All over bar the scouting



Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop.  And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.


The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977.  It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts.  Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut.  By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.



Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories.  I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.


And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut.  The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first.  This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.


What else?  I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut.  (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)


Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick.  I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful.  One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed.  I became a keen hillwalker after that.


Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon.  Needless to say, I was pretty good at that.  I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session.  We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.


© John Baker


On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town.  We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end.  I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days.  The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.


I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans.  When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists.  Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us.   There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand.  But they never did.


Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout.  I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it.  I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges.  Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.


For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout.  I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career.  But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much.  Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively.  If only I’d known back then what I know now…


Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club.  I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.


© Weidenfeld & Nicolson


Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop.  And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop.  According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol.  He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable!  I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place.  Looked like I was into bondage.”  I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.


Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone!  It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort.  If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.



* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into.  There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid.  So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones.  You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.


Out with the old, in with the corporate new



Over Christmas and New Year I was back in Peebles, my hometown in Scotland.  I was pleased to see that two of the town’s landmark buildings that in recent years had been derelict – and had become depressingly rundown – now have new occupants and are looking spruce again.  Well, I was sort of pleased.  It’s great that both buildings are up and running again, but I have mixed feelings about the new businesses operating in them.


Firstly, someone has at last done something with the corner house at the junction of Northgate and the High Street.  For more than a century this building was home to the outfitters Veitch’s, which according to my well-thumbed copy of History of Peebles 1850–1990 was “started in 1884 by Robert Veitch and his wife, Helen Binnie Peden” and run by four generations of the same family after that.  Although the store finally closed in 2007, its distinctive logo – originally designed, it’s said, on the back of an envelope by a mate of its second-generation proprietor, Robert Bishop Veitch, while the pair of them were serving in the trenches of World War I – still hangs proudly between the building’s first and second floors on its High Street and Northgate sides.  But during the last eight years it’s been dispiriting to see the old place empty and getting progressively scruffier.


In recent weeks the ground floor of the building has been bustling again because it now contains a coffee shop.  This isn’t any old coffee shop, however.  It’s one of the 3080 outlets run by the world’s second-largest coffee-house chain, Costa.



It’s highly debatable whether Peebles needs another venue selling coffee.  A while back, I heard that when you counted all the coffee shops, cafés, restaurants, hotels and pubs in the town where you could buy a cup of the stuff, the total number was somewhere in the forties.  And the arrival of a giant chain like Costa hardly bodes well for the fortunes of the smaller, privately owned cafés.  Plus, as Peebles has been bragging lately about it having the highest proportion of independent retailers of any town in Scotland, it seems a bit disingenuous to suddenly welcome in a big corporate player onto its high street.  What next?  McDonalds, Subway and KFC?


Then again, the existing coffee shops all seem to close down at the end of the afternoon.  Come five o’clock or five-thirty, if you fancy a caffeine fix, you have to enter a pub or hotel – not quite the right environment for doing other coffee-shop things like reading a book, using a laptop or munching a chocolate-chip cookie.  The new Costa, open until seven most evenings, will at least fill that gap in the market.


Incidentally, Costa’s arrival in the town was unfortunately timed.  Just as it was bringing Veitch’s corner house back to life, three other premises closed down nearby – two shops on the corner facing it and a charity shop on its other side.  So the derelict Veitch’s building is no longer an eyesore; but the junction of the High Street and Northgate is still an eyesore, alas.


Furthermore, its opening coincided with the publication of a survey by the campaign group Action on Sugar, which identified the unhealthiest drinks on sale in Britain’s coffee chains.  Costa wasn’t the worst offender – Starbucks had that (dis)honour – but its chai latte was still slammed for containing the equivalent of 20 teaspoons of sugar.  So if you’re a Peebles man / woman who fancies trying the new local Costa but doesn’t want to develop type 2 diabetes, give that chai latte a wide berth.


Meanwhile, a minute’s walk along the Northgate, the Cross Keys Hotel – a former coaching inn that dates back to the 17th century – has been doing business again for the past year.  This follows a long period of closure during which the building became alarmingly dilapidated.  The pub chain JD Wetherspoon acquired it in 2013 and spent three million pounds on its refurbishment.



