St Petersburg : 7October 2019

Arriving late off the Sapsan train at Moskovskiy Voksal, I strode out to find my digs. Looking back Moskovskiy station is stunning, floodlit, like a 5 star hotel.

Walking along Nevskiy Prospect , I look for number 28. Through the arches, past the wee cinema, through another arch… this can’t be it, a dimly lit courtyard, cobblestones, a metal door. Aw naw this is it. Amazingly, it turned out to be very nice and clean inside.

Head out to explore, aim for the river. After half an hour I reach the Neva river. This river will be frozen solid in 6 weeks but tonight its beautiful. On the opposite bank is Peter and Paul Fortress, floodlit and reflected in the river. Its stunning. The Neva flows into the Baltic, which is appropriate as the weather is Baltic. On my way back, I cross several canals, take many photos of beautiful buildings and a cathedral, all turrets with onion domes, reflected in the calm waters.

Next morning I walk 3km and eventually reach St Isaac’s cathedral. The queues too big and I have no patience (need the patience of a saint to visit St Isaac’s).I walk around the square and spot a man selling Russian hats. Pure rabbit fur he assures me. I haggle and 35 euros later its mine. Its toasty.

Theres a a river cruise on offer. 10 euros and it includes a mulled wine. Haud me back. The cruise is wonderful. The air is so clear it’s like the outer hebrides, the sun low and dazzling. We pass beautiful buildings, all in pastel shades. A man sees me taking a selfie with Zenits stadium behind, offers to take my foto. A mile upstream and theres a huge spaceship of a stadium. That’s Zenits new stadium! I run out on deck “can you take my photo again please?”

I’m wearing my Rangers top. A local approaches me – “you are Scotland?”. Da, I say, points, Glasgow Rangers. “Ah, Fernando Ricksen” he says, pulling a sad face and lightly thumping his chest. Fernando played for Rangers and Zenit and died recently of MND. It was a nice but poignant moment. Football crosses barriers, something I will discover 48 hours later in Moscow. We shook hands.

After the cruise, I looked at the Winter Palace and had street food in the beautiful Winter Palace Gardens. Palace Square is huge and very impressive. Go there!

Next day I’m excited. Today I get the train back to Moscow. I put on my kilt, Scotland top and Russian hat. It’s a deadly combo. On the bus, I sense a difference. A nudge, a whisper…”check that guy out”. In St Isaac’s square, I’m disappointed theres no salesman, no Russian hats. I’d promised two friends… feel guilty.

Two beautiful Russian girls, dressed to kill in old Russian uniforms ask if I want my photo taken with them for 200 rubles. Emboldened by my kilt I say naw, you pay me for a photo. I’ve still got that photo, a wee peck on the cheek it was a lovely moment, just dont tell the wife.

Walk towards the station but keep getting stopped. It’s the kilt. “You are Scotland da? I was in Edinburgh. Beautiful”. He asks when are we getting our independence and he ends up buying me two of ‘his’ Russian orthodox calendars.*

In a lovely cafe next to the station (high vaulted ceilings), again its “you are Scotland?” He disappears, comes back with two large vodkas. We chink glasses. “Nasdrovny!” “Slaintè mhath”. I sip my vodka, testing its strength. He downs it in one. I look at him, raise an eyebrow. He nods, go on. I down it in one. Oooft!

Onto the train, it’s a Harry Potter carriage type. I love it. Do svidaniya, St Petersburg ! Moskva awaits.

This blog is for Julia and Lenore. Sorry no Russian hats, girls! Maybe next time.

And Jim and Katie, who love St P.

* upon returning home, I gave one of the calendars to Father Alexander of the Russian Orthodox church in Dunblane. He was very surprised I think.

Getting back to Nature

Drove up to Sherrifmuir with the dogs tonight, parked up just past the Macrae Monument. Getting out the car its pitch black but within 5 minutes I’m getting my night vision within 10 I can even see Kuro easily. Not many people do that nowadays. I blame headtorches.

Its blowing a gale but mild as tea. Minds me of Harris, without the salt air. I love it. Theres a lone light ahead maybe a mile away, probably Cauldhame. The clouds over Stirling glow orange: neon lights. Turn back and the winds in our face, refreshing. The moons up there, can vaguely see it but she never comes out. Shame, it would have transformed the walk. I think the Gaels call it the poor man’s lantern.

