Monthly Archives: January 2015

Warp and Weft

Out lately, from Scottish publishing house Saraband, is a hugely engaging volume – A Book of Death and Fish – in which Ian Stephen tells a tale of a lad from Stornoway, his life and loves.  We end with the reading of Peter MacAulay’s will, and by then we know the man and his family, and the important things in his life.


It may help if you’ve a wee smattering of the Doric somewhere in your past, but if not you’ll soon get the gist of it.  If you don’t know your loons fae your quines, or as Peter puts it, the coves fae the blones, worry not.

From Stornoway and his father’s folks, we go to The Broch, – that’ll be Fraserburgh to you and I – way over on the east coast, where his mother hailed from, and even down to wild places on the mainland, to Sauchie and Coalsnaughton, amongst others.

And what links them all is the fishing, from the herring fleets to the klondykers, from the fly cast in the wind, to a weighted line and something illicit for the table.  You might even learn how best to serve some of our finest, from razors to gurnards, and of course the trout and the salmon, and the herring.

We journey through life, family traumas, learning as we go, following our instincts, being responsible and at times irresponsible.  From his father’s weaving shed and the tweeds, to tinkering with engines, raising sailes and hauling in pots, we cover much of life on Lewis, and beyond.

There are tragedies in the past, rescues and deaths, and they weave through our life though we know not at the time.  And there are hopes and aspirations as Peter raises his daughter and sees her on her way.

This book is one of those reads that grows on you as progress through 500 pages, through the decades.  And it might just leave you with a big hairy worm roon yer herrt, as I’ve been know to hear from time to time from The Northern Wastes.  A Good Read.


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Words, pah!


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20/01/2015 · 08:43

On Feathered Friends

As I look out, squinting in the glare, the peaks of Goat Fell catch the rays from the lowering sun.  The early chaos is in the past; the roads are running fine, even this wee one, well fin-ish.

There is life around the garden, other than those bloody sheep, and the feeders are already empty of the morning offering.  But they’ll be back before dusk, and I need more supplies.

It is the sunflower hearts that draw them in, the feeder deep in the maple hedge.  It brings the goldfinches, occasionally a brambling, and siskins too.  The chaffies wait their turn, though they are just as happy plumping up their pink feathers for the regular bird seed over at the laburnum, with the blue tits.  No coal tits yet this year, and no Great ones either come to think of it.

Then there is the bird table, where the household scraps go, and the cat.  The orange beak of the blackie has taken to the table, though he usually keeps his feet firmly on the ground.  At times he has to give way, and all we see from the window are the big black feet of the rook, in his burkha, almost filling the entire space under the roof.  He was there last week, sheltering from the winds and the rain, before rejoining his pals for the evening flight and community singing.  And he is there again this week, shaded, feeding.  Remnants of rice, rich with flavours and still sticky from prawns, disappeared like the fruity bulgar before it.  Burnt toast and stale heels from the loaf go do well.

But there is a prowler, and beneath the table the youngest of the cats lies, waiting.  He is known to perch on the roof of said table; but his latest trick is to climb the pole, till just under the feeding platform, then lean back, to pull.  And over goes the table, feed spilled on the ground where the hungry birds have to feed.  Much easier to catch on the ground.

The garden is frozen; the air still and calm; the sun bright.  The grim fare of late seems an age ago; all those gales, and floods.  It is plenty below zero, the snow thick on the ground, with paths trampled to the washing line, or the chicken run.  A sledge lies discarded by the door.  Little may change, other than the mercury falling further over the next few days.

Then comes the weekend.  It is Birdwatch weekend, again.  Girl Urchin has been practising, trying to count quickly enough, or wondering which feeder to watch.  The one without the cat is usually best.

I was delighted to see that the RSPB have managed to produce counting sheets for the children this year, having abandoned it last time round, expecting them all to do it on their tablets and phones.  Some of the old farts prefer paper and pencil too you know, which they probably found out.  I guess I wasn’t the only one to decide this was not the best option and to go and do something else instead.  But we’ve got pages to count on this year, with colour pictures of the most common visitors.  The bird book is out; the pencils sharpened.

Go on, spare an hour this weekend.  You just never know what you might see, regardless of the weather.

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An ear worm

Did you hear it, the other day?  Brilliant it was, to wake up and hear it, to listen.  That was when I realised that the night had not been filled with familiar noises.  There was no percussion of rain and hail playing out on the window; the slates on the roof rattled not; and there was no whistling wind finding gaps in the window sealant.  The old coppiced willow outside the window creaked not; and the hedging could not even raise a rustle.  It was The Sound of Silence.

And it was the same again the next morn, after a day of calm.  But it was too early, for the moon and the snow worked a trick of the light, and dawn was still a distance away.  The trudge to the office belied the calm, for the snow lay thick and deep, piled up against walls and doors, adding half a foot or more to the roof of the car.

