Monthly Archives: January 2016

Can you imagine

… walking out on to a stage, and being faced with this:


Now imagine those seats were full of people, the balconies too.  I exaggerate, there were only perhaps 400 in the stalls, and another couple of hundred upstairs.  Those on the balconies were the other performers, musicians, singers.  Now imagine you were ten years old doing that.  Daunting stuff.

But not so for the boys and girls of Gael Music Folk Academy.  Off the bus they came, with their harps and their fiddles; flutes too; and a banjo; and a handful of melodeons.  Two groups from Gael, together for the first time as one.  East Kilbride meets Carlisle.  They had rehearsed in groups, but nevert together, never even met, and there was no warm up time.  Back stage, listen to the first two acts then on, and play.

This was the second of three sessions of the Music For Youth North East Festival, at Sage Gateshead.  Stage One.  The Big One.  Four Thousand Seats.

First up was a brass band, from Egglescliffe School.  I glanced at the programme.  Egglescliffe had a huge role in organising the event, funding it.  And they had four different bands and choirs playing.  If the brass band were anything to go by this is some school for music.  Their Theme From Red October was simply mesmerising.  I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing at again at the MFY National Festival in the summer.

Follow that, thought I.

Our session had three choirs, along with brass, funk and folk.  So a group of assorted folkies, stopping short of the Aran knits, were perhaps a bit ‘off the wall’ in such a gathering.  But they played their wee hearts out.  Logan Water gentled the audience to silence, no need for the backing track, time kept perfectly; Kendal Ghyll went off nearly without a hitch, warming them up.  Common Ground to finish, superbly.  They know that one so well.  Must surreptitiously record it and use it as a ringtone.

But what got me, and I am a tad biased, was Boy Urchin, though I did have an eye for many others.  The harps draw the eye, and the ear, driving the group on.  Have you ever listened to a harp, no really listened?  And half a dozen of them together? For the most part he was hidden from my view, but glimpsed from time to time through a fiddler’s bowing arm.  Oot and in, oot and in he went, as one might expect, fingers dancing up the board, rolls and folds and chords.

He’s no stranger to playing in front of folk.  But generally he keeps his eyes down, no contact whatsoever.  At the school recently, a wee solo piece, his eyes never left the buttons on his box.  That in itself is unusual, for one who invariably practices with eyes glued to Pointless, the occasional glance at the musical score in front of him.  Didn’t want to make mistakes, his defence.  Audiences before have included family gatherings, school chums, or even public performances at their home base in EK, or at Biggar’s Corn Exchange.  he’s happy to play, just don’t look up.

Sage One was just a wee bit different, and so was he.  For he smiled, eyes lit up, eyes up.  And he revelled in every minute of it.

Now this festival is a superb event, with three sessions through the day.  And each session is professionally critiqued.  We had Damien Harron and Jennifer Martin on duty, and quite some task they had.  At the end of the session a representative from each act joined them on stage to hear what they had to say.  The feedback from the pros was brilliant; constructive, helpful, encouraging.  The boys and girls on stage were presented with the notes made on their performance, and a certificate from the day.  The audience loved it, and their tutors and leaders beamed.

And who did Luke Daniels send out there from Gael Music?  There were none more surprised than I to see Boy Urchin waiting to lead the six acts on stage, smiling all the way.  By the end of the session there was hardly a dry eye in the house seat J31.  Wonderful stuff.



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One of the talking points of late was the subject of one’s nuts, spicy and very well nibbled.  So I’m more than happy to share my nuts around.

Here’s what you need:

100g cashew nuts; 100g macadamia nuts; 120g pecan nuts; 60g whole almonds (skin on); 1 tbsp sunflower seeds; 2 tbsp nigella seeds; 3 tbsp sunflower oil; 2 tbsp honey; 1 tsp fine salt; 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves picked; 2 tsp coarsely-ground black pepper; 2 tsp cayenne pepper.

You might find that you need to double the quantities next time round, your nuts never having been so popular.  Being a parsimonious type I replaced the macadamias with pistachios.  And the cupboard being devoid of honey using maple syrup proved a master-stroke.

Pre-heat oven to 170C, gas mark 3, (or something moderate on the rayburn).  Scatter all the ingredients except the pepper and cayenne in a roasting tray.  Roast for 15-17 mins, stirring occasionally, until the nuts turn dark brown.  Remove, stir in the pepper and cayenne, and taste.  Add salt if you like.  Leave to cool in the tray, stirring from time to time.  Once cool, transfer to an air-tight container.

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Festive Fare

The festive table this year was graced by what you might have heard described on some cheffy programme or another as Deconstructed Three-Brid Roast, or perhaps Bird Three Ways.  A combination of indecision and family foibles saw no agreement being reached for xmas dinner, other than fish fingers but we’ll leave them aside for the moment.

Consequently three separate poultry or game dishes gave a sample from which surely everyone could find something enjoyable.  A parcel of quail, partridge and wood-pigeon breasts duly arrived from Burnside Farm Foods.  Starve we would not.

By far the most successful was Braised Quail with apricots, currants & tamarind.  No surprise to find that one from Yotam Ottolenghi, and it his from his Jerusalem that the picture is copied.


