Spring into summer via Edinburgh

Spring into summer? Well, it’s been more of a stumble.

One of the aspects of life which surprises me about Orkney is the amount of nasty viruses going around the place. You might imagine that with all this fresh air we would be immune to them. Perhaps it is because this is a sociable, friendly place that we share germs more easily.

Either way, in the last two months I have had two nasty viruses, both of which laid me low for a week or so. As a London friend said to me, knowing Orkney’s windy reputation, “You would imagine the germs would all blow away.”

Moreover, the weather has not been all one might have hoped for recently – some days in June have felt more like stormy April days and now we are officially “in the summer” it would be nice to have completely dispensed with hats, coats and using electric lights in the evening.

But there is sunshine as well as rain and so everything in our garden is growing fast, including the weeds. Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I need to spend more time gardening but it is encouraging to see the flowers that Kathie planted blooming colourfully and the trees we have planted since arriving in 2010 becoming tall.

At the beginning of May I spent a three-night weekend in Edinburgh. It is strange how, with time, one’s centre of gravity can change. When I lived in London I was only vaguely aware of Edinburgh. Now, through repeated visits from Orkney, parts of Edinburgh seem as familiar as areas of London I used to frequent such as Ealing and Shepherd’s Bush.

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“In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” Sculpture by Andy Scott in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

On this latest visit to Auld Reekie, solo as Kathie stayed at home working, I visited the Scottish National Gallery, Princes Street Gardens, Waverley railway station, St Giles Cathedral, the Royal Mile, as well as some charity – and other – shops.

The gallery has a superb collection and gave me the chance to see again some of my favourite paintings, such as John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (see previous blog – Carry On In The Central Belt). This time I also bought the fridge magnet!

In Princes Street Gardens, in the hail and sleet, I was taken with a new sculpture of a baby elephant. Next to it a sign says: “In memory of our precious babies, gone but never forgotten.” The sculptor is Andy Scott and it was unveiled in the gardens in February this year.

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Plaque to commemorate Sir Nigel Gresley at Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

Still on the theme of remembering, I took a walk through Waverley station to soak up the atmosphere and chanced upon a commemorative plaque to Sir Nigel Gresley, one of my late father’s heroes. I had not realised Sir Nigel was born in Edinburgh. He designed some of Britain’s most-famous steam locomotives, including The Flying Scotsman (which Kathie and I saw at Waverley, also in my Carry On In The Central Belt blog) and Mallard, holder of the world speed record for a steam locomotive at 126mph.

In St Giles’ Cathedral I listened to a wonderful organ recital performed by Michael Harris. The music sounds superb in the cathedral’s acoustic and I particularly liked Boellmann’s Suite Gothique. There are regular concerts and recitals at the cathedral, or High Kirk, so do seek them out if you visit Edinburgh.

And, of course, it seems impossible for me to go anywhere these days without visiting charity shops. I came home with 11 CDs – everything from the latest album by Clean Bandit to the soundtrack from Sound Of Music (for more on my CD habit see my blog The Newest (And Most Addictive) Joy Of Charity Shops).

The main reason for my visit was to see Gretchen Peters in concert, again. I am a great fan of her music and it is always beautifully performed with accompanying musicians including her partner, pianist Barry Walsh. The venue was the intimate Queen’s Hall.

This time the other band members were the excellent guitarist Colm McClean and bass (upright and electric) player Conor McCreanor, both from Northern Ireland.

The second half of the show featured a string quartet which added a superb dimension to already-super songs of Gretchen’s such as The Secret Of Life, Blackbirds, On A Bus To St Cloud and Ghosts.

Two individual members of the quartet also made appearances towards the end of the first half, one of the violinists on the song Matador, and the cellist adding to the two closing songs of the half, Five Minutes and Idlewild, which left me in an emotional heap.

There is a link to all of Gretchen’s videos at the bottom of this blog but, for now, here is Five Minutes (in a live performance by Gretchen and Barry) and Idlewild (as originally recorded)…

I should also add that Gretchen and her partner Barry are friendly and decent people who take time at the end of their concerts to sign and chat. This time the merchandise on offer included something I have never seen at a concert before… tea towels! There is method to this madness, the closing song on the latest album Dancing With The Beast being Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea. Yes, of course, I bought a tea towel (and one for my mother-in-law).

My blogs have, unlike my CD-buying habit, become irregular.

