Sunday, December 23, 2012

Three songs from The Whisky Companion - a work in progress

As Christmas looms, and the consumption of what Para Handy called 'Bruttish Spurrits' reaches a seasonal high, I thought I'd post a link to three songs from a proposed show called The Whisky Companion, currently at the planning stage.

This will involve, I hope some top singers and musicians, and possibly an act-orr, or someone who can speak loudly and with a resonant twang.

The more perspiciacious among you may note some similarities to The Malt and Barley Revue, which, in  various forms, has been performed across Scotland over the past three years. But there will new songs, new people, new poems and more and better whisky to taste.

At the moment, the show, which I hope will be sponsored by either one of the independent whisky bottlers or one of the distillers with a variety of drams in their portfolio, has  three sections:

 ‘The Country and the Cratur” is about place, language, names of distilleries, how landscape affects whisky, how whisky is the soul of Scotland. 'The Scottish international' is a light hearted look at Scottish identity - with samples of Scottish foods to try with whisky Stories, too, about everything from elopement to Japan and English and Welsh whisky. Finally, ‘We are all Connoisseurs Now’ looks at how you drink whisky, how to appreciate it, some jokes about pretentiousness, and a final celebration of  how Scotch whisky IS Scotland.

Poems, stories and plenty of banter to tie it together. Plus, of course, every audience member gets three whiskies to nose and taste, under expert guidance. Sort of.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Shetland Times Spaekalation column: Mareel's finances - more transparency please, and some remorse

SPAEKALATION 14 December 2012

As printed in The Shetland Times

I didn’t count the exact audience numbers at last weekend’s Aidan Moffat and Bill Wells gig. But the Mareel auditorium, its magical electrical seating in place, was a long way from half full. I’d say 50-odd paying customers. Insufficient to cover even the cost of press advertising for what was one of the most powerful and moving performances I’ve seen by a visiting act here.

We really enjoyed our night out in the metropolis of Coalfishreek last Saturday. Susan had a day off and was able to go Christmas shopping, fail to buy a bed (though she could have stolen it, as no living sales staff were in evidence at the store in question) attend the launch of the excellent Kollifirbolli’s album and consume coffee in at least three different outlets. A fantastic meal at Monty’s and then we were off to Mareel - again, in her case, as the Kollifirbolli album launch was held there.

But inevitably, talk in the Squinty Box was all about the £600,000 council lifeline to ShetArts  (”what do you get when you cross a grant with a loan? Answer  - a groan”) whether it was meant to cover capital expenditure or running costs, and what was going to happen next.

That major issues remain  for Mareel is not in question. I have already made my position clear: It is crucial for the future of arts education, cultural development, for the social and indeed economic future of Shetland that Mareel remains open and becomes the thriving, vibrant fulcrum of  the arts it can be. But it remains under threat, and some developments over the past week have not been encouraging.

There is great goodwill in the isles for the Mareel project, but Shetland Arts seems dangerously close to taking that for granted. Because there is also - and a look at any of the comments pages or online messageboards will confirm this - rage, confusion and virulent hatred. The statement issued by ShetArts in the wake of the council’s groan award, in which DITT’s  handling of the building contract was attacked in not so much forthright words as abusive ones, was terribly ill-advised. It has been explained to me that it was a strategic move aimed at establishing ShetArts’ legal position in the dispute with DITT, and that the aim is to recover all money which may be owed to the council, pay it back and stand, so to speak,  in glistening triumph at the North ness  with DITT’s decapitated bonce in hand: We axe for what we want.

But that statement also alienated a lot of people disposed to support Mareel. Because what people in Shetland want from ShetArts at the moment is a bit of remorse, a bit of straightforward openness. Maybe thrashing and bashing about in the public arena is good legal posturing, but  ShetArts  is suppposed to serve the public, not threaten the livelihoods of building workers.

And there is a lack of openness. Rumours are flying about the real state of the ShetArts finances, and in relation to the council, what needs to be dealt with is how much ShetArts really owes, on top of the infamous groan. Alan Wishart is the only person so far to publicly refer to this, on BBC Radio Shetland’s Public Platform . In response to a question from Jane Moncrieff, Alan first of all confirmed that it was the council which has been paying Mareel and indeed Shetland Arts staff wages. Asked if  ShetArts was repaying this money, he replied “they are now.”

The council has traditionally handled the administration of  the trust payrolls. It would seem that Shetland Arts has been using this as an informal loan facility. I am relieved that it is now paying the money back, but it should have been open about what it was doing and we should be told, right now, how much money is involved. Openness, honesty, transparency: we should be able to trust a Trust to be all of those things, even when it’s fighting a battle in the courts. How could councillors, at that private meeting, be objective about the request for £600,000 when they knew - presumably -  how much in hock to the SIC ShetArts already was?

Because then we go back to my night out last weekend: the cinema seemed quite busy, but the gig lost money. It is utterly pointless for ShetArts to spin their cinema ticket sales  as financial salvation when - incredibly worthwhile- events such as the Moffat/Wells show are so financially unviable. And when between 30 and 70 per cent of cinema income goes to the film distributor.
The vultures are circling. Informal meetings about a private takeover of Mareel have been held, and if the council ends up owning the building, a lease to someone who will promote nothing but henny nights,  Jim Davidson comedy, live darts and tribute bands could end up being irresistible to those councillors in thrall to redneckdom.

The  solution may well be for the Shetland public to take action. Would you be prepared to spend £100 of your own money in, say, sponsoring a cinema or auditorium seat? More? I would, if I could be confident in the methodology and basic ideology of those running the place. Could a body of concerned folk be set up to monitor and advise on what happens at what is, what has to be an arts centre, not a dance hall, not a club, not a money-making repository for falling-over drunkenness and worse? Yes, surely. It could be a kind of…a kind of…arts trust…

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Low Winter Sun at Hillswick, Shetland

Just a wee nod to @KidCanaveral, seeing as it's such a nice, if snowy morning...

Sunday, December 02, 2012

'This house believes Mareel is a sound investment': speech from Althing Debate, Tingwall, 1st December 2012

THE readers start here!

Mareel is Shetland's new, and very impressive, music venue and cinema complex, arts and multimedia centre, dancehall, cafe, recording and video hub. Owned and operated by Shetland Arts, a local trust formed originally by  Shetland Islands Council to enact arts policy, it has always been controversial, opened a year late and cost £12.2 million, around 10 per cent over budget. Legal wrangling with the main contractor, local firm DITT, continues.

Shetland Arts has asked the council for around £600,000 to match emergency funding from other bodies so that the (so-far) agreed capital overspend can be met. The council will meet in private in the coming week to make that decision.

***   ***   ***

Kevin Learmonth and I spoke in support of the motion, that 'Mareel is a sound investment'. We were opposed by Martin and Margaret Tregonning. Chair was Chris Bunyan, and there were around 30 people in attendance. There was a spirited and good-natured discussion after the excellent 8 o'clocks (great bannocks). As is traditional at the Althing, which has been going since 1947, a vote was taken on the motion before and after the speeches, discussion and summings-up. My memory tells me that the first vote was 15 in favour of the motion, four against and seven abstaining. And the second was 21 in favour, four against and 1 abstaining. But I could be wrong!

By way of introduction, I'd remind us all that tonight's Althing Debate here at Tingwall, site of the ancient Shetland parliament, is to be, apparently, the only forum for open public discussion on the funding of Mareel. We are told that the coming week's SIC meeting on the subject will be held in private. This is disgraceful.

***   ***   ***

I’ve been asking myself lately:

What are the things about Shetland, about being in Shetland, that I love?

