'And finally, not everyone’s being doing topical. In fact, here’s the rather lovely 6 Oxgangs Avenue devoted to the history of the development of the area, this week highlighting how the block of flats came into being. Could have been prompted by Who do you think you are? Or just a timely reminder that not everything worth blogging about is in the here and now.'

Kate Higgins, Scottish Roundup 26/08/2012

Monday, 4 March 2019

TO THE PENTLAND HILLS from Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

The country people call it General Kay's monument. 
According to them, an officer of that name had perished there in battle at some indistinct period before the beginning of history. The date is reassuring; for I think cautious writers are silent on the General's exploits. But the stone is connected with one of those remarkable tenures of land which linger on into the modern world from Feudalism.Whenever the reigning sovereign passes by, a certain landed proprietor is held bound to climb on to the top, trumpet in hand, and sound a flourish according to the measure of his knowledge in that art. Happily for a respectable family, crowned heads have no great business in the Pentland Hills. But the story lends a character of comicality to the stone; and the passer-by will sometimes chuckle to himself.
The district is dear to the superstitious. 

Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, 'with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,' who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters' Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. 

Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters' Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind. 

What with General Kay, and the white lady, and this singular visitation, the neighbourhood offers great facilities to the makers of sun-myths; and without exactly casting in one's lot with that disenchanting school of writers, one cannot help hearing a good deal of the winter wind in the last story. 

'That nicht,' says Burns in one of his happiest moments,-


And if people sit up all night in lone places on the hills, with Bibles and tremulous psalms, they will be apt to hear some of the most fiendish noises in the world; the wind will beat on doors and dance upon roofs for them, and make the hills howl around their cottage with a clamour like the judgment-day.

The road goes down through another valley, and then finally begins to scale the main slope of the Pentlands. A bouquet of old trees stands round a white farmhouse; and from a neighbouring dell, you can see smoke rising and leaves ruffling in the breeze. 

Straight above, the hills climb a thousand feet into the air. The neighbourhood, about the time of lambs, is clamorous with the bleating of flocks; and you will be awakened, in the grey of early summer mornings, by the barking of a dog or the voice of a shepherd shouting to the echoes. This, with the hamlet lying behind unseen, is Swanston.

The place in the dell is immediately connected with the city. Long ago, this sheltered field was purchased by the Edinburgh magistrates for the sake of the springs that rise or gather there. After they had built their water-house and laid their pipes, it occurred to them that the place was suitable for junketing. Once entertained, with jovial magistrates and public funds, the idea led speedily to accomplishment; and Edinburgh could soon boast of a municipal Pleasure House. The dell was turned into a garden; and on the knoll that shelters it from the plain and the sea winds, they built a cottage looking to the hills. 

They brought crockets and gargoyles from old St Giles which they were then restoring, and disposed them on the gables and over the door and about the garden; and the quarry which had supplied them with building material, they draped with clematis and carpeted with beds of roses. So much for the pleasure of the eye; for creature comfort, they made a capacious cellar in the hillside and fitted it with bins of the hewn stone. In process of time, the trees grew higher and gave shade to the cottage, and the evergreens sprang up and turned the dell into a thicket. There, purple magistrates relaxed themselves from the pursuit of municipal ambition; cocked hats paraded soberly about the garden and in and out among the hollies; authoritative canes drew ciphering upon the path; and at night, from high upon the hills, a shepherd saw lighted windows through the foliage and heard the voice of city dignitaries raised in song.

The farm is older. It was first a grange of Whitekirk Abbey, tilled and inhabited by rosy friars. Thence, after the Reformation it passed into the hands of a true-blue Protestant family. During the covenanting troubles, when a night conventicle was held upon the Pentlands, the farm doors stood hospitably open till the morning; the dresser was laden with cheese and bannocks, milk and brandy; and the worshippers kept slipping down from the hill between two exercises, as couples visit the supper-room between two dances of a modern ball. 