I love walking, a day on the hills is just the ticket. The great outdoors. I’m proud that we took our two camping or they wouldn’t have seen the natural world. Opened the tent in Glencoe and theres a stag six feet away. Tiny frogs in the dunes at Gairloch. Campfire on the beach at Clachtoll, walked barefoot in the frost that same night to visit the toilet.I once hand fed a fox camping between the bridges at Sligachan. We saw the northern lights there too. The dancing men.

Then we went to Harris and their education continued. Golden eagle near Northton, gathering the peats near Loch na Moracha, Amy saw an otter on the weir at the Millpool ( all I saw were bubbles). Most kids will tell you a lobster is red: our two know a lobster can be a beautiful marble blue, like the ones we were given yes given on Harris. They also know the humane way is to put them in the freezer before you boil them alive. And then they go red.

They’re closer to nature on Harris. Theres a cailleach (old woman) I visit. Maybe if I’m saying the weathers poor she’ll reply “yes but it’s a new moon next week, it’ll be better after that”.

I’m going to Harris next week. I’m going to walk on Luskentyre beach in the dark until I get my night vision. Maybe there I’ll see the northern lights, the dancing men. And I’m definitely going to visit the cailleach.

PS This is for Mrs MacLean.

The Road to the Isles

Had a lovely phone call from Harris on the landline last night. Great to hear an old friend. Felt guilty for not phoning them. Weathers been wild and they cant get that painting job done. Yes mothers better but we cant get her a care package so shes still in hospital , twice weekly visit over the Clisham to Stornoway. Not much fun that. Island life. Long hard winters I’d imagine.

Maybe I can visit before Christmas. I check the calmac website, check the weather. Mebbes aye. Check with Elaine. And the dogs.. do I take them?

I’ve made dozens of road trips to Harris over the last ten year. Slept in the car at Ullapool, Kyle, Uig, Portree and even Dingwall? Now I get a B n B. Too old for that shit now.

The trickiest part in winter is the weather. Not on Harris, on the mainland. Snow and ice,frozen waters, ice and snow. Mind you one Easter we woke up early ready to leave Dunblane and theres snow on the ground here.

The dangers points: Glencoe, Dalwhinnie over to Laggan, Invergarry over the pass to Glen Moriston and Cluanie to Glen Shiel pass. Make it to Balmacara and yer fine. But watch out for the deer. Not hit one yet but you get a major scare when you see one roadside at 60. Heart racing, slow down it’s not a race, esp if wife and tots in car sleeping.

So am heading out of Invergarry, past the frozen shinty pitch, up the glen. Wife n tots all sleeping I feel good. I’m carrying them thru the night so to speak. Except it’s now first light and below freezing. The temperature, around freezing at Spean Bridge has now plummeted to minus 5. Easy does it.

Theres a car coming down towards me. It’s all over the road. Ah shite it’s coming towards me! Flies past me phew. Look in my rear view just in time to see it career off the road and flip onto its roof. Ah shite, shite! They’re all awake now. What’s going on huh?

Explaining what happened, I perform a three point turn, heart thumping. Ah shite I dont want to see this. Dont want my kids to see this. But wait… theres a guy beside the upturned car..hes trying to open the drivers door. Shes upside down, seatbelt on luckily. To this day I still dont know how the guy was out the car so quick.

But he’s in shock. He’s frantically pulling open the drivers door, again and again yanking it open. I think you’re in shock, I say, maybe take a wee rest. He slumps to the ground.

I knelt down beside the driver. Are you ok? What a stupid fuckin question am a daft bastard. I hold her hand, reassure her it’ll be fine. I’d read that when Eric Caldow broke his leg at Wembley in ’63 Jim Baxter knelt beside him holding his hand. Wee bit empathy. So I hold her hand.

Another car slowly pulls up, woman gets out. Can I help, I’m a nurse? Oh I could have kissed her. Thank fuck thank fuck. Soon its polis and ambulance crew all over the place and we headed off towards Skye and our ferry, driving slowly.

Yes, I’ll defo need to check the weather before I head up.

PS This blog is dedicated to all nurses, paramedics and ambulance crew out there. Hats off I couldn’t do that. Oh and all fire persons. First on the scene of an accident is never gonna be pretty but we were lucky.