That in particular, you can’t get anywhere else

Why did I come here in first place? Apart from the fact that there was this girl who was renting a house from the Health Board for £12 a week and who seemed quite interesting. And interested in me. And that I was being pursued by three angry Glaswegians who had taken offence at something I’d written.

There's a surprise.

Well, the things I loved, and learned to love about Shetland were first, the mutton. Roast mutton. Boiled, I'm still not so sure. Reestit? Well, it's fine as long as it hasn't been 'reestit' above a Rayburn along with a year's worth of drying clothes, mainly underwear. That is an acquired taste. But I still remember the first Foula mutton I ever ate. someone told me it tasted that way because the sheep had to swim to the mainland. Which seemed just as  unlikely to a city boy as them eating seaweed.

I loved the visiting, the socialising, the music. I loved the darkness, cosiness, what the Duthc call the gezillich of the winters, and then there was the extraordinary winter light…and of course the spring and the summer and the simmer dim to follow. 

The sea. Boats. The sense that money, how much you had or how little, was not as important as who you were, and how you conducted yourself. The sense of a community.


I  don’t love Mareel. How could you love a building that looks like a corrugated iron shoebox God has inadvertently stepped on? Built to block the view from every house in Brown’s Road, and already weathering badly on the its corrugated iron side?

I don’t love it  and I opposed it being built. I resented and still resent the way that Shetland Arts seemed unwilling to be accountable to the public for the way the project was being run. In many ways, it’s the last tangible outcome of a redundant policy, that of the arms lengths trusts. Proper, strategic thinking would have seen recreation, education, musuem and arts facilities economically integrated by now. Instead we have a haphazard collection of little/large fiefdoms in the form  of council departments and trusts, over-managed and eating into each other’s resources.

So Mareel sits there, the Squinty Box, 10 per cent over budget and demanding a further investment of just over a million pounds to clear its decks and pay off  what it is agreed DITT are owed. At least we think that's the situation. It's all apparently a commercial secret. Of that million or so pounds, there’s a promise of 600k from HIE and Creative Scotland, if, Shetland Islands council, already into this for 6m, provide half a million.

Is it a sound investment? I believe it is. It has to be made.

Unpopular in some circles? Yes. Embarrassing? Yes. For some councillors, probably unacceptable But, if  we’re talking about a loan here - perhaps a  loan at commercial rates, and I understand that this would be acceptable as 'matched funding' - It is a sound investment. It is the right investment. It is a good thing to do. 

Now, you may ask yourself, isn't this the Tom Morton who has questioned in print how Mareel could ever make money? It is the very same. and I still don’t believe Mareel will make money. I think Shetland Arts are  understandably, and desperately spinning their - on the face of it  impressive cinema ticket sales, trying to gain traction in the fight for more funding. Sales are one thing, profits quite another. And my own experience of  live music in Shetland is that bringing bands up from south always had to be subsidised by Shetland Arts. 

So it's not going to make money. When you buy a Mareel ticket online you're asked to make a charitable donation. It's a charity. Charities are not meant to make money. The Arts does not make money.

But do you think the Clickimin Centre makes money? Do you think any of the sports centres in the isles do? Bonhoga? The museum? The 52 community halls scattered throughout Shetland? One for every 400 people. In Northmavine alone there are five.

But have these facilities been sound investments? That depends on what we mean by an investment. In financial terms, probably not. Have they been good for the bodies of the people, the soul and spirit, the communities of Shetland? The answer would have to be yes. Those facilities may not have actually brought people and business here to work and live and have their being, but they have certainly made it easier to keep them here. Are they underused? Yes. Do they lose money? Yes they do? Are they worth it - yes they are. 

Will there be cutbacks and closures in the face of the current economic crisis? Probably. Roofs will remain unrepaired. Unless of course, we get together and repair them ourselves.

Mareel then. As good an investment as  our 47 Olympic swimming pools, our 19,000 football pitches, the state-of-the-art trap nuclear powered trap shooting facility, the horse racing course built secretly in North Roe and a major centre for international betting, doubtless sponsored by Paddy Power. The Bog snorkling circuit in Yell…so little used...

You may not have heard of some of these...

Is Mareel a good, a sound, investment? Well, I didn't think it was. I didn’t think it was when I toured the building before it opened, then after. I didn't think it was when I went to see Skyfall, one of the worst James Bond movies ever made. And realised I would have to drink coffee from cups without handles.  

But then I went again, as I’d been asked by a group that promotes remote learning in further education to do a presentation to the Scottish parliament, from Shetland, using digital technology. And I wanted to see if Mareel could help with that. It was then I met some of the young students who are assigned to Mareel from the Shetland College, who are perfecting their talents and learning all about not just recording, but the whole business of music. Studying for degrees up to a BA Honours level. It was then I saw the hidden stuff in Mareel. The recording and broadcast studios, the way it’s wired into the fibre optic Shetland Telecom cable. Not just so we can see a big boxing or football match in the cinema, but  so music, drama, speech, video and radio can be made and broadcast from almost any part of the building. To anywhere in the world.

In fact it was so advanced, so capable, that the technical team at the Scottish Parliament had to hurriedly upgrade their own systems to cope.

And so, over a fortnight, the technical team at Mareel and Shetland College enabled us to put together a seamless presentation to the Scottish Parliament. We had live music from the auditorium, live video interviews from the 60 North Studio, all mixed through the main sound studio. Afterwards, I received this email from the organiser, Gerry Dougan of Scotland's Digital Futures.

Yep - absolutely brilliant!  There was a real buzz in the parliament to be connected to Shetland so clearly, vision and sound The audience clearly understood that, where the technology exists, there should be more exploitation of it - perhaps Shetland could position itself, or already is, a leader in this respect.  And, of course, where there is no, or little technology, there should be more!

 Perhaps we can think of something else around learning, community, connectivity etc.?  The technology and associated skills are there - all that's needed is an idea (and some funding :-)).

“All that’s needed is an idea and some funding.” 

We have the people. Mareel is crucial to Shetland College’s courses and is helping to hone the skills and talents of a new generation of musicians and music producers. Is that a sound investment? I think it is. Without Mareel the proposed Creative Industries Chair for University of the Highlands and Islands will not come to Shetland. Would that be a loss? A huge one.

Because there is more to Shetland than swimming pools and squad dances. There is more to Shetland than beautiful boats hanging from a ceiling. There is more, dare I say it to Shetland than Vikings and Up Helly Aa. More than mutton. There is talent, ability and artistic brilliance and Mareel can be -  will be, I hope - a focus in developing that; in sharing it with the rest of Scotland and the world.

A loan of half a million pounds. Not to a salmon farmer who will sell off their assets to a multinational. Not to a fishing boat that may clear half a million pounds a trip. Per shareholder. Maybe those have been 'sound' financial and social investments in the past. 

But Shetland Island Council, I say make that loan. Make this sound investment - and sure, if you like co-opt three members of the Charitable Trust onto Shetland Arts to knock them into shape. In fact, if you like, move to bring the Amenity Trust, the Recreational Trust and Arts Trust more firmly under the council’s control, get rid of unnecessary duplication and inefficiency. Insist on safeguards. Demand interest.

I believe that would be a sound investment in Shetland’s culture and community. I believe it will reap dividends in the future. And someday Mareel might even be able to afford proper cups for the cafe. 

Ones with handles.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Play the John Rebus rock'n'roll whisky drinking game...

I know, I know. Rebus is forever associated with IPA. But in the latest novel by Ian Rankin, Standing in Another Man's Grave, whisky, malt whisky, plays an important in terms of both its lubricant properties and the geographical locations in which it is made.

My new Caledonian Mercury whisky column, The Malt and Barley Review, offers the chance to match Rebus, dram for dram, while listening to the same music he does in the book.

But be careful.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Bargains flirt with that minimum price level: would you pay 50p a unit? Yes!

