Hefting to place during Lockdown 2020

Carved ‘Derby Ram’ at home in our garden and repainted during Lockdown

Here is an interesting thought: during Lockdown we are all ‘hefting to place’. Hefting is the term used for moorland-bred sheep which can be released on to the hill where they were born without wandering away – there is an internal boundary in their heads as to where they belong which they never cross.

Rosemarkie Beach

I think Lockdown will have two very different impacts on humankind. Firstly, many of those who have been imprisoned in cities and large towns will want to move out, seeking refuge in the countryside as a more natural place to live through a lockdown if it happens again. The population in rural areas will expand. People who cannot move permanently will wish to holiday here. Highland second home ownership and tourism will boom.

First bluebells

Secondly, those who already live in more rural areas like the Black Isle, including folk who commuted to work in towns like Inverness or Dingwall but live in the countryside, are hefting, perhaps unknowingly, to place.

Daily exercise

How? Well, we are walking our boundaries, a territorial habit as old as man. We are getting to know every tree, rock, hedge or wall intimately. We are watching the seasons change. We are learning to tend our gardens and to grow again: seeds, plants, ourselves. We are looking at the circle of our horizon with curiosity. We are getting to know and supporting our neighbours and local shops as would have happened naturally 100 years ago. We are slowing down, forced to live smaller and more simply.

Watching the skies, the horizon…

Some of this will evaporate when Lockdown ends of course and people gey back to work Some, but not all. The natural world has changed for the better during Lockdown. Let us hope the human world has learned from the impact of Lockdown too. It will be very difficult to live as we did before, without realising the harm we were inflicting through the effects of our previous fast-paced modern life.

When putting in a new planter yesterday I found this underneath an old bucket – a field mouse’s magnificent stash of hazel nuts and plum stones for the winter. Its whole small world comprises my garden. And for a few months my own world has not been that much larger.

I replaced the bucket and put my planter elsewhere…

Prizewinning toffee…

Hot…?
…or cold? Tough to tell them apart!

Why is it always so hard to announce that you have won a competition (and yes, thank you, I know it should be ‘one has won’, but it already sounds pompous enough to say ‘I have won a prize’)?

As a Brit I am hard-wired to be self-deprecating. I had my first taste of this when Major Tom’s War won that prize at the SAHR Military History Fiction Awards last year. I found myself saying things like ‘oh, it was nothing really,’ when in actual fact it was a huge, life-changing deal to have someone outside my publisher and my immediate family acknowledge that the last ten years of my life had not been a complete waste of time.

I have been writing professionally for over 20 years as a hired pen. I know I am reasonably good at it, as I have been doing it for long enough. Wordsmithing for my clients where text is often approved by committee is however a very different kettle of fish from the flying-without-a-net world of creative writing.

The view of Lochan an Ais opposite Knockan Crag and the hills beyond

So you know what? I am going to admit here, quite openly and honestly, that winning the Hugh Miller Writing Competition 2020 means a lot to me.

This time the prize is not for a novel but for a fictional short story, Cinder Toffee. This means I can believe that Major Tom’s War was not just a fluke or a one-off. It means my publishers Kashi House can call me a prizewinning author and I will not immediately succumb to imposter syndrome. So thank you, judges. This really does make a difference.

Knockan Crag

The Hugh Miller competition is rooted in Scottish geology, inspired by the remarkable writer, geologist and man of science Hugh Miller, born in Cromarty on the Black Isle. I am not a geologist but always have pebbles in my pockets and still walk along nose to the ground, always looking for my dream ammonite or the perfect geode to crack open.

This season I should have been joining the National Trust for Scotland’s team at Hugh Miller’s Cottage and Birthplace Museum in Cromarty as the property’s summer assistant. Then along comes coronavirus to derail the whole of humanity. This prize is also a surprise compensation for that disappointment (I hope to pop up there next year, ‘if we’re spared’, as it soon may become traditional to say once more.) So do come in and say hello.

My short story is set, in part, in a claustrophobic Edinburgh University vestibule, and, in part, in the wild, wide, open spaces of Knockan Crag, on the border between Ross and Sutherland. The photographs were taken on a day-job heritage conference in Inverness a few years ago. I returned to Knockan Crag for the first time in many years then, on an excellent field trip organised by Scottish Natural Heritage. It rained, of course, but not all the time, and the excellent fresh interpretation on site intrigued me.

