Thursday, March 29, 2007


Our first night at Cotterton, we awoke to the view of rolling hills, and total silence. Outside, only the cawing of crows far off near a pond. Amber prepared coffee, then a breakfast of scones and pancakes which we ate sitting by the picture window in the kitchen, looking out over the hills. A tractor moved slowly over the distant field; back and forth, the plow carved a long dark line. Alerted by the sound, a flock of gulls followed the tractor and dove into the freshly plowed earth for their morning snack.

We decided to explore the neighbourhood, and that meant walking. The previous day we walked up the road that wound out of our glen -- beautiful and quiet, but still a road. Today would be different --- we wanted to go cross country to the opposite hill where we might see the ocean. Through the gate we came into our sheep pasture, a long field with a strange mound in the middle. I had visions of a prehistoric midden but Nicky, the previous owner, dashed my hopes saying that she and her husband created it. The field led to our burn, a stream flowing over a stony bed. But to reach it required a scramble down steep banks, so we thought the better of it. Returning to our main track we walked toward a small copse. An SUV coming toward us pulled up. A father and his son, Robert and Mark, turned out to be owners of Mains of Blairmore, the stately farm next to us. They are Irish, have lived there six years, but did not appear in love with the glen. Not the weather, as Northern Ireland is colder. Something else. A short round of friendly introductions and small talk. "We'll watch the house while you're gone." Robert said.

After crossing the copse we reached the burn, an easy crossing this time and a jump over a barbed wire fence. Amber walked slowly. Her feet had been hurting lately from standing all mornings in the Camphill kitchen. Walking became easier when we reached the sheep meadow, our eyes down to avoid the small wiry sheep turds. We came to the croft on the hill slope, visible from our living room. Close up, the main house has several large windows broken and boarded over. Some rusting farm machinery, barns with bales of hay, some dung but it might be a few years old. People seemed asleep that Sunday morning. We continued down the hill in a circle toward Cotterton, across some electrified fences, thankfully inactive. A pond in the distance looked like the spot for bird congregations, somewhere to go another time.

Leaving Cotterton we headed for Mains of Glass, Hugh and Anne Christie's farm. Coming over the hill we encountered large barns, bulging with hay, a herd of cattle, and mountains of steaming dung. Anne welcomed us in the farm cottage. Before long we were sitting at a long wooden table in their kitchen with coffee, pancakes and biscuits. They listened, nodding approvingly, while we told them about our plans for Cotterton, my gardening visions. She and Hugh are in their sixties, have lived there for fifty years. Until lately Anne has worked as a nurse. She is chatty, interested in everything. Hugh is quieter, seems to think more before he speaks, in a low voice. Lately, their son, Gary has taken over daily farm operations. I offered them our sheep meadow for their sheep, and they thanked me. It's best to work such arrangements like barter where we exchange services. I know I'll need dung for my garden, use of a truck and so on. I'd like sheep to keep our meadow's grass short, fertilize our fruit trees, and keep the property's status as a registered holding (similar to agricultural zoning).

Amber started talking about Rachel Ashton's upcoming art exhibit in Aberdeen. "Don't you know Rachel?" I said. "As a young girl she lived over the hill from you at Midtown of Bellyhack?" Anne immediately lit up. Yes she did remember the Ashtons, Charles, Linda and the kids. Also Charlie Roy, Rachel's husband, an artist who came from that locality.

Now we began to feel like family.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007



British news is definitely different. In tone, and in substance. As in the States, we have our share of body-bag news, but thankfully only a case here and there, usually involving a knife. Always tragic, a reminder of the country's underbelly, not unique to this country or particularly news. As the adage goes, dog bites man -- not news. But man bites dog, that's news. The British specialize in the man bites dog type of news. Take the story of the vegetable thief -- national news. A court bans (BTW the British do a lot of banning) a man from visiting vegetable allotments. He had been caught raiding vegetable allotments down in Surrey, and selling the vegetables privately. Speaking of allotments, another item on the evening news it how long you have to wait to get one. Up to ten years in a place like London. These plots of land within a city are set aside for folk to grow their vegetables. Supposedly protected from development, they are now in high demand. A typical gardener is a woman, mother of small children, sick and tired of the flat tasting vegetables at the supermarket.
BBC news specializes in interviews with crazy ministers who talk your ear off for twenty minutes. As with Alan Greenspan, at the end of the interview you cannot figure out what they said, but it sounds important enough to change your life. Each time an obscure minister announces he is running for deputy leader of the Labour Party, it makes the news. You get to see the guy's baby pictures and the like. Not that the finalist is going to be Prime Minister, except conceivably in ten years time.
The biggest debate -- the British love debates -- is about climate change. Each party portrays itself as greener than the other one. (A bit of a change from US politics here). The Conservatives are the party who will tax the airline companies to discourage folk from flying so much. Vote for me, and you'll take fewer vacations!! Tony Blair (the Labor party chief) says he'll do better, and give tax breaks for "green" homes that produce less CO2. And, he'll change our light bulbs for us. Again, more talking by the end of which it's unclear what he said. Liberal Democrats --- they're a funny bunch, neither Conservative nor Labour.
Oddly enough, I never hear folk object to taxes. Paying them is pleasurable, like having sex. If it'll get them elected, politicians oblige. There's a belief that if we pay more taxes, the government will dish out more candy. It's partly true in that we get more back for our taxes here -- healthcare such as it is, social services, free buses for folk over 60, more comfortable jails. Back in the States where higher taxes mean more money poured into Iraq, the man is the street is naturally a bit pissed off at them.
Somewhere in among the local fairies live the Scottish Nationalists (SNP), who want to make Scotland independent, and keep all Poles out of Scotland. Like the pre-industrial fairies, they lack math skills, and present a rosy vision of a wealthy oil-nation free from English slavemasters who have kept the Scots down for eight hundred years. Unfortunately they don't believe geologists who tell them that the North Sea oil is in rapid decline, soon to evaporate. Seriously, if the SNP gets the majority in the Scottish Parliament, their greatest accomplishment is likely to be to send a Scottish Olympic team to London.
Who should I vote for this May when I vote for the Scottish Parliament? Send me your ideas. I've never voted in my life, and want my vote to count.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


