Thursday, 30 September 2010

Getting to the end of this London stint, slowly but surely. Today I'm making up for not having been a tourist much and going to see my colleagues perform in a matinee of a contemporary play at the Globe... then off the the Royal Opera House to see the obscure Niobe. I've gotten suddenly sentimental about the Globe again - the time away did me good! I've changed my focus though: since I know the show so intimately and don't have to concentrate on remembering how it goes, I'm consciously concentrating... on how it goes. Sounds boring but otherwise the powers of concentration begin to flag, you know - this way I have a lot more energy and its good practice. And, I think it's as a result, Sunday's shows were some of the best I've played.

Monday was interesting. I and some other Baselites played for a Banquet at the British Library. It felt very authentic somehow, playing at the beginning and end of a meal, colleagues singing, usually to divided attention during the courses - you read descriptions of this kind of thing throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. We were proper servants, entering through the side entrance, staying out of sight when not musicking, and the organizer (UK: organiser) admitted freely that it had not even occurred to her to see to there being any food for us over the course of the long evening (but managed to come up with some sandwiches in the end, and my Waitrose Sushi was very good). Somehow it was fun though - the music was all quite good and it seemed somehow more natural to let the audience decide for itself when it wanted to pay attention and when not to. I have been slightly envious of actors, as theatre audiences provide them with so much feedback, while concert audiences are trained to stifle even their sneezes. So, when the audience quietened down for Gawain's Dowland songs and remained utterly still for the Ravenscroft canon "Musing," the performers could feel a sense of victory more than in a normal concert.

Earlier that day, I did a bit of London safari, going with Helen, Claire and Kirsty to Primark (no link, trust me on this one). Primark is a very large store of very cheap clothing. I decided to play along and, quite enjoying the buzz and the vast number of people, filled a basket with things I sort-of needed: new gloves, a black sweater (UK: jumper) for very cold concerts, a purple concert shirt and white v-neck t-shirt. That was fun. Didn't buy any of it. I looked in the basket, you see, pretending I was peering into my wardrobe at new items, and felt dismayed at how cheap and soulless they were, almost certainly the result of extortion, likely to fall apart in the next few short years. So I picked my own (amazing, green) fall coat out and put it on, leaving the basket there with all the other abandoned baskets of disillusioned shoppers.

Then Claire and Kirsty and I went to Selfridges, because I'd never been to Selfridges and because one could get a pie in their food court. I wandered through to find the toilets, taking in a level of overt affluence as embarrassing to a Canadian as a pie-eating contest would be to an Englishman, and was utterly appalled when I had to go through a forest of decked-out conifers to get to my destination. During lunch (pie for Claire, jacket potatoes for Kirsty and me), a man came around to clear up the boxes we ate out of, on which were written: "Please recycle me!" So I asked him "will you recycle this?" and he said "It's going in the bin!" (which is UK for garbage - Canadians only recycle in bins), and I said "no, you can't have it then."

So we all three left Selfridges with our pie- and potato-smeared boxes until we found a public recycle bin:

Kirsty triumphantly recycling.

These are my exploits outside the house. Inside, I've been reading both from books and from the articles I've downloaded onto this computer, trying to narrow down a Ph.D. dissertation topic. Saturday's trip to the library to find a translation of Joachim Burmeister's Musica Poetica of 1606 also yielded a copy of Anthony Rooley's Performance, which I picked up too - he was in charge of the banquet concert and it was interesting to see his written ideas of performance come out in his way of speaking about music on the day.

One evening, I forget which, I was on the Internet looking about when I regretted not being Scotland again yet, because my curiosity is piqued by the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, which starts today and runs through Oct. 24 all over Scotland. I think there's a difficult built-in paradox to making art about mental health issues: Art is, in my opinion, about building and exploring our connections to the world, while depression and anxiety (the focus of a lot of the events) tend to break these connections. How do you communicate a loss of connection to the audience that you're trying to connect to? An audience can empathize with sadness, loneliness, even despair, and even take pleasure in such empathy. But they can't empathize with depression because if they were to actually succeed, their empathy would vanish and the story would appear worthless. Normally they don't succeed of course (probably a good thing), in which cases the audience, sensing they're about to be hit over the head by someone else's demons, shuts off, and only feels alienated and probably also either guilty or angry.

So how does one communicate this one feeling of disconnection? Or does one try? I mean, if it is possible - if you gain an audience's trust and endear them to a character so much that they're willing to follow them into such a state, is it ethical? Does it not do violence to its audience? Does it not betray its faith by leaving it in tatters? Or for those who don't follow, simply leaving it behind? What, Artist, were you trying to give them, or were you simply indulging in "self-expression"? Looking at the website, the SMHAFF seems to be taking an honest stab at talking about mental health issues from every angle, including lots of comedy and good storytelling, hopefully lots of understanding and sympathy and digestable glimmers into the world they're trying to explore. I wish I could go check it out for myself and see what they've come up with.

