Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Scottish Birds cover and last post for 2017

December 25, 2017

Through the post recently came the latest copy of Scottish Birds which I receive as a member of the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club (SOC). I was struck by the front and back covers which I think are possibly the most attractive of the year. The journal contains articles on in-depth research on birds in Scotland – their numbers, their habitat and trends in population. There are also shorter articles on rare sightings of visiting birds. I have to admit that I don’t read the research articles in full, but I particularly enjoy the photographs of birds which accompany the articles. I don’t count myself as a birder as I don’t do any serious bird watching. Please don’t use the term twitcher for bird watchers as this is regarded as pejorative, a bit like referring to serious runners as joggers or The Inuit as Eskimos. I’ve been given permission to scan and use the covers by the good people who run SOC. The front cover below shows a water pipit which was photographed at Skateraw, which is along the coast from Dunbar and on one of my mountain bike cycling routes in the winter. The article on this bird stated that is has a “prominent pale supercilium”  – unfamiliar terminology to me. Looking it up, supercilium (good illustrations) is “also commonly referred to as “eyebrow” — is a stripe which starts above the bird’s loral area (area between beak and eyes), continuing above the eye, and finishing somewhere towards the rear of the bird’s head”. Loral area is more new terminology. The scanned photo is not as clear as the journal cover photo, but you can see that this is a strikingly attractive bird, with its sharp beak which has a lightning streak of yellow, its pale plumage neatly folded to keep out the rain, its blacksmith crafted legs and feet, and black snooker ball eye.

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Scottish Birds front cover (Click on all photos to enlarge)

The back cover has this photo of a Spotted Crake, captured at Doonfoot, near Ayr. This bird has the wonderful scientific name of Porzana, Porzana and there is a short video of the bird at this location here. While the spotted crake does not (I think) have the elegance of the water pipit, as it has a patchwork-looking foliage, it does have a fascinating beak, with what looks like a small boat on the upper part. As with the pipit, the spotted crake’s eye is prominent and alert to food in the water. Of course, the bird’s reflection and the reflection of the reeds by the water add much to this well composed photo.

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Scottish Birds back cover

This is the last post of 2017 as your blogger is taking a rest over the New Year, to return reinvigorated in early 2018. So where did 2017 go? Or 2007 or 1997 or ….? In a flash is the answer. Looking back on my extensive range of photos for 2017 and earlier blog posts, I recall the colours and reflections in a rockpool at Seacliff Beach on New year’s Day.

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Vibrant colours and reflections at Seacliff Beach

In May, it was the smooth lines of the tattie dreels that drew my attention. Soon after, the first sign of green shaws appeared and before we knew it, September was well under way and the tattie machine was lifting the crop. This field is now a vibrant green, with the spring wheat coming through.

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Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

Smooth tattie dreels near Dunbar

In September, the Tour of Britain came our way again and I was up Redstone Rig with my cycling pals – and many other cyclists – to see the peloton approach the big hill, with the rolling country side of East Lothian in the background.

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Peloton at the top of Redstone Rig

Then I blinked and it was December and Seafield Pond was frozen over on a very bright, sunny and freezing cold day.

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Seafield Pond frozen over

 

If my letter to Santa has been received and the white bearded reindeer driver is in a good mood, I may return with a brand new DLSR camera, with a video function. I’m off to leave out carrots for the reindeer and a large dram of Bunnahabhain for the man. I wish you all the very best for the festive season and a Guid New Year when it comes.

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Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge

December 17, 2017

Recently, I’d come to the end of the new books I’d bought and, looking along my bookshelves, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy short stories (cover below). I bought this book in the mid 1970s and opening the book and starting to read the first story The Three Strangers, I was immediately taken back to Hardy’s eloquent and flowing style. The story begins “Among the few features of agricultural England which retain an appearance little modified by the centuries, may be reckoned the long, grassy and furzy downs, coombes or ewe-leases, as they are called, according to their kind, that fill a large area of certain counties in the south and south west”. What struck me was the length of the sentence – typical of nineteenth century writers like Hardy – and the local words used by the writer. “Furzy downs” are stretches of rural land covered in what we might call gorse and a “coomb” is a deep valley. More explanations here. In his excellent introduction to the short stories, the novelist John Wain wrote that Hardy once said that a short story “must be unusual and the people interesting”. Wain also notes that Hardy’s short stories are unlike more modern versions, which tend have a single theme around which a tale is told. In Hardy’s stories, such as “The Withered Arm” or “The Distracted Preacher” the reader is presented with different characters, some of whom have their own intriguing tales to tell. It is the context of the stories – rural Dorset in the early to mid-nineteenth century – that distinguishes them from even contemporary short fiction. The isolated cottage in “The Three Strangers” or the village in “The Grave by the Handpost” where ” a lane crosses the lone straight highway dividing this from the next parish” and where “the whispers of this spot may claim to be preserved”. There are also echoes of Hardy’s novels in the stories such as the character William Dewy of Mellstock and the town of Casterbridge. Hardy is a superb story teller and in each story, the reader is given an early indication of what might be to follow. In “The Withered Arm”, the setting is “an eighty cow dairy” in the early evening and, with most of the cattle milked “there was opportunity for a little conversation. “He do bring home his bride tomorrow, I hear. They’ve come as far as Anglebury today”. Hardy continues “The voice seemed to come from the belly of the cow called Cherry, but the speaker was a milking-woman, whose face was buried in the flank of that motionless beast”. The reader knows the setting and is intrigued by the conversation. I have enjoyed reading these stories again after many years and I encourage you to try them.

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Short stories by Thomas Hardy (Click on all photos to enlarge)

There’s a good 2 mile (3.2k) walk from our house to Seafield Pond (good photo)  and West Barns bridge. The most picturesque route is firstly to  Dunbar Harbour (historical photos), then along Winterfield Promenade and on round part of the picturesque Winterfield Golf Club. I was headed for Seafield Pond first, to try to get some more photos of the pond and its birds. A previous attempt can be seen here. When I got to the pond, it was frozen over and not a bird to be seen, just some bits of wood from the nearby trees stuck to the ice. There was however, a nice reflection (see below) from the adjacent caravan/mobile home park, where you can now hire a “Deluxe running water wigwam with WC” – what next?

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Seafield Pond at Belhaven, near Dunbar

The birds were all on the beach over the wall but firstly I walked along to West Barns bridge, which spans the Biel Burn (small river). It was a very sunny day and the previous night’s sharp frost can be seen on the entrance to the bridge here.

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West Barns bridge and the Biel Burn

Because of the position of the sun in the early afternoon, there was a superb reflection in the water below the bridge, with the brilliant blue water becoming paler and paler as the sun caught it fully on the bend of the river. This part of the Biel Burn is where the fresh water meets the incoming tide.

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West Barns bridge

I know a few people – of a certain age – who spent quite a bit of their youth on the Biel Burn guddling for trout, and they each have their own secret method. This is a form of fishing in which the potential fish catcher does not use a rod or a net, but his/her fingers to catch the trout. I’m assured by two former poachers that it is an art and not a science, and that an expert guddler is born with a gift. There’s a PhD in there somewhere for a dedicated scholar e.g.  “Guddling: A phenomenological analysis”. Guddling was – and probably still is – carried out in shaded areas, such as at the tree line end of this photo.

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Guddling spot near the trees on the Biel Burn

It was on my way back along what is known as the Dump Road as there used to be a council tip nearby, I tried to capture some of the birds on the beach and on the water on Belhaven Bay. I was using my zoom lens and it’s difficult to get very clear photos without a camera stand. The two best were firstly, a redshank on the move, with some nice reflections of the rocks and the vegetation.

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Redshank amongst the rocks and grass at Belhaven Bay

I’m more pleased with the second photo, which is of a curlew flying off across the water. While the beak is not all that clear, I do like the light on one wing and the shadow on the other, plus the reflection in the water. I used my Sports setting for this one.

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Curlew flying over Belhaven Bay with the tide in

So a very rewarding walk on a cold but bright day and on the way back I reflected how lucky I am to live in such an entrancing environment.

