BUILDING IT YOURSELF

My brother and I sold our parents’ house recently.

This made me remember how my father, in his sixties, bought a plot of land in Huntly, Banffshire, and built a house on it. When I say ‘built a house’ I mean that exactly – he built it with his own hands, with a very little help from his son and his son-in-law. I believe he hired a plumber and an electrician. It was on this labour that the inheritance that we have received was based.

There was an old croft on the site – just a ‘bothy’ really – the kind of building that is made of stone and had originally held people on one side and cattle in another. It had a Victorian fire place but no roof, but my father repaired it and my parents lived in very basic accommodation there for several years. They acquired a caravan and slept in that. At first they had no electricity nor running water.

My father was a man who made life difficult for himself (and other people) but he had some fine qualities; one of which was that he was capable of tremendous endurance and another that he was extremely industrious. He was also surprisingly lucky, for it turned out that that not only did he have water on his land, he had the only water supply in the whole area which never failed, even in the driest summer. He could himself divine for water, though he hired a professional before he sunk the well; and he had a well dug nine rings deep which ‘temple of Neptune’ I used to visit ceremoniously every time I went there in a little procession through the long summer grasses; my father and me, the three children, and two cats.

My father would not have managed this gargantuan task without the support of my mother. She could make even the most unpromising space comfortable and she could cook and bake delicious food on the most primitive of cooking equipment. When her only cooking equipment was an open fire, my father used to drive to my house in the central belt, pick up equipment and supplies, and I would have baked fruit cakes and pies and things which my mother could not have managed and he would take these away with him.

Gradually they introduced services, so that eventually they had a very comfortable house with three bedrooms, bathroom, a farmhouse kitchen; the bothy became a barn and store, and they lived there for twenty ears. My children loved going there every summer; in my father’s fields they enjoyed a freedom and country life that they had little opportunity for else where.

The authorities were extremely helpful to my father. I think the magnitude of the task he was undertaking appealed to their sense of adventure. The buildings inspector called frequently and would advise how to go about things that would be required.

There were of course problems with neighbours. (My father invariably had problems with neighbours, who generally died or went bankrupt or at any event had to leave: I as a child used to feel a little sorry for the neighbours because they never realised until too late that what they were dealing was not what they had supposed.) When my parents applied for electricity, the obvious place was to put a telegraph pole on a corner of the neighbour’s land (well away from his house, where it did not spoil his view or cause any inconvenience.) The neighbour refused permission, and my parents were faced with an alternative which would have cost thousands more. An official came out from the Electricity Board; my father showed him the alternatives and explained how they needed the neighbour’s permission but this was refused. The official looked grim, and called upon the neighbour; my father telling him it was a waste of time. The official came back, and said that permission would be granted, and indeed the electricity was shortly afterwards installed. We later learned that he had threatened that the Board would take up the case; it would fight it right up to the Secretary of State for Scotland; that it would undoubtedly win, and it would pursue its costs vigorously and he could expect a bill of tens of thousands of pounds.

It was a lovely place, and my brother and I still benefit from my parents hard work and creative efforts.

Advertisements

FARO

 

We have recently returned from a short holiday with Elisabeth and Robert near Faro in S E Portugal.

The flights there (and back) were fine although my incipient claustrophobia, normally held in reasonable mode by the force of my intellect was galloping up and down the aisle making offensive gestures at passengers who were too near, talked too loud, drank too much or breathed too fast!

