Whenever I visit a post office for any product or service, I feel compelled to enquire if there are any special stamps available, even if I have absolutely no need of them.
My purse has a small zipped section in which I keep a little plastic packet filled with postage stamps. Most of the stamps contained therein are special issues I have been unable to resist.
I tend to buy several of each design, and am happy to make use of most of them as soon as I need to, but I often find it hard to part with the very last one. As a result of this, I have a growing collection of single, slightly ragged, stamps sitting in my purse that will doubtless continue to sit there for some time to come.
The stamp shown below is a particular favourite that I once had many copies of. This is my last copy, and I have often taken it out and had another look at it before returning it to the plastic packet. I wonder if I will ever be able to bring myself to stick it to an envelope and send it off on its travels.
This stamp was produced in 2013 as one of a collection brought out to celebrate the trading fleet of Britain’s Merchant Navy.
The ship was designed by Scottish surveyor and shipbuilder, Hercules Linton, and built on the River Clyde in 1869. The name, ‘Cutty Sark’, seems an odd name for a ship, coming as it does from the Scottish term for a short nightdress, as worn by a witch called Nannie in the poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns.
Rather splendidly, the ship is still in existence, having been carefully preserved by the Cutty Sark Trust and turned into a museum based in Greenwich, London.
In memory of Hercules Linton, at the north end of his home town of Inverbervie there is a full scale replica of the Cutty Sark’s figurehead, featuring Nannie gripping a horse’s tail as described in Tam O’Shanter.
While strolling along the River Tay in Perth a few days ago, I came across some stone carvings I hadn’t noticed before. Along the west bank of the river, set into the flood prevention wall, was a curious array of artworks apparently relating in some way to the city of Perth.
The first one I saw depicted bees and the name ‘Gibralter’.
Other carvings represented cities twinned with Perth, such as Perth, Ontario and Bydgoszcz in Poland, while a few of them were a little more esoteric.
Despite the dreichness of the day, I wasn’t the only one wandering along the riverside trying to make sense of it all.
Beneath the bridge, the locals were getting on with their business, unperturbed by goings on above.
Across the river, surrounded by trees on the east bank, sat the attractive Kinnoull Parish Church, a building I’ve never been inside but often admired from outside.
Perth is not one of the UK’s better known cities, indeed it only gained city status in 2012. With a population of around 45,000, it’s about a tenth of the size of Edinburgh and its size and layout make it a pleasant place to explore on foot.
On another topic entirely, as the sole entrant for last week’s competition, I’m delighted to announce that Darlene will be receiving a copy of “The Servant Queen”. Well done, Darlene, and thank you for your interest.
A few nights ago I woke up around 1am, aware of a low frequency noise I couldn’t account for. At first I thought it was a distant aircraft, but the noise continued at the same sort of level, rather than tailing off. Then I wondered if it might be rumbling traffic, but there’s very little traffic in these parts at that time in the morning, so that didn’t make sense either.
As I lay in bed wondering what it could be and why it was lasting for so long, I had the idea that it might be something mechanical in the house. It sounded a bit like a washing machine gearing up for the spin cycle, but since it was 1am and the rest of the household was all tucked up asleep in bed it couldn’t be that.
Perhaps there was a party or something going on a few streets away and I was hearing the low bass noise from an amplifier. Eventually, I got out of bed and opened my window to see if it was coming from outside, but it didn’t sound any louder with the window open.
Completely puzzled, I wandered downstairs and looked into various rooms, including the kitchen to check on the washing machine. Nothing was astir and although I could still hear the noise it seemed slightly less obvious downstairs. I went outside and strained my ears but I could barely hear it out in the garden. Most curious.
Thinking it might have stopped or I was imagining it, I went back upstairs and got back into bed. To my surprise, I could still hear it as loudly as before, apparently louder than it was downstairs and definitely louder than it had seemed in the garden.