Among the many events between my February Arizona trip (see previous blog, Arizona: Take Three) and my May Edinburgh trip – along with RSPB and Quoyloo Old School volunteering – were attending the unveiling of Orkney’s witchcraft memorial and a wonderful concert by the band Fara in Orkney Theatre. Do go see Fara if they come your way.

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Members of the current RNLI Longhope lifeboat crew prepare to lay wreaths to the men lost with the TGB in 1969 (image: Graham Brown)

I spent a moving day on the island of Hoy on 17 March joining the commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the loss of the Longhope lifeboat, TGB, with all eight men aboard. The islanders made everyone welcome and the events were a testament to the human spirit and man’s love for his fellow man. When individual wreaths were laid to each of those lost by members of the current crew, some of whom are descendants of the eight, it brought tears to the eyes.

And, on 16 April, Kathie and I marked nine years since our move to Orkney by attending the annual St Magnus Day service in St Magnus Kirk, Birsay, not far from where we live. St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by accident, we moved to Orkney on his saint’s day.

Since Edinburgh events have included what I think might be my first tribute band concert – What The Floyd at Orkney Theatre, the annual Orkney Nature Festival nature cruise organised by the RSPB and Northlink Ferries (always great fun and a great social event, this year we were treated to a pod of passing Risso’s dolphins), an informal gathering at Marwick Head to mark the 103rd anniversary of the loss of HMS Hampshire, and a visit by friends Tania Opland & Mike Freeman, who performed a gig of their unique take on acoustic world music at Stromness Town Hall. Unfortunately, my second lurgy coincided with latter part of their visit.

Memo to self: must blog more often – and avoid catching germs.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Scottish National Gallery website – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/visit/scottish-national-gallery

Wikipedia: Sir Nigel Gresley – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigel_Gresley

St Giles’ Cathedral website – https://stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Gretchen Peters website – https://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen Peters’ videos on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/

Fara website – http://faramusic.co.uk/

Longhope Lifeboat on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/LonghopeLifeboat/

St Magnus Kirk webpage – http://www.birsay.org.uk/heritage.htm#stmagnus

RSPB Orkney on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney/

Northlink Ferries – https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/

Wikipedia: Risso’s dolphin – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Risso%27s_dolphin

HMS Hampshire website – http://hmshampshire.org/

Tania Opland & Mike Freeman – http://www.opland-freeman.com/

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Carry On in the Central Belt

“Listen, listen. Ooh – aah – titter ye not. Ooh no missus… Settle down now, settle down,” as Frankie Howerd might have said.

First of all, my apologies, for the cheeky title to this blog – well, we all need to promote ourselves a little.

Second, some explanations, for those not born in the UK and for younger readers. Frankie Howerd was a very funny comedian who appeared in some of the many Carry On films produced from the late 1950s through to the late 1970s. Carry On films were known for their cheeky and vulgar humour – a bit like the heading on this blog.

That said, I am not a big fan of Carry On films but find Frankie Howerd very funny. I particularly enjoyed the BBC television series Up Pompeii!, first broadcast in 1970, in which Howerd played the lead character, a Roman slave. Various aspects of the programme would not pass the political correctness test now, but Howerd’s performances, and the way he talked to the audience in the studio and at home, are a masterclass.

There are many examples of the programme online, probably from someone’s home video recordings, this is Nymphia featuring another Carry On regular, Barbara Windsor (no relation to Her Majesty The Queen)…

Anyway, rather like Frankie Howerd, I digress. I am, in fact, writing about the Central Belt of Scotland, the country’s area of greatest population which includes its two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

If you picture a map of Scotland, and think of it as a body, the central belt would be where the waist is, albeit that the body has short legs. Err, like me.

Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I visited Edinburgh in both 2015 and 2016 (my blogs “Reflections on Edinburgh…” and “Auld Reekie”) and Glasgow in April this year (my blog “Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow”).

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View of Edinburgh from the roof of the Camera Obscura building (image: Graham Brown)

In May it was the turn of Edinburgh, again. We stayed in the same conveniently-placed hotel, next to the transport interchange between trams, buses and trains at Haymarket, albeit now changed from a Tune Hotel (in which you paid for all extras) to the Haymarket Hub Hotel (in which everything is included). Visiting Edinburgh two months later in the year than our 2016 visit it was noticeable how busy the city was with tourists – and how expensive our hotel was as a result.

