Archive for March, 2017

Good old Radio 6 Music – they came up trumps the other day with a lovely hour-long programme on the enduring charm of the Glasgow Barrowlands, believed by many to be one of the best venues in Scotland. At the risk of spoiling the surprise – my favourite ever gig was at the Barrowlands, and the nostalgia prompted me to revive and revise my two-part blog on Bands I Have Seen!

There’s nothing quite like live music. The venue might be cramped and hot, the music might be too loud to do anything but communicate by sign language or telepathy, but there is something joyous about the atmosphere and noise and occasion that can thrill your soul if it’s done right.
I was chatting to a pal about bands we’d seen live, and it got me reminiscing. I have never been an ardent gig-goer really: there are people out there who are at live gigs every week, and travel to different parts of the country or indeed world, to see their favourites. Fans of certain bands will stop at nothing to get tickets; camp out on the street, phone hotlines for hours on end…I’m not one of those. If I have been lucky enough to see a good band it was because the moment was appropriate, the tickets were available and crucially, the company was right.

It is a subject of debate whether the first band I ever saw is something of which I should be proud, or embarrassed. It was Hawkwind. There, I’ve said it. It’s out there. I went with a friend to, if memory serves, the Hammersmith Odeon. Was that a venue? Is it still? This must have been about 1984 or 1985, and I have two strong memories of the occasion: the two litre bottle of cider we smuggled in, and the fact that Michael Moorcock came on and recited epic fantasy poetry. I was chuffed as I was quite into Moorcock at the time, although I have never re-read any of his books, and I hesitate to do so, fearing that The Dancers at the End of Time Trilogy will not stand up to the cold eye of experienced lit.crit. I would be delighted if someone were to assure me otherwise. Would I still love Jherek Carnelian? Of Hawkwind the band, the music, I remember nothing. In later years I was to see one of the we-can’t-call-ourselves-Hawkwind-due-to-ongoing-litigation bands at the Guilford Festival, and it had all the old tricks: a child juggling, a man in a waistcoat and rubber mask grinding a guitar, a large-breasted woman dancing: and it had all the charm of a car crash. But in 1985 as a first gig, Hawkwind had at least a smidgeon of street-cred.
Towards the end of the 1980s there were big music scenes in Britain’s towns – but it could rarely be said that the Fife town of St Andrews was a hotbed of cutting edge performance and happenings. RockSoc did their best, but you can understand the reluctance of some bands to play a university full of posh rugger buggers, fewer than 5,000 students, and no railway station. Despite this, I managed to see the Bay City Rollers (can’t remember which ‘version’, and sadly they only want to play their new album and nary a hint of tartan anywhere), Showaddwaddy (who turned up in shiny suits and crepe soles and sang all the cheesy hits and were fab), and Sam Brown (who was having a very off day, snarled at the audience, and gave a very bad-tempered performance, only redeeming herself by singing Led Zep’s Rock and Roll at the end).
But the finest gig without a doubt that I ever saw at St Andrews Student Union was The Waterboys. The music was great, but the story is better. By some unheard of fluke, the Union had managed to book a band shortly before they hit their peak: in the time between booking the band, and the actual gig, The Waterboys released their Fisherman’s Blues album, and they were riding high. The day the tickets went on sale, I was working in a local café bar (The Victoria Café, fact fans) and had no money anyway, so missed out. I was mildly disappointed but got on with my life. On the day of the gig I was also working, and the bar that day was busy. From 10am onwards, one table in the corner was taken by a group pf Irishmen who were drinking Murphys like it was going out of fashion; they were very funny and sweet and they asked me if I was going to the gig. Not me, I replied, no ticket. Aw well, that’s no problem, they said. We’re the support band – we’ll put you on the guest list. Ooh, the support band, I said, what are you called? The Saw Doctors, they said. Never heard of you, came back my snappy reply. To be fair, the Saw Doctors did not at that time have a record deal, and had been discovered (so legend had it) by Mike Scott playing in a bar in Galway or somesuch, whereupon he invited them to support The Waterboys’ forthcoming tour. I jumped at the chance, and they made me agree to get on stage and dance when they played. Well, the concert was fantastic, and I jigged like a good ‘un and had a brilliant time. Afterwards, my pal Julie and I invited The Saw Doctors back to my flat where a true rock ‘n’ roll evening was had by all, during which I copped off with the bass player. In true gentlemanly fashion they all went back to their scabby Transit and spent the remainder of the night there, turning up in the morning for tea and toast before heading off to Aberdeen for the next gig. Happy days, indeed.
My boyfriend in first year at Uni had an eclectic taste in music : he was a huge Marillion fan and could also be found lurking around the back catalogue of Barclay James Harvest. To his credit though, he introduced me (via the medium of the good old C90 cassette) to John Martyn, and I will always be grateful to him for that. I saw John Martyn three times I think, all of them in Edinburgh, with Mr Dragon. On one occasion it was just John and a guitar and an amp, and it was like being transported to heaven on the wings of slightly grubby but still gilded angels who smoked forty a day. On another occasion he had a full band, and was a little the worse for wear: during a sublime guitar solo he misjudged the crucial angle of guitar-godness, lost his balance and fell over. He lay on his back and continued to play without even skipping a beat. A few roadies managed to heave him back on his feet, and all was well. We miss you, John.