In the meantime, contemplating the issue does make me think that a sixteenth-century approach to arousing emotion is the way forward if we are to become more understanding people. That's because this art of persuasion is not about self-expression, it's about moving an audience to feel one way or another, engaging their passions and giving them the chance to explore their own humanity, but doing so responsibly. There's a famous quotation describing the playing of lutenist Francesco da Milano before 1546:

"making the strings languish under his fingers in a sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that...they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing...and I believe that we would be there still, had he not himself - I know not how - changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and the senses to the place from which he had stolen them..."

How can this melancholy have been so pleasurable? It can be, I think, if they felt that what they heard in their ears resonated with, or expressed something they already felt...that's good storytelling. But notably he took pains to return them to the real world. Why? Probably so that, having been left in a headspace where they could get on with their day, they would trust him enough to let him transport them away again?

If artists are to attempt to tell stories of serious mental health issues (and I'm glad to see that they are), then they need to first earn the trust of audiences. Far from feeling awkwardly like they've paid to become part of someone's therapy process, the audience has to know that they'll get something out of following a character, musical or literary, in its journey, and this takes great craft from the artist. I am not saying don't delve too deep - not at all - but remember that pleasure derives itself from a sense of connection, to anything from the most joyful to the most morose but it has to be a sense of connection. If you're going to try to take away this pleasure, be sure to return it again, or the audiences will stop listening.

This of course takes a lot of trust in their audience too - that they will try to understand an issue that you only gently prod them with, they are sympathetic by nature. There is no self-betrayal in telling stories rather than exhibiting demons - indeed my own memories of more desolate times are not those times themselves, which tend to blur together, but are rather the tender stories that hover around the edges of hard times. I remember vividly, for instance, one autumn evening, lying in bed reading - I was sixteen - and feeling a cool draught that came in through my window and touched my face - through the heavy, stagnant air of my bedroom suddenly the scent of falling leaves, the coming of winter and snow - and being reminded gently of the passage of time, and feeling happy at this sudden sense of connection to the world. Yet I know, looking back, that such a moment could only have moved me so much that I remember it now if it also came as relief, that for such a subtle moment to acquire such tenderness, it must have been juxtaposed against a more barren moment that came before. And so I understand not only that sixteen year-old, but another one as well, and I do not think I have done myself any disservice. Nor, I hope, my audience.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Before I get to writing here are some pictures of earlier this week:

Bjarte and Adrian Showing off Matching Shirts, Liestal

Josué peering out of a tightly-packed car

Boomy acoustic in Völklingen

Josué at the incredible steps between
Paris Gare de l'Est and Nord

Kudos to Deutche Bahn for honouring my TGV ticket and even giving me a reservation to sit, and to the Eurostar for changing my non-changeable ticket to the next train when I finally got to Paris. I got back to London in time for the last train at 8 pm which goes from St. Pancras to just around the corner, and was in bed ridiculously early.

Yesterday I woke up and attempted to take stock of all I have to do in the coming days. I started by staying in bed and booking plane tickets online before rolling over for another snooze - finally have my ticket to Canada, yey! A most productive sleeping in (UK: lie-in). Then I took my computer downstairs and started trying to do everything at once for a few hours, getting quite tense about it all when finally hunger forced me to drop it and go grocery (UK: food) shopping. Sure enough, while walking to the supermarket a viable set of priorities fell into place and by the time I got back I had a clear schedule of eat, practise, and write the four most important emails. Maybe this morning I'll go on a walk and see if the same clarity arises. Besides, I haven't explored the cemetery a block away.

This is always a problem, coming back from tour. On tour it can feel like a luxury to have your schedule decided for you, even if it's a packed one. All you have to think about is showing up and playing as well as possible, and break time is important because you need your brain for other things. Now despite the show tonight again at the Globe, there is a deluge of laundry, library books, bills, practising slide-trumpet, emails, and my own projects which are getting urgent, to attend to as well.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Stuck in Saarbrücken after the French railway workers have decided not to run any trains today - at least I've got a reservation on the German train to Paris at 15.01 and hopefully Eurostar will still let me on something back to London. So far it's not been so bad: after a visit to the station to decide what I should do, I returned to the hotel for a second breakfast with Josué and Nora, who pointed out to me the freshly-squeezed orange juice that I'd missed the first time. And now the train station has free wireless internet and I've just done my good deed for the day by looking up the connecting trains for two women in the same boat as me. (Hmm- I do hope that's the only mention of boats in this journey but at this point who knows...)

Last night's concert was very well received but I found it much more difficult than the night before. It had ups and downs. A big boomy church made for a narcissistic experience playing my solo trombone piece: I played very quietly and intimately, knowing that the sound would still feel immediate up in the balcony, but the ensemble pieces were difficult because I could hear the people beside me so loudly that the cornetti two and three meters away sounded like they were in the next room - sightly unnerving. It did at least provide a good opportunity to practise looking up from the music more, but the act of finding a groove (in the densely contrapuntal pieces where groove was appropriate) is too much an aural and visceral thing to leave to glances alone, and if we did find a groove now and again it lacked relief.