I feel going back to a city for a second visit relaxes the mind – there is not the urgency to get around all the essentials, rather Kathie and I could concentrate on whatever took our fancy.

So it was that on our first full day we made a late start, after a late evening/early morning at a friend’s house, and wandered from the hotel along the nearby Dalry Road to visit the series of charity shops on either side. Prices, not surprisingly, were higher than in Orkney’s charity shops but we found a few bargains including a CD of Hanna-Barbera cartoon music – ever since we got home I have been annoying Kathie, and our dog Roscoe, with the theme tune to Top Cat, less than a minute long, brilliant, concise writing, snappily arranged and played…

On another day we took time for a relaxed stroll in the sunshine through Princes Street Gardens, running alongside but below Edinburgh’s principal shopping street and with great views of Edinburgh Castle.

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Scottish American Memorial in Princes Street Gardens (image: Graham Brown)

We enjoyed the sculptures on display, and were particularly impressed with the Scottish American Memorial, given by Scottish-Americans – I know there are many of you out there – to honour Scots who served in the Great War, or First World War as we now know it. We thought Roscoe would have appreciated the shepherd on the frieze with his Border collie. The memorial was designed by R. Tait McKenzie and erected in 1927.

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Kathie Touin poses with Wojtek and his polished nose (image: Graham Brown)

But I think everyone’s favourite sculpture is Wojtek the bear, by Alan Heriot (2015). Wojtek was adopted by Polish troops in the Second World War, served alongside them, and enjoyed beer and cigarettes. After the war he was retired to Edinburgh Zoo. Like many tourists, we posed with Wojtek and noticed they had rubbed his nose to a bright shine.

The Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens was cordoned off for restoration but, my goodness, we could tell by peeking through the hoardings that it will be spectacular and colourful when it is unveiled. Produced in France, it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1862 in London, bought by gunmaker Daniel Ross for £2,000, transported in 122 pieces and placed in the gardens in 1872.

Just along Princes Street from the gardens is Edinburgh Waverley station. We walked through there one evening and caught a glimpse of something very special. So, after some online checking about the next appearance, we returned at nine the next morning – an early start for us on holiday.

The excitement for us, and others, mounted as we stood on the platform, there was even a policeman on duty to ensure good order, and then, yes, here she comes…

The steam locomotive Flying Scotsman, one of the most famous in the world, arrived, looking resplendent. She was in Edinburgh to haul a series of excursions across the Forth Rail Bridge.

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Flying Scotsman in Edinburgh Waverley station (image: Graham Brown)

 

Kathie and I were thrilled – yes, we both were. Kathie had not seen the Flying Scotsman in steam before, if at all, and I had to cast my mind back to remember when I had last seen this venerable locomotive, built in 1923, running.

I think it was about 1968 when I went with my father to watch the locomotive run along the main railway line south of Peterborough. It occurred to me that the Flying Scotsman was about 45 years old then, but now has more than doubled in aged to 95 – a sign of my age!

My late father, Clive Brown, always took a great interest in railways. His father, my grandfather, worked for LNER, the company which operated the Flying Scotsman before the railways were nationalised in 1948.

I remember also that my father rode on the footplate of the Flying Scotsman and wrote an article about his experience when the locomotive was visiting the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. There is a framed photo of my father and the driver standing in front of the loco here in my office.

Other outings during our Edinburgh trip included…

the beautiful Royal Botanic Garden – we only got part way round, so will need to return on another visit, but we did walk through all of the glasshouses;

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John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw (image: National Galleries Scotland)

the Scottish National Gallery, a return visit, where my favourite paintings were John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, Thomas Warrender’s Still-Life (a curious mix of ancient objects in an apparently modern setting) and, new to public display, Valentin Serov’s Alexandrvitch, Tsar of All the Russias;

the Mexican food store Lupe Pintos, in Leven Street, a must for Kathie to get her Mexican cooking supplies (they also have a shop in Great Western Road, Glasgow);

and Camera Obscura, a fun half-day for children of all ages. It is in a narrow building with steep stairs over several levels so it is not for all. But there are super views of the city from the roof terrace, the wonders of the Camera Obscura itself, and then a series of fun, interactive (two words that would normally put me off) illusions as you walk back down through the various floors.