Oldsters like me will remember the hotel’s big L-shaped ground-floor room as having pool tables at one end, a bar-counter near the central corner and a space at the other end where bands and singers (including the Enid, Budgie, the Groundhogs and the late, legendary John Martyn) performed at weekends.  Now the whole room is a seating-and-eating area.  To get served, you go to a counter that’s located in what had previously been the King’s Orchard Restaurant next door – the wall between them has been removed.  I’ve written about the Cross Keys and the coming of JD Wetherspoon before, here:


Like most people who enjoy pubs and who enjoy having an alcoholic beverage or two (or ten), I have conflicting emotions about JD Wetherspoon.  On one hand, I appreciate the fact that, big chain though it is, it sells a variety of real ales and ciders that you often don’t find in the brewery-owned pubs.  Its prices are affordable and its new Peebles operation deserves credit for maintaining the Cross Keys as a hotel – there are seven rooms available upstairs – when they could easily just have turned the building into a giant pub.


On the other hand, I don’t like JD Wetherspoon’s business-ὔberalles mentality, which has its bar-staff serving at all times and not yakking to the customers, so that its bar areas are banter-free zones and its pubs generally are devoid of atmosphere.  Then again, this policy will probably ensure that Peebles’ traditional pubs, like the Crown, Trust, Green Tree, Neidpath and Central, won’t haemorrhage too many customers to it.  Their regular clientele go to them more for the craic than for the bevy (though I’m sure they all like the bevy too).  And craic is something they won’t get at the new corporate hostelry on the Northgate.  In fact, I suspect the existing pub that will suffer most is the one that’s closest in style to JD Wetherspoon already, the big Belhaven-owned County Inn on the High Street.


I’m still also sore at JD Wetherspoon for taking over the old HMV Picture House on Lothian Road in Edinburgh, thus depriving the centre of that city of its only medium-sized live music venue.  What are they doing with that place by the way?  They closed it down at the end of 2013 and it still hasn’t reopened, as a pub or as anything else.


Anyway, I can’t say the new, corporate Cross Keys is much cop as a pub – a pub as I’d define one, at least.  My problem with it is that, most times I’ve been in, lots of families have been eating pub-meals and their noisy little kids have been using the floor as a playground or athletics track or wrestling ring.


Not the sort of place I’d pop into for a quiet, meditative pint, in other words.  And I doubt if the ghost of John Martyn would approve, either.



Peebles pummelled by Frank


After encounters in November and December with Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond and Eva, Scotland got a drubbing on the second-last day of the year from Frank.  I’m talking about storms – for this season the UK Met Office and Ireland’s Met Éireann have decided to give these ‘severe weather’ events names.


Storm Frank began to assail these islands on December 28th and two days later he – it – made life a misery for people in my home town of Peebles in the Scottish Borders.


The Met had posted a flooding warning for the Eddleston Water, the stream flowing through my family’s farm on the north side of Peebles, where I’ve been spending Christmas and New Year.  But for the duration of Storm Frank the stream was reasonably well-behaved.  It’d actually been worse on Boxing Day, when it’d been swollen with melting snow and had flooded a few adjacent fields.


I assumed from the state of the Eddleston Water that Storm Frank hadn’t been as bad as people feared and on December 30th I walked into Peebles with the intention of visiting my Dad, who these days stays in Peebles Nursing Home.  The home is located at the edge of Tweed Green, beside the River Tweed, which bisects the town as it flows from west to east.  I should mention that the Eddleston Water rises between the Pentland and Moorfoot Hills to the north, where the rain hadn’t been quite so heavy.  Whereas the Tweed emerges from the Moffat Hills to the southeast of Peebles, which had received a drenching.


I arrived on Peebles High Street, noticed a crowd of people standing on Tweed Bridge and gazing down over its sides, and went to investigate.  Looking eastwards from the bridge, I was greeted by this sight:



The river had expanded to four or five times its normal width, swallowing Tweed Green and the children’s playground on either side and leaving the rows of trees growing along them up to their waists in raging brown floodwater.  On my immediate left, the water had filled the arches below Port Brae, which descends to the green from the bridge.  Only the roof of the nearby wishing well was still visible.  And a little further along, a woman could be seen up to her knees in water, looking forlornly at a wall of sandbags that were fighting a losing battle at the front of her Tweed Green-facing house.



On the bridge’s other side, meanwhile, I saw that Peebles Swimming Pool now occupied the centre of a much bigger pool.



I left the bridge – wondering if it might collapse into the torrent under the weight of people who were taking selfies on it – and started walking up the town’s High Street.  Halfway along, an alleyway called School Brae sprouts from its side and leads down to Tweed Green.  I followed the brae and discovered that its bottom end vanished into a mire of water and gunge that contained, among other things, a trio of capsized wheelie bins.  While I was taking photographs here, a gust of wind suddenly rushed across the green and nearly knocked me onto my back.



