have a camera with us to record the occasion. Myself in the lead carrying an Ikea armchair and an ancient standard lamp through the streets of a swiss ski resort, brother In law in tow with a giant 1980’s TV, of the type that is deeper than it is wide.   

At first the armchair seemed easy to carry, I’d slung the lamp across the arms and carried it underneath down the steep street. Then it all got a bit awkward, the lamp started slipping to the side skewing the weight forcing me to compensate and making it worse. Soon the lampstand was dragging along the cobbled pavement. After a couple of times dumping the chair violently on the ground and slumping into it and two sets of counting myself to 60 twice “don’t put it down til you reach 60”, I reached the bus stop, to the bewilderment and bemusement of a group of ski-bling clad Italians, waiting for the bus to take them into the centre of St Moritz for a bit of glitzy apres ski. 


I set down the lamp and the chair and collapsed into it. Neal put the TV set down in front of me and there we sat waiting for the bus as locals and tourists gawped and giggled. We were clearing out some of the items amassed by the Swiss husband’s family over the past seventy years since his grandfather had bought a flat in St Moritz in the 1950s.  


In the rush to get the detritus out of the house and onto the bus before the dump shut I hadn’t thought to bring my phone to record this strange recreation of a 1980s living room among the rush-hour traffic of nose-to-tail four wheel drive Porsches. As the bus arrived, packed with skiers and skis, husband arrived with a dining chair and a bedside table and sister with a rucksack full of crockery and a wheelie case full of tablecloths and a rug; just what we would have needed to perfect the look of a pop up art installation. But the dump shut in 30 minutes and we needed to get there. 


Julia looked reletively normal (rucksacs and wheelie case) and boarded incognito at the central doors. In contrast I looked exceedingly odd and managed to cram the chair into the back doors just as they closed. The doors shut on the chair pushing it against a woman who was crammed in the corridor. She looked around and her look of annoyance changed to incredulity as she saw what had squeezed her leg. “Would you like to sit down to recover” I offered. She burst out laughing. 


Yet more people got on at the next stop. I offered an elderly man who boarded a seat. “I’d love to but I’m getting off at the next stop and if I sit down on that I don’t think I’d get up for two hours” he said. So I sat in the armchair and looked out of the glass folding bus doors through the legs of other passengers, at the views over the lake. It was frozen and ice skaters and walkers were out in force. A bunch of teenagers were playing a game of ice hockey. 


The bus was crawling through the rush hour traffic. The clock ticked by. We had 30 mins before the dump closed and the traffic was stationary all through st Moritz town centre. It’s always like that in the afternoons: nose to tail four wheel drive Porsches and BMWs. It’s the equivalent to the Italian ‘promenade’ but in cars. A local man had told us that there are some locals who drive up to the dorf in the afternoon just to have a look and see what the traffic is like.


A lady in her 80s wearing a mink coat and lipstick in a bright cerise asked whether I could move the armchair so she could get off at the next stop. We decided to get off the bus too. 

 ‘It’s just a quick walk through the centre then down the escalators’ I told my sister as we dismount, me in reverse carrying the arm chair. 


We started making our way through town, shoppers and skiers parting when they saw me staggering along under the armchair, view dangerously obscured on the crowded, cobbled, icy streets. We took two steep flights of stairs through a shopping area filled with jewellers, designer interiors shops (everything you could want for your home made entirely of antlers – a Christmas tree, chairs, coat-stands, chandeliers) and art shops (anyone for a bejazzled portrait of Donald trump. Or a diamond-encrusted take-off of the Mona Lisa?)

 We panted past Jimmy Choos, Bulgari and on to the Palace Hotel, the headquarters of bling in the town of über-bling. This year the hotel is decked out with a planetary theme for its Christmas decorations, huge floodlit planets hung behind the hotel. A steam-punk-style space rocket with strobe lighting had landed among the Rolls Royces and Bentleys. I dumped the armchair opposite the palace hotel and slumped into it for a quick rest and a view of the lights.

 “How are you getting on?” asked my sister. I flex my arm muscles, ”Knackered”. A woman who had stopped to admire the decorations was giggling, she was British. “It looks just like you’ve set yourself up to wait for the Gucci sale.” She said. I looked behind me, I was sat right between Gucci (full on pink and orange sequin dinner suit, and Andean Blanket with too-short arms masked by foot long yeti-fur cuffs) and Dolce and Gabana. We chatted about swiss second hand shops being too choosy to take our 1980s furniture collection. “It’s all too snobby here” she said. 

  But time was marching on and we needed to get to the dump. We headed past Pucci, a bunch of shops with DJ-clad shop assistants holding trays of Champagne, and a shop selling Maseratis which was laid out like a boutique fashion emporium. We reached the top of the escalators, four vertiginous flights sweeping down through the hillside to the lake shore via four stories of car parking inside the mountain. I looked down the escalators holding my armchair and felt a wave of vertigo as imagined the carnage if I dropped the chair. 

 Julia set off with her bags and I waited on the lift – reminding me of Roald Dahl’s great glass elevator, as it moved on the slant. Unfortunately, Unlike the eponymous elevator it moved at a snails pace. Just as it arrived Neal and husband arrived with their loads. “Our bus stopped in town and chucked us all off saying the traffic was too bad he wasn’t going any further” said neal. Did that happen to you? “Erm. No.” I said “we thought it would be quicker” we turned round to see our bus, at last free of traffic, pass the top of the escalators heading to the station. “Ten minutes to closing time” I yelled as they launched down the escalators and I leaped into the lift which had eventually arrived, past some emerging tourists. I am *not* carrying this armchair back through St Moritz if they are shut I thought. 


Julia was way ahead but she didn’t know where the dump was. She’d reached the train station and was running around asking people where the dump was. But in a town devoted to the needs of Bling, hedonism and tourism, nobody knew where such a prosaic place as the town recycling center was. She jumped onto a waiting bus to ask the driver but found he didn’t speak English. 

“Where’s the dump” she said urgently 

“Yes I go to the dorf” he said 

“Not the dorf the dump”

“Yes yes get on the bus. I go to the dorf”

“Does anyone speak English on this bus?” She wailed and two Chinese tourists piped up “we speak English”.

But it turned out they didn’t know where the dump was and they didn’t know what dump was in German. 


Eventually someone on the bus calmly pointed out a sign for the dump and Julia shot off in that direction just as ruedi Neal and I emerged from the underground car park sprinting – as far as one can when laden down with home furnishings. 


I trailed behind on the final furlong. I tried putting the armchair in my head but the seat cushion dropped down over my eyes and then fell out, nearly tripping me up. Neal was way ahead, manhandling the TV set I couldn’t get my arms around, let alone lift. Ruedi with bedside table and two chairs was already at the finish line. But Where was the standard lamp? Wasn’t I supposed to have that? I looked around vacantly, thinking back to when I’d last seen it. It was back at the bus stop, where we had made up an impromptu living room.


But there was no time to contemplate a future behind bars of a swiss jail for fly tipping, we needed to get to the recycling centre. If I didn’t make it in time I wouldn’t be carrying the chair back across town and up to the flat. I would definitely be doing some intentional fly tipping. 


But we had made it .The place was still open, a highly organized affair (as one would expect). Two workers met us and helped us divide our spoils between piles and skips according to type. Incredibly, the TV joined 7 other old fashioned analogue TVs in their own area. 


“Either it’s months between pick-ups from this recycling centre, or there an awful lot of people are doing house clearances over Christmas” said Neal

“Perhaps people got new TVs for Christmas” suggested Jules. 

Neal pointed out that if someone was going to get a new tv they would have got one by now. 

We wondered what had caused the demise of so many of st Moritz’s elderly. 


Relieved of out loads we practically skipped home along the lake. Much later that evening over dinner we related our adventures to my parents, who had declined the offer to join in with our load-bearing magical mystery tour when we’d bumped into them on the bus. 

“Where’s the lamp now?” asked Jules. And then I remembered. It was still at the bus stop. It would have been there for hours drawing comment from Swiss, for whom finding a lamp at a bus stop would be highly irregular.  


“You’re going to prison for fly tipping” chanted the children, who delighted in imagining what would happen to a person who committed this most heinous of crimes against the Swiss people. 


I went down to the bus stop after dinner to collect the lamp. It wasn’t there. 


The British relatives wanted me to report it stolen. “You should pre-empt them and say it’s been nicked, then you’ll be safe. 


Swiss husband suggested that staying completely anonymous would be safest “Don’t report it, they’ve probably picked up the lamp and already registered it as a crime”. 


We never found out what happened to the lamp, but it gave us plenty of entertainment – the rest of the evening was passed in happy discussion about how the police would be examining CCTV footage of a four people carrying the dog-eared contents of a living room through St Moritz.


A classic ensemble of Napoleonic coat crossed with Papa New Gineau Bird of Paradise cape, twinned with camo jodhpurs. 

The Tale of the Camembert

Since the house was finished I haven’t blogged much. Perhaps I need the therapy less, perhaps I’ve found other things to do. I hope I haven’t lost my blogging mojo, though. And that is why I’m making myself blog again. 

In the absence of a house build to generate funny situations and stories, I have found that real life more than amply fills the gaps and, over the past few months I have amassed a glorious variety of ludicrous situations to share. 
I’ll start with a little one from recently. 

We’re driving north for Christmas with a ripe Camembert. It’s a vital part of the Christmas cheese platter (baked with honey). The Kids started making vomiting noises as soon as they got in the car. We’d only managed to make it to Sainsbury’s to fill the car with Christmas food shopping and were just about to pass home again on the way out of Glasgow when I couldn’t bear it any longer and we pulled over. It seemed it was either the Camembert’s company we’d have for Christmas or the 13 year old’s, so I started trying to locate the cheese while parked in a side street in a Glasgow suburb. 

An avalanche of shopping and items packed for Christmas exploded from the boot of the car. Packing is my least favourite activity and mostly we divide labour in the family so swiss husband does the packing and I do things I’m good at like organising the trips. Adventures and holidays. 

The kids pack for themselves and have done since the age of 5. There’s a few anecdotes in that… Mainly around what one does on a winter holiday with a suitcase full of toys and summer clothes and no pants or socks. 

Anyway, in aid of efficiency I’d just shoved everything in. If I’d have taken the pile of wellies and trainers and a panier out and started with the boxes the pile would have been more stable. But we ended up with a load of boxes leaning outwards and bags of shopping full of bottles on the top. 
Despite the mess that the contents of the boot had made on the wet, puddled road, only one bottle smashed and it was the lemon chili sauce. I picked it up and looked about for a bin. There was none to be seen and so, not knowing what else to do, I sat in the passenger seat, hands covered in chili sauce holding the remains of the sauce in the upside down bottle with the bottom broken off. 

Turns out that chili sauce with lemon is an extremely effective deodorizer. And while I sat there, trying to remember not to run my eyes or put my hands near my nose or mouth, the children stopped complaining about the smell. It was either that or the laughing. 

Or it could have been the placebo effect because as soon as they discovered I hadn’t actually found the Camembert they started complaining again. When we stopped at a service station so I could dispose of the chili and wash my hands they bought an official smelly forest air-freshener. 

It was one of those Christmas-tree shaped things that dangle from the rear view mirror of taxis and which makes everyone except taxi-drivers feel distinctly queasy. I wiped the chili off the outside of the bottle and, instead of putting it in the bin, I tucked it into the seat pocket. I needed something to deodorize the smell of the forest fresh   

All went well until a stop for dinner at the Drovers Inn. After an hour sealed into the car, the combination of the Camembert, the Forest Fresh and the chili had fermented into an explosively stomach-churning pong. 

We opened all the windows, and drove, wind in our hair, ignoring the threat of frostbite in our extremities. From time to time the children would complain of the sub-zero windchill and we would close the windows. We’d last five minutes until the smell started to build up again to unbearable levels. 
When we reached Sula and unpacked, the Camembert was refused entry and stayed outside in the mailbox. Since we are still waiting for Jamie the farmer to put up a fence around the house (materials were bought in June) we are at the mercy of Jamie’s band of marauding border collies who pop over a few times a day to check whether I’ve put out a bin bag or some other tasty titbit out by mistake and rip it apart leaving a trail of rubbish in their wake. I put the Camembert out of the way of dogs (I thought). 

When Christmas Eve came it was time to cook the Camembert for a wee party we were having for the neighbours. It had been knocked off the mailbox but I was relieved to find it still in one piece, untouched by the band of dogs. It may have smelled like something had died long ago while in the box but baked, it was really tasty. I resolved that the discomforts of the journey was worth it and went to bed. 

But the Camembert hadn’t had its last word. 

In the morning the 11 year old came downstairs. I was cleaning up the party but the rind of the Camembert still sat on the kitchen worktop where it had been the night before. Daughter look one wiff of it and ran over and vomited in the sink. Between comforting the daughter and cleaning her up, I took the remains of the Camembert out into the garden and buried it. I took the cardboard and plastic wrapper that had been around the Camembert out of the bin and buried them next to the Camembert. 

RIP Camembert…. and my New Years resolution is no Camembert in 2017. For the sake if my family. 

















More Boring Electricity and Heat stuff

Doing a reading for my Renewable Heat Incentive has made me do a few calculations and see how the energy use in the house is going.

We don’t have a realistic winter season to look at yet (here are the calculations I made), as much of the time when the heat pump was on, we had it on full, drying out the house. I could only turn on the MVHR when the work in the house stopped, due to the dust, and so I always had at least one window open until we switched the MVHR on in April.

However we now have a realistic summer. I turned the heating off in the house in April/May (I forget the date) so the following heat calculation is just for hot water. The house has stayed quite happily at 20degrees since April despite having no heating on.


Date Heat meter reading Electicity used for heatpump Total Electricty reading Solar generated
1 Sept (approx) 0 0 0 (May 2015) 0 (Nov 2015)
5 April 8870 3406.5 4024 817.6
13 August 10392 3846 5015 2215

So over the summer period (131 days)

We used 991 units of electricity in total (paid 14 p per unit)

  • 440 units of electricity for heating (47p per day)
  • 551 units for the rest of the household (58p per day)


We generated 1397 Units in solar electricity (we were paid 12.8p for – £1.36 per day)


I really cannot work out how the energy we use when the sun is shining is calculated though. Does this go on the electricity meter….


Who knows. Who cares.


A game of Evasion Bingo. 

“That shed had better be built” I thought meanicingly as we headed north on a warm, but overcast evening at the start of this week. If it wasn’t then I might just be forced to commit some act of bodily harm on Stephen the builder. Despite my great hopes to see everything done, it turned out to be in exactly the same state.  I let Stephen know my sentiments. 

 It’s been an inordinately long time since this wretched shed was supposed to be built. It was all going to be so simple to start with. I’d simply build it myself out of all the scraps of left over house stuff from the build. There was pretty much enough material to build a whole mini house in wastage, so a shed should be easy. Problem was – I had no idea where to start, the last time I’d built something I was in a CDT class and the object of my efforts was a pencil box. Despite being rather proud of the glide on the sliding hardboard lid, I’d managed to drop CDT when I was 13, and even back then I don’t think I knew what the acronym stood for, let alone showing any particular aptitude in the subject.


So, more than a year, ago when Stuart and his people were laying the Underfloor heating and the screed floor I casually asked one of the guys, who was busy arranging a sheet of plastic over the kingspan insulation, how to build a shed. He directed me to Stuart’s younger son who, I was told, was fresh out of joiner college and would be delighted to explain it to me.


We stood by the concrete base that Stuart had laid for the shed and Stuart’s son talked and gesticulated towards the concrete plinth. I understood (most) of the words he was saying to me but I really couldn’t understand what he was trying to communicate. There was mention of forbietoo and dwangs and sixhundredmill centres. He was talking about laying things flat on the concrete, while I was trying to square that with my innate knowledge that a shed stands up vertically from its concrete base. So there I stood listening intently, words buzzing about in the ether between us, nodding sagely, but with a face that was completely blank.



“Can I video this explanation” I asked. At least I could then listen back and try and work out what on earth he’d said without having to show myself up as utterly clueless.


Now I should probably explain to those who think I must be irredeemably stupid that I’m honestly not. I’ve got a good degree from a good university (in fact I’ve got a collection of degrees from a collection of universities) and I manage to get by in gainful employment. But none of this gives any help in understanding how to make a shed.


Fortunately though, overnight, an insomniac child sorted through all the disparate and strangely shaped pieces of information in my brain and formed them all together into a complete picture. I awoke, as if from a vision, with miraculous understanding and a calling to build a shed.


