Friday, 28 September 2007


Once again I've foisted myself onto the 'ladies who lunge' - a small group of extremely good squash players who are not only twice my ability, but almost twice my age. Ok, not Brave Bird, but even she could be my Mum, so it's only mildly humiliating when they wipe the squash court floor with me. I've never known a more athletic bunch of 50 + year olds. They fling themselves about the place like teenagers, while I lumber like a creaking hippo and flail wildly at the occasional ball I actually see!

Anyway, I've decided that this season I want to improve my game considerably. If this means joining a squash ladder again, then so be it. I'll do it, and be much more efficient about actually phoning people and getting the games organised. I'm not sure I can face joining the team again. It's too depressing, giving up a whole night to getting gubbed time and time again. We haven't won a single bloody match! I admit, I was rather relived when my bad back put me out of the team last season. But I think I'll just bite the bullet and do it - maybe as a reserve.

I'm bored - hence the blog of nothing.

Oh - but I did go to the gym yesterday, despite telling myself I really needed a proper rest. It was pretty depressing, time-wise, and effort-wise, which only reinforces my belief that what I desperately need is a couple of days off to get my limbs in working order again. My wrist still isn't quite 100%, but it's not painful - so I'm hoping squash, with its lighter raquet, isn't going to make it worse again.

Cosmotourist is offline, so I can't write anything for them - but I might have a bash at some humour for Hey ho. I'm hoping that my writing will pay for Chrismas this year.

A bientôt.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007


Holy moly. Went to aquafit in Dundee yesterday (after narrowly avoiding going to aqua-aerobics in St Andrews, where old, crocked ladies steadily return to health) and quite enjoyed it. There were a few moments where the ol' heart rate got going, and it certainly worked out my abs and arm muscles, but I didn't feel it was particularly challenging at the time. Good enough to act as a 30 minute workout in the gym, maybe, but not good enough to replace any of the activity I'm doing at the moment.

Then I got out.

Immediately, I felt as though gravity had suddenly increased by a factor of ten, and my boobs were weighing me down to a knee-buckling extent. I still didn't feel tired, though, or as though I'd worked out particularly hard, and gravity righted itself swiftly, so I thought no more about it. Then Fisher and I went to the DCA for supper, and before I knew it, I was wolfing down an enormous plate of salmon and trying not to fall asleep in her chips. (Notice how I make a point of saying 'her' chips. I didn't order chips, and am therefore a superior being). I have a feeling aquafit is a deceptive work-out. Either that or I'm a greedy biffa.

Bit of both, probably.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Unnnnnngghhhhh ...

The title echoes the sounds I'm mentally making as I sit and type. I spent an hour in the gym today, and I really don't know what's happened to my fitness levels but I'm utterly dead on my feet. All I did was a mile and a half (15 mins 50secs - slooooooow) on the treadmill and 4 miles (15 mins) on the bike (not so slooooooooow), with half an hour's weight training as well. This really doesn't seem enough to have wiped me out quite so astonishingly - but maybe I'm being tough on myself. If anyone were actually reading this I could ask for some feedback, but I'm pretty sure that, apart from a couple of loyal friends, this is vanishing into the big blogvoid in the ether.

Hey ho.

God I'm tired.

Friday, 21 September 2007


Ah, the 3 Chimneys.

How many superlatives leap to mind at the glorious chime of those three words, resonating in my head like the strike of a golden bell? How soft grow my eyes, velveted by memories. How light my life, how joyful my noise unto the lord, how gilded my lillies ...

You get the idea.

Upon arrival, we creaked our way out of Keith and checked in. I was amused to turn round, while at the check-in desk, to see two damp walkers teetering together on the small welcome mat, unwilling to put muddy footprints on the wood floor.

Our rooms were divine. While I felt a small pang of guilt over the fact Koios, Phid and Janus were all sharing one room, with two single beds and a sofa bed, my conscience was eased somewhat by the size of their bathroom! You could have parked a small aircraft in it. Meanwhile, the squeals of joy coming from the three of them put a mighty grin on the face of the woman showing us round. I imagine she's very used to the blasé attitude of the snooty chattering classes, who don't want to show how impressed they are. I think we charmed her.

We put supper back to 8pm, the better to enjoy all our rooms had to offer. I had a bath of such depth I actually managed to float a little! (Ok, so I sank quickly and the water went up my nose, while my legs flailed in the air - but still!) I wallowed, feeling every muscle in my body groan in relief, reading my book and periodically adding more scalding hot water. Then I scraped 4 days' worth of skank from my person, followed by a hair wash. Then I got out. Hurriedly. I do not, ever, want to see bath water than colour again.

Fisher took over the bathroom and had a shower, while I struggled not to fall asleep on the huge double bed, with its piles of cushions, crisp linen and fat pillows. I was almost looking forward to supper being over, so I could return to this paradise of slumber. I say almost ...

When 8 o'clock rolled around, we picked up the lassies and headed over to the restaurant. Fisher and I had been there before, and well I remembered its low ceilings, beams and byre-like feel. We were shown to a round (hurray!) table at the rear, after sipping pre dinner drinks. I attempted to make a toast, but failed dismally to be the urbane, charming speaker I'd hoped to emulate. Phid was somewhat taken aback to be described as 'stoicism personified' - but it was meant to be a compliment. Anyway, it was better than 'like Bin Laden's faith - utterly unshakable' which was what I originally thought.

The food was superb, although my cod wasn't particularly flavoursome. I did like the squid accompaniment though, and everyone else's was fantastic, so no complaints. Special mention should go to Phid's marmalade pudding, which I adored. We supped some champagne, a pleasant bottle of Fleurie, and I had a glass of tawny port with my cheese. I had a choice of either 'tawny' or 'vintage' but when I asked 'which vintage?' the waitress just told me that tawny was a little less rich than vintage. I'm not sure which one of us is clueless here.

After supper, bed beckoned ... and was everything I'd hoped it would be. Joy of joys there was even some football on the telly, and I learned that England had progressed to the quarter finals of the women's world cup after securing a 0-0 draw with Germany. I watched Korea go through after a feisty match with Sweden, then fell asleep to Family Guy, just managing to wake up enough to swith it off.

With oblivion came the knowledge that the next bed I would sleep in would be my own, and that, no matter what luxury or hardship you experience, there is nothing like it in the world. It remained only for me to get us home without driving Keith into a ditch - which, I am happy to report (and which you've probably deduced, as I'm not writing this from the graaaave) I managed to do.

It remains only for me to say it was a privilege and a joy to travel with such eternally optimistic companions, all of whom who, when faced with a challenge, rise to meet it with grace.


Last Day on Skye

Strangely, although there were no dramatic weather fronts to trouble me, my last night in a tent was probably the worst of all. I slept only fitfully, while Fisher and Bridie snored merrily away. So did Baffie, tucked up at the bottom of Phid's sleeping bag. In fact, Baffie was the only member of our little band to sleep unconcerned through every night, and her Boeing 747-like snores were the background music to our camping.

On waking, our first task of the day - after a breakfast of leftover food, fried together by Phid in a very tasty mess - was to pack up the tents and load Keith. It was raining and cold, but in the end it wasn't as painful a task as expected and we were able to set off for our last walk only an hour or so behind schedule!

We'd had much discussion as to whether to do Macleod's Tables or not. Phid and I were keen, but I was also sheepishly conscious that my fitness levels weren't up to my expectations - and that Janus and Koios really weren't that eager to climb the flat-topped hills we could see dominating the skyline. There was also the matter of the weather, which had turned walks with a bog factor of 1 into quagmires, and the lousy visibility which would render a difficult navigation all but impossible. Therefore we decided, wisely, to forgo the Tables and head instead for Macleod's Maidens - a 9 mile coastal walk to see three stacks and some beautiful coastal scenery.

We found our way to the start of the walk and headed off, full of optimism. The weather wasn't great, but visibility was ok and the area really was beautiful. We started off on an excellent forestry-comission road, which led us to the braes. The path remained good, and we started climbing happily. The ascent was only 300 metres or so in total, but even so it built up a pleasant heat, and got the lungs working.

The walk to Macleod's Maidens is one I'd recommend to anyone. The path is truly beautiful, overlooking an island-strewn stretch of water and rolling up and down hills carpeted in ochre-tinged ferns. We passed through Rebel's Wood, dedicated to Joe Strummer, which is more of a tree nursery than a wood, as yet, and took a pointless diversion in search of what Phid's book described as a view 'spectacular even by Skye standards.' Unfortunately we turned off at the wrong point and laboured through bog and fern for 10 minutes only to see nothing at all. This put us off actually seeking out the real diversion, and we headed onwards.

