Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neil Munro's

Neil Munro's, originally uploaded by ccgd.

A window sill in our house, with my collection of early and first editions of Neil Munro's books.


Neil Munro is/was Hugh Foulis - the author of Para Handy. Not a bad place to start, for gentle west coast humour.

But Munro himself thought that his Foulis persona was for lightweight newspaper stuff, and reserved his serious writing about the Highlands for his own name. My own favs are John Splendid (or the Little wars of Lorne) about Montrose's Highland Campaigns of the 1640's, or the Daft Days, about small town life in the west Highlands at the turn of the last century.

For an Invernessians introduction to Neil Munro (and he was an Argyll man remember) try "The New Road" - a 1750's thriller/whodunit where the main action takes place around Inverness and Beauly..........

And as someone who spent his student years at the Art School in Glasgow I return again and to his book (or collection of newspaper articles) "The Brave Days", a book about the Dear Green Place back in the 1880's and 1890's.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Drumochter, originally uploaded by ccgd.

December 2006 - A' Mharconaich and Geal Charn, from an A9 layby. Freezing windscreens meant frequent stops to clear the frost and crud....

Which strangely enough leads me on to part three of my ambulance saga.

"Twenty five years forward or back – you choose.

I was in an Ambulance that one other time. It was shite.

I hated it, and I was miserable. No fun whatsoever, just survival, just getting through the next few minutes, and the next few, and the few after that until I hoped that a hospital bed, some powerful drugs and a surgeons needle would go some small way to sorting my immediate problems.

And the promise of the company of Ruth, back in Inverness, that’s what kept me going.

I wasn’t looking any further than that. I didn’t think I was going to die, but I wasn’t looking forward to the X Rays.

Blood, pain, ripped flesh, some very worrying vision problems. Chest pain and head pain – lots of head pain. This was way worse than any hangover. Different league to anything I’d ever had before, and I was a long way from anywhere.

The story?

Well - the A9 in December, the major trunk road that links the Highlands with the Central belt. The middle of nowhere, the highest point of any A road in the UK.

Bad bad weather, an RTA, and me.

Or to put it another way, the Drumochter pass, snow, ice, serious sub zero temperatures, glowering mountains, a wrecked car.

A story familiar to regular travellers, and listeners to Radio Scotland’s travel bulletins in winter. Me – with what turned out to be fairly serious head injuries. (I was actually reported as dead on a Glasgow Radio station, causing a few friends what they said was a difficult 24 hours before they found out that reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated).

So a long ambulance ride back to Inverness, and the previously mentioned Raigmore Hospital. This was just before Choppers were introduced exactly for just this kind of event, and of course I’d managed to get injured in about as remote a spot as possible on a Major road in the UK. It took the ambulance at least an hour to get there, from a local depot, as I sat miserable and suffering in the back of a Police Car. Even the Bobbies took thirty mins to get there from the nearest town after answering the 999.

I remember the event clearly, the crash, the aftermath, the policemen, but not the physical details of the ambulance man. I do remember his kindly manner, (I’m pretty sure he was alone – a common practice in the Highlands in the Mid 80’s), his professional checking of my physical self, and a quick confident confab with the Bobbies just before we set of back North.

I’ve no idea what his van looked like, or whether he was milkman or a star wars pilot. Or even a melange of the two.

Head injuries do that to you, you know. (Yes I know you know, but you know what I mean……….)

It was an hour and half back to Inverness. An hour and a half of broken blood vessels bleeding into my sinuses, nostrils blocked with crusted blood, just endless bleeding throughout my whole nose and throat system. The kind of bleeding that pours down the back of your throat no matter how you sit or lie. Misery, head injuries, shock, lots of pain, nausea, you get the picture.

But I was young, and trying very hard to be brave, and when the gauze I had been given to stanche the blood flow quickly gave up the very soggy ghost, I just sniffed and swallowed.

Blood. Lots of it.

I was far too polite to ask for a new hanky, and far too polite to spit blood on the floor of the nice man’s ambulance. So the inevitable happened, just as we pulled of the main A9, on the last half mile to the A&E doors.

A serious Technicolor yawn. Explosive vomiting. I brought up what seemed to the contents of a butcher shop’s worth of German blood sausages. I comprehensively proved the point that a little blood goes a long way. Or in my case a lot of blood, goes a long long way.

