Recent Gallivanting

My common corn flags (with thanks to My Favourite Niece for tuition on cropping a picture. I think I’ve got it now.)

When I see these flowers start to bloom, I know it’s time to go north again. They were given to me in Sutherland one October by a cousin-in-law of my mother’s; when I admired them in her garden, she immediately got her fork and started prising up some corms for me. We’d thought they were some kind of lily but I recently tried to identify them using a new thing on my phone called Picture This which I’d managed to download all by myself! This where I got the corn flag name, a form of gladiolus and a non-native species; I’m still dubious though as a search on a gardening site said they bloom in early summer and mine never flower before the end of September. Anyway, they’re a very welcome bit of colour in my drab autumn border.

As so often before, my first stop was at Perthshire Visitor Centre, Bankfoot for a toilet break and a takeaway coffee – which is now a Costa machine operation only! Needs must (and I wasn’t 100% sure that Ralia had fully reopened) so I stuck my coffee cup under the spout and hoped for the best. I have to say it was ok. The new exit lane onto the A9 is a big improvement as you can build up a wee bit of speed before merging into the madness of this newly-duelled bit of road.

Ralia – my favourite spot – had been due to open the previous day after being forced to close for a few weeks due to Covid and Brexit-related staffing problems. However, when The Loon pulled into the carpark at 8am, there was no sign of life apart from an irate lorry driver who’d been waiting for an hour to drop off supplies; even the toilets were closed. My joy was unconfined then when I got there on the Saturday and saw the lights inside. They still hadn’t enough staff for re-opening their seating and for proper cups etc but I was so thankful for my person-made coffee and my sandwich which I ate off a damp wooden bench out the back. However, my brother in law was there a few weeks ago and he reports that he got a cup and saucer, a proper plate for his sandwich and a seat inside!

I was staying in Dornoch, in a wee cottage not far from the beach. I was displeased that Cocoa Mountain in Castle Street is now takeaway only, adding to the waste problem; on my first day, the laddie working there accepted my reuseable coffee cup but next time I tried, it was refused by a wifie who I realised too late was the manager. She said they hadn’t accepted such cups since Covid started and I made the big, big mistake of saying well, it had been used the previous day. So I am very sorry for getting the poor lad into trouble.

A much better experience was had in Milk & Honey which I was pleased to see still open in the High Street, and I wasn’t surprised there was a queue outside for tables by 9.45 one morning. Their menu isn’t farantoosh but they do the basics very well and I enjoyed their thick soups with cheese scones, perched on a high stool at their front window. They cope with takeaway orders along with their table service in a fairly limited space; the staff are friendly and efficient and take their Covid protocols seriously.

I had a jaunt to Ullapool where My Favourite Niece was working and we met in a new place for coffee – Cult Cafe, which is “New Zealand inspired”. It’s in Argyle Street, very close to my old favourite West Coast Deli and I felt a wee bit guilty though when I looked over, the Deli still seemed to be doing good business; I approved of this new cafe and wish it well. We went to The Ceilidh Place for lunch and although some folk have been putting a few nasty reviews online (politically inspired, I’d say), it was busy and as satisfying as ever to all the senses. I chomped my way through a large plateful of healthy salad while MFN had fish & chips; I tried not to be envious, but failed. Anyway, we were both set up for a walk round the Corrieshalloch Gorge nature reserve, with both the bridge and the sticky-out viewpoint being as scarey as I remembered from 40-odd years ago.

At the beginning of October, I’d cut out a newspaper notice about a Samuel John Peploe exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh and should have seen very clearly that it was finishing on the 23rd. True to form though, it wasn’t until the 26th that I took myself through to the capital and it was the night before that I uncovered the clipping from the bourach on my kitchen table and realised I was just too late – what an eeejit I can be. This year’s the 150th anniversary of Peploe’s birth and it was his grandson – Guy Peploe – who’d curated the free exhibition and had managed to get loans of some of his best paintings from private collections. I’ve had to content myself with staring at the two framed posters on my bedroom wall: “Lilies” and “Still Life with Roses”.

The other exhibition I’d noted was Alison Watt’s A Portrait Without Likeness at the National Portrait Gallery and I’d duly booked a slot online. When I arrived about 10 minutes early, they weren’t caring that much about slots and I made my way upstairs, passing Sorley’s bronze head on the way.

The Watt exhibition was small but uncrowded and I was able to take my time, appreciating that there was still an artist who was drawing and painting to a standard that made me marvel at the delicacy of her lace-edged hankies or the feather or the roses or the ribbon or the cabbage leaf. She’d isolated details from the paintings of Allan Ramsay, 1713 – 1784, and painted them on plain backgrounds. The pink ribbon and the roses had been taken from Ramsay’s portraits of his wives and these portraits, which I’d seen before in the gallery, were hanging in the room. (I’d like to have seen photographs of the other Ramsay paintings ie where the cabbage leaf, the hankies and the feather had come from.)

