Monday, 30 August 2010


Apparently, over the last four years, we Scots have used four billion fewer plastic bags. This is good news because there was great debate at one time about HOW to persuade the public to wean themselves of placky bags...surely a lack of bags might deter the shopper from spending, and the economy would suffer? On the other hand, we use far too many bags, they are a nuisance, cause litter and do not the Members of our Scottish Parliament, the MSPs, debated long and hard about whether or not to impose a ban on free bags. In the end, they rejected the idea.

Doom and gloom was predicted, with people saying this was a lost opportunity, shoppers wouldn’t like it and litter would continue to increase. But, we have proved the doom-merchants wrong. Which just goes to show, we’re not the small-minded dimwits some people might think.

I suspect the MSPs knew that occasionally it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks, that once in a while, you don’t have to patronize a population to make them behave....I reckon most Scots, at least any Scot who respects and cares for their own nation, is only too delighted to adapt and change the habits of a lifetime. Having to remember your own bags is rather a pleasing and satisfying task, making us feel like good citizens and allowing us to pat ourselves on the back.

BUT...what HAS been driving us all mad is the Voice in the Machine.

Let me explain. You have your jute shopping bags ready to be filled, you have selected a trolley-load of shopping, you head towards the checkout and see that the queues are long and slow. Ah-ha, you say as your eye spots a vacant checkout machine....I’ll just use that instead of a human.

You approach with slight trepidation, but think that it’s about time you grew up and stepped into 2010. You press a big round button.

‘Place your bag in the loading bay,’ says some woman who must be hiding in the machine. Clearly she’s gathered you’re perplexed...perhaps she’ll help, although she sounds a wee bit fierce. You stash your environmentally-sound jute bags on a small metal shelf, expecting her to say,

‘Not there, you fool....duh, don’t you have eyes?’

But she doesn’t. A button flashes instead, so you press that, simply because you can’t think of anything else to do right then. A line-drawing of a hand holding a turnip appears. The turnip is ‘shown’ to a screen. But you don’t have a turnip in your trolley. Failed.

You decide to try a packet of breakfast cereal and show it to your machine for approval. Nothing happens. You wave it about a bit. Nothing. You twirl it around a little and PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag,’ says Bossy Wifey.

Good plan, you think as you find a bunch of bananas in your trolley. PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag,’ she says again.

‘OK, OK I get the drift,’ you tell her, grabbing a carton of fruit juice. PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag.’

‘You’re not seriously going to say that for all 142 items in the trolley are you?’Pancakes. PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag.’

Now you’re miffed. ‘Well now, Missus, there’s an idea. And I was just thinking I’d put them on my head and wear them up the High Street just for a lark.’ She’s not amused. Her voice doesn’t falter for a split second. Furniture polish. PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag.’

‘What happens if I don’t? I might go wild and stuff it under my oxter ...what then, huh?’ Shampoo. PING.

‘Please place the item in the bag.’

‘No. I’m going to squirt it down your jacksie and see how you like that, you bossy bisum.’

By the time you’ve got through all 142 items you’re about ready to thump her one...but you reckon she’s hard so it would hurt. You press a few more buttons, cough up the lolly, and wobble out of the shop feeling as though your brain has just been fried.

What I cannot fathom is this...if The Scottish Shopper is intelligent enough to remember to bring their own bags to the shop in the first place, to be trusted enough to park in a minute space without injury to other shoppers or nearby vehicles, to recycle their rubbish into the correct bins outside the shop before entering, to be able while shopping to plan several large meals while remembering four people’s birthdays, a couple of thank you pressies, a very specific stationary request from school, exactly the right sort of washing powder, and a paddling pool in case it’s ever hot again (we can fantasize, surely), why on earth does that woman in the machine think we are so incredibly THICK?

Saturday, 28 August 2010


At this time of year, with fruit ripening on many a bush and hedgerow, in the hope that this won't be too much information for you, Oh Gentle Reader, we need to talk about guts.