After a horrified glance over his shoulder my man drove the last 500 yards at a speed that even I thought was a little bit excessive, (and remember that one thing in the world I wanted was to get out of this rolling, smelly, uncomfortable ambulance and into a nice cool hospital bed, hopefully with some seriously good painkillers, where I could sleep all this pain and trauma away, and wake up and it all have never happened.)

So we pulled up at the A&E, and he ran back to open the doors. He picked me up, ( I was at the hopeless, drooling, blood covered stage, almost past it) checked me out, as the nurses and doctors came out with the trolley, and I saw three quite different emotions cross his eyes in quick succession.


“Shit, he’s vomiting blood, mmmmm not serious though - I think “

And then,

“I’m glad we are at A&E now, if there is a problem, he’s their problem.”

And to his eternal credit, this was third and last thing that I saw in his eyes.

“Oh and F**k – he’s just puked blood all over my ambulance.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pete and his Chopper

Pete and his Chopper, originally uploaded by ccgd.

Two score and five years on.

The last time I was in an Ambulance?

Fun? You bet!
Probably the second most exiting thing I’ve ever done with my clothes on.

You see I’d blagged a shot in the Air Ambulance, and I got to ride with my pal Pete the Pilot, (as he is known in the small Highland town where we both live. Highland folk do “literal” in a big way). He needed to do some training type things, and asked if I would like a little trip.

Is the pontiff of the catholic persuasion?

Pete’s a neighbour and a pal, and the victim to whom K helped sing Happy Birthday at his recent 50th Birthday bash. He also knows that I like to fly (I fly a lot in my day job, but the smaller the aircraft the better, IMHO).

So I said yes.

And we buzzed around the Black Isle, I snapped photos of our house, my wife’s school, oil rigs, old forts just above our town, and then Pete did a blind instrument approach to Inverness Airport .
When I say blind I mean blind – he put on special glasses that only allowed him to see the instruments. Now I’ve drunk and partied with Pete for years – he is a seriously fun guy much given to practical jokes - so when he asked me to scan the skies for aircraft on a collision course with us, I though he was taking the piss. It very quickly became clear that he was quite serious, and I never knew that my neck was so supple as I scanned the skies franticly mentally rehearsing “Bandits 12 O Clock High”.

Luckily it was all clear, and I relaxed until he then cut the engine at 4,000 feet for a practise “autorotation”, ie an emergency landing where you have no engine.

Think sycamore seed falling from a tree.

Just a lot lot quicker.

My stomach hit my heart so fast………

I think he enjoyed that bit.

Now the Scottish Ambulance services fleet of air ambulances are as far away from family holiday vehicles as you are likely to get. Bright Yellow, fast, fully equipped for their job, and able to get anywhere in the Highlands in ninety mins or so. So a sick baby in Thurso these days is straight on the nearest chopper, and is down in Inverness in 30 mins max – including take off and landing.

I see them all from my office window, as it sit’s under the flight path for Raigmore Hospital. The Yellow Air Ambulance Squirrels, the RAF Sea Kings, the white Coast Guard mega choppers from Stornoway and Sumburgh, and the very occasional Navy Aircraft from the far South West of Scotland. All flying sick and injured people to the very best medical attention that a pretty good Hospital such as Raigmore can provide.

And when it can’t?

Well they just stick them back in the Chopper – or a fast fixed wing - and fly them to a big big city, with specialist wards. Head Trauma, chest injury, sick kids, you name it, Scotland’s got it. And the great thing is most people get better, and then go home. And that’s what is supposed to happen. Progress is a great thing.

And my pal Pete, and his crew, looking like a Star wars V wing pilot in his flight suit and helmet, oozing professionalism and cool, even though I know all about his weakness for wearing tights and tutu skirts at Cromarty’s fancy dress ceildh’s, sorts it for sick and hurt people.

At face value a long way from a Milkman driving a camper van.
Nahhh – it’s still all about trust. And I trust Pete – at least when he’s flying the chopper. But as Pete stresses he’s only the driver - the real folk, the important folk, the paramedics – they sit quietly in the back, listening to the pilots banter. At least until their skills are needed. Then the roles are reversed. A bad RTA, a lost climber with exposure, sick babies, heart attacks, strokes….

They save lives. Pete just gets them to Hospital just as quickly as he can.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Split screen - a hardcore VW

Split screen - a hardcore VW, originally uploaded by ccgd.

A couple of months ago I was to be a guest blogger – for a pal who was about to disappear overseas for a few weeks.