Darren Woodhead exhibition and Pascal Petit’s Mama Amazonica

December 10, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by Darren Woodhead, a very well known and respected wildlife artist. This is a stunning exhibition, with the visitor impressed and intrigued from the first painting of Long-tailed Tits in Hawthorn (reviewed below) , to butterflies, geese landing over Aberlady Bay (good photos) and bee-eaters in Nottinghamshire (includes video). There is so much to see that a second visit will be necessary. I contacted the artist and he kindly allowed me to download two of his paintings. The first painting is a riot of colour, with the pink and red hawthorn berries immediately catching your eye – and the berries are depicted as lush, juicy and a feast for the birds. Then you see the bird themselves, nestling in the branches, well-camouflaged in their more subtle colours, but no less attractive for that. I really do like and appreciate the rather hazy parts of the painting – this is not photo-realism, but Darren Woodhead’s exquisite interpretation of what he sees when painting this busy scene.

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Long-tailed tits in the hawthorn by Darren Woodhead

The second painting features birds seen in this part of the country in winter – the fieldfare and the waxwing with the latter often seen in flocks (good photos). This is another very active scene with the birds, in particular the resplendent fieldfare, busy feeding on the buckthorn, which is called “the baked bean tree” around here. The painting also captures the very spiky nature of the buckthorn bush and it is this spikiness that can protect birds from predators. So, another rush of colour which takes your eye across the painting, with the spots on the birds not unlike berries. The artist also captures the elegance of these birds very well. The exhibition is on until mid January, so if you can get to see it, you will be wonderfully rewarded by a show by one of our finest wildlife artists.

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Fieldfare and waxwing among buckthorn by Darren Woodhead

From nature at its most colourful and joyful to a portrayal of nature which is both beautiful but also savage. Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica is a PSB Choice and it is one of the most intriguing and disturbing books of poetry I have ever read. The setting of the poems is a psychiatric ward where the poet’s mother is a patient. This is accompanied by a second setting – the Amazonian rainforest – and the poet’s interpretation of her mother as being transformed into a range of animals that inhabit the rainforest. We also learn of the mother’s trauma at the way her husband viciously treated her before and after the marriage. So, it is often a painful read but at the same time, it is often astonishingly beautiful in its depiction of the  rainforest’s animals. For example, in the title poem which begins “Picture my mother as a baby, afloat/on a waterlily leaf”. The mother is transformed into the flower in the jungle and, as a representation of her mother’s illness, “She hears the first roar/ of the howler monkey,/ then the harpy eagle’s swoop,/ crashing through the galleries of leaves,/ the sudden snatch/ then the silence in the troop”. Further poems outline how the mother was initially raped by the father and further mistreated, and when I read the poems – only a few at a time – I wondered if I should continue, but there is relief in many of the poems, which celebrate the wild. In My Mother’s Dressing Gown, the poet writes “Her face was an axed mahogany./ Her hands emerged from emerald sleeves/ to meet on the table, talons tensed,/ like a puma challenging a tayra”. We are presented with a superb metaphor but also – and this happens often – sent to the dictionary to identify an animal. A tayra is a large weasel. In a subsequent poem, in trying to describe  her mother’s illness, mania is seen as a side effect – “Imagine a mother with a mind/ hyper as a rainforest,/ the ward echoing with/ whoops of titi monkeys”. A new species of this monkey was recently discovered. In short, this amazing book of poems can delight, disgust and educate and while it is a challenging read, it often rewards the reader with spectacular images. Try it – even the cover is intriguing.

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Mama Amazonica by Pascale Petit

 

 

All that Man Is and Cliveden House, near Windsor

November 10, 2017

In most cases, when I buy a book in a bookshop – I try to do this mainly, although I do order online as well – and read the blurb and the recommendations from reviewers, I enjoy the book, and mostly agree with the positive reviews on the cover of the book. I have just finished David Szalay’s novel All that Man Is but I found myself not agreeing with most of the review quotes. In the book, there are 9 stories of men of different ages and nationalities telling the reader their woes – often related to romance or the lack of it. There are some quite humorous scenes and there is no doubt that Szalay writes very well for the most part. I agree with the Guardian reviewer that 9 stories do not a novel make, despite the fact that there is a common theme of men in some sort of trouble and doing a lot of soul searching. I imagine that many female readers – as well as male readers – might find that some of the men in the stories are pathetic and need a good shake, although some female reviewers praised the novel. There are some very good passages in the stories and in the last one, the man reflects on how, to him, the present often seems to be impossible to define, that indeed impermanence is the only permanent factor in  our lives. Szalay writes “How little we understand about life as it is actually happening. The moments fly past, like trackside pylons seen from a train window”. On the other hand, this guy thinks he is old  and not long for this world as he is 73. My cycling pal  John is 74 and he floats up hills on his bike. The book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and you can read a very positive review of the book here,  so don’t let me put you off trying it. If you’ve read it and enjoyed it – post a comment.