We all want a bargain when it comes to booze, though some of us have notions of connoisseurship that extend beyond Buckfast - astonishingly expensive, anyway - Glen Gutripper whisky, Gulag Vodka, and Oblivion Cider.

The Scotch Whisky Association and various other industry bodies, not just here but throughout Europe, oppose the Scottish Government's minimum price legislation and are challenging it in court. Me, I'm in favour of it. The medical profession is in favour of it. The numbers stack up: cheap, street corner alcohol  at pocket money prices is A Bad Thing.

And there's a horrible flavour in some arguments that 'the poor tooneed their escape' of Victorian policy of flooding the industrial cities with cheap gin to keep the poor subservient, not to say comatose.

If you want to drink good stuff, if you want quality over unconsciousness, then you need to pay 50p a unit anyway. Even if it's only just 50p a unit.

For more, check out my new column in the Caledonian Mercury.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Looking back at the Mull2Muckle/Fairly Long Ride

Tom’s Fairly Long Ride - the Mull to Muckle: Looking back, looking forward.

It started in July. Well, actually, it started the previous December, during which I first became interested in planning, plotting, mapping and generally dreaming of a long-distance cycle run. One which, preferably hadn’t been done before. Which I could do while in my 56-year-old state of fatness and unfitness without much preparation. Dream on, my wife said.
And then I realised that no-one seemed to have cycled from one extreme of Scotland to the other. Meaning from the Mull of Galloway in the south to the Muckle Flugga lighthouse shore station (Saxa Vord is probably further north, and so is one remote cottage, but I was in the mood for lighthouses) on Unst, Shetland. Lighthouse to Lighthouse. 437 miles, if I opted for the Aberdeen-to-Shetland ferry. Which I did, vowing to complete the Perth-Inverness-Orkney route another day. Or year.
I could only afford a week off work, and for logistical reasons had to knock off the Shetland Mainland and Island of Yell sections in advance. After that it was train and car to Galloway and we were off.
It was called The Fairly Long Ride as the ride was going to publicise the Fair Trade cause and would be supported by - as well as supporting - Scottish Fair Trade Forum. I put together an hour-long musical show to perform en route - Tom’s Fairly Good Show, and preparing this had me wrestling with some of the central issues relating to Fair Trade economics. I will never forget the long conversation in Inverness Station with my friend George from Ghana. He was idealistic and uncompromisingly pragmatic:
“We need structural change. We need local control of commodity prices. But I’m in favour of the Fair Trade movement. It makes things better. It makes things a little less unfair.”
I was  - am - proud of The Fairly Good Show and disappointed that the Edinburgh show had to be cancelled and that so few people came to the Glasgow one. There was even a Fair Trade wine tasting, with wine expert John Lamond!  All the more liquid for those who did come, even though I was related to most of the audience. But the show was performed successfully, with guest Martin Meteyard, at the Belladrum Festival in August, and will soon be available in part to watch and listen to online.
I met with Fair Trade Groups in Girvan, Prestwick - I spoke at a school assembly there - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen, and the whole thing was filmed, courtesy of Promote Shetland. You can see the finished films, read more and see some pictures at . Edinburgh was particularly inspiring, as there was cake, MSPs and news that a motion congratulating me on the trip had been put before the Scottish Parliament. even though at the time I was only halfway there.
There was considerable media interest, in print, radio and on television, and I think the trip raised Fair Trade awareness considerably. It was clear that the more committed and active the local Fair Trade group, the more effective my visit was in gaining public and media attention. It was also evident that there is great enthusiasm in Scotland for Fair Trade, and that events can this are one way of tapping into that.
I was fat, I was unfit, and some of the journey was very hard. The perplexing detours involved in following National Cycle Route One were often infuriating. I can assure you that there is NO cycle path next to the A90 from the south end of Stonehaven to the north. That stony bit is a drainage ditch, and no place to try and walk, pushing a fully-loaded touring bike. The Forth and Clyde and Union Canal route between Glasgow and Edinburgh is in parts dangerous, crumbling and downright scary.
The weather was on the whole very good, and my final morning, arriving at the Muckle Flugga shore station, was idyllic. My thanks to Scottish Fair Trade Forum for all that they did, all the Fair Trade folk I met along the way, Fairpley Ltd, Precious Productions and Promote Shetland.
For anyone interested, I rode a Surly Long Haul Trucker steel bike with a 20-year old Brooks B17 saddle, and used Avenir and Ortlieb panniers. I didn’t have a single puncture in my Continental Sport Contact Urban Hybrid Tyres, which only needed a tiny amount of air, once. It took me nine days. Afterwards, I weighed exactly the same as I did when I started. But I did eat a lot.
Next year I’m planning to cycle the Perth-Inverness-Orkney leg. I hope other folk will tackle the Mull2Muckle as THE Scottish Fair Trade cycle route. It is a Fairly Long Ride. But it’s worth it!

(This was written for the Scottish Fair Trade forum website)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"How many freelance PRs can one country sustain?' true.

It's the default leap for every former hack, and one that I've taken myself, to an extent, sort of.

Because for me freelance work is all about flexibility. It could mean providing strategic PR advice, writing website copy, editing, subbing, speaking, broadcasting, singing, teaching, fishing, whisky tasting, crisis management, social media ghostwriting, speechwriting, being nice to tourists, selling books and other stuff on Fleabay, and even some paid-for journalism.

But hey, it's better than working.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

New Shetland Life Magazine: Islanders wanted!

This has been a difficult magazine to put together for lots of reasons, but I think in the end it's a really good read with some fantastic photographs - and the opportunity for you to take some that will perhaps be just as good!

Andy Holt from Papa Stour contacted me several weeks ago to suggest a piece about the problems being faced by the island - only eight permanent residents now - and his impassioned article makes for salutary reading. Fancy a move? It is one of the most beautiful places in Shetland. Funnily enough, since taking over as editor of Shetland Life I've been looking at something to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the arrival on Papa of the 'first hippies'; Andy was one such. As it turns out, it's a melancholy anniversary.

Meanwhile, The BBC2 show The Great British Bake Off has taken over the Morton family's lives, to an extent, as my son James is one of the competitors, and for the summer's duration our kitchen has been awash with flour and sourdough starters. James shares some of the show's secrets with Shetland Life readers.

We have a unique (these days) photography competition that demands the use of film; another thrilling detective story from Marsali Baxter, regular features like Rosa Steppanova's superb gardening column and Ann Prior's brilliant recipes. And I absolutely love John Brown's hilarious memories of his first motorcycle - a 1940s Velocette.

There's loads more to read and gaze at, and you can either buy the magazine in print form - move fast, though, as it sells out - or download a full pdf version online - you can pay for just one copy and the Pagesuite software is very good indeed. It works very well on an iPad. Get it here:

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Deep Fried on the Electric Brae

Deep Fried on the Electric Brae

Riding the length and breadth of Scotland

The Magnetic Hill

I can see the slope, the rising road ahead, threading its way upwards along the coastline. There’s a lurch of disappointment in my stomach. It’s been a hard morning, cold and damp and in company. I’m not good at company. I’m not good at people, not cycling with them. They’re inevitably much fitter and faster than I am, and younger, and I’m always taken right back to schooldays, that desperate need to compete, to outpace, to win.

Lactic acid. That's what's burning in my thighs and calves. Over half a century of lazily walking, running, falling over and getting back up again. That's what's wrong with my knees. I can actually hear my knees, if the traffic's quiet, crunching, squeaking and creaking like bits of an old wooden ship asked to cope with a lumpy ocean. 

