The magic of ordinary north

If I were ever to write fantasy, the story would be set in world a lot like ours was some 800 years ago. The story would start in the northern forests and it would start in the winter, because boreal winter is already quite otherworldly as it is. All land, water and living things seem to be asleep under snow and ice. Snow makes the landscape cold but also soft and quiet, pure and sparkling. Winter light in the north is like nowhere else in the world. Sunlight is clear and bright, if meagre and rare, and it immerses everything in palest blues, pinks and yellows. Moonlight, when reflected from the snow, is intense and leaves all things suspended in shadows and glow. It isn’t hard to imagine events taking a magical turn from there.

Northern winter has sounds too that cannot be heard anywhere else. When temperatures drop to -20˚C and below, the expanding ice on the lakes howls at night. The sound is a deep and hollow, booming wail. Trees will also spontaneously split and crack with the sound of a ghostly axe hitting the trunks in the forest. If the air is calm, every twig and branch and all grasses reaching above the snow will get a perfect layer of frosting. When a gentle puff of wind shakes the frost off the canopies of silver birches, the falling crystals chink and tingle softly like tiny, tiny falling bells. It isn’t hard to believe that some spell is at work there.

Falling frost


Some cats of the block

Cats, I believe, are an essential source of happiness. One day I will have a cat. The day will come. In the meantime, however, whilst my life is still woefully incompatible with furry roommates, I rarely pass a neighbourhood cat without stopping and trying to win their approval.

My next-door cat, Bottlebrush, approved of my front garden before she approved of me. Bottlebrush is a wee tortoiseshell female with a fine, long fur that makes her tail look like a flimsy bottlebrush, hence my name for her. Bottlebrush liked to sit in the shade of my Hebe bush before I pruned it down so much she can no longer find a cat-sized cavity under its branches. Bottlebrush has a bit of a temper, or at least she pretends to have one just to make clear that she decides how much she wants to be cuddled, thank you very much. Bottlebrush was slow to make friends, and although she did want to greet me and to be stroked, she also made sure to take a swipe at me and hiss the first few times we met. She is much more relaxed now, and I can also read her moods and only give her a short tickle when she’s on my side of the patch just for a quick hello.

Ginger from across the courtyard, on the other hand, is hungry for attention. He found me before I found him: when I had first started to renovate the front garden, and was pottering with my tubs and trowels, he appeared behind me so quietly I nearly jumped when he head-butted my hand. Ginger really likes his head-butts. And under-chin scratches. And, oh, anything, really.



The two cats directly opposite I haven’t named because they keep themselves to themselves. One is black-and-white and the other grey, and I only ever see them when they sit on the window ledge waiting to be let in.

The house on the other side of the road belongs to Shy Cat on the Wall. She is wary of strangers, and the few times I have seen her surveying the neighbourhood from the highest point of the stone wall surrounding an abandoned garden, I have had no success in winning her over. She doesn’t even let me get close to her.

But if I continue down the lane from Shy Cat on the Wall’s patch and then turn left, I will often meet the friendliest cat in the burgh, and the only one whose real name I know. Panther is a grey boy who likes everybody. He often sits on a window ledge, stone wall or a bin along a four-house stretch of his street, but he may also follow me to the bus stop if he hasn’t quite finished cuddling yet. If I squat down and put my shopping bags aside, he will climb onto my knee and purr away like an engine. I have witnessed other people do what I do, and put down their shopping or coffee mug just to spend some time with Panther.

Ginger Tripod shares the same stretch of street with Panther. He was much slower to come around and he still approaches me carefully and rolls on the pavement nearby until he remembers we are friends now. He comes and gets one passing head-scratch that extends to a long stroke ending at the tip of his tail as he walks on. Then he turns around and does the same from the other direction. Although Ginger Tripod’s approach is circumspect compared to Panther’s, he often follows me past a few houses, hobbling along his tail up in the air after I’ve said ‘bye’ to him and started walking on.



