Country commute

I spend nearly an hour on the bus every working day. What I do with that time has evolved through several phases. First I thought I should make the most of my commute by reading work-related publications. Well, that phase didn’t last long. I moved onto non-fiction, then fiction, and on winter evenings I have opted for listening to music: Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto covers the journey one way.

For quite a while now I have been happy to just look out of the window thinking about nothing much, and engaging in a bit of casual drive-by wildlife spotting. Buzzards are a common sight over East Neuk, and so are herring gulls, wood pigeons, rooks and carrion crows. It is also a rare day indeed when I don’t see pheasants feeding and breaking into comedy sprints if anything alarms them. Whilst curlews dotted the fields in the winter, spring brought lapwings to replace them. Sometimes there have been more starlings than you could shake a stick at.

Herons make me smile because they look like slightly hunched old-school spies glancing furtively from behind the upturned collars of their long trench coats. Yesterday I saw ten herons gathered where there are usually only one of two. Spies don’t go to conventions, do they?

Rabbits do not surprise me at all, and roe deer make an appearance every once in a while, but I have seen only one red deer from the bus window, and only one fox.

On the days when I make the journey on my bicycle I have enough time and resolution to focus on the smaller creatures. I can hear them too. Larks that started singing already in February still insist on belting their verses from the skies. Flocks of chattering goldfinches cross the road right in front of me, house sparrows chirp in the hedges, pied wagtails hop on and off the dykes, and yellowhammer after yellowhammer places an order for “little bit of bread and nooooo cheeeeeese!” Now that spring is turning into summer I can also smell the fresh green leaves, the flowering rowan trees and the rapeseed fields, and suddenly pedalling to town before eight in the morning no longer seems like such a bother.

Easter Balrymonth

I do sometimes wish I could just be where I need to be in ten minutes. But then I would not have that hour every day when I have a legitimate reason to just be.


Behind the canvas

There are a number of ways different artists have become “my” artists. A few of them live in my village, and some appear every year at the Pittenweem Arts Festival. One or two of my artists are family members, others I’ve learned about by accident, and then of course there are, for instance, the big names of the Finnish golden era whose work I remember studying and copying at school. But Fife artist Sophie McKay Knight has captured my attention in a unique way.

Last winter my university hosted a series of informal meetings where women scientists from all career phases got together to discuss, well, being women scientists and all that goes with it. Sophie McKay Knight was there to listen to us and to learn about our research; she then went on to create a series of images interpreting the themes that interested her about our work and our lives. The pieces were exhibited in St Andrews a year ago, but I was reminded of them again when the news reached us that Hidden Learning was a prize winner in this year’s Wellcome Image Awards.

Hidden Learning by Sophie McKay Knight

Hidden Learning by Sophie McKay Knight (mixed media, 2016; with kind permission of the artist)

I remember stopping by Hidden Learning at the exhibition because I recognised myself in it. Hidden Learning is not a likeness of any sort but it explores “what women feel they keep hidden in the work environment”, and that rang a bell. Although I have never bothered with disguising who I am as a person, I have always felt like a pretender among real scientists. And although good science is done with integrity, honesty and self-criticism, there are still instances when one has to dress it all up and put a bow on top, and that does not sit well with me. Particularly when applying for funding I have had the uneasy feeling of shrouding my true professional self in a polished sugar molecule veil.

The image I identified with the most, however, was Dulcet Breath. I stood in front of it for a good while thinking: that’s exactly how I feel almost all the time! I have often described my head as a Tardis: so much bigger on the inside. My head is never quiet. Several strands of thought (which are not revelations on how to cure cancer, you understand, just a jumble of the interesting and the mundane and their unpredictable tangents) are always weaving past each other in there. There was something introverted about the woman in Dulcet Breath: her closed eyes and slightly tilted head reminded me of those days when the sheer weight and noise of constant thought corner me into inactivity and insulate me from everything else.