To be continued……

Read Full Post »

I had lived in Quoyloo for about three weeks before the knock came at the door. As it happened I was out at fiddle practice, so I didn’t speak to the lady herself, but when I got home Mr Dragon told me gleefully that I had had ‘the call’. A representative had dropped by to see if I would be interested in joining the local branch of the SWRI. The Scottish Women’s Rural Institute (known as ‘the Rural’) is the equivalent of the WI in England. For non-British readers, the WI (Women’s Institute) are the ones featured in the film ‘Calendar Girls’, based on a true story, where the ladies posed naked with sunflowers and sticky buns. The Quoyloo branch of the Rural would never stoop to such sensationalist tactics, I can assure you. Why waste a good bun?


The Rural was formed in 1917, by a remarkable woman called Catherine Blair. She was an ardent supporter of the suffragette movement, and a member of Women’s Social and Political Union. Her husband, a farmer, supported her activities, and aided her in setting up a safe house for suffragettes released under the Cat and Mouse Act (a nasty piece of legislation whereby hunger striking women were released from prison once they were weakened to the point of near-death, then re-imprisoned once they had regained their strength). Blair was a skilled designer and craftswoman (she founded the Mak’Merry pottery) and realised that women throughout Scotland has skills to pass on, but little social opportunity to do so. Inspired by Guilds being formed in Canada, she proposed a similar organisation in Scotland, and the SWRI was born in Longniddry, providing women with a chance to meet, and exchange experiences and knowledge about everything from vegetable growing to political letter writing. The organisation (now the Scottish Women’s Institute, the ‘R’ having been recently dropped), now has over 20,000 members and more than 700 branches.

Most Orkney parishes have a branch of the SWI; Quoyloo is not actually a parish, but has one anyway. The aims are the same today as they ever were; to pass on skills from one generation of women to another, to take part in activities together, and to enjoy the friendship and company of local women.

I applaud them mightily for their talents and philosophy. One is not born knowing how to darn a sock or make lemon curd, and if a young lass from the city had the good fortune to marry an Orkney farmer, well…..she would need to learn these essentials. The Rural meetings are usually held every month, there is sometimes a theme or a motto, and often a visiting speaker, followed by gallons of tea and any number of home-baked goodies. A quick glance at one week’s Orcadian newspaper reveals a run-down of the Rural meetings over the past month:  in Firth, the ladies chose the motto ‘A laugh is worth 100 groans in any market’, and enjoyed a quiz, a drawing game, and a Christmas story. The women of Harray embraced the spirit of ‘It’s always the busiest folk who have time for more’, whilst listening to John Copland from the cattle mart talking about ‘A Day in the Life of an Auctioneer’. Meanwhile, in Costa, the guests Thora and Anne sang and told stories, mindful of the phrase ‘Sweet music lingers in the memory’.