I tried to ignore it and get back to sleep but that proved impossible. Maybe, I thought, it was something unique and local occurring on that particular night. If that was the case perhaps I’d find something online about it. There would surely be other people up and about discussing it or trying to find out what it was.
I powered up my laptop and typed ‘low frequency noise at night’ into Google. Top of the results list was a report from The Independent dated about a year ago entitled ‘Have you heard ‘the hum’?’ Straight after that was a website for The World Hum Map and Database. The third hit was a Wikipedia entry entitled ‘The Hum’. I looked at all these websites in turn.
Most people find this website because they are searching for the source of an unusual low frequency sound. The sound is called the Worldwide Hum. The classic description is that it sounds like there is a truck idling outside your home. For some people, it is a deep and distant droning bass tone. Some people perceive the sound as a rumbling noise. The sound is louder indoors than outdoors, and louder late at night than during the afternoon. It can suddenly appear or disappear for days or months.
I read on and, discovering I could add my own experience to the database, set about answering the various questions on the form and describing what the noise sounded like to me. After this I read a few of the entries other people had added, interested to note that the noise had been detected across the world since the 1970s.
According to the map on the World Hum Database, more than 9000 people have recorded their experiences in recent years, many having heard it in the UK and across the USA. Could this suggest it might originate somewhere in the North Atlantic? Among the explanations offered for the hum are volcanic activity, factory output, submarines, mating fish and the pummeling of waves on the seafloor.
All of this was very interesting to me, as was the suggestion that if you hear the hum it’s a good idea to try and see it in a positive, rather than a negative, light. The hum has been known to blight the lives of people who hear it, many of whom suffer from the noise for weeks, months, or even years on end. Bearing this in mind, I went back to bed attempting to think positively about it.
As I lay there, trying to come up with some sort of friendly, soothing explanation, it occurred to me that for years humans have been sending signals into outer space hoping aliens will pick them up and respond. Maybe the hum is their response. An outlandish theory, perhaps, but it was just the job to get me back to sleep. I had a little chat with the aliens, thanking them for their communication and assuring them their signals were welcome. The hum continued droning on in the background, just as it had done before, but I was no longer troubled by it and in fact I rather liked the idea of communicating with aliens.
At some point, I don’t know what time it was, I noticed the noise had stopped. I strained to hear it but it had gone. It was wonderful to be lying there in blissful silence again, but a small part of me felt slightly sorry the aliens had vamooshed. I soon drifted off to sleep and when I woke up in the morning there was no sign of it. I haven’t heard it since, but if it should reappear I’ll be ready for another little chat with my new alien chums.
“The dream shall never die” by Alex Salmond (2015), non fiction
This book was purchased while mooching around the bookshops of Wigtown in Galloway. My parents and I had been enjoying afternoon refreshments in the cafe of Beltie Books and were on our way out of the shop when a pile of books attracted my dad’s attention. He picked one up and splashed out the required £12.99. It’s a signed copy, which is a nice little bonus.
For several days after our holiday my dad was often to be found sitting quietly on a sofa deep in the pages of this book. At mealtimes he regaled us with amusing snippets from it. When he’d finished it he urged me to read it myself, and I gladly accepted the offer.
After a brief prologue and an introduction of around 30 pages, the meat of the book begins. It was as I started reading this part of the book that I discovered how engaging Alex Salmond’s writing could be.
On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland went to the polls to vote on the issue of Scottish independence. The question we had to answer was: Should Scotland be an independent country? The only possible answers were ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
In the run up to the referendum Alex Salmond, as First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party), was campaigning enthusiastically on behalf of what was known as ‘Yes Scotland’, the main organisation in favour of independence. The opposition group, campaigning for Scotland to remain a part of the UK, was known as ‘Better Together’.
‘The dream shall never die’ is written as a kind of diary of events covering Yes Scotland’s 100 day campaign to persuade Scots to vote for independence. During this period there was a great deal of campaign coverage in the media, and constant speculation about which side was ahead in the polls and who was doing a better job of persuading voters.
