Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Gulls of Invergordon, O.

A young man felt so moved by his experiences one summer that he wrote about them for the world to read. That man we shall simply call, Jon.

“In Invergordon by the sea
They’ve built a new distillery
And all the gulls are on the spree
That live in Invergordon”

My dislike for sea-gulls had always been slightly vague, their heads were too small for their bodies or their screaming irritated me, I wasn't quite sure. I was about to discover why I really hated them.

It’s 5.30am on a driech September morning as I drive into Invergordon, a small town built on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. Since the closure of the smelter in the 1980’s the town has suffered, but I’m here to see one of the town’s success stories.

I’d been told to meet a man at the end of the pier, he’d introduce me to the gulls. A disembodied yellow hard hat emerges from the gloom – Jack, my guide for the day. Behind him thousands of gulls rise leisurely into the night.

Jack is not an ornithologist. Infact, Jack despises birds. He works for the Port Authority and spends most of his time cleaning the pier. He unravels huge lengths of rubber hose and begins to blast the guano into the Firth. The stench is incredible. There is a cruise liner due at 8am and seagull droppings are not mentioned in the Port’s glossy brochure. They have to go.

The Silver Wind is the last liner of the season. There’s been more than 20 since May (including the Q.E.2) and more are due next year. The firth is full of rigs in varying states of disrepair and with the decline in the oil industry the port is trying to diversify into the cruise liner market. The venture seems to be paying dividends.

By 7.15am the liner is clearly visible at the mouth of the firth. She’s a beautiful ship – a symbol of glamour and decadence unattainable for the crowds of local people who come to show their kids what a cruise liner looks like. By the time Jack’s rolled up his hoses and given the pier a quick sweep we’re close enough to see individual figures. Soon we’re joined by the mooring gang, the Deputy Harbour Master and a piper in full Highland dress. He looks out of place amongst the hard hats and boiler suits and he seems faintly embarrassed.

The liner is very close now, as the pilot directs operations from the bridge the Filipino crews prepare to toss the ropes to us. While the pilot makes some final adjustments Jack tells me about a Filipino crew who, anxious to sample the flesh-pots of Invergordon, asked for directions to “the ladies”. Jack (in all innocence, he claims) sent them to the public toilets in the High Street.

The ropes are thrown to the mooring gang on the pier. It takes three or four men to haul the sodden rope up and over the bollards. Finally the Engineer nods in approval and signals to his minions to take in the slack. The other moorings are made fast and the Deputy Harbour Master gives the thumbs up to the pilot.

That’s the heavy work over, now the boiler suits make way for an army of PR people with clip boards and Californian smiles. The passengers begin to disembark to the strains of “Scotland the Brave” and the piper no longer looks out of place.

There’s a definite air of superiority about the men who work here. Most have left the sea after years of working on the rigs or in the fishing industry. They’ve all got families now and every one of them says the same thing; “It’s a great life but it’s only for the young lads.” Some of the stories about the brothels of Marseilles and Hong Kong would make your hair stand on end, it’s an unashamedly male environment. The ships are the only females allowed.

On the pier taxis jockey for position with the tour buses. The couriers quickly herd the passengers onto the buses to be whisked away to the tourist Meccas such as Dunrobin Castle. Many locals have complained that the passengers are not encouraged to visit the town, but the taxis do well from the liners. It’s not unusual to get fares for Ullapool, or even Portree.

9.30am. The buses have all gone. I talk for a while with an engineer of a grain-boat which has just arrived. He’s from Hamburg, twenty-four and he’s already seen the world. We shake hands, “Good-bye, Scottish.” It begins to rain again. In a few days he’ll be in Barcelona and I get that inevitable pang of jealousy.

4.30pm. The tour buses arrive back at the liner and the passenger returns to the ship. I speak to a couple weighed down with boxes of shortbread and tartan for the folks back home in Ohio. “We’d always wanted to see the Highlands since I’m a Campbell and my wife is a Ross,” he says. They seem to be delighted with their trip, which is good news for the port. Satisfied passengers means that Invergordon should be on The Silver Wind’s itinerary for next season.

6pm. Our resident piper stubs out his fag and strikes up a tune as the gang-way is retracted. The mooring gang shoulder their way through the crowds and take up their positions. There are some camera flashes from the ship, some applause and that’s it. They let go the ropes and The Silver Wind glides out into the darkening firth. Amazing Grace. Tomorrow it’s Kirkwall and then on to the Norwegian fjords.