It is a well-known fact that a change of location can affect one's internal plumbing to some extent. It could be a change of diet, different water or just pure stress, but something is playing havoc with the bits we can't see. Since we're having a 'shopping' theme for the time being, I feel I can't ignore this issue. After all, we all have guts, and if they're not functioning efficiently, it can be rather awkward. And therein lies a whole new marketing opportunity.

While executing my latest supermarket excursion, I stopped before a giant fridge full of products which boasted specific intention. Dinky bottles and tubs glinted at me from the shelves, each one promising to tend the gut, to enhance natural bacteria and restore a gastric balance. I could purchase some 'probiotic' culture which would not only support my natural defences, but ease digestive transit into the bargain. Marvellous, I thought, just what the doctor ordered, not that she had.

So I've launched a consumer test to see what might happen if I give the plumbing system a dash of 'friendly' bacteria. Hence several rooms of this house currently resemble a suite of laboratories, replete with wall-charts, spreadsheets, and other accoutrements, all in the spirit of acclimatization, you understand. The only trouble is, so far, my boffin-like dabbling is sadly failing to yield any conclusions.

The truth is, I don't think we in the West are terribly honest about guts. We all have them, after all, so why not bring them up in conversation more often? In some places, it is quite the thing to inquire about other people's shows you care. I'll never forget a complete stranger approaching me on a station platform, a blazing Asian sun belting down on us as we consumed some unrecognisable fast-food ...'may I just ask, Lady, what is your religion and is your stomach behaving itself?'....I've only ever been asked this kind of thing in hospital, so I was mildly surprised, but I thanked him for his concern, and we all launched into a lengthy, graphic and most pleasing conversation about the state of our digestive tracts while we waiting for the train.

I'm not yet 100% convinced that all these 'probiotic', fruity-creamy-things in wee bottles make me more 'balanced', (now that really would be a revolutionary product) but I'll give them a shot for a while, and at least they taste quite nice. In the meantime, while on my morning walk, I passed a raspberry.

Oh, ha-ha-dee-ha, very funny. Ok then, I WALKED passed a raspberry, and couldn't resist. It's the time of year here in Scotland, Norway and many other northern-type places, when we are surrounded by ripening fruit, festooning the hedgerows, woodlands and moors wherever the country walker might stroll. There is no 'choice' here....there is simply the sheer joy of coming across something delicious growing in the wild that is incredibly good for your heart, your brain and, I feel sure, your stomach. And it's see, there IS such a thing as a free lunch.

So I scoffed the raspberry, and then a few more for good measure. What could be more pleasurable than a wild berry?

Can't wait for the brambles.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010


Well, I'm confused. Just how many hours are there in a day? A mere 24. So how am I expected to get around the supermarket in that time? Food shopping in this country has become one of the most complicated, time-consuming, confusing occupations there is. There's just SO MUCH STUFF in those places, I can't see the wood for the trees. When did we start needing this level of choice?

It was all so much simpler in Norway. Once I had mastered enough of the lingo to know what I was actually buying, I became an expert, and very speedy, shopper. But it was a very different art with very different aims. All I had to do was feed the family in a satisfying, healthy and enjoyable manner, whereas over here I need to achieve new culinary heights while experiencing the cuisine of several different cultures and be politically correct at every's exhausting.

For example, in the first few weeks of living in Norway, there were several occasions when I arrived at the cash-point, my trolley BURSTING with a week's supply of food for a family, only to be met with a severe frown and a big 'Tut tut tut,' from the cashier. Clearly they were absolutely appalled that anyone could be so profligate, so greedy, so lacking in moral conscience, and so careless with their cash. Apparently the 'weekly shop' is a non-Norwegian concept, and I must say, once I realized I'd need to take out a bank loan to pay for it, I caught on pronto. that I have returned to the land of plenty, I am completely confused. Why is there so much stuff in our shops? How on earth is anyone meant to know what the heck to buy anyway? The choice is utterly bewildering and it's giving me a headache.