I'm all at sea. Why am I doing this? I'm out of my depth. These days, I’m not a competitor, never mind a winner. I’m a plodder, a gasper, an agonised get-off-and-pusher.  I’m 56, fat, unfit and fuelled by beer, sugar and fried food. I'm an out-of-breath to the shop for a half bottle of Grouse, four cans of Guinness and a large bag of tortilla chips cyclist. Bryce and his pal Dave, 40-something, serious Sunday fitness riders, are lean and lithe, and although they’re kind and keen to help me along the road, indeed tried to tire themselves out by doing a fast 50 miles prior to meeting me, I can tell that Dave wishes he wasn’t burdened with this heavily-laden, very overweight tourist. It’s the way he races on ahead and waits at farm gates, arms folded, staring at the sky.  His bicycle is an expensive aluminium racer, his lycra-clad body bent around it like a bow.

Bryce is a bagpiper. His lungs are strong, but he’s heard me on the radio and he wants  to chat. "I'm just here for the craic," he says. His cycling clothes are baggier, his bike grey steel. I’m content to let him talk, as my lungs, no longer tobacco-seasoned by still a little emphysemic, are not chanter-fit. I'm not really up to broadcasting the couple of feet from bicycle to bicycle. I'm knackered. I find it difficult to pedal and speak at the same time. I find it difficult to pedal.

“There’s more work than I can cope with" says Bryce, effortlessly. "Every day, or every night. I’m the piper at the Turnberry Hotel, so that’s every day, and there’s weddings, funerals, corporate events. Dinners. I do wee speeches, after dinner things, demonstrate the pipes to tourists. Goes down really well. I have a wee shop up in Maybole, just a wee business, but I’m not there much. I do well with the pipes. There’s too much demand, really.”

Bryce sticks with me, even when I wave him ahead, spluttering with pain outside Culzean Castle. And then, groaning, I crest a wee hill, turn and see that gradually elevating ribbon of grey, wet tar ahead of me. I just want this to end. I want to stop. If these guys weren’t with me, I would stop. Fifteen miles or so I’ve come today, and it’s taken me two hours. What is the bloody point? In a car, I’d be there. No, I wouldn’t have left yet, because I wouldn’t need to be there yet. I mean, I’d leave later because all I have to do is get to Ayr for lunch. Ayr, wha’ nair a toon surpasses, for honest men and bonnie lasses. Burns Central. My dad, my son, my daughter. They’re meeting me there for lunch. To see if I’m still alive. To try and talk me out of this mad caper.

And then the strangest thing happens.

I'm getting ready to expend more muscle-crunching, cramping effort on climbing the slope ahead of me when I notice that I'm freewheeling. Up the incline. I look at Bryce, beside me. He's laughing. 
"Aye, it's something, isn't it?" Suddenly, I know where I am. We are on the Electric Brae. The Magnetic Hill. I am in the grip of a mysterious power. Gravity has no authority in this part of Ayrshire.

I've known this slice of road since childhood, in fact, but never on a bicycle. It was a place parents loved to experiment with cars, when automobiles were fewer and further between, and you could stop one on this stretch of road without risking tail backs, collisions and raging tattooed BMW drivers who've been watching too much Jeremy Clarkson. And wee kids loved it. The sheer weirdness of it. A hill that didn't work. A slope which had anti-gravitational properties. It was the rock, we were told, full of iron. Magnetism. Would it work with…with a Reliant Robin, which was made of plastic, I asked? Who knew? Certainly not my dad in his VW Beetle, his Vauxhall Cresta, his Ford Zephyr. He parked them, facing uphill . He switched off the engines. They crept spine-chillingly forward, sometimes. 

Sometimes they didn't move at all.

On a bike, though, you seemed to fly up the Electric Brae, known locally as Croy Brae. It was like being pushed by God up the A719 between the beautifully named Drumshrang and the negative-sounding Knoweside. My mount, hugely laden with panniers front and rear, and made of quality American steel, surged of its own accord towards heaven, or the Craig Tara holiday park just a bit further on towards Ayr. Against the wind.

It's an illusion, of course. An optical illusion. There are so called 'gravity hills' or 'magnetic slopes' throughout the world, though this is one of the most striking and most famous. General Eisenhower, who was gifted an apartment in nearby Culzean Castle by a grateful Scotland after World War Two, was obsessed with the Electric Brae, and would bring all his guests to see it in action. Hundreds of American soldiers and airmen based at nearby Prestwick flocked here during the war, and tens of thousands of of curious gravity-haters have investigated it since. There used to be metal signs, but souvenir hunters stole them. I wonder if they tested them for magnetism when they got them home? Now there's an immovable granite cairn, bearing this inscription:

The ELECTRIC BRAE", known locally as 'CROY BRAE'.
This runs the quarter mile from the bend overlooking Croy railway viaduct in the west (286 feet Above Ordnance Datum) to the wooded Craigencroy Glen (303 feet A.O.D.) to the east.
Whilst there is this slope of 1 in 86 upwards from the bend to the Glen, the configuration of the land on either side of the road provides an optical illusion making it look as if the slope is going the other way.
Therefore, a stationary car on the road with the brakes off will appear to move slowly uphill.
The term 'Electric' dates from a time when it was incorrectly thought to be a phenomenon caused by electric or magnetic attraction within the Brae.

I'm thrilled, magically transported to a world where cycling uphill does not hurt, where freewheeling everywhere is the rule. I get the same feeling I did when i first let out the clutch on a motorbike, and felt the marvellous, joyous thrill of powered two-wheel balancing. I was defying, painlessly, the power of the landscape, the power of the world to hold me down, hold me back.

Copyright Tom Morton 2012. To be continued...

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Provisional programme for Co-op Verb Garden at Belladrum Festival

Here's a link to a pdf on Scribd of the provisional Co-op Verb Garden programme for this year's Tartan Heart/Belladrum Festival.

I'm performing both a version of The Fairly Good Show (mostly songs and a bit of poetry) and, with Jon Beach from Fiddlers in Drumnadrochit, one of the great Scottish whisky bars, the Whisky Conversations tasting/show, with music, poems and three spectacular drams for everyone who can find a seat.

And that's a point - there are seats in the Verb garden. Soft seats. Big, cushy sofas and armchairs...

But don't fall asleep! There's loads more happening. Interviews with people like the Wombats and Rachel Sermanni (I'm involved in this) the annual music debate, which I'm chairing, and I'm also interviewing the founder of the Black Isle Brewery, which may involve beer. Probably will, in fact. Plus comedy, political debate and much more.

It's also worth pointing out that the Co-op has a shop immediately opposite the Verb Garden where you can get all sorts of Co-op foodstuffs, drinks, fruit and sandwiches at normal supermarket prices.

See you there, I hope.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Word Magazine. Quite good. Not good enough.

Amid the wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of chinos from Gap, I have to say that I'm not surprised by the demise of the magazine I will always call Word (changing to THE Word seemed a hubris too far, even for what was at times a preeningly self-delighted publication). I'll miss it, though. I bought it every month, often reluctantly. I hated its sixth-year-common room, cool-rich-fucker superiority, its adherence to a couple of truly terrible columnists, its amateur photography, and latterly its appalling cover art. But there were, albeit erratically, great reads in there, and though it was copy edited and laid out with the dodgy enthusiasm and inaccuracy of the hurried, harried and underfunded, the commissioning/listening to contributors' ideas was often excellent.

Mojo's all-consuming, all-annotating tedium and self-righteous 'authority'I found unbearable. Uncut - inheritor of prime 80s Melody Maker beermonsterism and speedfreak comedown post-modernism - was tiresome, like listening to ranting acquaintances in the pub recalling past glories. Yet both these magazines still find big readerships - Mojo around 87,000 a month, Uncut 62,000. Word was shifting a truly embarrassing 22,000 at last count, and it seems that Guardian Media and the other investors eventually saw that the plug would have to be pulled.