It took around 2 1/2 hours to reach the half way point, and by the time we neared the tip of headland where the Maidens were purported to be, I was fair done in! Had we not stopped for lunch at that point, I think I may have fallen down and refused to move. I wasn't the only one in dire need of sustenance, either. Janus had pushed herself beyond mental endurance, and everyone was looking forward to a bit of a rest. We decided to eat first, and cover the last few hundred yards in search of the maidens afterwards.

A 15 minute break for my sandwich, crisps (most of which I poured over my face, much to Phid's amusement) and Penguin saw me quickly restored to life, and with the wind blowing an icy gale on top of the cliffs I was quickly ready to get moving again. The break had done us all good, so off we set, seeking out the Maidens. Unfortunately, we'd stopped a little further from
the suggested viewing point than we were prepared to go - but Koios and I braved the cliff edge and got a pretty good look at them anyway. Very nice. Probably not worth walking 9 miles for, but very nice anyway.

Macleod's Maidens
We were lucky to catch the view when we did. Not five minutes after turning back, the mist really rolled in, obscuring everything. The rain began to fall in earnest, and on the whole the walk back to the car was far from pleasurable. We did, however, have one thought with which to sustain ourselves: that night we ate and slept at the 3 Chimneys!

With this in mind we battled onward through the filth. I really don't know why, but I found the return journey one of the hardest things I've done, mentally, in my life! My lunch seemed to last only 15 minutes before energy leeched from me in a draining flood. The road seemed endless; my stomach churned, threatening the promise of a 3 Chimneys treat; my spirits reached rock bottom and if ever I've come close to getting all weepy, that was the moment. Luckily, Janus came to my rescue with a Dextrose tablet, and the change was astonishing! A sugar boost, coupled with the promise it was only a couple of miles more, lifted my doldrums completely and the remainder of the walk passed, if not enjoyably, then tolerably.

The sight of the forestry road was akin to sighting land after 6 months at sea. The final stretch of sheep path, even downhill, seemed interminable to Phid, who later told us she was sure it had been only half as long on the way up. I was in auto-pilot by this stage, my aching feet taking me to Keith of their own accord, and when I actually saw Keith I couldn't help but call out to him with a wail of joy. I wasn't the only one, either, and as I said at the time, had Keith's headlights turned on and the engine roared to life at the sound of our voices, I wouldn't have been at all surprised.

I love Keith.

And so we survived. Soaking wet, aching, we stripped off our sodden waterproofs and bundled them together in a plastic bag, to save Keith's upholstery giving discomfort on the morrow. At last I clambered into the driving seat, whacked the heater on high, and off we drove ... to salvation! The 3 Chimneys called, seductive as a siren, and we answered without qualm or guilt. We'd earned every lap of luxury it had to offer.

Squelching on Skye

So, where was I?

Ah yes: Day 3 of our Skye adventure.

Although we had slept well and were delighted to see the rain had stopped, the weather remained grey and drear. However, we were all keen to do one of the pre-planned walks we'd promised ourselves, and the most sensible option seemed to be Rubh an Dunain - a 7.5 mile walk along the edge of Loch Brittle, to the ruins of a chieftain's house (chief of Clan MacAskill til the 19th century) and an iron age Dun on the shores of Loch na h-Airde.

In happy accord, we set off on our walk, which rates as a grade 3 in difficulty, with a bog factor of 5. They're not at all wrong, either. Without waterproof trousers I would have been utterly soaked within moments, but as it was it was rather fun squelching my way through the peaty moss. When we discovered a series of rivers in need of fording, the fun only continued ... especially for the dogs, who found themselves unceremoniously flung through the air by Spartan and caught by me. Baffie in particular was deeply affronted at such treatment - but after Bridie attempted to swim the river and would have been swept away had Spar not kept tight hold of the lead, instead almost garotting her as her little paws flailed at a 90 degree angle to her body, there was no way we were risking having them cross under their own steam.

The walk was beautiful, the weather almost tolerable, with occasional patches of sunshine struggling through the cloud, and the company good. We fortified ourselves with the odd dram of Edradour from the hipflask Spar bought me for my 30th, and Janus managed to traverse a steep hillside path with only minor heebie jeebies. We found the Dun, and I think we saw the chieftain's house, and the dogs had a whale of a time. In all it took us around 5 1/2 hours, which was slow going, but I enjoyed every second.

Back at the campsite, we cleaned ourselves up with showers and headed back to The Old Inn for supper. We'd been impressed by the smell of other people's orders the night before, and I was delighted to find the food lost nothing in the tasting. My steak pie (I knoooow! Bor-ing!) was rich and flavoursome, the chips excellent - and pudding was eagerly shared between us. We played more cards, drank a few pints, and reluctantly left the warmth of our new home only when we could think of no more excuses to remain. Still, the exercise had brought a healthy glow to our cheeks, and a few yawns were doing the rounds, while the previous night's comfort suggested this camping lark wasn't so bad after all, once you'd ironed out the kinks.

Poor fools, to be lulled into such false security!

Back at Glen Brittle, the wind was blowing a real gale. Our tents roared, indignant to be tethered to the ground when they longed to fly off in the storm, making sleep all but impossible. The rain lashed the canvas with equal fury, and from Spartan's tent could be heard many curses as water and icy gusts swept over him. Alas, while my sympathy was with him (for he had no inner lining to his tent) I was somewhat caught up in my own misery - while poor Fisher not only had the noise to contend with, but found herself acting as a wind break for me as well! (I can offer her only scant comfort by assuring her she wasn't a very good one, and I was almost as miserable as she).

Needless to say, the faces that emerged from the tent on our fourth day, were a far cry from the well rested, bright-eyed companions of yesterday. True, Spartan showed his eternal good humour by laughing at his failure to secure even a single, solitary wink of sleep, but the creases and bags marring all our faces revealed our true night time agonies. Nevertheless, not a word of complaint was uttered, save in the most light-hearted manner, and we embarked on day four with a will.

We'd decided to head to the island of Raasay for a moderate walk, before Spartan headed back to Auld Reekie and reunion with his wife. We piled into Keith and headed for the ferry, which was prompt - and tiny. Only twelve cars could fit on board at once, and with Keith and a caravan the numbers were reduced. The crossing took 15 minutes, and on the other side we headed straight for the nearest hotel for some nosh before walking. Sated by prawn sandwiches, we then set off on our walk.

Raasay is stunning. We were honoured by sunny spells, which lit up the heather and bracken like fireworks, while thick fields of ferns were already touched by autumnal rust. Our road took us along a brae, looking out over the sea to the mainland, to the cleared village of Hallaig and a memorial to Sorley Maclean. The memorial cairn overlooks an indigo bay, with majestic cliffs all around, and a brass plaque bears this poem, in both Gaelic and English:

Time, the deer, is in Hallaig Wood

There's a board nailed across the window
I looked through to see the west
And my love is a birch forever
By Hallaig Stream, at her tryst

Between Inver and Milk Hollow,
somewhere around Baile-chuirn,
A flickering birch, a hazel,
A trim, straight sapling rowan.

In Screapadal, where my people
Hail from, the seed and breed
Of Hector Mor and Norman
By the banks of the stream are a wood.

To-night the pine-cocks crowing
On Cnoc an Ra, there above,
And the trees standing tall in moonlight -
They are not the wood I love.

I will wait for the birches to move,
The wood to come up past the cairn
Until it has veiled the mountain
Down from Beinn na Lice in shade.

If it doesn't, I'll go to Hallaig,
To the sabbath of the dead,
Down to where each departed
Generation has gathered.

Hallaig is where they survive,
All the MacLeans and MacLeads
Who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
The dead have been seen alive,

The men at their length on the grass
At the gable of every house,
The girls a wood of birch trees
Standing tall, with their heads bowed.

Between The Leac and Fearns
The road is plush with moss
And the girls in a noiseless procession
Going to Clachan as always

And coming boack from Clachan
And Suisnish, their land of the living,
Still lightsome and unheartbroken,
Their stories only beginning.

From Fearns Burn to the raised beach
Showing clear in the shrouded hills
There are only girls congregating,
Endlessly walking along

Back through the gloaming to Hallaig
Through the vivid speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear

And their beauty a glaze on my heart.
Then as the kyles go dim
And the sun sets behind Dun Cana
Love's loaded gun will take aim.