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In mid-October, we went down to by train to Thames Ditton for my sister-in-law Hilary’s significant birthday celebrations. We had a charming walk along the Thames, going through part of the impressive Hampton Court. On the Thames, we passed numerous house boats which were reflected in the river, and enhanced by the  backdrop of autumnal trees, as shown here.

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House boats on the River Thames

On Hilary’s birthday, we all went to Cliveden House (pronounced Cliv-den) with its magnificent grounds and luxury hotel. The property was built by the famous American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who passed it on to his son Waldorf. The grounds are extensive and on a sunny day, you can enjoy a peaceful, rural walk past the modern sculptures, seen here in the context of the grounds and then, closer up, looking back to Cliveden House.

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Sculptures and maze at Cliveden House

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Sculptures with the back of Cliveden House

Cliveden House is historically best known for the infamous Profumo Affair, the repercussions of which brought down the Conservative government in the early 1960s. When you walk down to the river, you pass the cottage where the affair took place. It was a lovely autumn day when we visited and we saw some startlingly beautiful trees by the river, such as the one below. You can also walk by the pond which has a pagoda, a range of trees and on this day, a very calm heron, seen below. Cliveden House and its gardens are well worth a visit if you are in the area.

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Autumnal splendour at Cliveden House gardens

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Heron at the pond near Cliveden House

 

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” and the Thyssen-Bornemisra Museum

October 21, 2017

In a recent Guardian Review article, Robert Macfarlane – the well known writer on the British landscape – argues that children need to be reacquainted with the natural world. In the article, Macfarlane cites a Cambridge University study that showed how children aged 4 to 11 were much more likely to identify Pokémon characters (80% accuracy) than common plants and animals in the UK (50% accuracy). One of the conclusions of the report stated “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren?”. Other studies cited show that adults’ knowledge of wildlife is not much better but 9 out of 10 adults wanted children to have much more knowledge of plants and animals. Macfarlane’s reaction to the reports was that he wanted to write a book for children which might increase their appreciation of the living world, as opposed to the digital world of Pokémon. The reasons for children’s lack of experience and knowledge of nature is well known – more children live in cities and more children spend more time online than out of doors.

The result is what looks like a beautiful book, written by Macfarlane and illustrated by Jackie Morris.

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New book by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (Click to enlarge all photos)

The article concluded with “The bird which became the guiding, gilding spirit of The Lost Words is the goldfinch. Goldfinches flit across its cover and gleam from its pages”. Macfarlane notes that the collective word for goldfinch is a charm which can also mean the singing of a group of children. Below is a close up of a goldfinch, taken by Harry Scott. This book would make a wonderful present for anyone – adult or child – and if you can combine this with a trip to the countryside or the seaside for the children, Dr Macfarlane would be most pleased. I have just come back from the beach near our house where my nearly 6 year old twin grand daughters saw oystercatchers, plovers and redshanks on the shore, feeding on what was coming in on the tide. So, I’m doing my bit.

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Goldfinch by Harry Scott

One of the highlights of our trip to Madrid was the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum which can be found opposite the more famous Prado Museum. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has much more modern painting and is less focused on religious painting. It is a very extensive art gallery, with numerous rooms and would take more than one visit to do it justice. I have always been impressed by the American  painter Edward Hopper and there are four of his works here. The first of my selection is Hotel Room (below) and what strikes you is the rather lonely looking woman, sitting on the bed, in her underwear, reading a book. Then there are the colours – the green chair, the black hat, and the white bed which contrasts with the woman’s undergarment. The museum has a short video on this painting which is well worth viewing.

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Hotel Room by Edward Hopper

The 2nd Hopper painting is The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet  which is intriguingly named after someone who took Hopper and his wife sailing i.e. there is no yacht with this name. Although the sandbank looks rather fanciful, this is a painting with delicate shades of blue, white and cream, with the movement of the boat emphasised by the undulating waves. I see a spirit of freedom and enjoyment in this painting, on the part of the humans. The seagulls look away, unimpressed and the small, bubbly clouds on the horizon are dominated by a clearer sky above, suggesting a warm summer’s day.