My next port-of-call was St Andrews Leckie Parish Church at the High Street’s east end.  Its grounds look over the eastern part of Tweed Green, where Peebles Nursing Home is situated.  From there I could see that there was no way I would make it to the home and visit my Dad that day.  The flood had reached the top of the wall running along the building’s front yard and, worryingly, water had already penetrated the wall and was filling the yard itself.  At least the sandbags massed against the front door were still in view, suggesting the building itself hadn’t been breached – yet.



Water was also lapping about the gates of the steps below Leckie Church, which give church-goers access to Tweed Green.  The water was topped with a layer of muck, scum and garbage.  Lumbering through this floating midden was a TV cameraman – I later learned he worked for Sky News – who was togged out in chest waders.  I remember thinking at the time that he seemed as happy as the proverbial ‘pig in shit’.  Well, he captured some dramatic-looking footage of the flood, so no doubt he was happy.


I heard that several hours later, after dark, a decision was made to evacuate the nursing home.  By this time my father and the other residents had been moved up to its first floor.  They were never in any danger – there were policemen, paramedics, the local mountain rescue team and about a dozen fire-engines’ worth of firemen on hand to move them at a moment’s notice – but several of them, including my Dad, had their rooms on the ground floor.  These ended up knee-deep in water and some valuable possessions were destroyed.  I heard, for instance, about one poor old lady losing a lifetime’s worth of photographs in an album.  My Dad, though, was lucky enough to suffer nothing more than some soaked clothes and sodden Christmas cards.


Meanwhile, behind the home, the engorged river managed to flood streets like Tweed Avenue and Walker’s Haugh.  On the TV that evening I watched news reports about people there being taken from their homes in inflatable dinghies.  Further along, the green of the town’s bowling club was submerged, as was the main pitch for Peebles Rugby Club.  The water moved with enough force to mangle the fencing around the rugby pitch and someone told me a couple of mysterious picnic tables, presumably from some scenic spot upstream, were dumped unceremoniously on its turf.  And in neighbouring Whitestone Park, which descends to the river from the Innerleithen Road, the flood marked its highest level by leaving a giant scummy ‘tide-mark’ near the top of the slope, not far short of the gates opening onto the road.


One disorientating thing was how fast the Tweed’s level seemed to go down again.  A day later, its waters were back within their banks and people were able to get to work cleaning up the affected areas.  The next day also happened to be December 31st, Hogmanay, and the town’s main event for that – a torch-lit procession in the early evening, which had the torch-bearers crossing Tweed Green – went ahead as planned.  I’m glad that it did, actually.  It symbolised the return of some degree of normalcy.



My Dad and his fellow-residents at the Peebles Nursing Home have now been transferred to a facility in the town of Galashiels, 18 miles down the road.  Physically, they’re unscathed.  But suddenly getting uprooted from an environment where they felt comfortable and at ease with the surroundings, faces and routine can’t have been good for their sense of well-being.


Anyway.  Global warming, climate change, El Nino, the jet stream…  No doubt there’ll be debate about what has given rise to Storm Frank and this wildly unpredictable winter weather, which has just resulted in Britain having its warmest and wettest December since 1910.  But whatever the cause of it, my town and family certainly felt its effect last week.


Tweed Valley cycling



A while ago I sang the praises of the former railway track running west from my hometown of Peebles – the old Caledonian line that once connected Peebles with Biggar and Symington but was phased out in the 1950s.  Part of this is now a scenic walking path and I’ve regularly gone jogging along it.


Currently, I’m back in Peebles.  But I’ve suffered a slight sprain to my ankle and jogging isn’t an option at the moment.  For exercise, I have to rely on riding my bicycle.


Fortunately, since August 2013, a new tarmacked path for cycling, walking and horse-riding has been in existence along another former railway line running east from Peebles.  This was once part of the old North British Railway line that connected Edinburgh with Peebles and, 18 miles southeast of Peebles, Galashiels – a line that saw its final passenger service in 1962.  This new path runs along the River Tweed for half-a-dozen miles to the next settlement of any size, the village of Innerleithen.



It starts on the eastern side of the grounds of Peebles’ most striking landmark, the Hydro Hotel, and for a distance skirts the southern edge of Glentress Forest, overlooking the A72 road that links Peebles and Innerleithen.  Then the path dips through an old railway tunnel below the A72 and emerges onto the floor of the Tweed Valley.  This is initially less picturesque that it sounds, for where the path emerges the town’s old gasworks (now a recycling plant) are on one side and the town’s sewage-works are on the other.  But then, as the fields open out north of it and the river glides along south of it, the path becomes rather gorgeous.  The jagged remains of Nether Horsburgh Castle (in reality a ruined tower house) standing on a rise in the valley floor add a historical flavour to the scene.