It will bring down the lightheaded deer
As he sniffs the grass round the wallsteads
And his eye will freeze: while I live,
His blood won't be traced in the woods.

After reading the plaque we headed onwards to seek out Hallaig, leaving Janus behind as she found the hillside path too frightening. Unfortunately I was leading and failed to register we were supposed to cross a stream at some point, so led us well off track. By the time the path vanished entirely, we all decided we didn't really need to visit Hallaig after all ...

We did see it from afar, though, and there isn't much to look at, so I hope people don't feel too cheated by my poor navigation.

Back at the memorial we picked up Janus and headed back to Keith. In all, the walk took around 2 1/2 hours and was around 3 1/2 miles long - so an easy stretch of the legs (although I was beginning to feel the first stirrings of shame over my fitness levels. I thought my running, cycling and swimming would stand me in good stead - but my muscles had long started to feel the effects of our walks!).

We made it back to the ferry with plenty of time to spare, and dropped Spartan off so he could make his way home. After bidding him fond farewell, sad to lose his eternally cheery company, we decided to explore Raasay from Keith's cosy lap and set off on a drive.

It was absolutely glorious. The road twisted and turned over braes and valleys, passing always in view of the sea, until we had to pause for Fisher's ridiculous bladder. However, we were glad we did as she was able to read a plaque for us, which informed us we were heading onto Callum's Road.

Callum was just some Raasay local who lived in a neglected settlement at one end of Raasay, served only by a dirt track. The authorities refused to fund a proper road, so Callum decided to build one. By himself. With his bare hands. It took him 20 years, and as a mark of respect he now has a plaque. (I think he got a BEM as well.)

Once we'd driven to the end of Callum's road and back, we stopped at the Dolphin Café for a cuppa, then jumped on the ferry back to Skye. Back to the camp site we went, for a cold supper and a wash and brush up, before going back to - yes indeedy - The Old Inn. There we discovered the delights of a game called Once Upon a Time, where you have to make up a fairy story with the aid of cards in your hand, and whiled away a few hours in warm pleasure. We knew, after all, that the following day brought both treats and trials - not to mention a final night in a goddamned tent - so we took our time enjoying the simple delights of an evening in the pub with pals.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Onward, the Sailors Roar ...

We spent our first evening at Glen Brittle settling in to our new home, cooking pasta 'n' sauce over our wee gas stove, eating chocolate brownies from Tesco, and cramming 5 women into a 2 person tent with guitar, sleeping bags, pillows and a bottle of Glenkinchie. This proved less than comfortable, but we brooked it with good humour and had a few tunes, a few drams, and a lot of chuckling. Anyway, whether it was the long drive, the fresh air, or eagerness to begin our next challenge, we were all ready to turn in at the ridiculous hour of 10.30, so off went Koios and Janus to their tent, Phid to hers - with Baffie for company - and Fisher and I remained in the 'party tent' with Bridie.

The first thing I noticed was that, with only 2 people in our tent, the temperature dropped from tolerably mild to dingleberry-freezing within the space of a sombre minute. The second thing I noticed was that my 2 season sleeping bag was not equipped to deal with a distinctly autumnal night in the north west of Scotland. The third thing I noticed was how utterly beautiful the stars were, the Milky Way a fine spray across the night sky, and while I gloried in their unparalleled magnificence I was also conscious of just how cold the night was going to be without cloud cover to retain any of the day's warmth. With a slight feeling of trepidation, I bundled myself up as comfortably as possible in my mummy-style sleeping bag and closed tired eyes.

Sleep was, to put it mildly, elusive. A mummy-style sleeping bag may well be snug, but it doesn't allow room for movement - especially if you are somewhat biffa-esque, like myself. Couple that with the creeping cold, the slow deflation of our luxury air mattress and the urgent need to pee every three hours (which drove me so close to soiling myself for the added warmth it isn't even funny) and you have an excellent notion of how I passed my night. There was also the added factor that I wasn't the only one having peeing troubles, as all our bladders shrank to half their sizes in the cold, and if I wasn't woken by my own urgent call, I was likely to be roused from fitful slumber by the frantic unzipping of a neighbouring tent.

All in all, it was pretty miserable. I woke for the last time feeling sick and mournful, then roused myself for a morning trip to the shower block where I abluted and floundered back, fully in the grips of PT. Recognising it was almost certainly a product of cold and lack of sleep, I returned to my sleeping bag and blocked out the world. The weather was truly disgraceful: cold, wet, windy and grey. Plans for a long-ish walk around the headland were put on hold as the camp bustled around me, getting itself breakfast and trying to shelter from the filth. Unable to sleep, I instead took mental refuge in The Year's Midnight - a book I found in a charity shop in Dufftown, by Alex Benzie, which is proving to be rather splendid.

At eleven o'clock, as promised, the sound of a car bumping over the campsite track reached my ears and Spartan arrived. Huzzah! Unfortunately I was in a bit of a blue funk at this stage and decided not to show my pasty face until I could get a bloody hold of myself, woman, and act like a human being. Eventually Fisher appeared to tell me that plans for a walk had been scrapped owing to the weather, and a trip to the Talisker distillery was on the cards instead. This news I greeted with some relief, and was sufficiently recovered to jump into Keith with everyone else and set off for a day of alternative entertainment.

Talisker is one of my favourite wide-sale single malts, but I had no real desire to see round yet another distillery, or to start drinking early in the morning - but I was very happy to see Spar, Koios and Janus take up the opportunity, while Phid, Fisher and I waited for them in The Old Inn nearby. This proved to be the first of many trips to this charming wee place, where we shivered next to the fire until slowly feeling warmth return to our limbs, played a game of pool, and I read my book. When the others rejoined us, laden down with bottles, we partook of a pleasant lunch (I had peppery but tasty soup), and then re-evaluated the day. We still weren't in any hurry to take a long walk in the driving rain, but after a few more games of pool we decided we really ought to get out in the fresh air.

The walk we chose was near our campsite, and boasted the name of Fairy Pools. In actual fact it was a dull, midly pretty wander along a semi-forested track with the occasional small waterfall on the way. We took an hour over it, got very wet, and then headed down to the camp to let Spar set up his tent, and to visit the camp shop before it closed. Fisher and I bought ourselves two more sleeping bags, for added warmth, and I snagged a pair of woolly gloves. How I laughed at the sight of factor 15 sun cream rattling about at the bottom of my bag.

Once the tent was erected and the shop stripped of all things warm, we decided there was time yet for another walk. The man at the shop, who looked very like an axe murderer but who spoke with the gentle friendliness of a camp counsellor, told me about a beautiful 30 foot waterfall, not a ten minute walk from the nearby Memorial Hall. It seemed a perfect way to negate our laziness, so off we went, leaving Fisher behind to prepare supper and potter about in the tents. Unfortunately, although the walk promised much, the thick fog which descended as we ascended completely obscured all but the vaguest glimpse of the impressive fall. Nevertheless, it did build an appetite for supper - so back we went to be greeted by Fisher and a bubbling pan of yet more pasta. This was eaten in the shelter of Keith's interior with much joviality, and afterwards we returned to the estimable Old Inn for warmth, a few drinks, and much playing of cards.

That night, we slept in 2 sleeping bags each. The sky remained cloudy, and although the rain remained persistent throughout, I managed to keep command of my faculties and sleep the night through, waking refreshed and merry ... with a bladder so full it ached!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Over the Sea to Skye

Tonight sees a chastened yet happy me sit before my keyboard with dilligent fingers, listening to KT Tunstall's new CD and slowly (oh so slowly) digesting a big fat Chinese meal from the Leuchars local. It wasn't good, but I ate it anyway, and now I feel sick.

Quelle surprise.

Anyway ... "Why, Seshat," I hear you ask "are you so chastened yet happy? Do tell!" (At this point my readership has inexplicably turned into the audience from The Beggar's Opera). Well, I shall tell you.

I have returned from a somewhat epic trip to Skye with the lay-deez and, for a brief period, Spartan (not, alas, acompanied by his wife but just as welcome without her!) where we camped to within an inch of our lives and walked our soggy little socks off - in some of the worst weather I have ever encountered in Scotland.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin ...

The holiday began on Thursday evening with the crunching of wheels on the gravel of HC, and out of Phid's little blue car tumbled Koios, Janus and Phid herself, all beaming merrily and keen to start the adventure. We partook of chicken, ham and leek pie made by my fair hand, and a very restrained quantity of red wine, before turning in. We wanted to be fresh as daisies for the long trip in the morning.