Take pasta sauce. People were starting to stare, but I toughed it out and stood in front of the Pasta Sauce Department in a local supermarket earlier today and counted no fewer than 92 different sorts of pasta sauce. What? Are we going completely mad? Seriously, 92. And that wasn't counting the differently-sized jars, that was just the different makes and flavours, with the added variation of organic, non-organic, free-range, reduced-fat, reduced-salt, reduced-something-else sauces. Nor was I counting the fresh ones in a fridge somewhere else in this Aladdin's Cave of Convenience. Supposing we had pasta in this household once a week, it would take almost two years to try each one, by which point several would have been discontinued while, no doubt, some cheffy-type-character invented several more...Battered Mung Bean with Roasted Neck-of-Pheasant, or Artichoke-Heart and Cab-Sauv-Seepage Sauce. I mean's bananas (eugh...perhaps that would be taking it too far).

Apart from the fact that I'm suffering from Analysis Paralysis while presented with all this choice, I'm also experiencing an uncomfortable dilemma. Choice is good, but too much choice is just confusing. I open the kitchen cupboard here to be greeted by a wall of celebrities, each promoting their own brand of fat-free-authentic-organic-happy-sauce by slapping their weel-kent chops all over the packaging. It's like turning on the telly in there. In Norway, our local shop had three pasta sauces, two red and one green. After testing these, which were fine, we ended up making our own, which was nicer, cheaper, more plentiful and uses up all those unappealing left-overs lurking in the back of the fridge without the offspring noticing. With one part of my brain, I congratulated myself on my good-husbandry, while with the other I was aching for a huge shelf-load of easy, convenient options. But what I really liked was the fact that we all had to be less picky, less precious, less spoilt. And we absolutely did not waste any food.

So now, I'm utterly delighted and deeply perplexed at the same time. Choice I like, and everything sounds so delicious on each label I keep breaking into spontaneous salivation as I meander through the aisles. I admire the enterprise stashed behind every new bottle, jar or packet, and where there is enterprise there are likely to be employed people helping to build our economy. So that is a comfort at any rate. But I also know that too much choice is not necessarily a good thing. Those who moniter society's mental state have expressed concern, sensing that too many options are making us indecisive, unable to cope effectively, and leading some people to depression as they strive to conform and keep up with the Jones.

Still. We have to eat. See you in several days time while I find some supper.

Monday, 23 August 2010


There's nothing quite like a Big Hairy Scotsman to keep us amused. A friend jetted in from the Continent, never having visited Scotland before. Without flinching, we wheeched her directly to some Highland Games, as though this was quite normal and we did this kind of thing every weekend. (Having said that, at this time of year, there are those that do exactly that every weekend.) There she was confronted by some splendid examples of the BHS, resplendent in the get-up required for the Heavy Events (throwing the hammer, putting the light stone, putting the heavy stone, and even the odd tossing of a caber).

While her petite stilettos puncturing the damp turf beneath, she nervously nibbled on a Haggis Buttie, clearly wondering if she'd landed in the set of about cliché...this was verging on the cruel.

'Aye,' remarked our neighbour in the crowd, glancing at our friend's Armani tailoring and subtly matching Hermes scarf, 'they're a fair bunch o' stoatin' loons. It's enough to put hairs on ony'one's chest just watching this kind of shenanigans.' A mild blush crept across her Mediterranean complexion, but her eyes were bright with intrigue as she observed the fine examples of manhood before us.

It was really all very reassuring. Truth is, while living in Norway, one forgets that anyone else is super-strong, super-fit, and capable of keeping themselves in trim. The Norwegians are so spectacularly into outdoor activity it's hard not to be struck by their insatiable desire to cycle up vertical slopes with rocks on their backs, or ski across an Arctic landscape for several weeks with just a few pieces of dried-out cod to keep them company. Reading about Scotland in the press, it is nothing but a barrage of information on how unfit we Scots are, how fat we are, how prone to disease and depression, how young we die. It's enough to make you top yourself. Apparently, we are becoming a nation of couch potatoes, and it's all going to cost us a fortune in the future.

There are times when a Scot abroad must wonder what on earth they are coming back home to...a nation of obese, drunken, drug-addicted smokers who have no concern for their health. The individual abroad must have faith that, while we know the figures and statistics are hair-raisingly bad, the majority of us still care about our health and do at least attempt to do something about it. Nobody could ever deny that these statistics are anything less than shocking, and we must concentrate on how to deal with our national eating, drinking and drug problems...evidently, whatever we have been doing up until now has not been working sufficiently, (although evidence shows that we are making little chinks of progress in some areas, so it's worth the effort).  But it's not every one of us.