Life-size interpretive figures of the geologists Ben Peach and John Horne

Peach and Horne are two names weel-kent within geological circles. Now, I hope, they will become more widely know as a result of people reading Cinder Toffee. These two represent an extraordinary flowering of largely male expertise in the 19th century in the field of the ‘outdoor’ sciences: geology, biology and botany in particular. Their sweet tooth is entirely fictional. The rest of their story is as close as I could come to how it must have felt – within the 2000 word limit and the three days I gave myself to write it.

What did they discover at Knockan Crag? You’ll need to read the story to find out – but this recipe provides a clue!

You will find Cinder Toffee here, among the other excellent prize-winning entries (good to see Cromarty Primary pupils keeping their end up for Hugh Miller). Soon there will be an audio file of me reading it aloud too. https://www.scottishgeology.com/hughmiller/

The impact of coronavirus means that there can be no prizegiving. It would mean a lot to the gallant committee of competition organisers if my own story and the work of all the other prizewinners could be passed on by word of mouth as worth a read.

If you enjoy my writing style and would like to read Major Tom’s War, it is now available on Kindle (as a revised and expanded second edition) for under £5 and there are still hardback first editions available direct from myself (if you would like a signed copy get in touch via www.majortomswar.com) or my beloved independent publisher www.kashihouse.com.

Interpretive carvings in two of the many rocks to be found at Knockan Crag

The guilty pleasures of #Lockdown as at Easter 2020…

I am about to dip a toe… no, to wade… oh hang it, to plunge… into some very choppy waters. So here are some gratuitously pretty Easter pictures for you to enjoy, even if you hate me for what I am about to share.

Many professional writers are confessing to finding themselves ‘blocked’ during this lockdown (while poets are producing some sizzling work, but that is another story). I am, alas, no great shakes as a poet. After all, why use 3 words when 300 will do?

My own major work in progress, Brother Joe, is therefore in limbo (sorry Joe. Your time will come, your story told. Just not quite yet.) This is partly because the storyline, planned long before the outbreak of COVID-19, covers the 1919 Spanish influenza pandemic and dealing with that feels a little too prescient at present.

One of my creative writing ‘tutees’, whom we will call Joanne, confessed last week to finding it hard to settle down and write anything. I decided that a simple diary piece would be an appropriate goal for our next ‘literary encounter’. I then opted, somewhat rashly, to support Joanne by writing one myself.

Well. At first, of course, I avoided the task altogether. I felt guilty, too, for wanting to do other things; everything, anything but write, in fact. Then I tried a step-by-step documenting of my day, as agreed with Joanne. I reread it the following morning to discover that I had risen, dressed, walked, gardened, read, spoken, eaten at punctuating intervals and then gone to bed. Exactly the same everyone else? Not quite. Not in one majorly significant way.

Only once I began to wonder why this should be the case did words began to drip, and trickle, then flood out of me. What you have here is a distillation of that.

Joanne soon contacted me to say that something similar was happening to her. Should she stop? No, I replied. Let’s surf the wave and see where it takes us. I have to say that what she has produced is far, far better than this piece, which amounts to an expiation.

The thing is, you see, that I am happy. There, I have said it. Happier than I have been for years. Isn’t that just appalling? Especially when those around me are increasingly stressed and miserable. I realise that it is an entirely peculiar and selfish happiness, but it is also the honest truth.

Yes, of course part of me is still very much afraid. I know more and more people are dying, many in grim circumstances, unacknowledged in the official statistics. I know our beloved, beleaguered NHS, starved of political empathy and funding for so many years, is on its knees. I know I may also in part only be feeling this way because I am locked down in a beautiful, tranquil rural part of the Scottish Highlands little, as yet, affected by COVID-19. I also know that I may hate myself next week or next month if the situation worsens.

Why is it I cannot bring myself to scurry around the local paths during my exercise hour, eyes fixed grimly on the ground, as many seem to? Why do I find myself stopping, standing, staring at the clouds, noticing the subtle daily changes in nature?

Happiness in my life up until now has often been counterbalanced by extreme pressures (for various reasons) in both my family and my professional life. This paradoxical #lockdown contentment is a different kind of happiness. This list is my best guess at the reasons for it.

