October 3, 2003
Dear Earlyflute members,
Allow me to let various members know that I have delayed my return to my California workshop. I had intended to be at my Mendocino workbench on September 29, and I have now decided to stay on at least till October 20 or beyond to allow me to get in the back door of various flute collections in mueums in Britain and beyond. Flute work in Scotland has been continuing, mostly on 8 keyed instruments, punctuated by a most rewarding experience for a Highlander like me....I joined with the Chris Norman Ensemble on their concert tour of Scotland and we straviaged through the mountains and glens, from the BBC in Glasgow and over to Edinburgh and Stirling, with Chris delivering a programme heavily inflected towards the Scottish tradition. His "Caledonia Flute" CD is well received here in the north. I got to sing a number of songs with the Ensemble while on tour, and I found that to be a mighty fine change of pace from talking to my wood at the bench.
Readers will find no more flute related topics by reading below, but those who wish a flavour of life in the Highlands may be diverted on a slow day by the following...
Diary extract, August 28, 2003
The weather has turned 'fresh', and looking out across the waters of the Moray Firth towards Cromarty on the Black Isle, white caps are everywhere. No chance of seeing the dolphins today. After a long run of wonderful days in the seventies (21-25 C) with balmy sea breezes keeping the Scottish Highlands free of the muggy humidity of London, today has brought a return of stiff sea breezes and cooler days. On my walk across the Links and along the beach to the harbour, the Oyster Catchers were busy among the grass looking for breakfast tidbits and squabbling with Willie Wagtails who sought to invade their turf. Gulls perched on almost every chimney pot in the Fishertown, taking it in turns to kept up a screeching chorus which I rather like to hear. The sound reminds me that I am near the sea front, even when I am lost in my work and stooping over the lathe working on some small detail that is taking for ever to get right. This morning the tide is high and the river mouth looks deep as it flows past the worn stones of the Nairn wharf. At low tide it is clear that the river flow is very low. The water is warmer than the salmon and sea trout need and they linger in the harbour, trusting that more rain will come soon before making their way upstream to spawn in the upper reaches of Strath Nairn. Sitting on the deck of Pam and Jules' moored boat, we could watch these fish leap six feet out of the water. We know they do not feed in fresh water, and some say this leaping it to rid themselves of skin mites?
I walked up the river past the worn stones that line the old moorage built by Thomas Telford in the 18th century. When my daughter was young, she used to trace her fingers in the grooves worn deep by the same boats tying up in the same spot over the years. Before Telford's time, the women of Fishertown would carry husbands on their backs and wade out into the shallow water of the beach allowing the fishermen to get on board with dry feet. That would not play well on CNN today, yet there was wisdom behind it. A man with dry feet was more likely to survive the cold and exposure in a small boat as they went after the herring through the long night. Everyone had a job. There was dignity in the labour and a sense of belonging to a tribe. We now have more affluence but less feeling of fitting into an useful slot in society. Looking back on my younger days when adversity was everywhere, I can see that entering into a useful job at an early age allowed us to be forged on the anvil of life by watching and doing. Now, our experiment to forge the young only on the anvil of books is not always bearing fruit, however I can see that our society demands lots of book-learning before you can be useful.
I pass the family of swans that Kathleen loves to watch as they work their beat up and down the river mouth. The parents are rearing seven young who are already larger than their parents. Still wearing their brownish immature feathers, they act a bit like gangly teenagers not quite knowing how to behave. We like to visit another family of swans on the small lochan at Brodie Castle, a few miles to the east. From the lochan we can walk up a wide grassy field to the Castle which had been the seat of Brodie of Brodie. The old Chieftain passed away a few months ago in his nineties. He was well loved in the community and a patron of the Arts. Brodie of Brodie has left the Castle and grounds to the National Trust for Scotland. It is a wonderful human castle that has not been under heavy siege. In 1746, the Duke of Cumberland billeted his army at the castle the night before that fateful day when Bonnie Prince Charlie met him on Drumossie Moor to fight the battle of Culloden. Charlie's defeat sealed the fate of the clansmen and the ensuing behaviour of King George's Redcoats earned Cumberland the title of "the Bloody Butcher" in every Highland glen. The whole Jacobite campaign was il-conceived and the Highlanders paid the price; not Charlie, who returned to the Continent after narrow escapes to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
Early on in the campaign, Charlie's raggle taggle Highlander's startled the English by their ability to take Edinburgh and defeat Johnny Cope's army at Preston Pans, and it was to Edinburgh that we made our way last Sunday to hear our friend, Michael Marra sing in his concert at the Reid Hall as part of the Festival. For once in my life, I thought to travel first class on the railway since I now get a discount. We drove over the lonely and lovely Dava Moor to reach the tiny railway station at Carbridge. Not one car passed us in 28 miles. The heather was in bloom and shone purple in the early morning sunlight as we passed Lochindorb where the 14th century Wolf of Badenoch's castle still sits on a small island with secret stepping stones below the waterline that were known only to the initiated. After a dispute with the local Bishop, the Wolf burned the town of Forres and sacked Elgin cathedral. Closely related to the Scottish king, Robert II, he was absolved and his marble statue has him lying in holy repose over his grave, hands joined in Dunkeld cathedral.