The employees of the magazine will find other work if they're smart and committed enough. It probably won't be 'full-time', pensionable employment, but then, who does have such luxury nowadays, in the temporary-contract media world? The Hepworth/Ellen editorial axis will doubtless do other things with their contacts, reputations and the security which comes from carefully invested cash gained from a lifetime of start-ups, sell-ons and general groovy entrepreneurship. The best Word freelance writers are already working for other magazines, notably the sleek, heavily-funded (Bauer Media, like Mojo) Q, now edited by a former Word worthy and completing its appropriation of Word style in the latest edition by adding a free cover CD to its editorial arsenal. They're sitting around the 75,000 circulation mark too.

Much has been made of the move to digital tablet-consumption of magazines, and how that affected Word. I don't think that was the issue. Everyone's tackling that and generally failing to make it deliver, and Word's cheap and cheerful put-a-pdf-online approach was, well, OK. The problem was they were dealing that hand to a tiny body of subscribers. And those who bought Word, that minuscule group, were generally buying one of the other rock menopause monthlies as well. I know I was. So why advertise?

Truth to tell, Word was that prefects' school mag, written by and for its writers. I'll miss Mark Ellen's personal, often lengthy replies to my critical emails. Rob Fitzpatrick's expansive enthusiasm. But I can find Rob elsewhere (in Q). I can read Hepworth's blog. The fact is that Word was a middle-aged fanzine masquerading as a glossy, taking on perfect-bound (dearie me, it always felt so flimsy...)heavyweights on the newstands, rejoicing in the superior likemindedness of its readers, failing to invest in the kind of expensive, big-time reportage that it needed to, taking too many shortcuts in production. Photographing famous authors 'on the fire escape with the in-house camera': that's local newspaper stuff.

It had a vibrant online forum, fulfilled all the current parameters for cutting edge publishing success, and failed. Because it was good, but not good enough. Funded, but not heavily enough. Edited, but not well enough. The cover CDs were never quite good enough. And in the end, once the big money moved in to replicate its strengths, it proved itself unnecessary.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mull2Muckle: It's over! Photos from the edge of the world

Having ridden the length of the island of Yell on Sunday (twice: Ulsta to Gutcher, the Unst ferry departure, and back) all I had to do to finish the Mull2Muckle was the 10 miles or so through Unst to RAF Saxa Vord, or the Saxa Vord Resort as it's now called, being filmed on the way by Precious Productions for Promote Shetland, then do the last four miles or so in the morning out to the Muckle Flugga shore station.

It was damp and quite cold when I left Lerwick, but merely, dry, cool and windless by the time I was waiting for the ferry at Gutcher. And after that, a winding, fairly hilly run through a landscape I know well and remains one of my favourite, along with Yell and Northmavine, in Shetland. I was in Saxa Vord for 8.00pm and a really fine meal with Andy Steven from Promote Shetland and the Crawford family from Glasgow, who are Precious Productions. Fresh haddock, as you'd expect. Exacxtly the same meal I started the trip with in Drummore.
On the Unst ferry

Simmer Dim from Saxa Vord at midnight

Me and Andy Steven of Promote Shetland at the Muckle Flugga shore station

The end!

Many, many thanks to everyone who helped: My family, in Shetland, Glasgow and Ayr. The Fairpley guys, Stephen and Jim. Everyone at Scottish Fair Trade forum, especially Martin and Tanya. Heather, Bryce and Kenny, who rode with me over the first few days and were a real inspiration. All at the STUC in Glasgow. The folk at Prestwick Academy, the Troon and Prestwick Fair Trade Groups, Val and David in Troon and the Old Loans Inn. Richard and Jolene. Sarah Boyack and Susan Johnston MSPs, Rachel and all her team in Edinburgh at the One World Shop (more good fish and chips at the Barony Bar) plus all the Fair Trade Folk there. Old pal Dave Donaldson, who rode with me for two days and kept me going with jokes, stories and local knowledge. Roddy Pattison for guidance and coffee. The Aberdeen Fair Trade folk and the NorthLink staff, BBC Radio Shetland, Fiona and all at the Tom Morton Show, The Saxa Vord Resort and anyone else I've forgotten. Apologies.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Heading for Unst, the last leg, and some thoughts on National Cycle Routes

The Mull2Muckle Scottish End-to-End, or Tom's Fairly Long Ride, is nearing completion, with midsummer tomorrow and the last approach to the Muckle Flugga shore station on Unst first thing tomorrow morning.

After the show today I'll drive to Toft, get the ferry to Yell, drive the 18 miles across (or up) the island (seeing as I cycled it on Sunday, both ways, 36 miles in total), catch the ferry from Gutcher to Belmont on Scotland's most northerly island, Unst, and begin cycling the 10-15 miles (no-one seems sure) to Haroldswick. An overnight there at the old RAF Saxa Vord and then, after the shortest night of the year, it's up to the Muckle Flugga shore station and we're done.

Time for some recollections and thoughts via the mull2muckle blog -

National Cycle Routes: are they fit for purpose?

In my experience on this trip, they're definitely not suitable for tourists who have a limited time and need to get to their destinations without necessarily (a) taking the route which visits every single hamlet or fencepost with-interesting-wire-attached; (b) avoiding even a smidgen of traffic; (c) visiting every private housing estate built in the last 35 years, often circuitously and both clockwise and anticlockwise (d) risking life and limb on atrociously maintained and dangerous canal towpaths, shared with weapon dogs and owners with home-made 'love' and 'hate' tattoos on their necks.

I admit that I do get bored with off-road cycling, so the otherwise soothing 14-mile Lochwinnoch loop railway track becomes some hellish condemnation to eternal, viewless monotony. The Forth and Clyde and Union canals have interesting wildlife, but after a while, you get all waterwayed out. Or in, if you hit one of the Union Canal's poorly maintained and presumably listed cobbled sections.

I'm going to approach Sustrans for their explanation for some of the routes. I presume they have parameters such as car usage and landowner attitude and permissions. But I'd really like to know if there are pressures on them to divert via (or indeed away from) the property of with a so-called 'stakeholder status'; if personal 'purist cyclist' approaches are taken so that steep 'healthy' ascents are included by default. What do they think makes a 'good' cycle route? And who wants to ride on pavements anyway?

At any rate, National Cycle Route One north nearly drove me distraction. And destruction, in the case of deciding to walk at the verge of the A90 in search of a cycle path which does NOT begin before the last turn off (golf course) to Stonehaven going north. And is not on any map. Forty-five minutes eyeballing approaching truckers to stop them encroaching on the dead-hedgehog area was not good for the spirits. But it did save over an hour and a half on the NCR, which veers crazily inland. As for the NCN route from Portlethen to Aberdeen itself - it's infuriating, dangerous, obscure and in the end, I abandoned it.

And another thing. Cycle paths are NEVER as smooth as roads. They ripple and they're always ripped apart by tree routes. The best cycling surface in Scotland, for the main road through the island of Yell in Shetland.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

One last random selection...

Southernmost! some of the Dundee Fair Traders with  Dave Donaldson. Me at the top of the Redcastle Brae, looking down on Lunan Bay. What a fantastic evening's riding that was. And Dave just as we emerged from the Dalmeny Estate towards South Queensferry. We just scraped across the bridge before it was closed for Torchification.

...and even more pictures and people from mull2muckle

That's Bryce (piper extraordinaire) and Kenny, who joined me on the route between Girvan and Ayr, upping my pace considerably. Fiona (electric bike, no less) heads up Prestwick Fair Trade and met me on the prom between Prestwick and Troon, where I stayed at David and Val Gwynne's B&B. Old Loans Inn was really, really good for dinner. That's Master of Malt and weinmeister John Lamond at the Fairly Good Show in Glasgow. The Co-op's Malbec Fair Trade is magnificent. Finally, that's Roddy Pattison, who got Dave and me over Cleish Hill and supplied coffee afterwards.