If I don’t go down the lane but turn left at Shy Cat’s wall, I will sometimes see Slinky Bathroom Cat or Black Jogger near the school. Slinky Bathroom Cat is not one to care for humans other than his own, and we have not been formally introduced, but I named him because he is so recognisable. He is a very athletic, black-and-white lad whose defining feature is how he gets back into his house from his garden. He jumps onto a wheelie bin and then makes an impressive leap up to a bathroom window that is just ajar enough for him to slink right through it. Black Jogger I have met, and he can be quite friendly if only he can spare the time. He is a young cat always trotting about, busy, busy; across the road, past a fence and through a hedge. Gardens to inspect, alleys to patrol, must jog on!

Mrs Window at the end of the street, however, has the time. The petite, elderly tortie probably spends most of her time indoors as I have only seen her in the summer time when she can conveniently step through an open window straight onto a low stone wall where she can find a nice spot to observe the comings and goings in a composed loaf position. Mrs Window has seen it all and doesn’t mind humouring a passing human who wants some feline love. Not that she’s particularly bothered but she is very experienced in being a cat, so, whatever. Cuddle if you must. Thank you, Mrs Window; most kind! I don’t have a cat of my own, you see.

Not yet.

Apple equation

My neighbours on the other side of the fence have a big apple tree that they never seem to harvest. Some of the fruit falls on the ground and the rest stay dangling on the branches all through the winter. Happily, there are birds in these parts that approve of this arrangement.

My kitchen window looks out to the fence and the tree. Most of the time when I’m facing the tedium of washing up the view doesn’t provide much entertainment, but today I saw a male blackbird digging into one of the forgotten apples. By the time I started filling the sink he had already chomped down the top quarter of the fruit. He ate and ate and ate, and occasionally paused for several minutes standing very still, looking like he was nursing an almighty belch. Then he carried on. An hour later he was still at it, and the apple was down to its bottom quarter. I had washed and dried the dishes and moved onto other chores when I noticed the apple was all gone and the blackbird was sitting on another branch, getting ready to move on.

Here’s my question: how much apple can you fit into just one blackbird? The apple I have in my fridge weighs 158g and doesn’t look at all dissimilar to the ones hanging in my neighbours’ tree. An average blackbird, I am told, weighs around 100g. Something doesn’t add up. There must be variables that balance this equation. Perhaps the bird did not eat every beakful but chucked bits aside when I wasn’t looking? Perhaps there is so much water in apples that some of it just sort of… travels right through? I couldn’t say. But at least pondering about this problem provided a welcome distraction whilst tidying away the evidence of two weeks’ worth of dinners.

Blackbird eating an apple

I know it’s a rubbish photo but give me a break, I had my hands full!

Dirt and bones

There was a damp day in late July when I was sitting in a small, crowded room wearing muddy clothes and wielding a toothbrush. I wasn’t paying an awful lot of attention to what exactly I was doing until I realised I was brushing someone’s rib. A long-dead someone’s. And I thought: “Amazing!”

Between Christmas and Hogmanay, I seem to be in a habit of sitting about in candle light musing and taking stock. The past year did not turn out as planned, and some of it will always remain stained by ill health and utter rubbish. But then there were days that can only be categorised as sheer excellence. The day of brushing a motley collection of animal and human bones, and the previous one I spent kneeling on a field scraping at dirt both qualify by a considerable margin. Partly I am pleased with those days simply because I finally got around to them: volunteering at an archaeological excavation had been in my ‘one of these days’ mental pile for probably a decade, and there is undeniable satisfaction in moving anything to the ‘been there, done that’ heap instead. But I also enjoyed the work itself.

Time passed surprisingly quickly in what I would describe as diverting boredom. On the first morning, I sauntered over to the trench and got handed a trowel, a spade and a bucket. I scraped away at my designated patch of soil occasionally setting aside the odd quartz pebble or bone fragment until suddenly it was lunch time. Then I scraped and hacked away some more, and before I noticed what was happening the afternoon turned into evening and everyone sloped off to the pub.