PPS I never did hear any more of the incident. I assume no news is good news in life.

Shitzu

I didn’t want a Shitzu. It’ll be embarrassing walking a stupid wee dug I complained. To this day, I keep Shitzu off the lead. I was outvoted 2 to 1 however.

Got her in a Perth tesco carpark,a tiny wee bundle, cried all the way home. She soon settled and started to impose herself on us. Kuro was scared to stand on her, she was tiny. We all shuffled about the house so we didn’t stand on her. She would chase our feet, biting your toes or trouser leg. She was like a gremlin. Our neighbours wee girl was over after school every day, “is Lexi in?”

Shes now 2 and a half, still a radge. I’m putting the bins out, theres a white blur shoots past…Shitzu! But it’s too late, straight across the grass and into Janet’s carport to see the children. Approaching the weans, she slows down, slinks up to them and then …flop…shes on her back. The weans love her, rub her belly. Am watching all this. “Shes at it!” I want to shout,”shes a sleekit wee sh..” And then, her party piece: as the weans get bored of patting her shes up and shoots into Janet’s house for the cat food.”Shitzu!” I roar. Janet just laughs. She has the patience of a saint.

Bedtime and theres this gentle thud at the bottom of the bed. Shitzu curls up at our feet. Almost sweet. By morning the wee shite is right beside our heads. Open your eyes..waaah it’s the Shitzu ! In your face! If your not up when she wants up, shes licking your ears, face. If you ignore that she literally stands on your head, still licking. “Shitzu!”

Shes a character I grudgingly admit, before adding – “character, the Scottish word for an arse”.

Her moment of fame came when she was 6 months old. We were visiting at the hospital and went for a walk by the pond there. Kuro was trying to get a drink out the pond and the Shitzu as ever was copying her. You could feel it coming. I got my phone out, ready. Kuro managed to get a drink but Shitzu was struggling to reach down.

Next thing…splash..shes in and under. Completely disappeared. Amy rushed forward but she had resurfaced. “Leave her” I said”she needs to learn”. So Shitzu hauled herself up on the banking, paused briefly, still in shock. We were in pieces it was the funniest thing ever. Madonna getting out the bath!

She finally clambered out…and went mental…she zoomed back n forth along the banking, stopped to shake herself before zooming away again. Back at the car, we wrapped her in a towel. “She’ll no’ do that again” I said once we all stopped laughing.

Shitzu!

Kuro the Dog

Kuro was born in 2007 I think, at Greenyards Farm, Dunblane. I was out a jog (yes, really) and spotted the blackboard advertising “labrador pups for sale”. Came home, told the family and we all went out. Big mistake. 9 black labrador pups for sale, stumbling around in a straw covered stable. Of course we’ll take one!

Hard to believe now that shes the size of a house, but one of my sons pals remembers holding Kuro in the palm of his hand. Kuro destroyed everything! She gnawed a hole in the wall. Shes ate socks, slippers and 2 button boxes (remote controls).

We found a postcard we had sent to mum recently, revealing that Kuro had eaten the tots Easter Eggs on the beach on Harris. When Sean was playing football, Kuro grew to recognize the refs half time whistle. Half time means jaffa cakes, jelly babies. I’ve this vision of Kuro, packet of jaffa cakes in mouth, being pursued by 4 lads. It was futile of course. Kuro arsed the lot.

Kuro loves the Tappit. We ‘socialised’ her early. She wanders around the bar, gauging the mood. Rustle of crisps in the corner table… Kuros on it. “Moan, feed me. Am fading away! They dont feed me at home”.

And so it was a shock when the vet phoned two years ago. Lump under her tongue, two months to live. No way. No no no… not our Kuro. Tears n snotters everywhere. Not our Kuro.

Someone said, get another dog. Enter the Shitzu. A tiny wee bundle of fur n teeth, Shitzu entered Kuros world. She torments the hell out of Kuro, bites her legs then when she got bigger bites her ears. Kuro, I think, loves it, rolls on the grass and Shitzu pounces. It looks violent but it’s just them. Yin and yang. Black and white. “Dont worry”, I tell startled onlookers, “they’re just playing”.