The (seemingly obvious) key revelation was that, when Stuart’s son was pointing at the concrete base he was referring to making panels of wood out of forbietoo (four-by-two) which start out flat on the concrete (when you make them) then form the shed when you put them together.


I sorted through the pile of leftover wood and found loads of four-by-two which I measured up and, with the assistance of husband and kids, fashioned four frames for the shed. We ran out of time, and they were left, in a stack over the concrete plinth.


To effect the next stage I needed more people power. It was obvious what this shed needed: A girls’ weekend. A whole weekend staying at the back settlement bothy, drinking prosecco and red wine and walking out to Cuil bay each day for shed building duties. It would obviously all be done after a couple of days so I set up a time lapse camera to capture the appearance of the shed. Then I filled my most enormous rucksack with food and drink and dragged some of my good friends, none of whom had any more idea how to build a shed than I did, to a bothy in a bog.


There was a lot of potential for partying and relaxing in beautiful surroundings but there wasn’t time for that – there was a shed to build. We arrived and the first job was to attach a bit of wood to the concrete base to screw the frame to. I’d seen the builders do this so I knew we had to do it. I wasn’t sure what size bit of wood to use, but found one I thought would do (it didn’t). We readied the drill, then instantly lost the relevant drillbit. It simply disappeared. We searched about for it for ages then I went to make coffee. My parents showed up to help, we still couldn’t find the drillbit. Dad brought out a drill that should probably have been retired 20 years ago from his car and started on the concrete. We stopped for lunch.


We hadn’t achieved even a fraction of the progress I’d been hoping for by this stage of the day and the weekend continued in that vein. There was fun, and larks and tea which is illustrated very well by the time lapse video (which mainly shows the tea breaks – with various luxury biscuits and a few homemade cakes).


The shed panels went back on the concrete plinth and, this time, we covered them with leftover plastic sheeting. It would be a while until we’d have another chance to build the shed- Autumn was nearly over and we didn’t want a newly constructed experimental shed going straight into the challenge of winter storms. Shed building would need to wait ’til Spring.


Over Winter I gradually lost my shed building mojo. Self conciousness conspired with pragmatism to convince me that I should pay a professional if I wanted a shed this side of the heat death of the universe.


I asked Stephen. Yes he could do the shed but No he didn’t want to talk about it until the house was finished.


The house dragged on. And on. Christmas passed, we got building certificate in March and I had started formulating plans for the housewarming (with the shed and bike/bin store playing an essential part as the performance space for my ceilidh band) But the shed build seemed further and further away. Eventually Stephen seemed willing to discuss the shed. “Just send me a drawing of exactly what you want” he asked. I drew a sketch on the back of an envelope and sent him a phone photo of it. Jake, my friend with the Morven sawmill cut the cladding from local larch and I wanted to use some of the structural wood left from not building the second porch. I hid my homemade shed panels round the back of the house to save having the piss unrelentingly taken by the joiners.

IMG_0551By April it looked like the shed might start imminently. Jake pulled out all the stops to get the wood to site despite no Corran ferry and having to take a massive detour. I fed him a quick dinner and he was off again. Then no progress. I don’t want to bore you with the ins and outs of a total lack of shed-build progress. But in summary: No shed. Still no shed. A bit of shed. Stalled shed. The explanations over why no shed appeared and why no people turn up are actually far more interesting. A game of evasion. With a counter game of persuasion.

In fact, for your entertainment, I have made a game of Evasion Bingo. Anyone who is working with Stephen at the moment might want to play.


There’s also a corresponding game of Persuasion Bingo , where I work my way through various tactics to get Stephen to come and build the shed.


Evasion and Persuasion. It’s probably some kind of arms race a behavioural psychologist should do a PhD on.


But eventually, inevitably probably, the shed made infinitesimal progress. When I arrived the day before the midsummer housewarming party, that important milestone for the build, months past the date that everything should have been well and truly done, I was livid when I saw the half built shed; boiling, hopping mad.


However, When I wandered into the part-built structure I noticed that it was made up of my own shed panels. Those panels I’d made back in September, nearly a year before, and completed during the girls’ weekend workparty, had actually been used by the joiners. My rage was soothed slightly by the aura of smugness that was starting to spread out from me like the Readybrek glow. Real joiners had actually used the shed panels I’d made. I wondered how much I should be charging for my labour.


But despite that activity back in May/June it’s now the beginning of August and the shed still isn’t done. We’ve had an unusual level of action on the shed front this week though, with joiners on site for two days in a row. Perhaps my threat of bodily harm for Stephen actually had some effect. Or perhaps it’s reached the stage when he just wants it over and done with as much as I do. Either way, it could actually be finished soon.

It is Friday now. Five days since the first paragraph of the blog, and the shed is, indeed, finished. There’s some clearing up to do around the shed and, in between sawing left -overs for firewood, picking up nails to chuck away and chucking bits of scrap wood on the fore, what dos we find, but that errant drillbit. I love it when a story comes full-circle. 

 Evasion Bingo:

stephen bingo 2.jpg

Persuasion Bingo:

stephen bingo 1.jpg





Existential Angst

Just recently I’ve noticed a little bit of existential angst creeping up on me.  I usually don’t have much time for existential angst. Literally I don’t. Every second is filled with things to do and, if it isn’t, then I jolly-well find something to do. 

It’s either that I don’t have many inner demons, or, by the time they have elbowed their way to the front of the queue of ideas jostling for attention, all brainpower is called away to solve a serious problem (like how to collect Child A from Scouts and Child B from circus skills, while simultaneously being at a meeting in Edinburgh, and with husband away on fieldwork.) I really am awfully effective at displacing worry and angst with Things to Do, People to See, Places to Go.


And I really haven’t time for existential angst figuratively, too.  Well, what’s the point of existential angst anyway? Does it get things done? Yes OK, it might have been somewhat important to poets and philosophers and artists and the like for millennia, but I’m not sure it’s really my thing.


I don’t suppose Archimedes would have got very far with my attitude.  

 He’d have got right out of that bath in disgust at time ticking by while he soaked, and gone out and got someone to build him a shower, rather than uncovering mathematical truths of the universe. 

I have a good friend from University who is the embodiment of existential crisis. Where, for most people, a quick ‘How are you?’ is simply part of the opening pleasantries before you get down to the serious business of chat, to him it is the whole objective of the conversation.

“How are you?” he would say

“Fine, How are you?”

“No I mean how are you Kat. How are you Really?”

“Erm OK? … Everything’s good.” I reply, not having really stopped for 10 seconds to interrogate whether my assumptions that I am a happy, well balanced person living the absolute only life that I could ever want to lead, are correct.


“But are you really happy Kat.” He would continue. “Kids? Do kids make you happy?”

“Erm. Yes?” I reply again. Well, what is certain is that they make me too busy to ever doubt that I am happy, and if they are not keeping me busy, they are making me laugh like a drain.


My, usually unsolicited, advice would be along the lines of: Look, XX, pull yourself together, make the decision: get married/have kids/ keep the job/do the thing, and for goodness sake stop fretting about whether there’s some other utopia that would exist if only one could stay in a perpetual state of indecision and non-commitment.



However, despite the busyness and the displacement activities, recently the questions of when, and if, I was going to move to the house, have been increasingly unavoidable.  Over the period of building the house I have had many moments of self doubt and a fair bit of introspection ‘Why oh WHY am I doing this??!!’ I would wail at times of stress ‘Why did I start on this project of monumental hubris??!’


To survive these moments of doubt and stress I kept telling myself that I’d soon be living there. Yes I would. Of course I would. Why on earth would someone put themselves through all the pain and discomfort of building a house if they didn’t intend to actually live there right away? It just doesn’t make sense.


But the children had indicated their distinct attachment to Glasgow and the conveniences of a train into town for a visit to Claire’s Accessories or Forever 21 or whatever, (and football club, skiing club, ruby/swimming/ squash for the other one). Not to mention husband’s job.  It would evidently be a while before we could move.


I looked back at my first blog to revisit why I started building the house in the first place.  It wasn’t actually that informative as to my motives, but it did indicate that, even when Sula was just a twinkle in my eye, I knew I couldn’t really live there in the short term.  So the question became, how am I going to spend as much time at Sula as I can, even if I can’t be there all the time just yet?


Around the time these thoughts were surfacing, I started working on something new: a huge project to conserve the western Atlantic woodlands, a unique and rare habitat that remains in pockets along the western seaboard of Scotland, Wales and England, our Celtic Rainforest.  I was called in to sort out the people aspects of the project and ended up taking quite a bit of responsibility for the project as a whole. After a while of working on it, I sat down and looked at the project area on a map. The core areas in Scotland were a large chuck of woodland all up the West side of Loch Lomond, all of the Morven peninsular, and a site at Ballachulish, just down the road. It all came into sharp focus for me that Cuil Bay was at the epicenter of the Scottish part of the project. 


I volunteered to do a secondment to develop the project, not particularly because of the geography of the project areas, but because I was inspired by the habitat, and what the project had become since I had been working on it – the potential and the possibilities for restoring some fabulous, magical woodlands across some of the most beautiful places in Scotland and Wales.  The plan was that, were we to get the first stage of the grant, I would fulfill the development manager role, taking the project to the next level.  I started thinking about spending a couple of nights a week up at Sula and renting it for holiday lets the rest of the time.  Surely a good compromise until the family could be persuaded to move.  It was also a very good solution to the problem of having built myself a monument to my own audacity and feeling rather guilty about it.


 This takes us up to the far more serious crisis of angst which surfaced a few weeks ago, just before the referendum on membership of the EU. The polls had turned towards Brexit for the first time and I moped about, worried and wan, shouting at the long-suffering husband for not filling in his citizenship application years ago (he’s one of those pesky immigrants, taking our jobs and our women…).


As well as trying to hold things together in the face of a potential Brexit Armageddon, and the imagined imminent deportation of the Swiss husband, I was also trying to get the ruddy shed finished. The builder had vanished in the manner of the Cheshire cat; leaving behind nothing but an annoying grin to remind me that I will never ever be free of him, because this shed will never, ever be finished.


Eventually, after many messages and calls, he called me back, as usual at the very moment I am least able to communicate the vast to-do-list off the top of my head; in this case at the nadir of my Brexit crisis. He proclaimed that Europe was lost forever and we might as well wave goodbye to prosperity, justice, human rights and all that. Surprisingly it didn’t make me feel any better.


 Since then we have had the referendum result. A resounding ‘Stay’ in Scotland but overall a ‘Leave’ for the UK as a whole.  I usually try and keep this blog a politics-free zone, but this is something that has been deeply affecting.  To my surprise, I found myself weeping in the street the day after the referendum when two Germans I had just been giving directions to asked what I thought of the result. I ended up hurrying off, my 13 year-old daughter in tow shouting “MUM! Pull yourself together mum!”

It was only when I reached for my wallet in a nearby coffee shop where we went for a restorative flat white, that I realised I was still carrying their map and guidebook.


“MUM!” said the daughter “Honestly! those poor Germans arrive in Scotland and instantly have their guidebook and map nicked, its not a good impression to give them of Glasgow”


I may not be everyone’s archetype of a Glasgow criminal, but there I was, holding a defenceless tourist’s precious German language guidebook. They’d arrived the morning after the Brexit vote, to a country of people waking up, as if from an epic binge, with a shocked realization of the irreversible damage that had been wreaked during the night. And then they were mugged by a woman for their guidebook.


But the certainty of knowing, after the initial disbelief, denial and grief, turned out to be marginally less painful than the dreadful waiting. In typical character I started doing things. Husband was harassed further about citizenship, a visit to an immigration lawyer was booked, and the process of filling out an 85 page form followed by a 42 page form, and amassing piles of associated paperwork, was started.


Along with the referendum came the knowledge that the grant to save and restore those beautiful western Atlantic woodlands, ridding them from that immigrant invader, the rhododendron, was never going to happen. There was no need to wait to finish the application process, nor to spend 8 months developing the project. It would go the way of the millions of pounds of EU funding that Scotland receives every year.

This was heartbreaking too, but it also gave me the impetus to get the house sorted out for renting. I put it on AirBnB and instantly got bookings. Loads of them. In fact so many I had to stop as I didn’t have a cleaner sorted out, (or that [expletive deleted] shed finished.)


The first guests arrived on Monday, only 30 minutes after the joiner had left the building, and an hour after I’d concluded discussions with one of Jamie the farmer’s daughters to do the changeovers for the house. The garden looked like a horde of ill-informed pirates had been digging for treasure, and the guests arrived an hour early, just as I was frantically and ineffectively ironing a pillowcase (the first ironing I’d done since ironing my graduation gown while I was still an undergraduate).


After these first visitors leave, we’ve some Americans coming, then the architects on a team building trip to see the house. Then, after that, Australians, and then more Americans. Oh and a family from Walsall.  There won’t be that much time for me to mope about Brexit, or having built a beautiful house that I can’t live in, and that’s the way I like it.  If there is a miniscule, vanishingly small and very selfish upside to the turmoil and pain of recent weeks, it would be that, since the pound fell so sharply against the dollar, the cost of a UK trip for Americans has come right down. So I’m just awaiting the influx of Americans to book Sula for a last minute break to Scotland.




And the Germans?  Well don’t worry about them. I had been advising them on the best restaurants in Glasgow to take their son for his birthday and insisted that they couldn’t leave Glasgow without a visit to the Ubiquitous Chip, a Glasgow foodie institution. Assuming they had followed my advice, which I’d given so emphatically, I popped along to The Chip that afternoon with the guidebook and map and asked whether they had received a booking. It turned out that they had been there only an hour before to book themselves a table, I left their guide and map with an apologetic note.


Later that week I received an email from a Dr. Prof. Jur. Harry Mueller (these Germans like their titles) thanking me for the advice on the excellent restaurants and offering to advise me on the best restaurants, museums and galleries of Hamburg if I ever wanted to visit.


I suppose I’d better get over there before they close the borders.

 Look were actually finished!


What I’d do differently

You know how I said I’d never ever do something like this ever again?   And that building a house isn’t something that I’d wish on my worst enemy?

Well, I don’t feel like that any more, or at least not all the time.

I suppose the bad experiences fade and you just have the good stuff left. It’s like forgetting the hard slog, exhaustion, frozen extremities, fear and exposure, and the long slog down in the dark of a day winter mountaineering in Scotland.  Somehow, the next week when someone asks you if you want to go out to the hills, you only remember that moment when the sun burst through the mist of fog crystals on the summit, so that the air sparkled with delight, and not the hellish rest of it.

That’s not to say I’m about to build another house. No no. That is absolutely not going to happen, I’m just saying I don’t wake up in the night any more wondering why I started this thing. It’s probably a good moment to share some of the things that I would change if I were building the house again (gosh, imagine what a nightmare that would be? Being made to start all over again on a massive task that you’d only just survived the first time round…aaargghh)

So here we go, I don’t think this can be a definitive list, but here’s a selection.


Over the winter I went through a phase of cringing when I saw the huge white gable of the house shining like a beacon across the bay.

I’d really wanted that whole main section of the house and gable to be clad in larch, which would fade to silver grey and blend with the hillside but the planners wanted the main part of the house to be harled in white. Going back further our plan was to have the whole house clad in larch, but it was clear from planning that a combination of wood and harling would be more acceptable. We ended up switching the harled and clad sections over, reducing the area of wood cladding to about a third of the area of the house.

Half way through building, when I was having that terrible nightmare finding a company to do the cladding and I found out that the harled cladding system was going to cost around twice the price of the wood cladding, I wished we had pressed the case for wood cladding harder. When the house was complete and the scaffolding came off, I wished it even more, especially with seeing how the wood section is starting to blend so beautifully with the surroundings.

Waiting months and months for the curtains for the huge windows downstairs and up didn’t help (and not having a ladder long enough to actually put them up). In the absence of other things to fret about, I worried about how my house shone like a beacon across the bay for hundreds of miles to the south.

However, now it’s summer and the trees are in full leaf, the house stands is screened from the bay and I’m starting to get used to the harling.


Being the proud owner of a stairwell atrium 

All the other things that annoyed me at various points in the build are getting less annoying. Even that enormous high 7.5 m stairwell which was such a pain to make airtight, plasterboard, decorate, and which I will never be able to clean the windows of, is actually quite picturesque and uplifting to live with. The omission of a light on the stairs (it really is crying out for one of those huge dangling spiral chandeliers to match the space) doesn’t bother me anymore either.

