(The photograph, courtesy of John, shows Alexandra in Switzerland at the wedding of Rory and Sarah, 2011.)

My grand-daughter, Alexandra, is 17 years old today. I don’t quite know how she managed to sneak past me to this mature age for it seems just like yesterday that she was born.

I would not really regard myself as a strongly maternal woman, and because grandchildren came to me early in life, I did not have to yearn for them but was thrust unready into the role. I now have seven grandchildren, four girls and three boys; but there is no doubt you have a special relationship with your first grandchild.

Alexandra being the first born occupies the same position in the family hierarchy that I did.

She referred to John and me as ‘the Grandmas’ and to herself and her two younger siblings as ‘me and the sisters’. (Her English is better now of course.)

Alexandra is tall and slim, beautiful after the Irish fashion with dark hair and eyes the colour of the Atlantic. She has a natural edgy stylishness. She has many talents. She can draw very well. She has a good voice and it was a pleasure to listen to Carolyn Hulatt give her an impromptu lesson on singing during the rehearsal for Elisabeth’s wedding. She is musical and plays the French horn for one of the Glasgow orchestras and also the double bass. She is clever.

Alexandra is insightful and shrewd. She has word skill and can be wounding: she generally knows where the weaknesses lie. But she is not wantonly cruel and can be very kind.

She spent a lot of time with us in her childhood. The first time she went abroad she stayed at the Antwerp Hilton and was sensible enough even as a toddler to befriend the doorman and came and went with great self possession. She and Joanna came to Northern France with us and to Portugal. She came away with us in our caravan in the UK on numerous occasions. Once when she was staying with us we had a flood, and we escaped with Anne Hall to the welcoming hospitality of the house of Barbara, Anne’s mother in Somerset. We had a lovely visit, but the pressure of being the only child clearly got to Alexandra for she complained to me, “There’s too many grandmas and not enough children.”

I don’t keep in touch with my grandchildren weekly (though they’re welcome to talk to me whenever they like) but when we are together I look forward to Alexandra coming to see me when we fall easily into conversation as though we had left off the previous day. What she has to say is always thought provoking and interesting. I like talking to her.

Walk in the light, Alexandra, and may your birthdays be joyful and many.




I’ve noticed an increase in the number of persons prefacing an answer to a question with the word, ‘So’. It seems to me to be entirely superfluous. I wondered if it is used to give a few more seconds to put together a reply. Yet people were using it who were not under any pressure to make a response.

I find you can frequently use a word quite easily and happily, yet when challenged as to its exact meaning you are stumped. So it is with ‘so’. Applying to the dictionary just confuses matters rather than clarifying them.

So what? So we start many of our sentences with So. Does this change the meaning so much​? Maybe our blogger is just a nit-picky so-and-so. If people feel the need to employ So constantly, so be it.

So I’ll leave you now. So nice, talking with you. So long.

The Arrival of James Kenneth Sullivan

I am delighted to announce the arrival of our 7th grandchild, James Kenneth Sullivan, second son of Elisabeth and Robert about 7pm on 3 December 2017. He weighed 10 lb l0 oz. Our daughter managed to deliver the baby herself, but required some assistance via forceps and James’ face was marked a little, but this is rapidly fading.

I was considering how, despite the vast improvement in pre-natal care and good advice for the parents, and however favourable the odds, every pregnant woman knows that as she waits on the final approach to the birth, she stands in danger of death.

I also realise that every woman’s experience of childbirth is quite different, not only do her own births turn out to be completely different from each other, but her experiences are not the same as anyone else’s. I resented people describing my births as ‘easy’. There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ birth, but I now realise that at 8 hours. 4 hours and 2 hours respectively, I was certainly fortunate. In fact the 2 hour birth was the most difficult because everything happens too quickly and you do not have time to catch your breath and prepare yourself mentally for the next stage. I therefore was secretly rather dismissive of people who required medical intervention or pain relief – though of course I never said so. One of my babies weighed 9 lbs 12 oz and I am not a big woman.

Yet in the case of my daughter, her first child weighed 9 lbs plus and took 20 hours to be delivered and at the end of it she looked so awful that I was shocked and alarmed. Mother and baby recovered though, so all was well.

This time she agreed to be induced when a week overdue, and also had an epidural. She was in labour for 48 hours, the first half of which was not painful or uncomfortable. For the second day she had an epidural and found the experience to be much less stressful. For this second tme she was able to endure the 48 hours and participate fully in the birth process, and mother and baby were able to return home the next day, both doing very well.

