Sunday, 22 December 2013

A Swiss Army blog

Perhaps the title of this blog is a bit misleading. I've got nothing to say about the Swiss army at all, but I thought with all the different sections of the blog, it was a bit like a Swiss army knife with lots of different blades. Anyway, it does give me an excuse to take all the blades out on my Swiss army knife at once, which I managed to do without hurting myself (an unlikely outcome). 

According to Victorinox's website my particular knife is a model called the Huntsman . It might seem a little inappropriate to encourage wine drinking while hunting, but I've not usually been armed to the teeth when I've found uses for the corkscrew before.

Alas, once upon a time, this useful object lived in my pocket from which it made many appearances for snipping, cutting and sawing. I've even opened the odd tin can with it and it has gained me access to several gallons of inebriant  in it's time although, it must be pointed out, that I've never had cause to remove a stone from a horses hoof. Now there is a great fear that I might use it to run amok on the High Street with my trusted piece of Swiss engineering, or that I might be a member of the military wing of the Beard Liberation Front and use it to take hostages at the local branch of Quick Cutz. My knife has now been relegated from my pocket to a tidy corner (only the corner is tidy) of my desk where it is rarely called upon to complete tasks which challenge it very much.

Mystery Book Sculptures.

In 2011, eleven  book sculptures were left in various public locations in Edinburgh. Nobody knows who made them but they are delightful objects and they have all been kept. They were displayed together last year I believe. Some, perhaps all, are now on display at various places around the city. I saw this one on display last week in the National Library of Scotland. The coffin here is made from a copy of Charles Gibbons', The Casquet of Literature and the gramophone is made for Ian Rankin's, Exit Music. It was found in the same building it is in now and came with a label which said "For @Natlibscot - A gift - in support of Libraries, Books, Words, Ideas ..... (& against their exit)"

More of the 2011 sculptures can be seen in this Flickr album.

 That wasn't the last that was heard of the paper sculpture gifts. In August last year 50 paper flower sculpture were left around the site of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and in November last year another five book sculptures appeared at various locations around Scotland to celebrate book week Scotland. Also on display in the National Library is this sculpture, which is one of the five. For each sculpture, on line clues were posted as to the location they were in. The finder received a trophy of a paper teacup decorated appropriately (in this case with a palm tree). This one was found at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick and is themed on Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.The label for this one reads, " 'His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were' Robert Louis Stevenson ...Because reading matters...."

Three further sculptures have appeared, the last this year in June. Hopefully they will continue and that I'll continue to come across them occasionally.


The word Selfie has been named as the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year. Apparently, it's usage has increased by 17000% over the year, which is quite a lot. In case you didn't know, a selfie is a photograph taken by yourself of yourself and I have to admit to being occasionally guilty. I took this particular selfie a few weeks ago in the pictures (thus the darkness) waiting to watch a 3D film (thus the specs) (Gravity by the way - worth going to see in 3D but not sure how good it would be in 2D, let alone on the telly)

The Oxford dictionary people first found the word used in an Australian Internet forum in 2002 but the selfie itself is almost as old as photography. This is the oldest known selfie, taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839.

The taking a photograph of yourself in the mirror isn't exactly a new trick either as demonstrated by this young lady sometime round about 1900. Unfortunately, Facebook is still a hundred years in the future so she has nowhere to post it to  #OMG

Not content with a selfie - here's a selfie of me taking a selfie.

Behind me, keeping an eye on my comings and goings, are two giants of Scottish literature and poetry. I took a photo of both original paintings last week when I was in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The Robert Burns painting is by Alexander Nasmyth

The Walter Scott is by Henry Raeburn.

Sir Henry died in 1823, sixteen years before the first selfie. But when your Scotland's top notch portrait painter, who needs a camera, you can just paint yourself a selfie. So here's Henry Raeburn's selfie. Of course if you don't have to use an arm to press the shutter, then that leaves both arms free to strike a hip pose. Yo Sir Henry.

The Giant Jar of Nutella

5 kilograms of delight. Forget something to spread it on, just bring me a spoon.


After my trip to the pictures to see Gravity, I took myself to the Yo Sushi in Aberdeen where, after several visits now, I still find myself amused by my dinner arriving by conveyor belt. Accompanied by some passable Japanese beer.