This is not what you want on a Saturday, especially a Junior Cup Saturday.  There was no chance of the pitch being clear, the terracing safe, or the opposition bus getting out of Cumnock.  Game Off.  Bugger.

In time we began to think about getting out.  Was the road open?  Some work with the wheelbarrow, a shovel and a path well trodden from the grit bin up and down the hill should work.  The old barrow was more like a sieve, leaking as it trundled on it’s flat tyre, the metal  disintegrating as the salt did what salt does.

We needed wheels turning on the road, working the grit in, spreading the goodness.  The car made it down, and back up again, winter tyres doing what once four-wheel-drive laughed at.  Yes, we can go the to the stables.  Game Off.  Bugger.

For it is Saturday, and Girl Urchin is taking a break from drama club, and trying her hand at riding.  Well, she’d been once; and was going back again.

But there was a problem.  Having made the hill passable, with grit and tyres, up came a tractor, shovel down, a makeshift plough.  But it didn’t make the top, and blocked the road, engine seized.  We had a problem.  Game Off.  Bugger.

Another tractor, chains attached.  We’ll pull it out, free-wheel down the hill.  But it was not be.  Brakes seized too.  Immobile.  Stuck.  And time was passing.  I was summonsed.  To do what I knew not.  And the bacon rolls were ready; a slice of xmas cake to follow.  Tools.  The garage.  Snow shovelled away from the door, and there she sat, miserable.

It was the first thing I saw, the bike, the flat tyre.  It must have been that last fateful ride, the icy one.  Farmers flailing the hawthorn hedges.  Puncture.  And Murphy’s Law, the one of Sod.  It was the back wheel of course, the one with all the gear mechanism and the manky chain stuff.  Sod it.

Anyway, back to the tractors.  Nothing doing.  And Murphy’s Law again, for up the hill comes a snow plough, intent on clearing the road, being paid for it.  Three heads to scratch, round immobile tractor, and riding lesson time drawing ever closer.

We could get out the other way?  The plough driver agreed to come in from the other end, our escape route.  Two and a half miles, ploughed , clear-ish.  He left a rumble strip, the whole way, of tractor tyre ridges.  But the winter tyres were just the job and we made the main road, and we made the stables.

Up, down, up, down, and trot to the end of the ride.  Go large.

The whole script came flooding back.  I could spot the flaws without thinking; those toes pointing down; the beasts doing as little as they were allowed; each corner being cut by more and more as the experienced leaders were followed by the novices and the lazy.

The years drifted away; back to when Saturdays were all about riding and not football.  She looked like The Prodigal, sitting there, concentrating, red cheeks in the gloom.  I know where this is going to lead, and soon it will be body armour and chaps, and horsey smells.  But it doesn’t look like we’ll need to worry about allergies, about rheumy eyes and runny nose.  Maybe we’ll not need to worry about nights in hospital and concussion, though there will be falls.  Bloody Murphy again.

No more ponies; you heard it hear first.  But just maybe sisters will find one another.  And all I heard was The Sound of Silence.


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A tale of a tale; the story of a book

… and much more beyond that.

It was only recently that I became aware of Samarkand, from where I cannot recall.  But the festive stocking contained the most recent volume of Amin Maalouf’s masterpiece.  I see that it first appeared in English in 1992, since when it was been reprinted over 20 times.  There’s a copy of that first edition on it’s away, for this one richly deserves a place on the shelf.


We go back to the 11th century, and a young lad called Omar.  He is a studious chap, a watcher of the stars, a philosopher; and he is in the habit of penning the odd quatrain, or rubai, as they are known down at the souk.  Omar is given a wee jotter, hand pressed and bound, to scribe his utterances, to preserve them.  As a tribute his notebook his later illustrated.

And this is an account of what may have happened to The Rubiayaat, of Omar Khayyam.

Legend has it the original Samarkand Manuscript was on board the Titanic, bound for New York, destined never to arrive, to be lost forever.  By then the verses had been translated, were known.  But in the intervening centuries…

Maalouf gives us the life of Omar, takes us to Samarkand, to Teheran, and Alamut.  There is the court and the harem and the intrigue of the times.  He then takes us to his adopted home, Paris, late 19th century, and off we go again, back to Persia, in different times, and on to Cherbourg, onboard.

Amin Maalouf is Lebanese, has lived in Paris for many years, and writes in French.  I see he has some other works to his name; and I have some festive tokens.  But in Samarkand he has a lot to live up to.  It is the first entry over on The Bookshelf for 2015, a real gem.

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Clouds like bruises

… rolling in from the west, chased by a rising wind.  Across the fields a group are gathered, mud-pluggers circled like wagons.  The wind carries the pop-pop of shotguns.  Maybe they’re pulling clays; maybe not.

