Wednesday, June 29, 2011

rain, rain, go away...

Today's soundtrack:
"Lose It" by Austra
"Reunion" by Papermaps
"Everything Works" by Miracle Fortress
"Beat Drops" by Cherina and Davina

After two days of scampering across isles and Edinburgh, our Dutch guests opted for a quieter day today. We decided to go on the 3 mile walk along the Fife Coastal Path to Crail, albeit leisurely.

Out on the path today were wee piglets,

cows and calves (and sheep in the background),

and monkeys.

We also spotted a kestrel hovering near the cows, a (we think) yellowhammer along the way,

and a fulmar nestled in the cliffs by the old fort in Crail.

That ominous grey sky followed us all the way to Crail. When we were no more than 3 minutes away from the village, the skies opened up. By the time we got to Julias for lunch, we were soaked. After the rain passed and our appetites were sated, we wandered up to the old fort and down to the harbour...

before being forced to take cover from another rain shower. In the harbour, there were more neatly-piled lobster traps. These seem to be a favourite subject of mine of late...

... although this is my favourite shot of the day.

Rather than chancing getting caught in yet another shower, we jumped on the bus bound for sunny Cellardyke, where cold Coronas with lime eagerly awaited us.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

isle of may

Today's soundtrack:
"Happy New Year" by We Are The City
"Piste 1" by Galaxie

Yesterday, having pre-booked our seats, we boarded the May Princess (along with about 20 school kids from Kingsbarns) and set off for the Isle of May. Over the centuries, the island has been home to early Christian communities (until they were beset upon by Vikings), pilgrimages, a priory and village, lighthouses, foghorns, an army outpost, and (most recently) a research station. The island is now a National Nature Reserve and the researchers have their own blog detailing the current state of the island (busy), the water (scarce), and the birds (everywhere).

The trip to the island was calm and uneventful. I was struck by how quaint our wee village looks from the water. Clearly this was the angle designed to impress.

The skipper let us know when we were passing by jellyfish, gannets, and puffins. As we approached the island, the seals poked their heads out. After we docked at Kirkhaven and had a brief introduction from the warden, we quickly made our way out of the terns' breeding area, as they like to dive bomb intruders and I had no intention of being pecked or christened. We took a path out towards the Low Light, then circled around to the Beacon and Stevenson Lighthouse, before heading out towards the South Horn. I wasn't really prepared to see the sheer number of birds and expected that I'd only see a few puffins, shags, and guillemots.

This proved to not be the case at all. There are around 40 000 breeding pairs of puffins on the island. I think we saw all 80 000 of them. In the two hours we spent on the Isle of May we also saw a lesser black-backed gull with chicks:


Kittiwakes with a chick:

Shags, which bear a resemblance to their cormorant relatives:

Guillemots (they don't have a white stripe on their beaks), in amongst razorbills (which do):

And even more puffins (the sitting one has a full mouth of sandeels for the young chicks):

Check out the Isle of May NNR blogpost about "Tossing Puffins" to gain a greater appreciation of that beak. According to David Pickett, the NNR Reserves Manager, "It has to be said that a puffin in the hand is not the quaint, comical creature that many people think they are. Basically they are very sharp at both ends and grumpy in the middle". They are a little more skittish than the razorbills, which were content to let us take hundreds of pictures, although considering that puffin beak it's probably for the best that we can't get too close.

I tried to get a picture of an oystercatcher, but I wasn't fast enough. Also, the terns proved impossible for me to capture without a better zoom. The majority of the birds perch themselves on these narrow ledges on sheer cliff faces. How they didn't all blow away during that gale is a mystery.

During the trip back to Anstruther, the sea was a little more rough (although nothing like how it looked during the gale force winds a few weeks back) and slightly more eventful. A few of the Kingsbarns school kids took turns steering the boat, which made for some interested jags and loops. I'd've taken photos of our approach into Anstruther, but I was feeling pretty green and eager to put my feet on solid ground again.