So it was with some relief that I watched the Big Hairy Scotsmen as they went about their caber-tossing. Frankly, the whole spectacle could only be described as very impressive indeed, and proof that we are not the bunch of tossers the media would like to make out.

And of course, there is one particular BHS I must mention here as he's been in the news this week. I first came across him when I was 13, and haven't stopped laughing since. It is impossible to even look at the man without laughing, even when he hasn't uttered a syllable. He is of course, our beloved Billy Connolly, who has just been awarded the Freedom of the City by Glasgow. Which I'm sure will be a relief to him since he is now permitted to graze his cattle of Glasgow Green...phew, he was worrying about that.

Now for those of you reading this abroad who may not have come across Billy Connolly, all I can say is how on earth have you managed without him up to this point? He is the ultimate Big Hairy Scotsman who is automatically programmed to make us laugh, so much so I can't understand why he's not available on the National Health. Be prepared for a few sweary words, (you have been warned) and I hope you can manage his 'Glasgwegian Patter', but look him up some place and he'll make you fall off that couch and roll about on the floor in paroxysms of mirth. The perfect tonic.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


Standing about on some granite earlier, I was wondering just what kind of an effect a rock has on a person. I spent hours in Norway in the pursuit of that famous pastime, 'Norwegian-Rock-Based-Sea-Gazing' and the habit hasn't worn off yet. So I wondered, you know how some people look like their dogs? Well, maybe some people look and even feel like their rocks. Ah ha...a new game... spot a person's place of origin with the help of a geological map.

Take Aberdeen, otherwise known as the Granite City. If you happen to be born there, does it mean you are grey, or pink, very hard but likely to glitter in the sun? If you live on the slopes of Castle Hill in Edinburgh, perhaps you were once prone to volcanic explosion, but, having attended anger management classes, you've settled down now. If you were brought up in a Glaswegian sandstone tenement, do you have a softer side, and are your pores prone to weather-induced erosion? If you are from Tyndrum, might you have a heart of gold? With Skye often referred to as 'Dinosaur Island' due to the seven species of dinosaur that have been found there, do you feel like something out of 'Jurassic Park'? And what of all those people in the Outer Hebrides who live on top of the Lewisian Gneiss...we know they are all very, very nice indeed but do they feel like the oldest people in the world?

I know I'm starting to hallucinate, but there is a mind-bending side to geology that can take the imagination into the realms of lurid fantasy. Take those people who live in the Outer Hebrides like Lewis and Harris, North and South Uist etc. Their 'Lewisian Gneiss' is reckoned to be one of the oldest rocks on the planet, a shattering 2,800,000,000 years...that's almost 3 thousand million years'd need to be a Time Lord to comprehend what that means. But the truly splendid thing about Lewisian Gneiss is that they've got it in North America too. So, if you're in Stornoway and feel a sudden, haunting, telepathic connection with someone in North East Labrador, don't be surprised. You're just in tune with the planet.

We're talking 'plate movement'. Even now, the land on the Earth's surface is constantly on the move. Rocks speak you know, and what they say is that at one time, Canada, Greenland and Scotland were all part of the same geological plate...we were physically attached. We were also situated south of the Equator, so we were 'hot', which would account for all the desert sandstone that crops up around Scotland. However, even now we're on the move, shifting further and further away from the same speed as my toenails grow (fashionista that I am, I painted them as part of a scientific experiment ....any motion is disappointingly invisible to the human eye, but it is none-the-less interesting to observe that some parts of me are still growing, even if it is just in an outward direction).

The other equally startling (and some would say ironic) fact about plates is this...Scotland was completely separate from England. The two were divided by the Iapetus Ocean, with Scandinavia off to the side somewhere. About 400 million years ago, the Iapetus Ocean decided to close...just like that... so Scotland and England crashed together (creating some rather splendid mountains - The Southern Uplands - in the process) and we've been stuck with each other ever since.