Dulcet Breath by Sophie McKay Knight

Dulcet Breath by Sophie McKay Knight (mixed media, 2016; with kind permission of the artist)

Still, what I found most remarkable about Sophie McKay Knight’s work was what happened before any paint touched canvas. Particularly in a time when it seems women are again treated as second class people, and scholarship and expertise are mocked and equated with elitism or detachment from whatever each individual believes to be reality, it amazed me that someone ‘from the outside’ was genuinely interested in the world of women scientists – my world – and wanted to see who we are and hear what we had to say.

It’s a rare thing, being heard.

Ada was here, part III

Ada de Warenne, countess of Northumberland, outlived her husband, Henry of Scotland, by 26 years. Henry died on the 12th of June in 1152, and was buried shortly after in Kelso Abbey, a Tironesian monastery his father David I had founded across the river from his castle at Roxburgh. In the odd idle hour I have wondered whether Ada missed her husband. Did she like him? Did they get along? The passing of over 800 years has erased all clues of how Ada felt, but I thought with a bit of reading and poking I might be able to figure out whether Ada could have been at Henry’s funeral.

Kelso Abbey

The west end of the Abbey church survives as ruin, but the east end where Henry’s grave must have been is all gone.

The itinerary of David I shows that he attended his son’s funeral, and some charters Ada witnessed place her at the king’s court for at least some time between 1150 and 1152. Admittedly that is very little to go on. Still, for better or worse Ada was married to Henry and they were both public figures, so why would she not have been among the mourners at Kelso?

Pregnancy would have reduced travel and public appearances if you happened to be a 12th century countess. One of Ada’s daughters, Matilda, died the same year as Henry. Some sources suggest Matilda only lived for months, so it is just possible that Ada would have been expecting and off other duties in the summer of 1152. On the other hand, based on one line in one article I read, Matilda could have been as old as six years at the time of her father’s death. So, all in all, as diverting as they were to poke at, Ada’s whereabouts during Henry’s funeral remain a mystery to me.

Kelso Abbey, north-west transept

Bummer. I would have liked to know for sure whether Ada was here.

A few years after Henry’s death Ada rolled up her financial sleeves and founded a Cistercian nunnery on her lands in Haddington. The ruin of St Martin’s Church that belonged to the nunnery still stands there, and because Ada lived in Haddington, I am willing to bet that here, at least, Ada has been:

St Martin's Church

(…although the original chapel was later greatly altered. The buttresses, for instance, seem to be a 13th century addition.)

And where is she now? Ada died in 1178 but the place of her burial is not on record. However, as the Finns say: “Evidence points to the brawn factory”. A seriously loaded medieval person would have installed a nice group of monks or nuns of their own in a wee priory or nunnery, or at least they would have endowed a monastic establishment so generously that it would have bought them a grave near the altar of the church and professional prayers for their soul in perpetuity. And hey, presto; enter St Mary’s nunnery in Haddington! I’m going to hazard a guess that this unassuming field where Ada’s nunnery stood is also her final resting place:

Site of St Mary's nunnery in Haddington

Obviously it greatly irks me that not a single stone of the nunnery survives, at least not above ground. I mean, the place only closed 400 years ago…

In the odd idle hour I still wonder about her, though. Was she missed, was she liked? What was it like to be Ada de Warenne, Lady of Crail?

All accounted for

A while ago I came across old episodes of a TV series where people were searching for lost family members with the help of expert researchers. There were stories of adopted men and women looking for their biological families, stories of half-siblings that had lost contact for decades and stories of divorced parents who could not find their grown-up children. What struck me were the people who said they did not know a single genetic relative in the entire world. I had never even imagined what that would be like.

In addition to brothers and sisters I have seventeen first cousins and four aunts and uncles still living. Within the last few years I have also seen almost every one of them. I know who they are and I would recognise them on the street.

When I was little I would roll my eyes when older relatives exclaimed I looked like my grandmother or my mother, and when friends of my older siblings told me I looked like one of them. I was from the youngest end of the family, so I suppose when less frequent visitors had not had the time to learn to know me, the only thing they saw in me was the family resemblance. I have long since stopped minding, but now I also think that being constantly compared to specimens from the same gene pool is by far preferable to the alternative: living in a world where no-one looks like me.