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The “Martha McKeen” of Wellfleet by Edward Hopper

I’ve seen Hopper’s lighthouse paintings before, but Martin Johnson Heade is a new artist for me. His painting Orchid and a Hummingbird Near a Mountain Waterfall was one of the highlights of our visit. It is a stunningly original painting, with its combination of dark and light and the colours of the orchid are reflected in the hummingbird. There is so much to see in this work – shapes, patterns, the real and what I see as the surreal combined – that you can find yourself standing in front of the painting for quite a while. The detail on the plant and the bird are superb.

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Orchid and Hummingbird near a Waterfall by Martin Johnson Heade

So an exhilarating visit to this museum in Madrid which is not to be missed if you are in the city. No blog next week as I’m off to Pisa and Florence with my pal to take in the sights and a football (aka soccer) game.

Keith Brockie exhibition and El Retiro Park in Madrid

October 6, 2017

The latest exhibition at Waterston House in Aberlady is by the renowned Scottish wildlife artist Keith Brockie. I featured Keith’s work on the blog  two years ago, having visited his last exhibition. The new show of paintings is equally stunning and there is a superb display of artistry here, particularly in the detailed portrayal of lapwings and hares. Keith kindly sent me 2 samples from this exhibition. The first painting features a lapwing  which is also called a Peewit, due to its call which you can listen to here (scroll down to audio). The painting perfectly captures the lapwing’s delicate colours and instantly recognisable tuft on its head. There are many superb paintings of lapwings in the exhibition and I particularly liked the ones with the lapwing sitting on its nest. The portrait of the ram is equally eye-catching and you have to admire the sheer tenacity of the painter to capture the detail of the hairs on the sheep’s face and what look like carvings on its magnificent horns. When the rutting season comes, I’m sure that this individual would emerge victorious.

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Lapwing and ram by Keith Brockie (Click to enlarge all photos)

The second painting is what I have entitled “Determined hare” as there is a steely look in the hare’s eyes. A close up of view of this and other hare portraits in the exhibition demonstrates Keith Brockie’s ability to capture the finest features of this beautiful animal. Look at the white whiskers, the oval nose and the small, puckered mouth and the brilliant contrast between the light and dark patches on the hare’s skin. The use of light and dark has challenged painters down the centuries and Keith Brockie makes superb use of this feature here. The exhibition is on until 15th November, so go and see it if you possibly can. We’ll be revisiting Waterston House before then.

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Determined hare by Keith Brockie

We recently spent a week in the Spanish capital Madrid (good photos) and what an impressive city it is. Madrid is a busy metropolis and the city centre is heavy with traffic for most of the day. However, just around the corner from the busy roundabout at the Palacio de Cibeles (video) is El Retiro Park (good photos), a vast green space which is easily accessible. The park has a 4k perimeter and is a favourite place for runners at all times of the day. It’s also a very peaceful place during the week when it is quieter. Most of the park consists of avenues of trees, bushes and hedges with walkways in between. Here we met a man playing a large harp.

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Harp player in El Retiro Park, Madrid

And we passed a puppet show where a group of children sat enthralled by the singing, storytelling and puppetry of a white haired, smiling puppet master.

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Puppet show in El Retiro Park, Madrid

Inside El Retiro Park are more formal gardens e.g. the Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez (good photos). I made a short video on my mobile phone which you can download here. This is a very relaxing area, with its neatly trimmed hedges, little fountains, covered walkways and beautiful flowers, as in the photo below, taken on a lovely sunny day in Madrid with the temperature at a very pleasant 26 degrees. The topiary in the gardens is very impressive, with avenues of neatly shaped columns.

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Inside Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

There are peacocks and peahens strolling around the gardens, ignoring the photographers and looking haughtily away from what I’m sure they regard as uncouth human onlookers. The peahen below is a good example. It could well have come straight out of a Keith Brockie exhibition, with its keen eye, exquisitely shaped feathers and a tuft that a lapwing would die for.