I should perhaps point out that I was not denied pain relief. I was offered epidurals but declined; I was hooked up to gas and air but it made me feel drunk, so I stopped breathing it in. In each birth there came a point where, having ‘ridden out’ the contractions – visualising each one as a wave and rising as if on the water and waiting while it ebbed away – the pain was so intense I found myself thinking, ‘I can’t stand much more of this.’ Each time for the ‘three times’ this feeling heralded the end of the period of the contractions, and I passed smoothly on to the final pushing stage, which is exhausting but not intrinsically painful. Had I been facing a further 40 hours of labour at this point, I too would have called for an epidural, gas and air, whatever. I found the breathing which we’d practised so diligently at the weekly Classes for New Mothers to be completely useless.

There is no virtue whatsoever in suffering unnecessary pain. Besides, who is to judge what ochers are actually experiencing when in pain. You want to take as much painkiller as you need; and as little as you can manage with. You don’t want to be so exhausted and shattered that you can’t participate in and enjoy the first moments of caring for your baby.

Here’s to pain-reduced births and and healthy mothers and babies!

I look forward to getting to know James. William, his elder brother is a delightful child, and it was a pleasure to look after him while his parents were at the hospital. He went into ‘host’ mode and tried to look after us!

The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, are of the brothers Sullivan, and of James and his quilt!



We’ve been to Elisabeth’s. All her tests for blood sugar have been OK but one was not conclusive, so on this doubtful evidence her file recorded her as being diabetic, and someone rang up and harassed her at length about her diet; said she had to come in and have an emergency C section or at the very least be induced because in addition to having (they alleged) gestational diabetes, the due date was today (ie Saturday 19 November.) They insisted, it being a large baby, that her dates were a fortnight wrong. Also the baby was breech and they don’t seem to have the skill to organise breeches births. She was less combative than I would have been, though she got a bit upset and anxious. You’re always the best person to know the dates; her last baby was a large baby; his male relatives are all over 6 foot tall and she and his paternal grandmother are also 5’10”. (Everyone in this family is tall except for me!) Anyway, the baby turned round of his own accord; she doesn’t have diabetes; she’s not going to be induced or c sectioned unless there’s overpowering medical evidence why she should. I would guess the baby would be born within 7 – 10 days but not in the next day or two.

I remember [when I was expecting Rory] for the first time during the years when I was pregnant, they offered genetic counselling. Among the questions they asked was one on haemophilia which had been in our family (my mother’s people all married their cousins.) The doctor who discussed matters with me was one I had never seen before (of middle Eastern origin: basically of the-womens-they-know-nothing school.) Looking at his notes and not at me, he announced that they had been unable to determine whether or not I was a carrier, and they required samples of blood from all my relatives, and that they had decided that they would test for the sex of the baby and abort all male children as a precautionary measure. Fortunately my anger overcame any anxieties I might have had. Completely ignoring him, I said to the nurse that I would get dressed now and I would speak with her after that. I sailed past him as though he were a piece of furniture. As I was dressing I could hear her getting on to him about his terrible bedside manner. When I came out he began a somewhat grudging apology which I completely ignored. I spoke pleasantly to the nurse and thanked her for the advice they had given me; I said that I did not wish to pursue genetic counselling any further; I would not be supplying the blood of my relatives; I would not have a test for the sex of my baby, nor would I be having any abortion. Hopefully I would see her next week. She agreed to all of this and I swept out like a grand duchess. My male child was perfectly alright. I never saw that doctor again – I hope they sacked him.

It’s a difficult balancing act in relation to the hospital. You do need their assistance (and in every case once we got to the birthing point, the nurses and entire team were superb. ) Joanna’s team were from Oregon and knew their stuff; Elisabeth’s team were from Ireland and coped well; but the team for Rory were local girls. John said to them, Do you think you can deliver a son, and a Scot​​; is that possible? Everything is possible said the midwife but we can only help out what has been put there already. But all went well. I held the baby in my arms and knew as I looked into his eyes, dark and filmy as a kitten’s that he would be absolutely fine. John took him and said to him ‘Welcome to the world, son.’