I actually noticed the lack of light early on, while we were plaster-boarding, but I was so caught in the nightmare of Phil (Builder#4) and contemplating how to sack him, that I couldn’t face the strain of liaising between him and the electrician to get it fixed.

Anyway, it’s all settling in. Though next time, in the interests of economy, I’d leave the atrium out of the house and use the space for something useful.

But don’t fear – I have a plan for that atrium. When the dust has settled and I feel I can countenance working with a builder again, I’ll build a giant shelf in the stairwell as a little tree-house/den for me. It will have a book-shelf and two bean bags, a ladder I can hoist up in case of emergency, and an amazing view through the massive window (which I would now actually be able to clean) up to the Ballachulish Horseshoe.


Technical blah blah: Heating system and Biodisk. 

There’s other annoying stuff like finding the heating system had two cylinders instead of one, thus taking up the space in the drying room allocated for boot racks and such.   And the biodisk septic tank having a white protuberance that sits in the middle of my garden and whirrs. Both of these irritations are down to me not asking enough questions at the start of the build and just letting things happen – the architects specified the type of biodisk, and Stuart, builder 1, recommended a local company for the heating system. I


I’m getting used to the low buzz of the heat pump but I still can’t work the really complicated user interface. I’m convinced someone should a have been able to invent something a bit easier to work.

Of course Stephen the builder had lots of say about how much better the heating system is in his house, as he does about almost everything else too. (For those who don’t know the whole story, Stephen came on the scene late on in the build and saved the whole caboodle from disaster – twice – however the payment from my side appears to be to have the piss taken for various bad decisions I made, and to hear how much better the house he built himself is. It’s really a small price to pay to be honest.)

I feel I was more involved in the whole MVHR and wood burning stove planning and installation and I’m much happier with how they work (despite the little hole-drilling mishap).

We moved the MVHR exit and intake from the roof to out the back and that works really well. It means you can’t see it and It’s also on the north side of the house so when it’s warm in the house, it provides quite an effective method of cooling (not as effective as opening the doors and windows of course….).

Shape and Space. 

It only occurred to me once the house was built that having a 1m x 2m sticky-out bit at the back of the house, that allows for the turn of the staircase, was a rather inefficient use of space. Given the extra difficulties of making the house the shape it is at the back, with a complex roof arrangement, it’s likely that it would actually have been cheaper to make the house an extra metre bigger all across the back, which would also mean I’d have a bigger hall to throw my muddy wellies around in.

And, if I’m feeling extra picky. I’d have left an extra 50cm at the front of the house. So I could walk all round the dining table without having to squeeeeze past the chairs. (but that’s being unreasonably picky, to be honest).


Paying attention

Another thing that happened because I wasn’t quite ‘on it’ at the start of the build was cold bridging under the doors. If I was building a house again I’d be far more with it from the very beginning. I seem to have two modes of operation: lassez faire, delegating and trusting people to do their job, and control freakery. To be honest, I think I’d have put in a bit more control freakery at the start of the build to make sure everything was going to plan. I would obsessively check things; I would print out the plans hundreds of time and distribute them to absolutely everyone, irritating them by pointing out things that were obvious to them already.

If I’d have done this then I wouldn’t have a 200mm section of breeze blocks right under the wood floor on the thresholds into the house. The architects had a plan that had the breeze block foundation dropping down where the patio doors were to allow for some insulation to prevent cold bridging. It wasn’t immediately clear to me from the diagrams and it was actually only when I felt the cold coming up from the floor by the patio doors, once the whole house was finished that I placed the cross sections side by side and worked out what was supposed to have happened.


It is a little frustrating that I did actually pay for one site visit for the architects after I took over project management and it was at the point the timber kit had gone up. There had been a hiatus in the work while I scrabbled about for a builder to do the cladding, having been let down by the framing company. Stephen had just taken on the job and had pointed out that the windows were in the wrong positions and would need taking out and refitting. He was on site that day to meet the architect, and I’d asked Matt whether there was anything else wrong that we should sort out. He was standing right by the patio doors when he’d said, the rest looked ok.

For the patio doors in the siting room, which I found I wasn’t using at all, Stephen and I decided to just put in some kingspan and an extra windowsill on the threshold and convert it from doors to a window. The other one, I’ll live with.


The Final Item in this list, decision making, is a biggie and I think I will leave it til the next blog.

A day at Springwatch 

After a run of three years at RSPB Minsmere, it’s the last week of the last Springwatch at the reserve and I’ve had a chance, with some of my colleagues at the RSPB, to visit the set and find out some more about how the phenomenon, which is Springwatch is made.


To Springwatch’s millions of devoted fans it may seem like a relaxed and casual event, kicking back in those chesterfield sofas, but Springwatch is anything but. The presenters may exude the calm of the proverbial swan, gliding along on the surface, but beneath the water, a massive and well-oiled and expert machine is frantically paddling away.



There’s a village of people on site at RSPB Minsmere, 120 people decamp to the site for the three weeks of transmission, and take up most of the local accommodation. Four massive trucks housing the outside broadcast equipment jostle for space with tents, marquees, truck diners and gazebos.

 “It costs me a million pounds to rent those outside transmission trucks for the month of Springwatch” says Tim Scoones, executive producer, and the man behind the show, who is showing us around the site.


He takes us into one of the monster trucks which will hotfoot to Glasto after they are finished with Springwatch, then Wimbledon, and every must-see sporting and cultural event after that (it’s the very truck that makes ‘Strictly’ for goodness sake!)

 Before us is a bank of screens pulsating with action: nests and eggs and, of course spineless Si (and Stephen Fry). It’s like a control centre for …. well ….like a control center for the biggest outside live broadcast the BBC does.

“Springwatch is different from all those other shows” says Tim, explaining the ambitions and the sheer brass neck of Springwatch.
  “There are thirty live feeds coming into the main truck, with six at any one time recording”. Tim has story developers watching those screens intently 24 hours a day, ready to catch anything exciting, new or unusual. “we take our inspiration from Big Brother and from the news. These guys are making the stories as they happen”.
I ask what happens if they can’t switch one of the live cameras to record in time. “We have to be ready all the time” says one of the story developers. “If we don’t we can miss something spectacular”. They give an example from the previous day where they had an adder predating on one nest box and, at the same time, a stoat coming into another. They simply couldn’t get to the record buttons in time.
There’s a live broadcast about to start “we like to think of it as Test Match Special meets rolling news” jokes Tim as he ushers us out of the truck to continue the chat.
Tim explains more about quite how innovative and seat-of-the-pants Springwatch is. “There’s no autocue” he says, “This is what makes springwatch different. There’s no script, we are remaking the show as it goes out”. The presenters have a cacophony of voices going on in their ear-pieces as they speak; someone telling them countdowns to items cutting in or out, another person telling them what item is next, or that they need to cut straight to a hatching, or some other exciting happening on one of the cameras “When something happens live like that nightingale singing last night, we just cut straight to the camera and the presenters just have to carry on”.

  They are constantly changing items, cutting items and lengthening items as the show goes out. It’s a wonder that Michaela, Chris and Martin sound as relaxed and unruffled as they do with all that happening around them.
Suddenly a producer appears at the door of the truck. “Breaking news!” he says “those sparrowhawk eggs are hatching”. He pops back into the truck only to appear seconds later with more breaking news.
There is simply never a dull moment on the set of Springwatch.


Later that day we get a chance to see Chris Packham in action. We are part of the audience in Unsprung, standing rather self-consciously around the set trying to ignore the cameras getting thrust right into our faces and hoping that a close up of our faces won’t make it into live TV.

The show is funny, slick, and a bit tongue in cheek. We clap, we cheer, we groan at the rubbish jokes, we boo (when Chris Packham criticizes a fantastic photo of a swimming adder), and before we know it we are shuffling off-set and back into the evening sun of RSPB Minsmere.


We leave awestruck by the energy, the devotion, the skills and the teamwork of everyone working on Springwatch. Our day may be over but Chris, Martin, Michaela and the whole oiled machine of BBC staff still has a run though of the show and Springwatch itself to go before they finish up for the day.
I’ll certainly be watching Springwatch with new eyes, and a large helping of awe and admiration when it goes out from RSPB Minsmere for the last time later this week.

The digger arrives 

As I predicted two weeks ago, this turned out to be the longest run of dry weather in recent years. We’ve had so many days of sun on the trot without a cloud in the sky I’m beginning to lose count.

  And the reason I knew that the weather would go on and on? I’ve just planted a lawn. And ever since I’ve planted it there has been blue skies from end to end of scotland, despite forecasts to the contrary. In fact, what was once a deadly swamp that would swallow wellies before breakfast and whole diggers if it got the chance, is now cracked and dried out like a dry riverbed in the Sahel.  

I’ve been waiting months (yes months) for Ronnie the digger man to finish off the landscaping around the house. To start with the land was just too wet. And then other things got in the way. But, in the end, on Friday, Donald and a digger arrived. I was rather late on site and he’d already buried all the large rocks I’d heaved out of the garden and into a pile to be given more productive life as a rockery. 


 I’d planned for the garden to look like the surrounding landscape: wet meadow, yellow flag-iris, alder, a pond and a bank behind the patio perhaps a rockery. As I waved my hands around the garden saying where mounds of earth should go Donald said “Ach. You don’t want a garden all lumpy and bumpy, you want it all flat and straight like a central-belt garden.” 
And then he lined up the edge of the drive dead straight with the house. Stopping every bucketload or so to check the line, closing one eye and looking through a small gap he made between his palms, just to be sure. I was being his assistant, moving the planks of wood he was using to keep a straight edge and using a spade to tidy up. I wasn’t very good at it because whenever the giant toothed and terrifying bucket came anywhere near me I sprinted off to take cover. 


He dug me a beautiful pond to the most exact specifications with shallows for flag irises and gentle sloping sides. And even left me some piles of topsoil (after my special pleading for a garden with topography) to create a bank around the side of the pond and behind the patio. He shifted a pile of enormous boulders taken out of the site during the excavation for the foundation, across the site to form the base of my bank and rockery and deepened my moat/drainage ditch. 


As Donald worked a steady stream of locals came by, thinking it was Ronnie McColl, to ask when he was coming by to do work for them. Seems like I hadn’t been the only person in Cuil waiting on a digger. 


Donald seemed keen on everything being proper Scottish. Over coffee he reeled off a list of musicians who weren’t proper Scottish (and comedians). I hate Billy Connelly and Capercaillie, he said, that’s all disgusting stuff, awful, too fast, not proper Scottish music. “What you want to listen to is”, and he reeled off a list of names, very few that I had heard of. 
I wrote down the unfamiliar names on a bit of newspaper sitting on the worktop planning to look them up that evening.
‘That Oban live, that’s disgusting’ said Donald. But what about Skerryvore, they’re good though aren’t they? 

‘No they’re disgusting’ 


I wondered what he’d think of my ceilidh band, made up of a motley crew of parents from the school who scrape a ceilidh together every now and again to raise money for local causes and have some fun. And who play an arrangement of bear necessities and a spoonful of sugar for the Virginnia Reel. He seemed OK with that, but wasn’t taken with the idea of doing it to Disco Music. ‘Modern Music is disgusting,’ he said. ‘Unless it’s the Carpenters’ 


I tried to impress him with the Scottishness of my lawn and meadow mixes that I was going to plant once he’d finished with the garden landscaping. “Scotia Seeds – all the seed comes from Scottish provenance flowers” I said as I showed him the list of species and where they come from. But as soon as I looked at the ingredients I saw that all the seed comes from Angus, Fife, Invernessshire, and had a quick panic “There’s nothing from the west highland there” says donald just as I noticed myself. 
My dad said the same when I see him the following weekend. And he’s a botanist. The only solution to this dilemma is obviously for my dad and donald to wander around cuil bay’s meadows in the autumn gathering seed for me to plant. 


As soon as Donald was done I started raking the area to be seeded and sowing my flowering meadow mix for the area in front of the house and my wet meadow mix (for the ditch) and kept my kind edge mix for when the pond edge was ready. 

And now I just need to wait for the rain. But it looks unlikely to come for a while, or at least until all the seeds are eaten by that little pied wagtail who keeps pecking about in the dirt. Probably getting her own back for me evicting her from the nest hole she used last year in my half built house. 

A walk and a coathanger accountant

Part 2 of the Glen Affric Blogs.

See here for Part 1. 


Morning dawned grey and damp. The cloud sat along the base of the hills about a ten minute walk from the youth hostel.

“We could always do just the one Munroe and see how we feel” said Jo.


“There’s bound to be a cloud inversion with blazing sun on the summits” said I, ignoring all possibilities that we would do less waking than we had committed to when we were planning the trip.


We got packed up and headed off, straight up the back of Glen Affric hostel on an excellent path. A couple of men had arrived late and pitched their tent between the main military green corrugated iron hostel and the nearby dorm. They were finishing their packing and headed up just after us with enormous rucksacks. Their plan was to do a few Munros and sleep high, then complete the set the next day. Our plan was to do the same but return to the comfort of the youth hostel for the night.

  Despite my natural inclination to conversation and chat, my plans for the trip had been a quiet, contemplative pacing the hills to free the mind of clutter. This clutter had accumulated during a long period of being over-busy, over-stressed and not having enough visits to the wide open spaces of the hills. Jo, my long-suffering walking companion, on the other hand, sees long walking trips as a chance for lots of chat and catching up. So once we fell into step with the other two walkers (there was no getting away from them, I tried an onslaught of speed but I slowed eventually and they caught up) Jo was in her element, chatting away.


As we traversed the peat hags, just before the final ascent to the coll I overheard the conversation that one of them had driven from Essex via Warrington to pick up the other and then straight through to Glen Affric – and I had thought we’d been in the car for ever coming up from Glasgow.


‘What do you do in Essex?” I asked “I am an accountant in a firm that sells coat hangers” he said.

Well. What do you say to that? I’d never before had the opportunity to make conversation with an accountant from Essex working for a firm selling coat hangers.


“Erm. Do you like it?” I asked

“No I hate it but l can’t leave” he said.

I asked him why not and he told me about the generous benefits that he gets with the role.

“I get free petrol for my own use, as well as work” he said triumphantly, “it helps when you love the mountains so much and you live in Essex”.

No doubt, I thought, but then immediately wondered why he didn’t just leave the job and move to Scotland which would, at once, solve both of his problems. “We get as many free coat hangers as we want too” he continued.


But I wasn’t in a life coaching mood, I had come to find wildness and I couldn’t get to wildness until people and chat and the stuff of civilization, especially thoughts about coat hanger manufacture, were left behind.


We continued on our separate way when we reached the coll and the day began.


The sun started to shine through as we reached the top of the first Munro, An Socach. A misty brightness, as if the light was within the cloud around us. Directly above we could make out a pale, chalky blue but the sun couldn’t burn though to reach us. I imagined that, with another 10m of altitude we’d be in broad sunshine looking down all around us on a sea of cloud with a few of the tallest mountains poking through.


Munro number one done, we wandered down the gentle broad ridge to a coll littered with small peaty-black pools. The two mountains beyond were behind a couple of smaller peaks, and Jo had started talking about possibly fitting in a fourth, Beinn Fionnlaidh, which was utterly miles away.

 I was happy though. The path rose at a comfortable angle across the slope and the sun kept breaking through. We even had a bit of phone contact with the outside world for the first time since stopping in Beauly for lunch. (Where Jo had spent part of the meal whispering “I think I know that woman from school” and “but I haven’t seen her since then” and “should I go and say hi?” Until I had said (rather too loudly) “if you don’t go over and say hi to her then I will!” She did turn out to be an old school friend of Jo’s in the end)


Anyway. The hill was lovely. There was snow. And sun. And those fantastic shattered stone pavements on the summit ridge. I’d got to the point of thinking about nothing in particular, and had started noticing things, like lichen mapping out whole continents on a piece of ice-smoothed rock, and slivers of silver layered through the schist, when I tripped on a bit of rock, coming down really hard on my knee. It was properly, awfully and excruciatingly painful and I lay on the snow in the foetal position screaming intermittently like a  hoarse siren. I could hear Jo in the distance, as if through glass, saying “take your time Kat” and then my own personal opiate supply kicked in. I lay there motionless and silent on the snow wondering when Jo would come over to see whether I was dead. And then I wondered absent-mindedly, if I wasn’t dead, whether a helicopter was going to come and pick me up.


It turned out I wasn’t dead. I just had a grazed knee.
I made a mental note to increase the level of sympathy towards my children when they graze their knees in future.

This was a very strange house with door and window almost on the summit of Mam Sodhail.