The sun continued to shine on the southern Highland slopes as our train passed through Dunkeld. The nine pound surcharge that gave us first class tickets allowed for innumerable free cups of coffee and the sunday papers. Not a bad deal with plenty of leg room thrown in. "Scotland on Sunday" paper had a big article on the film actor, Tilda Swinton. She lives near us in Nairn with John Bryne and their twins. John himself is a man o' pairts, as we say, and works with equal passion on canvas and as a writer for stage and TV. He likes to play the 'oldies but goodies' on guitar, and he and I have been spending hours in our kitchen working through songs with Kathleen singing harmonies. My sister, Mary, has known John for many years, and we all met up at one of her barbecues up on the hill at Geddes. Tilda just returned from a film shoot in Portland and brought the twins round to see the flute workshop the other day. We all went out for dinner and chat. She, like John, is a very warm hearted person and their young twins are fun to be around. The girl, Honour, aged five, wants a wee wooden flute to get started on, so I must get going with that soon.
The train passed through Perth and took a sweep around through Stirling where we could see on one side the monument to William Wallace on a nearby hill and high on a cliff above the town, Stirling Castle. We were soon bound through Linlithgow to Edinburgh, but the man whose concert we were going to hear, Michael Marra, would be lingering first in Stirling. He was billed to open for Van Morrison at 7.30pm right up in the Castle courtyard . How on earth Michael was going to do that gig and then get himself to Edinburgh for a 9.15pm curtain, I could not imagine. In fact I could not imagine someone like Michael tearing himself away from hearing the whole Morrison concert through, except possibly by having his own concert in Edinburgh at 9.15pm. It was not for us to worry about, but I did, because I know what kind of quiet passion Michael brings to bear whenever and wherever he puts his hands on the piano and raises his gravelly voice to a rapt audience. With my pal, Val Dean, we three have travelled thousands of miles across the US West in search of the soft underbelly of American culture, down great canyons, into small towns, through the Navaho Nation, up and down Reno and the Vegas drag, and along the Big Sur. Every night we would find a wee motel and sing songs together...everything from Michael's own songs, Bob Dylan, or Catholic hymns ( "Great tunes! ", Michael would say about those old hymns). On a second journey out to the States, Michael directed and harmonized with me in a wee CD called 'Songs I Love'. Val was a major player in that project. For an old folkie, like me, it was a dream come true.
Edinburgh was in splendid mood as the train pulled into Waverley Station and we walked up to our hotel in the afternoon sunshine. The Royal Mile was awash with "Fringe" street theatre of every description....flame swallowers, tango dancers, mime shows, comedians, over eager dramatists, human statues painted gold, hairy men lying on beds of nails, singers, swingers, dead ringers, belly dancers, prancers, lancers, bearded ladies, plaidies and sorrowful Sadies, they were all there swarming among the crowds and around Edinburgh's old town of narrow closes and ancient tall buildings. All was merry and bright in the warm sun as we..... ...to be continued
and a further moment...
I rose early this morning after spending a pleasant night at my sister's house at Geddes on the hill above Nairn. She has bought a strip of land between two farmer's fields and built a wood house on it. The gardens are now finished and the situation is quite lovely. Birds were dashing hither and thither in the morning light as I looked out to the west over the green rolling fields and woods that took the eye beyond the narrowing of the Moray Firth to where the sea meets Inverness and beyond to the hills of Wester Ross. There was such a din of noise in the garden as the birds went mad to get to a few scraps that Mary had set out for them. Sometimes a big hawk will perch nearby on a post, and suddenly things quieten down considerably.
John and I went out in the morning sun and walked east on the tiny one-lane road that passes the house. It is barely wide enough to accommodate the width of a small car. These 'single lane' roads are everywhere in the Scottish Highlands, and they encourage courtesy among drivers. It is impossible for opposing vehicles to pass each other except at the 'passing place' bulges which occur every few hundred yards. When meeting head on, the car nearest to the bulge must reverse till enough road-width is achieved. I am told that visiting Frenchmen and Spaniards find this yielding a very hard thing to do.
This morning there was no car in sight as John and I sauntered up the brae, tasting the wild brambles that grew along the dry stone dykes. The berries were dark and sweet and intermingled with bright, red rose-hips signaling that autumn was nigh. The clouds in this part of the world are an important part of the view. Joni Mitchell's 'rolls and folds of angel's hair' were everywhere with the sun coming through the middle. It shone upon the white, skip hat of the farmer as he moved down from his barn with the collie dog, both with a measured pace, so that the small herd of milking cows in the lower pasture continued undisturbed until the two were upon them. The farmer started to whistle. Not a whistle that would signal the collie to move out in a confining arc and do its job containing the kye, but instead he whistled a bonnie Scot's air, "O Rowan Tree". It rang out sweetly to us as we moved along the road above the farm, the air perfectly in tune and the phrasing compelling. I was quite won over by it, and Lady Nairne's words came to me...
" How fair wert thou in simmer time,
Wi' a' thy clusters white,
How rich and gay thy autumn dress,
Wi' berries red and bright.
John told me that the farmer was elderly and a bachelor. From the distance he looked upright and young in his gait. A gentle thump with his stick on the rump of the largest beast set the cows into slow motion towards the upper pasture. They took their time. Man and dog did not disturb the pace. The cows knew where they were going, and with the birds singing, the sun shining, and the black cat surveying all from the barn door, who would want to rush the moment. Once in the upper pasture, the farmer closed the gate and made his way back along the crest of the field so that we could see him with his collie in relief, and beyond him the touquoise waters of the Firth that divided us from the Black Isle and Cromarty to the north. His tune continued throughout...
Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou'lt aye be dear to me,
En twin'd thou art wi' mony ties
O' hame and infancy.
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