Naturally we ate out at several restaurants, I would say my favourite for food, atmosphere and decor was Viva Mexico in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where we have eaten before. It might look busy from the outside but there is a cosy basement so do check if there is a table. If you have only ever visited Mexican chain restaurants in the UK (they were once fashionable in London) you should try an authentic experience.

However, the original reason we were in Edinburgh at this particular time was for music. We booked the trip in order to see the wonderful Gretchen Peters again, then discovered that during the same short visit we could also see the musical Wicked and the phenomenal guitarist Nils Lofgren.

Nils was brilliant, performing a show at the Queen’s Hall as part of a tour to mark his 50 years on the road. What a great guitarist he is and, though this can be overlooked, an expressive singer and handy songwriter. For those who do not know Nils’ work, he has spent many years playing in bands for the likes of Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. He appeared with multi-instrumentalist Greg Varlotta, who was fabulous.

We saw Wicked many years ago when we lived in London though for some reason – my tired and stressed life in London, perhaps? – I did not have a great recall of the show. But I know Kathie, like her Mom, is a big fan of The Wizard Of Oz, so when I discovered the back-story Wicked would be playing in Edinburgh at the Playhouse Theatre I jumped at the chance to book tickets.

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Leaving Edinburgh Playhouse after Wicked (image: Graham Brown)

It was an impressive production, great movement and costumes (we were only sat a few rows from the front), and the two women taking the lead roles – Amy Ross and Helen Woolf – were fabulous singers with great presence. As Kathie said, they had some really big numbers to nail, and they did. It was super as well to hear a live band coming from the orchestra pit. And the Playhouse is a superbly ornate theatre, originally a cinema modelled on the Roxy Cinema in New York.

And our final Edinburgh show was due to be Gretchen Peters, touring the UK with her keyboard player (and husband and all-round good egg) Barry Walsh to mark the release of her new album. She brought a band with her, and support artist and accompanying singer Kim Richey.

Unfortunately I saw none of this – on the night of the concert at the Queen’s Hall I was sick in my hotel room, and very fed up. If I’m honest, I am still not over this disappointment but I try to remember what my mother (and probably yours) would say on occasions like this….

“Worse things happen at sea…”

“There are many people in the world worse off than you…”

And so on. And she would be right. So I must get over it.

Having met Gretchen and Barry on previous tours I did drop them a line on social media to say I could not attend and it was very sweet of both of them, and Kim, to send me get well messages at what would be a busy time for them. Thank you all.

Gretchen’s new album, Dancing With The Beast, produced by Doug Lancio, Gretchen and Barry, is the follow-up to the 2015 Blackbirds. Gretchen’s songs tackle some difficult themes such as the state of the so-called United States, abuse, the ageing process and loss – “50 minutes of exquisite-sounding emotional devastation, depression, murder and heartbreak” according to The Tennessean – but there is compassion and hope in there too.

The song Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea will become a firm fan favourite, like Five Minutes on her Hello Cruel World album. In fact, here is Gretchen singing the song at the end of the Queen’s Hall concert (dammit)…

I’m no critic and I’m not good at describing the music I like in words. Really, you need to buy Dancing With The Beast, and Blackbirds, and, while you are about it, the previous album Hello Cruel World. There is also an excellent double album, The Essential Gretchen Peters. I could go on…

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia: Frankie Howerd – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankie_Howerd

Wikipedia: Up Pompeii! – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Pompeii!

My blog: Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

My blog: Auld Reekie – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/auld-reekie/

My blog: Brief impressions of a trip to Glasgow – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2018/05/17/brief-impressions-of-a-trip-to-glasgow/

Wikipedia: Hanna-Barbera – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanna-Barbera

Wikipedia: Scottish American Memorial – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_American_Memorial

Wikipedia: Flying Scotsman – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Class_A3_4472_Flying_Scotsman

Royal Botanic Garden – http://www.rbge.org.uk/the-gardens/home

National Galleries Scotland – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

Lupe Pintos – http://www.lupepintos.com/

Camera Obscura – https://www.camera-obscura.co.uk/

Viva Mexico – http://www.viva-mexico.co.uk/

Nils Lofgren – http://www.nilslofgren.com/

Wicked – http://www.wickedthemusical.co.uk/

Edinburgh Playhouse – https://www.playhousetheatre.com/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Gretchen’s videos – https://www.youtube.com/user/gretchenpeters/videos

Now We Are Six(ty)

Well, clearly there has been some error of calculation. But, it is said, I turned 60 in the month of December. Reaching the ages of 30, 40 and even 50 did not concern me much. But 60 does seem more challenging, that bit closer to the, well, the end, I suppose.