DirtStill, it wasn’t just the work either that I enjoyed: not any old dirt would top my annual chart of excellence. This was Anglo-Saxon dirt, you see, on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne where a crowdfunded project is tracing the early monastery. I would have preferred Pictish dirt, obviously, but I thought the contemporary layers south of the border were close enough to capture my imagination. And did they ever. I am fascinated by monastic sites:  from their ascetic beginnings they grew to dominate the landscape for centuries only to be erased; a religious life that was once so commonplace seems now completely alien.

But my long-dead, Anglo-Saxon someone was there in the beginning. The next morning when rain had interrupted the scraping and I sat in my corner of the crowded room turning their rib in my hand I thought they were a real person; they saw what is now a distant mystery, and lived through what is now a puzzle to be solved. That was the amazing part.


Second impression

Because I have never kept any record I may be wrong about this, but my feeling is that my first impressions of people tend to be accurate on the basic level of ‘is this my kind of a person or not?’. I do, of course, get along just fine with a lot of folk who are not precisely my kind of people, and I take care not to judge anyone based on how I click with them. Historic characters, however, I can cheerfully divide into sheep and goats based on whether I like them, blatantly ignoring all their accomplishments in good or ill. I am allowed, because I am not a historian. I have major beef with Edward I of England, and I do not care how great a king he was: in my book, he is a nuisance with a bad attitude. I am not a fan of John Knox. Whenever I pass the street named after him I mutter and grunt. With historic people, though, my first impression is always based on some fragment of information put through the mill of hundreds of years of interpretation and re-interpretation, so perhaps it is no surprise that I have recently changed my mind about Alexander Stewart.

When I first came across Alexander he was introduced as the illegitimate son of James IV, the boy who was nominated as the Archbishop of St Andrews at the ripe old age of 11 (or 12 or 13, as there is some uncertainty about his date of birth). When that was the only thing I knew about him, I just thought: wow, a prime example of 16th century nepotism. Congratulations, you entitled little sh*t!

St Andrews Castle, Palace of the Archbishop

Handing a child the whole archdiocese on a plate, complete with this palace? Aye, sounds legit.

But on second thoughts, that was hardly fair. He probably did not have much say in which way his life was going to go. He might have been a reluctant pawn in his father’s manoeuvres to seize control of the diocese and its revenue; his situation said nothing about what kind of a person he was. I went to the library to read Erasmus’ word on that.

Alexander received an early education from the king’s secretary Patrick Paniter who had studied in Paris sharing accommodation with Erasmus. In his teens he was shipped off to the continent for some more learning: In Siena, he was tutored by Erasmus in rhetoric and Greek whilst he also studied law and music. In his Adages*, Erasmus describes the sapling archbishop as even-tempered, sensitive and very talented with a quick mind. I started to like him already. Alexander sorted out trouble in his household with a remarkable “skill and plain speaking”. He took his studies seriously returning punctually every day with his homework done. Alexander was “never interrupted as he read” although he “did not much enjoy his lawbooks with the element of barbarism in their style and the tedious verbosity of the commentators.” If he had any spare time at all, he “spent it on reading the historians, for history was his favourite subject.” Aww, bless the lad! Despite that Erasmus praises Alexander’s accomplishments and learning declaring them “such as you would rightly admire in a grown man”, he doesn’t make him sound like a complete bore: “In wit he took great pleasure, but it must be educated and have no cutting edge…”

Not an entitled little sh*t then. I decided Alexander was my kind of a guy, even though I was prepared to take even Erasmus’ word on him with a pinch of salt. Everyone is, after all, a better person in a eulogy than they were in life. Alexander joined his father in the Battle of Flodden only to be wiped off this Earth at the age of twenty. What a waste. I sat on the library floor nodding in agreement with Erasmus: “What pray had you to do with Mars, the stupidest of all the gods of poetry, […] what could they mean to you, the trumpet-calls, the cannon and the sword? What place has learning in the line of battle, or a bishop sword in hand?” I wish you hadn’t followed the King, Alexander. You might have proved my second impression right, had you lived on.