Rocks just can't help but influence us simply because their structure dictates what happens on top of them. We might mine them, quarry, drill, grind, farm on them, sculpt and build with them or just use them for outdoor leisure and entertainment. We're lucky in Scotland in that we have a cracking selection of rocks from all the geological periods...excellent news for anoraks and other likeable nerds. So, whether you're standing on something Sedimentary (Jurassic, Permo-triassic, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician or Cambrian), Igneous (Intrusive or Volcanic) or Metamorphic (Dalradian or Lewisian), I hope it's showing you a good time.

Next time, no more rocks, promise...but for now, having gained permission from a well-connected acquaintance of mine to use the following lines, I leave you with the thoughts of poet Hugh MacDiarmid.

'We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realize that these stones are one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.
No visitor comes from the stars
But is the same as they are. '

Thursday, 19 August 2010


In considering this nation, it seems sensible to start with the stuff that formed the country in the first place. I'm not sure we give the rocks on which we stand the credit they really deserve. If they hadn't bothered to show up in the first place, none of us would be here at all, and then where would we be?

You might think it's a bit rich to claim Geology as an Unspeakably Scots Thing, and it is verging on cheek since, after all, rock forms the whole planet. If you slice through Earth like a peach, you would reach the inner core, then the outer core, the mantle and finally the crust. Unless you happen to be at sea, in the air or in space right now, you're on a teeny weeny bit of crust. If Mount Everest were on the aforementioned peach, it would be naught but a grain of sand. It is in our understanding of these matters that Scotland has played a respectable contribution, so indulge me here... particularly since the acknowledged 'Father of Modern Geology' was a Scot.

During the Enlightenment, (one of Scotland's Absolute Best Things...let's have another one), James Hutton was hanging out in Edinburgh with his mates, a spectacularly nerdy bunch of guys which included Joseph Black the chemist and Adam Smith, the economist and philosopher. Despite achieving a medical degree from Edinburgh University, James decided to farm, an occupation which sparked off his interest in rocks. Presumably because he and his pals didn't waste time watching Eastenders, they chilled out by just being very brainy. For James, rocks just could not have been more fascinating, and after a while he came up with his most famous book, 'Theory of the Earth'.

It's an ambitious title, and it changed people's thinking....considering all I can come up with of an evening is a shopping list for tomorrow's edibles, it does make me wonder what I've been doing all these years. I don't know what it is about nerdy swots, but I have a bit of thing about them....imagine being able to enhance our understanding of the universe just by staring at stuff...(mental note - must stand about staring vacantly into space more often). Hutton's theory was revolutionary in that he put forward the idea of a rock cycle, in which old rocks were destroyed by weathering and new ones were formed from their sediments.

This rock at Siccar Point near Dunbar, is a Mecca for geologists. Known as 'Hutton's Unconformity', he worked out that the junction between the vertical and horizontal rocks represented a gap in time of many millions of years. Up until now, Time had been limited to the biblical 4000-6000 or so years - 'Hutton's Unconformity' gave him the proof he needed that rocks were far older.

This was Big News, and an almighty shock to society too. But it was just the start of Scotland's contribution to geology. Five years after Hutton died in 1797, Hugh Miller was born in Cromarty on the Black Isle. His father had been lost at sea when Hugh was only five, so he was brought up in straightened circumstances with a minimal education. However, when he started work as a stonemason, he became obsessed by the fossils he found amongst the rocks. He looked at ammonites in the Eathie Burn and noticed that their shapes changed as they moved up the rock...Evolution. Time began to stretch from thousands of years to millions. For a deeply religious man whose beliefs were rigidly anchored to a creationist interpretation of events, this realization was nothing short of terrifying.

As his work took him to different areas of Scotland, Miller also became concerned with the social hardships he had witnessed, (especially the Clearances) and by 1829 his urge to write had taken over. He produced verse, and wrote articles on social and political matters, theology and Church politics. Soon his knack for communicating established him as an icon of Victorian Scotland.