One of the things about the run up to the referendum that stands out in my memory is how positive the Yes Scotland campaigners were compared with the Better Together lot. As Alex Salmond points out in the book, it’s far easier to be upbeat when campaigning for a positive outcome than when backing a negative.
This book benefits not only from the unique perspective gained by one of the campaign’s leaders, but from the entertaining way in which that perspective is conveyed. Alex Salmond’s sense of humour is evident throughout the diary-type entries. Far from being a dry and plodding read, as has been the case with some political observations I’ve read, I found it surprisingly fresh and engaging.
In the end, the people of Scotland voted against independence (the result was 55% against and 45% in favour of independence), and Alex Salmond took the decision to resign as First Minister for Scotland. The final sentence of his resignation speech was: “For me as leader my time is nearly over. But for Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die.” A rousing note to end on and an optimistic title for his subsequent book.
Earlier this year the SNP won a third term in government, now under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon. Next month the whole of the UK will vote in another referendum, this time on whether to remain in the European Union (EU) or leave. The question is worded so that there isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ option. Instead, we’ll be asked: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
A recent opinion poll, published in The Scotsman newspaper yesterday, indicates that more people in Scotland want to remain in the EU than leave. This does not seem to be the case in England. If the UK votes to leave the EU, but Scotland wants to stay in, a second Scottish independence referendum will surely be inevitable. If that happens, Alex Salmond’s dream might well come true in his lifetime.
As a birthday gift to his dear spouse, my dad had booked a week’s self-catering holiday in a converted milking shed called Cairndoon Steading, near the village of Monreith.
Much to my delight, our arrival was greeted with a box of freshly baked fruit scones, kindly provided by the owners of the house.
The house was nicely decorated inside, and the view from my bedroom window was extremely pleasant.
Inside the house there were flyers advertising a forthcoming public viewing at the nearby Galloway Astronomy Centre. On 9 May, between 12:07 and 19:34, the planet Mercury was due to tootle across the face of the sun, the first time this had occurred since 2003. My dad was quite keen to take a shufti at it, so we made our way along the road that afternoon to see what was what.
Beyond the first telescope, there was another one set up with a small group of hatted people sitting near it drinking tea in the sunshine.
As we made our way towards them, we were greeted warmly and invited to have a squiz through the telescope.
I don’t have pictorial evidence of what we saw, but I will attempt to describe it. The lens was focussed on what looked like a round orange disc (the sun). Inside the orange disc, near the top right, was a tiny black dot (Mercury). What I thought was a dirty smudge on the lens a little further down inside the orange blob was apparently a sun spot.
If I hadn’t had it on good authority that I was looking at the sun, the planet Mercury and a sun spot, I might well have thought it was just a picture of a round orange shape with a couple of black dots on it.
Although looking at a couple of black dots on an orange disc wasn’t the most exciting experience I’ve ever had, the people were friendly and enthusiastic. I suppose, for an astronomer, it wasn’t too bad a way of spending the daylight hours: sitting outside on a warm day drinking tea, popping up now and then to check the progress of one heavenly body across another.
For me, there were more interesting shapes to be surveyed closer to home. One of the things I particularly appreciated about Cairndoon Steading was the daily viewing of local animal life. I do like to see a few nice cows when I’m on my holidays.
Three days ago, my mum had a routine hospital appointment in Perth in the middle of afternoon.
We decided to make a day of it and tootled off for lunch at one of our favourite eateries, the Macmillan Coffee Shop at Quarrymill, on the outskirts of Perth.
It’s been exceptionally cold across Scotland for the past few days, and we were very glad to see a fine selection of soups on offer. My mum and I chose country vegetable while my dad opted for carrot and sweet potato.
Quarrymill country vegetable soup.
Quarrymill carrot and sweet potato soup.
My bread thinly smeared with butter substitute (Flora margarine).
It never fails to amuse me how thickly my mum butters her bread.