Then, I rose with John’s help and disappeared into the bathroom; washed; brushed my hair and my teeth and was just settling down with my son in my arms when the nursing staff came rushing back, terribly anxious because they had abandoned us on our own and not been there had anything happened. Since they were dealing with a lady whose reactions to her various experiences were punctuated by screams and curses of a horrible variety (she clearly was not the middle class lady she posed as) we felt they were quite justified and had enjoyed the half hour to ourselves. They made us tea and toast which tasted to us like nectar and ambrosia.

On that day when my final child was born, I went back to the ward with my lovely baby upon my knee, covered I felt, both of us, in mystery, glory and triumph. I knew that I would not walk this path again. The baby had only opened his eyes once and had taken a long and careful look at me. He did not know that if I had been a meek and obedient to authority kind of woman, he would not be making his way back to the ward and from there home as rapidly as I could arrange it.

But every birth is a triumph in its own right and a miracle too.

Angels and ministers of state attend Elisabeth!


We’ve been in Kent for the past week in our caravan at Hythe. We enjoyed it although the weather was mixed – but as ever, on the bad days we weren’t having picnics so it was all fun. For Autumn, it was quite mild.

The site was very busy, but there was plenty of space allocated to each ’emplacement’, so you did not get irritated by your neighbour’s preoccupation with celebrities, or the fact that her husband spoke to the dog more than he did to her. (Given the drivel she would spout, the dog probably made more sense.)

We went in to Hythe, which was fascinating in that it was so old fashioned. It had draper’s shops with stuff in drawers served to you by women dressed entirely in black, and your purchases wrapped up in parcels tied with string.

While Kent was not unfriendly, I think it would be fair to say that it is reserved in the case of strangers and one can understand why. It is very flat (though it has some low hills) and perhaps because of that, the sea is not often a dominant presence, even though it surrounds the county on 3 sides. It has fertile soil, lighter than the heavy clay of Sussex, and is well wooded, and has many orchards; also there are fields of cabbages, potatoes, maize, and hops. The houses were mostly of brick; some were very old.

There appeared to be two main bodies of native peoples. There are some, descended one supposes from the Viking Normans, where the men are very tall, with thin faces, and fairish hair and while not perhaps handsome, are personable; and the woman of that type is beautiful. We had lunch in a small inn we chanced upon at St Mary’s in the Marsh, where we visited the local church which was surprisingly large for such a small village. In the church the vicar was attempting to reassure a young woman that the flower arrangements for her wedding that weekend would be fine. The bride, even in her jeans, was lovely, long blonde haired, very pale skinned, with an unblemished oval face, fine arching eyebrows, a long nose, blue eyes and a mouth that could have been painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I wondered if Joan, the fair maid of Kent, had looked like this. In the pub a local family of several generations was celebrating someone’s birthday, and the young women, while not as beautiful as the bride, were after the same fashion. Another type of face, seen mostly in men, was square and flat and dark.

Not by any stretch of the imagination could you describe Dover as an attractive town; but it is interesting. You become aware as you look at it that invaders have marched through it many times. There is a lovely bronze age boat in a museum which is well worth a visit. It is a large vessel – about the size of a Maori war canoe, made of oak, using the entire length of a trunk, split and tied together with yew withies. The joints of these were packed with moss and beeswax. There was no evidence of sails – no cavity to lodge the end of the mast in – and the part where the rudder had been (if there was one) was missing. But I thought it was moving, seeing how man has been resourceful and ingenious using what items were available to him throughout history. It was thought the boat had been used for trading with Europe, because of its size.

We also saw the remains of a Roman fort at Richborough, which was huge, and we supposed had been used as an administrative and store centre at the entry point of Britain.

Folkstone was not an attractive town but it had a grand hotel, lovely promenade on the upper levels of the cliff with beautiful gardens and views out to sea. The other areas of the town were rather shabby and there was no evidence of any ferries being active. Broadstairs was also an upmarket coastal town. We visited Tenterden, whch has nice buildings and shops.

We revisited Margate and Ramsgate. These towns which are very run down have beautiful Georgian architecture, and will be lovely after a period of gentrification which is already beginning to take shape. In Margate we went to the Turner, which is an attractive modern building – nice cafe and museum shop. But what a shame about the art (exhibition). Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there were paintings of African atrocities which could have been executed in blood. I hurried past. There were ‘sculptures’ where I thought the artist – one Phyllida Barlow – was mocking us. One of her works for example was a large heap of broken pallets heaped on the and floor under a rusty length of pipe dangling overhead. It was untitled. We could have proposed a title: Useless junk sneers at our gullibility. This exhibition is described as ‘Bringing togther works by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, and J M W Turner. There were two representations by Turner, both the size of a postcard, and they looked to me to be the piece of paper on which one blots one’s brush. One felt they were rather taking liberties with the great man’s name.) Then on to Ramsgate (the Sands Hotel where we had a delicious lunch on a terrace looking out to sea. ) John had biscuits and cheese at the end of the meal. When we rose to go, a seagull who had been standing motionless on a lamppost for most of our meal, suddenly dive-bombed our table and made off with some cheese biscuits. I could feel the feathers of his wings against my hair.