I have, on occasion, had the pleasure of speaking or playing as a guest at the Rural. The ladies are always a discerning but appreciative audience, and any guest is treated very well indeed, plied as they are with tea, cake, and potentially winning raffle tickets. But then….the crunch. The payoff. The heavy, heavy responsibility. It falls to the visitor or guest speaker, you see, to judge The Competition. The objects in The Competition, brought in by the members, will usually be laid out on a side table for inspection and awarding of points: the grading might be 1st, 2nd and 3rd, or Gold, Silver and Bronze, or some other way of marking the three best items. The judge ponders, picks up, inspects, tastes (if appropriate), holds up to the light. After due deliberation, and without knowing who made or chose the items, the judge then places the awards accordingly. The ladies themselves will then inspect everything, and the chair or secretary will note down the winners and order of merit.
At this point, those who are aware of the workings of the Rural will know what the competitions involve. Those who don’t will be shaking their heads and wondering what all the fuss is about. I can do no better than emulate our local station BBC Radio Orkney who regularly read out the sublime and poetic Rural competitions.
An item knitted from 100g of wool.
A poem about winter and four cheese scones.
An old plate.
A photograph of a flower and a jar of raspberry jam.
An embroidered handkerchief and a glass milk jug.
A matchbox filled with objects beginning with ‘M’.
A Christmas tree decoration (any craft) and home-made Baileys (!)

It is, as I have already said, a heavy responsibility to choose between the items presented, and one that must be treated with all seriousness. The crafts, creative writing, artistic appreciation and cookery skills of the Rural members range from warm-hearted attempts, to full blown genius, and sometimes the judge must exercise high levels of diplomacy – difficult when the items are anonymous.  I do hope that as a result of my judging efforts no-one has ever been cast down too much; after tasting six jars of rhubarb chutney it can be difficult to tell between them. When presented by a range of tartan items, I hope my ambivalent feelings towards dolls were put aside in an attempt to admire the artistry of the kilt stitching. And I beg forgiveness for the rebellious thoughts that have flashed through my brain when confronted by dense cheese scones – to wit: ‘Mine are better than that!’

And therein lies the reason I ignored the summons. Not that I fear the Rural’s (erroneous) reputation as the bastion of old-fashioned attitudes. Neither am I put off by the (again false) impression that the Rural is full of old ladies (firstly, some of them are younger than I am, and secondly, they are individuals and many of them are brilliant and wise and funny). I could beg to be excused on the grounds that I have many other things to do, but that isn’t really good enough. No, the reason I have not joined the Rural is this. I am far, far too competitive. I would hear the call to produce a tray bake and a knitted tea cosy, and I would not rest until I had made the best tray bakes and tea cosy of which I was capable. The red mist would descend, my competitive streak would kick in, and no prisoners would be taken in my desire to gallop across the finishing line ahead of the pack. The day I stop wanting to win is the day I shall join the Rural. In the meantime, I shall continue to listen with pleasure to Radio Orkney’s broadcast of that week’s competitions.
A drawing of a farm animal.
An item beginning with J and a floory bannock.
Four squares of fudge and a bonny plate.

Read Full Post »


In the early 1990s I worked in a bar in the West End of Edinburgh, near to Haymarket station. In those pre-Starbucks days, the large buildings on the corners of the Edwardian terraces were still banks. At the other end of the street could be found the splendidly-named West End Fish and just across the way stood the war memorial erected to the players and supporters of a local football club who had died in the Great War.