7pm. As night falls the pier empties of people and the gulls begin to arrive.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Another cousin

Pete and Diane have just had a baby boy - 6lbs 11, no name yet as they really were expecting another girl! Congratulations!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

So, can he read yet?

Yes, of course he can! I was given a brilliant book from the staff at Kirkliston nursery school (who know a thing or two about learning, I guess) called Baby Sees Hearts and Stars

It is amazing - based on the idea that babies can see sharp contrasts, the pages use a couple of colours each, and bold shapes to make them stand out. And Kit "reads". Not out loud, of course, in his head, but he really does! I hold the book infront of him an he stares, his eyes moving from one page to the next. Stop rolling your eyes, he does, alright?

He's even got favourite pages; the red and blue pages are very exciting, apparently. So exciting in fact that daddy got straight on to Amazon and bought the rest of the series...Spots and Dots (quite basic compared to Hearts and Stars...maybe should have got that one first), Flowers and the very challenging Snowflakes. I think it'll be a wee while before we graduate to Snowflakes, that's more of a 4 month old's book.

So there you go - it only took 3 months for me to become a pushy dad. I might back off, and remember how badly it can all go wrong...

The visit to Craigtoun Park went well - but where was everyone else? Considering it was a beautiful sunny day, the place was almost deserted. We went on the train, crazy golf and the boating pond and didn't have to queue for anything. Mind you, we made up for it by stopping at The Anstruther Fish Bar on the way home, where Bill and I waited 45 minutes for a few fish suppers. Nice though they were, it was impossible to see what the hold up was. The upside was that they had a big TV where we could watch England getting stuffed by Portugal. Oh well. What now happens to the "car flag" mountain? Mmm?

Tonight we have Mum and Don for tea, they are going to the Garden Party this week. On Wednesday they'll be over again with Gillian, and on Thursday we may all go to the Botanics if the weather keeps up. When do the holidays start...?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Got it

Ah, now, this'll do. It's one of the few internet pictures there is of Jon, taken from a specialist website.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


The JD link was a master stroke...I have to counter Jon's effort with this until I can come up with something better.

Science, smiling and Bo'ness

And as if by magic, the holidays were here!

Last week brought the usual lunacy to school as the goodwill needed to keep P7 on-side was sadly lacking this year. One or two simply couldn't handle the change and the upheaval of the move to high school and went into a sort of self-destruct mode. Shame.

I, meanwhile, spent three nights at Pollock Halls attending the first Science Summer School based at Dynamic Earth. Teachers from all over Scotland (but mainly from Aberdeenshire, for some reason) attended workshops on geology, energy and forces, "forensics" and so on. The course was introduced by Jack Jackson, recently retired HMIe top bloke and husband of my headteacher, who talked about A Curriculum for Excellencein science teaching. I was looking forward to this, as I do believe that of all the guff that gets produced in an attempt to improve education, CFE is actually quite good. Unfortunately this theme had not filtered down fully to the workshop leaders who were keen, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their subjects but delivered content and activities identical to those we were doing all those years ago in college.
Like "Hey, you can teach energy and forces by using toys!" "Hey, lets make a Mars lander which we'll drop and try not to break the egg inside!" and so on. One or two of the workshops were great; one about raising ethical issues in science with children stood out. But generally it was the other teachers who were attending who had the best ideas, and it worth going just to have met them.

Meanwhile Kit grows and grows, and will be 3 months old this week. His first quarter; we'll be getting our first bill for him soon. He is really active, sitting in his chair and "running" for ages. He is performing routine "social smiles" and Lorna reckons he was playing "copy Mummy" with a tongue sticking out game. I am just chuffed I have the next 6 weeks to spend with him, of course.

The Oz Proudfeet arrived safe and sound and have already begun their tour of Scotland with a trip to Bo'ness to watch the Fair procession. Every year the "court" members are chosen from local schools to lead and participate in the fair; how proud you'd be as a parent...but there's catch. You are obliged to decorate your house...so obliged, infact, that they publish the addresses on the internet so there's no hiding. Every year groups and factions try to outdo each other with the decorations, arches and garden features, the pressure of which is so intense I've heard tell of people who have moved their children to another school rather than risk having to take part! Teams of joiners and painters using cranes and the contents of B&Q work for weeks to build these. And of course, they are very nice. But would you want to be the one told....next year, it's YOU?

And so, today, the plan is to visit Craigtoun Park near St Andrews. With us will be Jimmy and Jess.