And Kuros still here, defying medical science. “Up yours, medical science” she seems to be saying. Or is that the Shitzu? 🤔

Shes on a diet now. Ah the irony. Vet tells you your dogs gona die soon, you fling the diet out the window. Kuro grew and grew. Now shes running up to random strangers up the park, barking. “Feed me”. Am chasing after her – ” naw, dont feed her shes on a diet, on a diet”.

When she does go, we’ll get the vet to come to us. Say our farewells in the hoose.

But that’s a long time away, that’s a long time away.

Moskva

Moskva. I’m finally here this is it. Got off the train at Belorusskaya station fine but finding my digs took an hour. The Hotel Versali turned out to be a flat in a tenement in Moscow. Take your shoes off please. They’ve a thing about shoes in Russia.

Am shattered but it’s still only 8pm. It’s dark and cold outside but no wind. I walk down Tverskaya towards the Kremlin. Through the eyes of a child. Cant believe I’m here. Theres a shop full of people, its amazing, vaulted ceilings and chandeliers. This can’t be Moscow?

Moscow is cold. Spies , cold war, dodgy characters. Eh naw , they’re like you and me. Families walking around. On towards the Kremlin it’s like a wedding cake. Amazing. I walk on and on, the Kremlin by my side, all floodlit n turrets n onion domes, just amazing. And then theres the river, the Moskva. “Follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park”, I whistle the song.

Turning a corner and theres St Basils cathedral. Fuckin hell its beautiful, like a Disney castle but this is no mock castle. This is history. This is Red Square too. I walk across the shiny cobblestones. I have a wee moment to myself, a wee tear- can’t believe I’m here. Haha am standing in Red Square, crying. Theres no tanks, no soldiers- it’s a buzzing market, a celebration of harvest time. The BBC never portrayed it like this. Bastards. Lied to me for years, my entire childhood.. because Russians are like me and you. Theres laughter, young couples taking selfies ffs. They’re like you and me.

And the smells! Theres paella in a huge wok, burgers, kebabs, honey, pumpkins, hot teas. I have a spiced sea buckweed and honey tea its lovely. I’ve calmed doon now. Take a wee video, send it home. ” that’s not real, must be photoshopped” comes a reply. Its fuckin real alright, it’s just beautiful I want to shout.

Ploschad Krasny means Beautiful Square , but that doesn’t fit the BBC narrative eh. Red Square is better, more sinister, communist. Bastards. I never paid my license, I was a rebel, breaking the law- then Elaine paid it without me knowing. Some rebel haha.

After an hour I wander back to my digs. Every corner brings a lovely building, floodlit and reflected in the wet shiny cobblestones. One in particular is sensational. I take its photo several times and then its doors open and people stream out, down the steps. Theres greatcoats, women in knee high boots, Russian hats, laughter. Jesus Christ, its it’s the Bolshoi ballet… the bolshoi fuckin ballet. I’m dreaming…must be. Another wee tear down my cheek. Mum would have loved this, loved this.

I try to sneak in for a nosey, but a huge guard mutters something menacing in Russian. Hands up, I retreat sheepishly. Worth a try eh.

It’s a long walk back to my digs, I climb the worn steps of the tenement close. It could be Glasgow, not Moscow. Yes that’s exactly it, similar vibe. Red Square for George Square, the Moskva for the Clyde.

They’re just like us, just like us.

Tattie Howking

Its Baltic. I scrape the ice off the pharmacy van, ready for a shift. Suns just coming up, dazzling. Check: juice, apple, headtorch all there. Short days in Scotland in late November, dark by 4. An I’ll be on til 5 at least.

Turns out a glorious day, everyone loves a sunny day, wants a blether. “Stay warm” I tell the auld yins. The chat turns to the past, something I’ve noticed over the past year as pharmacy driver: “cant remember what I had for breakfast, son, but ask me about my childhood…”. Today its tattie howking.

October school holidays were for tattie howking. Kids would lift the potatoes from the farmers field. “Aye son, they had a Clydesdale horse and cart and we used to fight over who would go in the cart”. Hard work, sore back. I worked at Hillside Farm in Dunblane, now converted into luxury housing.

The auld dear continues “I mind the farmers wife would walk down the hill with a tea urn in one haun, pieces in the other”. She says the family was Bryce and it was near the old station?