Some pictures and people from the mull2muckle...more coming!

Some pictures and people from the mull2muckle trip! Not finished yet as I've still got Yell and Unst to go. That's the Mull of Galloway Lighthouse, Scotland's southernmost point, and then the  closed King's Hall in Drummore, the nearest village, with its curious reversed 'N'. Then New Luce - this little caravan site was where I spent my first honeymoon, back in 1978. It is unchanged. Same caravans and everything. That's Heather Eccles from Carlisle on the high road from New Luce to Barrhill - a million thanks to Heather for the survival pack. I finished the Big Peat whisky in Montrose. And then the Girvan Community Garden workers and mosaic workshop participants. The garden is a real jewel in the middle of Girvan, approached by a beautiful snaking path which leads to the narrowest of doors in a high wall. Girvan is a potentially wonderful place just waiting for the kind of facelift Arbroath has had.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Mull2Muckle Days one and two

Having problems with pictures so they'll pop up when I get to a proper computer and on Twitter/FB.

Stephen from Fairpley, who are handling the logistics for the Mull2Muckle for Scottish Fair Trade Forum, ran me down to the Mull of Galloway from Ayr, where I'd broadcast from. Set off in a smirry rain and a nasty wee wind, amid loose cattle and sheep. Hard going. What had I let myself in for? But it was only 5.5 miles to Drummore, not the 10 I'd anticipated, so blessed relief to check into the Queens Hotel. Great soup, log fire.

Up and away at 9.15 today, upset stomach disappeared after first half hour in dull, cool but dry conditions. What a fantastic part of the world the Rhinns of Galloway is. Scotland's secret treasure.

Across the bombing range and past the caravan site where Susan and I had to wrestle a disappearing camper van awning into submission. Then I missed the cycle route and scared myself senseless on the A75 until the Glenluce turnoff.

Decided to avoid the A77 from Stranraer and take the B road from New Luce to Barrhill, then to Girvan. very glad I did. It's one of the great lost roads, a narrow Tarmac track across the high moorland, quiet and mostly smooth apart from some cracked bits and truly scary cattle grids. Some hard climbing but worth it. Was joined for 10 miles by the Tom Morton Show's top Carlisle listener, Heather Eccles, to whom thanks for cycling slowly (she's a triathlete)and for the survival pack! Then I hit Barrhill and thought it would be an easy run to Girvan.

It wasn't. The climbs, on terrible road surfaces, we're endless, it seemed, and I was rapidly running out of resources. at last Girvan appeared,far below, and there was a splendid swoop down to meet Julie Campbell and the superb team behind the Girvan Community Garden.

Things learned today? It's fine to stop. As long as you start again. And don't have sausages for breakfast.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Mull2Muckle - The Fairly Long Ride - itinerary

Just wrapping up things in Shetland before heading off south tomorrow. This is where I'm going and what's happening if you want to catch up at any point. Remember to follow the blog posts and also, though I'm not doing the afternoon show from 11th-15th, I think I'm doing daily updates for Fred Macaulay on R Scotland.

Friday 8 June: START at Mull of Galloway lighthouse, probably around 6.00pm. Cycle to Drummore and overnight there.

Saturday 9 June: Drummore to Girvan. Around 50 miles avoiding the A77. Quite a bit of climbing. Overnight Girvan.

Sunday 10 June: Girvan to Troon, via Ayr, where I'll hopefully see my dad! Shortish run of about 30 miles. Overnight Troon.

Monday 11 June: Busy day. First thing, wheech to Prestwick Academy for a class there - Lots of Fair Trade action at the school. Then off to Glasgow. looking forward to this run, as it's almost all off-road cycle tracks via Lochwinnnoch. Then the first Fairly Good Show at the STUC in Woodlands Road Wine tasting!
Overnight Glasgow.

Tuesday 12 June: Glasgow - Edinburgh. Meeting Fair Trade and cycling folks at the One World Cafe at 4.00pm, roughly. Then the second Fairly Good Show at 28 York Place, EH1 3EP. Overnight Edinburgh

Wednesday 13 June: Edinburgh - Perth. Overnight Perth.

Thursday 14 June: Perth to Dundee, then Brechin
Morning and lunchtime events in Perth and Dundee. Overnight Brechin

Friday 15 June: Brechin - Aberdeen
There will be a Fair Trade event at Jamieson's Quay, where the NorthLink ferry docks.


Saturday 16-Monday 18th - AT HOME. live Tom Morton afternoon shows hosted by me begin again on the Monday.

Tuesday 19: Cycle from Yell ferry to Unst ferry, then to RAF Saxa Vord. Overnight in Unst.

Wednesday 20 (Midsummer) Cycle to Muckle Flugga Shore Station. END OF Mull2Muckle!

'The Passionate Man's Pilgrimage'

Scooped a scallop shell off the beach last night, and thought: might as well take it with me!

Daiphantus, 1604 ; written
about 1603.


GIVE me my scallop-shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage;
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

Monday, June 04, 2012

The week it all begins...too late to back out now!

A quick visit to Cee and Jays and then Tesco to buy waterproof map bags, water bottles, a spur-of-the-moment 2-in-1 bum bag/rucksack, toothpaste, travel clothes washing liquid, Sudocream, Johnson's Baby talcum, Pampers wipes, Anadin (oh, for Askit Powders...)and doubtless there will be more to add before I head south from Shetland on Wednesday.

I've all but abandoned the idea of cycling up (and back down) the island of Yell (nasty northerly blowing all weekend)and that means that on 19th after the show it's drive to Toft, bike on the ferry, and then cycle to the Unst ferry, then to to RAF Saxa Vord. I may have to leave the bike in Unst and hitch a lift back to Lerwick for the show, but we'll see. I've not been practising my cycling much, but I have been preparing, and really that's been the problem with the Mull2Muckle.

It incorporates two performances of something loosely labelled Tom Morton's Fairly Good Show (11th Glasgow, 12th Edinburgh)which amounts to about 14 songs, and two poems at the moment. I'll obviously be nattering away nonsensically, and picking up (I hope) tales on the road. But researching, writing and trying to learn all this stuff, while doing normal work and preparing to cycle 400 miles, has been difficult, to say the least. Also, my ultra-short attention span (why I'm a hack/broadcaster)isn't helping...

Nevertheless, I think there's some good stuff in the show and besides, there will be a wine tasting and ace comic Susan Morrison on both nights. Still, it's weighing on my as much as the thought of cycling up the A77.

Wednesday I get the boat overnight to Aberdeen, do the show from there, then take the train to Glasgow. Overnight Thursday in Glasgow, Lift to Ayr Friday, do the show from the Beeb studio there, and then a lift to the Mull of Galloway and it all begins. Saturday night Girvan, Sunday night Ayr/Troon. then Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, dundee, Montroase and Aberdeen, before the boat north. Oh, and many thanks to Edinburgh Bicycle, who are supporting the trip and will sort out the Surly if anything goes wrong. Which I hope it won't...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Without Bicycles and An Incomplete History of Socially and Ethically Aware Coffee Consumption in Glasgow - Two poems for The Fairly Good Show

(After WM)

Without Bicycles

Without bicycles, Mao Tse Tung would not have won
Even though revolution comes from the barrel of a gun
It may also come from sweaty backsides and Sturmey Archer gears
On Brooks leather saddles, which need careful breaking in, but will prove rewarding.    
If you persevere. For years. In tears.