In the Forty-Five, some foraging Highlanders from Prince Charlie's army fell upon Swanston in the dawn. The great-grandfather of the late farmer was then a little child; him they awakened by plucking the blankets from his bed, and he remembered, when he was an old man, their truculent looks and uncouth speech. The churn stood full of cream in the dairy, and with this they made their brose in high delight. 'It was braw brose,' said one of them. At last they made off, laden like camels with their booty; and Swanston Farm has lain out of the way of history from that time forward. I do not know what may be yet in store for it. On dark days, when the mist runs low upon the hill, the house has a gloomy air as if suitable for private tragedy. But in hot July, you can fancy nothing more perfect than the garden, laid out in alleys and arbours and bright, old-fashioned flower- plots, and ending in a miniature ravine, all trellis-work and moss and tinkling waterfall, and housed from the sun under fathoms of broad foliage.

The hamlet behind is one of the least considerable of hamlets, and consists of a few cottages on a green beside a burn. Some of them (a strange thing in Scotland) are models of internal neatness; the beds adorned with patchwork, the shelves arrayed with willow- pattern plates, the floors and tables bright with scrubbing or pipe-clay, and the very kettle polished like silver. It is the sign of a contented old age in country places, where there is little matter for gossip and no street sights. Housework becomes an art; and at evening, when the cottage interior shines and twinkles in the glow of the fire, the housewife folds her hands and contemplates her finished picture; the snow and the wind may do their worst, she has made herself a pleasant corner in the world. 

The city might be a thousand miles away, and yet it was from close by that Mr. Bough painted the distant view of Edinburgh which has been engraved for this collection; and you have only to look at the etching, to see how near it is at hand. But hills and hill people are not easily sophisticated; and if you walk out here on a summer Sunday, it is as like as not the shepherd may set his dogs upon you. But keep an unmoved countenance; they look formidable at the charge, but their hearts are in the right place, and they will only bark and sprawl about you on the grass, unmindful of their master's excitations.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

A Capital Tale

A Capital Story - The Family Story is the story of an ordinary Edinburgh family as it is played out over a quarter of a century between the years 1971 and 1996. 

It is based on extracts from the author’s diaries and journals and paints a picture of an earlier Edinburgh and the social and cultural life of one local family. 

The posts take the form of a Dali folded clock so that although the diary extracts correlate with the day of the year they include entries from amongst 25 years so the author may appear as a boy, a youth or a man - as a schoolboy or at work - single or married - as a son, an uncle and eventually as a father too. 

As the various stories and threads appear it’s rather like a TV soap but spread across several decades. 

And from this a tapestry begins to be weaved and distinct characters begin to emerge - of a family, encompassing great-grandparents; sets of grandparents; aunt; Mother and Father, brother and sister and many others too who flit in and out of our family story. 

The journals begin in 1971 when the author is a 14 year old Oxgangs and Boroughmuir schoolboy and goes all the way through to him approaching middle age when he celebrates his 40th birthday in 1996 and leaves the capital. 

Whilst much of the story is about the author and how he sees the world through his eyes perhaps that is just the nature of the diarist, but a flavour of that time, that place and that era and of course that family is beautifully captured - of A Capital Story and times-past of past times residing in Oxgangs; Portobello; Powderhall; Morningside and Colinton which may be of interest to readers and to those still yet to come - of living in Edinburgh during that period of time and of her surroundings – her schools and her workplaces - of births, weddings and deaths - of life’s ups and life’s downs - of hopes, aspirations and dreams and of course regrets and disappointments too - all of Edinburgh life is here - a local story but a universal one too.

The author intends to publish twelve volumes – one for each month of the calendar year which will also appear in a four seasons of the year format too - Winter; Spring; Summer and finally Autumn.

A daily blog goes out on a sister site: the link appears below and to the right hand side of the page.

Monday, 24 December 2018

An Edinburgh 1960s Christmas Day

Christmas Day was rather like Sundays, only quieter.