Later on, theres an old boy, hauf blind. Hes watching the racing, won 2 out of 3 he says. Started work in 1946. I try to compute that. 1946!” Stay warm, I tell him, its gona be minus 5 tonight. ” Thanks, son”.

I’m wearing my Russian hat. Got it in Russia when I was over for the football in October. Rabbit fur, our Shitzu loves it. The auld yins love it. “Love her hat, son” they cry ” ye look like a Russian!” One auld dear (Glesca) is in stitches, she shakes uncontrollably the poor soul but she loves the hat, claps her hauns..” aw you’ve made ma day son”.

It’s good for the soul this job, good for the soul. I deliver to the house next door to where my gran used to live. Shes remembers my gran, my mum too. I tell her we went to grans in 1977 for a Scotland match, the night we qualified for Argentina: a colour television! It was probably 8 inches wide…but colour!

It’s dark and I make my final deliveries. A bar of tablet! Back in the high street pharmacy, I share it out. It’s good, we’ve done our shift and are winding down, clearing up – the weekend ahead.

Ah, the weekend ahead….

PS This is for the girls (and boys) in both pharmacies. They keep me right.

Back to Suni Duni

We moved back up to Suni Duni (Dunblane) in September 1997, after 5 years in a tenement in Cowane Street, Stirling. It was just Elaine, myself and Sean, who was 3 months old.

My folks in Murdoch Terrace were delighted, they loved Sean and fought over who should hold him when we popped round. Sean had been 11 nights in Stirling Royal infirmary in August , giving us a hell of a scare. A wee skelf of a boy in a cot with tubes everywhere: it would break your heart. It was only after he recovered that they told us : it was whooping cough he had survived.

Braemar Avenue for us was a revelation, no people below us complaining about noise, two toilets and our own garden! When I took the dog up the park I could see the stars it was so dark. And so quiet at night,so quiet we couldn’t sleep at first!

Our first venture into the garden was memorable. We decided the silver birch tree should go, got the saw out and it was going fine until it started falling the wrong way. Frantic pulling on the support rope(actually a hosepipe) proved futile and it crashed through the fence into the neighbours garden below. Shite! We all peered down as they all looked up at us aghast. ” Eh, hallo.. we’re.. like..your new neighbours…errr…we’ll pay for the fence”. Its funny 22 years later anyway.

To celebrate Sean’s good health we had a half birthday party on St Andrew’s day and the entire Dumbarton clan came though. We announced Elaine was expecting (gasps… whispers “so soon?”) and her papa said it was the best day ever. I made a wee speech to say Elaine had worked wonders by looking after Sean in the hospital. Eleven sleepless nights. I always remember dad saying ‘hear hear’ at that comment : him and Elaine got on great.

We lost dad the next May, the dreaded phone call too early in the morning to be anything else. The day before, Elaine had gone round with Sean and on a sunny May morning they sat on the front doorstep playing.

Dad had a great dry sense of humour. One time Elaine took Sean round and my mate popped in. He put a hand in to Sean’s pram and with that primal instinct Sean held onto his finger. “He’s got a good grip, he’ll play for Rangers one day”. Well dad wasnt gonnae miss this chance – ” no’ wi a name like that he’ll no’ “. Glasgow humour. Gorbals humour.

Amy was born at home less than three weeks later, in Braemar Avenue. A home birth which went great, Elaine and the midwife together in the downstairs bedroom. I was sent to phone for assistance but I’d no sooner dialed than they she shouted too late, it’s on it’s way. A few minutes later we had a daughter, a wee girl ! I put pink balloons on the lamppost to let the neighbours know : a precursor to Facebook.

Granny was round in a shot, delighted. She’d been looking after Sean. “A boy and now a wee girl : a gentleman’s family” she said. I liked the sound of that. We were a gentleman’s family.

So, life went on. Amy was just what granny needed I reckon and from then on granny was a regular in Braemar Avenue.

Finally, I want to tell you a fact, an indisputable fact (leans over, whispers): My dad would be so proud of both Sean and Amy today.

Bogotá

When you travel to an ‘unusual’ destination, you need to put up with stereotypical comments from friends. Colombia played right into their hands.”Oooft watch you don’t get kidnapped” and “have you no’ seen Narcos?” Yeah yeah.