1. My closest family are here at home with me and all are well. In the past I have taken this for granted. Not any more.

2. I never again expected to have both my daughters, now young women, living with me under one roof for any length of time. That feels like a miraculous gift.

3. I have time to keep in touch with others I love via social media, phone and email. I am using my writing skills on digital platforms, a new adventure for me, and enjoying it. I am using my French to bring together French speakers from all over the country. I have always been happy to communicate by the written or spoken word, often more so than face to face.

4. The four of us locked down together (age range 17 – 74) are taking time to understand each other’s needs far better than we have done before. We are being honest with each other, possibly for the first time ever.

5. The daily hour’s exercise forces me to concentrate on my fitness. I am convalescing from surgery. Under normal circumstances I would probably not be taking time to recover properly. I am exercising gently but I am also resting. It feels so good.

6. After the initial shock and panic of no work (which for me means no AirBnB bookings, no teaching and no heritage consulting) we have worked out how much we can live on. It is surprisingly little. We will survive. Travelling as much as we did for work and for pleasure generates the need for more and more income generation. It is an unnecessary cycle.

7. I have set up a support group for my neighbours, and as a family we are helping them practically in any way I can. We are getting to know some well, one or two for the first time ever. We have not been near a supermarket or even placed an order online for over a month. I do not miss it. It is perfectly possible, here, to live locally. People are bartering skills, food, plants. This is the world I want to live in.

What these seven points have in common of course is the feeling of my world shrinking, of enjoyment derived from slowing down, of taking the foot off the pedal, hitherto so rare in life. There is also gratitude, not to terrifying COVID-19, but to the beneficial impact our response to it has had on our home planet.

Looking back at life before the epidemic, I feel like we were already collectively holding our breath, waiting for something to happen. Our excessive lives whirled ever faster, out of control. Planet Earth has been sickening for years and we have known this – and ignored it. The planet has now taken action to heal itself. Unless we heed this shot across our bows, we risk entering the Age of the Pandemic, of which COVID-19 is merely a mild foretaste. This virus could depart only to wheel, adapt, mutate, return. If it does, humankind could become a short and grubby footnote in the history of this ancient planet.

Will I be glad when this #lockdown ends? Of course I will, but again, not entirely. I have greatly valued this time of being able to stop, draw breath, think. All I pray is that those in power realise that things must never go back to ‘normal’; that the old ‘normal’ was slowly killing us and destroying the planet on which we live.

Humanity now faces a stark choice: mend our ways – or become extinct. I am a resolute optimist and I believe it can and will happen – providing others, like myself, can also begin to say ‘Enough! We need a better way of life.’

Reflecting on all this, my heart still wants to dance. Yes, my logical brain knows that I too may catch the COVID 19 virus and die; but somewhere deep inside me a small voice, which may or may not be called faith, is saying yes, but you were always going to do that anyway. You were never immortal, even if your species likes to pretend it is. So live while you can, but live better.

Foolproof flourpot cheese souffles

There is this whole bonkers mystique about souffle-making. ‘It’s hard’ (no, it’s not). ‘It won’t rise’ (yes, it will). ‘It’s extravagant’ (six eggs to feed four? Don’t think so). Any cook who can make a thick white sauce and beat egg whites into stiff peaks can make a souffle. This mixture is based on my 4 x GGrandmother’s recipe from 1810.

Two hot, feather-light souffles just out of the oven

Why flowerpots? Well, when I was a kid a famous TV chef and MP named Clement Freud (back in the days when politicians had integrity, talent and personality) made bread in the shape of flowerpots. It was one of my mother’s favourite recipes. I kept the medium-sized flowerpots she used and now I make souffles in them as well as bread. If you try it make sure yours are clean – sterilise them using boiling water – or better still use new ones.

Materials

Wooden spoon, large non-stick pan.

2 medium-size clean terracotta flower- pots (or two straightish high-sided ovenproof dishes will do fine too)

2 round greaseproof cake liners or just greaseproof paper

Ingredients

3oz unsalted butter

4oz grated mature cheddar cheese (or any cheese you fancy, stilton is good if you are a fan)

6 eggs, separated into yolks and whites (don’t get even a drop of your yolk in the whites, or they won’t beat to stiff peaks). If you do have a mishap use an eggshell to scoop out the bit of yolk and plenty of white around it – just add it to the sauce instead. If you want to make doubly certain your souffle will rise, add an extra egg white (and save the yolk covered in the fridge for something else).