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Peahen in Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez, Madrid

 

Lucy Newton exhibition and walking up to Arthur’s seat

July 5, 2017

At Waterston House in Aberlady, the current exhibition (until 26 July) is by well known wildlife artist Lucy Newton. I reviewed Lucy’s last exhibition at SOC here almost exactly 2 years ago. If you had asked me in 2015 whether the then exhibition could be surpassed in quality, I would have doubted it, but along comes Lucy Newton in 2017 and produces an even more stunning exhibition than the last one. I again requested two images for the blog and Lucy kindly sent me four. The first one on view below is Brown Hare and I found the detail of the animal’s fur amazingly delicate, especially the whiskers around the mouth. You have a feeling from the hare’s eye that it is sensing something – danger perhaps and getting ready to run. The alert hare looks comfortable in her/his environment – sprigs of heather  and maybe snow? You can see how the hare might blend in nicely and use the heather as camouflage. I occasionally see hares while out cycling and the hare will often stop on the road, look at you from a distance, as if daring you to catch it. As soon as you get anywhere near it, the hare speeds down the road and disappears through a hedge. Even Chris Froome would not catch a hare.

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Brown Hare by Lucy Newton (Click to enlarge)

Choosing the 2nd photo of Lucy Newton’s work was difficult. There is a superb painting of a woodpecker on a moss laden tree, in which the moss and the bark flow down the trunk, and contrast with the vibrant colours of the bird. I chose the painting below of a barn owl in flight. You can see in the photo below that there is an energetic sense of movement about this piece of art. It is more stunning at the exhibition itself, as when you first see it, there is a fleeting feeling that the owl might really be in flight. In the background to the bird here, the series of abstract shapes also suggest movement to me and they reflect the swish of the bird’s wings, which are drawn with such detail that you see and feel action in the depiction of flight. This is an exhibition not to be missed if you are in the area.

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Barn Owl in Flight by Lucy Newton

My good friend an ex-colleague from Charles Sturt University Bob Pymm visited us recently from Australia. Unlike the rest of June in Dunbar, it was a gloriously sunny and warm weekend, with a flat calm sea. On the Monday, we got the train up to Edinburgh and walked up Arthur’s Seat (good photos). We walked from the Scottish Parliament along part of Holyrood Park (good photos in Gallery) and then up the direct route. It’s quite a climb up the rough steps and there are some parts where the scree is slippery. However, you get great views of the city as you climb higher. The first photo looks over to Fife, with eastern part of the city in view.

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View from half way up to Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

In the 2nd photo, Edinburgh Castle (good photos) is prominent on the right of the photo, with the spire of St Giles’ Cathedral half obscured by the Salisbury Crags. At the very top of Arthur’s Seat, there were crowds of visiting tourists, many of them young people, and we heard many languages going up and down the track. Edinburgh is now a very cosmopolitan city all the year round an there is great pleasure to be had in seeing so many people from different nations enjoying this outdoor environment.

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View across Edinburgh city centre from near the top of Arthur’s Seat

Going back to town, for lunch in the famous World’s End pub with its range of Belhaven beer, brewed here in Dunbar, we walked around the back of the Scottish Parliament, with its exquisite use of wood outside the offices of the MSPs. The photos below show firstly the wide view of the so-called “think pods” in the offices. In theory, these were designed to help the members as they contemplated developing policies to help the Scottish people. More cynical views see the pods as places where plots are hatched against the opposition.

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“Think pods” at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

The second photos shows a closer view of the pods and their external wooden facades. The pods are elegantly designed and the wooden poles, set at angles to become an abstract feature, add to the aesthetic quality of the building’s exterior.

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“Think pods” and wooden facades at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh

 

 

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

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Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

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The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