The essential ingredients are:

4 extra-large quails, cut in half along breastbone and back (which is pretty much how they come from our friends at Burnside); 3/4 tsp dried chilli flakes; 3/4 tsp ground cumin; 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed; 1 tbsp olive oil (or Scottish rapeseed oil); 75ml white wine; 80g dried apricots, thickly sliced; 25g currants; 1.5 tbsp caster sugar; 1.5 tbsp tamarind paste; 2tbsp lemon juice; 1 tsp picked thyme leaves; salt & black pepper; 2bsp chopped mixed corainader and flat-leaf parsley, to garnish.

Anyone planning well for dinner may have read the recipe in advance and had the birds marinating in the fridge overnight.  But you’ll get away with a couple of hours whilst The Urchins are knee-deep in gift wrap, ignoring new clothes, looking for batteries or whatever.

Wipe the quails with kitchen paper and place in a mixing bowl.  Sprinkle with the chilli flakes, cumin, fennel seeds, half tsp salt and a good dose of black pepper.  Massage well with your hands, cover and leave to marinate, for at least two hours.

Heat the oil in a frying pan large enough to take the birds snugly and for which you have a lid.  Brown the birds on all sides, for about 5 minutes, till a nice golden-brown colour.

Remove the quails from the pan and discard most of the fat, leaving about half a tablespoon.  Add 300ml of water, the wine, apricots, currants, sugar, tamarind, lemon juice, thyme, more salt and pepper.  Return the quails to the pan.  They should be 3/4 covered in liquid; if not, add more water.  Bring to the boil, cover and simmer very gently for 20-25 mins, turning the birds over once or twice, until just cooked.

Lift the quails from the pan and onto a serving platter and keep warm.  If the liquid isn’t very thick, return it to a medium heat and simmer for a few minutes to reduce to a good sauce consistency.  Spoon the sauce over the quails and garnish with the coriander and parsley.

Definitely do that one again, and not just at Christmas.


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Escape to…

…Alaska.  It is often one of my favourite literary haunts.  Big country, with big mountains, isolation, and seriously tough conditions.

It is an escape that has brought the best out of many a scribe.  From the sheer exhilaration of the sled-dog mushers and the brutal demands of the Iditarod, to the life-saving serum runs, there are many terrific reads around the exploits of huskies – Gay Salisbury’s The Cruelest Miles and John Balzar’s splendid Lure of the Quest come to mind.  There are tales of those gold-rush days on the Yukon, such as Jack London’s, that grip us from childhood.

But Alaska comes into its own from those seeking isolation, testing themselves, escaping.  I am thinking here of Brian Keenan, after his captivity, (Four Quarters of Light) and of Lynn Schooler (The Blue Bear, Walking Home), and even Jonathan Raban though I have yet to be able to read his Passage to Juneau to the end.

It was all brought back to mind recently.  I had rattled through Gay Salisbury’s well researched tale, and then heard Guy Grieve on the radio.  One Man’s Wilderness had been on the radar for some time.  It arrived recently.  This is a story from the 60s, one man living a life, leaving a legacy.  Richard Preonekke kept a diary, and his pal Sam Keith wrote up his notes, told his tale.  Dick took photos as well, and they give us some of the stunning majesty of the wilderness.


It’s one of those dreams, the sort that Guy Grieve had – alone in the middle of nowhere, build a cabin, survive.  Never mind the bears and the wolves, plenty fish in the lakes, caribou in the hills.

Well Proenekke did just that.  Today the Dick Proenekke Historic Cabin Site is managed by the National Park Service.  Much of Keith’s narrative takes us through the building period, from felling trees to turning them into a home, fitting it out so that fifty years later it remain one of the finest examples of what can be achieved.  Marvel at his skills.  Reading of it may seem a bit dry at times, but when you come to the pictures…

Proenekke was a great friend of the nature all around him, a respecter of the winter ice on the lake, and of those living with him, facing the same struggles for survival, for food.  Picture a rack of caribou antlers swimming, wolves in solitary file crossing the ice, or even the squirrel in the chimney stack, the birds pecking at his frozen food cache.

I’m left wanting more, and wondering who it was a I lent my copy of Grieve’s Call of the Wild to.  For that was a splendid read, an escape from the Borders commuter run to Edinburgh’s offices; a man finding himself, and a family back home finding their man.  Since then the Grieves have done other things, based now on Mull.  I haven’t read the tale of their sail across the Atlantic, but having heard that radio programme, perhaps I should.

Alaska has a lot to answer for.

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Oliver’s Army

The old bedside table has been replenished by Santa and his elves.  So we find the new reading year off to a cracking start, from an unlikely source.  Neil Oliver is perhaps best known for lank hair blowing in the winds of the coastlines, or even some disputed versions of Scottish history.  I’ll leave aside this historian’s views of Scotland’s future.

His first dip into fiction, not unexpectedly, relies deeply on historical facts, and on Scotland.  Master of Shadows rattles on at a pace, taking us to distant lands, and exciting times.


Oliver manages to tie in Border Reivers and the Lord of the Isles, and see us though to the end of Byzantium, the sack of Constantinople.  More than the author’s name it was the draw of the Golden Horn that pulled me in.  The route may be fanciful at times, as mercenaries and janissaries clash before the white walls of the ancient city and rich Scots brogues ring out whilst Sultan Mehmet and Emperor Constantine reach their pivotal point on the Sea of Marmara.

But Oliver has something for everyone, with quests to find parents and children, and love interests as the battle for supremacy rages on.  We have the chase across the heather, the pilgrim routes of Europe, the influence of Rome, and finally we arrive at the gateway to Asia.

And even the Maid of Orleans has a part to play, a significant one at that.  But it is a good yarn for a’ that.

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