I was of course delighted and honoured, as the pal was K – an old friend, and erstwhile babysitter to our boys over the years. K is now a Paramedic in Embra, and much more importantly a brilliant blogger and not bad photographer.

Trust me – his writing is brilliant, if you want to know what being a paramedic in busy city is all about check out what he thinks is his best here.

So you will see why I was delighted to blog on his chosen subject – My first time in an ambulance – copy below………………

(read on and you will see why I've illustrated this prose with a photo of a VW Camper on Cromarty links - honest!)

“My first time in an ambulance?

No memory of the event all. I’ve been told that I was there physically, by totally reliable witnesses, but I’ve a very good reason for a total lack of recollection.


I was very young at the time, very young indeed.

Just 48 Hours old.

You see I was born just a fortnight short of fifty years ago in the back bedroom of a wonderful three hundred year old house high above the beach in the Highland town of Thurso. A house with a dramatic view across the surf of the beach, to the Atlantic Ocean and the southern isles of Orkney.

A surfer’s paradise these days, if you have a full body wetsuit.

Obviously I was a wee bit young to enjoy the view, or indeed surf, as I was a very sick little baby boy. Bright yellow – newborn Jaundice, apparently a severe case – showing no signs of getting better, and we were a long way from a hospital that could give me a blood transfusion. A hundred miles to be exact.

A hundred miles to Inverness, and in 1959 a hundred miles was a long long way on single track roads. Through mountains, along the shores of sea lochs, past cliffs, along the main streets of small Highland towns, over bridges. A long way. (for non Highland readers a single track road is exactly that – one carriage way that is shared by all traffic, with passing places to let opposing cars and lorries pass. You’d be staggered how many roads in the Highlands are still single track in 2009).

So on day three of my life an ambulance was summonsed to our house in Durness Street, for a very yellow little baby with a liver that refused to work as intended, and my poor Mum and I were taken on the five hour trip to Inverness, and deposited in Raigmore - the Highlands main hospital then and now.

Where of course my liver kicked in, I immediately became better, so then the whole journey had to be reversed.

In writing this I was curious about two things, firstly to see what an ambulance in 1959 looked like, so on googling I was delighted to discover that 50’s Scottish ambulances were simply Bedford Camper Vans without the fancy roof. The concept of an ambulance as a very slightly modified version of a family holiday vehicle is one that I think has fallen out of favour in the half century of my life (with good reason, I suspect).

For most non UK readers, and anyone under forty, a Bedford Camper Van is the seriously sad cousin of the VW Camper van. You know the camper van that always got picked last at Camper Van sports days? That was the Bedford.

It was the clumsy, chubby, awkward Camper Van of the 50’s and 60’s. All the cool kids were split windscreen VW’s.

Secondly what did an ambulance man in 1959 wear? Google again, and unfortunately he would have looked like a Milkman. A British Milkman. Peaked cap, serge trousers and brown jacket, minus the milk bottles.

So - would you trust your wife and very ill new born son to a Milkman driving a seriously un-cool Camper Van? Well my Dad did, standing at the door of our house, holding the hands of my two older sisters, waving us off. Of course he did. He just knew that he’d put two very precious family members in the hands of people he could trust.

An ambulance crew.

Now that’s something that’s not changed in 50 years.”

Saturday, June 20, 2009

1/4000 of a second

1/4000 of a second, originally uploaded by ccgd.

Flying Inverness Stornoway a few months ago, trying out the fastest shutter speed on the camera.......

Nice calm flight, unlike a February morning about 10 years ago when O was on a very windy flight to Stornoway.

When I say windy I mean windy - we were all over the place.

On landing, a gust caught a wingtip, and in a few seconds we veered of the runway and ended nose down in the grass (I distinctly heard the pilot say "Bugger" as we came to a very sudden stop).

There was a very strange quiet on the plane, and then I glanced out the window to see fire trucks screaming down the runway towards us, blue lights flashing. All sorts of things run through your mind - do I sit and wait, do I make a dash for the exits - when the Stewardess picked up the mike and said - her voice dripping with irony...

"Welcome to Stornoway Airport"

The whole plane just cracked up.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Sons and girlfriends, originally uploaded by ccgd.

Home – what is home, and what does home mean to you?

An interesting and intriguing question, posed by those good folk at the Scottish Refugee council who asked me to blog about Home, as part of the run up to Refugee Week Scotland Scottish Refugee week, which starts tomorrow – the 15th.