But the hardest thing was that I was exhausted: it was the 6th concert in 6 days, and the only one which involved waking up relatively early, sitting in a car for four hours, eating, rehearsing and playing the concert with no proper down time and no espresso on hand to compensate for the lack of down time. As a result, I played all the sad and sultry pieces very expressively (fortunately my solo piece was one of these), but couldn't quite get excited about the lively and extroverted ones.

All in all, it's been a great week though, playing all my favourite music with my favourite people, again. I could get used to this. Seeing another possibility looming around the weekend, I just sent an email begging for a single rehearsal of some Adson Ayres I am to perform on Monday night in a cornetto and sackbut quintet. Contemplating a performance of playing-it-safe non-phrasing and non-dynamics, and considering it fair enough to be slightly cheeky as I was forced to beg, I also gently reminded the organizers that it's unlikely that we'll play our best without rehearsing together and that normally I charge extra for forsaking the pleasure and satisfaction of being able to play my best.

The situation reminds me of a competition the CBC had to complete the phrase "As Canadian as...." Touché won over cliché as the beaver, ice hockey, and maple syrup were ousted by "As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances." Commendable except when the circumstances aren't actually beyond one's efforts to improve...

The train will be here soon - at last. On to rereading and reacting to a chapter from an exciting book on Rhetoric and Early Music which will be sent off for publishing soon. Having read, thought about, and played with ideas since my first reading in May, I'm curious to see if my reactions will have changed.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

It's very late and tomorrow is a long day, but just a quick post because tonight's concert deserves it. It was one of those concerts where the energy and interaction between musicians reminded me why I signed up in the first place.

I was also incredibly nervous for the concert, but then, waiting in the wings, two things happened. First, I was inspired by the very intrepid violin playing coming from Veronika Skuplik and Bjarte Eike, and secondly, trying to deal with the nerves, I told myself to just enjoy them. And of course as the butterflies flutted about in my stomach I wondered exactly what about it I should enjoy, when I realized, actually I was really lucky to have something to care so much about that I got nervous. I wasn't nervous about embarrassing myself, only about not making beautiful, communicative music, and I thought, well, at least it's something worth getting excited about. By the time I got on stage to play some very soloistic trombone parts I was still nervous of course, but also incredibly positive and I think it came through.

Remembering back, most of my trials with nerves have been solved by remembering at the last minute just how lucky I am to be in my line of work.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

It's nice to be properly busy again. Tonight is the third of three performances of a programme of music of the Swiss composer Ludwig Senfl, with the Renaissance branch of I Fedeli. It's a lovely programme mostly of long, high, quiet lines - something I've become slightly specialized at but which I still find very, very tiring. The past two concerts have gone well though, and I have high hopes for today's too despite the fact that I already woke up at 7:30 and went to church to play a Haydn Mass. Ah, the glamourous life!

Josué, Nora and a poster

Switzerland is beautiful this time of year - the season slightly more advanced than in England - I was sorry to see all the blackberries gone the other day coming back from my singing lesson. The singing lesson, by the way, was a brilliant thing to have in the middle of all these rehearsals: excellent once in a while to go back to thinking about breathing technique and what makes music sound good without the pressure of a concert that night. Returning to a familiar question once again: does it feel like home? Not really. It feels really nice, beautiful, cozy, yet also a supportive place and quite important to me - maybe it's a bit like visiting grandparents.

View from the church window, Sissach

The slightly hazy continental air here, while not as invigorating as the British sea air, does however provide fantastic sunsets:

One thing I like about working with amateur choirs is that they warm up together. We the band have been taking part too in stretching, massaging our faces, and even singing along. Yesterday in Basel we were all quite stiff though so when they got to the singing, as we're not able to play along, we wandered off and do our own thing:

Ann stretching in the Leonhardskirche, Basel

Senfl isn't the only composer in the spotlight this week, Johann Rosenmüller is also, with two CDs being released. This one by the Baroque branch of I Fedeli (featuring yours truly on trombone and many talented musicians besides) and this one (second on the list) by Alex Potter and Chelycus. And now I have to cut this post short because I've got to go rehearse with them for the release concert, which I hope some of you will be able to attend.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Just pulled out of the channel tunnel. As the light of the hazy sky begins to appear, this French dawn is heralded by the chirping of text messages, each arriving to tell its owner that their phone will be privy to the best roaming rates. The haze has always bothered me about France: the air lingers here just a little too long, the salty English breeze will be replaced by the dusty smell lingering from the bread which was baked two weeks ago.

I thought I was booking a reasonably late Eurostar, but I still wound up getting up at six. Oh, alright, ten past. As I'm almost always traveling after a late night, I've gotten into the habit of not packing until the morning I travel, when I'm generally more efficient. My empty suitcase used to keep me up the night before, but last night I put my passport, tickets and sheet music on the table by the door. Realizing the rest is icing anyway, I slept rather well.