So, I’m sitting in a holding cell in Aeropuerto Internacional El Dorado, Bogotá. The Colombian customs officer is looking across the table at me. He’s no happy. “Hotel?” I’ve been travelling 24 hours solid, am no needing this. They won’t let me enter Colombia unless I can tell them where I’m staying. Finally I get wifi and show him an email on my fon. He’s still no happy. Getting up he motions me to follow him, back through to the passport desk. Gives my passport to the woman on the desk then walks away. She sighs and stamps my passport, hands it to me, motions…go on fuck off. Welcome to Colombia.

I’m too tired so it’s just relief that I’m feeling and then, there’s my Sean… a sight for sore eyes. Big hugs then were in a taxi heading into Bogotá, Sean speaking fluent Spanish to the driver. I’m impressed. I look out the window – love a new city but this is huge , a bit scary. I can see the lights of the shanty towns high above the city. Sean and the driver are now arguing in Spanish, I’m very impressed.

Next morning am up at 0700 local time but my body says its 1300. Sean’s sound asleep so I head out, the start of a tradition of two breakfasts every morning. Coffee and arepas are very filling and 3000 pesos – that’s about 60p ya dancer! Bogota takes your breath away, literally. Its 8361 feet above sea level. Climbing some stairs and I’m breathing deeply, not unpleasant but a strange feeling.

We get the TransMilenio into the old town, La Candeleria. I’m looking over a sea of heads. Colombians are short arses, Sean. I am a giant haha. We both get strange looks, being gringos. Sean tells me when he first arrived, he tried to look busy, walk fast like he had a purpose. You dont open up a map in Bogotá and start pointing at the architecture- you become a target.

We get the funicular up Monserrate, a 10,150 foot high peak above Bogotá. The views are sensational, 10.8 million people living in the sprawling mass of a city below. Given the cheapness, we treat ourselves to a meal in the clifftop restaurant, like a scene from a movie.

It’s a long way from Suni Duni, eh.

PS This blog is for Sean, without whom I’d never have travelled to South America. True story. And for Nahora, who looked after him.

Harris : Follow your Dreams

We first visited Harris in the summer of 1991. It wasn’t very summery but we fell in love with it. Got a B n B in Tarbert and an introduction to the Hearachs. “Can we get a double room for tonight?”. “Well let’s see” said the old lady (cailleach)” we have a double room and a twin room… but the twin is taken…so you can have a double room” she concluded. Now she could have said yes, but theres not a word for yes in the Gaelic.

You could never book a room on Harris like that now, especially in summer. Its hoaching. Tourists and campervans everywhere. My mate used to go camping to Arisaig but then it got busy. Camping on Skye, at Sligachan between the bridges : too busy. Now he goes to Harris…and complains it’s too busy. ” You’ll be going to St Kilda next” I say. He doesn’t appreciate my offbeat sense of humour. Smart arse.

My mates to blame though, for our Harris adventure. He gave me the estate agents brief, a croft for sale, well a sheep fank really. We walked up the track to view it that day in July 2009 and six sheep ran out the door. It was crazy really. Why did you do it, people asked initially. Well, Elaine never said no, was my reply. She never said no.

Two months later and we’ve bought the croft but we’re keeping quiet. Alot of money for a ruin. Are we mad? Its possible, I mutter to myself in a dark moment.

Off to Dunkeld for a “fishing” weekend and, in the pub my father in law comes out with it. “Yes that was daft…but not as daft as paying £##$ for a ruin on a fuckin island in the middle of nowhere”. Ah shite I’ve been rumbled. And then the grilling starts, they’re like a tag team. “So theres no water supply?” … “eh not yet”…. “and theres no electricity”….” em not yet”…”how you going to get there it’s almost in Iceland!”…

But as the beers went down the mood mellowed. “So you can walk to the pub?”…”yes”…”and the fishings good”…”definately”. I seized the initiative : with wifi nowheres really remote anymore, the ferries are very good, the locals are brilliant you’ll love the craic. I was on fire! “Kings may be blest” to quote Burns “but Tam was glorious, o’er all the ills of life victorious”. By closing time I had, in my addled mind, won them over. Eric leaned over “follow your dreams son”. I really appreciated that.

This is dedicated to my Elaine, who never said no.

Seo mo bhean,Elaine!