We made an unsuccessful attempt on Canterbury (which we have visited before). We turned in to the old city where Disabled parking was promised but found it completely chaotic within, so crowded with pedestrians that we had difficulty proceeding through the streets. We decided to give Canterbury a miss (if only we could escape it! ) I have sometimes wondered why Canterbury is the first diocese of the Church of England, but being in Kent I realised it was because it was the nearest to Rome.

We visited Dover Castle (built by Henry II) which is very large and was used in various wars including of course the second World War. In Kent there are also several castles built in the time of Henry VIII who fortunately of course had plenty of money from plundering the wealth of the church. We visited Deal, and Walmer. They were a kind of rose shape and their guns could cover 360 degrees. Walmer was furnished, quite skilfully for the rounded ‘petals’ of the building were not standard in size, and the garden was lovely; full of roses, dahlias, and fruit and berry trees. The Queen Mother had been Warden of the Cinque ports and she had stayed here, but the principle Warden (and who died here) had been the Duke of Wellington.

Well, there’s an account of our Autumn holiday in the caravan in East Kent. The weather was mixed but we still enjoyed it. The food on the holiday was uniformly good. The houses were not particularly beautiful. I was not greatly impressed with the shopping although we ‘looked at’ one or two. But it has gentle village architecture…. lovely old farmhouses that look as though the farmer in residence could trace his ancestry back to the stone age, gardens, interesting and lovely houses, harbours ranging from the ‘smart’ to one where locals sat on the seawall, pint of (locally brewed and quite delicious our visitor got hopelessly lost and was as panic stricken as the boy being asked to skipper the bronze age boat across the Channel.

I almost forgot. Rory and Sarah and their children came down to Kent on our penultimate day and we went together on the little train to Dungeness. The train trundles along the bottom of people’s gardens; the countryside is whisking your face. Some gardens are delightfully planned and present  an elegant orderliness; others are just mess and disorder. You see into the charming domesticity of English villages. All in all, for a peaceful restful holiday, pleasant local villages, nice meals, it was all quite charming.


While peace lasts, Kent is a good place to visit.


I have written about the flora and fauna of our recent holiday. Let me now turn to the people – do they come under ‘fauna’, I wonder?

We were travelling with Joanna, Lawrence and our grandchildren, and therefore we were obliged to go within the school holidays. It was a great pleasure being there with them. Lawrence and John golfed; Joanna and I chatted, had coffee, shared cooking; Alexandra read, undisturbed; and the younger girls ate their meals with us and then cleared off the entire day to play with a gang of other children on the beach. I had gone with English and craft projects for the girls; John had planned waterborne activities. None of this was required: they had far more exciting companions than elderly grandparents! So it was definitely well worth the price we paid which was that we were away during the ‘Glasgow Fair’ – traditionally a time when the great industrial companies had their annual holidays, and which still seems to be when Glaswegians take their holidays although those industries are no longer present. My idea of a busy site is that I can see, about 12 stations away, another family in both directions so you will appreciate that to have the site absolutely full, with people being turned away and the resultant press of people at the local sights or sports points is not my ideal situation.

I should make haste to point out that the collective crowd did not produce the type of person who was ahead of us in the queue for a boat on the Norfolk Broads on the latter part of our holiday on our way home. This lady, who sounded as if she came from some part of the Midlands was a kindly soul, a nice person I’m sure; she fell into conversation with a little boy beside her and his mother. She had a grating accent and no volume control. She noticed that the boy was blonde haired but brown eyed; his mother remarked that his father was dark haired, and this brought forth a torrent of conversation about the likelihood of having brown eyes and blonde hair, and whether the blonde hair would survive into adulthood. The lady considered the fairness or otherwise of herself and her brother; her four children; her ten grandchildren; her brother’s children. She could (and did) detail the exact colour of each person’s eyes and hair, (Now Robin has blue eyes, but paler than Tracy’s…) at what age the blondeness had ceased; what degree of darkness their hair now boasted. I was just coming to screaming point – who cared what colour any of their hair was? – when the boat fortunately began loading and she drifted out of earshot. I was reminded of an excruciating evening I had passed some years ago when a woman monopolised the conversation to tell each new arrival of a minor road accident which had happened to her grown up son, in which she began with what she had given him for breakfast, and traced his journey village by village to the actual incident, how long it had taken the police to arrive; no detail too small, while I reflected that this could easily have been summed up in ‘Bobby had a driving accident but he’s OK’.