On Friday we woke with glee and embarked on the first task: packing Keith the Land Rover with all our gear while leaving space for 5 women and 2 dogs. To both my and Fisher's secret delight, a new roof-box had arrived the day before and was now - thanks to Fisher - perched jauntily on Keith's head awaiting filling. Without this addition it simply wouldn't have been possible to take everything we needed, and as it was, it was a bloody tight squeeze. Naturally, as the driver, I fared better than everyone else - but even I had to be an inch or so closer to the wheel than usual.

Eventually, only about an hour behind schedule, we were ready to depart. Of we roared in a freshly washed, shiny Keith, only to stop 15 minutes later at the nearest Tesco to stock up on camp food (which consisted of an alarming amount of chocolate, cheese and ham - and not much else). By the time we were fully underway the morning was all but over, and we were chafing at the bit to be Skye-wards.

At last we set off in earnest, and Keith chugged along steadily, as the landscape changed from the rolling farmland of Fife, to the rising hills of Perth, and on into glowering mountains of the Western highlands. We stopped for sustenance at a nice little café in Catlodge, near Dalwhinnie, then onwards, onwards we drove.

At last we slid between the mountains of Glen Shiel and over the Skye Bridge - no longer encumbered by a hefty toll - and turned Keith to our first destination: a quick stroll to ruined Dun Scaith castle, perched on the edge of Sleat's Tokavaig Bay. It was a glorious evening: the sun gleamed off the water, the mountains jagged the skyline, and the castle made a striking silhouette as we headed across boggy ground towards it. We were somewhat peturbed to find just how much we squelched, considering Janus's Skye Walks guide gave it a bog rating of 1. My heart sank to think what the harder walks would entail. Should I have invested in waders? Perhaps a small boat of some kind? I thrust such concerns from my mind and enjoyed the late evening sunshine instead.

Janus and Fisher explored the landward side of the castle while Phid entered the ruin itself via the remnants of a bridge. All that remained of said bridge was a thin ridge attached to a sturdy, low wall. The drop beneath was only seven or eight feet, but it would have made a painful fall onto rocks had my great clodhoppers slipped, and after six hours of driving I had no confidence in my aching wrist when it came to supporting my weight, even by lightly holding a wall. This caused Phid no small amount of scorn, but I decided to live with her disappointment in me and enjoyed the milder challenge of picking my way over the rocks at the base of the castle, in search of an 'easy scramble' (according to Phid's walking book) to the summit. The only possible scramble looked a little more challenging than the book implied (something that would become a common theme) so I simply wound my way around the base, slithering on some pungent seaweed and getting my feet wet in rock pools, until emerging on the other side of the bridge and meeting up with the others again.

Once we'd drunk our fill of Dun Scaith, we headed back to Keith - encountering a feisty little Border Terrier and his equally feisty old lady owner on our way - and set off in search of our first camp site: Glen Brittle.

The drive was stunning. Valley floors pitched and rolled beneath the wheels, and we swooped down into Glen Brittle as if diving for prey. Janus managed not to be sick, although I have a sneaking suspicion it was a close run thing ... and not just for her, either. Fisher was pretty green about the gills, and Phid wore an expression of intense concentration by the end, which only left Koios and myself internally whooping at each lurch.

I have a pathological loathing of campsites. All too often they are made up of clusters of hearty caravanners, whose fat, white, grub-like vehicles bear stickers like "The Cray-zee Caravanners Consortium! You don't have to be cray-zee to join, but it helps!" Each plot rests a mere metre or so from the next, and you feel like you're sleeping in some vast, open-air dormitory, listening to the neighbouring farts and whistles of Old Bob and Fat Marge from Dorking, as they sleep off their vats of camp-fire scrumpy. The stench of disinfectant from the nearby loo block, the squalls of outraged children as they realise just how duped they've been by their cray-zee parents, sulky teenage girls moping in the showers, the faint roar of traffic from the nearby road, the glare of headlights as late arrivals weave their way back from the pub ... all these things lead me to view campsites with horror.

Glen Brittle, then, was a bit of an epiphany. For a start, the plots were a reasonable distance apart; secondly, it was pretty sparsely populated; thirdly, the nearest 'main' road was about 9 miles away; fourthly, there wasn't a child - duped or otherwise - to be seen in the entire place; fifthly, the two teenage girls I did see both smiled winningly and appeared to be there on their own, of their own volition; sixthly, Old Bob and Fat Marge had decided to park their caravan right outside the loo block, and were therefore sufficiently far away from our chosen plot to keep their farts and whistles to themselves. Lastly, the only late arrivals sweeping the campsite with obnoxious headlights ... were us! So that was all right, then.

The position of the campsite was spectacular: set in a bright green field, with ridges and hollows in which to nestle your tents (or, as we chose, to set up on the most exposed, highest point), it sat back from an ash-coloured beach, with beautiful views out to the headlands of Rubh an Dùnain - where we would later walk - and Geodha Daraich, to the north west.

Relieved and delighted with the site, we began setting up camp. I had an infuriating moment of Phid-aided idiocy where I stuck the long tent poles which form the frame through the inner lining loops, when actually they were meant to go through the outer canvas. Starting again was not an aid to good humour, but Fisher came to my rescue and together we were able to erect a passable imitation of shelter. We'd decided to go all-out for luxury, and brought along the inflatable matress we use for extra guests. Why go to the trouble of bringing a Drover if you're not going to stuff it full of luxury items, eh? Eh??

Anway, it's really late and I've just mistyped the last line three times, so I'll have to close here and continue tomorrow. Oh what thrills await you, gentle reader ...

Wednesday, 12 September 2007


I've girded my loins today and actually gone for a swim. I have to say, while swimming itself is quite enjoyable, everything surrounding it is god awful. The pool in St Andrews was blessedly quiet, but there were two Chinese people there, one of whom decided to spit into the pool! I made my best horrified/disgusted face, at which the girl started scowling at the boy and scolding him - but it didn't seem to concern him too much. If he'd done it again I would have said something, but my very British 'say nothing but look daggers' approach sufficed because I didn't see him do it again.

Anyway, apart from the emptiness of the pool, everything else was pretty foul. The changing area has a stale smell, the water dries the skin like bathing in chemicals (hm! wonder why!), and when the pool did start filling up I got kicked twice by careless breaststrokers. I was taking up the teeniest, tiniest lane I possibly could, and there were these two middle-aged women plodding up and down, yakking, and occasionally planting a foot in my soft regions. And was there any apology? There was not. God I hate people.

On the plus side, I did swim 1k in 29 minutes and 19 seconds, which is a hair's breadth under 44 seconds a lap - which is ok as it means I'm keeping my pace steady no matter how far I go. Yes, it's a really bollocks pace, but I'll take it for now.

Now I'm off for a bath, then to watch England get depressingly gubbed by Russia in the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Sigh. At least failing to qualify will mean I'll have one fewer thing to worry about.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Short Story 2 - Mittens.

The Baby's name is Daisy. I have known her for 6 weeks, during which time I have been waiting for maternity. So far, it hasn't arrived. Nothing. I have a tiny stranger living in my house, sleeping in the little room once piled high with racks of wine and cushions, where James and I would curl up away from the world. It is her room, now, and there she lies: red and wrinkled as an aging apple. She has chicken pox, so the world has already made her angry.

I care for her. I make crooning noises as I dab her with calamine, rock her, feed her, kiss her, bite my lip until it bleeds. I do not have a beautiful baby. I do not wish to spend every waking moment in her company. As the shadows lengthen I know there are friends out there drinking too much wine, complaining about work over dinner. Here I am, gritty-eyed at six o'clock, staring at a squalling, itching infant. I would rather be anywhere but here.

I feel coated in guilt. I imagine it as an oily residue on my skin that no amount of washing can remove. How do I not love my child? I have never been a cold person. I have friends, family. Why does Daisy fill me with such dead indifference?

Dear God, will she never stop screaming?

I watch her, helpless. I have changed her, bathed her, covered her sores, sung to her, stroked her head. I act the caring mother with skill, and I know she can't tell the difference. When James comes home he will rush to her cot, gather her up like the missing piece of his soul and hold her close, but she behaves no differently. I watch as he settles her beneath his chin, Castle Dromore a comforting rumble in his chest. Sing hushabye loo, low loo, low lan, hushabye loo, low loo. I smile, arrange my features into doting approval, and all is well. I wish I could say I was jealous: of James, of Daisy. That would be an explanation, somewhere I could begin. I'm not jealous. I couldn't give a damn.