Beforehand the sun shone, brightly, sky like eyes of innocence.  Chores done, soup ready and waiting for the return, it was time.  First cycle of the year, wheels turning, knees complaining.  Layered up against the chill, wary of the road conditions.  An hour, just give me an hour.  Route planned, climbing high, descending fast, before the clouds come in.

And off we went, light of heart, mind ready to wander.  It didn’t last.  Too many places where the sun didn’t shine; shaded still.  Too many places with run-off from the fields.  Too much ice.

The pace was slow, wary.  One blurry eye, contact lens not properly bedded, didn’t help.  And then the inevitable.  A wobble, a slide, man and machine gliding as one, Bolero as an ear-worm.  So we picked ourselves up and away we went; slower yet.  Watch for the icy stretches; off and walk.  Even that was treacherous and to the safety of the grass verge we slithered.

Route plans changed, trying to avoid the shady slopes.  Back home early, slowly, straight into the glare as the sun bounced off the wet tarmac, hiding what may be frozen beneath the surface.  It is the time of year when the sun doesn’t get close to the yardarm, rising only as far as the helmet mirror, just to blind you front and back.

Home just in time, the skies changed, blackening; the wind threatening.  And that’s when I realise there’s a pair of winter-weight bib-tights beyond repair.  For ice and lycra are not a good mix.  And the bruising on the arse is becoming the colour of the sky.  I’ll spare you the photos.

But it was good to get out again, almost.  Time perhaps to succumb to the misery of static cycling, the view of the garage walls.  I hate January, for a number of reasons.

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Oh, Mr Ottolenghi, you are a star

And finally we get to the centre-piece, Yotam’s chicken, resting here on a bed of herbs; waiting, patiently.  Weary travellers will arrive home, with appetites.  And we are ready for them, at last.  Kitchens filled with cooking smells, don’t you just love them.  I’ve been in that precious room all day, mostly reading after the fun part was over, with a pot of fresh-brewed coffee on the side.  The eating comes soon.

The star of the show – Sumac-marinated baby chickens stuffed with bulgar & lamb.


For the main course you will need:

4 baby chickens  – one large one here; 1 bunch mixed herbs – bay leaves, rosemary, sage, thyme – to line the serving dish; Greek yoghurt to serve.  And for the marinade: 70ml vegetable oil; 4 cloves garlic, crushed; 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon; 1.5 tsp paprika; 2.5 tsp sumac; 1 tsp ground allspice; 0.5 tbsp. salt.  And the stuffing: 100g butter; 260g lamb mince; 90g bulgar wheat; 220ml water or chicken stock; 1 tsp ground allspice; 1.5 tsp ground cinnamon; 0.5 tsp salt; 0.5 tsp black pepper; 40g pine nuts; 40g peeled pistachios; 40g sliced almonds.

This is a variation on a Palestinian dish that was served on special occasions (at Yotam’s co-chef Sami’s home).  They normally used a regular chicken and the stuffing was made with rice, not bulgar.  Still, the idea is the same: a sweet, spiced minced lamb stuffing flavoured by the bird’s juices as it cooks.  It’s incredibly delicious and, when the birds are brought to the table on one platter, dramatic.  I’ll leave out the bit where he says it goes well with sprouts, veggies and slaw – yeuk.

Here’s what you need to do:

Whisk the marinade ingredients until smooth, pour over the birds and massage in, inside and out.  Cover and refrigerate for from 1 to 24 hours.

To prepare the stuffing, melt a teaspoon of butter in a medium pan.  When very hot, add the mince and brown over high heat, stirring from time to time, for five minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the bulgar, water or stock, spices, salt & pepper.  Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for five minutes.  The bulgar should absorb all the liquid.

Meanwhile, fry the pine nuts in a pan with half the remaining butter for a minute, add the pistachios and cook for three to four minutes, until the nuts turn golden – take care not to burn them.  Add to the bulgar, stir, taste, and adjust seasoning.  If you are going to roast the chickens straight away you can use the stuffing while it is still warm.  Otherwise let it cool before filling the birds and keep refrigerated until you’re ready to cook.

Preheat oven to 220c/gas7.  Put stuffed chickens in a large roasting dish, pour about 250ml of water around them and cover with foil.  Roast for 35 mins, then lower temperature to 190c/gas5, remove foil and roast for another 20 mins or so, until golden and cooked through.  Check by piercing the thickest part of the leg with a skewer – the juices should run clear.  Transfer to a platter lined with herbs and leave to rest for 20mins.

Meanwhile heat the remaining butter in a pan, add the almonds and season.  Saute for 3 to 4 mins, until golden, then tip over the birds.  Serve with the yoghurt on the side  – or not as the case may be.

So, back to the packet of sage & onion mix next time?

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