Paul Bartlett paintings, St Emilion and Paul’s Place

June 6, 2017

A recent exhibition (now closed) at Waterston House in Aberlady featured the intriguing work of wildlife artist Paul Bartlett. I was rather late in contacting Paul Bartlett, but he kindly sent me two examples of his work to use in this blog. He uses a mixture of media, in particular collage and papier mache with acrylic paints. From a distance, the works look like paintings but as you approach, you see the often stunning effects of the use of different media together. For example, in the first work below, it’s not clear that this is not a “normal” painting i.e. using only paint. Oystercatchers are a very familiar sight on the rocks near our house and I often watch them through my scope, as they poke with intent at limpets on the rocks. Once the limpet has been eased off the rock, the oystercatcher will scoop out of the flesh and dip this tasty ( I assume) snack in a rockpool before eating it. They are also very disputatious birds and you can hear them often before you see them. The ones in the picture below look at ease with the world and Bartlett captures their orange beaks and legs very well, although his aim is not to reproduce a copy of an oystercatcher. This is a representation of the bird and its seaside environment, which is cleverly depicted by the blues and greens in the background and the various colours of seaweed, sand and rocks beneath their feet. When you see the actual picture, the effects of the mixed media enhance the quality of the colours and the flowing shapes in the birds’ feathers.

Bartlett The roost (thumb)

The Roost by Paul Bartlett

The second work shown here depicts a shoal of rainbow trout swimming determinedly upstream to spawn. You can see the determination in the eyes of the fish, intent on one purpose only. It looks a glum business but maybe in real life, this is an exhilarating process for the fish, in their communal venture. Rainbow trout have the intriguing official name Oncorhynchus mykiss  which comes for the Greek for hooked snout, with mykiss being a name the fish are given in Russia. A romantic fish? As with the oystercatchers above, the colours in this work are very impressive and you find yourself going from fish to fish to see the multitude of colours on display. This work is so detailed that it must have taken the artist a long time to create and paint. There is also great motion in the work and when you look away and look back, you think that another group of trout have swum into the picture. Bartlett’s work will shortly be seen at the annual Pittenweem Arts Festival, so if you can get  to see his work there or in the future, don’t miss it, as you will be very impressed.

Bartlett Rainbow (thumb)

Rainbow by Paul Bartlett

On our trip to Bordeaux, we took the train to the lovely village of St Emilion, famous for its surrounding vineyards and world famous chateaux, which produce superb wines. There’s a distinct classification of the wines, with Premier Grand Cru Classe A deemed to be the best and of course this is the most expensive. For example, a bottle of Chateau Ausone from 2011 can set you back £835. I did buy a bottle of wine in one of the many wine shops in St Emilion but it was a Grand Cru and not a Classe A. Would I know that the Chateau Ausone 2011 was worth over £800 if I tasted it? I doubt it but give me a few free lessons and tastings and I will learn quickly.

The village itself is charming – once you get there. When we got off the train, we and the other passengers looked around to see vineyards all around us, which was a bit perplexing. We then saw a sign saying that the village of St Emilion was a 20 min walk – we did it in 15 min in 28 degrees and sunshine. You walk up cobbled streets past the old houses and the never ending succession of wine shops. It’s a steep climb but at the top you get great views across the village. We climbed the church tower to see the two views in the photos below.

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St Emilion from the church tower

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View of St Emilion vineyards from the church tower

The village is over looked by the huge Monolithic Church (includes short video) originally built in the 12th century. The church is so-called because the hillside was excavated and the church built upon the catacombs to form one building. It’s a very impressive sight as the photos below show. In the first photo, you can see the magnificent carvings on the entrances as well as on the bell-tower and your eye is taken from the older, rounded parts of the church up to the bell-tower. The 2nd photo shows how the church was built to dominate the village and to remind the population of the power of the church, as well as being a tribute to Saint Emilion, an 8th century hermit.

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The Monolithic Church in St Emilion

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St Emilion and the Monolithic Church

A final note on Bordeaux. There are some excellent restaurants in the city and the three most memorable are shown in the business cards below. From the right, Chez Dupont (good photos)was a real find on our first night in Bordeaux. The hotel suggested the Rue Notre Dame, where you’ll find a number of good restaurants away from the city centre and Chez Dupont provided us with an excellent meal, the sea bream being delicious. Near the river, but not on the quayside, the Restaurant Au Bouchons de Chartrons was another great find. We had swordfish with vegetables served in neatly tied plastic, see through bag. This method is known as sous vide and is popular in France. The third restaurant Paul’s Place proved to be more than just a restaurant. On leaving the Chez Dupont, we passed Paul’s Place and saw that on the Saturday evening, there was a singer performing Bob Dylan songs, so we booked a table. This turned out to be a great evening, with Andy Jefferies playing a range of early Bob Dylan songs – and singing them very well – accompanied by a slide show of Dylan photos and video. The food in Paul’s Place is rustic, very tasty and extremely good value for money. The co-owner Paul is a friendly and welcoming host, formerly of Cambridge. The restaurant has bohemian (but fascinating) décor e.g. the ceiling is papered with the front pages of the Times Literary Supplement. This restaurant is certainly worth a visit.