One morning at Bag End while Bilbo was sitting on his doorstep, Gandalf came by.

No, it began differently. I woke to the sight of a serpentine mist in our valley, the trail left by the Sidhe on their nocturnal ride. The day would have its surprises. In case I doubted it, Amber explained it -- in writing, and asked that pick up "a person" at the railway station at 11 AM. She had been cleaning house for ten days because, she said it needed it. Sunday she had wanted Charles, Annie & Co to stop by for dinner, then assured me in a choking voice that they couldn't come. We'd be en deux. As I sat writing, I heard her clanking about the kitchen. Not unusual. What was unusual were stacks of cups and plates that appeared. Also the two baked aubergine dishes. Maths has never been Amber's strong suit, but she's not that far off. She also started leaving chocolate eggs in various parts of the house. I asked what it was about and received mumbled replies not intended to be understood. Yes, a surprise birthday party was in the air.

I'm not one for birthday parties. When I was about eight, Mama organized one for me and invited all my friends. After a few minutes if it, I grabbed a book and climbed a nearby tree from where I could watch the proceedings. The party looked just fine from high above. I guessed that Amber had invited various friends from our Celeidh dancing class. Last Wednesday she'd disappear with this and that person, making sure I didn't hear the furtive conversation. That set me thinking, but like Agatha Christie Amber is adept at covering her trail.

At the railway station, I ran into my nephew Adam, the last person I expected. Ready with his guitar. He said that MI5 called him and gave him his assignment. Arriving home, I saw people arriving, including David Bracegirdle (there's a hobbit name) with guitar and amplifier. The table filled up with dishes brought by guests. Jenny and Phil were there, followed by Barbara and Heinz. At class they often demonstrate a classical waltz. I'm always delighted to see the kids -- Sian and Conrad, about to get married. Kids poured out of cars and immediately appropriated the house as their palace. A big surprise were June and Nick. June works in our office and is an avid gardener. Makes sure I don't lack for seeds or catalogs. And then the Ashton clan appeared. I was surprised, though by now I'd come to recognize that Amber, theatrically trained can lie with a straight face. As at Bag End, the drink poured like a river, and the cakes and pies representing many European corners, flew off the table. David's guitar music played in the background, listened to most by the smallest partyers. Sitting at the outdoor table and warmed by the outdoor brazier they spread chocolate on their pancakes and stuffed them away like hobbit children.

I didn't vanish up a tree, but to my greenhouse, which I showed off to all the gardeners. Their raised brows, made me wonder if I hadn't started tomatoes and peppers too early. But why not try and jump the season? Unlike Bilbo, I didn't receive an assignment to slay a dragon, only good wishes.

After most guests left, we sat with fellow hobbits Charles, Annie, Rachel & Co, and Adam. Separated bythe Atlantic for more than thirty years we have a lot of catching up. No intellectual discussions today, other than what do Lou, John and Jake have in common. Well, and the answer is…. Kids wandered around, exploring the nooks and crannies of our hobbit hole and piddling in our burn.

A perfect March 11 at Gairn Park.