I know the faces I should pull, the words I should say, and I say them just as my own mother did. James hugs me, kisses me, makes love to me with awful grattitude. He is a man whose woman has carried his child. He brings me flowers, makes me mugs of tea, tells me to put my feet up, I deserve it. There was a time I'd come home from work to find paint all over the kitchen floor, half-finished canvasses piled by the back door, and James drinking single malt from the bottle. Bone weary, I'd scream at him. He'd laugh, yell, grab me, fuck me senseless, as the viscid paint smeared hands, thighs, intertwined fingers. After, we would lie spent and quiet, cocooned in each other. It was enough. Now he teaches art at a local school and I'm Daisy's mother.

Daisy has slipped into an uneasy sleep at last. I lean on the bars of her cot and look down, willing my heart to turn over. I see puckered lips, wet with spittle, and scarlet cheeks. Angry scabs speckle her cheeks and chin. In her sleep she tries to scratch, but I've put mittens on her hands:
a barrier between skin and nail. It seems thin protection for one who can be hurt by a touch.

I switch on the baby monitor and slip out of the room. I plan on catching forty winks but find myself standing in front of my wardrobe, staring at the clothes inside. Those hanging up I barely wear any more. The clothes of motherhood don't need hangers; they lie crumpled on chairs, or stuffed into drawers. I reach out and touch my blue dress, the colour of summer midnight - low cut, floor length. I have worn it only once, to a company ball. I was given an award that night, but it seemed small to someone buzzing with secret joy over the life inside. I drank nothing, which Jane noticed (of course she noticed), and soon all the secretaries knew. Before the night was over there was no longer a secret to protect, and people's eyes changed.

Daisy mewls on the monitor, but quiets on her own. I reach out and take down the blue dress, stroke the silk with my fingertips. It catches on my rough skin. I am tempted to put it on, but I could never do it up over my flaccid belly. I go to the bedside table and take out a pair of nail scissors. I run the blade, once, over my thumb, then calmly attack the dress, slashing little holes until it's nothing more than rags. Then it seems logical to turn to the pretty sundress hanging beside it - much easier to destroy its floating gauze - and then my favourite, Chanel suit. It cost over three thousand pounds. I snip each button with a flourish, watching as they drop to the floor and roll in different directions. One vanishes between a crack in the floorboards. The others come to rest not far from my bare feet.

When the suit is nothing more than charcoal ribbons on the floor, I return the scissors to the bedside table and go back to the wardrobe. This time I reach up, stand on tiptoe, and bring down my old travelling suitcase. A faded baggage tag stabs the corner of my eye, causing it to water. Frankfurt. Typical. I lower the suitcase tenderly and open it, leave it lying like a gaping maw.

For several moments I stare at the wardrobe. I picture the clothes inside the drawers: cotton maternity dresses; baggy jumpers, easy to lift for breast feeding; elasticated jeans; vast, comfortable pants - white, pink, grey. These are the clothes I own. This is how I dress. I go to the top drawer and pull it open. The suitcase waits, open-mouthed.

The monitor crackles. Daisy gives a whimper, which crescendos into a miserable wail, and moves restlessly. Before I think I find myself at the cot, reaching down to her. I see at once she's hot, and lift her carefully from her grobag. She screams and waves her hands in despair.

"No, no, no," I croon, resting her against my shoulder, "no, no, no."

I lay her on the changing table and dab calamine on her spots. She tears the air with her cries, but calms once the cool lotion touches her skin. I pick her up. Her sobs dwindle to a sad little grumble. I look into her face as she nestles in the crook of my arm and she blinks up at me. She lifts a hand.

"No," I begin, but instead of clawing at her scabs she reaches up and touches my face. The mitten is soft and warm, resting against my cheek. Then she gives a little, hiccupping sigh and her hand drops. She turns her head, mouth working, and I feed her. She drinks only a little before dropping back to sleep.

I hold her in my arms for a while. I take her hand and gently peel the mitten over her fingers. I slip one of my own into her grasp and she grips tightly in her sleep. Her skin is warm and dry, her nails white against red. I notice, too, that her fingertips are slightly flared, like mine.

She breathes deeply, sound asleep. I slide the mitten back on and button it securely. I lay her on her back and brush a light hand over her head, watching as the hair floats like down.

I go back to the bedroom and pack my suitcase with the clothes I have destroyed. Then I take it down and empty it into the dustbin in the garden. Leaning against the peeling fence, with the stink of rubbish in my nose, I cry violently. Then I go inside and wait for James to come home.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Clipping Pooches

Just a quick note to remind myself we clipped the dogs today. It's the first time we've ever done it ourselves, and while it was much kinder on the dogs to do it from home, they were pretty traumatised by it all anyway, and it was sheer hell for us! Little hairs got everywhere, and I was driven absolutely crazy by the itching on my face. I ended up putting a bandanna over my mouth and nose. I could see Bridie looking at me with amusement, thinking Is she going to clip me or hold up a stagecoach?

We started off using the plastic guards on the clipper, but even the shortest one left Bridie's coat a little too long - so we ended up not using guards at all. Bridie's pretty patchy in places, and both dogs have slightly hilarious paws, but on the whole I think we aquitted ourselves well. It took around 4 hours to do both of them, and I've managed to get sunburn on my back and shoulders. Gah! When will I learn?

I've just reaslied I'm starving hungry, so I'm off to get myself a bowl of cereal and some coffee before beating my head against a wall as I watch England lose against Israel.

Friday, 7 September 2007

A Beautiful Day

Uncannily, the weather here in Fife has been absolutely divine for the last week, culminating in today's scorching sun and light sea breeze. Thus, with a song in my heart, I decided to go for a 20km bike ride ...

... in the gym.

Yes, I know, rather peculiar of me I admit, but the thought of cycling back up our hill drove me into such black despair I thought it best to go to the gym and miss out on the sunshine rather than forget about cycling at all and eat my way through the rest of the vast bag of peanut M&Ms in the sitting room. Anyway, Fisher more than made up for it by running into St Andrews and emerging all sun-kissed at the end of it.

So, after logging some more travel tips on Cosmotourist, I pootled into St Andrews with the pooches and parked at the gym. First, I'd like to say that I've been rather disconsolate about my cycling over the last couple of days as I checked out some times for county triathlons and discovered I'm not the speed demon I thought I was on the bike. Secretly, deep in my heart, I fantasised that my enjoyment levels accurately reflected my ability, and on my way to Tentsmuir the other day, day-dreamed of being so fast in a cycling race I atually overtook some of the professional peloton ("Tell me," says Steve Ryder, interviewing me at the end, "when did you discover you had this astonishing talent?" "Well Steve," I reply, wide-eyed and modest, "I'm as astonished as you! I'm just your average fat chick on a bike, trying to do the best I can." "But how did you feel when you overtook Lance Armstrong on the final stretch?" "Well, Steve, we ought to give the guy a break. He's been out a long time. Hell, he wouldn't even have been here at all had he not been the only cyclist I actually know and can picture in a fantasy ..."). The fastest time for 20km in the Cheshire Sprint was around 38 minutes - which brought me back to earth with a bump and made me feel all chubby and slow again.

I was determined to make myself proud today - but the poxy, rubbish, piece of crap bike in the St Andrew's gym only goes up to a 30 minute workout. I had to fanny about remembering numbers and reset the thing after the first workout finished in order to go the requisite 12.4 miles. Anyway, I did my 20km - just! On mile 10 I had a veeeery slight concern I was about to have a heart attack and keel off my bike, plopping on the floor with a soggy splat. Luckily I got my heart rate under control and finished without death - in roughly 46 1/2 minutes. That puts me 63rd out of 143 in the Cheshire Sprint! I'll take that! (Ok, I know the gym is a pretty inaccurate portrayal of the real world, and in the Cheshire Sprint they were actually cycling after already swimming for 750m - but screw it! I wasn't last! I was, in fact very far from last, so ner ner ner. Oops - there goes Lance Armstrong again. Cheerio!)

Anyway, I'm so merry right now I could almost spew! And because we stopped off at IJ Mellis' on the way home - it's CHEESE for supper! Hoorah! Life just doesn't get better.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007


Just got back from shopping at Tesco and a bit of triathlon training, and I'm utterly dropping! I biked to Tentsmuir while Fisher took the Drover. It's officially 7 miles, but as the first mile is entirely down hill I don't think it really counts. Boo. Anyway, I did, on average, 4 1/2 minute miles which is about the same as I do in the gym - so I was pretty pleased with that. Then I took a patiently waiting Baffanoo out of the Drover and ran 5k. I believe, last time I did this, it took me over 40 minutes. This time it took 38 1/2 minutes - so, again, I was very pleased. I was even more pleased that Baffie kept pace with me and there's no sign of a limp.