We were whisked by our escort through the crowds and arrived at the Baggage Carousel. John and our escort deposited me in my wheelchair in the Baggage Hall and went to claim the luggage. I then noticed a well dressed women in her 80s perhaps, who did everything with a dramatic flourish designed I felt to draw everyone’s attention. Then suddenly I recognised her as a former TV broadcaster on domestic and forces radio and tv (though initially I couldn’t remember her name.) She had a golf clubs carrier on her luggage cart which stuck out sideways and she banged this into my wheelchair. She then apologised to an embarrassingly excessive degree and wouldn’t stop. I felt like saying, You didn’t hurt me or cause any damage, you’ve apologised perfectly adequately, now for heaven’s sake, go away! I thought she was slightly drunk; but I realised afterwards that she had sensed that spark of recognition and was waiting for me to say, Weren’t you so and so? I have met quite a few famous people and have never acknowledged their celebrity in the smallest degree. If they want to tell you who they are that’s fine but it has to come from them. It must be awful to be so needful of recognition. (The lady was Judith Chalmers)

Robert was meeting us which was a great help and we made the 20 minute journey through the backhills behind Faro Airport which is so near to the sea that I was convinced we were going to land on the beach. At the last minute you scramble up onto the airport and then the pilot frantically brakes with all his strength and you just manage to slide to a screeching halt at your docking station!

The farmhouse was found at the end of a very steep and very narrow track which later caused John some grief with his hi re car which was brand new but in the end there was no problem.

It was beautifully situated. We could see no habitation from our various terraces; just trees and in the distance, the sea. The house was spacious enough though to be comfortable, though shall we say of very different ‘taste’ to ourselves. Our children had kindly given up their bedroom for us which was on the ground floor and easily accessible by wheelchair. The bathroom next door was a large room with corner bath which the boys would swim in when having their bath.

We had been to Portugal three times before, once with all our children plus Alexandra, once on our own and once with Anne and Barbara, but this was our first time in East Portugal. We preferred it. It was not so horribly over developed or infested with golf courses; the towns were attractive and shops were for local people. There is a sandbar across the coast at this point, so there are lagoons rich in bird-life behind it. We saw a large black diver of some description which covered huge distances in his dive. We saw a little group of flamingos fly overhead, an elegant pattern with their long legs and necks, about 20 of them, and Elisabeth the previous week had seen them descend like a pink cloud. We had screech owls round the house. We also saw our first swallows at the house, beautiful with pink throats and long forked tails. In March there were no insects bothering us (though they have hideous black flying creatures as large as egg-cups) but the presence of insect screens and mosquito nets everywhere would suggest that they are sometimes present.

Less appealing were the guard dogs at nearby properties, one of which gave Rob an opportunistic bite on his calf, still nasty and vicious looking when we were there a week later. Everyone local including the medics treated this injury with great disdain – it’s just a little nip – and they regard the Brits as being afraid of dogs and paranoid about La Rage, as the French call rabies. Rob seemed to be healthy enough however.

There were only a few trees that I recognised. There were hills covered in olives of course; and oranges with fruit and flowers; a few lemons; cork oaks; yucca and cacti; trees that were black and appeared to consist largely of thorns. The other flora I did not recognise.

We stayed mostly close to home. The children would rest in the afternoon which meant that everybody got a little relaxing time. (There was quite a large pool). There were nearby towns and villages where we would go for groceries or vegetables and have a coffee and a delicious cake. One day we had lunch in a busy establishment which appeared to be the village canteen, where you dine with others at a refectory type table and where you had the dish of the day and the food was very good rather like what you would get in the kitchen of a friend’s mother (who knew how to cook.) At the other end of the spectrum we had lunch at an elegant restaurant literally at the foot of our road, where everything was as it should be and lovely and the food was delicious. Elisabeth and Robert walked out one evening to have dinner there leaving us in charge, and came walking back beneath the stars (taking detours to avoid rabid dogs!) We went to a modern shopping centre in Faro which was what you would expect. We went to a fish market held in a beautiful market hall and with a biggish market around it; to one of the lagoon resorts where William tried out his new bike, and we went to the town of Loule, very pleasant and authentic the way inland towns in coastal places often are.

The Portuguese are easy to get along with and very kind to children. It amazes me that Portugal, a very small country backed on two sides by the muscular Spain, managed to survive as a nation at all. Although it is Roman Catholic, its churches do not occupy dominating positions in townships, and after the service on Palm Sunday when the congregation walked amongst us, I noticed there was no ostentatious display of clothes.