About 1/3 litre milk (I said a half at first but depends on flour, oven etc – sauce is better too thick than too runny)

4 – 5 heaped tablespoons plain flour

One tablespoonful Dijon mustard

Freshly-ground black pepper

1/4 teapoonful freshly grated nutmeg

Method

Line two flourpots or ovenproof dishes with your greaseproof cake liners. If you don’t have any liners put a circle of greaseproof paper in the bottom of the dish but DO NOT grease the sides. You souffle needs something up which to climb.

Make your white sauce in the non-stick pan over a medium to high heat: melt your butter and add the flour a little at a time. Fry off the flour in the butter (if it goes a little brown in places no problem) and keep mixing until it smells a little of toast.

Adding the milk

Now add the milk a little at a time. It will look horrible and lumpy and you will think you have failed but persevere (or cheat and give it a whizz with an electric hand blender). Put it to one side in a warm place it it’s not working and wait 5 minutes – the lumps will gradually soften and help thicken the sauce. The trick is just to keep beating it like crazy until it gives in.

Keep beating when it looks like this, you are halfway!

When it is smooth, stir in the black pepper, nutmeg and the egg yolks. Finally, add about 3/4 of the cheese, stir well and set aside.

Nice glossy rich sauce with egg yolks and spices added.

In a separate clean dry glass bowl, beat your eggs with an electric whisk (the only reason to do it by hand would be if you employ an idle kitchenmaid with massive biceps). Stiff peak is when the egg whites look solid and become more like meringue. Pour your warm eggy cheesy white sauce on to the side of your egg white. This will push it up rather like an iceberg.

Tonight my egg white mountain looked a bit like El Capitan!

Take a warm dry metal spoon and gently, using an up and down circular motion from the bottom of the bowl to the top (so not normal round and round stirring), pull the egg white into the sauce. It may not look very even, but don’t worry too much about that.

All ready to go in the oven. The one on the right has added chopped mushrooms.

Pour your mixture evenly into the two dishes on a baking tray and sprinkle with the rest of the cheese.

Pop into a hot (210) oven for 35 – 40 minutes. Keep an eye on them and if tbey brown early quickly cover them with a piece of foil. Souffle myths include not opening the oven door but you can if you are quick and the kitchen is not too chilly.

Make sure your family is seated before you serve the souffles, as then you get a nice oo-moment before they sink. Using liners means the kids can lift them out and peel off the nice crunchy bits at the end.

You can flavour souffles with anything – spinach is good, one of tonight’s was mushroom, and for a naughty dessert try melted chocolate swirled through (adding a little dark brown sugar and leaving out the cheese and spices of course!).

One overflowed as it rose so high but the ‘baby’ was eaten too!

Tonight I served the souffles with a warm broccoli and orange salad with bacon, rosemary and balsamic vinegar.

Bon appetit!

Dandelion bhaji and salad recipe

I have always loved foraging and free food. You must however make sure you pick from a clean location where no herbicides or pesticides have been used. If you are not 100% sure of a plant’s identity, do not pick it. And always leave some for the bees.

Dandelions are beautiful, useful little plants (yes, beautiful. The designation ‘weeds’ is a marketing ploy to flog weedkillers which can blind you if you get them in your eyes and garden tools which look like instruments of mediaeval torture). And they are delicious to eat. We need to rethink our garden priorities. Just imagine you hold the National Collection of dandelions and be proud!

Dandelion means ‘lion’s teeth’ although I have always thought lion’s mane would be a better name. In French they are pissenlit: from pisse-en-lit – wet-the-bed, the old Highland nickname too. I remember echoes of this in my Highland primary school when the Bad Boys used to chase us with dandelions, shrieking with glee, if they touched us with one, that we were going to wake up to soggy sheets.

There is a useful folk-memory here though as the dandelion plant is a diuretic and helps eliminate water retention. The long (and loathed) tap-roots were once washed, roasted and ground as a sort of coffee during the World Wars. And if well made, dandelion wine is a pale golden joy which releases a fragrant early summer bouquet, even in the depths of winter.