Fisher completed her 5k in a little over 28 minutes, but she may be faster than me but she is an awful person and must live with this fact all her life, while I am lovely.

: )

We then went to Tesco and did our weekly shop which has proved the final straw for both my stamina and my sanity, which is only clinging on by a very thin thread.

I'm off for a shower and to play a bit of Tomb Raider Anniversary. It's very good. I'd forgotten how tense the first ones are! I've just completed the T-Rex level which drove me a little crazy. I've got a sneaking suspicion I should have found some other weaponry by now, but I killed him with my pistols anyway.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Whisky Tour 2 etc

Last week began the second epic whisky tour, this time with Brother and Gaura as willing tourists along with Fisher and me. It kicked off in Ben Nevis, after a fantastic meal at Russell's Hotel in Spean Bridge the night before, and a pretty, characterful B&B. The distillery itself was a bit of a joke. Fort William is definitely the poor cousin to Oban, catering to shallow pocketed backpackers and clueless foreigners in search of the Little Britain model of Scotland. The tour kicked off with a video featuring Hector McDram the giant, who formed the mountains with his bare hands, scooped out lochs, and accidentally stumbled across uisge betha by pissing in a pot of barley ... or something. Anyway, after this slightly excrutiating but nevertheless entertaining video, we then had the bog-standard distillery tour and a tasting.

And what did they choose to bestow upon us?

A 4 1/2 year old blend. Ben Nevis is clearly so unenamoured of its own product it doesn't wish to let members of the public taste it.

We left, unimpressed.

Our next stop was a couple of hours northwards, beyond the Black Isle, to a distillery closed to the public but, when I phoned, very willing to give us a private tour. It was called Balblair - a picturesque distillery in Edderton which took a little finding and proved well worth it. Gordon Bowie, the assistant manager, gave us a lucid tour and then parked us in front of several excellent drams. Brother and Gaura bought a couple of bottles - one for Gaura's father, the others to begin their belated wedding present collection - while Fisher and I snapped up the 1997 bottling. I find it a round, easy-drinking dram, yet rich enough to satisfy my tastes. I really don't like the gentler whiskies and can't bear blends at all. From this trip, I think I've learned that it's the grain whisky I can't abide, which are only found in blends.

After Balblair we headed to our second place of rest - 2 Quail in Durnoch. It was a real shame we couldn't have supper there, as the tables were booked up, but we enjoyed the comfort of cosy rooms stocked with books ("Feel free to look at the books" said the slightly crazy lady, rather pointedly, as we looked at the books in the sitting room. "Er ... thanks," said I, thinking why the hell would they be here if we aren't allowed to look at them? But I think she was a classic British B&B owner - she knows she should be friendly and hospitable, but actually she doesn't really like people touching her stuff! To be fair, I imagine people are constantly nicking books and it pisses her off - but we weren't about to walk off with Churchill's bloody History of the II World War tucked under our arms). We had tea and a quick bite in a local café, which was very good, and a few hours later we were ready to have supper in the Castle Hotel - which was fine.

Next day, after leaving 2 Quail with a brief interrogation over a missing book ringing in our ears, we took a trip to Glenmorangie - where we failed to take the tour and were therefore forbidden the fruit of free tastings. We bought a couple of drams, but I don't think they were impressive enough to prompt the buying of a bottle. Off we went again, and our final destination before reaching Speyside was Dalmore. Our mini-guide told us Dalmore wasn't open to the public, but we dropped in on the off-chance and found it had changed its mind. A sleek little visitor's centre has been opened, complete with learned-by-rote tour guides, and we took a quick tour before enjoying a dram or two. It was good stuff - and particularly interesting was the white spirit which the girl allowed us to taste by pouring it into our hands. Why we couldn't have a glass I don't know. Maybe she didn't want the washing up? Anyway, the raw spirit reminded me very much of grappa. It wasn't unpleasant, just a little raw. The whisky was excellent, I thought - very rounded, fruity and honeyed, with a good kick.

Our next port of call was Dallas Dhu, a place our guide book referred to as an old distillery now made into a museum. We thought it would be fun to look at how they made whisky over 100 years ago ... but it turned out Dallas Dhu actually closed in 1983! We watched a more informative video than the usual tat, though, and did get a taste of Roderick Dhu - the blend into which the remaining Dallas Dhu is going.

That was our last distillery before entering Speyside, heartland of Scotch. Alas, with 3 distilleries under our belts already, we were ready for a break and decided, instead, to have a look round Johnson's of Elgin. I can't say it was something that filled me with anticipation, but I was perfectly happy to tootle along and look at the pretty cashmere. It turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected, with a tour of the working factory floor and the chance to see the machines in action. Oo - and we had some tea in the café before moving onwards.

I'd wanted to visit Linkwood owing to the fact it had the highest tasting score in my mini-guide - a 5 - of all the Speysides. The score doesn't refer to quality but instead to potency and how much, according to Collins Gem, your pallette has to have been developed before you'll enjoy it. Most patronising. My pallette isn't very developed at all, but I've always loved stronger whiskies to weak blends. And by 'developed' I have a sneaking suspicion they mean 'utterly dessicated from drinking too much.' My taste buds haven't been the same since university. Anyway, Linkwood wasn't to be as it isn't open to the public and I couldn't get anyone to guide us, so we headed down the way to Glen Grant. Brother had noticed it boasted gardens, and thought it would be a good place for the poor neglected poochies to have a walk. He would have been right, had Glen Grant not been shut and the gardens blocked off. Boooo! Mean old buggers.

It being too late to gain entry into any Speyside distilleries, we headed to Aberlour and The Mash Tun where we had rooms for the night. I'd been looking very much forward to this little place, thinking it looked right up our alley. It was whisky themed, had a bar and restaurant beneath the rooms, and on the website the rooms looked remarkably luxurious. Actually, what they'd done was slightly sneaky in that they'd put only photographs of their best rooms on the website, despite it looking like they were showing a suite and an average room. Still, it was comfortable enough - perfectly adequate.

Before supper, Fisher, Gaura and I went for a long-ish walk with the dogs in search of the Fairy Knowe. Gaura helpfully pointed out that, as it was fairies, it was probably invisible so we'd never know if we found it or not. We did, on the other hand, see a distillery called Glen ... something too small to see. We decided to make the same walk the next morning and visit Gelnsomethingtoosmalltosee, and with that in mind, headed back to The Mash Tun for supper where brother had been reading the papers from cover to cover on a squashy sofa, with a couple of restful pints of beer.

Supper was good, simple pub grub and a welcome break from heavy hotel fayre. We tasted several other malts - a Knockando, a Balmenach - and then retired to bed.

On the morrow we were roused by the hotel manageress knocking loudly, demanding to know whether we were going to have breakfast or not. Fisher and I said a bleary 'not' but Brother went down to nibble on some toast. Eventually we got up and prepared for our walk to Glensomething ... Alas, after about 500 metres I realised that the new boots I'd bought for our walk on Skye were rubbing something awful and had already opened an extremely unpleasant blister on my heel. Considering I'd searched everywhere for a pair of boots the exact copy of my last pair and ended up ordering them from somewhere in Sussex, I was gutted. I returned to the car and said I'd meet everyone at the distillery. It turned out to be closed to the public anyway, but a sister distillery to Aberlour - so we headed there instead.

Fisher and I had fond memories of Aberlour from the last jaunt, and I wasn't disappointed on my return. We tasted three drams, courtesy of the friendly chappie behind the bar who talked us through them. First came the standard ten year old. Very nice. Honeyed, easy drinking, light on the tongue. Next we were treated to the a'bunadh - the cask strength little number I'd so enjoyed last time. It hadn't diminished over time. At 59.6% it blew my head off as hard as last time, but was worth every drop. Then, as we merrily agreed to buy both bottles, the canny salesman nipped out the back saying:

"Now I really shouldn't do this, but ..."

He came back with a medicine bottle of whisky and began pouring drams. It was the bourbon cask whisky you usually bottle yourself if you take the 2 hour tour. It's not available to buy from their website, or from any of the whisky websites I've tried (out of curiosity) - and was utterly delicious! Spice, honey and caramel, with a lightness directly in contrast to the a'bunadh's kick. We had to get a bottle of that as well, which boosted the wedding case considerably! Things were looking good.