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Bordeaux restaurants

Tigh Na Leigh and their orchids

April 18, 2017

We went for an overnight stay last week to the village of Alyth (good photos) in Perthshire. As we drove towards Alyth, we passed many fields of raspberry canes and others with polytunnels for strawberries. We were now in the area of the Berry Fields O’Blair –  a famous Scots song about the people who used take a holiday in July and spend it picking berries. Another song is When the Yellow’s on the Broom (contains old photos) which is about the travelling people in Scotland who spent the winter in scaldy (i.e. non-travellers) houses, often in very poor conditions, but went berry picking in the summer. The song describes the travelling people as the gan(g)aboot folk, who tak tae the road when the broom flowers. We were booked in to the Tigh Na Leigh (pr Tie Na Lee) Guest House. You have to take the Guest House part with a pinch of salt. This is no ordinary guest house, it’s more of a boutique hotel, with luxurious accommodation. The website has several photos of the interior of the house and there were some exquisite touches such as the egg tree shown below in one of the very comfortable guest lounges.

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Egg tree at Tigh Na Leigh (Click to enlarge)

Also in this lounge, is a log fire built into the wall, with a glass front. Many years ago, we used to live in a house with 2 wood stoves, and there is no better heat than that which comes from burning logs. Also, there is the fascination with the action taking place in the fire itself. The logs attract the flames and are consumed by them, after changing shapes and colours many times. It’s hard to look away from the wildly exotic aerobics of the flames. Sitting by the fire with a glass of wine before dinner was a real treat.

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Log fire at Tigh Na Leigh

The owners, Bettina and Chris, made us very welcome and if you like aeroplane business class service, then Tigh Na Leigh is the place for you, as that’s what you get. We opted to eat in and were sent a menu the day before. For starters, I had a delicious twice-baked smoked haddock (smokie) soufflé, pictured below. This was delicious, with a creamy cheese sauce to enhance the light and delicate soufflé. Our main courses of duck comfit and salmon fillet were also very tasty and the food and wine is very reasonably priced

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Double baked “smokie” soufflé at Tigh Na Leigh

The large dining room, which also has a lounge area, looks out on an extensive garden with a large pond (photo below) and while we had dinner, there were a succession of birds appearing on the lawn or the pond. Behind the pond is large stone fronted mound which was built by the present owners but looks as if it’s been there for centuries, and it has a very natural looking waterfall emerging from it. You also have breakfast in this room and there were numerous bowls of fruit – raspberries, strawberries and blueberries – and fruit compote, as well as yoghurt and a range of cereals. This is in addition to the varied breakfast menu, which includes some of Chris’s excellent omelettes. When you stay here, you start the day very well. Bettina did tell us of one very unwelcome (and non-paying!) guest – an otter which ate all the fish in the pond and threatens to return if the pond is re-stocked. We cannot recommend this superlative accommodation too highly, so if you are travelling in Perthshire, don’t miss it.

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The pond at Tigh Na Leigh

Tigh Na Leigh has flowers in every room and on the stair, there are two beautiful orchids which were instantly attracted to my camera. According to the RHS “Indoor orchids are mainly epiphytic (growing on trees) or lithophytic (growing on rocks)”. So, two new words for my vocabulary, although don’t test me anytime soon. The orchids I saw were beautifully balanced and delicately coloured. In the first photo below, the petals appear to be made of whipped egg whites and stroked with purple food dye, while the centre looks like a small stage with an ornate backdrop.

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Orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

In the 2nd photo, we move into the surreal. The more you look, the more different images you are likely to see. A tiger’s head? A Daliesque set of tonsils? The colours are numerous shades of purple and yellow. The 3rd photo is perhaps more dreamlike and the top half could be an imaginary creature in a SciFi film. What of the bottom half? Purple moons from a planet hundreds of light years away? As ever, you are bound to see something else or different.

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh

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Centre of an orchid at Tigh Na Leigh