We thought we might, in future years, take our caravan to the South of Portugal in March, thereby extending the caravanning seasons.

We enjoyed the holiday, and the time spent with Elisabeth and Rob and their children. Not forgetting Milo of course.

(The photographs, courtesy of John M Armstrong, show William and Robert cutting William’s birthday cake (2) while Milo waits to ‘help’; one of the local small towns, and William trying out his new balance bike.)

BLUE EYED BOY

BLUE EYED BOY

I have just realised that in our family we have a pitiful shortage of blue eyes.

I read once that blue eyes were considered historically to be the most beautiful, desirable and therefore valuable. As a brown eyed woman, I didn’t care much for this opinion and thought, Snort, what do they know of it?

So, my father had a magnificent head of hair, golden blonde and naturally wavy, and it eventually faded into a silvery blonde which he retained into extreme old age. He was always tanned, and he had eyes of an unusual colour somewhere between grey, green and turquoise which varied according to what he wore. He was an extremely handsome man, but so far as I observed, he was not vain or particularly concerned about his appearance. My mother was brown haired (darker than mine) and brown eyed, as was my brother.

My husband John, the father of my children, said in Iceland when introducing himself to the group we travelled with that he had always regarded himself as a Viking, and the two Icelanders with the group looked at him and nodded their agreement. He is tall, with light brown hair now white, and with grey eyes.

Of my three children, none are brown eyed. Joanna has my father’s colouring and her eyes are an indeterminate colour between grey, green and turquoise. I used to say her eyes were the colour of Achnahard Bay and she told her husband of this family legend but when they visited the bay it was a deep sapphire colour, and she had to say to him, It’s never been that colour before!

Elisabeth’s eyes are grey with hints of green. And Rory’s are the Viking grey of his father.

At school they did an exercise in percentages where they divided the class into groups of eye colour and our children were always left until the end before it could be decided where they would be placed.

Now we can consider the grandchildren. Alexandra’s eyes are a grey-blue; Erin’s are brown, and Dana’s are a golden, greenish brown. Their father has brown eyes,

Rory’s children have grey-blue eyes like their father, Julia’s having more blue in them than Ewan’s. (Their mother has grey eyes.)

Elisabeth and Robert’s eldest son has an abundance of curly blonde hair, of a very pale colour and a pair of melting chocolate brown eyes which are very large. (His father is brown eyed.)

And now we can consider our latest arrival. He has pale skin after the Irish fashion. His hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are a pale gold colour. But it is such a surprise to us when James opens his eyes in his pale face with its golden halo, for they are a clear and definite brilliant blue. They seem to gather the light into them. They shine like beautiful stones in the bottom of a clear stream. And they are wonderfully expressive. He can beseech you so successfully with these blue eyes that one could almost believe he didn’t need to learn to talk. I think he has inherited these from his other grandmother, Robert’s mother, who herself has very beautiful blue eyes.

James will be a blue eyed boy.

ALEXANDRA

SONY DSC

(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.

DRIVING IN WINTERt

We’ve had here in the UK the worst week of weather in what has been a very mild winter. In the previous five years we have scarcely had a day with ice on the roads. The Northern parts of the UK had some snow but our news is very Southern dominated.

So this week we have had people who spent 13 – 20 hours stuck on blocked roads. Hundreds of schools have been closed. People have been advised not to present at hospital. Hundreds of buses have been cancelled. Most trains have not run. Thousands of planes have been grounded. Food is running out in supermarkets.

The general call has been, Stay at Home, Do Not Go To Work. If You Set Out In This, You Risk Death. It is no wonder the public becomes alarmed and stays at home. Weather forecasts are frightening in the extreme.

Yet what has actually happened is that we had some nights (here in the South) the temperature fell to about -2 or 3 degrees; there was a cold wind, for about 2 hours it snowed and left about 1 – 2” of snow, a few roads were blocked by drivers who got stuck on hills and other drivers couldn’t pass them. This is hardly the worst winter since records began. (Conditions have been much worse in other parts of the country.)