Along the way there are reminders that trains once rattled up and down this route – a railway bridge whose low metal sides are now bolstered by railings, for instance, or an old railway building at the little village of Cardrona that now houses a store and café.



Which brings me to the contentious subject of Cardrona.  Built in the late 1990s, slap-bang in the middle of the Tweed Valley between Peebles and Innerleithen, Cardrona was designed as the site of an 18-hole championship golf course, a 99-room hotel, leisure centre and spa and a ‘master planned new village’ (to quote Borders Regional Council).  I remember some rancorous arguments about it taking place in Peebles at the time.  Folk who objected to the development on the grounds that it’d be an eyesore in one of the loveliest river valleys in Scotland were often shouted down by other folk who thought that passing on the opportunities the development would bring was economic madness.  Cardrona’s supporters argued that its new golfing wonderland would boost our tourist industry, introduce local businesses to a host of new, wealthy customers and generally save the district from economic stagnation.


Well, the Cardrona golf course, hotel and village have been in existence for a decade and a half now.  During their construction, they obviously gave impetus to the local building trade (my brother worked there for a while as a site manager) but now that they’re open for business I can’t see how they’ve done much for the town and the other, older villages in the area.  Peebles’ picturesque high street is still disfigured by a handful of derelict premises, hardly an indication that the town is booming.  On the eastern side of Cardrona, meanwhile, Innerleithen seems to have re-invented itself as a cultural centre, with antique shops, bookshops and an annual folk-music festival, but that’s hardly a consequence of the nearby golf development.  And two miles further east of Innerleithen, former mill-village Walkerburn looks hard-pressed, to say the least.


The cycling path stops being a path at Cardrona and you have to scoot along several streets in the village until the path reappears on its other side.  I have to say that the new village doesn’t look as dire as its strongest opponents have assured me it is – one person told me a while back that “a third of the houses there are up for sale”, which is more than a slight exaggeration – but it has a blandness and boringness that put it at odds with the beauty of its surroundings.  In this photograph I tried to make the place look exotic by snapping it through a billowing mass of reeds on its eastern edge, but it still seemed a bit like the banal town of Stepford, populated by banal robot housewives, in Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives.



One thing that does suck about the development is the Cardrona Hotel, the uncharismatic hulk of a building that stands on the far side of the valley from the village and spoils the scenery as you approach Peebles from the east.  As well as being a landscape-blot, the hotel is bloody expensive.  Big, strong local men have been reduced to quivering jellies by a glimpse at the prices on the place’s drinks menu.  (I know – I’m one of them.)



Beyond Cardrona, the path crosses a new footpath and continues for two more miles to Innerleithen.   The hills close in and the valley narrows.  The day that I took my camera along with me, the weather seemed to close in too and during the last leg of my journey, from Cardrona to Innerleithen, I was blitzed by a range of precipitation-types: sleet, rain and finally a hailstorm that felt like it was flaying me alive.  However, a sliver of sunshine did pierce through the grey clouds at one point and provided me with this final image – the River Tweed being momentarily illuminated just short of Innerleithen.



Time waits for no tree



I don’t know how long exactly this oak tree has been growing at the corner of my Dad’s lawn – which before he built a bungalow in the vicinity was actually his farm’s front paddock.  I seem to remember him telling me he reckoned it was 300 years old at least and it certainly figures in paintings of the farm that were done several generations ago.


Alas, just as time and tide wait for no man, they don’t wait for any tree.  Someone noticed a little while ago that a huge crack had appeared down its trunk and when my brother invited a tree surgeon to have a look at it, he declared that he’d never seen an oak in such a bad – and dangerous – condition before.



So for safety reasons this poor old tree will have to be chopped down before it falls down.  And if this coming winter is as stormy as the previous one was, the falling-down scenario might be only a couple of months away.


Battered by nature, ravaged by builders


The British have a reputation for devoting much of their conversation to the topic of the weather.  However, during the past two months, any foreigner tuning into a British satellite news outlet like Sky or the BBC must have wondered if this weather obsession had completely taken over every human brain on the island of Britain.


Forget Syria, forget Egypt, forget Ukraine, forget Venezuela – all the British media seems to have talked about lately are these fronts of bad weather that have spiralled relentlessly into the country from the southwest, bringing endless rain and gale-force winds, cutting Cornwall off from England (or as one patriotic Cornishman wrote in the Guardian, cutting England off from Cornwall) and making places like the Somerset Levels resemble the set of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.