It took two dressings and a handful  of jelly beans and then I was back on my feet and we headed to Munro 2 of the day. I had no pain, it was a miracle, I almost ran to the top.  Jo pointed out that the sun was out and it had got quite warm, melt-water was trickling down the hill from the remaining snow on the ridge. I declared it ‘taps aff’ and said we shouldn’t miss out on Munro 3 because of my knee.

“It doesn’t hurt at all at all” I said.


We reached Mam Sodhail and sat down by the an extremely well constructed and enormous cairn for a snack, not expecting to see anyone. But a couple were just approaching from the other side. I hastily put my top back on, and then my knee started to hurt.

The couple regaled us with their experiences of coming up and over the melting cornice, “no we didn’t have any ice-axes” they said. Jo and I paled, as we looked at the route they’d taken. My knee was throbbing. Better get back, said Jo sensibly, and we decided to leave Carn Eigh and Beinn Fhionnlaidh for another expedition. As we walked along the ridge we looked back and saw the woman standing right up at the edge of the cornice to pose for a photo. We stayed watching long enough to be sure we didn’t need to call for the helicopter, or try and effect a rescue, and then we headed back to the Youth Hostel.


Postscript: the sore knee developed two pleasingly large scabs which are currently in the process of sloughing. (Is that the correct word for scabs? I certainly feel like I’m sloughing them). Lovely.






















“This should have been the easiest house in the world to build”

So you’ve heard my opinion on building a house ad infinitum over the past few years and now, it’s probably the turn of the builder to have a say. Months of pestering Stephen to write a blog hasn’t had any effect and so it’s going to be an interview format instead. I’ll try not to colour it too much with my own thoughts, but given that, when I listened back to the recording, it was largely me talking, that could be hard. I’m no Graham Norton by any means.   

I’d lined up the kind of questions I thought would get me some interesting answers, and illuminate something of the process of the build from the point of view of the builder. 


I get started: “Why did you take on a half built house when lots of other builders had turned me down?”


“I thought, ‘that looks easy, I’ll do that'” said Stephen. 


I tried again, “What were the low points or problems with the build” I asked. 


“None really, it was pretty straightforward. Your house should have been the easiest house in the world to build”


Oh…. This was shaping up to be a rather tedious blog where I come out looking like a total numptie. I tried another tack. 


We spoke about the best builds he’d done and he reeled off a list: “That one on the island in Oban Bay for sale, a big house in Easdale, the one in Benderloch, (that’s for sale too at the moment for 1.3 million I’ll send you the particulars…) my own, twice”. 


I’d already used the joke that the new house in Oban Bay is for sale because they got his final bill so I leave it and press him on the question, “But which one is the best thing you’ve built? Is it your own house?”


“No way, of course not. You know yourself, building your own house is really awful” 


“Really?”, I ask, amazed, “even for a builder?”


Stephen built his own house between dealing with all the other projects he was working on “I’d try and be done by two and then come and work on the house until eleven, and sometimes four in the morning towards the end”


But did he never get to see his family? “The kids would be in bed by seven and I’d go back out again to the build”



Stephen has been building for 25 years, starting when he was 16. I do a quick calculation on my fingers “Forty one! same as me!” I say triumphantly and ask why he decided to go into building.



“I didn’t have any qualifications, my dad and uncle were joiners, it was the thing to do, it was in the blood” 



I think back to my early career. I didn’t have my first proper job until I was 27 after a year out either side of university and a PhD. But why did I become a biologist? Because, well, my parents were biologists, I even went to the same university as my parents. My sister took the same route too. I certainly didn’t have a better reason for choosing my own career. 


We move onto the subject of working with people. He has certainly had worse clients than me. Much worse as it turns out. 



“Sometimes I can’t actually speak to them,” he said “and then I just send the boys in and stay away. Once when someone was really bad I had a Polish guy working for me and I just sent him in and told him to pretend he didn’t speak English”.


Now I can tell you, that I have certainly put the hours in to try and be good to work with. I was pretty desperate at the time Stephen appeared on the scene, I’d just called every builder in the phone book from Fort William to Oban, even the one who friends suggested I didn’t touch with a barge-pole. In fact the whole past year can he summarized as a major Stephen charm offensive: getting stuff to site on time, attempting (and failing) not to be too in-your-face, paying bills really quickly, being generally charming. Why do you think I wrote so many nice blogs about Stephen? In fact I don’t recall a charm offensive as prolonged as this since I met the long-suffering husband.  


I ask something about what I’m like to work with, hoping to elicit a positive comment. Nothing. 


So how does he decide whether to take on a job or not? “I make up my mind about whether I can work with someone within the first few seconds. And if I don’t think I can work with them I don’t take on the job”



It’s a bit awkward asking about yourself so I leave the obvious question hanging and ask “What’s the first thing you remember about my build?” 


“It was the panicked answerphone message I got on the Friday. You just sounded really desperate” he chuckles. 


He brightens further with chat about the highlights of the build which all revolve around the incompetencies of Builder#4 who I will name Phil for the purposes of this blog. 


“The highlight? – It’s got to be Phil’s caravan and tent and saw” he said in answer to the question and collapsed in laughter. “And then there’s the fridge full of beer. You know a builder’s good when he gets his priorities right, and the fridge of beer was the first thing to appear on site”


He went on “Then there was the business card – ‘landscape, Joinery, Deliveries'” I start to feel uncomfortable remembering all the horrors of my poor decision making. 


“But the best has got to be the day the boy burnt the sausages for breakfast and they all packed up and went home.” He said. I wilt. 



Stephen described, with glee, the time sheets his team put in when they started on the interior work after Phil had left.  

sorting Phil’s Shambles —– 8 hours. 


“He really looked like he was doing it for the first time” said Stephen. “And when someone is that bad, it makes everyone else look really really good” 


“It was funny when they didn’t arrive until 1130am one day when the rugby was on, saying they were on a landscaping job til late the night before, and went straight for a snooze in the caravan. They were still in there when the boys left that night.” 


Stephen pauses for a moment to chuckle, “the next morning when they emerged they went straight to the Holly Tree to watch the rugby and, when they got back, they said there wasn’t much point getting started so headed straight back to the central belt”


At this point I had been transported back to the full horror of the Phil episode. Aren’t we done yet? I wonder. 


“Seeing you hit rock bottom”  

Eh what? That doesn’t seem like a highlight. 


 But appeared that it was. 


“Phil really broke you, you were totally defeated” said Stephen: twice, just in case I didn’t hear the first time. 


“Actually,” I say, feeling the need to defend myself, and point out my resilience and stoicism, “the worst bit was having to talk to you about it to sort everything out”. 

(And that’s a fact. That bit was truly and utterly awful)


When things were bad, I didn’t even talk to the long-suffering husband about it. I didn’t want to. It was all too dreadful. I’d get home, after the two-hour drive back to Glasgow with the 90s club classics turned right up in an attempt to drive out the house-build ‘drag-me-down’ vibes with the ecstatic feel of a rave in a field, and Husband would pass me the wine and put on the iplayer. Everything would suddenly be right with the world. 


 “You can’t build a house without wine” said Stephen, evidently from plenty of bitter personal experience “Can you imagine what it would be like without the wine? You need wine. God, we’d all be dead without the wine.”


I told him the story of the sacking of Phil, done, as I do many things, to minimize conflict and just get it done as painlessly as possible. I spent some considerable time that day getting Phil to accept that he couldn’t finish the job and to take all his equipment and caravan off site. (Throughout this awkward conversation the, already rather physically imposing man, towered above me. “Shall we sit down” I said, Phil sat on a step ladder on top of a pile of boards “are you going to sit down?” He’d asked “no I think I’ll stand” I said). Once everything was offsite except the ruddy saw and the ruddy fridge (minus the beer unfortunately) I followed up with a phone call to finish the job. 


Yes I suppose it did rather break me, I admit. 


“It’s hard sacking someone” says Stephen pensively. 

“Yup. I’m finding it a bit difficult to think about it even now” I say. 

The interview had become a house-building therapy session. “It must have been hard,” said Stephen, “There’s probably some wall gone up there”.


“Why did I make such a useless decision to go with Phil instead of you for the interior work?” I wail. 


“You just need to go with your gut instinct but you probably didn’t do that” said Stephen sympathetically. 


I wander off into thinking about a management training I was at a few years ago. We were discussing personality and how people make decisions. According to the psychologists, people like me usually take decisions intuitively and instinctively (tell me something I don’t know…), but when they are under heavy stress they can start to take decisions in a different way, trying to use more rational approaches, which usually means they make bad decisions. I pull myself away from the looming cliff of introspection and back to the task in hand. 



“Hold on Stephen. Who is the interviewer here?”  


It seems that I’m not the only person Stephen has seen in a defeated slump. “People are usually like that when they come to me. The whole process of planning and building control does people in, it takes years and they just want the house built.” 


And it’s not just the clients who can have a hard time. Later in our discussions Stephen tells me that even he can have a bad time at it. “Sometimes you get a job that really breaks you, you just have to tell yourself that it will be over soon and get on with it, but if it’s a house build, it can last a very long time.”


I ask if he liked reading the blogs I’d written about him. He brightened considerably, “I love it” he said. “People keep asking whether I’m builder #1 #2 #3or #4.”


According to Stephen, Lots of people around Oban read the blog, “the partner of your planning officer, he reads it.” He said (Oh….. I thought about the blog I wrote about our trip up to fort william to charm the planners and my toes curled gently under the table.)

“Everyone does.”


 I do know that my building control officer reads it – he emailed me to say so after I’d written a blog about him (eliciting another slight curling of the toes) 


 The joy of writing about the build has been that Stephen has always been very blasé about what I write about him. I always sent the blogs to him to make sure he was happy. “I really don’t care what you write” he would say repeatedly “Say whatever you like.”


 Once I mused, on Twitter, about the writers block I was suffering as a convenience of worrying about the builders reading it. 

“Fire on, I’ve got my own blog ready for when the cheque clears” came back the response from Stephen.    

 And that was when the idea of a guest blog from the builder, and the architect, and anyone else who fancies sticking an oar in, came about. 


And, of course, that is how I come to be interviewing Stephen. 



Conscious that the product of the interview thus far hasn’t made me look particularly competent, I go fishing for something that could save my reputation. Was there anything I did right?


“When you filmed the cow in the next door neighbour’s garden, that was funny”. Stephen was referring to the morning when Jamie the farmer came over while we were talking about what to do about the porch. 


“You’ve caused me a load of @&$@ing grief Kat” said Jamie. Oh dear, I thought, what could it be; the articulated lorries coming down the ridiculously small road and trying to turn in his drive? The piles of detritus all over the landscape related to my house build? The gaping potholes that seem to get bigger every time another truck, transit or lorry zooms down the track? Apparently not, it was the time lapse video I’d made of me and a few friends trying to build a shed and which gave a view of the neighbour’s garden. “The neighbours saw it and there was one of my @&$@ing cows in there eating their hedging plants. They were straight on the phone to me last night” he said. We all fell about laughing. 


Funny, Stephen, yes. But IT DOESN’T ANSWER THE QUESTION. was there anything I did right during the build?


“Well you’d actually make a very good project manager” he said eventually, when pressed. 


Really? In what way?

“In the way of being really good at organising people, finding someone who knows how to do the job and getting them to do it”. 


Well, knock me over with a feather. I didn’t expect that to come out of the interview. My job here was done. 

 There was one last question I really had to ask. One that had been bothering me since the start of the interview. 


“Seeing as my house should have been the easiest house in the world to build, and nothing in it was a problem for you, did my epic charm offensive have any effect or was it just totally wasted effort?”


Hummmmm. As I suspected, it seemed that all my efforts to be charming and good to work with were rather unnecessary, and probably went unnoticed. I looked rather downcast. 


“It didn’t go unnoticed.” said Stephen “The boys appreciated the chocolates, well, the ones that didn’t fall in the mud.”


At Christmas I’d made special whisky chocolates for all the people on site – the filling was melted white chocolate mixed with Glenmorangie. There was an awful lot of whisky in each of those chocolates and everyone got four in a home-made box. (Well not everyone, two boxes fell in a huge puddle when I got out of the car so Eddie the tiler and I scoffed all of those after we’d rinsed them under the tap). You don’t get much more charming than that, but no-one ever mentioned it

But whether or not the charm offensive was necessary, effective, or even noticed, It probably was essential for my own entertainment and well-being during the build. When you’re building a house, you think about it every single day. Every day. And that means you need to think about the builder every day. This can become somewhat debilitating if you are having difficulties with your builder. Thinking about Phil always made me irritable, downcast and miserable to be around.  


Very early on I accepted that I was just going to have to think about Stephen quite a lot, so I might as well see it as one of the good things about building my house. Especially when the good things are rather few and far between, consisting of writing the blog and inventing new ways of making splashbacks and shower screens, and nothing much else.  


Stephen is very aware of the huge importance that he and his team have in the lives of people building a house. 

“We become a major part of people’s lives, we recognise that” he says “and working with interesting people is always part of the attractions of a job”. 



There were just so many absolutely hateful, tedious or just downright soul-sapping tasks that I had to find a way to make myself want to do. Who wants to spend a sunny Saturday choosing bathroom stuff? Or having to give list after list of things to do to the builder. It’s just not fun. There are about a million things I could think of that I’d rather be doing than building this house. For some reason, actually finishing the house was never much of a motivating factor in itself, I had come to terms that I would be building the house well into the distant future and was simply looking for ways of making the process more bearable. 


I have found, over the past few years, ways of persuading myself to do tasks I don’t want to. I’ve actually got quite good at it now, I can even fill in a reporting spreadsheet, if my life depends on it.  


I’ve found that it’s people that motivate me, not tasks. So I always need to have a person that I’m doing the task for. If the task isn’t for a specific person then I need to imagine one. For example, when I write some interpretation, a leaflet or a press release at work I need to have my audience clearly in mind in the shape of a real person. And I can only tidy and clean the house if there’s someone coming for dinner (I sometimes plan a dinner party simply because the house needs a tidy). A deadline, real or invented, always helps too. 



When it came to the house, the charm offensive has certainly kept me occupied and entertained, and it has given me another reason for writing the blog, providing me with a muse from time to time (who evidently liked reading blogs about himself). But importantly it provided the motivation for doing all those painfully annoying things you need to get done to build a house. Like getting some essential component of the house to site by a certain date, or hassling Scotframe yet again to do what they said they would.



In fact, the whole fun of building the house, pretty much the only good bits, have all been the bits where I’ve worked with brilliant and effective people. Not just Stephen, but also Stephen the stonemason, Jamie who installed the MVHR, and Stephen’s team, especially Eddie who was the only person who didn’t seem to object to having his photo taken; Stuart the builder who did the foundations, and numerous others, including the architects and Tom (kitchen) and Jake (wood) who I’ve known since University. On the other side, the worst bits are when I’ve worked with difficult people: Phil being the only one that springs to mind. 

It’s only because of those people that, despite the problems and difficulties, building Sula has actually turned out to be a hugely enriching experience. 

Where on earth did that poetry spring from?

This is the end of a second day of walking the mountains of Glen Affric, and my mind has, at last, stopped racing and has started to slow down. Two days of pacing the hills steadily: mountain tops the goals but also the means to an end, working out the thoughts constantly running through my mind and freeing up a little space. The constant plod of foot after foot on the uphill imposing rhythm on thought and time to think each one away.  

John Muir wrote beautifully about the human need to connect with nature in the mountains.

 “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity”

Our National Parks, (1901), chapter 1, page 1. 

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Muir quoted by Samuel Hall Young in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915) chapter 7 

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a long stretch of time in the mountains. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to work only two days a week for a whole year. The children were young and in nursery three days a week (so we could keep the space open for when I went back to my ‘proper’ job again). Once a fortnight I would take myself off to the hills to walk. 

It’s now down to one visit a year to a real wilderness space, a few nights bivvying alone in the hills and evening or day hill walks when I can fit them in. But this is a rare and special time in a place far from road, house and phone signal. 

It’s taken a long time to get to a state of not thinking of anything in particular; not my to-do-lists; not conversations to have and projects to begin; not worries about this and that, and to start to notice the world around me. It’s taken two days on the hill 9 hours a day with Jo, my long-suffering mountain companion. 


On these very rare occasions that my mind is actually clear, sometimes I just think about nothing at all, and sometimes I have ideas, make decisions or set out on flights of fancy, but this time, for the first time, some poetry has come out. 

I’ve no idea if it’s any good, I’ve never written poetry before. I don’t even read poetry. But here it is. Each with a photo of the place that inspired it.  