I'd love to say that this morning I had a new appreciation for the gull perched atop my roof, screeching away at 8am, but that would be a lie. Instead, I've nothing but amazement for the researchers on the Isle of May and their ability to retain their hearing after months of studying seabirds.


Today's soundtrack:
Puffins, puffins, and more puffins. Stay tuned tomorrow.

With our lovely Dutch friends visiting, we decided (after a late breakfast and even later tea with Ian from Crail) to go to the Isle of May. As we hadn't booked, however, we predictably didn't get onto the ferry. Not wanting to waste a perfectly nice day, we continued through Anstruther and took the Fife Coastal Path to Pittenweem.

The fishing industry is more active here than in either Anstruther (or Cellardyke, which mainly consists of young boys casting lures off of the pier). I was struck by how neat the harbour is keep. Even the lobster traps are carefully stacked.

We took the steep Cove Wynd up, passing by St. Fillian's Cave. Once home to one of the early father of the Christian church in Scotland, St. Fillian's cave was used more notoriously as a hiding spot for smugglers in post-Reformation Scotland.

Like the Caiplie Caves, St. Fillian's sandstone bears the hallmarks of wind and water erosion.

After an hour of walking and a steep hill, we ducked into the Cocoa Tree for a well-deserved hot chocolate and cake. Although, after spending far too long trying to figure out surprisingly simple wooden puzzles, I felt like I'd earned another hot chocolate or, at the very least, a very big piece of cake. Instead, we headed back downhill to the harbour to walk out on the pier...

... before heading back to Anstruther alongside the local golf course.

In the distance, you can see the Isle of May, which was our next destination.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

of paths and sidewalks

Today's soundtrack:
"Ties That Bind" by One Hundred Dollars
"Deeper Than Beauty" by Sloan
"I Can Feel It" by Sloan
"If It Feels Good Do It" by Sloan

The other day Miguel and I went to our first proper afternoon tea. Friends of a second cousin (twice removed) invited us over Sunday afternoon. Since it was a beautifully sunny day, Miguel and I decided to walk the Coastal Path from our place to nearby Pittenweem, and then out where Charles and Stephanie stay.

Unlike the walk out to Crail, which is filled with pigs, sheep, goats, and the occasional cow, the walk to Pittenweem is decidedly more cultivated. In fact, the majority of the walk is alongside the local golf course where the waterholes are, well, the Firth of Forth. I strongly suggest you take the stroke and move on.

Although busier than the Crail path, this portion does provide a wonderful view of the west side of Anstruther, known locally as Anster Wester, and down to the harbour. The bay in the foreground is one of the summer swimming holes, but it'll have to be near 30ºC before you get me in there.

And with no more than ten minutes on the path, we can see Pittenweem. This is where the majority of The Winter Guest was filmed (along with a bus stop in Anstruther and a coffee shop in St. Andrews, or so I'm told by tour guide extraordinare Kristin). It looks much more hospitable in the summer than it did in the bleak winter months. And yes, that's part of the golf course to the right.

I was a little worried about arriving late for tea, so we didn't stop for pictures in the harbour or St. Fillian's Cave, but as we've guests arriving this weekend, I imagine those pictures will be coming in a week or two. Any excuse to go for another hot chocolate at The Cocoa Tree and a chance encounter with another Canadian expat.

Like many of the small towns and villages on the East Neuk, we didn't have to walk long before we were back out in the country. No sidewalks or shoulders to speak of, but those would just spoil the picturesque scene.

Believe it or not, this is a two-lane road. No, really. Which is why you couldn't pay me to drive around here.

On our way out of Pittenweem, we saw farmhands harvesting broccoli (which has since appeared at the local co-op and looks fantastic), as well as grain fields that reminded us of Saskatchewan.

But my favourite picture of the day has to be these wildflowers. Makes me wish I could still paint.