However, despite his success Miller suffered a tragic end. Religion was vital to him, but he was never able to reconcile his scientific findings with his religious beliefs. Tortured by his own discoveries, he shot himself on Christmas Eve in 1856. His last work, 'The Testimony of the Rocks' was published posthumously in 1857 and it is clear that his ideas held considerable influence on Charles Darwin ('The Origin of Species' was published in 1859).

So, while standing on a bit of crust today, I was trying to add up just what these guys had achieved. I can't help thinking that if they were around nowadays, both of them might well be some kind of oil man.

Relish your crust.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


Hold onto your hats...we're here. Big Ed, my Unforgiving and Hideously Pedantic Editor, has been sitting on my shoulder like a nagging ghost, pestering me to get going, so, if you can stand it, let's carry on from where we left off.

How long does it take, once physically landed, to feel properly at home? Whatever the returnee anticipates is of little consequence, because sure as eggs is eggs, the road home is bound to be littered with unavoidable surprises, some pleasant, some less so, and some about as thrilling as finding mouse droppings in your ski boot. Oh, and place your bets on how long it will be until I feel 'normal' again. I didn't expect to experience 'Return Shock' but apparently it's a common syndrome. One slight flaw...nobody ever pretended I was 'normal' in the first place.

However, the time has come to end this wimp-ridden procrastination, to stop finding excuses like 'the equipment sucks/cable is fried/ desk is all shooglie/mad hair day/brain tired from providing hitherto unheard-of summer hols entertainment for the youths around me'. Enough. A few 'posts' are in order...maybe not every day, but often enough to offer You, Precious Reader, something to do other than twiddling your thumbs while waiting for the kettle to boil/bus to arrive/sun to come out/brambles to ripen/jam to set/fish to bite/dreamboat to appear. It's time to take note, to see how Scotland has been getting along without us, to see what has changed, what is better, or worse, what works, what stinks, how we are and how we are shaping up for the future. Nowhere is perfect, as I have already pointed out, but there are plenty of folk who still believe, despite endlessly depressing news stories, that we Scots have enough fuel left in our individual tanks to make a decent stab at things. It's not very fashionable, but I'd prefer to concentrate on the positive.

Upon arrival in this fair land, the initial impressions were startlingly vivid. Casting an eye down from the plane window, I realized it could take months for my vision to readjust to the non-norsk colours. The city of Aberdeen was doing that Grey Thing it does so expertly. Surrounded by a neat patchwork of green fields, the city itself was relentlessly grey...grey buildings, grey roads, grey water, with a grey sky overhead just to top it all off. This Grey Thing has a habit of hanging around rather more than some of us might wish. I recall a German friend who arrived to stay in Aberdeen and was astonished at this Grey Thing....'Vy, ven zee sky and sea are so grey vould anyvone ever zink of building an entire city of grey houses as vell...if zis is some kind of Scottish joke, it's not very vitty.'' I tried to explain about the granite, but she was having none of it. And I couldn't blame her. Until you have experienced an Aberdeen 'haar', you have no concept of what it means to miss the sun.

However, upon leaving the airport and quickly driving through summer fields, the Grey Thing turned green. Very, very green. A profusion of lush, verdant, abundant vegetation burst from the hedgerows onto the roads, swathes of foliage cast gargantuan shadows across the tarmac. (That would be grey tarmac.) Everything looked wild, overgrown, in need of a bit of a trim.

And that has been the main theme so far....coping with the greenery. I find myself living in a non-tropical jungle where all manner of wildlife and vegetation, both desired and unwanted, has been having a field day. So the return home has been fraught with 'where are the clippers, the extending loppers, the trimmer, the strimmer, the chain-saw, the mower, the tractor, the petrol, the axle grease, the boiler-suit, the ear-defenders and the hardhat? Oh, and where is the handy-man to help me with all this?'

Ah, there's the rub. The TA (Technical Assistant, you will remember) is still sunning himself in Norway for now, his guilt at not being here eased by a temporary return to the pleasures of bachelordom. But that's the Oil Industry for parted and apart for weeks and months at a time. However, despite the technical setback, from now on, I'll show up here - if you will. In between perfecting my edgings and neatening off the topiary, I'll be reflecting upon what it is to return to the land of one's birth....I'd be delighted if you check in from time to time.