I have three trips to bring everything back to Basel, so to make the later ones a bit easier I have most of my camping gear with me now. The train people confiscated my half-empty canister of propane so I suppose such an object can only cross the channel by ferry. I retaliated though when they wanted to take my more expensive aerosol "nano nässe blocker" - to waterproof shoes and bags and such - and came out victorious. But I look like a vagrant hauling around my tent (which I haven't unpacked since Scotland) and my stickered trombone case along with the cute little salmon suitcase which otherwise makes me feel rather sophisticated.

Having traveled regularly since moving to Switzerland, I like to think I've become savvy to some things - silly but crucial things like checking that there is water before putting soap all over my hands on trains (not so bad on the German trains, where the soap is powder, but disastrous on a Frecciarossa). But in many ways I'm still quite stupid: I often don't buy a coffee with the hope that I might sleep on the train, despite my almost null track record, and I always bring exclusively heavy reading with me - this time a half-dozen scholarly articles on this computer, and then I'm so tired and mentally drained by the time I've rushed around and gotten myself onto the train or plane to begin with that I can't read more than a sentence every five minutes or so. So when I saw a book of Roald Dahl short stories sitting on top of someone's garbage bin (UK: wheelie bin), I nicked it and read about boys riding on the backs of giant turtles instead. And then I bought a coffee. And the most beautiful fruit salad I've ever seen:

The stopover in Paris was absolutely fine: I still am incredulous when I get to the staircase up and down which travellers must schlep their baggage between the Gare de L'Est and the Gare du Nord. I read a few more stories in the newly-renovated Gare de l'Est, and was mildly shocked and quite amused when a lady behind me opened a bottle of Coca Cola and it sprayed right onto my neck and shirt.


When I got off the tram in Basel, on the first block towards home I passed a man sitting outside at a Restaurant eating Rösti with cheese. On the second block, a lone piccolo was playing Fasnacht marches in a bedroom above. When I got home, the first thing I saw was an indignant note from the landlord, looking for who to blame for ... a piece of wood that keeps falling off the doorframe. Yep, I'm definitely back in Switzerland!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Last night I said hello to my trombone again - I had brought my mouthpieces with me to Scotland and done some exercises and it was encouraging to feel that all the notes were still properly installed. Just to be sure, though, I went into one of the big rehearsal rooms at the Globe and alternated playing, singing and piano until I was tired at all three, and today I feel that my mouth muscles (the lips are just a small part) have actually bulked up a bit. Good - I'll be needing them! Next week's visit to Basel will involve six performances and rehearsals for five different projects - an intensity that has more to do with luck than anything else.

The rest of yesterday was spent digging up articles on Rhetoric and Music: the impression that RILM had given me that articles were a bit scarce was dashed to pieces by the JSTOR search engine, which not only found more articles but let me download them as .pdf's too. I only wish that I could print them out, because much as I love this new MacBook Pro, it's tiring to stare at and a plethora of distractions are a short click away.

Indeed, I realize now, after many months of living out of a suitcase or backpack, that what I miss most is not sleeping in the same bed or being able to stock a kitchen (though I miss that too), but having a proper place to work. The last time I went back to Basel, I sat in my office by my printer and got loads done in a short amount of time, spreading out papers, going away and coming back to it with ease. Traveling though, there's no place to spread out, and especially no place that you can dedicate to certain thought processes and not others.

I notice this especially at the moment, since a plan where to live next is forming in my mind and a deadline for a great big funding application looms two months away - the first gives me a source of energy and the second a little bit of welcome pressure to get some reading, writing, and investigating done. To add to this, autumn is here: there's something in the air, the smell of apples perhaps, and a cool, fresh wind that makes me want to listen to lots of fiddle music (or for a change, this), make some tea and intwine myself in all sorts of projects.

But at the moment I'm still cleaning up the debris from my backpack and getting ready to cycle to the Globe for the first show in almost two weeks.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

It's pretty daunting to try to write up the past ten days, as full of adventures as ten weeks usually is. Besides three lovely day walks, a distillery tasting and consumption of a freshly caught Haggis with Claire, I spent the weekend roughing it on the Knoydart peninsula, which does indeed live up to its reputation as Scotland's wilderness, and climbing what some call Britain's most spectacular summit. In the meantime, I haven't utterly forgotten my career, and checked out the small Music Department at the University of Glasgow, including a brilliant meeting with John Butt and an interrogation of David as to the practise room and 466 mean-tone continuo organ situation. Before leaving Glasgow, mentally and physically exhausted, I sat about David's watching the rain come down, drinking tea and eating hot food followed by the remaining fruit leather, playing improvise a canon at the 5th (it's been a while - what a fun game!) and tossing ideas about, so the past few days I had yet again some energy to visit Frauke Jürgensen in Aberdeen, and to climb onto a horse for the first time in 10 years.