Tea with Charles and Stephanie was lovely, after which they showed us around their garden and tree grove. I envy their grandchildren being able to play in a backyard that is still a little wild in spots. Stephanie told us at that at least one of her grandkids does a formidable troll impression while hiding beneath a small bridge.

Afterwards, as Charles very kindly drove us back into Cellardyke, I noticed that from Anster Wester to Pittenweem there is a sidewalk! Oh laugh, you Canadians and your overabundance of sidewalks, but sidewalks alongside main roads is nothing short of a miracle up here. It also means that I can ride my bike from Cellardyke to Pittenweem, grab a hot chocolate, and fondle some yarn (come December when The Wooly Brew opens up), all without risky angry run-ins with drivers who don't believe any space need be given to cyclists.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

idle hands

Today's soundtrack:
"City Lights Cry" by Armistice
"Missed the Train" by Factor (SK) feat. Gregory Pepper
"Fire!" by Pat LePoidevin
"Golden Years" by The Russian Futurists
"Red Hunting Jacket" by Little Scream

I am woefully behind in my knitting updates (if you're not a knitter, feel free to skip this post. I'll have some new pictures of our walk to Pittenweem and Grangemuir up in a few days). But as I've managed to knit up everything I'd packed for my three stash-less months in Scotland, now is as good a time as any to show off (more or less) my latest projects. Everything is an amoeba state, as my blocking boards and wires won't arrive until this Saturday. It will take every once of willpower to not lay out the blocking boards in the guest room, as I assume our guests will not be overly fond of accidentally treading on pins and wet wool.

The first shawl I finished is Stephen West's Herbivore (Rav Link) in Wollmeise 100% "Fliederbusch". I had to restart this shawl when I was about 75% done because of messy dropped stitch that I could not retwist for the life of me. Into the time-out pile it went until we arrived in Scotland when, suitably chastised, it came out of the frog pond. Compared to the lace projects that followed, this was a fantastically mindless knit. Well, almost mindless. Damned twisted stitches.

Next up was Nikol Lohr's Woodland Shawl (Rav Link), which I modified into a scarf, in Wollmeise 100% "Rosenrot". I cast on (eventually, after some art math issues) 57 stitches and knit until I had only a few yards left. It'll be a delightfully long scarf once it's blocked out. The colour simply cannot be captured by my camera. I've adjusted the photo to get the colour as close as possible, but it's still a ways off. There's just nothing like Claudia's intense reds.

Lastly, I just finished Bonnie Sennott's Kernel (Rav Link) in Wollmeise 100% WD Versuchskaninchen (a sort of rust-red colour) for my mother-in-law. I was 20-some repeats of the main pattern into the scarf when I realized that the grafting of the two sides of the scarf wasn't where I thought it was. Cleverly, the grafting is hidden in a garter stitch section near the very end. Essentially, you knit the entire scarf minus 5 inches or so, which is knit separate and then grafted together. Were I to knit this again, I'd knit the upper edging (the remaining 5 inches or so) first in order to eliminate the guesswork as to how many yards I have left for the pattern. I made 35 repeats of the kernel pattern, rather than the 24 listed in the pattern, and used up almost the entire skein of Wollmeise.

Of course, not all the projects ended well. I've been working on Romi Hill's Waves of Grain (Rav Link) for nearly 2 years. I've restarted it many times. I don't know if it's me, the pattern, or the yarn (Fiddlesticks Laceweight Wool-Silk), but I just cannot get more than a row or two without some problem. It's not that I can't knit lace, because I can, but I think I have bad knitting juju with this pattern. Yesterday was the last straw. The project has been completely frogged, the yarn unraveled, and I'm now searching for a new lace scarf project for my mom (who has been patiently waiting for two years for a scarf that doesn't look like it was made by a drunk elf).