Taking a selfie while picking up food with chopsticks.

Here's a useful button - don't you wish there were more of these about.

A little known but brilliant idea.

Most people are aware that, in order to help blind and partially sighted people across the road, the green man at a pedestrian crossing is often accompanied by a bleeping noise. But what happens if a person can't see or hear?

I've discovered that underneath the box with the crossing button, is this grooved knob. When the green crossing light goes on, the knob rotates. By placing a finger against it and waiting to feel it turn, you can tell when it's safe to cross the road.


Occasionally I find myself obliged to drink beer.  On such occasions, if possible, I like to try something that is new to me. The Masonic Arms in Kirkcudbright probably has the best selection of beer in town. Harviestoun's Ola Dudh 18 is a mighty old beer matured in 18 year old Highland Park whisky barrels. It tastes fruity and biscuity and almost every other taste you could think of. See how it absorbes all light and once emptied, the empty bottle automatically goes into orbit round about the beer. You could paint this on a fence and it would last for years but I recommend you drink it instead because it is excellent. You might want to sit down first - it's 8%. (sneeked another selfie in there)

Also good and very similar is Ola Dubh 12. I'm guessing that the Ola Dubh 16, that I didn't try, is also quite similar.

Here's a small conglomerate picture of several recent beers. As you would read them, St Edmunds by Green King,  Bramling Cross by Broughton, Galloway Gold by Sulwath (our local Galloway brewery), Shipyard IPA all the way from the US of A, Abro lager from Sweden, and half a pint of cashew nuts (not strictly speaking beer but it came in a glass in a pub - a new way to sell nuts for me. It's a lot of nuts by the way)

Einstok Pale Ale, forged in Iceland, gets my vote as the best beer I've tasted for ages.

This was an excellent beer too, although I can't remember what it was (whatever the Masonic's guest ale was that day I would imagine). "I'll buy you a pint if you sing Dancing Queen in the pub", sounded like a challenge to me. Song sung, pint collected - thank you John.

Mischievous chairs

I couldn't see any information a pair of chairs that I saw in the National Gallery of Scotland. They've certainly got a bit of character.

If the chap on this chair worries you......

......then I expect this fellow is even worse.

The joy of rosin.

Without adding a little rosin, violin bows don't work very well. I left mine at work a few weeks ago and had to buy some more, Brand new rosin is lovely stuff and it always seems a shame to use it, but that first use has a satisfaction on a par with braking through the paper of a new jar of coffee with a teaspoon.

Afterwards, it will never look quite the same again.


I reckoned a little spare time in Edinburgh the other day could be usefully occupied by having a hot chocolate in the Cafe Nero on the High Street. With no regard for my waistline but great regard for my soul, I had a slice of cake as well.

At the heliport, waiting to go to work, I find that they don't go in for fine crockery. I really don't like polystyrene cups but, if that is what's available, it's better than nothing. At least they had one of Scotland's finest confections available to go with it, the Tunnocks' Teacake.


You may remember these sheds first appearing a couple of years ago (remind yourself here). They have quickly established themselves as an iconic sign of the Arts and Crafts trail and brighten up the town in various locations throughout the year. This month they have taken on a festive appearance.

I'm pleased to report that this year there have been some small additions to the shed family.

Some people are full of "Ho Ho Ho" and others are more inclined to "Ba, Humbug!" (I'm inclined to the later), but whether you're celebrating Christmas, Yule, Admiring the solstice or just keeping your head down in the certain knowledge that it will all go away eventually, have a great end of the year. Tara for now.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Fun on the Ice

It's chilly up here in the garret today but not half as chilly as some of my American friends are getting it just now. I notice a great deal of snow and ice appearing on posts from the other side of The Pond. It seems a good idea then to start yesterday's sightings with two Wintery paintings I saw in Edinburgh.

There are quite a lot of Dutch paintings that seem to have an awful lot going on in them. You can stand in front of them for ages and find something new. This one by Henrdrick Avercamp is no exception. He seemed to paint a lot of pictures of a cold nature. This one is called Winter Landscape and was painted between 1610 and 1620 according to the gallery though the BBC say it was 1630.