Now you're up to date, if you're checking here for news, you've got it now. But as I sit on the train watching the light change to orange in the glens between here and Aberdeen (and now from Aberden to London), it's been a week that's going to be hard to say goodbye to, and so for the rest of you, it's time to put the kettle on again… and don't worry if you don't read it all in one go!

Before I forget though, a great big congratulations to David for having kept his blog going for 10 years. Also to note, some of the pictures were taken by Claire A. McIntyre, and I wanted to point them out by initialing them, but - a problem we've run into before - we have exactly the same initials.

Shortly after the last post, Claire and her Aunt met up with me at the Canal Station cafe and we headed back to the vast grey stone Victorian house where Claire's avid-hillwalker Aunt and Uncle live with their son. The house itself was beautiful, with very high ceilings and stained glass in the stairwell windows, but a few modern outfitting, like a hot tub in the backyard, very welcome after traveling.

The first day hike was to the isle of Bute, one of the closest island to Glasgow and relatively flat, but we went along the rugged south coast, with gorgeous views across the water to the hills of Arran and it's own grassy cliffs and rocky beaches.

Well, it wasn't so bad.

Arran beckons...

Beware the Rocks.

About halfway through the hike, we came upon the ruined chapel of St. Blane, set in an idyllic glen with views of the sea. The burial ground was divided into clergy on the top level by the chapel, and women somewhere near the bottom.

St. Blane's Chapel (12th Century)

Towards the end of the hike, we wandered along a path on the east coast, which boasts one of Scotland's many apparent microclimates: the forest was lush with flowers and even palm trees lined the road nearby.

Afterwards we went and sat in a remote tea room and I had mint chip ice cream for the first time in years, admiring the presence of Grilled Haggis on the daily specials board:

On the road back to the ferry, we stopped to admire this abandoned church and the tree and brambles growing inside.

Having a small wait ahead of us, we explored the famous victorian gentleman's toilets by the pier (having at one point to vacate so that they could be put to their proper use).

The ferry-ride home was also quite spectacular, and we were privy to a particularly brilliant display of sun dogs.

Left Sun Dog.

The second day hike brought us along the shores of Loch Lomond and over to Loch Long, the foot of a Corbett called The Cobbler, or Ben Arthur. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Scottish hill designations, Grahams are hills from 2000-2500 feet, Corbetts from 2500-3000 (including a 2999 - so I suppose the cairn at the top doesn't count!), and the Monroes start at 3000 feet. But as a steep 2900-foot Corbett with two peaks to climb onto (actually three but the South peak you need a rope for) it made for a full day.

Our first views were of Loch Long, a sea loch stretching south into the Firth of Clyde.

Before long we could finally see the looming peaks of the Cobbler ahead of us:

The Cobbler comes into view, North Peak on Right.

We knew we'd passed the halfway mark when we reached the Narnain Boulders, where early explorers used to camp and which are believed to have fallen off the nearby Ben Narnain.

From the top of the North peak, we could see where Loch Long opened out onto the sea. We ate some snacks on top of the mountain to build up courage for the centre peak, and I took out my new compass to practise orientation by finding the names of the peaks around us. This is how I knew that the mountain looming over the sliver of Loch Lomond was Ben Lomond itself.

Loch Long meets the Horizon

Ben Lomond and Some Brief Evidence of Clouds

The centre peak of The Cobbler is famous for its unusual route to the summit - the highest of the three summits of the mountain. This is the view from the North Peak; the hole on the right is called the Eye of the Needle. To get to the top, one has to climb through this hole, go left upon a ledge with a not insignificant precipice, then shimmy up through the left hole onto the top.

Here is Claire, moving along the ledge...

and victorious at the top.

And me holding a triumphant pose very briefly (but you can't see the terror on my face).

After this moment, we opened the very wee cask strength Glen Farclas that we had bought some weeks before at the Whisky Exchange near the Globe theatre in preparation for the occasion.

Coming down from Cobbler was a moment of truth - were all the preventative measures I took for my knees going to spare them? Claire very patiently agreed to come down on the grass rather than the rocky path, and I fumbled about with my sticks, practising a swaggering walk in which I let my hips loosen up, that I'd gotten from Alison a few days earlier. Verdict? It was fine. I can continue to climb peaks after all!

Going down the grassy hillside meant that in the end Claire and I wound up on slightly the wrong side of the forest, a little road we'd found breaking off at a steep path by a stream. The rocky slopes covered in tree roots, stream beds and lushness of the ferns and moss which, combined with the pines, made for an air so sweet I would have thought myself back in the Adirondacks if it weren't for the stray holly tree now and again.


While the top had greeted us with blueberries, the blackberries waiting for us at the bottom of the hill were the perfect thirst quencher. That evening there was no question of making use of the hot tub...