Without bicycles, Singapore would have held out in World War Two
But the Japanese had Shimano SPD cleated shoes
Which gave them a tremendous advantage  when it came to climbing hills
Though there was that tendency at first to fall off at traffic lights
As anyone will. Still. Unless you take those special pills.

Without bicycles, socialism would not have taken root in the early 20th century
As factory cycling clubs, on BSAs, Humbers, and Raleighs
Became  frenetic forums for political debate
And some participants got into such a state
That they were sometimes late,  and were thus thrown out of the factory gates.
Which wasn’t great.

Without bicycles,  delays in women’s emancipation
Would have been inevitable. But acceleration
of the process came from Derailleurs and freewheels
Symbolised by Beryl Burton, so good she  seems unreal
the greatest cyclist who ever lived, I feel. Male or female.

Without bicycles, people would all drive belching, filthy cars
The world would drown in smoke and filth, we’d be worse off by far
Fortunately, the internal combustion engine, I’m pleased to say
Remains a  science fiction fantasy today
We do not meddle with bad science. We simply pedal

Without bicycles, we’d all be horribly obese
Unfit, beset by damaged knees
From waddling with vast waists and unwanted girth
We’d be a cause for the creator’s mirth
If he or she was watching - A thought I like
God gazing down, from a Brompton folding bike.

An Incomplete History of Socially and Ethically Aware Coffee Consumption in Glasgow

Campaign Coffee. I remember that
Tasted like dried and finely ground Sumo wrestler’s jockstraps
Or what I imagine that to be
How would I know? Don’t look at me

It wasn’t really made from sporting genital  supports, or at least I don’t think so
Nestle donated deliberately sabotaged roasting machinery, the rumour goes
In order to inculcate an appreciation for Gold Blend and such
We sneered, and drank our horrid, morally pure sludge

But we were strangers then, to espresso. We were the uncaffeinated
Instant was all, or if you were seriously trying to impress, there was percolated
Boiled for hours, or stored, stewing on a Cona hot plate
For days and days, or weeks. I thought it tasted great

But my palate was seared, my tastebuds in a frenzy
Until the opening of the Cafe Gandolfi, owned by Ian Mackenzie
In Albion Street Glasgow, now it’s called the Merchant City
But back in the day it was anything but pretty

Motorbikes were parked inside, they served apples with digestive biscuits
But the coffee! No-one could believe Ian would risk  it
But this was proper cappuccino, potent  yet silky
Brutally Strong and yet bizarrely milky

(All traditional Italian cafes had until this  juncture
Catered for essentially Glaswegian culture
Whiter than white coffee made on giant Gaggia machines
Needing 14 sugar lumps to taste of anything)

So, anyway. After that, in Seattle something stirred
And shortly, new shouts across the world were heard
For  Machiatos,  Frappuccinos, Skinny Lattes and such
Until the flat or Dutch white arrived, and it all became too much

So that I long, now, for Campaign Coffee, that burnt, sour taste
It exists in memory only  - which seems a waste
Now we have Cafe Direct, and Fair Trade Nestle too
I suppose it shows what campaigning can do

You can buy green beans, and roast them at home
Knowing that they were fairly and justly grown
Blue Mountain, Ethiopian Yrgacheffe, Monsoon Malabar
Who’d’ve guessed we’d ever come this far?

From rooms where people were allowed to smoke
Handrolled Golden Virginia - no, that’s not a joke
Talked politics long, long into the night
And drank Campaign Coffee, which tasted just like...

...well. at the time it tasted all right.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Paul Openshaw - 40 years on, still enigmatically superb

Very curious. In the (with hindsight) odd and innocent world of early 1970s Scottish evangelical folk and rock (now THERE'S a niche!) Paul Openshaw was someone spoken of with reverence and a degree of awe. He was the first person I had ever seen who owned and played a Dobro (a proper one, too, none of your imitations). Always the best of we strummers and pickers, the most questing, and the most dangerous and adventurous in songwriting. By the time we met and he was playing University Christian Union gigs, he was slipping away from Godworld, and describing the experience in painful, devastating songs such as Backslider. Which, to say the least, confused the unregenerate Plymouth Brethren among us.

He was at agricultural college, I think, down near Ayr. And then, he was gone. A decade later, so was I. And then, nothing until a few contacts via Facebook over the past year. Paul appeared to be in Dorset, involved (at a senior level? - I don't know) in agricultural feed production. And not only still performing and playing, but, as far as I could tell, still regarded with reverence and awe in his locality.

Yesterday an album arrived called The Potting Shed. Just acoustic guitar  - DADGAD tuning - and some funny, acerbic, sometimes very moving and powerful songs. That voice, slightly smoothed out and less ragged and scratchy than back in the day. And the only album I've sat down and listened to twice through in succession for, oh...a long time.

The guitar playing was always great. Now it's world class. Some internet investigation  - and it seems Paul lives a life below the Google radar, for the most part - indicates that he's a bit of a guitar guru these days, conducting seminars on his approach to tuning.

The curious thing about the album is that it's so clearly the work of that boy 40 years ago. Someone who never stopped practising, never stopped learning, never stopped writing. Never stopped living. So songs like Swallow (Nick Drake via Robin Williamson) and Maybe Love cut very deep. While the brilliantly funny and joyous Bucket on His Head represents the comedic side I remember from the 70s - I can't get nowhere with these shoes/I can't get nowhere with these feet/but with a new soul/I could walk right into heaven...

No idea how you can get the album. There are only 200 copies and Paul's website  - - doesn't work. If you're in Dorset, look out for him at pubs and festivals. However, I did find this on the Acoustic Guitar Magazine site, and some of the songs here are not on the album. A couple deal with the distant past I've talked about. They are wonderful.

Have a listen.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mull2Muckle - the first 10 13 for luck

Everything is coming together for the Mull2Muckle/Fairly Long Ride, which pedals off officially from the Mull of Galloway lighthouse on the evening of 8 June. But today, I started with the first 10 miles. Plus 13 for luck.

I'm taking a week off broadcasting to do the mainland Scotland section of the ride, but I'm back on air (and hopefully in Shetland) from Monday 18th June. Idea is to get to the most northerly point in the UK (we'll settle for the accessible-by-bike Muckle Flugga lighthouse shore station) on the longest day of the year, which is Wednesday 20th. Cycling and then being whisked back to Lerwick for the radio show doesn't really work easily, so I'm trying to knock off chunks of the Shetland route in advance. Useful, uh, training too!

On Tuesday 19th I'll cycle from the Unst ferry terminal to Baltasound, and stay there overnight, cycling up to the Muckle Flugga shore station either first thing in the morning or for midnight!  There will be a live link up with the Fred Macaulay Show on BBC Radio Scotland, then I'll shoot back to Lerwick for my own programme.

Anyway, I need to cycle the Shetland  section of the route before I go off to start the bit awa' sooth. That's 18 miles from Lerwick to Voe, 10 from Voe to Toft (Yell ferry terminal - there are three big islands in the Shetland group, Mainland, Yell and then Unst at the top) then the 18 miles across Yell. Today I did the 10 miles from Voe to Toft, with another 13 added in for training purposes (actually, to get back to where I'd left the car).

And it was fine. The run from Voe to Mossbank is a  series of dips and then a long slow climb (see it at BikeHub here) to 300 feet above sea level above Dales Voe, on the A968, Britain's most northerly A road. Then there's a ferocious descent (hitting 40mph according to my new cycle computer) down to Mossbank, and the site of the new Laggan-Tormore gas pipeline's landfall, followed by a corkscrewing climb and a series of dips'n'rips until the Toft terminal appears. First 10 miles of the Mull2Muckle done (see pictures below). Then I simply retraced my derailleur-crunching to Voe, including the dreadful (3-4 mph) ascent from Mossbank. I'd left the car back along the road to Brae, which accounts for the extra three miles.