It's not a very big picture, a little under a foot tall and not much more than a foot wide so some of the details below are probably bigger than the original. When I first saw this I though these chaps were playing ice hockey but on second thoughts they are playing golf with the chaps in the next picture. Actually it's more likely that they were playing a game that was similar and sounded similar to golf, called Kolf.

 The information says that the Dutch had a word for this kind of activity called Ijsvermaak, which literally means pleasure on ice. The lady in the next picture is probably not thinking it so pleasant at this moment as she seems to have come a cropper, nor does that fellow sitting on the edge of his boat - I think he would rather be out boating than skating.

 For those who would rather be on the land, there's a good roaring fire to be had and, if I'm not mistaken, there appears to be a pub sign outside the next building. I can see it doing some good trade once the ijsvermaak is over.

Meanwhile, over here in Scotland, there is much ijsvermaak to be had in the roaring game. I say meanwhile but this picture was painted 200 years after the Dutch fun in 1835 by George Harvey and simply called The Curlers.

The scene depicts an interparish curling match and even a local dog is getting in on the game

Most of the players, including this fellow casting the stone are wearing metal grips strapped to their feet to stop them from falling over.

This painting did very well with the popularity of the game with many prints of an engraving of it being sold and individual features of the painting were often used for curling medals.

At this point in the blog, I was just about to leap forward nearly another 200 years for some ijvermaak in Princes Street gardens where every year of late an outside ice rink has been set up. Actually Edinburgh's Winter Wonderland seems to have grown enormously this year with all sorts of new amusement to terrify you being set up and temporary bars to calm your nerves afterwards. I was just about to take a picture of the ice rink when a No 16 bus came round the corner and the ice rink picture lost in the balance between that and a twenty minute wait for the next bus so I ran after it. Here are a few ice free pictures of the rest of the Edinburgh celebrations that I snapped over the last couple of days instead.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A Pictish Medley

September found me in Inverurie, just a little North West of Aberdeen. Apart from the stone circles mentioned a few blogs ago, there are also a number of Pictish stones in the area. 

The Picts are one of Scotland's more mysterious people. They inhabited the North East of Scotland from before the time of the Romans in Britain. It's not known what they called themselves at that time, but their practice of painting or tattooing themselves caused the Romans to call them Picti and we've been calling them something similar ever since. They make their last appearance in history sometime round about the 10th century and their language is thought to have died out in the 11th century.

From the 6th to the 9th century the Picts left a number of large carved stones many of which have symbols which nobody these days knows what they mean. They are classified into 3 different categories. The first is called Class 1 which contains only Pictish imagery. Class 2 contain a mixture of Pictish symbols and Christian imagery and start around the 8th century. Class 3 contain only Christian imagery.

It has been suggested that the stones started to appear as a reaction to the introduction of Christianity or as grave markers but who knows. I found this example of a Class 1 stone in a housing estate, actually in Inverurie itself. It's known as the Brandsbutt Stone. It was found broken up and built into a dyke sometime before 1866.

Apart from the Pictish symbols, this stone also has a line of Ogam on it. The Ogham is an ancient language originating in Ireland and can be translated. The stone reads Irataddoarens - knowing what it says of course doesn't mean we know what it means but it's thought to be a name. Undiscovered Scotland website suggest that this could be a reference to Eddarrnon, a variant on the name of local saint, St Ethernanus (a bit of an unlikely fish around in the dark if you ask me but you can decide for yourself).

 Just in front of the Brandsbutt stone there is a circle marked out in the grass where a stone circle of 12 or 13 stones used to be. It's though that the stones from this may have been Incorporated into the same wall as the Pictish stone. I know that in times past, historical sites weren't held in the regard that they are now but surely to snaffle both circle and carved stone for your dyke would have seemed obvious vandalism even then.

A few miles outside Inverurie on a small country road, I found the Picardy Stone by complete accident. This Class 1 stone is thought to be from the 7th century and is on top of a small burial cairn from the centuries just before the stone. An empty grave shaped pit was found under one side of it. This may have been a grave marker but there is no great evidence to suggest that other stones were.

Only the top symbol on the stone is very clear. It is the double disc with a broken spear through it, which appears on a lot of Pictish stones.