Monday, March 12, 2007



Last Friday we picked up the keys for Cottarton Cottage, our new house in the hills. Set in a little valley near Huntly, it stands on three acres, including the small stream at the bottom of the hill --- everything we would like for our life once I finish working in an oil company office in Aberbeen. Until then, we expect to spend weekends at Cottarton, working on the house and the garden.
To Americans, buying a house in Scotland must feel like buying on Ebay. The house is listed with a minimum price, and you bid up from that price. A challenge, especially in the North Country where the housing market is very strong, with houses selling within a few weeks of listing. We visited a Solicitor (Lawyer), required when you buy a house in Scotland. Friends recommended to me Anne Maryse. A former ballet dancer, she is so small she could travel in her husband's suitcase. In her tiny office with a simple table and chairs that might have come from a resale shop, she explained the process -- get your financing first then bid on the house. If the seller accepts your bid, it is legally binding so be sure you really want the place.
Last year in Aberdeen prices went up by 27%. As losing out to a higher bidder is common, many people only secure their home after several tries. Concerned that in two years we wouldn't afford a place, we decided to buy now. The choices are between new houses, stamped out of the same cookie cutter, and planted densely in a faceless suburb, city row-houses where you'll pay a high premium for living in city noise, and a few -- really few country houses, such as we would like.
Amber scanned properties on the web, knew every house for sale. I found it hard to resist a two bedroom house in the hills at the end of a three mile, bumpy dirt road. Really for folk who don't like neighbors. Along with the house, a steading with pigs, goats and chickens, plus eight acres. Offers begin at 230,000 pounds. The owner, Scott, is a sweet man who lost his partner, and needs to move. Unfortunately the house would require a total rebuild, new windows, heating, chimneys, an additional room. Eheu!
One Thursday Amber called to say we were heading for Cottarton that afternoon. It reappeared for sale that morning, after having been listed as sold. Driving over the hill on a one lane road, we spotted the white house at the bottom of the glen, remote, surrounded by rolling hills and scattered crofts, but within a couple of miles of small hamlets and eight miles to substantial towns (Huntly, Keith and Dufftown). A large meadow belonging to the house extends down to a creek running down the bottom of the valley. The living room has large windows that look north and east at rolling hills. An oil fired stove in the spacious kitchen heats the hot water and the house. Large windows and the space ensure that people will come together here. Water, unchlorinated comes from a nearby spring. Bedrooms are small, but outside we have a portable wooden cabin, ready to be wired that will provide more space. Our greatest surprise was that the attic had been a second story, still with attic windows, blocked off when the house was expanded. Standing in the garden, I feel a brisk wind. I can already imagine a substantial vegetable garden, a greenhouse, polytunnels, Amber's chickens and goats -- and a stone tower, our astronomical observatory.
Nicki, the owner told us plainly that she wanted to sell quickly. She and her husband had already moved on their separate ways. I asked her plainly what bid she would accept, and she said 17% above the minimum bid. A very reasonable deal for a house in such good condition. We returned the next day to look around. Snow had fallen and the wind turned bitter. I wanted to be sure the winter sun would clear the hills and shine into the windows. Some valleys are in perpetual shadow in winter. We decided we would like to make Cottarton our home.
Monday I called Anne Maryse and asked her to put in an offer. If Nicki liked it, she might decided not go through the sealed bid process, which I sensed we would lose. That evening while working in the garage, Amber came running in with news that we had the house.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007





March roars in with a gust. The wind blows as if exhaled from the jaws of a fiendish dragon. Blustery winds are part of life in Aberdeen. Hang out the washing to dry, and the wind may not only blow away your underwear, but also the legendary washerwoman. Wind or no wind, the vegetable garden waits for my attention. The best place of refuge from the wind is the greenhouse --- built like a bunker to withstand the worst gales. Standing inside, you can't feel the walls move even in forty mile per hour winds. These days it's 40 degrees outside with a wind-chill, but as soon as the sun appears the greenhouse warms up to where you're sweating. Before long the vents open automatically to let some heat out. I can sit in a comfy chair and read a book, or look at the small pots with tomato seedlings, onions, coriander, eggplant and green peppers. They bask in the heat and give off a plant aroma. On another shelf a hundred or so potatoes sprout little shoots and wait to be planted. Soon the shelves will spill over with pots and trays with every vegetable to keep the kitchen supplied, and flowers for the house. By April, the ground outside should be warm enough to set out potatoes, carrots, turnips, dill, rocket, lettuce and so on. The climbing peas are already in the polytunnel, our head-start department. In May I'll bring a load of dung into the greenhouse, dig over the earth that forms the floor, and plant the heat loving plants -- tomatoes, peppers, jalapenos, zucchini -- just about everything that grows outside in Texas.

Last November Amber and I assembled the greenhouse over a couple of long weekends. It arrived as several packages of aluminum bars and tubes, several piles of glass, a bucket of nuts and bolts, and a thick book of cryptic instructions. I assembled the skeleton on concrete piers. In forty degree weather (and a windchill) Amber lifted the four foot panes into place while I secured them and pounded in the plastic glazing strips. Not that we were masochistic. November is a windy month, and we had to pick a weekend when we and our glazing wouldn't blow away -- a cold frosty weekend. When our hands grew numb we revived with some hot tea, paged through the instructions to work out the next step, and heaved more glass.
Not only does the greenhouse provide sanctuary from the cold, but our garden water supply. Few Scottish houses have an outdoor spigot, so you gather water from your greenhouse roof into a water butt, and use it for your watering.
It's evening, and after checking the forecast, I decided that it might freeze tonight, and lit up Wee Willie Winkie. That's the nickname for the greenhouse heater, a small heater that runs off a propane cylinder. With its pilot light and thermostat, the heater keeps the night temperature above freezing.
Not luxurious accommodations, says Ailsa Craig (that's the tomatoes), but they will do.

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