Islands in the sun

The summer has faded here in Scotland, although not without a welcome September reprise of beautiful sunshine and warmth. Many of my off days these past months, and not a few lazy evenings of extended twilight, have been spent wearing out the Golf Coast Road to Longniddry, Yellowcraig and North Berwick. 

In August I made my now-annual pilgrimage across the Irish Sea to the Openskies festival, once again in the excellent company of Ickle Bef, on a ferry which charged £1.65 for a cup of tea and £2.00 for a cup of hot water. 

The weather forecast for the weekend was absolutely apocalyptic. We camped anyway, praying madly that the weather would miss us, which it did, and we came away with tents and belongings mostly dry and all intact. Even the fairy lights – a lovely set of plastic pink flamingoes generously donated by DL – survived. The deluge, it transpired, had been diverted towards Wales, where it landed with full force where my sister and her family were camping. Our diversion prayers were non-specific in a directional sense, and my conscience is clear.

Sports-wise, England won the Cricket World Cup, failed to win back the Ashes despite Ben Stokes’ monumental heroics in Leeds, and the Red Sox had a disappointingly average season.

Ireland appeared to be alarmingly ill-prepared for the Rugby World Cup, but still I approached their opening game against Scotland with hope and a degree of expectation.

Sunday 22 Sep | Ireland 27-3 Scotland

Later that day Ryan texted me from Nashville.

“What’s happening to Scotland?”

I was feeling slightly daunted at the prospect of figuring out what, indeed, was happening to Scotland in the current Brexit and IndyRef2 climate, not to mention how to condense that into a text, when a further message clarified that he was talking about the rugby. 

I reminded him of my Irishness, which is something I am happy to do for people when they are inclined to forget, and especially when Ireland are doing well and most especially when they’ve just beaten Scotland.

Six days later, Ireland faced the hosts Japan in Shizuoka. 

I woke up early. Like, 4am early. Three hours later I gave up on further sleep, and made my escape to Sainsbury’s, which I had discovered to my surprise was open at such an hour on a Saturday morning.

I returned home with bacon and croissants. The croissants were freshly-baked and still warm, and so good it sort of made me want to get up early on a Saturday morning more often. Sort of. 

Then I watched Japan puncture the hopes of an island, and I wished I’d stayed in bed.

Saturday 28 Sep | Japan 19-12 Ireland

The afternoon was sunny and breezy on the coast. A few friends joined me on a fast boat trip from N Berwick, which skimmed over the choppy waves to three islands in the Forth – the Lamb, Craigleith and the Bass Rock. The Lamb, we discovered, is now owned by Uri Geller, who is convinced that the ancient Egyptians buried treasure somewhere on it. Our guide explained that the Lamb was made of basalt, one of the hardest naturally-occurring substances known, and openly wondered how the ancient Egyptians would have buried anything in it.

Having completed a slow circuit of the Lamb, we sped through the sea spray to Craigleith and did the same, and then on to the Bass Rock, and its 150,000-strong colony of gannets. At this time of year their numbers are thinned out somewhat, but there was still enough to make a considerable din, and their guano was, well, fragrant. 

As we circled the island I discovered that it not only has a lighthouse, but also a 14th century castle. In fact, the lighthouse has been built inside the castle. This makes the Bass Rock, in my view, about as epic as it could possibly be. An island with a lighthouse AND a castle? I feel sure the Famous Five must have visited.

The Longest Day

It’s getting on for the end of June, dear reader. The country remains in unresolved Brexit turmoil, although attention has now shifted to the Conservative Party’s leadership election, which will determine our next Prime Minister. Once this is resolved, for better or worse, Brexit will again, I imagine, consume us all. 

In Edinburgh, the summer so far has been unusually damp. Unusually damp, I say, for it has been damp even by Scottish standards. 

Accordingly, the cricket season has been patchy. Last Saturday the Holy Cross 2nd XI, of which I had been carelessly – but happily only temporarily – left in charge, played their first game in a month.

We were away to Musselburgh. I lost the toss. This was the first indicator that it wasn’t to be a good day. We were asked to bat on a damp wicket, and bowled out for 21, which – for those not in tune with cricketing matters – is a pretty low score for one batsman, never mind a whole team. 

Captains and managers in sport are frequently said to have “lost the dressing room.”  I took this a step further by losing the dressing room key, which went missing from the scorer’s table at some point during the first innings. Fingers were pointed and accusations levelled.

In due course the key was located, in one of my team-mates’s pockets.

Normally at this point we would all ‘take tea’, which would involve picking at whatever meagre fare the home team had produced, before commencing the second innings. However, such was the low score that Musselburgh needed to chase, we simply went back out again.

Four overs later, Musselburgh required 7 runs to win. I threw the dice, and made my first bowling change, bringing on Ollie the Offspinner. Ollie delivered his first – entirely respectable – ball, and the batsman, in an act of considerable discourtesy, deposited it over long-on for six.

It bounced on the path which ran beyond the boundary, right over the wall, into trees and dense foliage, and was lost forever. We found another ball from somewhere. The same batsman edged this one through the slips and it was all over. 