Still, Winston Churchill – admittedly in different circumstances, in which he was looking forward to the end (of the Second World War) – said: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

I think I will settle for that.

And remember Churchill was already 65 years of age when he became Britain’s Prime Minister as the country faced perhaps its darkest hour. So maybe I have more I can achieve yet.

My birthday was marked on the Friday night by a dedication on BBC Radio Orkney’s request show thanks to Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin). She asked for Nils Lofgren’s 60 Is The New 18 (from an excellent album called Old School) without realising some of the lyrics are a little colourful…

However, Radio Orkney has played worse – some of the chart sounds requested for small children are clearly inappropriate (klaxon, klaxon, old fogey alert).

A party was arranged for the Saturday night at Quoyloo Old School which, for those who do not know it, is our village community centre. Unfortunately it coincided with some wintry weather and icy, slippery roads.

Kathie and I started to think there might just be a few folk there who had managed to walk but, in the end, about 30 people braved the conditions to make a memorable evening. In fact, I enjoyed myself so much I forgot to take any photographs. Sorry to those who asked to see them.

Not everyone was able to be there, of course – it would be too much to expect family and friends from the south of England to venture all this way in December for a party and, within Orkney, conditions were varied. Two of our friends set off by car, only to nearly slide off the track from their house, so wisely thought better of it.

Kathie booked a cake for the party but we never got it because the cake-maker was taken ill with a suspected kidney stone (I hope you are better now).

However, I must thank Kathie for all the hard work she put into the party – my only regret is that she did not stop dashing about all night. I love you.

Since turning 60 I have done a few daft things which, normally, would pass almost without comment but, after such a big milestone, it encourages thoughts of there being something potentially wrong.

For example, I was waiting to greet Kathie outside the house with our dog when I managed to loose my footing and fall over, though, if I may say so, I did it quite elegantly and without injury. And only the other day my T-shirt felt a bit uncomfortable – later I discovered I had put it on back-to-front. This is nonsense which I shall ignore.

Sixty is also the age when some of the body’s aches and pains start to be felt. A few months ago I noticed my right-hand small finger is slightly bent and a little painful. I visited the GP only to be told something like, “Oh, it’s age, there is nothing you can do.”

I understand from others that this reaction is a familiar refrain from doctors these days. Given how people are living longer they might need a re-think.

Reflecting on my crooked finger which, with the blessing of a long life, I might have to put up with for 30 years, I think I am going to seek some alternative treatment. I have already noticed that exercising and manipulating the digit makes it feel better – so there is something to be done.

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Roscoe, in his blue post-op coat, shreds Christmas wrapping (image: Graham Brown)

Speaking of medical matters our dog, Roscoe, a Border collie, underwent an operation a week or so after my party to remove a non-malignant but fast-growing fatty lump from his side. Hence we have spent a quiet Christmas period at home while he recovers – which he is doing, and thank you to everyone who asked after him.

In our little family in the past it has been Kathie who has faced numerous operations – if you ask her she can give you a list – but, curiously, this year was bookended by Roscoe’s op in December and mine back in January (see below for my blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia”).

Now I have turned 60 I feel I should have some profound thoughts to share. That is one reason why this blog entry has been a little delayed – I’ve been struggling to come up with anything very enlightening.

I was struck by some words posted on Facebook by the wonderful songwriter Gretchen Peters, who turned 60 in November. She wrote about her fifties being a “remarkable decade” and it made me think about how my life has changed in the past 10 years.

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Blurred Roscoe playing in the snow – without his post-op coat and well on the way to recovery (image: Graham Brown)

The biggest change was Kathie and I moving to Orkney, in 2010. It was an inspired move for us, we love it here (see numerous previous blog entries). We have also had Roscoe come to live with us. I have unexpectedly become a (part-time) employee of the RSPB, and I have re-discovered the joys of volunteering – also for the RSPB, and for Quoyloo Old School and for the project which marked the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire.

Anyway, Gretchen Peters is touring the UK again in 2018. If you get a chance to see her, and her talented husband Barry Walsh, do take it. Kathie and I will be at the Edinburgh Queen’s Hall concert.