I don’t keep in any kind of regular contact with my extended family but it is nice to know they are there. We remember the same people, we remember the same places, and they understand the traditions, attitudes and circumstances where I come from. It is comforting to think of the recognisable sense of humour and the familiar even-temperedness that keep popping up in different twigs of the family tree. Being noticeably partial to cats also seems wide-spread among my siblings and cousins.

Home shores at sunset

A good number of my relatives remember this place, for instance. The stories we could tell about summers on this shore would span several decades.

I should make more of an effort, really. What they say about old friends also applies to family: the older you get, the more important it is to have people in your life who knew you when you were young.

Speaking of stone…

Apropos nothing in particular, but I find this very soothing:


Perhaps if I were having a really awful day with the usual failure and frustration squared and peppered with bad weather, a few pebbles on the shore would do nothing at all to lift my spirits. But as it is a Sunday, the tide is out, the sun is shining and there is definitely a lot of spring in the air, I can be readily captivated by rock.

Sandy beaches are all very well and good but I have rarely wanted to stuff my pockets with sand. Picking up pebbles that have been rounded and smoothed by the sea, however, is hard to resist. There is something so perfect about them. Perhaps it is the idea of soft stone that is so pleasing to me: if solid stone can feel soft in this world, can it really be such a bad place?

Snow had fallen, snow on stone

I know the sound so well but it had been nearly four years since I’d last heard it: the crunch of snow under my shoes. It has to be one of my favourite sounds in the world; it is the sound of home. I therefore suspect that the thin but fresh, white blanket that covered the Borders when I visited the weekend before last is one reason why I have a new monastic site to add to my list of favourite ruins.

Unlike many other abbeys and priories that are now in town centres, Dryburgh Abbey is reachable by B-roads, surrounded by parkland and next door to nothing but a quiet hotel. I wandered in in bright midday sunshine under blue skies, and save for a handful of other visitors who disappeared around a corner, I had the place for myself. I walked through doorways and up and down stairs, and just stood looking at the stone walls and arches thinking how I used to be such a Gothic girl through and through but how the Romanesque was now definitely growing on me.

It was so peaceful. All hurry and haste left me, and if I turned my ear away from the distant hum of modern life I could imagine what Dryburgh must have been like, once upon a time. Great tits sang in the trees outside the Abbey walls, and perhaps it was because I could hear the snow under my shoes but I had a quick thought like a flight of a bird that comes from hiding and is gone before you know it: I would live here.

Dryburgh Abbey

Non-banned books

I had this idea. It came to me late at night, as ideas are prone to do: I thought I should index all my books and organise them by language into fiction and non-fiction. And that’s what I did on the first day of the year. I rummaged for books in drawers, boxes and on window sills, and piled them all on the living room rug. I found roughly 150 books, which didn’t seem too bad at all. I rather thought I should be congratulated for adhering to my ‘do not buy books’ policy so faithfully. Three major groups of books had obviously managed to get past my checkpoints which are a) ‘use the library instead’ and b) ‘you’ll regret buying them when you move house’.

The first group was a motley collection of second-hand paperbacks that I’ve picked from here and there to read on trains and planes and park benches. They are allowed because they will eventually find their way out of the house either through bookcrossing or the charity table at the regular book sales in the village. They are also affordable and protect library books from sandwich smudges and travel wear and tear (or so I tell myself).

The second group was fiction – mostly crime – in Norwegian, which gets a free pass because our public libraries understandably do not offer a massive selection. Crime novels come with straightforward everyday language that serves the purpose of brushing up my Norwegian that is getting more and more rusty every year.

And then there were the ranks of non-fiction that have swelled more recently, in particular with local and medieval history. Well, everyone is allowed a nerdy weakness. And the thing is, I used to have a 45-minute wait in town returning home from my violin lessons, and the only nice place open that late in the evening was a bookshop with a well-stocked history section. So that’s the way that went. But local history references as well as guides to flora and fauna are good to have at hand for those passing moments of ‘who was that king again who..?’ and ‘what’s that bird called with the…?’

So, there I sat on the rug typing spreadsheets and re-organising all the drawers and window sills, and so far that is among the best things I have done this year. No two ways about it: books make me happy.

A pile of non-fiction waiting to be sorted