Meanwhile, a procession of British politicians like David Cameron, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farrage have donned wellies and barber jackets and helicoptered into the flood-stricken areas of the country, where they’ve talked in concerned tones to the TV cameras whilst watery expanses that were once fields and gardens ripple in the wind behind them.  (Any local people wanting to grab these politicians and hold their heads under the water until they stop struggling have been kept back, discreetly, out of view of the cameras.)


On my Dad’s farm, where I’ve spent the past couple of months, flooding hasn’t been so much of a problem but the wind has caused great damage.  Before last weekend, it’d blown down four trees on the farm, including two in the farmstead’s shelter belt, which, sporting a few bald spots now, is beginning to look rather ravaged.  Then on Sunday morning, yet another gale brought down a humongous trebled-trunked beech tree growing on the edge of a burn.  It crashed across the neighbouring road – cutting us off for much of the day from the local town, Peebles – with its mass of branches ending up in the garden of a cottage on the road’s far side.



The field behind the burn, which once belonged to the local council and was then sold to another party, is currently being dug up in preparation for the building of ‘an exclusive development of three-to-five bedroomed homes’.  Graciously, my Dad declined to blame the builders for cutting through the tree’s root system on the other side of the fence, de-anchoring it and causing it to topple in the strong wind.  He’s of the opinion, instead, that the bank it was growing in had become so soggy with incessant rain that the roots could no long hold the soil firmly.


Mind you, those builders have caused plenty of havoc elsewhere.  The surfacing of grey grit and gravel that’s been laid down across the site gets carried out onto the road on the wheels of vehicles, where it’s slathered all over the tarmac.  As a result, there are times when that road looks like a medieval cart-track.



Meanwhile, the road is being pounded by the big trucks that remove excavated soil from the site.  There’s a stretch of it that’s become a common passing place for incoming and outgoing trucks, and the vehicles are wrecking the ditches there as they crush in against the road-edges.  On one side, in fact, the ditch and fence is in the middle of collapsing into one of my Dad’s fields.



It’s a shame because the road is popular with a lot of local people and visitors – dog-walkers, joggers, ramblers, horse-riders and cyclists.  But somebody’s making money out of the project.  So that must make it okay, then.



The more things change, the more I want them to stay the same



Here are two old pictures of something that is currently being excavated out of existence.  They show the ‘council field’ that lies between the southern edge of my Dad’s farm and the northern edge of the town of Peebles, in the Scottish Borders.  One photo was taken during wintertime, looking southwards, with the field forming the snow-covered background.  The other photo was taken late in a rainy summer, looking northwards – the warm, damp weather seemed conducive for the growth of dandelions and the field had become a yellow-splattered mass.  Although people still call it the council field, it actually stopped being municipal property and passed into private ownership in the 1980s.  Since then, there has been much manoeuvring and politicking to gain permission to build a housing estate on it.


Just before Christmas 2013, the first JCB entered the field and started the preliminary construction work.  The place is now a mess of scoured-away tracts of earth, mounds of soil, steel containers and perimeter fences made out of bound-together mesh-wire gates.  To give the ground solidity for the heavy construction traffic that will come in 2014, a grey surface composed of gravel and grit is being spread over the ground.  You sometimes see the pheasants that only a few weeks ago had the field to themselves wandering about the excavations like shell-shocked World War I soldiers roaming the trenches.


So at the moment the field is an eyesore, but my main worry is about the narrow country road that passes the field and allows access between my Dad’s farm and the town.  The road is also popular among dog-walkers, ramblers, joggers, cyclists and horse-riders.  Now it has begun to be pounded by lorries removing the excavated soil (presumably to be used as landfill at a building site elsewhere) and the number of construction vehicles using it is only going to increase.  And later still, God knows what it will be like when the residents of the 40-odd new houses are all driving along it.  At a nearby bend in the road, part of the ditch is starting to subside into a field, unable to support the lorries’ wheels when they pull in against it to let oncoming vehicles pass.  My Dad is concerned too about how the small, centuries-old stone bridge half-a-mile further along will bear the strain.


One thing’s for sure.  Considering the amount of water that during the recent, extremely wet weather leaked down the neighbouring slopes and ended up in the south-western corner of that field, I hope the people who move into the houses that one day will stand there remember to pack their wellies.


Tweed Valley jogging



It’s hard to believe that a couple of months ago, when I still lived in Tunisia, going jogging meant having to negotiate broken and uneven pavement-stones, bags of rubbish dumped on and spilling over those pavements, huddles of old men sitting outside sipping coffee and smoking shishas, tribes of scavenging feral cats and lots of badly-driven, smelly and noisy cars.  Even when I reached a comparatively empty and quiet area to run in – Belvedere Park, whose lower slopes extended into my neighbourhood – I often had to jog around packs of stray dogs, past armoured vehicles loaded with suspicious-eyed cops and through the fog of musty animal smells that swirled out of Belvedere Zoo.