Gretchen concluded her thoughts on turning 60 by writing about her work and her new album, due out in 2018: “It’s what I do, and what I can do in this most uncertain hour, as Paul Simon put it.” She is referring to the politics of her US homeland, and to Paul Simon’s song American Tune (see below for lyrics and for my blog entry of a year ago, “That Was The Year That Was”).

I am not musically creative – in our family that is left to Kathie, who is also working on her new self-composed album. Some of the early demo tracks sound great.

So, for me, as Churchill said, “We must just KBO.”

May I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, healthy and fulfilled 2018.

Graham Brown

Find out more

Wikipedia on Winston Churchill – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winston_Churchill

My blog “That Was The Year That Was” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/that-was-the-year-that-was/

My blog “Thank you NHS Orkney, Mrs Brown – and Amelia” – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/nhs-orkney-mrs-brown-amelia/

Gretchen Peters’ website – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Lyrics to Paul Simon’s American Tune – http://www.paulsimon.com/track/american-tune-6/

My 60th birthday request on BBC Radio Orkney – https://www.mixcloud.com/radioorkney/friday-requests-with-dawn-copland-8th-dec-2017/

Auld Reekie

Mrs Brown, that is Kathie Touin, and I spent a weekend in Edinburgh – the excitement of the big city, in contrast to our quieter, slower life in Orkney.

The noise – of traffic and people – is one of the most noticeable differences from our home life. But the journey from Edinburgh Airport to our hotel was on the relatively new tram which is pleasantly smooth and quiet. In fact, the most noise came from a hen party which had been on our flight from Orkney and was then on our tram.

We stayed, as we did for our visit last year, at the Tune Hotel opposite Haymarket station. The hotel is run on the principle of a budget airline, so you get a room and then pay extra if you want towels, TV, wi-fi, and so on. Rather than splash our cash, we just paid for one towel and soap package. But when we arrived we discovered we had two sets of towels and soap, and a working TV – perhaps we had someone else’s room.

Our many years spent living in London give us an advantage in a big city – we are quite happy to get an all-day tram and bus ticket and set off to unfamiliar places. What can go wrong? Got to the wrong place? Just get another bus somewhere else.

I’ve entitled this blog Auld Reekie, the former nickname for Edinburgh, meaning old smoky. Of course, it isn’t smoky these days – though it presumably has unseen diesel pollution – but I think Auld Reekie is a great name that rolls around the tongue.

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Auld Reekie with The Heart of Midlothian train leaving Edinburgh, Waverley, for London, Kings Cross (image: British Railways postcard – thanks to David Ward’s Flickr feed)

Railway experts like my father will know that Auld Reekie was also a steam locomotive, an A1 class, one of many steam engines built after the Second World War but soon disposed of by British Railways – according to Wikipedia, built in December 1949 in Doncaster but withdrawn just 14 years later in December 1963.

You might know a more recent steam locomotive, Tornado, built by enthusiasts in 2008 and regularly seen up-and-down the UK – well, that is also an A1.

Anyway, back to our weekend in Edinburgh…

On arrival on Friday afternoon we went by bus to Grassmarket and Red Dog Music where Kathie looked at keyboards. We returned the following morning for another look and to purchase a keyboard (delivered to Orkney by courier today, as I write).

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The author with a Stewart Formula 1 car at the National Museum of Scotland (image: Kathie Touin)

Our Saturday continued – via a quick stop at the Scooby Doo cafe – at the National Museum of Scotland (free entry). It is an eclectic collection of exhibits, and is undergoing a revamp prior to new galleries opening this summer. But it was fascinating – among the treasures we saw were a Stewart Formula 1 racing car, a huge dinosaur, intricate face masks, musical instruments and many ancient artefacts excavated in Orkney.

There was far more than we could get round in one day, so we will be back. And it was refreshing, if a little noisy, to see how many parents were visiting a museum with small children.

On Sunday we took a tram to a shopping centre to look for a new dog-walking coat for me at TK Maxx. We failed to find one but came away with a lion, that is, a toy for our Border collie Roscoe.

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The Great Hall at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (image: Graham Brown)

Then it was on to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (free entry again), a fascinating collection of paintings and a chance to brush up on our Jacobite history. There were two pleasant surprises in store for us as well.