We saw very little of what went on in the rest of the Stair because our grandfather would collect us all mid-morning in his large Ford Zephyr car, with its leather bench seats and drive us all down to Portobello for the day, not returning us back home to Oxgangs until late in the evening.

We always spent the whole day at our grandparents’ home at Durham Road, Portobello.

I therefore have no intimate knowledge of how the Swansons; the Stewarts; the Hoggs; the Smiths; the Blades; the Hanlons; or the Duffys spent their Christmas Day.

However, Christmas Day is the most popular church day of the year, so I could surmise that the Swansons probably attended Colinton Mains Parish Church of Scotland; meanwhile, the Blades will have gone along to one of the Baptist churches; whilst the Duffys will have celebrated Christ’s birth at St Marks Roman Catholic Church, Oxgangs Avenue.

St Mark's RC Church

The drive from Oxgangs down to Portobello from the Stair was always the quietest of the whole year.

Sundays were normally quiet, but on Christmas Day there were even fewer cars on the road and we just sailed down as if we were the Royal Family.

Reverend Walker Skating Duddingston Loch, Henry Raeburn

We drove through Greenbank, Morningside and along Grange Road and on through the Queen’s Park passing Duddingston Loch on the right, always looking out for the skating minister as we assumed it was his home!

On the bad bend outside the 12th century Duddingston Kirk our grandfather always blared the car’s horn loudly, impishly hoping it was midway through the chaplain’s sermon.

12th century, Duddingston Kirk

We then wended our way down to Nana’s and the excitement of turning right at the foot of Durham Road with its fine small Edwardian mansion-houses.

It was our grandmother who made Christmas the day that it was. She would be there on the doorstep to greet and welcome us into the hallway and we would give her a formal light kiss on the cheek.

Although she loved us all very dearly, she wasn't effusive and instead had more of the demeanour of a conservative English gentlewoman’s restraint. Instead she expressed her great love for family and many others through innumerable acts of kindness over the years and the decades.

The hall looked resplendent. There would be a flower arrangement on a dark antique table and for once the royal blue carpet had been hoovered clean. As a busy artist, jeweller, pottery decorator, lace-woman and gardener our grandmother didn't want to be remembered for dusting the house; instead she had far more important priorities, but Christmas was an exception.

And, because her house resembled the Old Curiosity Shop, full of fascinating antiques and interesting items from throughout the world, the hall really didn't need any Christmas d├ęcor. Although, I suppose one could have hung some tinsel from the African buffalo's antlers high on one wall!

In later years I lived there from the winter of 1972 and whenever I invited a friend, a colleague or a journalist into her front room, their first comment on entering was always ‘What a fascinating room this is!’

Apart from the tiny kitchen, her house was perfect to host the large Christmas gatherings which took place there for over half a century.

The hatch linking the kitchen to the sitting room was a clever little idea.

As the kitchen had no work space or work tops at all, the Buchan's pottery casseroles containing hot vegetables were placed there and also delicately balanced on top of the old washing machine.

Grandma Jo had the most wonderful grace under pressure; I never saw her get flustered.

Indeed, when I think about it, I never recall her raising her voice in all the subsequent years that I stayed with her.

The only hint of any colourful language emanating from the kitchen would be from Father working hard as he whipped the cream by hand.

Our grandmother served up those wonderful Christmas dinners through the magic little hatch, year in and year out, until she was well into her eighties, when I took over hosting Christmas as the Laird 'o Plewlands; then at West Mill, Colinton; and for a few years at Moorlands, Dingwall.

The first course was usually home-made soup.

This was followed by the traditional roast turkey; mashed and roasted potatoes; various vegetables; and two types of stuffing-sage and onion and sausage-meat, with gravy.

And despite being a butcher, our grandfather never carved the bird and instead that too was also left to our grandmother; she was very much the matriarch.

The dining table was lovely to behold.

