Saturday, 30 July 2016

Striking a blow for bagpipes

I’m always wary of coincidences. It’s always particularly annoying in a movie or drama, when you suspect the author just needs to speed things along.

Detail from the Luttrell Psalter
However, a hilarious coincidence happened to me the other day, which had me in bits, to the amusement of passers-by.

There I was in Morpeth. Long story short, my husband Rob had a day conference in Leeds, so we extended the trip to spend some time in the Northumberland borders en route back to the Scottish Borders.

Rob headed south on the train and I went into town. First stop was Information, and then I came upon a sign that made me boggle. The Morpeth Bagpipe Museum.

In itself, this is not as incongruous as it sounds, for there is a long and proud tradition of piping in the North-East. What was personally amusing is that my daughter, Lauren, is writing a dissertation on the significance of musical instruments in the marginalia of Books of Hours, and has a chapter on ... bagpipes.
Now bagpipes are interesting for a number of reasons, not least is that the nobility found them rather vulgar, with the associations of animal parts and the expressions assumed by the players. Pigs playing bagpipes are a recurring theme in illuminated manuscripts and in other decoration. You only have to visit Melrose Abbey to see this for yourself (see picture). Lauren had just been to stay and regaled us with all manner of quirky bagpipe-related references.

(A previous essay dealt with whelks, and that was almost as riveting. Medieval art is really quite interesting in a Stephen Fry kind of way.)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Peasant Dance
So there I was, outside what I believe is the world’s only bagpipe museum. And it was quite charming. Situated on the top floor of a stone chantry, showing how seriously the enterprise was taken, it was well laid-out, informative and attractive. You could listen to different styles (with headphones, of course!), see facsimiles and learn how this unusual brand of instrument came to be. And yes, there were many images of bucolic peasants being coarse and enjoying themselves at feasts tootling on all types of rude-looking musical paraphernalia.

When we booked our hotel in Morpeth, I got an email trying to sell me car hire and such like saying ‘Pamela, turn your trip to Morpeth into an adventure’. See?

I giggled at first, without realising how prophetic it was. So there you have it. My adventure with bagpipes. In Morpeth. You couldn’t make it up.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Legendary landmark

I collect stone circles. Not literally, obviously, but over the years, I’ve been adding to my list of sites visited: Southern Sweden, the South-West of England, Aberdeenshire and now ... Duddo.

Duddo? I hear you ask. She’s spelt it wrongly. But no. Duddo is tiny village near Etal – and that’s spelt correctly, too, in north Northumberland.

I live in Hawick in the Scottish Borders and it sounds long way away, but due to the vagaries of the English/Scottish border, it’s actually rather close (four miles).

I know the Borders quite well, and I’d no idea there were any standing stones in the region at all, to my shame, but during a chance conversation with a volunteer at Wallington estate (see more in another blog to come!), Duddo cropped up.

So, on a bright sunny summer’s day (yes, we do get them in Scotland), and drove the zigzag roads around the acres of ripening wheat to Duddo village.

Stone circle fans will know it can be something of a pilgrimage to locate said sites, but the signposts were clear. We parked on the grass verge at the side of a narrow road and set off across the fields, saying hello to fellow travellers on the path to archaeological enlightenment.

I felt like St Cuthbert himself, wandering the gentle pathways of the Borders, with very little sign of human intervention on the landscape. Amid that scene of rural splendour, we were aware only of skylarks, swishing corn, butterflies and bees. Only an occasional con trail or distant tractor reminded us of modern life.

We rounded a corner and there on a low hill were the stones, a ragged assortment of rocks looking more like the pulled teeth of giants lay ahead.

Ten minutes later, we had arrived, and were astonished. Only five stones remain out of seven, but they are huge, rilled lumps of sandstone, encrusted with coloured lichen. A small circle, by Avebury standards, but ruggedly epic and endlessly photogenic.

Experts believe they were erected in 2,000 BC. The tallest is 2.3m, higher than a modern-day man and one appears to have mystical Neolithic cup marks, which have inspired all manner of theories about gory sacrifices. Human remains were found underground in the centre some years ago.

Why were such stone circles built? Even with all the trappings of modern-day technology, we can only conjecture, which adds to the mystic beauty of these sites. (You only have to think of the opening credits to Outlander to appreciate the appeal. I even wrote Midsummer Glen, a short story on the theme.)

The setting is particularly majestic, with prominent landmarks such as the Yeavering Bell, a twin-peaked hill near the River Glen, and the Eildons, the distinctive triple-mound visible in the far distance (above).