It was a great contrast, then, to my current jogging route.  When the weather permits, I run from my Dad’s house to Hay Lodge Park at the western end of Peebles, and from there along the valley of the River Tweed.  A path takes me by Neidpath Castle, up a flight of steps at the side of a disused viaduct and onto a former railway line, which I can follow to Lyne Station a couple of miles further west.  Along the way I get to see some gorgeous scenery, so I’ve posted here a few photographs I took whilst jogging recently on a cold and frosty morning.  Refreshingly, there isn’t a dodgy pavement, a rubbish-bag or an old bloke with a coffee and a shisha in sight.  At worst, you may encounter a townsperson out for a walk or a flock of sheep.



I did, however, see a cat the other morning – a black one skulking on the former railway track about ten yards ahead of me.  The moment it became aware of me, the cat vanished among the trees lining the track’s sides.  I have to say this cat seemed inordinately big.  Indeed, it almost looked panther-like.  I wonder if I was actually witness to one of those ‘big cat’ sightings that are reported occasionally in the British media and that inspire crypto-zoologists to go combing the British countryside for roving pumas, leopards and jaguars.


It could, of course, have been a trick of the light – the stripes of sunshine falling between the path-side trees could have made what was a common household cat look bigger than it was.  Or it could actually have been a black dog – though its long tail didn’t look very dog-like.  Or maybe it was a hallucination induced by the medication I’m currently taking, which consists of four to five large drams of White and Mackay Scotch whisky every evening, prescribed by my Dad as protection against the onset of arthritis, hair loss, tooth decay and senility.



Twee on the Tweed



While I’m staying at my Dad’s house at Peebles, in the Scottish Borders, I thought I’d write something about the condition of Peebles High Street.


Recent years haven’t been kind to some high streets in the Borders.  In 2010, for instance, I cycled through Hawick, which I remembered from my boyhood as a solid and handsome country town, and was dismayed at the sorry state of its main thoroughfare – its top end was particularly blighted by derelict premises.  Peebles has been luckier.  It possesses a high street that for the most part is still functioning and that also retains some individual character, not having been taken over by the usual rash of chain shops that make many other towns between Land’s End and John O’Groats look identical to one another.  Peebles’ independent retailers have been helped by their town’s relative proximity to Edinburgh (21 miles) and by its popularity as a tourist destination.  Having Britain’s biggest mountain-bike park on their doorstep, at Glentress Forest, hasn’t done local coffers any harm either.


Among other things, Peebles High Street has one of the best butcher’s in Scotland, Forsyth’s, established in 1938; a tailor and gentlemen’s outfitter, Graham McGrath, established in 1949; a chemist’s called the Medical Hall that’s been independent for most of its century-long history, although it now belongs to the Lloyds Pharmacy chain; a jeweller’s and watchmaker called Keith Walter that’s been on the go, under various owners, since 1864; two shoe-shops of some antiquity, Rogerson’s and Young and Co; and a hardware store called Scott Brothers, more than a century old, that’s still run by the Scott family today.  A good, value-for-money greengrocer’s, the Olive Grove, has also started trading lately – let’s hope it can survive against the opposition provided by the town’s twin supermarkets, Tesco and Sainsbury.  All these are, to borrow a catch-phrase from The League of Gentlemen, “local shops for local people”.


Until recently, the High Street also boasted two bookshops: Whitie’s, down an alley called Pennell’s Close, and Hoolet’s, in the old courthouse building next to the parish church.  However, Hoolet’s has just vacated the courthouse and become a purely online operation.  So although the physical Peebles High Street now has only one bookshop, I suppose you could say that the cyber-Peebles High Street still has two.



Peebles may have a high street that’s reasonably healthy and prosperous compared with those of many of its neighbours, but locals still complain.  For one thing, the junction where the High Street meets the Northgate is disfigured by the empty premises of Veitch’s Corner Shop, a clothing store that started business in 1884 but shut its doors a few years ago – nowadays its venerable shop-windows are scabbed with tattered fly-posters.  Another source of complaint has been the number of charity shops that have popped up along the street over the years, selling second-hand goods at low prices.  These, people argue, cheapen the look of the street whilst presenting other shops, selling things at normal prices, with unfair competition.