Unfortunately, the rest of the afternoon wasn't quite so much of a success - apart from a very interesting look around the Speyside Cooperage, where we watched burly, hirsute men bashing iron bands onto barrells with mesmerising skill. I'm sure I would have broken my hands at least once every hour, but seeing as the apprenticeship is 4 years, I suppose you'd learn the basics like not smashing the hammer onto your hand.

After learning about the barrells used by all the whisky companies, we headed into Dufftown for some lunch at a cray-zee café called Noah's Ark ... for some reason. Inside, it was chocka with tat - overflowing with lamps, bric-a-brac, potplants and brightly coloured paintings. I saw no evidence of any animals going 2 by 2, though, so the name still remainds a mystery. The menu looked varied and interesting, though, with an emphasis on 'whole food' which was a relief, because I'm so fed up of being served half food. I ordered home-made paté and got given the most enormous slabs of the stuff, of which I could really only manage a pathetic portion. Obviously I'm not woman enough for whole food. Brother ordered a steak burger and the waitress looked at him like he'd just shat in her shoes. He got a thin, curling
piece of steak in a brown bun. That was it. No garnish, no salad. Just a dry bun and some meat. Serves him right. Cow murderer.

After this slightly bizarre experience, Brother phoned Balvenie distillery to see if we could just turn up and taste, rather than go through the whole tour. The woman he reached said we couldn't really just have a tasting - but we could watch the video and then taste. This sounded fine, so off we went to seek out Balvenie - Brother's whisky of choice.

Alas, when Fisher and I arrived there ahead of Brother and Gaura, we encountered a baffled looking man named Dave who informed us he'd heard nothing about such a thing, and that Balvenie was only open to visitors by appointment. The problem was that the switchboard of Balvenie goes straight through to sister distillery Glenfiddich, so even though Brother mentioned Balvenie to the receptionist she clearly didn't listen and thought we were talking about Glenfiddich. Shame. Despite us making the biggest eyes possible, Dave was unyielding in his resolve to keep us out of Balvenie ... but eventually took pity and told us to go to Glenfiddich, where we could mention his name and have a free Balvenie at the bar. Jolly good. Ailsa then promptly forgot his name - but luckily I have a memory for names that lasts more than 30 seconds and we got our freebie. Glenfiddich was at least a very picturesque little place.

Unfortunately, due to the faff and a slower lunch than originally planned, we were now very pressed for time. We had a relatively long drive down to Pitlochry that evening, and it was 4.30. Most distilleries have, if not closed, then at least stopped doing tours by that time and were therefore not likely to let us in for a tasting. I was also cross because Fisher had told me we could take any road south, but the one we found ourselves on was utterly devoid of any distillery at all and seemed to take us 3 times further than any of the others. After a suitable grump, I then discovered a place called Tomintoul in my Collins Gem which ... hey ho ... wasn't open to the public. Never mind, I thought, I'll give them a try anyway.

So busy was I with trying to find a last distillery before declaring Speyside a bit of a bust, that I completely failed to register the beauty of the road Fisher had chosen. I took a moment to drink in swooping hills, sparkling burns and sunshine before phoning Tomintoul. I reached a woman who said she didn't know if we could come by for a tasting - she had to ask Tom. Tom of Tomintoul. I felt like I'd stumbled into an Ivor the Engine story. I wondered if the whole distillery was peopled by men called things like 'Jock the Mash' and 'Old Rab Stillman'.

Eventually a gruff male voice came on the line. I told him we'd had a bit of a disappointing day in Speyside and were hoping very much we could stop by for a taste of Tomintoul to cheer ourselves up. The last thing I heard before the mountains cut me off was:

"Aye, reckon that wid be a very good idea ..."

I took this to mean we should just rock up, so with crossed fingers I directed Fisher to lead our little convoy deep into the countryside in search of Tomintoul. Ominous signs promising roads closed ahead did nothing to deter us, and we wound our way through some of the prettiest countryside you ever did hope to see. The sun shone, my head span from all the whisky of the day, and my crabbishness evaporated with the first sight of our destination. The distillery itself is nothing to look at - large, white and pretty charmless, but its surrounds more than make up for that. (This picture is an example of the surrounding countryside - not a pic of the actual distillery.)

On arrival, I nipped inside to make sure we were expected and I hadn't been the victim of an elabourate hoax. Luckily, Tom of Tomintoul was there waiting for us - a tall, dour man in his mid fifties. He was dressed in overalls, with a distinct no-bullshit odour about him. He took us through to a room which looked like any cheap, modern office room and sat us around the cheap, modern office table in cheap, modern office chairs.

"This is it," he said. "There's no-one here dressed in full highland dress. There's no nineteenth century tasting room with oak tables made out of old whisky barrells. It's just me, this room, this table and chairs. And," he added, wopping out a bottle, "the whisky!"

His undisguised excitement at the thought of a tasting was underlined by the shaking of his hand as he poured a couple of drams for the 4 of us to share, and a hearty measure for himself ("I'm no' driving!").

The first was a standard 10 year old which, in Tom's own words, "isn't bad." Tomintoul is known as "the gentle dram" and it is, indeed, very easy drinking. The ten year old slipped down very easily. Brother remarked that he likes his whisky to have some bite, just to remind him to be careful. The Tomintoul 10 year old had no bite at all, just sweet, slightly spicy warmth. It was rather frightening to think how many drams could slip down the hatch before I remembered how potent it is. I was cautiously reserved, though, and enjoyed a couple of sips.

Then it was on to the 16 year old. This was a fuller version of the 10, better at filling the mouth, but with the same delicious caramel and spice. Brother had resorted to minimal tastes accompanied by much sniffing, as he was driving, while Fisher wasn't having any at all (driving also) and Gaura barely had enough to notice. The drams started piling up, all but untouched, and I felt a slight obligation to make an impression - so the tiny sips became a little larger.

Thirdly we were offered the 27 year old. This was a different kettle of fish. Dark, rich and woody, Tom of Tomintoul gave his minceless opinion that it had been left in the cask too long. On tasting, I did quite like it - but the minute ToT mentioned the wood I saw what he meant. A definate oakiness permeated the overall taste, and left the wersht sensation of stewed tea. The overall sweet, richness wasn't enough to overcome the woodiness, and we turned instead to the final offering. ToT had been more than keeping pace with us, taking a good double measure each time we had our paltry sips, and the shaking hands had steadied a little as he brought out the final offering.

This was rather an interesting one, being a peat smoked bottling called Old Ballantruan. As part of his 'no-bullshit' style, ToT had dismissed the notion of peaty water, or salt air, bearing any relation whatsoever to the end result. I'd wondered if, by taking a cask of west coast whisky and leaving it on the east coast would actually make any difference, as some distillery guides would have you believe. He made a sound like an exploding bull and dismissed such nonsense. Aparantly there are only 3 things that matter when it comes to making whisky: the ration of yeast to ... something ... and, er, two other things. Oh, shut up. There was quite a bit of whisky in my system at this point. I think one of them was water purity, which Tomintoul has by taking their fresh water from local wells near what is the highest village in the Highlands. They had no mains water at all for the distillery, and the water we tasted was, indeed, very pure. ToT pointed out that streams have dead sheep in them, as well as farm run-off and any number of other things polluting their ways. Wells can remain untouched. Anyway, I do remember him saying that the notion of rocks leaving deposits in the water, or the sea air infusing the barrels, was utter balderdash. Peat taste comes from parts per million of peat in the water, which comes through the smoking of malt over peat fires to stop germination. You can use as little or as much peat as you like, depending on the distiller's whim. This is what they did for the Old Ballantruan - and the combination of Speyside sweetness, roundness and richness with the addition of peat smoke was wonderful to me! The peat was in imitation of Laphroaig, and it was certainly as smoky as any Island malt I've tasted - but without the antiseptic. Delicious. I bought a bottle, and so did Brother - who also snapped up a 16 year old. By buying straight from the source we saved at least a fiver, so that was nice, too!

A word ought to be said about the bottles themselves. Both the ten and sixteen year olds have cream labels with a sketch of some countryside scene on the front. To catch the eye, the lid foil is in purple. Tom waved a hand in their direction and asked us what we thought of it.

"Er ..." said I.

"I suppose they catch the eye ..." Brother began, at which ToT flapped a hand at him.

"I'm no' interested in what you think!" he grumbled. "This is one fur the ladies."