All done on muesli, oatcakes and dried apricots! Weather (it was cool, dry, dull and slightly breezy from the east) permitting, I'll tackle Lerwick to Voe this week, with the Yell section next weekend.

Monday, April 23, 2012

44 years on six strings...


I first played the guitar in public when I was 12. That was 44 years ago. A lifetime of dreams in wood and wire. I still have that first guitar, a little Selmer. I still play it. But, oh, how I used to fantasise about a 'proper' flat-top, jumbo, something exotic and glamorous like an Eko Ranger 6 or 12...

 My dad had an Eko arch-top, and my uncle gave us an old Hoyer pickup for it. I played at the gospel hall through an Elizabethan tape recorder and a jumble sale radio speaker. Backing a choir. 

A second-hand Framus arrived, university, lots and lots of gigs, mainly but not all religious. The Eglinton Folk Club in in Irvine was an exception. Shambolic, terrified floor spots. A Yamaha FG180. And FG200. The Gibson J40 I wish I still had. Festivals and pubs and clubs and churches and schools and strange, strange days.

 Bands, electric guitars. Shetland and a whole new musical culture. Martins, a beautiful black one. A matching black Gibson 335 semi acoustic. A glorious red G and L S500, which I still have, the last guitar to bear Leo Fender's signature. Three-hour pub sets, folk festivals, and then a long hiatus. Playing, always. Singing, always. Writing, constantly. At home, mostly, for myself and family and friends.

The comfort of guitars, the ease of music, the decades of fretboard chording never quite progressing enough, but somehow, satisfying. Friend and confidant. The same progressions sounding fresh and visceral.

Radio. Blind Boy Flugga. TV, again. Then more festivals, the Malt and Barley Revue, My Bad Gospel. Adding whisky to guitars. It seemed to work.

Now. 2012. Playing at the second Inverness Whisky Festival a couple of weeks ago. Hootenanny's in Inverness with old colleague and pal Bruce McGregor of Blazing Fiddles. A wee Stella guitar from the 1960s. The sweaty joy of performing, after all this time, all these dreams and drams, all that wood and wire.

Many thanks to the Inverness Whisky Festival for the pictures.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Admiral Fallow. The money shot

This is very good, first shot in the campaign which should take/is aimed at taking AF into the major leagues this year. They have the backing. They have the ambition. They have the attitude and they have the ability. OK. it's Idlewildish (mid-period) and some of the edges have been honeyed. But hey, this is commerce! Literate commerce, though. Got to love the way 'the boy done good' is in quotes.

Did I mention the inveterate Tweeting and groundswell word of mouth?

Louis was at the Shetland Folk Festival last year, and virtually no-one noticed. This year, as part of a major-venue tour, they're doing a special one-off headline gig at the islands' biggest venue, the Clickimin Centre. There's still a degree of puzzlement in certain archipelagic quarters, where the AF buzz has yet to infect. We shall see what the attendance is like.

Worries? Is the major venue tour coming in too early? Selling it out will depend on furious social media activity and press. But then, this posting is, I suppose, part of that...

is the beard off yet? I'd guess it will be soon.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

New Shetland Life out next Friday!

Shet Life Preview March

Monday, February 06, 2012

In a minority of (approximately) one on that Transatlantic Sessions gig

I don't like - to paraphrase the excellent Santa Fe singer songwriter and art activist Joe West - jam bands.

I dislike sessions, noodling, showing off, and virtuosity in the service of itself. For me music is about the song or the tune first, and it is in the creation of that work and its interpretation, a performance that serves the song, that communication is established with an audience. And communication, connection is what it is all about. That connection need not, necessarily, be safe and easy. Lux and Ivy, John Martyn, early Costello, Steve Earle in vintage form, Townes Van Zandt, the Clash...ah well. Maybe not every week.

I went to last Friday's Lerwick performance of Celtic Connections/the Transatlantic Sessions On Tour with high expectations. This was a stellar lineup of musicians and singers, many of whom I admire greatly. It was beyond a sellout, with much internet clamouring for tickets and, due to the unreserved seating, a queue to get in that stretched from the Clickimin Centre for several hundred metres to the camp site.

When Aly Bain and cohorts came on, the excitement was bubbling in the hall like Old Faithful about to erupt. It was a homecoming from Aly, and he played it very self-effacingly and carefully, knowing all too well that for every local fan, there's an embittered denigrator keen to cut the homeward superstar down to size. So there was no 'showing off' from Aly. Not that he needs to. He's been the most important and influential fiddle player in Europe for four decades, and  humility is part of his power and charm. He is  a genuinely nice bloke with supernatural gifts and a commitment to perfection that has brought him huge, and richly deserved rewards. I could have done with hearing a lot more of him at this gig.

And John McCusker, for that matter, though later in the second half he did get more exposure. Jerry Douglas, though, with Aly the co-chairman of the Transatlantic board, would not shut up, neither verbally nor on his steel guitar and dobro.

Now, I bow to no-one in my admiration for the bottleneck and those who wield it. I was reared on Leo Kottke and Elmore James, Big Joe Williams and Tony TS McFee. But slathering its slippery sound over everything, every tune, every blessed song, was too much. and the 12-minute solo performance that began the second half left me with severe dobro aversion. It was an ego out of control. The genie was out of the bottleneck.

Elsewhere there was much to love: Ruth Moody was a revelation, Edi Reader a treasure as usual, Karen Matheson beautiful and sweet. Declan O' Rourke told good stories but played and sang his complex songs (for me) unconvincingly. I kept expecting 'Galileo ' to segue into 'Magnifico-oh-oh-oh...I'm just a  poor boy, nobody loves me' but alas, this most pretentious of songs never did.

Raoul Malo...a man in love with Roy Orbison's voice, and bereft of really good songs. What he has sounds like the Big O (Only Lonely...? Give us a break!) and the only truly incandescent three minutes in his and the Mavericks' armoury, in my humble and, I admit, possibly deranged opinion, is What A Crying Shame from the second album.

Tim O'Brien, on the other hand, is a flaming genius on about 15 levels and as many instruments, and he has a great voice. He was splendid every time he popped up in an audience-facing direction (loved the Bruce Molsky old-timey quartet he was in too) though his leading of This Land Is your Land went spectacularly awry. How can an American not know the words? How did Raoul Malo manage to come in a chorus early? Why did Edi Reader sound more convincing than anyone else on stage when she sang it, and she's from Irvine? Actually, Edi's a blues and country singer at heart, which always leaves me thinking her Burns stuff sounds slightly unconvincing. But maybe that's just me. She is also, as was proved here and throughout the TV CC coverage, very possibly the best backing singer ever. She can harmonise with anything and anyone.

But too much of this was safe, sweet and full of musical and verbal in-jokes for those on stage. It was, in fact, a session, as it said on the tin, and like most sessions, there was self indulgence and muso flirtatiousness galore. Inward looking on far too many occasions. It was also whiter than white. From an American point of view, it was all  Nashville, no Memphis.

I kept wondering about The Great Danny Thompson, rock-like at the back on bass, a man who has lived through more musical madness than everyone else on stage combined. I wondered if his mind wandered to the crazed, manic days with John Martyn, when fights were picked, restaurants trashed, when the vicious Martyn genius could see him switch in a  flash from cuddly crooner to violent abuser of audiences and any hapless crosser of his path. I wondered if he craved some of that mercurial, confrontational  danger, rather than the safe, essentially MOR celebration of niceness that we saw at the Clickimin on Friday night.

I admit, though, that no-one I've spoken to agrees with me. Everybody else had a wonderful time.

And everybody else is wrong.