Well, I wouldn’t like to see any more charity shops appear in Peebles on top of the half-dozen we have already – Age Scotland, the British Heart Foundation Scotland, the British Red Cross, Cancer Research UK, Chest, Head and Stroke Scotland and Sense Scotland – but at least they mostly sell stuff that people use: clothes, shoes, bags, books, CDs.


What bothers me more these days is the preponderance of what I call the ‘potpourri shops’ in Peebles – establishments where the first things you notice when you cross their thresholds are the cloying odours of lavender, or rose geranium, or orange, clove and cinnamon.  These are souvenir shops, gift shops, New Age shops and ‘lifestyle’ galleries, shops selling stuff that doesn’t have any practical use, stuff whose only purpose is to create a momentary impact with its cuteness and, thereafter, sit on a shelf or hang on a wall looking pretty, occupying space and gathering dust.


Stuff like ceramic hares, bronze stags and woollen Highland cows; decorative picture frames; embroidered oven-gloves; woollen coffee-pot cosies; woollen e-reader covers; antler-shaped bottle openers; beeswax candles; dream-catchers with pictures of unicorns on them; novelty mugs bearing well-known sayings translated into Scots, such as ‘Dae fash yerself an’ keep yer heid’; birthday cards adorned with patches of tartan and featuring messages like, “Och, it’s yer birthday, shoogle yer kilt”; comedy eggcups with little feet at the bottom; varnished wooden hearts hanging on pieces of hairy string; and countless lotions, creams, oils, scents, bath-bombs and fragranced soaps.  Okay, I admit that soap does have a practical application.  I use it.  Very occasionally.


How many of these gift shops do we actually need?  How many gifts do we actually need to buy?  How can so much of a town’s retailing economy be supported by the population’s wish to buy bibs and bobs to commemorate their holidays, to celebrate other people’s birthdays, christenings, engagements, weddings and anniversaries, and to hand out at Christmas?


I was going to illustrate this entry with some photographs of those shops but I decided not to, since I don’t wish to slag off the people engaged in running them – people who’re merely trying to make a living, after all.  And indeed, it would be perfectly nice if there were three or four such shops operating in the town.  However, the real number of them must be close to double figures, and if you factor in the town’s confectionary shops – selling edible gifts – there’s more than a dozen shops here trading in, for lack of a better word, twee-ness.  And this twee overload is rather sad, considering that Peebles was once a doughty working town that was home to three woollen mills.


In fact, I worry about the effect the twee overload will eventually have on the local environment.  I worry about the twee-ness reaching toxic levels so that, one day, the River Tweed will no longer be able to sustain life as it flows past Peebles.  Instead, it’ll become a sludge of potpourri, giving off deadly suffocating fumes.  Fumes that smell of lavender, or rose geranium, or orange, clove and cinnamon.


Six things I’ve learned from the Peeblesshire News


I’m in a newspaper-bashing mood at the moment, so I thought I’d turn my fire on the Peeblesshire News, the journal that appears on Friday of each week and reports all that’s happening in my hometown, Peebles, and its environs in the Scottish Borders.  Ever since my family arrived in Peebles in 1977, I’ve heard locals cruelly describe the Peeblesshire News as ‘the two minute silence’, on the assumption that it takes precisely two minutes to read it.  I can testify that that isn’t true.  I’ve timed myself and on one occasion it took me 27 seconds to skim it from cover to cover.


Anyway, since returning to Peebles a month ago, I’ve studied the Peeblesshire News every Friday and I feel I’ve drawn at least six important lessons about life from it.  They are as follows:


One.  There are only two ways to die in Peebles.


Reading the obituary column in the Peeblesshire News, it quickly becomes apparent that whenever a person shuffles off the mortal coil in Peebles, it happens either ‘peacefully’ or ‘suddenly’.  Nobody dies in a manner describable by any other adverb.  Nobody ever dies ‘painfully’, for example.  Or ‘slowly’.  Or ‘reluctantly’.  Or ‘wistfully’.  Or ‘philosophically’.  Or ‘stupidly’.  Or even ‘hilariously’.



Two.  You know who your local dignitaries are when you read the Peeblesshire News. 


In the October 25th edition of the Peeblesshire News, for example, you have photographs of Tom Kerr, the provost of West Lothian, handing out a Best Student award on page 5; Councillor Sandy Aitchison, Scottish Borders Council Executive Member for Education, cutting a purple ribbon for a new school on page 6; David Mundell, MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, wielding a clipboard in front of Biggar Police Station on page 10; Councillor Gordon Edgar, Roads and Infrastructure Spokesman, posing in front of a yellow gritting lorry on page 12; and on the back page, Councillor Catriona Bhatia “on hand to see the Queen’s Baton start its 120,000 mile journey to Glasgow” for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  (In the picture, Councillor Bhatia, who is the daughter of our esteemed former MP Sir David Steel, is shown with one hand on her husband Rajiv and one hand on a baton.  I could make a prurient innuendo-laden joke at this point.  But I won’t.)