"O ... k ... " I whimpered, not wanting to say I found the whole design pretty dire. "I like purple. It's my favourite colour." To his credit, ToT didn't pat me on the head and offer me a lollipop for my nursery school answer, but instead turned his attention to Fisher and Gaura and they blethered something about understanding how the colour would definitely leap off the shelves at you and you'd be able to locate it with ease. Personally I thought they were scraping the bottom of the American oak barrel at this point, but ToT lapped it up. Apparently, Tomintoul's marketing deparment had designed the labels specifically for the female market in Spain, where the "Gentle Dram" is wildly popular. Therefore it's all girly colours and pretty pictures. I refrained from comment, which I think was good of me.

"Where is your marketing department?" Brother enquired. Tom of Tomintoul jabbed a finger at the opposite end of the table.

"There. That's where me and ma mate Frank sit on a Friday night!" He gave a broad, proud grin and we laughed merrily. Later, Brother suggested that Frank was a purple-scarfed, floppy-haired indvidual who pranced into the Tomintoul office every Friday night with a warbling: "Hellooo Tom darling" and together they took the world market by storm while drinking their way through three bottles of home-distilled hooch apiece. A nice image, I think.

We left Tomintoul well pleased with the detour, bidding farewell to Tom of Tomintoul and the two receptionists (Elsie the Telephone? Heather the PowerPoint?) with gratitude. I think I weaved slightly, and clutched Old Ballantruan to my chest like a baby. One final wave and we were off.

The road to Pitlochry proved one of the highlights of the whole trip. We scooted over the Grampians in beautiful sunshine, glorying in the bright purple heather and shining braes. Mountains surrounded us, with only the occasional ski-station to marr the view. It took a couple of hours to traverse the back route, but time well spent. Brother and Gaura managed to keep the top down all the way - some kind of miracle in Scotland - and we all arrived at The Pine Trees Hotel feeling more than merry.

Pine Trees is a pretty, tucked away country house hotel on the edge of Pitochry, boasting 4 stars from the Scottish Tourist Board - 3 stars from everyone else - and seemingly entirely run by Poles. We were told firmly that we had to go straight to supper as 'the staff are waiting for you.' It was 8pm. Supper was served from 6-9pm, so I was a bit miffed with the guilt-trip. We weren't there for the staff's conveniece, but were paying for the privilege of our own, thank you very much. However, we were all pretty peckish so we made it down by 8.15 anyway.

Supper was fine, and Fisher and I were very pleased the dogs were allowed into the hotel. For the last few nights they'd been sleeping in the car - an arrangement that bothers us much more than it does them!

After a relaxing dram or three at the bar, we turned in. We took the dogs for a final pee in the gardens, then up to the room where Bridie proceeded to drink two whole bowls of water! We felt awful! Fisher then suggested she take her out again, last thing, but quickly agreed when I sleepily said "she'll be all right."

Famous last words.

2.30 am, I'm woken by the insistent whines of Bridie, followed by several sharp yips when she saw my eyes open. Blearily I got to my feet and started hunting around for clothes in the pitch black. I couldn't find anything but my shirt. It was touch and go as to whether I went down bare-arsed, but I know what my luck is like, so I spent another 5 minutes searching. Eventually I was dressed and ready, at which point Baffie started squawking as well, so I had to unhook her lead from its secure anchor around Fisher's bedside table. Bridie was going ape by this stage - and when, at long last, I managed to get them out onto the stairs she just couldn't wait. I felt her stop suddenly, and before I knew it a dark puddle was spreading out over the carpet. There was nothing for it but to wait until she'd finished. Baffie then started sniffing at it in an "oh, is there a toilet here?" sort of way, so I dragged them furiously through the unending corridors and out into the garden. Baffie peed happily, but Bridie just sat there staring at me in miserable trepidation. She knew she'd done wrong, and that I was angry - but her refusal to move at all didn't exactly improve my temper. Nor did ending up on my hands and knees at 3am scrubbing at the carpet with a soap-soaked towel - or the fact I simply couldn't get back to sleep afterwards.

It was a very pie-eyed me that came down for breakfast the next morning, but the sleep I did achieve at least put me in a better humour and I looked on our final day with pleasure. First of all we went to what looked like an entertaining display at Dewar's World of Whisky - a museum as well as distillery - and tasted a couple of drams. The museum was better than the whisky, although the White Label was definitely the nicest blend I've come across.

Next, we headed back to Pitlochry via the Pass of Killiecrankie where we gave the dogs a very quick leg-stretch down to Soldier's Leap and poked about in the visitor's centre shop a bit. Our final distillery of the tour was the one I thought the best of the bunch last time - Edradour. But before we embarked on the Last Tasting of the Trip, we had lunch at the lovely Moulin Inn and popped our heads into the Moulin kirkyard to say hello to the Fergussons buried there. Then it was off to Edradour's pretty whitewashed buildings for a nose and a taste of their finest offerings.

On the barman's suggestion we bypassed the 10 year old, which he admitted was nothing special really, and tried a dram of Sauterne finished 12 year old. I think I recall Brother and Gaura liking it very much, but I can't say it was to my taste really. A little winey - which is the point, but actually gave it a bit of a medicinal quality, in my eyes. Much more to my taste was the unchillfiltered 10 year old, and the 10 year old cask-strength. However, I must say that Edradour - while still excellent - is no longer my favourite! I think that title has now been blown wide open by this trip, where my pallette has been beaten into submission and now picks up nuances previously unnoticed. I think the a'bunadh may be up there as a serious contender, but actually I'm not sure I can pick a favourite at present.

A quick visit to the shop saw Bother and Gaura's wedding collection reach 8 bottles in total, and then we were back in the car, heading home. The whisky tour was done! The weather had been most gracious, the craic excellent, and the whisky eye-opening. Now it was back to Fife, where such things as tennis tournaments, book groups and the gathering of pals were to be happily anticipated. I was very much looking forward to seeing Arrow and sharing some of our new aquisitions with him, as well as seeing Spartan and Blarney who were coming up for the tennis tournament on Sunday. Not, of course, to mention Janus and Phid, who were the only other people apart from me to have actually made the effort! Phid was even passing up the opportunity to go to Mohammed al Fayed's hunting cabin with Wheeler in order to do so! Gold star to that girl!

Unfortunately, the arrival of Sartan and Blarney a day early and my suggestion we all meet up for a drink after book group was over caused the ultimate collapse of said book group (much to Spartan and Blar's surprise as they turned up to a house full of people, when they'd only been expecting to see Fisher, Brother and Gaura) so god knows what I'm going to do with a head stuffed full of the history of satirical literature in Russia - not to mention themes of sensuality, freedom of spirit, and the complexities of good and evil. The same as I do with all my academic knowledge, I suppose: forget it almost instantly.

Anyway, aside from the disappointment of not getting fully to grips with Bulgakov - about whom I remain, despite all my research - utterly bewildered, it was a great weekend. We played poker til the wee hours (Blarney cleaned up) and tasted all my pre-tour whiskies. Fisher gallantly offered to cook and had to go out and buy a shed load of shopping owing to us having not nearly enough in the house to feed the extras. She made teriyaki beef ... mmmmm ... with accompaniments of pak choi, fried seaweed and prawn crackers. Next day, the sun shone, I lost at the tennis before the watching eyes of my friends (typical. I played like boak and injured my wrist in the process) and we parted fondly. At 4.30 we had to shoot back to the house because The Politician was arriving. In typical Politician fashion he'd asked to come and stay about 3 minutes before showing up. I don't know why I put up with it - I really don't. Having said that, it was wonderful to see him looking tanned and healthy.

On Sunday night we all went out to The Seafood Restaurant for slap up nosh, kindly bought by Brother & Gaura, and had some excellent white wine that I've forgotten the name of but will definitly stock up on when I remember. The Politician was entertaining, the evening flew by, and we returned for a final dram and a bit more poker. The Politician seemed a little unsure of it all to start with, but ended up enjoying it rather a lot - despite being the unluckiest player I've ever seen! He had 2 pairs ... Brother had 2 higher pairs. He had a pair of Queens, Fisher had a pair of Kings. He had a Straight, Gaura had a Flush ... it was quite ubelievable!

But with that final hand of poker, the weekend drew to a close. The Politician left the next morning, Brother and Gaura around noon. The house descended into quiet, Fisher and I drew deep, calming breaths - and then entered the general fray that is our life together. Today I've dedicated to organising myself for the trip to Skye, but have done nothing but finish writing up this blog and run a few errands. I've got a million and one things to do ... and I can't seem to stop writing! Arrg!


That is all.

The end.