Gettaway to Glen Affric

Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.

  As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.


Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.

 I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?).  Eventually I found him in bed

It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.

The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.


 My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.

“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”


 Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”.  But it was no where to be found.


Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
 It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit   and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.


 The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.


“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.


Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.


A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen  and back to the hostel had taken him  45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
 By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended  to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.


But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.

 This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…

  ….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge 

The boring bit …

I’m due a proper contemplative look back at the past few years. A thoughtful assessment of the whole process of building a house. But given the speed life is moving at the moment, I’m finding it hard to sort the velux blinds (that I ordered the wrong size) let alone sit down in a quiet place for a few hours of contemplation. 

So in lieu of that, I’ve been doing some meter readings and calculating things. It’s been a trying time for Adrian the heating engineer as I have been trying to get my head around the system, and calling him with puzzled questions, but I think I’ve now worked out which of the four metres is which and the various false alarms about energy use have been put to bed. 


It’s worth noting that these figures are perhaps not that indicative of the house in normal use because 

1. It covers just the winter months Oct-end April

2. Much of the measurements have been during the build when the heating was on quite warm to dry the house out but not much hot water was being used. 



The space heating and hot water is delivered by a heat pump (and solar gain is providing a really good level of heating when the sun is out). In this allegedly temperate coastal climate (though you wouldn’t know it judging by the outside temperatures today, the first day of May, and the snow on the hills) an air source heat pump is supposed to be quite effective as the air temperature doesn’t drop too low very often. 


We also have solar panels on the SW and SE facing roofs and large Southwest facing windows for solar gain.    

 So here’s all the boring ol’ figures….

Since October, when the heat pump went on, we have used 

3406 units of electricity (EM1) to run the heat pump (it has its own electricity meter). Which cost us 14p a unit, making a total cost £476.84 for the electricity to power the heat pump 


With this energy we generated 8870KWh of heat (HM1).


The equation used to calculate how much we should be paid for the Renewable Heat Incentive is, for some reason,


 HM1*0.97 -EM1 

which means, with a RHI of 7.51p/KWh this gives us a payment of £369 for the total period. 

Our solar electricity meter tells me we have produced 817.6KWh since it was commissioned in November. 

Which at 12.8p/KWh (which I think is our payment rate but I’d have to wait for the payment to come through to double check) I think will have brought in £104.65
The electricity company also assume that I export half of what I use and pay a fee of 4.88p/KWh for that. 
This means I should receive £124.60 payment for the electricity I have produced over the winter since November.  


So the total calculation is 

476.84-369-124.60 = negative 16.76 (i.e. A profit of £16.76)


So, if I’m not counting other use of electrical energy in the house, I’m managing to get my heating for free/make a small profit. 

However, to complicate matters, some of the electricity made by the solar panels will have been used to power my heat pump (or other electrical appliances in the house like MVHR that are on when the sun is shining), as electricity generated while electricity is in use in the house is used rather than exported, but still receives the payments. 


It’s hard to know how much of the energy I produced has been used but I can calculate a maximum and minimum. As a minimum this is zero and the maximum is that all of the energy I produced was used which means I would have saved buying in 817.6 KWh of electricity saving another £114.5 (at a cost of 14p per unit). 

This means that the cost balance was between £16.76 and £131.26 in my favour. Which strikes me as good, given that it was taken over the winter when heat demand will be at its highest and solar energy will be at its lowest. 


I’m looking forward to looking again at my meters after the summer to see how things stack up then. 


However, the point of building this house was to be all green and smug and eco and, although compromises needed to be made over the process, it’s really the carbon emissions from space and water heating I think I ought to be minimizing. So how do we do in this regard? 


The total electricity use minus that generated by solar is 2588 KWh. The estimate of carbon emissions from electricity is 0.496kg CO2/KWh *

Therefore my space and water heating between start October and end April (seven months) has produced 1.3 tonnes of CO2. I’ve been trying to find the datasets to compare this against and I ought to have access to them from all my previous carbon counting efforts. It won’t come as a surprise to you but it seems all my posts but one on travel have been lost, which isn’t very helpful. However from recollection the average house emits 6 tonnes CO2 per year so this seems ok. I’ll update the calculations after the summer. 


Apologies if that was stupendously boring, but my guess is that if you have actually made it to the end of this post, you have an unnatural interest in things related to energy and carbon emissions, so I am hoping you enjoyed it. 


You may also want to point out schoolboy errors I have made in my calculations. Please feel free to use the comments box!


* ref: Energy Saving Trust http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/corporate/our-calculations


Getting stuff done 

Today I was storming. I was like Kat on fast forward. I was totally on fire.  Before I’d even had a coffee I’d peeled all the sticky protective film from the sliding door windows. And painted half of the bits of wood the curtain rails are mounted on. As I painted, mind configuring and reconfiguring my monstrous to-do list,  I thought how I am not really suited to the care, attention and exactitude demanded by the tasks of painting and decoratorating. I just hope I never have to undo any of those screws ever again. 


As an aside; Have you ever wondered why MDF doesn’t just come in white? It comes as a rather icky off- grayish white anyway, so why on earth can’t they make it white and save everyone a load of bother? 

I drank my coffee while balancing on the toilet cistern. But after nearly over-balancing a couple of times while trying to reach the wood, I calculated that it would only take a minute to fetch the step ladder whereas it would take me an hour to clear up the mess if I dropped the paint from this precarious position (and that I would take considerably longer than that to recover from plummeting into the toilet pan). So I went to get the ladder. 

The windows and doors were open to bring some of the lovely morning inside, but the backing track was not the singing of birds or the gentle waving of the leaves, it wasn’t even the constant annoying low hum of the heat pump or the MVHR or even the irritating whirring of the biodisk.  It was the dulcet tones of Jamie the farmer rounding up the cows with a vocabulary that would make Malcolm Tucker blush. 


A few weeks ago I’d been in the garden chatting with Stephen when a wall of swearing like I had never heard hit us like a tsunami, swept past us and up towards a terrified looking white van driver standing paralysed at the gate. He had made the mistake to open the gate and not shut it, or shut it when it should have been open, or perhaps drive through it when he should have waited for the cows to pass by. But neither he nor I could work out what he should do as the tirade of swearing accompanied everything he did. So he stood there like a rabbit caught in the headlights of one of those huge American juggernaughts, sometimes jerking this way or that in an attempt to resolve the sutuation. 

After the first coat was done I thought I’d have a proper look at the new curtains for the triangle window. They have been specially made to the right shape and I have been rather enjoying the challenge of working out how to hoist them up using a cunning pulley system.  


One evening, as a distraction from the more disturbing parts of a thriller we were watching, I made a working model from a cardboard box, a plastic bag, some wool and a whiteboard marker as a makeshift pulley. The curtain pleasingly lifted when I pulled the wool. 

Curtain down…
  Curtain up… Da-Dahhhh

 I was excited to see how things would work in reality.  I looked about for the curtain hooks. Nowhere to be found. I’d forgotten them, which was especially frustrating given that I must have bought some on at least two seperate  occasions.  so I held the curtain up to get a view of what it would look like and found it was too short. 

Disaster. It was made specially, but Shona the curtain maker must have been working to the dimensions of the recess I have, rather than the curtain dimensions. I could hardly lift it anyway but I managed to stuff it back in a bin bag to take back to Glasgow.  

 Next was another layer of paint and then a trip to the hardware store for masking tape and something to help me put a giant sticker on a window. I came back with one of those rubber paddles that window cleaners use. 
Then my piece de resistance. The window sticker for the glass on the sliding door. 

What I achieved was to put what was effectively a completely massive and giant mobile phone  

 screen protector onto a large bit of glass. The last screen protector I put on my phone only got three large bubbles. Oh, and a few smaller ones. Well, to be honest, there was almost more bubble than stuck-on screen saver. 


 But, with the help of my window cleaning squeegee and the urgency of not having had any lunch yet, I did it. (one small bubble). Now this was properly fun, better than painting, better than curtain hanging. I needed to share my joy  with another human being. I dashed outside yelling at Jamie the farmer who was at the cow pens just behind my house.  I told him how clever I’d been and how he must come and see. 


“Actually I’m a little busy at the minute” he said in an understated fashion as he held a cows neck and tried to get a syringe into her mouth “and by the way Kat, you’re totally [expletive deleted] wired to the moon”. 


 Wired I was, and over the next two hours I sewed some off-the shelf curtains together to make one the right size (may have to do one of them again as it just didn’t line up), painted the skirting thing on the stairs (and painted it a second time) and hung some curtains. No time for lunch but fortunately there was a large bag of kettle chips in the snack drawer which had somehow escaped the hordes of scavenging teenagers who were at the house over the Easter break. 

 Then there was trying to read the heat meters and organising things and clearing up. Cleaning the windows and putting up the rest of the curtains and blinds would have to wait. I had to get back to glasgow.  I had a child to meet, feed, take to scouts and then get to a committee meeting about getting use of some land for the community by 730pm. 


I eventually screeched to a halt in front of our house at 728pm just as aforementioned daughter had tired of waiting for me, got her sister to give her dinner and was starting to take herself off to Scouts. In the end I managed to take her to scouts, get to the committee meeting (even more wired to the moon after belting down the A82 at speed -unfortunately for the other four at the meeting) and even get back to scouts in time to pick up a pile of them and distribute them to their various houses.  Quite a productive day really. 

Here are some more photos of things that have happened since the last blog a while ago.  

 We have a patio. Lovely lovely and the sun is shining all the time at the moment.    

Just look at that geology on Ardnamurchan – a giant ancient volcano. Thanks to British Geological Survey mappers I now can look at geology every time I’m in the bathroom. I should put a laminated key to the colours in the drawer for people. 

 Fused glass splashback by Lucy Head stuck on at last. 

Look. That’s Cuil bay there. Lots of interesting geology round and about.   
  Patio nice view. That’s going to be a flowerbed there. And the missing metalwork is going to be a corner bench

Cold and Canyoning 

There are, perhaps, more sensible things to do on a wet morning in early April with a fresh sprinkling of snow on the summits than to head to a waterfall rushing with meltwater and fresh rain and plunge in. 

  However this is the Easter holidays and I had two teenagers and an 11 year old to entertain. A morning of canyoning should keep them occupied, I thought, and even perhaps tire them out. 


We all felt pretty cold when we arrived to the Vertical Descents barn in the woods at Inchree falls, just by Onich. Although, with hindsight, that was nothing. I refer to what the 13 year-old said as we returned from the adventure “If anyone complains of being cold ever again I will say ‘you don’t know cold. You haven’t been canyoning at Inchree. I really KNOW cold'”.

Vertical Decents have two bases in the area: Inchree where they do canyoning and Kinlochleven where they deliver canyoning and a couple of other activities. We were presented with wetsuits (wet being the operative word) and invited to take part in the undignified struggle to get them on. After a good fifteen minutes of straining and groaning and wailing and a bit of lying exhausted on the ground, we’d made some progress but, as the only adult in the party, it seemed to be down to me to get everyone’s neoprene socks on, which was the worst bit. 


When we emerged, somewhat warmer from our exertions, and feeling like seals ready for a fishing trip under the sea-ice, I found out we had the wetsuits on inside out. “Sod it!” I said. “We’re not taking them off.”

The neoprene jackets that zip right up into the hood came next and, with help, I managed to get the zip done up, which pretty much prevented me breathing and rendered my sports bra utterly pointless.  


Danny, our guide, took us to get kitted out with helmets, harnesses and buoyancy aids “What’s the shiny black plastic over the bum?” asked the 11 year-old. 


“It’s to stop the wetsuit being damaged as you slide over the rocks” said Danny. “And to keep the poo in and the rocks clean if you get really really scared”, leaving the kids wondering whether he was being serious.  


I borrowed a pair of wet trainers from ‘dead man’s wall’, around 40 sets of trainers hanging on a board.  

“Someone took a brand new pair of Nikes out of a box and then left them here after canyoning” said Danny. “People come up from London or Glasgow with more money than sense”.

“We’re from Glasgow”, piped up the 11 year-old. And at that moment I was certain I had more money than sense, as it dawned on me that I had just paid a lot of money for the privilege of struggling into a wet wetsuit and have someone shove me down a freezing cold waterfall.


We walked up past the falls to the point at which we got into the raging torrent. Dog walkers looked at us pityingly as we passed. The series of waterfalls was simply spectacular and in full flood. 

The kids took to the water like a row of ducklings. I followed squeaking involuntarily (and embarrassingly) as I hyperventilated in the freezing water. 


The first couple of obstacles were to get us into the groove: being swept across a plunge pool in the current and then sliding down a water chute on a rock face and into a pool. The kids went for it with gusto. I somehow got stuck and ended up dangling on my back between Danny’s legs, rather helplessly trying to get a purchase on the slippery rocks. 


Next there was a little scramble down wet rocks (tied on via Ferrara style you’ll be pleased to know) then edging along a rock blade above another waterfall (not tied on you’ll be horrified to hear). As I wondered whether the children were safe, out of the corner of my eye I saw someone fall, hit the water and disappear. I screamed, frantically checking to see which of the precious children were lost forever. They were all three looking back at me, wide eyed, wondering why I was screaming blue murder. It turns out Danny had jumped in and he bobbed back to the surface at the base of the rocks looking cheery. 


After a couple of obstacles my 11 year-old, (who happens to be rather lacking in body fat) started to feel chilled and after half an hour or so was so cold I needed to take her back to base camp. We clambered up a semi vertical bracken slope and headed back to the barn. The two thirteen year-olds continued valiantly onward, full of glee and shrieking joyfully as only teenagers can. 


 Once the 11 year-old was safe in the barn colouring in and eating chocolate with Ellie, who (wo)mans the base camp, I hurried back up to the falls to rejoin the main party. I’d missed much of it but got an amazing view of the kids doing the zip line down the main waterfall in the series. 


We then swam across the plunge pool and sat behind the waterfall. I should have been grinning and feeling pleased with myself, like my daughter, but I was actually just rather worried about the children. 


 Once back at base we were back to grunting, straining and wailing as we wrestled once again with the wet suits. 

“In all my time working here,” said Ellie, “I’ve never come across people who make so much noise and drama out of getting into and out of wet suits”. 

Damn right, I thought, and resolved that next time canyoning should be segregated into adults in one session and children in another. Because it is hard to enjoy yourself when you are constantly worrying about your kids (and other people’s kids). And it’s easier to help children with their wetsuits when you are warm and your hands aren’t curled into solid frozen claws. 

And to add to all that I’d also put a minimum body fat index on those taking part.  



Back Door Blues 

This started as a blog. But as soon as I’d written: ‘it was a door, but it’s not a door anymore’ I knew the genre had to be country and western. Not sure what the tune is, but it would fit to plenty of country tunes I recon. 
Apologies for the following …..

Back Door Blues 

It once was a door
Open onto the heath*
Then I felt the cold floor 
From the breeze blocks beneath

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
Then we found the wood floor
Wouldn’t fit underneath

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door


Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
Then I felt the wind blowing raw
From the leak underneath 

 Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

Oh it once was a door
Open onto the heath
But it just wasn’t convenient to have a door there as it got in the way of the layout of the sitting room 

Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door

 So it’s no longer a door  

I’ve admitted defeat 

It’ll be fixed shut for evermore 
With a sill and kingspan beneath


Ohhhoooo …. The door
Just isn’t a door


* it’s not a heath, it’s a bog/moor. Which is a bit like a heath but wetter. 



Remote Roofing

It’s not as if I haven’t got enough to do. Because I have. However, if there was ever an outside possibility of boredom setting in, it has now been eliminated.

The roof at the wee bothy we co-own with 4 other families, is leaking. And of course it’s not a simple job. The bothy is a 40 minute walk over bog and moorland from Cuil Bay, has no electricity or other mod cons. In other words it’s a task that needs yet more organisation. IMG_9062
I discovered the leak during an attempt to convince our city-loving thirteen year old of the joys of country living. I’d invited two of her school friends and their mums up to Sula for a girls’ weekend. We had a ball in the evening and a rather late night and then, to blow the cobwebs away, the plan was to drag everyone across the bog and moor to the bothy to check on it after a winter of fierce storms, and to light a fire and have a brew.

Helen, one of the mums, who it transpired owns over 100 pairs of shoes, and wasn’t a regular visitor to the wilds at weekends, had lent her wellies to her daughter and so walked across burn and bog in a pair of patent leather designer boots. Rain drops splashed in pools of sphagnum and water dribbled down our hoods (those of us that had them) and into our eyes but, despite the weather, spirits were high and the 13-year old delighted in showing her friends the secret spots, the rope swing and the wildlife of the place she has known since she was a baby (which of course was the whole point of the expedition). 