The third day trip was a difficult choice between heading to the still-beckoning hills (and distillery) of Arran or to the gentler Borders of Scotland. Looking at the travel time to get to and around Arran, we decided to leave it for another time, and so instead went to the Scottish Borders for a walk up Minch Moor before exploring the very old Traquair House.

Stepping out of the car in the Scottish Borders, I suddenly felt like I had entered a foreign country again. The landscape, with its rolling hills, forest and heather was indeed beautiful, but was also somehow so settled, so steeped in both its tight-knit history and its wealth that I didn't feel as welcome to connect to it as I did with the more rugged bits of the country. Even the path we walked along, the Minch Moor Road, was saturated with 800 years of tales: narrow escapes, wandering poets, and of course faeries, which all made the walk very interesting, but I also had the sense of missing a lot because of my lack of study of Scottish history.

Faeries I can well enough understand though: this spot is called the Cheese Well, and has for hundreds of years (we saw it marked later on a map from 1741) hosted offerings to appease the faeries who might otherwise pester travelers in that area. I left a bit of my granola bar and Claire a Polish coin.

Cheese Well

The moors are lower and gentler than the hills further North, but the large exposed sections still make for inspiring views, especially if, like me, you get excited about vast swathes of purple heather:

Aww.... (or "A Wee Bit Quaint")

I Think that A Big Cairn is a Sign of Insecurity

We ate lunch at the top of the hill and meandered down to Traquair House, the 900-year old hunting lodge which became a refuge for the Catholic Stuarts. In its refuge capacity, the house acquired a secret stairwell and other methods of keeping both Catholic priests and evidence of their rituals hidden. In the house one can also gaze upon the cradle which held James VI of Scotland (I of England) before he took the Scottish throne at the age of 13 months so that regents could oust his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. The other most interesting piece of furniture was a rare treat indeed: a not-very-much-altered but playable Ruckers harpsichord from 1651. Other than one recording of mostly inappropriate music though, it is more furniture than instrument.

The House and Lawn

This gate shall not be opened again until another Stuart takes the throne.

Every Estate Needs a Maze

That evening we were treated to a traditional supper of haggis, neaps and tatties - it was my suggestion as a billboard campaign for Scotch Lamb had somehow penetrated all of my advertisement defences and I had a craving for something gamey.

Friday's late train up to Mallaig meant that Claire and I had one last morning for exploration, so we prepared our stomachs with a proper fry-up and headed to the nearest distillery, Auchentauchan. We would have had a tour almost to ourselves had not a busload of very chatty tourists landed there moments before 11, but it was nevertheless quite enjoyable. I can now explain to you what malting is exactly and that the colour of a whisky comes entirely from the cask. It was two minutes to noon when Claire and I downed our complimentary dram - must not make a habit of this!

Barley and Water

....and Yeast

Enjoying the delectable Smell of the Angel's Share

After a brief but excellent lunch at Heart Buchannan, I began the careful packing of my bags while Claire headed back to her parent's place in England for a visit. Right as I was about to dash out the door, Alison showed up, back from a concert in London, and decided to walk me to the University - yey! On the way we talked about how easy it is for good musicians to hinder the firing neurons of entire orchestras by giving too much instruction.

The scheduling of my meeting with John Butt meant trekking down the University with all my gear, only to find Prof. Butt a very avid hillwalker himself and plenty to talk about before turning the conversation to possible Ph.D. topics. It's been a project the past few months to become aware of what's been written and who is who and where and doing what and so it was encouraging to hear him list off the same names of people and their work, not to mention impressive that he had all of this information at his fingertips. He then began to advise where the gaps might be and what I, as a performer might have to contribute, and I had to stop myself from displaying my enthusiasm with a Canadian "awesome!" and fired plenty of neurons thinking up a more erudite response to convey my excitement.

Within the hour, the world changed again and I stepped onto a train to Mallaig, soaking up the sunset over the highland lochs until it finally went dark just before Fort William (don't worry - I saw the rest on the way back!).

Upon stepping off the train in Arisaig at 11pm, where I'd camp that night in a pre-arranged cow field (with showers and toilets for the campers), I experienced something I haven't witnessed since the summer of 2004: silence and the stars. The Milky Way, that river which adorned the summers of my youth on Canadian lakes, shone in all its splendour above my gaping eyes... I got to my campsite following the North Star.

Indeed, after other recent posts, you can perhaps imagine how content I was to be walking along a remote highway at midnight, far from anywhere I'd ever been but looking up at familiar stars and feeling more at home than I have in a long, long time.

I hadn't realized that Kinloid Farm campground was in fact situated IN the cow field until morning, when I heard stomping and munching about my tent. Slightly trepidatious of cows, my hoped that merely the sheep I'd seen the night before had wandered over were dashed by a very deep and slightly inquisitive moo in close proximity to my tent.

Kinloid Farm Campground

After they'd wandered away, I got out and collapsed the tent and had my last shower for a bit too long before paying my 6 pounds and heading into town to find some breakfast. I was tempted by these:

But went for some smoked mackerel on a bun instead, which I ate on these benches overlooking the harbour.