You can make out that there are other symbols but it's really rather difficult to see them. This diagram makes them a lot clearer. Below the discs is a snake with a broken arrow and a mirror symbol, both of which are quite common.

Here's a close up of the bit with the bottom two symbols. I can just about make out the one with the snake (there's a good clear one of these on the Brandsbutt stone) but I can't really see the mirror at all.

It's worth just taking a small break from the big Pictish stones to have a wee look at some items that are to be found in the museum in Edinburgh. This small disc was found with the  double disc and broken spear symbol that is on the Picardy stone.

Occasionally silver items are found which show that back in the dark ages of Scotland, there were some high quality goods being made. This 6th or 7th century Pictish silver chain was found in Lanarkshire. The engraved symbols on the joining link were originally enamelled in red.

Two small silver plaques from the 7th century, found near Largo in Fife.

Back out in the countyside near Inverurie, is the Maiden Stone. It's an impressive 3 meters high lump of pink granite. It is said that in the dim and distant past, the daughter of the Laird of Balquhain bet a stranger that she could bake a bannock quicker than he could build a road to the top of the hill, Bennachie. She lost, mainly because the stranger was the devil. As she was running away from the Devil, she prayed to be saved. God turned her into the Maiden stone to save her. The notch that is missing from the stone is where the Devil caught her by the shoulder.

It's a class 2 stone having both Pictish symbols on one side and a cross on the other side. Below is a curious beast the appears on many Pictish stones.

An easier to see this mirror than the one on the Picardy stone (also a comb). You can see how they've worked the pattern round about a missing corner of the stone.

Most of these stones have signs near by with illustration where it's easier to see what's on the stone than it is by looking at the stone itself.

It's very difficult to see anything of the cross side at all.

Though there is a tantalising amount of this very intricate disc still visible at the bottom.

The day before I saw the stones above, I was in St Serf's church in Dunning, some miles south of Dundee. There I saw the Class 3 Pictish cross called the Dupplin Cross. Made around 800 AD it contains mainly Christian imagery. A panel of Latin on the other side has had the words Custantin Filius Fircus deciphered from it. We are quite confidently told that this refers to Constantine, son of Fergus (in it's most anglicised form), who was a king of the Picts from around 789 to 820.

This figure is probably King Constantine himself. The large head and moustache indicates a position of power.

Below him, these people, with their more normal sized heads and no moustaches, would have been some of his warriors. Just round the side of the stone from these are some warrior with normal sized heads but with moustaches, these would have been higher ranked warriors.

Some hunting dogs. Hunting scenes (and battle scenes) are quite popular on Pictish stones.

Some intricate knotwork on the sides of the cross.

Just because it's Christian, isn't a reason not to have a dragon eating it's tail.

This is the biblical King David playing his harp.

I had been to Forfar a few months ago to try and visit the Meffan Museum and found it closed (I did find a cafe open which made me the worst cup of tea I've ever tasted). I returned while passing in October and gained entry with reasonable ease. They have a large collection of old carved stones, many of which are definitely Pictish. This class 2 stone, below, was found in Kirriemuir. This side has a couple of angels sitting on the cross but I think the mason was more concerned with hunting as this side also features the figure of a hunter on one side of the cross and his dogs and a red deer on the other.

The other side of this stone has another deer hunting scene on it. You can see the old Pictish symbol of the double disc and broken spear makes an appearance again.

According to the museum, this half a stone dates from the 9th century and was also found in Kirriemuir. The cross side appears to be mainly knotwork.

The other side shows a figure with a shield on a horse. Like Constantine he has a bigger than average head, so I would imagine that this is somebody quite important. You can see he's got a small dog with him.

I'll finish off this blog back at a class 1 stone. This is the Dunnichen Stone, discovered in 1811 near the village of Dunnichen. It features the double disc and the mirror and comb which are fairly common on Pictish stones. The symbol at the top is normally referred to as a flower and isn't nearly as commonly found. The straight vertical lines on the stone are probably where a later mason started to dress the stone for some other purpose but stopped for some reason. These carvings had spent most of their lives face down in a field, the other side of the stone bears marks where the plough has ran over it during the intervening centuries.