With the eye of the trained artist, the table was laid out with colourful antiques and glassware.

It looked like something out of a Dickens novel.

There would also be beer, lemonade and as we children got older, the excitement of having some Woodpeckers Cider too.

Around the table the craic was good; some teasing-some wit-some awful jokes-pulling crackers and several of us cajoling our grandmother to ‘Come on through Josephine and enjoy your dinner too!’ 

Atypically, she was always the last to take a seat at the table and join the extended family.

There were various puddings-trifles, a mix of milk and water jellies and single, double and whipped cream. However, before we could face our pudding, we children would often go outside into the winter air and stroll around the back garden to help regain our appetites.

'The Wonderful Pudding' Sol Eytinge, Jr.

Grandma Jo always prepared a home-made Christmas plum pudding and we children would ‘ooh and aah’ when the brandy was poured on top of it and lit. The flame puffed up almost taking our eyebrows off.

To accompany the pudding there was both custard and ice cream, the latter coming from either the wonderful Arcari's, Portobello or Lucas, Musselburgh, Italian ice cream shops which served Edinburgh residents so well over the years. 

Eddie Arcari
Because of the large number of people around the old dining table-the very young; the young; adults; the middle aged; the old; and the very old, these occasions were quite magical throughout the decade of the 1960s.

Christmas Dinner, Peter Hoffmann

The age range of those sitting around the table covered approximately ninety years, thus stretching back to when Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Sometimes there would be a dozen or so of us present.

Was it Old Aunt Mary or our great-grandmother, Wee Nana, who always said ‘Now, Josephine...where's the silver know I can't possibly eat my pudding without it!’ 

And, when I was very young, her husband, the miser aka Pumpa (our great-grandfather) tried to slip me a penny, which I turned down-much to his amusement!

Once Christmas Dinner was over and before the Queen came on the television to broadcast to the nation, the adults would retire gratefully to various rooms throughout the house to allow their food to digest.

Mother would enjoy a snooze in one of the bedrooms, usually my grandmother’s south facing room, which always had a very comforting and quiet feel to it.

Meanwhile, Aunt Heather would be in the kitchen with her sleeves rolled up, washing dishes in the sink, often with Father giving her a helping hand. Others would find a spot on a spare sofa, put their feet up and place their head on a soft cushion and shortly be happily asleep.

Meanwhile, we children might go out to the garden.

It was good to go out with Iain from the warmth of the house and in to the fresh cold air in the winter garden.

We enjoyed having a blether about our presents or kicking a ball around.

The bare winter December garden had a completely different feel to July when it was lush and adorned in its summer clothes.

In its hibernated state all that remained were the skeletons and structures of trees, hedges and shrubs.

And, as the afternoon coolness descended, and the light began to disappear, I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the garden and the slightly brooding presence of the season.

All that separated the light from the dark, the cold from the warmth, was a solitary door. It made me think of some lines from Buchan’s The Power-House where the hero, Sir Edward Leithen is told: ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’

And then, it was braw to go back into the warmth of the house and the bosom of the family and to be reminded once again, that it was still Christmas Day!

After the Queen's broadcast a highlight for me was to sit quietly in the smoking room at the front of the house. This was the front room, which was fascinating and relaxing to be in, because it was full of antiques, paintings, glassware, snuff bottles and old French clocks.

I sat on the big old sofa alongside my grandfather, whilst my great grandfather and father sat on the large squishy chairs opposite.

There was a large old gramophone come radio cabinet in the corner and a Christmas tree in the bay window.

It was here that the men retired to enjoy the home-made sweets which our grandmother made annually for Christmas-marzipan and walnuts; peppermint creams; fudge et al.

But most of all I liked when the men enjoyed a cigar. I loved the smell of the cigar smoke. It’s a smell which immediately transports me back through the mists of time.

I loved sitting quietly, listening to my great-grandfather, grandfather and father talking and conversing. I always kept very quiet and tried not to be intrusive in case I wasn't allowed to stay.