Please note the shadow of a cappuccino in my hand.

I got to Mallaig to become suddenly aware that it was Saturday. Normally, thanks to the nature of my job, I'm quite adept at arranging travel, but I'd been so concerned about being prepared to venture into the wilderness that I'd neglected to note crucial things, for instance, that the ferry doesn't run on Saturday. I optimistically and asked where I might find transport, and was advised to ask about on the Pier, and sure enough thanks to a garden fair in Inverie, there were fishing boats ferrying people back and forth all day.

Boats on the Fisherman's Pier, Mallaig

One of the first sights from the pier upon arriving in Inverie was a totem pole. Did I mention I felt very at home here?

I realized there was no point getting to the campsite too early and wandered around a bit, peeking into The Old Forge, famous as Britain's most remote mainland pub, and making a mental note of the venison burger on the menu. Then I checked out the garden festival. While much of the highlands are indeed rugged, Inverie was another patch of lushness and the marrows entered into the courgette competition were very impressive zucchini indeed. After visiting their posh garden outhouse I left the garden with a cone of homemade ice-cream with beetroot syrup and headed for the hills.

Inverie Community Garden

Posh Outhouse. Well, as posh as they get.

About to set off.

The road north into the Knoydart Peninsula was an easy walk, and it wasn't long before I was greeted by a few horses grazing by the edge of the forest. Each of them came up to me and checked me out as I walked by, nuzzling up against me in what I thought was affection but am now told probably had more to do with looking for hidden treats.

On the other side of the forest, the valley opened up into a plain of green, tufty, slightly wet grass. Indeed, aside from on the boulders which littered the area, I think there was no square inch where putting your hand down you wouldn't detect that the whole plain grew atop a bog of moss and mud. But the most amazing thing about the valleys were the rivers: they carved their way so deep into the valley floor that in some places you couldn't see them past the grass until you got close.

Hidden Waterfall

When I reached the junction of the two rivers, I took off my pack to explore one waterfall which lay just off the path. It was well worth it: the water had carved unbelievable curves into the rock, including the circle and bridge you see here:

Finding a campsite was a bit tricky - I thought I would go into the woods but the moment I set foot near them, midgies and other biting insects came at me and drove me away, so I decided to camp in the field where there was a bit of a breeze to keep them off. But I didn't want my tent to be seen from the path and there was the extra challenge of pitching my tent on grass with boggy wetness about three inches down. I found a dryish patch on top of a rock, far from the path, and used my extra-large garbage bag as an extra groundsheet, which kept me dry both nights.

My Campsite, Tent to Cooking Rock

Food hung up out of habit

Blending into the scenery

That evening, while I was cooking my spaghetti and meat sauce, the midgies came. The occasional breeze gave a bit of relief from the swarms of tiny black, biting insects, and it was not long before I lathered myself up in insect repellent, which I detest, to escape them. I was extra careful putting my sleeping bag and clothes into the tent, brushing them off and opening the zipper just long enough to chuck them in when a breeze came up, yet when I crawled into bed there were dozens of midges in all corners of the tent. How did they get in? Most of them were too concerned about being trapped to bite, but faced with the choice of being very hot in my sleeping bag or getting my sides bitten I had a difficult night indeed.

Morning was better. The wind had kicked up a bit and were keeping the midges entirely at bay, and my very very tiny one-cup mocha from a Milan street market made a fantastic coffee in about two minutes. I breakfasted on porridge and packed my day-pack to head for Ladhar Bheinn.

A Most Excellent Device

I set off following the river which ran down the North side of Ladhar Bheinn - my campsite was on the other side of this hill:

Once I left the river and climbed up onto the hills behind Ladhar Bheinn, I got a picture of the mountain from its Northern and more splendid face:

Lunch is where I make the exception from bringing dried foods - one needs water anyway on these hikes so an apple is worth its weight. The Stockan's Oatcakes and tablet (similar to fudge) were tributes to Scottish cuisine.

As I got higher up, another view came into sight: Knoydart is a peninsula and I had come via Loch Nevis to the South - now I could see Loch Hourn to my North, its blue water and sandy beaches very inviting and stretching off into the mountains.

To my surprise, the rivers kept flowing even as I went quite high up - I supposed they were the drainage from the boggy ground everywhere, but while that might be a part of it, there were also little lakes, or Lochan, quite near the top of the mountain. This is nearly the highest one, and the mud surrounding it was full of deer tracks. As I approached it, I saw 6 or 7 deer on the hill in front of me. Rather than picking their way across the hillside like sheep, they ran and jumped up the hillside with tremendous energy.


Climbing steeply up from the Lochan, following where the deer had gone, I found myself on a saddle. In case I get the impulse to become a Munro Bagger - that's someone who tries to climb them all - I took the extra 20 minutes to head up the ridge path the other way to a nearby peak (which looks on the map to be Stob a' Chiore but the web decription doesn't line up). Here, for the first time since I had been walking by the river in the valley, I was on a path again - you can see it below as it leads upwards from the saddle.