First, in the centre of the gallery, the beautiful Great Hall – arches, balconies, hanging lamps and murals depicting Scottish history.

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One of the excellent BP Portrait Award paintings: Ordeal by Murat Tezcan Demirbas

 

The second surprise was one of the temporary exhibitions – the BP Portrait Award 2015. I am not, I admit, much for modern art – you like a pile of bricks, or rubbish? Well, come and look in our garage or round the side of our house. But here we found a beautiful, striking, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, sometimes uplifing, selection of paintings of real people that did not look like the work of a small child.

On the Sunday evening we went to the Queen’s Hall to see Gretchen Peters in concert, the event around which we arranged our weekend away. This was the last night of Gretchen’s 20th anniversary tour (20 years since her first album and UK tour) but you would not have known it was the final gig – her voice was strong, clear and full of emotion. Of course, it helps that she has a fantastic selection of songs to perform – all, with one exception, written by herself.

Gretchen also has a great band – her long-time musical partner, and now husband, Barry Walsh plays piano and accordion. He is such a tasteful musician, sometimes choosing to play nothing at all rather than constantly trying to “add” to a song.

The band was completed for this tour by two musicians from Northern Ireland, Conor McCreanor on bass and Colm McClean on guitar and pedal steel.

If you do not know Gretchen’s music then please try her newly-released double CD, The Essential Gretchen Peters – I promise you will love it.

I should also say that despite this being the last date of the tour – and with long flights to the USA the following morning – Gretchen and Barry were very gracious with their time with fans in the foyer afterwards, great musicians but also thoroughly decent people.

Incidentally, proving the saying that wherever you go in the world you meet people from Orkney, we met two friends from Orkney in the audience.

On Monday we walked from our hotel to some local charity shops where we bought more books. This is not something we really need but who can resist two books of Paddington stories? Well, not me.

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Sun bear at Edinburgh Zoo (image: Graham Brown)

Then we were off to Edinburgh Zoo, just a short bus ride from our hotel. We had a great day, and got some good exercise as the zoo is built on a hillside. The animals seems to have generous enclosures and places where they can get away from public gaze. This meant that we did not see all of the animals, but that’s ok.

Our favourites included the chimpanzees, one of whom had discovered he could make a really loud noise by jumping up and down on an overhead metal walkway, the curious sun bear who seemed to be looking for his dinner, the elegant and beautifully-coloured African painted dogs, koalas, and the comical penguins.

During the weekend we went to some excellent restaurants which we hope to visit again and would certainly recommend: Khukuri (Nepalese), Frontier (American) and Cafe Jules (French). And not forgetting a fantastic Mediterranean breakfast at the Troy Cafe.

Edinburgh is certainly a great spot for a long weekend – or longer – and the visit charged our batteries for some challenges ahead this year.

Graham Brown

Postscript

Following my failure to buy a dog-walking coat at TK Maxx, I went to some of Orkney’s charity shops and in Kirkwall’s Blue Door (which helps a different cause each week) I found just what I was looking for – and it cost me £3. The discreet logo says “Stratstone Harrogate” which turns out to be a BMW dealer. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

Finally, as I complete this blog I learn that my month-long trip to England, for family reasons, has been postponed by three weeks until 25 March.

To find out more

A previous blog about our 2015 trip to Edinburgh: Reflections on Edinburgh… and back to a busy Orkney – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/reflections-on-edinburgh-and-back-to-a-busy-orkney/

A previous blog about Gretchen Peters: Sorry I can’t be in London, or Belfast… but I can be in Edinburgh – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/sorry-i-cant-be-in-london-or-belfast-but-i-can-be-in-edinburgh/

Gretchen Peters – http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

A1 steam locomotives – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LNER_Peppercorn_Class_A1

David Ward’s railway photographs on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/70607220@N04/

National Museum of Scotland – http://www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-scotland/

Scottish National Portrait Gallery – https://www.nationalgalleries.org/portraitgallery

Edinburgh Zoo – http://www.edinburghzoo.org.uk/

Reflections on Edinburgh – and back to a busy Orkney

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will know I am a big admirer of Gretchen Peters’ music. So much so, that my wife Kathie Touin and I travelled 200 miles to Edinburgh to see her in concert at Easter.