We trooped into the changing rooms. The showers were cold. We emerged again, and the tea, sadly, met our expectations fully.

A dismal performance, a lost game, a lost ball, a lost dressing room key, cold showers, and a poor tea. At least it wasn’t raining.

The following Friday we celebrated 2019’s longest day, on an East Lothian beach. We really should have been at Akva, our monthly Swedish haunt, but the weather had taken an upturn, as if acknowledging that the longest day deserved better. So we cancelled our booking, in the process denying ourselves Akva’s pagan midsummer celebration complete with flower crowns and frog dancing, whatever that is.

Suitably equipped with fish and chips, we wandered down the sandy path to the beach. The tide was in. The fish was excellent, the chips too, although sand – unfailingly able to find its way into every available orifice – found its way into my box of chips, and became a most unwelcome garnish of the grittiest possible kind.

Nicola, garlanded most appropriately with a flower crown, produced a couple of bags of Haribo from somewhere, and we watched the sun sink slowly in an almost flawless blue sky, painting a pencil-thin orange stripe towards us across the water, and the wet rippled sand.

We walked eastward to the end of the beach, on the way enacting what we thought frog-dancing might be, and parked ourselves on a massive piece of driftwood, as the sun sank even lower. Eventually, just after 10pm, it dropped behind that little hill across the water in Fife, whose name escapes me now. 

I remember someone telling me that there are parts of the village of Falkland which are in shadow for six months of the year (or thereabouts), due to their proximity to that hill.

We returned along the Golf Coast, courtesy of Sonic Boom Bef’s thrill-a-minute driving, and stopped for a McFlurry at Fort Kinnaird.

It was at this point that I noticed TK Maxx. It was looking as good as a TK Maxx ever has, I would venture to say. The distant horizon, still burning a fiery red, was reflected in its polished glass frontage. This, combined with the odd solitary tree and manicured grass of the Fort Kinnaird car park, made for a striking image. Made me think of Malibu.

“It’s just like Malibu,” I remarked to Nicola.

Nicola snorted.

I’ve never even been to Malibu. Later, I found a picture of the TK Maxx in Malibu (although of course it’s TJ Maxx there). It was surprisingly unimpressive-looking, although there were real palm trees in the picture. Fort Kinnaird for the win, I say.

We found a table by the window, with a gorgeous view across the roundabout to Screwfix, and Bef had her first ever McFlurry. It was a momentous day.

You’re never too old for a paddle


Sunday last I enjoyed the pleasing coincidence of a hot and sunny day off. I visited a different church in the morning (a change is as good as a holiday and all that), napped in the afternoon, and decided to make the most of the long summer twilight and headed to the beach in the evening.

I realise that a visit to the beach means that for the next week I will be finding sand everywhere, in all of my possessions, even the ones I didn’t take to the beach, but I decide it’s worth it.

So after a high-speed 57mph trundle out to East Lothian, I arrive at 6.20 — 10 minutes before the chargeable parking period expires. It’s £2 to park for the whole day, and while that’s entirely reasonable, £2 for 10 minutes isn’t, so I sit tight for a bit. My phone has ZERO reception, which makes the minutes drag by.

Eventually at 6.25 I decide that a parking official would have to be vicious to penalize me for 5 minutes of unpaid parking, and so I sashay confidently towards the beach, meeting lots of families coming the other way, possibly because a shark has been spotted offshore, or perhaps because it’s getting towards the kiddies’ bedtime.

I head straight for the water, which feels surprisingly warm. It should be said that I measure all seawater temperature against the benchmark stored in my head, which is the Atlantic in October. At that temperature, the initial meeting of feet and water produce a shock to the system that results in not only a sharp intake of breath, but a momentary suspension of all life-systems, which of course gradually (over the course of say 30 minutes) gives way to a “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” feeling. Then a marginally bigger wave comes in, and brings about a meeting of the icy water with part of one’s leg that has hitherto not been exposed to such extremes. At that point the bubble of one’s “come-on-in-the-water’s-lovely” delusion is burst most emphatically.

So, with the context now firmly set, the water is surprisingly warm. I paddle along the water’s edge for a fair bit, making it round a couple of headlands, before returning the way I came, carefully avoiding jellyfish all the way. I meet a few fellow-paddlers, some of which, it must be said, are dogs. But one gentleman calls out as we pass

“You’re never too old for a paddle!”

“Pardon?” I reply. Too old to hear well, it seems.

I retreat from the water, and wedge myself into the seaward slope of a large sand dune, whereupon I am immediately set about by a plague of flies.

The Bass Rock is off to my right, Fife is straight ahead across the Forth, and a small rocky island with a lighthouse is on my left. The Lighthouse Island (I later learn it’s called Fidra) looks like something straight out of the Famous Five, and I have a strong urge to get in a boat and row across to it. But there are no boats, and I forgot my swimming cozzie. Plus, y’know, there may be sharks. So I Instagram it instead.