And, as the light began to slowly fade and darkness fell and the street-lights flickered on outside, we switched the Christmas tree lights on. The lights were a novelty as we didn’t have them back at The Stair at 6/2 Oxgangs Avenue.

In that room, surrounded by three older generations, I felt part of a line going back to Victorian times.

I also felt warm, secure and at peace.

I didn't want these moments to end and savoured the hour or two before someone would look around the door to say that ‘Tea was now being served up and would the men come through and join the rest of the party.’

We would all troop through to enjoy some fresh cut bread, salad and some John West salmon which was a luxury item back in the 1960s. There would also be a variety of shortbread, Christmas cake, mincemeat pies and for the gutsy perhaps seconds of trifle and cream.

By then a good fire was blazing in the grate and one of the nice things about Christmas Day compared to our Sunday visitations was that we got to stay on a little longer into the evening.

Our grandfather would give our great-grandparents a lift back home to London Road, Dalkeith, before then returning the seven or so miles back to Portobello to give the Hoffmanns a lift back home to Oxgangs Avenue and The Stair. 

On the way home to Oxgangs in the car, we would all snuggle up together to keep warm.  

However, unlike the journey down, which was taken in the eager anticipation of a family Christmas Day, moving towards its zenith in the bright winter sunshine, come the end of this most special of days, it was now appropriately dark, as Christmas began to die its death.

Now passing Duddingston Loch to our left, it was so black out, that we couldn’t really see the loch unless the moon was out and reflected upon its surface, dancing on the dark waters.

Duddingston Loch by Moonlight, Charles Lees

And this in contrast to a century before, when Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed the season and wrote in the winter of 1874 of looking down upon the skaters on the frozen loch flitting around under the light from the moon and the lit torches.

Leaving the Queens Park, we children played a game to see who could count the most lit Christmas trees in sitting room windows along Grange Road, Morningside and Greenbank, before we descended into Oxgangs.

And then, of a sudden, we were back from where we’d started out.

It was of course a stark contrast coming home to the Stair and 6/2.

The house was quiet.

It was cold.

And the one bar electric fire would be immediately switched on.

However, it was slightly more inviting than usual, because the Christmas tree decorated the corner of the living room and we had the pleasure of coming back home to our presents.

Before going to bed I would carefully re-pack my stocking with my presents and place it at the end of my bed to try to recreate the Christmas morning experience when I awoke on Boxing Day.

However, it was never the same.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Go-Between

Saturday, 20th November, 1971 

Today was probably the best day of the year. 

Being a Saturday alone is cause to celebrate, but that was only for starters! 

I collected my pay from Pamela Baird - always a good moment. I just kind of glided through the paper round - the reason being that I was already looking forward and planning for my first 'official' date with Shona (Smith). 

We were going out to the cinema to see 'The Go-Between'. 

Being out early made for quite a long day, but it gave me plenty of time to plan ahead and get myself organised. I wanted to look my very best subject of course to the limitations of my haircut, which is the only cloud on the horizon. I wore my new pair of Levi's, my Ben Sherman shirt and my parka. 

I collected Shona from 26/5 Firhill Crescent and then we took a number 16 bus in to town. 

It was a really successful evening - better than I could have hoped for. 

Derek Cameron (Yerbury)

The film was really good, but I perhaps enjoyed it more than Shona. 

When I'd been planning out the evening you're never quite sure how it might pan out, but everything went brilliantly. Afterwards we got a bus home from Morningside no problem. 

I felt like I was in a dream walking Shona home along the burn and back to Firhill Crescent. She invited me in and we sat in watching the telly and talking with her mum 'n dad. I managed to converse okay with them, trying not to commit any faux-pas’ - I think I managed! 

They're dead nice and even thoughtfully went off to bed shortly before I left. I didn’t get home until 12.30 a.m. I got a row for being out late but I wasn't bothered! 

I'm off to bed now to dream about Shona.