She still managed to put on a scowl, however, when I pointed out how much they were enjoying themselves.

So that was how we found the leak,  and that was how I acquired a new organizational task to add to the existing list of Sula-related organizational tasks.

There’s certainly one advantage in building a house. I now know a lot of people with skill-sets I hadn’t encountered before.  I thought of our roofer. He’d done a great job on the roof at Sula but always seemed to be off somewhere exciting if the weather was good (more recently he told me he’s a downhill mountain biker, which might have been what he was off to do). I only met him a couple of times but when he finished I distinctly remember thinking “Ah yes that’s a quality roof.” And then feeling rather downcast that I probably wouldn’t have to call on him again for another 30 years. (He happens to be a rather handsome roofer)
IMG_0450So when it came to finding a roofer who could come out to a remote bothy with no electricity and no loo and a long walk from a road he sprung to mind. Later, he told me that he often stays at the tiny ski hut in the car park at Glencoe, which is apparently even more basic than our bothy (except you can drive to it).

Robert responded to my email query almost immediately, yes he’d be delighted. (Hooray)

So that’s how I came to be exerting all my energies rowing an aluminum dory on a mirror calm Loch Linnhe under leaden skies. I wasn’t supposed to be rowing. Husband and I were supposed to be motoring along in relaxed fashion to fetch roofer and roofer’s kit but we forgot a vital item for the outboard – the funnel for the oil. I dropped husband on the shore to fetch it and started rowing- we were already late. I ended up rowing the whole way, determined to get there first. I didn’t quite win. But I think I held the moral victory. I certainly looked like I had expended the most effort.


We headed back to the bothy and roughly two hours after pushing off in the boat we were putting up the scaffolding tower we keep in the barn for occasions such as this.

Turns out the roof was generally sound and it was a simple job to put a couple of slates on and some lead flashing. So, far too soon, it was time to pack up the stuff and wave goodbye to Robert once again.

However, it turned out I’d see Robert much sooner than expected. In fact it was later the same weekend. We were skiing up at Glencoe in perfect conditions with my sister on Easter Monday; powder snow and bright sunshine. There were no queues, our cheeks were burning from the speed and and the sun, and the children were in charming mood, belting out 80s power ballads on the lifts. All was joy and wonderfulness.

We came across Robert in the lift queue and chatted about the sheer fabulousness of the skiing. My sister joined us a few minutes later


“This is Robert who did the bothy roof” I said by way of introduction.
“Oo. Is this the sexy roofer?” She said immediately, in her inimitable style. (Don’t you just love siblings? She might be a Professor now, but some things just never change…)

 The route to the top of Spring Run

Fortunately I am not the type to get embarrassed easily (or surely the cuilbay blog wouldn’t have got very far). A couple of years ago our, then, seven-year-old, exasperated after I’d called over to someone I thought I recognized one time too many, asked me “MUM do you NEVER get embarrassed?”.

No, fortunately I wasn’t embarrassed. I just thought, “This will make a good story” and filed it in a box named ‘Blog’.

The view from the top of the lifts



A tune for Cuil Bay


I don’t know whether anyone has written a piece of music for Cuil Bay before – I’d be surprised if they haven’t because it’s such a beautiful place.  But now it definitely has its own tune. And I’ve put it together in a video with a load of photos I’ve taken on my phone over the last year which pan around in a really cheesy way. I hope you’ll forgive me and it doesn’t distract too much from the beautiful melody.

Cuil Tune by Stuart Killbourn


It was written during a get together of the ceilidh band a week or so ago up at Sula. We may only have three bedrooms but we managed to fit almost everyone and their families in somehow, with one family staying in a wooden wigwam nearby in Duror; 13 sleeping over and 17 for dinner. Stuart the mandolin player wrote the tune.


I’m not sure whether I’ve told the story of how our band got together on this blog so that will need to be the next blog.


Fun Projects: artists and architecture  

Every now and again work is just amazing. And this week was one of those times – quite a few projects are coming to fruition and things are generally getting exciting.
This morning I was meeting with some Strathclyde Product design students at RSPB Scotland’s reserve at Lochwinnoch. They’ve been working for their forth year project on a structure for a new viewpoint which was created during some recent habitat works. It was so exciting to see how their designs have progressed from our first discussions. 

 The priorities for the designs are that it is an interactive space for families to use, but could also be used to quietly view wildlife and also could be a sheltered meeting point for walks and for school groups.
They had some great ideas that will work really well. Love the rope screens to look through and the modular slottable screens. And the living willow wall.

My budget is somewhat frugal for the construction work so the idea is that some of our talented Lochwinnoch volunteers put the structure together so the students are thinking carefully about design and materials. We also have a lot of larch trees to come down on our Wood of Cree reserve in Dumfries and Galloway which will do really well for the in-the-round posts to hold the interchangeable screens. We’ll look at whether we can also use it for the timber for the structure too. 

Then, this afternoon, I received some photos from the reserve manger at Loch Lomond. Oyster Eco are refurbishing a trailer we were given by SNH, an exhibition trailer rather like those they’d try and recruit you to the army in on Buchannan street. It was a bit of a catch actually. And I’m pretty pleased I bagsied it for Loch Lomond before anyone else did.  

It’s going to be clad in timber and set in the new car park at the reserve. There will be a wee kitchen inside where volunteers and visitors can get a cup of coffee, and there will be interpretation about the reserve. However bagsying the trailer, getting it to the reserve and generally waving my arms about what we’d like it to be for is pretty much all I’ve done. (Apart from a bit of input on the interpretation for inside). But when I got sent the pictures I felt very proud. It feels like my baby despite me not putting in much of the work. Perhaps it’s what being a Dad feels like.


Then we’ve got a team of four Strathclyde architecture students working on another project at Loch Lomond. A look out point a very short walk from the new car park where people can sit and contemplate, picnic or play. And it will be the start of the new pathway we’re planning around the bluebell wood. It is nearing the end of the design stage and it will be built and in place by May to complement the wee visitor facility. Again, most of the actual work, apart from having the initial conversation and getting them involved, and giving them my ample opinion, has been done by Paula and the reserve team.


Then there are the artists in residence about to start at our Mersehead  reserve near Dumfries.

 I have two PhD students from the Scottish graduate school of the arts and humanities taking part in a funded internship project as part of their PhDs and will spend a month living in the volunteer accommodation at the reserve.  My colleague Fiona will also have an artist in residence  working between Glasgow and our Inversnaid reserve, a spectacular piece of western Atlantic woodland and mountain along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond 

At Meresehead we have Roseanne Watt, a poet and filmmaker with a special  interest in cultural history and peoples stories. Her PhD is based in Shetland , where she is from.
Catherine Weir is a digital artist especially interested in stars and unnatural light and landscapes. Studying for a PhD at Glasgow School of Art.
And in Inversnaid we have Luca Nascutti , a sound artist.  He has who created electronic sound prices incorporating natural sounds which he performs in specific places with dancers.


This project started as a conversation around a giant fire of pallets on a beach in Canna (see blog about the trip) where I had gone to see Hanna Tuulikki’s work ‘away with the birds’. It turned out most of the people there were artists themselves and that’s where I made contact with Dee Heddon, who was involved in the graduate programme at SGSAH. And yet again, I may have made the first contact, but again it was Fiona who did the work to set up the project.
I took ‘my’ artists to Mersehead for a recee in December. The weather was stunning and the reserve enchanting. I am ridiculously excited about what will come out of these collaborations, despite a certain level of rather dyed-in-the-wood scepticism from some of my colleagues.    

We had a meeting at the end of last week about what will emerge from the artist in residence programme and how to distribute and promote it. A germ of an idea formed. A pod with audio visual equipment to immerse you in another world, that we could transport from city center location to out of town shopping mall to leisure centre, inviting people in to view and to hear the artworks produces at our reserves, to bring the essence of RSPB nature reserves to people, where they are in our cities and to inspire them to visit or to pique their interest in finding out more.
So where will I get this pod from, that will need to go on the back of a small trailer, or fold down into something we can put in the back of  a van?


Well, in the absence of SNH getting rid of any more trailers, in the near future, I think I’m going to need to call, very nicely, on Strathclyde university again to lend me some of their very fine students for a project next year.

Postscript: What has happened since I wrote this blog?

Roseanne Watt wrote some poems on her artist in residency and made three films. Links to the films are below.

This year (2018) Roseanne was awarded one of Britain’s most prestigious poetry prizes, the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award, which was announced at the Edinburgh Book Festival.


Catherine Weir’s pieces ‘Reported Sightings’ and ‘Atlas’ can be seen here. and her blogs about her experiences here.

The structure designed by the product design students for Lochwinnoch has been constructed by volunteers at the reserve and is proving popular with families and birdwatchers alike.

The structure for Loch lomond created by Marc Hillis is now in place

photo 2 - lol structurephoto - Loch lomond structure

The Visitor Hub at Loch Lomond has been in use for three seasons – see the photos.

lol visitor hub 2LOL visitor hub

A later Artist in residence Susanna Ramsay at our Loch Lomond Reserve created a film poem and a projection of her poem at the end of the woodland at the reserve at dusk which was really really special.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOf1tfpYFUA

The woodland dusk walk and film experience is reviewed beautifully here.




Nighttime Nest boxes

I love a deadline, whether manufactured by me for the purposes of  getting something done, or for real. In fact sometimes I just can’t do things without the urgency of a deadline. And it seems that putting up nest boxes is one of those tasks. 


There have been two nest boxes sitting outside my house since May last year. One was a house sparrow terrace I’d been given as a birthday present at least a year previously, and the other was a nest box I’d made of cladding off-cuts designed to go in the eaves of the house.


I’d had a burst of nest box enthusiasm when a pied wagtail and a housesparrow had nested in the half-built house and we’d had to seal off their nesting cavities at the end of the breeding season (see blog).  However the enthusiasm was followed by an extended period of lassitude. (I should say there has only been lassitude on the nest-box front, I’ve been being pretty busy getting things done in other avenues). 


However things changed this morning. When I got up and wandered down to make coffee a wagtail was sitting right outside the window chit chit-ing at me. As if to say “Where’s my nest hole gone?”.  I went outside and a jay flew over the garden carrying nesting material, a robin sang in a baby alder tree and the world seemed to be bright and new. “Where’s my nest box!!” it was wailing at me, “and you work for RSPB Scotland and you haven’t even followed your own advice you hypocrite”. 


So the urgency was established. Nest boxes must go up. Yes they must. They must. But…. The summits were cloud free, and there was no wind… Glencoe skiing was calling. Nest boxes had to wait. 

 Daughter finds an innovative way to achieve the traverse to the top of ‘Spring Run’


And that is why, as night fell, and I felt the ominous deadline of needing to get these boxes up before the birds started anew prospecting for nestboxes in the morning. I was up a ladder. 

I’ve hammered a few bits of scrap wood into the beautiful larch porch too. They might not be pretty but I hope the wagtails will find the sheltered spot and set up home. 



Now I have such a lovely home, I’d like it to be a welcoming place for wildlife too. 


Losing it. 

I’ve been holding it together pretty well for the past year while building this house. And actually far longer than that. I didn’t lose my wallet in 2015 or 2014 and I don’t think I lost it in 2013 or 2012 and probably all the way back to 2010. I did lose my phone last year and my house keys a couple of times over that period. Oh… and I dropped my work keys right in front of the front door of work one night (I no longer have a set of work keys…) 


But I’ve been about as together as I’ve ever been with respect to keeping my belongings with me over the past few years. It’s all been military precision and ship shape and Bristol fashion compared to the chaos of my University years. 


However it all seems to have gone to hell in a handcart in the past month. In the past five weeks I have lost my wallet four times. Twice on trains to work meetings (returned via station lost property both times) and then once somewhere in the vicinity of Ballachullish, yet to be found. 

Yesterday I made a temporary wallet out of duct tape and put my third set of brand new cards into it. This was a wallet I wasn’t going to lose. I had a meeting in Balloch followed by a meeting in Edinburgh. It was all going well, an effective meeting and all on time for the Edinburgh meeting. But when it came to cycling from Waverley to the Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh I realised I had left my bike in Balloch.  And when, after my RBGE meeting, I discovered I’d lost my wallet yet again I had a moment of despair and a flashback to my university days. 

While I was at University I went through nine bikes in nine terms. A couple were stolen, a couple just broke down irreparably, one I wrote off in a head on collision with another bike – front wheel hitting front wheel with such force that my bike buckled, my head made contact with the head of the person on the other bike and I was transported, I remember not how, to Addenbrookes hospital to be treated for concussion. One was jumped on by a fellow student disappointed in love (referenced in previous blog).  And at least twice I simply lost the bike. 


There are a lot of bikes in Cambridge and, when you’ve got a lot of different places to go and people to see, and things to organise and essays to write, keeping track of where you left your bike can be a challenge. 


Fortunately this time at least I knew where I’d left the bike. It was locked up at the station in Balloch and I was due back there the next day for another meeting. So nothing lost. 
However it filled me with despair that I had only had possession of those last bank cards less than 12 hours before I lost them again. 


I turned my entire bag out in one of the Botanics glass-houses after the meeting. As the fact that my wallet wasn’t there sunk in, I heard a beautiful bird-song, that sounded like a robin but a bit different. I looked about and noticed sitting almost on my foot a beautiful robin singing gently to me from inside his little body – not the full-blown-beak-open song I’m used to. It certainly cheered me up. That and the bright yellow papaya lying on the brown earth of the glasshouse, which I picked up to smell to check it was real. So, not the total end of the world then, in the big scheme of things, but to add insult to injury, my return rail tickets were in that duct tape wallet too and I needed to get home for a significant family occasion. 


Simple, I thought, I’ll just blag my way through the barriers at Waverley. After all, while traveling alone in Peru during one of my ‘gap years’ immediately before my PhD, I’d blagged my way all the way back to the UK from a Andean village called Caraz where everything I had with me was stolen: bag, tickets, money, passports, everything. All I had was six bread rolls in a plastic bag that I had just bought. I managed to get back to Lima, find a place to stay, negociate police reporting, replacement passport, replacement tickets, and everything else through pure blagging and persuasion. It was a bit stressful but I did it. However the folks in Peru must have been a bit more tender hearted than the Scotrail guys as there was absolutely no getting through that barrier without a ticket.

Caraz to Lima: that’s a long long way to go with nothing but six white bread rolls in a bag  (google maps tells me it’s 300 miles) 


Eventually I found out that there was a mechanism by which someone I know can buy me a ticket. But they can’t just call up or do it online, no. They actually have to go to a station in person to make the transaction (and pay £10 extra for the privilege). I called long-suffering husband. When he had stopped laughing long enough for me to issue him with instructions on how to release me from Waverley station I went to find a place to charge my mobile. I found £1.20 in small change at the bottom of my bag and went to see what kind of comfort that could buy in M&S food while I waited. It turned out to be one minuscule packet of honey roasted salted cashews. 


I’m rather puzzling to myself why I’m having a spate of losing things now, when the house is nearly completely finished as I surely can’t be as stressed as I was before. I suppose it’s because things I’ve put off are now all crowding in demanding to be done and  work has been even more demanding and rewarding and challenging and wonderful than usual. 



I think the prescription has got to be the following: 

1. Finish everything with the house once and for all – there’s too many odds and ends to keep track of at the moment. 

2 Stop organising new things whenever I have a small breather and a little space to think. 


3. Get a bumbag/wallet that hangs around the neck of the type you’d buy to go traveling on a gap year. In fact, come to think of it,  exactly the item which I had, the day my bag was stolen in Peru, left in my main rucksack, rather than had attached about my person. 

Plus ca change. 

The bad dream is nearly over 

I went upstairs to check how things were in advance of the building control visit. The carpets were 20cm deep in sawdust and wood shavings. The detritus led to the cupboard in the bathroom which houses the stove flue. I opened the door and found that it was no longer a cupboard but had undertaken a Narnia-esque transformation into a long corridor stretching to infinity. On either side of the corridor were fitted thousands of cupboards along the walls at eye height. 


“Wasn’t that nice of the joiners to do that?” I thought to myself, “It should help with sleeping space for the March visit of my entire ceilidh band and their families.” 


 But despite being pleased at the departure from the architects plans, (and departure from the laws of physics) I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been nice if they’d cleared up the mess. 