Our pub was a mixture of locals’ drinking den (it was a cellar bar) and gastro-pub before they were all the rage. The owners of our place had culinary pretensions, which manifested as Sole Bonne Femme, vegetable crepes and chilli nachos; the one concession to ordinary pub grub was allowed on Sundays, when we did the All Day Breakfasts. You know the thing – sausages, fried egg, bacon, grilled tomato, and occasionally potato waffles – perfect hangover food. They were extremely popular and we did dozens of them.

After 3 years of working in that place I had gone from a fairly chipper and cheeky barmaid to a snarling surly animal, as I slowly realised that whilst bar and waitressing work was great for supplementing the student grant and handy in times of high unemployment, it was not exactly what I had planned as a full-on career. Customers asked for ice at their peril. To prevent me from scaring people too much, I was given kitchen tasks, and proved to be quite apt. I liked working in the warm kitchen, and was fast with the orders, plus I could develop my soup-making skills. Every day, the duty cook had to make a huge pot of soup for the next day, and I got stuck straight in. I befriended the rather shabby greengrocer across the road (the shop was shabby, not the Italian greengrocer or his two handsome sons). They loved me because I bought all the old, wilted, on-the-turn veg; Juliano would save me bunches of sad watercress and asparagus and I would transform them into bowls of (always vegetarian) delight. To this day I maintain that the best soup is made from vegetables that are past their best. As well as these exotics, I experimented with Broccoli and Brie, Stilton and Celery, Cream of Courgette and the good old leek and tattie. I once made a tureen of carrot and orange soup and a regular (nicknamed Chief, because he called everyone…erm…Chief….) proclaimed it to be ‘beezer’ which was a high accolade indeed.

On Sundays the routine was slightly different and I was occasionally on All Day Breakfast duties. I shared this honour turn about with a lad called Gavin, a clever but troubled soul who liked an occasional drink. Gav’s speciality was to take a hot potato waffle, top it with baked beans and grated cheddar, and then stick it under the grill until it bubbled. I was particularly proud of my mushrooms and tomatoes. The months/years wore on. I went part-time just doing lunches, but worked a full day on Sundays. Other employment beckoned and I finally made the decision to leave the bar and stop smelling of deep fat fryers. My last shift was a Sunday and my co-workers Andy, John and Gavin had told me in the previous week that I would have an easy time of it. Gavin would do the breakfasts, the other pair would serve at the bar, and I could lounge about smoking fags and reading the Sunday papers.

For the last time I donned my greying shapeless polo shirt, black leggings and Doc Martens and stomped up the road to work. I had had a few drinks the night before, knowing that the next day would be my last shift, so I was tired and a bit groggy and looking forward to eight hours of tea drinking and toast-eating. I arrived first to find the place empty, so I set about hoovering and putting the chairs down. Andy and John arrived and I announced my intention of getting the kettle on. Ah, they said. There’s been a slight change of plan. Gavin can’t make it. What? Why not? I cried. Well, he was pissed last night and got arrested and spent the night in the police cells. You’ll have to cook the breakfasts.

As fate would have it, it was one of our busiest Sundays for months and I spent hours frying eggs and heating up baked beans, cursing to high heaven and grinding my teeth every time I heard Gavin’s name mentioned. Finally, once all the greasy pans had been cleaned, I poured myself a pint and sat at the bar. I was looking forward to going home, pouring a hot bath, reading a book and having an early night. Andy and John popped up. They waved a card at me and handed over a bunch of tatty Michaelmas daisies. What’s this? My last shift. I was leaving. The end of an era. No word of farewells from the owners (who had not known what to make of the world’s grumpiest barmaid with degrees coming out of her ears), or indeed the rest of the staff. I was quite touched that someone had thought to mark the occasion, and we had a few celebratory pints before I headed home.

My years of barwork did nothing for my lungs or my liver, but they honed my soup-making skills a treat – indeed, where I became a proper Soup Dragon. I met some grand folk whilst pulling pints (including Mr Dragon) and I remember my grubby daisies with fondness. But I still had to cook the breakfasts on my last shift and if I ever see Gavin again I will kill him.

Aster novi-belgii White Ladies

Read Full Post »