METHOD

To make bhajis for 3 – 4 people you will need a large mixing bowl, 12 dandelion heads picked in bright sunlight, a spoonful of curry paste, a large finely chopped onion or leek, a good cupful of flour (half plain, half self-raising) and two lightly beaten eggs, plus a little sunflower oil and a little butter for cooking.

If you have no curry paste, you can use freshly grated ginger, finely chopped garlic, finely chopped chilli or pwder to taste, ground cardomum, cumin and turmeric instead – fry together lightly then add at the flour stage before the egg.

1. Wash your dandelion heads and pat dry. Pick the golden ‘teeth’ away from the green ‘head’ and place in a large bowl. Add the flour and onion and mix until evenly distributed. Beat the curry paste into the egg and then pour into the flour mixture. Mix thoroughly until it forms a loose dough.

2. Drop tablespoonfuls into hot oil/butter mixture in a frying pan and cook until golden brown on all sides. It will take 4 – 5 minutes at most. Keep cooked ones warm as the others sizzle away.

For the salad allow 6 young dandelion leaves per person (they look like swords with serrated edges) and wash and dry well. Add a few crumbled walnuts, a finely chopped apple and some chopped hard boiled egg or blue cheese if liked.

Make a creamy dressing with a spoonful of mayonnaise, half a cupful of olive or good rapeseed oil, quarter of a cupful of balsamic vinegar, the juice of a lemon, a teaspoon each of honey and Dijon mustard. Place in a warm dry jam jar and shake vigorously – then pour over the salad and serve with the warm, crisp golden brown bhaji.

Bon appetit!

If you fancy trying this recipe, please first promise never to use herbicides or pesticides in your garden again…

A one-night honeymoon…

It has been a very strange 24 hours. When P and I married in January we mentioned postponing our honeymoon to October for a memorable journey to Canada to some of our friends because we expected such a busy AirBnB season.

One kind family decided this Would Not Do and gave us a voucher for the lovely Torridon Inn. We should have gone over in February but I was ill, then I had my op and so last month we rescheduled for this weekend.

Since then of course the whole world has changed. We were in two minds about going at all but after discovering that our rooms were direct access off a courtyard rather than through a building we decided we would, since we could continue to social-distance ourselves.

I cannot find words for the beauties of the drive over – better just to share them with you pictorially. The news then came in shortly after our arrival that all hotels would close the following morning.

The charming French staff at the Inn cannot return home but their employers are being very supportive (unlike the heartless Britannia Hotel Group at Coylumbridge which kicked out its mainly foreign national staff without notice or any provision for their accommodation).

The meal last night (attentive if of course physically distant staff, well spaced tables) for the few of us present had a weirdly Last Supper feel, with much hilarity across the divides. This morning was more muted as people crept into their vehicles and drove off sombre-faced.

On the roads (not so much at the Inn) there are a lot of non-local and foreign vehicles out and about. We also saw many wild-camping tents, especially in Glen Torridon. That is a worrying trend as an asymptomatic carrier from outside the area could spread the virus so easily.

What is the solution? Applecross is already discouraging access to its peninsula. Checking postcodes for shop purchases and limiting fuel purchases might be another way?

I am glad we managed our single, precious night away – but I was also very glad to get home and prepare to batten down the hatches.

In the footsteps of Evie in Ross-on-Wye and Bridstow

This is the third and final instalment of my April 2019 Major Tom’s War book tour blog. We have already visited London and Worcestershire – now for a quick jaunt to Herefordshire. Please scroll back for the other stories!

View from near Westfield VAD Red Cross Hospital across the river

We have moved forward in time again, this time to the First World War and the actual period of the main action in Major Tom’s War. After the tragedy of Bessie’s early death in Bewdley, Edward and his five children (ranging from Maud at 12 down to Arthur at 4 in age) were moved, probably on compassionate grounds, away from the family turf in Bewdley to a completely new parish at Ross-on-Wye. Evie would still only have been seven or eight when she arrived in the town. Here the children were looked after by an elderly spinster cousin named Annie (Marianne) until Edward unexpectedly remarried parishioner Harriett Bernard. The town rectory where they all lived initially appears to have been demolished now – but otherwise the town is very much as it was.