We need to treat winter with respect. We should carry a snow shovel, a blanket, some food and drink, and a mat to go under our wheels all the time. It’s not going to take up that much room.

Perhaps people should have to do some winter driving on the equivalent of a dry ski slope in order to pass their test.

We should not go into Panic mode whenever we notice a snowflake!

SEWING APRONS

SEWING APRONS

 

I was fiddling about with some blue gingham material, cotton, attempting to make an apron for William, my grandson. The joins where the halter and waist ties join the body of the garment were messy and I couldn’t seem to resolve this. Also I had appliqued a W in red and this had not worked well. Then I had a bright idea. I would make it double and reversible.

I ditched the blue gingham and chose a plain black cotton and a grey cotton with sailing boats on it in black and gold.

I measured the width of the body of the apron at the top of it, the waist and the hem. I drew on a piece of paper half of the apron, drawing a curbed line from the waist to the top. I had folded the material so I placed this half pattern on the fold and cut it out. Then I cut 3 pieces 4” wide and about 15” long. I cut the black out first; then I cut the other body out of the printed boat material. I did not need to cut out the ties and neck piece in this material, but I cut out a pocket with a boat on it to go on the black apron. I also cut the black side 2” longer than the printed so that there was a black border on the hem of the grey material. It didn’t take a lot of material. I reckon half a yard of each would probably have been sufficient but it depends on the size of the wearer.

Then I sewed down the side of the tie pieces, and sewed one edge; the neck piece could have both ends left unsewn. I sewed a hem on the top edge of the pocket and ironed down the edges. Then pinned it carefully in position and sewed it down. I then placed the two apron sides, right sides together, and put the unfinished edges of the ties  between the sides of the apron and pinned them in place. I then sewed right around the entire body of the apron, leaving a space on one side of about 3 “ through which one can pull the apron and ties so that it is the correct way round. You then sew up that small section by hand.

This makes an attractive apron, thicker than normal to withstand spillages etc.

There should be some link in colour, pattern etc between the two fabrics. It was fun to do.

JAMES SMILES

When my youngest grandson, James Kenneth Sullivan was first put in my arms a day or so after his birth, he never opened his eyes. So long as he was comfortable, safely held, warmly wrapped and with his stomach reasonably full, he seemed content. It did not matter whose arms held hm.

The next time I saw him was when he was maybe 3 weeks old. This time he did open his eyes and took a long, appraising view of me. It was the first glimpse I had got of his eyes which are an indeterminate blue-type colour and we cannot tell yet whether he will be a cool misty grey like his mother and maternal grandfather, or a true and brilliant blue like his paternal grandmother, or brown like his father, brother and other relatives. I would bet on the grey. I saw him stiffen slightly as he thought, this is Not-My-Mother; but I spoke to him warmly and he responds well to the pitch of my voice.

We visited Elisabeth again last week, so James is about 8 weeks old now. He is so tall that he outgrows the measuring device and the nurse shouts at Elisabeth that she cannot be holding him in the right position. She is however and the nurse makes a note on the file and asks Elisabeth to keep visiting the clinic.

Elisabeth is putting James (whom William for some mysterious reason refers to as Bates) for a rest but William starts wailing for something to eat. Elisabeth hands me the baby while she fixes something. To my great surprise, after he has looked at ‘Not-My-Mother’ with interest, he smiles at me – his first smile that I have seen. He makes a few squeaks, blows bubbles, listens to me, smiles again. So expending great energy, he begins to shake and to move his arms so that it almost looks like the dancer’s solo. He smiles at me. I praise his efforts and he coos with delight. I am overwhelmed with joy and pleasure,

He lies before us, like a new country. There is mist among the sunshine and we cannot see clearly but certain features are already outstanding, like mountains in an unknown landscape. I sing to him, the Scottish lullaby, Coulter’s Candy, and then for good measure, You cannie throw your granny aff a bus. He listens and tries a few squeaks of his own.

James Kenneth Sullivan. You have arrived. May you live and prosper.