The Duddo stones, proudly standing on a hill with wrap-round panorama, must have been a landmark for travellers over the centuries. Curiously, it is actually on a line linking Melrose Abbey with Lindisfarne. St Cuthbert himself must have seen it on his travels. In fact, would it be too fanciful to think the ancient site, with its spiritual resonances, might have inspired later ecclesiastical types to settle in these Borders locations?

Rob having a Gladiator moment
Going completely berserk on the conjecture front, was Melrose significant to the early Christian founders because of the ‘trinity’ of Trimontium, the Roman name for the three hills that form the Eildons. I’m sure some expert has thought of this, but I haven’t found a reference.

So. Duddo. A stunning and inspiring place which doesn’t even rate a mention on my road map.

PS See a blog from last year: Stones of a certain standing.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Writing on a sunny afternoon

I love working outside on a warm day, but glare is a problem.

Introducing Shadow Box Mark II, a revamped version of my personalised laptop anti-glare device, which I pimped up for today’s heat wave. Glaringly obvious bit of DIY, but it works!

Yes, even in Scotland, the temperature is over 20 degrees.

What you’ll need

  • Several different rolls of sticky tape
  • Scissors
  • A shoebox that is slightly larger than your PC
  • A patient partner who must promise not to laugh.
First, deconstruct the panels and then simply reassemble and stick into place around the laptop (making sure that any flexes/memory cards etc also fit!).

Fetch long cold drink.

Insert laptop and off you go.

Of course, you’ll have to change out of that sparkly top – those dazzling sequins are not helpful.

And has anyone else struggled with using a mouse on an ornate cast iron garden table? A problem for another day.

My husband was rather envious of my super-sophisticated creation, so he made his own. He’s dubbed it the ViewTube.

Actually, he's just abandoned it in favour of a garden brolly!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Ten reasons to take your laptop on holiday

I don’t care if it’s not PC, as it were, but I’ve decided I like having my laptop with me on vacation.

Cloudy horizons at Mumbles
In the past, I just used to pack an A4 pad, some printouts and a pen, and hoped for the best. However, I never did anything useful, I’m afraid to say.

Norwegian Church on a bright Cardiff afternoon
This year, I’ve been parcelling up the old Acer and recharger and shoving them in my hand luggage. Then off I go. It’s not been obsessive and I haven’t been tempted to do hours and hours a day, but just a bit of dabbling. I have say, it’s been great.

Here’s why:
Breakers on Rhossili Beach
  1. I don’t lose the thread of whatever I’m working on.
  2. I hate typing on a tablet.
  3. It keeps me sane during inevitable delays at airports, stations, ferries, car hire desks etc.
  4. I feel liberated to tackle those knotty plot problems because I’m not distracted by the usual domestic nonsense.
  5. I don’t fret about the weather, for I can always edit a quick chapter while waiting the sun to come out. Especially useful in Wales, as you can see.
  6. Taking the laptop means I have all my notes, background details and so forth, so I can keep the text consistent.
  7. By the same token, if I get stuck on one manuscript, I have the wherewithal to dabble in another.
  8. Any work I achieve is a bonus.
  9. It’s much more environmentally-friendly than printing out masses of pages.
  10. Writing is fun for me, so why deny myself the pleasure?
Leafy bower in a shower on the Gower
So, it might not be for you, but it works for me. And since you ask, I'm now officially halfway through Machiavelli's Acolyte and raring to go to finish it soon. 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Seasonal beauty in the Scottish Borders

It’s always fun chatting to taxi drivers on one’s travels. Recently in Leeds, I had a great conversation with a local chap – about the weather. Despite recent events, it's possibly the most popular topic in the UK.
The Eildons on a hazy summer day
‘Sad to say, you don’t get seasons here any more,’ he said, bemoaning warm, wet winters and coolish summers. ‘They’re all the same, these days.’

Classic autumn tones by the Teviot
I didn’t like to disagree, but this is not the case in the Scottish Borders. We moved into Lindores, 19 Fenwick Park, last summer. A year later, there are clear divisions as the months go by.

Snow transfigures Teviotdale
Of course, I’m not saying that every day in autumn is filled with crisp, golden sunshine, or that it snows every day in winter. However, the archetypal patterns remain. To prove my point, here’s a brief photojournal of our year in the Borders, with shots of Melrose, Kelso, Jedburgh, Dryburgh, Selkirk, Hawick and Bedrule. Names to conjure with. With their Buchanesque qualities, they make it an inspiring and wonderfully uncluttered place to live.

Jedburgh Abbey basking in April sunshine
In fact, it appears that we may be the first of a new wave of settlers, saying: ‘Right. That's it. I'm moving toScotland.’

Politics has changed the face of Britain, but the scenery of the Borders is as fantastic as it ever was. And, as Marc Almond said, ‘the air is better.’

See more on my Borders inspiration Pinterest page. 

Lindores in spring