Your Glaswegian is not garrulous like this.

Glasgow has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for drunken violence and it is certainly a city where you have to have your wits about you at certain times. As a theatre audience for example it has a fearsome reputation and takes no prisoners.

But on the other hand, if you pass muster with them and they accept you, there is no finer body of people. The men may have scars on their faces from fights they have fought in their youth, but they are gentlemen in the best sense of the word; and the women, though they can be fierce celtic viragos sometimes are also bighearted and generous.

So here we are on this site, full to the gunnels. Clearly they did accept us, for it was like belonging to a large family group. Arriving families would check in as it were with their neighbours, and exchange brief information about who they were, where they came from, how long they were staying, (no intrusive questions asked) and then go off about their own business. When it came to putting up awnings in the ever present wind, help would materialise as if by magic and set about the anchoring of the flapping sides unasked. Services we ourselves rendered to others included charging phones for people with tents and no electricity; the usual help with awnings; we lent our whirligig to a lady with too much washing, putting it up for her in their area; they returned it to our section and put it up; we saved our old 1pound coins and exchanged them with people who needed them to use washing machines; we kept an eye on other people’s children on the shore line as well as our own. When we left we had bought a new larger kettle, and we donated our old one to the communal kitchen so that people camping could have tea two at a time. We also donated our magazines and books. Everyone else was doing much the same.

It made you tolerant of the occasional late night party (nothing exceptional, just people drinking and laughing together) – it was still quite light at 11 pm and dawn was at 3 am!) and you felt protected and comfortable in this body of people.

I myself am not a daughter of the city of Glasgow and have never been mistaken for one. But I would regard it as an honour to be so counted.

As the verse says, Wha’s like us? (However, the answer is, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.)



Last week I wrote about the pleasure I had obtained from the birds on our holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; but I also enjoyed the wild flowers. Their profusion took me back to the flower filled meadows of my childhood which I had all but forgotten.

On the mainland of Scotland you do not get the yellow ‘machair’ of the Western Isles – a mass of flowers, predominantly yellow that covers the short grass, but there is still a wide variety. Right by the shore there were patches of bog cotton with its wispy white heads. There was plenty of clover – the shorter, fragrant white that makes good honey, and the taller vibrant red. Everything seemed to be out at once. There was that heady scented, creamy flower, Meadowsweet which makes a good country wine, and which we called Queen of the Meadow, as well as the taller patches of the pink Rosebay Willowherb, which we used to call Wildfire. There were the less noticeable Shepherd’s Purse which I have not seen for many years, and the brown headed flower we used to call Soldier’s sticks, and you could play a game with them where you knocked the head off the other person’s flower. There was the golden yellow tansy with its rich spicy smell and which when you squeezed the flower head gave a satisfying pop.

When we drove down the Ardnamurchan peninsula I spotted a ‘stand’ of the dainty harebell, the Scots ‘bluebell’, which is of a delicate but very intense blue; and there were pink foxgloves on a bank literally thousands strong, so much so that you doubted your own eyes. There was also blue speedwell, and I discovered a patch of wild violets growing in a ditch.   And there were the lovely white water lilies  on the still ponds.   As the song says,

Like the  white lily floating on the peat hag’s dark waters,                                                        Is the face of my Mairi, my Mairi, my beloved…

There were ‘forbidden’ flowers too – the statuesque Giant Hogsweed which tends to grow near streams, and standing about 6 feet tall with its huge flat white flower as big as a dinner plate, is a magnificent sight, but now tends to be obliterated when seen as it is poisonous (we called it, incorrectly, ‘hemlock’).

I thought of my childhood, where I observed all these things and took them quite for granted – thought everybody’s world was filled with wild flowers and birdsong, and how we assume these delights will last forever and be enjoyed by future generations: whereas this is by no means certain.

Let us stay where the wild things are.

Photographs are courtesy of John M Armstrong and were taken on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.