Well, it was everything I hoped it would be, and much more. Gretchen’s songs, we already knew, are beautiful, inspirational and challenging. We found the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh to be a lovely venue – it was built in 1823 as Hope Park Chapel – and congratulations go to the sound guys for a superb job. Gretchen’s voice live was perhaps even better than on her recordings.

She had a small but superb band – husband Barry Walsh on piano and accordion, bass player Conor McCreanor and Christine Bougie, playing the unusual combination of lead guitar, lap steel and drums.

The concert was moving and thought-provoking and, yes, I cried a little.

An added bonus was meeting Gretchen and Barry in the foyer at their post-concert signing session. Touring must be a tiring business but they were open and gracious – and I was thrilled when I told Gretchen we had travelled from Orkney and she replied: “Are you my Twitter friend?”

I’ve said this before and I will probably say it again – if you do not know Gretchen Peters’ music, do seek some out – for example, her most recent albums Blackbirds and Hello Cruel World.

Here is the title track of Blackbirds, and an acoustic version of Five Minutes from Hello Cruel World…

Kathie and I throughly enjoyed our four-and-a-half days in Edinburgh. Previously I had only visited briefly as a young teenager and Kathie not at all – though we have driven many times around the Edinburgh ring road, across the Forth Road Bridge and once to Leith to see the Royal Yacht Britannia.

View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)

View from Edinburgh Castle (image: Graham Brown)

We explored the shops on Princes Street and the old buildings along the Royal Mile. We spent half-a-day admiring the paintings in the National Gallery of Scotland, appreciated the beauty of St Giles Cathedral, and spent a day at Edinburgh Castle – a beautiful sunny day, and the views of the city from the castle were stunning.

Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)

Kathie Touin says hello to Greyfriars Bobby (image: Graham Brown)

On the last day we went to the Scottish Parliament and, just across the road, the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. And, of course, we could not leave without saying hello to Greyfriars Bobby and leaving a stick from Roscoe on Bobby’s graveyard memorial stone.

We found Edinburgh’s buses and the new trams gave us prompt and easy transport options around the city.

Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)

Viva Mexico restaurant, Edinburgh (image: Graham Brown)

All of the restaurants we visited were good, but I would particularly recommend Viva Mexico (Kathie, being from California with its strong Mexican influence, is particular about her Mexican food and loved this place) and a Nepalese establishment called Khukuri.

We stayed at the Tune Hotel, conveniently situated opposite a tram and bus interchange, and Haymarket railway station. It is run on the principle of a budget airline, you pay for a room and then pay extra for what you need, eg TV and towels. The staff were friendly and, instead of coffee and tea in the room, which never tastes great, we were able to buy decent hot drinks from reception whenever we wanted.

Since returning from Edinburgh I have been busy as you can tell – I really should have written this blog sooner – working at the RSPB office, volunteering for the RSPB, volunteering with the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project, starting this year’s gardening, and going places.

Scanning my diary, I see that, among other events, I have twice been to Bag The Bruck (annual sessions to collect bruck, ie rubbish, from beaches), I went to the recording of BBC Radio Orkney’s General Election hustings programme (fascinating and lively), and Kathie and I went to St Magnus Kirk, Birsay for the annual St Magnus Day service. This is significant for us because St Magnus is the patron saint of Orkney and, by complete accident, we moved here on St Magnus Day in 2010.

RSPB events since Easter have included a fascinating talk about RSPB Forsinard Flows – just across the Pentland Firth from Orkney – a screening of some superb films of Orkney wildlife, shot by Raymond Besant, a cold but worthwhile morning viewing hen harriers and other raptors, and a sunny day on Hoy when Kathie and I went to watch the white-tailed eagles’ nest and talk to visitors.

These magnificent birds, also known as sea eagles, have an eight-foot wingspan and it is the first time they have attempted to breed in Orkney since 1873. Watching one of the pair lazily drift down to the nest with prey – possibly a hare – was a privilege.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Some of my photographs of Edinburgh, and Orkney, on my Instagram: https://instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Gretchen Peters: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen%27s_Hall,_Edinburgh

National Galleries Scotland: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/

St Giles Cathedral: http://www.stgilescathedral.org.uk/

Scottish Parliament: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/

Palace of Holyroodhouse: http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

RSPB Orkney on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RspbOrkney

My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)

My favourite painting in the National Gallery of Scotland: Travelling Musicians (image: Graham Brown)