It’s Father’s Day. I sit on the sand dune and remember my dad, while the grains of sand gradually work their way into my bodily orifices and the flies continue to annoy.

I’m pretty sure I never heard my father say he was proud of me. Truth is, I’m not sure if he ever was. It’s nine years now since he passed. I’m reasonably confident he would be proud of me, if he was alive today. I’m not overly concerned about this, despite these musings, as I have learned to get my significance from my heavenly Father. But it would have been nice to hear.

Just this last week I watched my good friend Alyn bury his father up in Dundee. His father was a good, godly man, as was mine, and neither of them, it’s fair to say, were given to incautious displays of emotion. But they were both doing the best they had with what they had been given.

Father’s Day these days produces not only nostalgic memories of my dad, but the increasingly acute awareness that I could, at my advanced age, not only be a father, I could be a father whose children have all gone to university. Or away somewhere, inter-railing, or on an angst-ridden gap year, finding themselves.

It’s interesting how life has worked out. I don’t regret anything for a moment. Well, of course, that’s not strictly true, there are many things in my life that I regret, many decisions I would reverse if I had the chance to do them again.

But I’m happy with all the big decisions I’ve made, and this particular evening’s somewhat smaller-scale decisions have all been successful too, culminating with fish and chips on the beach at North Berwick, with the setting sun casting a golden, undulating ribbon across the Forth.

Here’s to creating new memories.

Adventures in the mountains

The Trossachs were shrouded in thick black cloud and reeked of menace this morning as I headed up the M9. (Bear with me, I’m warming up for my Australian travel writing). Was on my way to see a customer who lives just outside Callander, in a truly remote location high up in the hills. Realistically, it’s not truly remote, as it is really only a few miles from Callander, but it feels genuinely remote. After leaving the A84, I drove for a couple of miles on single track roads/farm track, and through somebody else’s farmyard, before reaching his house. Halfway up I encountered a flock of sheep guarding the upper reaches, one of which remained quite stubbornly in the middle of the track. Things could’ve got tricky here, but I mentioned that I knew Doug Smith well, and was immediately accorded the VIP treatment. Doug is a friend of mine with well-established links among the sheep community. I’d better say no more.

I made better time on the road up to Callander than I’d expected, and was considering a visit to a local coffee shop. In fact I have to confess I not only considered it but attempted to act upon it (I can hear the tuts of disapproval from all you Standard Life employees with your strong work ethic) by making a sortie into Doune. Given Doune’s location and size and everything you would really expect it to have at least one legendary coffee shop, but alas the only thing I could find was a stand on the street advertising a deli (I mean, come on, a DELI in Doune?) which professed to sell tea and coffee. Unfortunately I couldn’t locate the actual deli, just the stand advertising its presence. So I beat a hasty retreat from Doune, shook the dust off my feet as I left, etc etc. A cup of tea to perk me up would’ve been just the ticket, as sleep has been a little elusive of late. Last night this could be put down to the fact that my neighbours in the flat above me appeared to be trying to drill through my ceiling. Disturbed by the racket, I wandered out of my bedroom into my hallway at some late hour of the night, half expecting to find said neighbours parachuting down through a gaping hole above. However, they never materialised, which is a mercy, as I was in no state to receive visitors, and I managed to crawl back into bed and get some sleep.

So, the timer on my desktop informs me that it’s just over 42 days until the Ashes. Gosh it’s exciting. I do hope you’ve been keeping up to date with all the hype. More here. The other timer on my desktop is counting down the days to my holiday…

Anyway, time to seek some more of that elusive sleep.

Alternative ending for those with a passing interest in cricket:

Michael Vaughan has been making noises in the press recently about perhaps being fit to play in the 4th and 5th Tests at Melbourne and Sydney. These are, as it happens, the ones I’m going to. While it would be great to see Vaughan back in action, I would wonder at the wisdom of reintroducing him to what will hopefully be a settled team at what may be a crucial juncture in the series. Unless Australia have won the first three Tests (or indeed, England have) then the series and the Ashes will still be up for grabs come Melbourne. In addition, Vaughan, prior to his injury, has been out of nick with the bat for quite some time. His principal contribution (and it was a weighty one) to the Ashes win last year was as captain, apart from one solitary century at Old Trafford (which was laced with a fair bit of good fortune). I can’t see them bringing him back as captain for the last two Tests, unless Freddie has made a right meal of it and lost the first three disastrously.

Of more significance, in my mind, would be the return to the team of Simon Jones. I watched some of the Ashes 2005 DVD the other day, and was reminded of just how often he chipped in with crucial wickets. I would dearly love to watch him steaming in at the MCG and SCG in a few months’ time, but sadly I think those matches will come too soon for his recovery from injury. Pity.

From the Aussie point of view, it will be interesting to see how Michael Hussey performs – he’s been getting rave reviews, but then so did Michael Clarke in his initial Tests before hitting something of a slump in form. Hussey, by all accounts, is the real deal, and sounds like he might cause England a few headaches this winter.

Anyway, time to seek some more of that elusive sleep.