(* II V 1 ‘Spartam nactus es, hanc orna / Sparta is your portion; do your best for her’ translated by R.A.B. Mynors)

Sad stories of the death of kings

One day in late July I was driving home from Northumberland. I was still south of the river Tweed on some unremarkable road when I spotted a sign pointing towards the site of the Battle of Flodden. I knew about Flodden but I had not realised I would be passing right by it and I had not planned to visit. Therefore, as often happens when driving, a potentially interesting thing just whizzed by and I thought: “Nah, too late now”, and carried on until a couple of miles later I saw another sign. Clearly, this sign was a sign now, so turned my dinky rental car to where it directed me.

Reminiscent of changing the guard at a remote watch tower I arrived at the battle memorial as a lone cyclist was leaving. We exchanged our good mornings and I was left gazing over the fields, cows, streams and the nearby village with my hands stuffed in my pockets. The monument was on a peaceful hill where the mild breeze carried nothing but the chirps of birds and the distant sounds of rural life.

FloddenI studied the information board and worked out where the Scottish troops were positioned on 9th September 1513. We lost a king that day. Slightly to my left on the high ground opposite was James IV, and the low ground in front of me was where everything then turned into carnage with earls, lords, knights, their sons and nameless soldiers being slaughtered by their thousands alongside James, the last king on the British Isles to die in battle.

And a curious thing: I felt a gust of sadness blow through me. That should not have happened. The battle was fought over 500 years ago by people that were not my kin at the borders of a country I am relatively new to. And yet I was sad for the King and his men.

Flodden kept returning to my mind in the following weeks. I thought that somehow the stop by the battlefield had a place here among my favourite things despite being rather more sombre than my usual encounters with all things ancient.

Evidence is accumulating that reading fiction develops empathy in children improving attitudes towards outgroups, and neuroscience is beginning to explore how fiction could wire our brains to better understand others. I was thinking that if made-up stories can give us such perspective, then surely history will too when it’s told right. Analysis is all well and good, but evidently the dusty old monuments and crubmling historic sites at the ends of bumpy roads in the outskirts of nowhere can have the same effect as fiction: they are there to supplement the facts with imagination and the tangible human story even when it is terrible, unjust, brutal or sad.

That “the North remembers”, as it were, must be why the Battle of Flodden belongs with the things that make me happy: that the site is looked after, that it is protected, that it is not forgotten; that in its own small way it is there to evoke empathy and perspective, both of which the world would seem to desperately need.

Putts askew

“I like words” is a statement that undoubtedly goes to the same pile with “I have always liked colours” and “I have always quite fancied breathing”, but it is also true. I do like words. Learning new ones is rewarding: new words are like rare nuggets of silver that I find when shifting through the everyday muck of common parlance. Sometimes I am astonished that I have made it so far in life without knowing a word like ‘ramekin’ or ‘pernicious’, but at other times it isn’t at all surprising that I find my vocabulary lacking: I have had no reason, for instance, to discuss architecture in any detail. But it just so happens that I like buildings too – old ones – and I have made a modest effort to learn to date Scottish houses by their appearance. Some architectural features, as it turns out, have the best names, which only adds to my enjoyment.

Very soon after moving to the East Neuk I learned what crowstepped gables are. There are crowstepped gables everywhere, and they do not just look attractive but come with such a good name to boot: ‘crowstep’ immediately evokes the image of a bird stepping smartly up and down between the chimney stack and the gutter, humming to himself as he paces in his fashionably tailored feather suit.

There’s also no mistaking why a catslide dormer is called a catslide dormer. Imagine cats ruling the roofscape, patrolling the pantiles cool as they please until…

But my absolute favourite has to be skewputt. I don’t know why I find the word so funny but when I learned that the structural stones with sharply protruding lips in the meeting points of wall heads, gable ends and roofs are called skewputts, I went out for a walk around the village just to look at them thinking: “There’s another skewputt! He he he! Skewputt!”

Catslide dormer

Here’s a catslide dormer lurking in the shadows, and a crowstepped gable with a skewputt for good measure.


This decorated skewputt belongs to the crowstepped customshouse in Crail…


…but in this building the functional shape of the skewputt is clearly visible.

There’s a saying in Finland: “Lunatics have cheap pastimes.” Collecting good words is indeed affordable entertainment, and if that makes me an eccentric… Ach, well.