Nicely warmed by the soup, we turned our attention to the next course. Rather than indulging in a sweet treat, my dad fancied a brie and cranberry toastie on brown bread. As usual, I couldn’t see past the date and cinnamon scones and my mum was deliciously tempted by a large slice of warm apple pie with cream.
Warm apple pie with cream and a generous dusting of icing sugar.
Brie and cranberry toastie.
Date and cinnamon scone.
Very happily filled and with plenty of time to spare before the hospital appointment, we ambled off to Perth Museum and Art Gallery for a spot of cultural mooching. We were fortunate to find a parking space nearby, but even the short walk from car to museum was strikingly chilly. It was a case of woolly hats on and hoods up.
Inside, the museum was a sheltered haven of peace and calm, and we almost had the place to ourselves.
I was particularly interested in an exhibition entitled ‘Life in Miniature’, which contained a curious mixture of small items from the Museum’s permanent collection. Among the artefacts were several Ancient Egyptian pieces, including the little Ushabti figure below, whose date was given as ‘circa 2600BC – 30BC’.
Ushabti were carved figures, popped into Egyptian tombs and thought to magically come alive in the hereafter. They acted as servants, carrying out any manual labour required of the deceased, primarily working in the fields of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. For that reason, Ushabti often feature agricultural tools. The one above had its arms crossed and a farm implement in each hand. It’s impossible to tell from the photograph how small it was, but I don’t think it can have been much more than 2 inches tall.
Noting that our parking time was nearly up, I coaxed the parents out of The Story of Perth and Kinross exhibition and led them back to the car.
We had parked next to North Inch, the big sister of South Inch, and Perth’s largest public park.
Whereas South Inch is especially attractive to families with young children (containing, as it does, an excellent children’s playground and a duck pond as mentioned in this previous post), North Inch has a particular appeal for certain sports enthusiasts. As well as housing an 18-hole golf course, the park contains rugby and football pitches. Goal posts can be seen in the picture below.
North Inch is one of the world’s oldest golfing locations, the game having been played on this land for more than 500 years. In 1833, one year before the more famous Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews was given its regal title, Perth Royal Golfing Society became the world’s first royal golf club.
For many people, however, North Inch simply provides a nice green space to stroll around on a sunny day. On this particular day we didn’t have time for strolling, or indeed the inclination given the ferociously icy wind, but it was pleasant to gaze upon the grassy terrain as we made our way back to the car.
By the time we’d been into and come out of the hospital, the sky was growing dark and threatening across the city. It started to hail as we walked to the car, and it’s been hailing and snowing on and off in this part of the world ever since.
Tomorrow is the 1st of May, and the forecasters tell us the weather is expected to warm up a touch (a most welcome change, in my opinion).
In the meantime, we have a birthday to celebrate (my dad is 87 today) and some cake to eat up.
The Scottish city of Perth has two main parks, the North Inch and the South Inch (‘inch’ comes from the Gaelic word innis meaning ‘meadow’).
Both are large, low-lying areas within easy walking distance of the city centre.
The South Inch is particularly well used by parents and young children who enjoy visiting its rather splendid playground and duck pond.
Each spring the South Inch has a wonderful display of daffodils. They’re mostly past their best now, but there were still some looking beautiful in the sunshine yesterday.
As I walked past the duck pond I observed not only ducks in attendance, but a pair of swans on a nest. I wasn’t able to take a picture of them but you can perhaps imagine them skulking in the pale patch of tall reeds by the path to the left of the pond in the picture below.
It was the warmest day of the year so far in parts of Wales yesterday, with the temperature reaching 20°C. I don’t know how warm it was in Perth but it was certainly a wonderful treat to feel the warmth of the sun beaming down from a blue sky.
Earlier this week my dad and I popped down to Edinburgh and met my brother Donald for lunch. Donald had suggested a Swedish cafe bar called Akva as our lunch spot, a place I hadn’t been to before.
