Sunday, December 26, 2004

The art of digestive walking

A mere sprinkling of snow, despite what the forecasters said: and so it was that Magnus and I decided to preface Christmas lunch with a bit of stern striding into the magically clear hillbog of Shetland.
This, in my case, after a mere five hours sleep, thanks to Santa-impersonation and Susan being called out at 6.30 am. But still, the lethargy and inner aches fell away as we scrambled over fences and burns to the amazing line of watermills above Burnside, and thence to the imposing height of the old stone circle and rocky outcrop high above our croft at Gateside.
The idea had been to take good old labrador Quopyle out for a lengthy walk, but it was only when Mag and I reached the summit that we realised we had left Quoyle behind in the borrowed Peugeot 406 estate (the Citroen C2 GT being hospitalised with a stone-trashed radiator).
A quick tumble down to rescue the indignant dug (who was compensated, with Thick and Stupid the St Bernards, with a decent walk later: worry not) and then home in time for the best Christmas lunch ever - organic Lunna turkey, Bressay sprouts, some slow-simmered (14 hours) beef from mysterious and local sources and our own lamb, roasted with smoked garlic. Not that we ate it all, you understand. Selection was the thing.
Some Champagne - a present from the TMS production team- , a smattering of superb Chilean Cab Sauv/Syrah, and then a Highland Park while watching en famille, a DVD of Alexander MqacKendrick's wondrous The Maggie - the best Scottish film ever made. The aforementioned multi-dog walk, and asleep for two hours before waking up for some music, snacks and my first encounter with Jon Ronson's sublimely funny The Men Who Stare At Goats.
It's now Boxing day, my digestion seems remarkably healthy, considering yesterday's gut-abuse, and the outdoors calls. It's clear, luminous, and snowless. So far.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas eve, babe

I’m in the Barn of Bannocks, and it’s a dirty old Tuesday night, almost midway through this pre-Christmas week. It’s 8.9 degrees Celsius in here, which is well below legal limits for a working environment. Still, back in the manse they’re furiously preparing for tomorrow’s distaff staff Christmas lunch, not to mention wrapping presents for the Day of Days on Saturday.
And I love Christmas. I have loved it with a passion ever since I was old enough to leave a glass of ginger wine (nothing alcoholic in our house) and a mince pie out for Santa, plus of course a carrot for Rudolph. I can still recall the hot, electrical smell of Lewis’s toy department in the week before Christmas, part of an annual shopping pilgrimage around Glasgow that fuelled the excitement up to fever pitch; the smell of new-cut Christmas tree, and the eternal parental battle with malfunctioning lights. Lights which seem, through the mists of nostalgia, to have been so much bigger and more interesting than the ones you get now, all fibre optics and irritating tunes
Putting the list of presents up the chimney; queuing in a frenzy of excitement to see Santa in either Lewis’s or Wylie Lochhead’s - an experience which I don’t remember ever confusing with the idea that Santa was really, well, real. It was like theatre, great theatre, or perhaps a splendid pantomime:
I certainly, as my wife claims to have done, never thought that Santa was God, or vice versa. Admittedly, this was drummed into me by my Brethren upbringing, which was, contrary to many bitter bits of reminiscence, almost all good, apart from actually having to sit through gospel services and morning meetings. Santa was Santa, a mysterious force for eating mince pies and drinking ginger wine, and delivering presents in the mysterious darkness of sleep prior to Christmas morning. Santa was a performance. Santa was home. Santa was, in the end of the day, mum and dad.
You can see the Santa/God differentiation problem: both, after all, have beards, are male and elderly. Or were when I was growing up. But leaving the historical St Nicholas out of the equation for the moment, the Santa I knew and loved was almost entirely pagan, a provider of material things, of toys, books, annuals, sweeties and later, the essentials of life such as bikes and record players. Though by then, the phrase “see what Santa brings you” had become a mere sop to my younger sisters and the notion of parental providence.
Speaking of paganism, I write on the shortest day of the year, in the howling, rainy darkness. The barn roof has just sprung a leak. A small one, admittedly, but worrying. Tomorrow I’ll have to climb up and check for lost slates. It’s the equinox, a day when the year turns, when some of Shetland and Orkney’s ancient burial sites spring to a weird kind of life, if the sunset is visible, fading away along the sites of precisely-aligned entrances, arches and standing stones.
I heard someone on the radio today saying that Christmas was nothing but the pagan festival of birth/death/light/dark moved to accommodate Christ. And I like the idea of Santa as a kind of big, bearded, pagan provider of light and laughter. But as I sit in this barn, built on the site of an ancient monastic chapel, itself probably erected on an even older, pre-Christian site of worship, I’m thinking of the other stories I grew up with.
I’m thinking of an unmarried mother giving birth in a cattle shed. Not a converted, heated barn like this one, but a dirty old byre, thick with animal smells and sounds. I’m thinking not of the big, primeval notions of light and dark, of cosmic fear and bad weather, winter and spring, but of the utter defencelessness of a child, hunted down by an evil tribal leader, born illegitimate of a refugee mother. Without a place to rest his head.
Maybe it is all the same thing. The light coming into the world, the child in the manger being a symbol of the coming spring, his inevitable death the autumnal ending of things, followed by rebirth. If that suits you, then fine. But it’s the humanity of Christmas that haunts me. The idea of big beardy God, creator of heaven and earth, bloody and squirming in a manger. The millions of similar, desperate births that will occur across the world this Christmas.
Just for a minute or two, anyway. Then Santa takes over, the wine flows, and we rest secure amid the roast tatties and joyous, pagan consumption: all’s well with the world. Except somewhere, there’s a baby crying. There always was. There always will be.

(reprinted courtesy of the Shetland Times. Check out

Friday, December 17, 2004


So, this is my last day in Aberdeen, indeed on the British mainland, before Christmas. Tonight I get the NorthLink ferry back to Shetland, the Citroen Berlingo so overloaded with stuff from Ikea, Asda, Sainsbury's and a dozen other shops it's a miracle the wheels are still clearing the chassis.
It's been a long week away...Clydebank, Glasgow, Helensburgh and Aberdeen, and a peculiar experience with the service flat I normally rent when in Castle Greyskull...I'm fairly certain the gas boiler was faulty. Despite sobriety in the extreme, I was waking up horribly groggy, with thumping headaches that continued all day. Ended up sleeping with the windows open. In the depths of an Aberdonian winter.
Amazing deals on drink; worryingly good: In Asda last night (or should I say Walmart? Should I even be shopping at Walmart?) you could get two cases of beer (24 bottles of Miller, Becks, Stella etc) for £20. That's soft drink prices. Dangerous.
Anyway, the forecast for yesterday was horrendous, and then the weather turned out fairly OK. Tonight is looking lovely, but I am packing loads of Phenergan, the ultimate anti-seasickness pill. We shall see.
Oh, and thanks to all the folk who have logged on here via the bbc site It's great to know you're listening all over the world.