His first wife – who’s portrayed with a very straight back – was Anne Bayne and the pink ribbon comes from the bodice of her dress. She was the daughter of an Edinburgh Professor of Law and they married in 1739 but she died in childbirth in 1743, having their third child; their two sons had already died at a very young age but this daughter survived until some time after 1752, dying before she became an adult.

On 1st March1752, Allan Ramsay eloped with Margaret Lindsay, age 26, whom he had been teaching to draw, and they were married that day in the Canongate Kirk. Her parents considered Ramsay to be her social inferior and strongly disapproved of the match; her father was Sir Alexander Lindsay of Evelick, in Perthshire. In October that year, Margaret gave birth to twins but they died a few days later; in total, seven of their ten children died young. The detail that Alison Watt took from Margaret’s portrait is a pale pink rose; Ramsay had portrayed his wife in 1758 arranging flowers and she’s holding a rose. Watt writes that it took her a while to notice that the rose has a broken stem; she does not know what this means but “it has come to represent for me, the mysteriousness of painting itself.”

That made me think of the Dutch flower painters who included broken flowers and insects within their spectacular blooms to remind us that beautiful flowers are fragile and are subject to decay – as are we all. (“Flooers will fade and so will ye” – a line from the song Lassie wi the yellow coatie which just came into my head.)

Ramsay’s sketchbook from 1755 – 1757 was open within a glass case and Watt noted that it had been “a privilege” to hold it. She continued: “Painters have always looked back on the work of others …. perhaps with a hope that some of the greatness might rub off on us, and that we might be made wiser by the experience”. The exhibition is moving on to Inverness early next year. Or you could have a look at

As I hadn’t been in the gallery for two years, I took a wheech round the other floors and then headed for the giftshop and cafe. The shop was not opening until 3 days later so I wasn’t able to look for any postcards of Watt’s lovely paintings. I paid £5 for a modest portion of thick but kind of salty lentil soup and the toatiest roll I’ve ever seen; that was followed by £2.45 for a pot of tea – leaf tea, mind you but without a strainer – and a miniscule jug of milk. However, there was a real yellow rose on the table and a portrait of Nick Nairn looking down on me. Middle class Edinburgh was out in force that day and at those prices, it’s no wonder other folk are put off.

My final jaunt was to Biggar with Mairi to see the Hugh MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank exhibition at the museum. After tea / coffee in the very well done cow-themed cafe next door, we went round the museum first, spending a lot of time in the recreated shops and businesses of a small town – the grocer, the dressmaker, the printer, the ironmonger, the bank, the chemist among others. Then I was peeved on its behalf when I discovered that 3 locally-found objects – two bronze torcs and a carved stone ball – were in the National Museum in Edinburgh with poor old Biggar Museum having only photos of them! I still fail to see why this centralising tendency has to continue unopposed ( see Bringing them all back home Part 2 ).

The MacDiarmid exhibition, which finished today, was small and although it had some of his poetry books in a case, consisted otherwise of portrait paintings by Alexander Moffat and landscapes and interiors of the cottage at Brownsbank by Ruth Nicol, together with posters of poems by Alan Riach. We knew about MacDiarmid and could recognise most of the folk in the portraits – though I was momentarily taken aback when I mistook the soor-faced Dmitri Shostakovich for Brian Wilson! I felt that information panels about them and most especially about MacDiarmid himself, and Valda his wife, and their life at Brownsbank would have enhanced the ‘visitor experience’.

Alan Riach had a double-page article which mentions the exhibition in The National on 22 November. He quoted at length what MacDiarmid had to say when the Biggar Museum opened in May 1968: “Some people are inclined to brush aside the past as no longer relevant to the present, let alone the future. That is a great mistake …… local knowledge is apt to be despised as trivial, parochial, and of no general consequence. That is all wrong. There is nothing so universal as the local …… ” MacDiarmid went on to reminisce about using “little shops in small Scottish burghs” and he wondered whether his grandparents or great-grandparents “would feel that things had improved – that life had become easier, happier and more secure”. He acknowledged that there had been “vast changes” but questioned whether they had “really been for the good”.

MacDiarmid referred his 1960s Biggar audience to what a Professor Carstairs of Edinburgh University had said in a recent Reith Lecture about it being “highly desirable that we should retain as much as possible of our local idiosyncrasies and traditions” so people would be “the better equipped for the new world-community on which we are entering. He was underlining the danger of uniformity at the expense of the rich variety of humanity – a danger accentuated by the great mass-media of making people everywhere as like as each other as peas in a pod.”

Professor Riach concluded his article by quoting John Berger’s list of what our civilisation had brought about: “The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, the place, the land, the soil; possibly too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.”

The outing to Biggar, so casual in its planning, has now given me so much more to think about, to hold on to and to try to pass on.


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