I went back downstairs to find even more mess. The joiners and builders must have been having a massive party. Gigantic bottles of red wine littered the floor, crisps and snacks were everywhere. It wasn’t quite teenager-party-standard trashed, but it looked like some serious partying had happened and… the building control inspection was due any minute.  


It took me a while to shake myself awake after the alarm went off and realise that it was just a dream and that I should be getting ready to head northward to the real building control inspection. I shot out of bed and got myself together. 


I’d actually been entirely confident that we’d get the building warrant. Or, at least I had been, until 10pm the previous evening when Stephen texted me, obviously anxious to manage expectations.    

“Let’s see if this might be the first” I replied*. But all of a sudden I didn’t feel so confident. I kept imagining what could go wrong. Any number of things sprang to mind as possibilities. And then there was the option that Stephen knew things I didn’t. 


I couldn’t leave Glagsow until the kids had left for school that day so I wasn’t up at the house to check that the final things had been done until 1115, 15 minutes before The Inspection was due. I arrived to find that the downpipe on the porch still didn’t connect with the drain.     

 Fortunately Grant the plumber and Grant Jr, the plumber’s apprentice, were on the case. Stuart (builder#1)’s son turned up at 1125 to deliver the drain cover and it was all done by 1130.   

  I raced around the house to check the few things I knew were outstanding: was it definitely less than 140mm between door and ground level? Yes, but…. I wasn’t at all confident that this interim solution would pass.   

Did we have a barrier on the landing window?  Yes. Stephen had been up the day before to install something. But it looked pretty temporary, especially as it was nailed on with four solitary nails. We’d have to wait and see about how that went down. 

 I put up a print out of the sustainability certificate on the wall (weirdly you just print this off the internet by inputting how sustainable your house is – try it yourself – it doesn’t seem to be ground truthed like an EPC is so I’m not really sure what the point of it is, you just choose your level of sustainability from a drop-down menu.) And I stuck up info a statement about the waste water treatment. 
I checked the drying room. We’d had to change the light fitting when we installed the hanging drying rack but the inset light still hadn’t been installed. I hoped Tony wouldn’t notice.

Just that minute Robert the electrician showed up – I wasn’t expecting him. He started work on the light and it was done just as Tony arrived at 1140am.  

We started with the drains test – grant blocked off a pipe and pumped a plastic bulb – it looked rather like taking someone’s blood pressure.   

Mr Building Control seemed satisfied but didn’t like the look of the drain, as the type 1 on the driveway had fallen into it. I’d need to get that cleared before he could issue a certificate. 

We headed upstairs and he reminded me that I should have bought an extendible velux window opening device … Arggggh. Annoying. That was sorted within the hour by a visit to Amazon.com.  
And lastly. We needed a 100mm high barrier on the ramp to the front door. Ah ha. That’s what the strange bit of wood was that I removed just before Mr Building Control arrived. I retrieved it and put it back where it was. He wanted it screwed on.  

Other than that he was happy. So we were left with three minor things: screw on the wood – done in a few seconds, buy an extensible rod – done before the end of the building inspection, and clear the drain (a marginally bigger job) 

So does that mean Stephen was unduly cautious? Did I manage to do what Stephen hasn’t in 13 years of building. Well I certainly think so. (Because they were such tiny things, weren’t they? and I couldn’t have possibly known that the type 1 had fallen down the drain while Ronnie was doing the drive that week). Stephen tells me it doesn’t count until I actually have a completion certificate to wave about. But I am claiming a personal victory anyway. 

After all the excitement of The Inspection and some planning for my splendid garden shed, I headed to the hills. It was a glorious day, and the Pap of Glencoe was calling. I watched the sun set and then headed down to the Clachaig where, entirely by good fortune, I found Geoff, my photographer/artist/bothy bagger friend (him of the virtual art gallery blog and 100th bothy party) who’d had a day in the hills and was about to head back to Edinburgh. He’d already agreed to take some photos of Cuil Bay that will become the splashback in the main bathroom so this seemed the ideal opportunity to get him to actually take them. The weather was set fair for the following day so we made a plan and headed back to Sula. 

* To be completely accurate and knowing Stephen will be checking,  my first response was actually the following   

Postscript: 25th February. A clean drain and a completion certificate. Pretty good really even though I say so myself. But special  thanks to Stephen of SEC Joiners and builders, and Stuart of SECarmichel Builders, and also to Kenneth and Robert of Fergusson Electrical, Ronnie Macoll, Grant Laird the plumber and many others. Especially the patient and long-suffering husband.     


  A photo at last of Stephen. 


Storms, mud and a pair of pyjamas 

Last week I read an article by Dani Garavelli in the Scotsman suggesting that, rather than pouring scorn on mums doing the school drop off in their pyjamas, we should hail them as counter cultural icons. I’m always one for the the non-conformist approach and idly wondered what people would think If I wore my pyjamas into the office. 

I thought nothing more of it until today. Today has been the 1034th day of consecutive rain on the west coast of Scotland (to my reckoning). And not just a bit of rain: torrential floods, teeming cats and dogs, bucketing. All around Sula the rain sits in puddles, the mud is monstrous. 

We spent the day varnishing windowsills and doing other useful stuff until I couldn’t bear being cooped up inside any more and headed off for a run in a break in the rain. By the time I started my run it was torrential again and, with needles in my face and an ice cream head, I set off into the headwind. After 5 minutes I was soaked through, after 20 a drowned rat would have lent me his towel. 

I headed back to the house to change. The afternoon activity was burning yet more cardboard and waste wood with a few bits of chair and tree that Jamie the farmer had dragged out of the burn as Storm Henry gathered.

Ronnie the digger-driver had excavated us a moat, perhaps more conventionally referred to as a drainage ditch.  I recklessly headed across the garden to investigate how it was working.  It was running with water, which was good, I sunk in nearly to the top of my welly, which was less good. 

I managed to extract myself, with difficulty, and then spotted a stray bit of insulation that had blown into the farmer’s field. I crossed the moat to grab it and sunk in way over the top of my right boot. I tried to rebalance and the other welly went in over the top. As I pulled at one welly and then the other I sunk deeper and deeper into the mud. My shouts for help went unheard. (later I discovered that husband couldn’t come to the rescue as I’d borrowed his shoes to go to the car to get my wellies and left them there.)


 I considered taking my wellies off and crawling to safety but then I remembered how polar bears walk on thin ice – spread your weight- I reached over to the insulation and used it to kneel on while I pulled my wellies out. 


So that was the second outfit rendered unwearable. Pyjamas was all I had left; a good reason to stay inside and buckle down to being useful. It wasn’t until most of the way through the drive back to Glasgow that Dani’s article came starkly to mind. 


I needed the loo. 

As we drove down Loch Lomond side I started weighing up the options. 

How bad is it to go into a service station and ask to use the loo while wearing pyjamas? Quite bad. 

What about the one with an M&S where I actually know the location of the loo and wouldn’t have to ask? Worse.

I remembered that I was also wearing my Icelandic jumper inside out (put on in a hurry in the dark while rummaging in the boot). Even worse. 

 How about a lay by? But it was still pouring with rain. 

What would Garavelli do? I thought. Actually I didn’t care. I wasn’t wearing PJs and an inside out Icelandic jumper in public. 

I remembered the magic toilet cubicle in Balloch. One of those automatic booths that rinses the whole thing down once you’ve been. Genius. We pulled into the dark car park, and I sprinted to the booth and back. Mission accomplished. 


The beneficial byproduct of the episode is that I don’t need to try wearing my Pyjamas to work. I’ve realised I’m just not counter-cultural enough to brazen it out. Just yet. 

The last days. 

The end is nigh. 

It really is. We are in the last days of the build and I’m feeling antsy, annoyed, impatient, and uncharacteristically pedantic. It’s like being two weeks past your due-date and no sign of baby. Except this baby is at least four months overdue. 

My day-job’s been frustratingly busy, the builder has been even harder to get hold of than normal and every time I go up to the house the progress seems infinitesimal. 

Last weekend up at the house, hoping to see it all done and ready for the very last little bits of taping and painting, I found plenty to add to my annoyance. Which wasn’t helped by anxieties over the return journey to Glasgow into the teeth of Storm Henry and its forecast 80mph winds. 


Over the long process of building this house there have been plenty of serious and challenging issues: a missing piece of structural metalwork, big holes drilled through a main supporting beam, windows in the wrong places and badly installed. All, I am pleased to report, I navigated with measure and calm.  But finding that the hole in the ceiling where the electrician had moved the dining area light hadn’t been filled with plasterboard and then spotting, a while later,  that the hole awaiting a light in the utility room had been filled in instead sent me into a tiny boiling rage. 


 It was made infinitely worse when I discovered that the work done to ameliorate a weird bit between the bottom of doors and where the screed started had breached the airtight envelope and now the force of storm Henry gathering his fury for the afternoon climax was blowing into my living room from under the wooden flooring. My tiny rage intensified and I shouted at an imaginary Stephen as I stomped about the empty house. 

 “The whole sodding point of building this house* was for it to be airtight” I wailed.  

“I want an energy efficient house. And I want an airtight house. And I want one now” 

 * update here:

The trials and tortures of planning and building this house that I had endured over the past three years all was wasted on the second-last day of works in the house. I was miserable. 

One eggy-bread-fried-cheese sandwich later I felt I had things slightly more in proportion and I sent the photo and airtightness woes to Stephen. The next day the Oban road was closed due to a fire at the Appin garage and the A82 over Rannoch moor was closed to high sided vehicles. I left into the wild gale, passing two articulated lorries and a van on their sides in the bog on Rannoch Moor and wondering whether the end really was nigh. 


The next day I managed to speak to Stephen on the phone about the various crisies. He laid my mind at rest; the membrane was in the incorrect position and it was now right. They’d do what needed to be done to make it better. It hadn’t crossed my mind before, but I think it must be the builder equivalent of bedside manner. Whenever I speak to Stephen about some earth-shatteringly horrific house-related disaster or worrying niggle, I come away feeling far better about it. It’s hard to pin down how he does it, but I suspect it’s a combination of agreeing with me, and suggesting a solution to the problem, or suggesting he has a look at it, but I think it is something that all builders should be able to do. 


I was chatting with a GP friend  later that evening.  She had spent the day being the examiner for a cohort of new doctors wanting to become GPs. They were being tested in role play situations with actors to see whether they would make the cut as GPs. Essentially it was a test of bedside manner, and many failed it. I wondered whether there was the equivalent for builders…


But bedside manner or no, I need this house airtight and airtight it shall be. (And the air is still leaking in on the latest update). I may be the last person you would associate with pedantry, but pedantic is what I plan to be on this one. Scott the architect would be proud of me.  



Community land in Broomhill

Seeking people in Broomhill, Glasgow to join a group to investigate possibilities for community use of the old Broomhill School Annex site. 


See email below if you are interested 


ReplyTo: Alex Cross <a.l.cross@btinternet.com>Subject: Use of Broomhill Primary School Annex land post school rebuild

I have recently been talking to the Broomhill Community Council about the potential for the land that will be released by the rebuild of Broomhill Primary School (currently annex buildings). This presents an opportunity to take control of the land either by ownership or renting in order to develop a community facility that would be of benefit to Broomhill area.
I am looking to see if there is enough interest to get together a team of around six to eight people who are willing to give some time in order to come up with a number of options for the land with a view to putting together realistic plans for the use of the land. We would then start to investigate what lies within the realm of the feasible and how we could put together a coherent and potentially successful argument for the case to gain control of the land for the benefit the community.
A good example to draw on is the recent community effort to run Portpatrick Harbour – link for info, hopefully this wouldn’t be as complicated!

This is just an e-mail to try to garner interest, I am in the difficult position of not having many e-mail addresses or contact details for Broomhill residents so I am going to rely on electronic word of mouth. I have sent this to you as someone who’s contact details I do have, I would ask you to pass it on to anyone you know in the broomhill area and if they are interested could they e-mail me at a.l.cross@btinternet.com; the intention would be to get together anyone interested at the end of February for an initial meeting to chat over the possibilities.
Thanks in advance for your help

A Cross


Form Filling for Fun 

Stephen always calls at the most inconvenient times. He doesn’t answer his phone, or texts, or emails. In fact he is almost impossible to get hold of, so when he calls I behave as if it might be David Attenbourough on the phone calling me to say he’s retiring and they need a front-woman to travel the world and talk calmly to camera while an angry gorilla makes warning charges in her general direction. 

Today I am cycling through Kelvingrove park on the way to work but I manage to answer the phone while in motion. It proves rather dangerous to try and negociate crowds of primary school children wandering towards the school gate while trying to hold a conversation about building a house so I dismount.

I’m beginning to think it might be a deliberate ploy to catch me off-guard without my list of essential things to hand (the only thing keeping me somewhat on track in this build). Anyway, it’s a very effective way of making sure I can’t think of many, or even sometimes any, of the things I’m supposed to be telling him. It doesn’t help that I am far too easily distractible with chat about other things so effectiveness seems doomed, especially as I haven’t met Stephen on site for a very long time. 

The house might seem done but it isn’t. There’s this and that to do and I need curtains, landscaping, shed and lean to thing that will be a wood store/bike shelter, but officially a bin store. And I also need to pay people (including Stephen). All this takes yet more money. SURELY NOT MORE MONEY???

But before I spend any more money I need to claim back my VAT and before I can claim back my VAT I need a building warrant. And for the building warrant I need an EPC (done!!!) a Form Q (see below) and all sorts of stuff to be sorted. I ask Stephen when I should arrange the final visit from building control. 
“When it’s all done”. He says. 

This, if my experience so far is anything to go by, could be forever or it could be never. 

So I gather together all the documents I need to send to get my building control certificate and I arranged a visit from Tony the building control officer three weeks hence. 

And it shouldn’t be that hard. There’s only a few building-control-critical things that need to be done. This drainage pipe is one.      

 Whether we need a step at the back another. And a barrier at the turn of the stair. And a few other miniscule things like a sustainability certificate stuck in the utility room, and a notice about the wastewater treatment. 

I have taken to calling the house phone to see what’s happening at the house – it gives a bit more information to me since the flow of information direct from Stephen more or less ceased. Peter was there and let me know what was going on. He was putting in the thing on the stairs in Pine. PINE? IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE OAK. I yelled to myself in my head and immediately texted Stephen. He actually got back to me straight away for a change and aquiesced after an emphatic text or two. Peter would take it out and It Would Be Oak. 


   …and doesn’t it look nice in oak?


I gathered EPC, electrical and fire alarm certificate, Form Q, heat pump certificate, and a few other bits of paper and filled in the form. Then I sent it recorded delivery. 

There was a lot of impenetrable guff on the form. Read the following and decide if you are a relevant person. Was I a relevant person? – I decided that I may not know whether A or B were true but C certainly was. I am a relevant person. isn’t it nice to feel relevant?   


Form Q

This is apparently a form where my engineer certifies that my house isn’t going to fall down, which seems rather brave of him. He wanted detailed information and evidence about the windows and how they were installed and about the Juliette balcony, which only had to go in to satisfy building control when we found that the windows weren’t how they were supposed to be. (Grrrrr again Scotframe).

I was supposed to have evidence of how the windows were attached in place (fortunately I took a photo of a window before the plasterboard went on to get the size of the windowsill so I had that). 

I get all the bumpf sent off for the FormQ and get started on the VAT claim so it’s all ready to go. 

Much of the text was indesipherable by normal human beings and was designed to make the most anally retentive pedant want to chew their own arm off. I plodded through receipts and invoices and piled them up till I had a file 2 inches thick. 


So now we have the paperwork ready to go and a deadline for everything to be done. So where is the form filling fun as suggested in the title? Has it been fun? No not really, I just thought I’d better write about some of this boring stuff and wanted to try and make it interesting. Besides, I like a bit of alliteration.  
Postscript: it’s now 6 weeks sis ve I wrote that blog. I have my completion certificate. But I don’t yet have my VAT refund. 


Gannets in the Shower

Last week, after visiting the house, I got all gushy thinking that, at long last, the build is over and I may never see the joiners again. I even called the house phone to express my undying thanks to a rather embarrassed joiner in case I didn’t get another chance. This week that appears to have been an over-optimistic and premature farewell. 
Progress has undoubtedly been made and it feels that I may be gaining territory from the builders. The carpets are in, I’ve hoovered up new carpet fluff, laid down my sleeping bag and turned on the MVHR again (apparently I’m not supposed to have it on if there is loads of dust). It’s starting to feel that upstairs is nearly my territory. 