So what is home. Physical? Virtual? (I’ve just put down a Wiliam Gibson novel where the heroine notes that “the on-line forum is a way, now, of being at home …… one of the most consistent places in her life……”)

Societal? All and none I guess, but that does not answer the question. Home is personal, home is about you, and who you are, and who you want to be.

Or what you want, or need to be.

Lets explore that a little bit more. For example I’m not a home just now. I’m in Glasgow, on a Sunday night, in a hotel, when all I want to be is at home.

But Ministerial meetings at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday mean I have to away from home – grudgingly, and those of you who read my blog know that Monday morning meetings in Glasgow are a pet hate.


I’m away from home a lot, so I’m typing this from the 18th floor of the Hilton Hotel in Glasgow. As I said I’m away a lot, so the Hilton has become, in a small sense, a home from home (and before you get all grumpy about expenses and extravagance, my company gets such a great B&B corporate rate from the Hilton it would be wasting money to stay anywhere else). Corporate hotels are good at that – they remember you (especially if you sign up to their membership programmes) – they flatter you, they do their dammnest to make you feel at home, so you’ll come back.

And that works – at least for me. Conversely B&B’s and guest houses do not work for me. Now this is just not snobbery, as I’ve stayed in many fine, comfortable, homely and welcoming establishments throughout the Highlands and Islands over the years.
But a B&B may be homely, but its not my home, its someone else’s home. I’m intruding, I’m there on sufferance, I’m not comfortable.

Now that’s not a universal view, far from it. I know many people, friends, family and colleagues, who love B&B’s (they make you feel so at home) hate Hotels (they are so bland and anonymous). But the question on what does home mean is about me, not them.

So lets try and answer it.

Home is ancestral, I was born in Thurso, family is from Caithness and Sutherland, so I’ll always be from the North Coast – even though I’ve never lived there since I was three. (but we have always had a wee croft house in Sutherland – a home from home, and interestingly where I’ve always felt very much at home)

But more importantly home is physical – its Albion House, Cromarty, where I’ve lived for the past 25 years and never intend to leave. Its only the second house that Ruth and I have ever owned, and one rented flat before that.

But even more importantly home is a people, is quite simply my Family, Ruth and the boys. That’s why the picture I’ve chosen to represent home is us, Ruth, sons and girlfriends, home in front of the stove, at New Year - home and hearth.

Home and hearth - a sentiment as old as the hills, and one that needs no repeating, because it means all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but what it what it means to me is comfort, and happiness, and pleasure in being where you are, and the people whose company you are in.

And for Scottish Refugee week, and for those good folk at the Scottish Refugee council, if it means that one – just one – poor soul finds some comfort, some happiness, some pleasure in calling somewhere in Scotland home, and finding some company in people, despite being far far away in a physical, political or a temporal sense from their ancestral home, its been a good week.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Schools out - for ever

Schools out - for ever, originally uploaded by ccgd.

Wednesday night was Fortrose Academies Awards Ceremony, and our Magnus received a special sporting award for his success with the Scottish Cycling National Squad.

Fortrose Academy are great for that sort of thing, for recognising effort and achievement in all areas of school and life, music, sports, competitions, business, enterprise - you name it - they will recognise it.

Over the years we have been back and fore to the June awards ceremonies - Charlie and Hamish were pretty good at School Business competitions, and Mags with his cycling, but just as we drove after this one it struck me that this was the last. Magnus goes to Uni in the autumn, so our connections to Cromarty and Fortrose schools, indeed the Scottish Education system is now at an end.

After 18 years.

That’s a wee bit spooky.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A certain absence of stock

A certain absence of stock, originally uploaded by ccgd.

An empty sheep pen at Coldbackie, reflecting how the Highlands are rapidly becoming a stock free area.

Sheep numbers (and Cattle) are in steep decline. Its very noticeable in North Sutherland, and has been over the past few years. Walking over the common grazing and expecting a lawn like swath of close cropped grass is a fools errant. It's long rough grass, bracken and - quite unexpectedly - baby alders and rowan trees almost everywhere.

Now this is of course what I suspect a more balanced ecosystem would look like. The transition is a bit rough though, and one does wonder what future Crofting holds without stock.

Monday, June 01, 2009

An Orange Kyle

An Orange Kyle, originally uploaded by ccgd.

"So have you stood out on Coldbackie
At the time the sun goes down
Or up on the king of campsites
In the hills about Brae Tongue
That's when music filled your evenings
It's all so different now, this world
For you were the summer walkers
And the fishers of the pearl."

Runrig - The Summer Walkers