The cafe had two levels and we chose to sit upstairs where it was considerably quieter. The area was surprisingly spacious and the furniture interestingly mismatched. Some of the dining tables had sofas by them as well as upright chairs. A large projector screen hung from the ceiling above the stairs.
After perusing the menu and placing my order I scooted off to the loos where I was delighted by some unusual taps. They were broad and flat and jutted out over trough-like sinks.
Watching the water pour out gave me considerable pleasure.
Back in the cafe our meals were delivered to the table by a cheerful waitress.
Donald had smoked salmon rostis with a dill mayonnaise.
My dad and I both chose the ‘Akva brunch’, which consisted of scrambled egg and spinach on a large slice of granary toast with a grilled tomato in two halves on top of a flat mushroom.
It was all very satisfactory and we slooshed our food down with tea and coffee.
The teacups were a teal colour which seemed comfortingly familiar. I’m not entirely sure why, but I associate this colour with the 1970s and the happy carefree days of my youth.
While my dad and I were still working our way slowly through our brunches Donald ordered a cardamom bun served with Greek yoghurt and honey. I foolishly forgot to photograph it but I did have a little taste and it was a most interesting delicacy.
After saying toodleoo to my brother, we headed off to the car and wondered what we might do next. We had felt too full for sweet treats in Akva, but reckoned a little drive across the city might well inspire our appetites.
We decided on Leith as our destination, partly because it offered free parking and an excellent tearoom, but also to get away from the busyness of the city centre. These days my aging parents find Edinburgh a little too hectic for comfort, and I sympathise because I feel a bit the same way myself.
We found a parking spot right outside a flat I used to live in many moons ago and dashed through the rain to the magnificent Mimi’s Bakehouse which I’ve written about in the past on another blog (here and here, if you’re interested).
In common with Akva, Mimi’s had a choice of seating options, including sofas and armchairs. After selecting tasty treats from the cake display, my dad quickly settled himself in an armchair with a newspaper to await their arrival.
Choosing what to have had been quite an effort because of the wealth of delicious-looking snackerels on offer, but in the end we plumped for a raspberry and white chocolate meringue slice and a fruit scone with butter and jam, washed down with cappuccinos (I had decaf, which came with chocolate on only half of it to distinguish it from the regular one).
I’ve had the good fortune to feast at Mimi’s Bakehouse on a number of occasions and, although the choice of sweet treats can seem bewildering and confusing, in my experience you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.
The raspberry and white chocolate meringue slice was substantial and satisfying: biscuity and melty on the bottom, with a thick layer of white chocolate above scattered with tiny pieces of zingy dried raspberry, all topped off with generous chunks of sweet, light, crunchy meringue. Delicious.
The scone was utterly superb – large, fluffy and extremely easy to swallow. We cut the two treats into little bits and shared them out between us. I buttered half of the scone and buttered and jammed the other half.
The prices were a bit higher than you might expect in an average Scottish cafe, but the quality was evident. I was impressed with the French butter that came with the scone.
Fruit scone with high class butter and raspberry jam
French butter for the scone
Well filled with excellent fare, we trotted back to the car to head for home.
In the past, when I lived near where Mimi’s is now (it wasn’t there in my day), my favoured local haunt was The Vaults, headquarters of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), just along the road. My parents used to come down to Edinburgh and have lunch with me there in the rather splendid surroundings of the members’ lounge, a large, high-ceilinged room with a log fire and leather sofas. Having let my membership lapse we no longer have access to those hallowed surroundings, but Mimi’s offers a highly satisfactory alternative (and cakes, the like of which I never encountered in the SMWS).
These utility poles are situated on a small dead end road leading down to the Firth of Forth near South Queensferry.
The one in the foreground has quite a complicated assemblage on top. The shape reminds me of a chef’s hat, and the puffy white clouds seem to be loaves of floury bread dough fluffing up as it rises. Utility poles don’t usually make me feel so hungry.