  The skirting is more-or-less all on, the painting more-or-less all done, and yet there still seem to be countless things that aren’t quite done yet. Downstairs everything is still covered with sheets and cardboard and a layer of dust and doesn’t really feel ‘mine’ yet. I fried my vulture-shelf salmon fish cakes with the feeling that I was cooking in someone else’s kitchen, gingerly lifting the cardboard off the cooker to use it and putting it back afterwards. I wasn’t expecting the kitchen sink to be functioning, but it was, and the shower door was on at last* and complete. Joy Joy. I might go and have a bath, I thought. 


 I’ve been looking forward to having a bath in the new house for ages. Our current house in Glasgow, where we’ve lived for well over a decade, has the coldest bathroom I’ve ever been in, apart from perhaps the shower block at the campsite we frequent in Arisaig. 

  It also has a rather unreliable hot water supply since eight years ago I inadvisably installed a combination of solar hot water panels and a back boiler on a wood burning stove as the main ways to heat it. You can have as many hot baths as you like when it’s a blazing summer day but, when you would actually like to luxuriate in a warm bath, after a cold cycle home in the pouring rain, for example, the water is disappointingly tepid.  


However my desire not to clean the bathroom that would inevitably be messed up almost immediately by some other work that needed doing overcame my desire for a bath and decided to use the gannet shower instead.


  Two 1.5 m high gannets skypointing, printed onto dibond. I am not tilings biggest fan (perhaps due to the speed mould grows in my damp, frigid, bathroom) as you may have gathered so I thought about alternatives. I can’t think of anything worse than plastic faux marble shower panels of the type you get in youth hostels, ones you press and they dent then bounce back. There are probably all sorts of other shower panels you can get these days but I loose the will to live almost immediately on entering any kind of bathroom shop or showroom so I never really got past seeing a few I absolutely loathed. 


In the end I found inspiration in my job working for RSPB Scotland. I cover all the people side of their work including interpretation and visitor experience and we make most of our outdoor interpretation panels from dibond. If it stands up to 10 years in a damp woodland at Loch Lomond with one of the highest rainfalls in Britain, why wouldn’t it work in a shower?


I started looking for photos. First landscape ones (though the clues in the name there – I needed a very vertical image and landscapes tend towards the horizontal) a fabulous photographer friend sent me a few images I could use, but all either didn’t have a strong vertical aspect or weren’t high enough resolution. 

  It was about this time we set upon a name for the house. We both would have loved Balnagowan, the name of the island just off Cuil bay, a gull colony, which makes it special as my PhD was on gulls and husband still studies them. However that name was taken. I fixed upon the next island down, Shuna. The kids wanted the name of a bird. Their choice, Curlew Cottage or something of that ilk. Husband was lobbying for something related to gulls (Larus? Herring Gull House?) We had reached an impasse. 


Suddenly I came up with the answer- Sula – the old Latin name for gannets and also the old Norse name (and current Icelandic name as we found out from friends over Christmas). Despite saying lesser black back gull is my favourite bird, out out of loyalty, it is really the gannet, the most elegant, beautiful, graceful bird in the world. See blogs from my summer visit to Ailsa. 


It just worked. Everyone agreed. And the subject matter for the shower panel was simultaneously decided. I remembered husband had a talented wildlife photographer turned PhD student in his research group and so I asked whether he had any photos of gannets. And he did, which he generously let me use. And the rest is history. We’ll have to see how the dibond stands up to the rigors of being a shower panel. But in going to start with its first initiation and we’ll see how we get on. 


* We’d been awaiting replacement hinges for the shower, which is why it took a while to get the shower screen up.  I’d ordered a left hand door thinking it opened from the left, when it actually meant that the hinges were in the left. ‘No problem’ thought I, I’ll just swap the hinges. The whole shower is identical for left and right opening, it’s just installed upside down. The only bits that’s different are the hinges. I called Victoria Plum. ‘No we can’t just send the hinges up’ said the woman in the all centre ‘we’d need to replace the whole shower screen.’

‘But it’s only the hinges I need’

‘We don’t stock the hinges seperately’

‘The whole shower screen is installed already, what would happen is you would send the screen from the south of england to the north of scotland, I would take out the hinges, pop the old hinges back in and send the whole thing back  down south again.’


‘So can’t someone in your warehouse just take the hinges out and send them?’


I asked the same thing in a couple more ways and got nowhere, she evidently didn’t have the power to change anything, nor would she put me on the phone to anyone who could. 
Exasperated I took to Twitter. And within seconds Victoria Plum tweeted me to let me know that they had called the warehouse and there were some spare hinges and that they would send them up to me. Free of charge.   


Another small victory. 


Three cops in a boat (Chapter 2)

Chapter 1 of the saga is here.


Chapter 2: in which the party are stormbound and someone abandons ship. 

I was aware of some of the sterotypes about policemen. However, never having actually met one in a social context before and, not being one to judge by sterotypes, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I wouldn’t want to spend a week in an area 3m by 2m with three of them.


They turned out to be really nice guys individually, but in the evenings, the conversation had a tendency towards the unbearable (for a bleeding-heart liberal woolly-jumper-wearing save-the-whales leftie like myself). It was mostly about cars and boats, which was harmless enough, but interspersed with right-trending pontificatons about the welfare state, tree-huggers, and the invasion of foreigners. I found conversational companionship with Willie, the retired engineer.

Robert, the captain’s brother, was the most opinionated and also seemed to do most of the cooking. We had delicious three course meals, and cooked breakfasts all created from the tiny but perfectly formed galley, and I didn’t have to lift a finger. It was a highly unusual situation. Fair to say that on the first day while we were at sea, and before I had started my travel sickness meds, there wasn’t much chance of me lifting a finger, it was all I could do to sit staring at the distant horizon without vomiting. However I wasn’t even allowed to wash up, or fetch things from around the cabin. It was a novelty to start with, and then it started to get irritating. Connor, meanwhile, seemed to have an unattainably high standard for on-yacht cuisine. There was a constant and debilitating low-level of sniping between the brothers.

We had changed the planned route due to horrific weather forecasts and decided to head down the east cost to Inverness, then along the caledonian canal, to Fortwillian and to Mull from there. Our first port was Wick and we arrived in a large swell and onshore wind taking some skilled piloting from Conor. It was certainly hairy stuff and added some thrills to what was, otherwise, an uneventful day. As soon as we arrived it became apparent that we wouldn’t be leaving for a few days as the swell prevented us getting out of the harbour and the wind wasn’t due to change for a few days. We were stormbound in Wick.


The sailors on board were doomladen. I was elated. A chance to spend some quality time in my natural habitat (land): to run along the cliffs, a take a breathtakingly cold dip in the sea, to explore a new place, in fact to do all the things I like doing, in contrast to sitting motionless on a boat and staring at the horizon for hours on end.

The first day of being marooned I took the train to Forsinard, a stunning RSPB reserve in the middle of Europe’s biggest blanket bog. Bliss. Giant horizons, minuscule sundews, sun on peat pools, calling waders. I climbed the new viewing tower to have my breath taken away at the way the architecture and landscape interacted: the vertical with the horizontal.


On my return Robert was in full swing, this time a mysogeny flavoured rant on his favoured subject the Scottish independence movement. Now I love a good political argument; locking horns over the subjects that matter and can change the world; intellectual engagement challenging your own views as well as those of your opponents. I love having someone to disagree with in friendly discussion so much that sometimes, when the wine has been flowing and everyone is in happy political agreement, I come up with a contrarian view just so we can enjoy a good robust argument. *

IMG_0862But this wasn’t really much fun. The rant really didn’t stand up to the rigors of argument, which didn’t go down well. It just caused the offensiveometer to be turned up a notch.

Later that evening I determined to get on the 1120am train to civilization. It was him or me on this boat. I could not spend another waking moment on the Juneflower .

Morning dawned and the boat was quiet. Robert wasn’t industriously making bacon, eggs and black pudding. In fact Robert was nowhere to be seen. Once everyone had emerged apart from Robert, we found out that he had left. Jumped ship. He was on the first train out of Wick back to Glasgow. To my immense surprise it seemed that the war of attrition has been unexpectedly won. I felt elated.
It turned out that Robert actually left after one too many criticisms of his cooking from Conor. However, no matter the reason he left, it was undeniable that the quality of life onboard improved immeasurably. I moved into a cabin of my own (previously I had been sleeping on one of the seats in the lounge, with Willie on the other). Everyone relaxed a bit, and I determined to stay on the boat and see where the adventure of putting myself so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even see it with a telescope, would take me.

* Once I got myself into big trouble with my delight in argumentative banter when meeting a close friend’s new man, a credit trader working in the city of London. It was shortly after the financial crash and I started, what I thought was, a good natured but robustly challenging discussion on the role of the bloated global financial industry in bringing down the world economy and generally oppressing the poor and fomenting inequality. It turned out that the boyfriend didn’t come from such a tradition of arguing simply for the sheer fun of it.

After the meal, back at her flat, I was told off in no uncertain terms for putting her eternal happiness in jeopardy. That was when I discovered that I had been invited along to, what was effectively, their second date.

Yes it could have all gone horribly wrong but, if you can survive a second date with your brand new girlfriend’s Uni friend haranguing you about your role in the downfall of the world economy, it is probably a good sign. You will be pleased to know that, despite such a disastrous date, they are still together. And when I see them now, the conversation doesn’t get more adventurous than the intricacies of childcare and where we are going for brunch.


Three cops in a boat (chapter 1)

Three retired policemen. Not the companions I’d usually choose to spend a week with in a confined space, but it sounded like an adventure.


Orkney to mull in a 40ft yacht for the cost of a shared food kitty and enough alcohol to keep an army drunk for a week. I’d signed up to it after an email came round a climbing club email list I’ve been on for years with the intention on going on their weekend mountaineering trips and never quite getting it together. But this time the email was different.


‘Crew sought for sailing trip to Lofoton’. My mind instantly wandered to the icy arctic and the lofty spires of Lofoton, a place I’d visited just after finals while a field assistant for a hapless PhD student from Sheffield studying caterpillars on dwarf willow.


My life of joyful but demanding family, a job I love (most of the time) and the never-dull house build started to seem rather mundane in the face of adventures on the high seas and climbing rock pillars in arctic wildness. A certain melancholy enveloped me when the impossibility of ever having a proper adventure again struck.


I emailed back with not the slightest expectation of a reply ‘How amazing that sounds. Feeling a bit sad that my family commitments mean that I can’t abandon the husband and kids for any length of time worthy of the expedition this year’ I wrote.


But a week later I had an email suggesting that I simply hop on and off for a week of my choosing and, looking at the weeks set aside for our summer holiday, noted that the stint from Orkney to Mull fitted in. So that was our summer holiday destination planned….


I didn’t actually meet Connor, the captain and owner of the Juneflower, until the night before he was due to sail out of Tighnabruaich, destination Lofoton. He was heading there for the longest day and the boat was packed and ready to go. I would be on the homeward leg. If the yacht, and its captain and crew, survived the trip out, then I’d likely be safe was my reasoning.  But even given the assurance of Natural Selection, I thought it would be a good idea to meet at least one of the people on the boat before I shackled myself to him for a week.


I nearly didn’t get to meet Conor at all, with his busy-ness packing the boat, my general busy-ness and basically forgetting to get in touch with him until a few days before he left. We managed to fit in a half-hour drink at the local rugby club on one of the best days of the summer. I didn’t need to worry about how to find him: blue shorts to the knee, a pink and white striped polo shirt, and deck shoes, he was obviously a sailor.  He was also a retired policeman in his late 50s, tall and thin, with a tanned and peeling nose, and he had already bought me a pint of St Mungos lager which sat awaiting my arrival on the bar. Unsurprisingly, I found this rather odd. During the introductions I worked out that he must have seen a photo on my twitter account of a set of albatross scaring lines next to a drink of WEST Brewery’s St Mungos lager. It’s a bit weird to have someone you’ve never met buy a drink for you before you arrive at the pub, but it’s extra weird coming from a policeman.


However, despite the slight weirdness, he seemed personable, and highly competent in matters of how to sail a boat, which was what I needed to know. He told me a little about the other people on the boat: Robert, his brother and also a retired policemen, and Martin, a long-time colleague also from he police. Willie, a retired engineer, and myself completed the crew.


Now I don’t know the first thing about sailing. I’d been on a couple of dinghys, one where husband’s glasses were hit by the boom and sunk to the bottom of the briny without trace (not great when on a holiday in the far North of Scotland with no opticians for 100s of miles) and once on a yacht with a Uni friend, turned boat builder, who took me on a truly terrifying tour round the Summer Isles in a storm as he shouted with glee. But, despite my personal experience, sailing has always seemed adventurous and romantic to me; blame the Swallows and Amazons if you like.


‘I don’t think you’re going to like it’ said husband, who knows me too well, as we ate a final meal in the Kirkwall hotel. A week in a confined space; no possibilty of excercise, my previously demonstrated fear of sailing, and my slight tendancy to travel sickness. And then, added to that, the prospect of spending it with three ex cops.  ‘It’s going to be an amazing adventure’ I said.

(Names have been changed to protect the innocent….) 

I don’t want to go home!

Now I have experienced the alternative, it’s really hard coming back to our house in Glasgow. We have a car full of wet skiing gear with nowhere to dry it, a car full of tired, wet children and tired, wet adults, and only one cold bathroom to fight over, with a limited supply of hot water. The oven doesn’t work properly, there’s no dishwasher, and there’s a total of about 1m of work surface in the kitchen (and that’s totally clogged and cluttered with bowls of vegetables and fruit and boxes of odd bits and pieces I don’t really know what to do with). It’s all also a bit dark and depressing, and pretty cold, unless we put the woodburner on and huddle in the sitting room.

It didn’t really bother me before, it was just life, but now I have been forever spoiled by spending some time the new house. We’ve just had my family, my sister’s family (another 4) and my parents to stay (with Jake, who milled the internal wood for the house, and his two kids for one of the nights). For a three bedroom house that was obviously quite a squeeze but it coped formidably, but the total highlight for me has been the drying room. 
   Up until now it’s been called the utility room or, more appropriately, the plant room (since it is annoyingly almost totally taken up with two huge tanks for the heating system – one of which I didn’t even know I was getting until I saw the guys struggling to get it in through the front door) but now it is definitely the Drying Room. It helps that it is the warmest place in the house, and when you put the MVHR on boost, it’s more effective than any drying room I’ve been in (and I have spent more than my fair share of time trying to get sopping wet gear dry in hostel drying rooms over the past couple of decades). It was full of wet coats, boots, ski equipment, gloves, hats for four days in a row and got everything dry.  

It has to be said that the house really does have everything that our current house lacks (except spare bedrooms). I had rather wondered about the extravagance of having three bathrooms while we were building the house but it is certainly useful when there’s eleven people staying. And, anyway, the one downstairs shower is absolutely non-negotiable, as its in the entrance area to the house which was always planned as the place to arrive muddy and wet from some Scottish outdoor adventure and derobe, shedding ones muddy clothes into the washing machine/drying room, and ones muddy self into the shower. It has already served its purpose admirably when I ignored everything I’d learned in cartoons about not sawing off the branch you are sitting on when making a woodshed.

The house is also mercifully free of clutter (which may be because we haven’t moved stuff there yet) and has acres of worksurfaces to clutter with cooking stuff and other bits and pieces. And loads of room for sous chefs/ armchair cooks to mill about. There are a few things that are annoying about the design – I need more fridge room, and it’s rather annoying to have to squeeze round the chairs to get to the other side of the dining table. (That’s one of the things that irritates me about my current house). There a whole other blog in what would be designed differently if I was starting again, to accompany all the blogs on how I would build it differently, but that will come later. 

So the obvious question is, why on earth are you driving back to Glasgow with a car full of wet ski kit and wet children? Why leave behind Shanggrila when you have only just hacked it free from a jungle of self-imposed building balls-ups?

Well that would be a very sensible question. Why indeed? 

Well I’ve been rather preoccupied with getting the house built while  attempting to save nature for the RSPB in my day job and trying not to be a completely absent wife and mother. So I hadn’t really sat still long enough to think about the future. But I’ve just read through the very first blog I wrote which I think still stands. Back then, however, I couldn’t possibly have known how difficult it would be to leave the place now it’s pretty  much finished.


However I have a plan. The kids might not want to leave the delights of Glasgow. But I’ve been working developing an exciting project in the area through work that might bear some fruit. And in the meantime, there’s always the weekends. And Mondays. And the odd day I need to be in the area for a child’s ski race, or work. 

But it is really quite a long drive just to have a hot bath and dry your wet walking socks out.