Ross-on-Wye has a more open, airy, spacious and perhaps, then, healthy feel than Bewdley, with its cramped, dark streets. The silver Wye flows slowly beneath the long spans of the bridges: it is so easy to imagine Maud and Evie leaning over to drop pine cones into the water from above after market day.

The old covered market, still the heart of the town

St Mary’s Church, with its massive spire, is where, in Major Tom’s War, I set the wedding of Tom and Evie (I have been unable to find any marriage certificate for them anywhere thus far). Even if I find they married elsewhere (many wartime weddings were rather rushed jobs in London) Chapter 36, Double Vision, is staying as it is! There is little trace now of Edward’s tenure at St Mary’s as priest, not even a list of priests, and in fact as his Hereford Cathedral duties increased (as Arch-Deacon) he soon moved on to Bridstow Vicarage, and even more airy and open home.

Bridstow Vicarage

The Georgian vicarage at Bridstow perches on a hill-top looking back over the river to the town, a lovely site.

View from one of the main Vicarage reception rooms, possibly once the library

It has been beautifully restored and John and Sally Ward, the current owners, kindly invited us in for a look round when we timidly knocked on the door. There were little corners – outbuildings, a staircase in particular – and one area of the garden, now laid to lawn, where the vegetable patch once was, which felt very familiar.

Outbuildings, Bridstow Vicarage
Restored staircase, Bridstow Vicarage

Best of all was when our host and hostess opened a door to reveal this stunning Broadway piano. How Evie would have appreciated that!

St Bridget’s Bridstow, a lovely wee sleepy English church

Bridstow Church (St Bridget’s) over the other side of the river is where Edward must have preached on the day war broke out, where I have Evie (in the novel) sit and contemplate the futility of her life as the sunlight pierces the stained glass and catches motes of dust. I walked up the aisle and since no-one was about, sang a hymn or two. The old stones hummed back.

The nave, St Bridget’s

Once back in Ross-on-Wye itself we tried to find Westfield House, site of one of the two VAD hospitals in Ross-on-Wye during WWI in which Evie worked and eventually glimpsed it behind a door and wall right in the centre of the town. It looks like it has been extended and other, later buildings may have filled some of its grounds, but it is still a most healthy site overlooking the river, good for convalescent, weary men.

Westfield House, Ross-on-Wye

The location of the second VAD hospital, Caradoc Villa, has been identified by a local historian, but we only found this out that night at my book talk at Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye so did not have the opportunity to visit. Rossiter Books is rather a special place, far more than the sum of its parts. And how wonderful to hear of a bookshop which is actually expanding its number of branches rather than closing them!

Clearly seeking divine inspiration at the end of a long tour!

Andy Rossiter and his team made me most welcome and I so enjoyed the talk, as I did every leg of the tour.

Rossiter Books in Ross-on-Wye. Tom’s specs always enjoy finding a new face to try on!

I was fascinated to see that the same historian (who unfortunately was unable to attend that night) had found a fuzzy picture of a group of VAD nurses which actually included Evie. Even more than that one, however, I was thrilled by a picture she provided showing a nurse tending a patient’s arm in an orchard. Neither of these is Tom or Evie, but this is exactly the scene I imagined in Chapter 31, A Question and an Answer, where Tom and Evie share the joy of hearing a wren singing from a rosebush in the orchard.

If I knew the identity of the town’s historian who assembled these pictures, I would be able to say a proper thank you!
This picture of my own shows ‘Puff’ Maud Currey, Evie and Consie Allen sitting on the hospital steps at what I know now to be Caradoc Villa – see picture below for comparison

Well, what a lot I packed into ten long days away. Book tours are hard work but always so rewarding – this is my second. My greatest fear was to find that I had somehow made some kind of locational errors in the book once I visited the real places concerned, but that is not, thank goodness, the case. I am so grateful to all who bought books, to the Kashi House team for their support and encouragement, to Mark Walker and Eleanor Bird for providing me with accommodation and transport, and particularly to Charlie Welch, Kate Groenhelm, Mary Arden-Davis, Paul West, Sally and John Ward, Andy Rossiter and all the strangers who have become friends along the way.

If you have enjoyed this #longread, please follow this blog, comment and share it with others. You’ll find my website at http://www.majortomswar.com if you would like to get in touch. Thank you so much for joining me.