With suddenly more energy, perhaps brought about by having no more shelter from the gusty wind, I made it to the summit. Ladhar Bheinn offers the reward of having three peaks all in a row, and the views visible from all along the ridge between them.

Three peaks

Cairn and View to the Sea

Cairn, Loch Hourn, and Me

Loch Hourn and the Mountains to the North

Over the Sea to Skye, its Cullins on the Horizon

Isle of Rum

Loch Nevis and Eigg

The Valley Back to Camp

There was another path (none of these on the map) leading in my direction towards the valley South of the mountain - steep sides and nearby precipices made it a path not for the faint of heart:

But my problem with it was twofold: I could begin to feel its rockiness in my knees, and it started going the wrong way, back to Barrisdale on Loch Hourn. I began to pick my way down the tussocky slope, already a bit nostalgic of sitting at the top, when the most breathtaking sight appeared before me: at first a few deer scattered in the valley below, but as they began to notice me, they amassed together and ran.

Red Deer

They were going my way, so I followed them along the valley for an hour before sadly saying goodbye. One of the advantages to camping on the mountain was that it was of no great concern that the sun was beginning to set:

Indeed, I still made it back in time to cook my Chile con Carne in the light. Not only did the breeze keep the midgies off, it was tunneling through the valley and amassing speed. When I entered my tent, no midgies were to be seen - where had they gone? I though perhaps they died of old age, but they do live 20-30 days. But I had another problem to contend with: my tent was very exposed to the wind and the wind was picking up. All the walls of the tent rattled and crashed and finally at 11:30pm a corner peg was ripped out. Do I re-peg it? Of course I should. Do I need to get dressed? Yes, there are ticks in the grass here. As I moved my foot though, the wall of the tent came closer and I realized that my foot was structural. I couldn't move. So I eventually fell asleep and by the time I awoke in the morning, the winds had reached full violence and I was the only thing holding down the tent. I dressed, rolled up the sleeping gear and tossed everything outside (with the walls of the tent always on my back), and as I got out grabbed hold of the tent as it flew up in front of me, collapsed it, and pegged its material to the ground. Victory. But it was too windy to cook and the wind was starting to drive me mad, so I decided to wait until I was in the shelter of the forest path to attempt to cook or even filter some water.

The way back to Inverie was easy, downhill and mostly along road through the forest. First thing in the morning I saw some deer with fawns, a nice surprise. When I got into the forest, I lost my appetite, and indeed my trust in the local water (filtering can only do so much), as I discovered near the road this pit:

No wonder the deer ran away from me.

Having only another hour to go before Inverie, I finished the water I did have and kept going. I passed the same horses by the road and got to Inverie shortly after the pub opened for lunch. Only I couldn't bring myself to order the venison burger anymore.

The Old Forge

Fish Pie for Lunch

The Ferry-ride back involved a cruise all around Loch Nevis. The gusty wind which had begun to drive me mad earlier in the day I suddenly relished again as it mixed with the salt spray. I did reflect that I'd decided not to attempt kayaking this weekend as was grateful for it.

Loch Nevis and Mountains

Downtown Tarbet

Coming back to the Mainland

The trainride back along the West Highland Line was as spectacular as promised, and included the Glenfinnen viaduct, now famous for its role supporting the Hogwarts Express.

The next afternoon in Glasgow was relaxing: I dropped in on David for lunch and sharing these pictures and the many panoramic videos which I'll show you too if I see you. That evening, I left for Aberdeen to visit Frauke Jürgensen, and the next day encountered a view I hadn't seen in a long time:

The Neck of a Horse Called Tia

My approach to horses has gotten much gentler, and I didn't mind that we never broke into a canter. Rather, I was fascinated by walking, feeling my otherwise tense hips (which I'd never noticed until observing them with Alison the week before) loosen up to follow the movements of the horse.

Me on Tia

Frauke and Benji

That evening we took a walk around Aberdeen, whose grey on grey was broken up by evidence of autumn creeping into the forest, and by this lush garden in the park.

At St. Machar, the graveyard has so many stone tables and cracked tombstones that Frauke reckons the ghosts come out and party at night. I reckon she's right.

All Set Up for a Ghoulish Soirée

Today - ah, we're here! - Frauke showed me first of all the clever program she used to make a statistical analysis of the accidentals in the 15th-century Buxheim organ book and its concordances, the work which got her the title of Dr., then we headed down to the University. The Chapel contained some entertaining choirstall graffitti - this one is from 1622:

After a quick lunch by the beach I hopped on the train and for almost the entire time, thanks to a free wifi connection, have been uploading pictures and writing this blog. That and the scenery made the whole trip pass very quickly. I came out of the bus in London and looked up at the clear sky, only to see a smattering of stars here and there, the North start flickering faintly through the veil of London light.

I miss Scotland already.