Yes, you get a lot of local dignitaries for your 65 pence when you buy the Peeblesshire News.  In fact, it’s likely that in Peebles if anyone wins a prize, or opens a new business, or steps out of the front door of their house, or breaks wind in public, within seconds a Peeblesshire News photographer and a representative from the council will arrive on the scene for a photo-opportunity.




Three.  Dog shit is important in Peebles.


Since the beginning of time, or at least since 1977, when I started reading it, the Peeblesshire News has been printing stories about somebody, somewhere, getting angry because somebody else, elsewhere, didn’t clean up after their dog when it’d shat on a Peebles pavement, a Peebles lawn, a Peebles flowerbed or a Peebles rugby pitch.  In fact, I’ve seen nostalgia pieces in the Peeblesshire News featuring past headlines and stories that appeared in the newspaper ten or twenty or thirty years ago, which have consisted of past townspeople fulminating about past dogshit on the past streets of Peebles; while a page or two later, back among the current news, there are reports of current townspeople fulminating about current dogshit on the current streets of Peebles.  Yes, governments, economic crises, revolutions and world wars may come and go, but the issue of canine pooh will be at the forefront of Peebles minds forever.


Four.  Alliteration is important for Peeblesshire News journalists.


Today’s (November 8th) front-page headline is CHIMES CHAMP PREVENTS CLOCK CALAMITY, the sort of thing that a sub-editor might stick in the one of the cheesier national tabloid newspapers if he or she was having a particularly uninspired day.  Peeblesshire News journalists like a bit of alliteration, even if it totally obscures the topic of the story.  (Actually, today’s front-page story is about a local watchmaker sorting out a fault in Peebles’ Parish Church clock so that it’ll ring properly on Remembrance Sunday – “We didn’t want to take any chances on Remembrance Sunday, but thankfully the problem appears to have been fixed,” Councillor Bhati, er, chimed in.)  Perhaps they’re sending out a desperate signal to News International to say that if some new staff are ever needed on the Sun, Murdoch’s talent scouts need look no further than Peebles.


Five.  For serious bad-ass action, check out the Peeblesshire News court page.


If you’re a Borders bad-ass, you will inevitably end up appearing at Selkirk Sheriff Court and the Peeblesshire News will dutifully report your bad-assery.  Often the cases involve people being violent or issuing threats of violence – SELKIRK WOMAN FINED FOR BUS DISTURBANCE, SELKIRK MAN DENIES VIOLENT THREATS, PEEBLES MAN ACCUSED OF KNIFE POSSESSION.  Actually, the headlines make the people sound like superheroes – Selkirk Woman, Selkirk Man, Peebles Man, Spiderman, Batman, Wonder Woman – who’ve gone to the bad, like Superman did when he was exposed to green Kryptonite in Superman III.


Occasionally, though, sex as well as violence rears its ugly head, as it did in the bizarre story in the Peeblesshire News on October 18th, in which “(a) 57-year-old woman denied trying to grope and kiss another woman in a homophobic attack at a Tweedbank shop.”  (Hold on.  I thought a homophobic attack was one directed at someone because he or she was homosexual – the attackee, not the attacker, was the one who’d be inclined to kiss someone of the same sex.)


(c) Peebles Rugby Club


Six.  In the Peeblesshire News, some sporting headlines will never die.


Yes, in the back eight pages of so of the Peeblesshire News, local football teams will always PAY THE PENALTY for bad refereeing decisions or for committing too many fouls.  When there’s a report on a girls’ football or rugby team, it will always be accompanied by the headline GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN.  When a local rugby team beats a team from Currie Rugby Club in Edinburgh, they will always be TOO HOT FOR CURRIE, or MAKE THINGS HOT FOR CURRIE, or make CURRIE FEEL THE HEAT.  Meanwhile, when Biggar Rugby Club enjoys a run of wins, they will always be BIGGAR AND BETTER.  Alternatively, when the results go against them, they will be BIGGAR BUT NOT BETTER.


Finally, before I end this blog-entry, I should mention that over the years I’ve had half-a-dozen pieces of writing, fiction and non-fiction, published in the Peeblesshire News.  So by writing this, I’m biting the hand that feeds me.  Except that they never paid me for anything, so actually, I’m not biting it at all.