As I sat yesterday with nothing on my needles for the first time in months, Miguel informed me that he'd really like a turtleneck. "Hmm," I replied, unconvinced. In a bright colour. Yellow, or bright orange. "Hmm," even less convinced. But he is determined.. although not determined enough to learn to knit it himself. I found 500g cones of 2 ply from Jamieson and Smith that could do the trick, although I'm not sure if my art math is correct in terms of yardage. What's more, with my stash arriving on Saturday (fingers and toes crossed), I've about six pairs of socks, some more scarves and baby clothes to knit before I can get to any new sweaters.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


Today's soundtrack:
Thrawn by King Creosote
"Waffle Iron" by Yukon Blonde

I will no longer brag about having a spiral staircase.

The other day I was coming downstairs, laptop in hand, when my feet came out from underneath me. Not wanting any harm to come to my laptop (and by extension, my dissertation), I flailed in all kinds of graceful ways until I hit the chesterfield*. My laptop was safe, but I was in sheer disbelief that I'd managed to fall down three or fours steps and (more importantly) that such a fall could hurt so damned much.

So there I was, whimpering on the chesterfield, with nothing broken but my love of spiral staircases. By the next night I had a rather impressive bruise on my arm, swollen ankles, and a skinned knee. In hindsight, I'm rather lucky I didn't fracture my knee, since it went full-force into the railing.

As a result, my delicate constitution and I haven't been able to wander or bike around town in the past few days. With a constant barrage of Canadian music courtesy of CBC Radio 3 and serious dissertation work, I almost forgot that I live in Scotland. In fact, the night after I fell I woke up in complete amazement, wondering when our place in Calgary had a loft put in. So tonight, when we were out at the market, I was once again taken aback by the creeping strangeness of things that are just a little bit different here than in Canada.

Tomato paste comes in tubes. Tubes, people! Like toothpaste. Delicious, tomatoey toothpaste.

Actually, that's not a bad idea.

The first and only time I'd seen tomato paste in tubes previously was with Lindsay aka BFF (also Lindsay of the Digital Alberta Student Award) at Lina's in Calgary. She was picking one up for Lawrence who, as an American, was apparently used to tomato paste coming in tubes. I remember scoffing at the very concept as typically American, although I can't tell you what about tubes signifies typically American to me. If anyone has any insights into my mental processes there, let me know. Actually, let Miguel know, too.

So while I've really gone off the whole spiral staircase business, I've managed to dull the pain (both physical and mental) with my discovery of tomato paste tubes. Well, and Innis and Gunn. That's helped a fair bit as well. It's lived up to the hype from the commenters (cheers). So what should I try next, then? What goes well with a bruised, sore body and a wounded ego?

* that's what the civilized world calls a sofa, you Yanks.

Friday, June 03, 2011

save the hall

Today's soundtrack:
"Black Water" by Timbre Timbre
"Ride This Out" by Imaginary Cities
"Waffle Iron" by Yukon Blond
"Pick Me Up Baby" by Kyp Harness

Last night, Miguel, Kristin and I went to the Raise the Roof Benefit at the Hew Scott Hall in Anstruther. The Hall is usually a main venue during Fence Records' annual Homegame music festival, but this year the Hall was in such poor shape that it was unusable. Monies have been allotted repair the Hew Scott Hall, but not nearly enough to complete the job. If you're a local or interested, there's information and an online petition here. What's more, having missed Homegame this year (in fairness, when the tickets were on sale last year, Miguel hadn't even interviewed at St. Andrews yet), it was my first chance to see King Creosote live.

The doors opened at 8pm and the Hall was packed. Nearly everyone (except us, being foreign and not used BYOB for indoor concerts) had packed food and drinks. Having walked to see the goats past Caiplie early in the day, Kristin and I were just excited to be able to sit down on the floor for a bit, although a beer would've been perfect.

First up were Cynthia Gentle and the Truetones. Their blues covers of "I Need a Dollar" and "Way Down in the Hole" were outstanding. Miguel now feels an overwhelming desire to rewatch all five seasons of The Wire and I'm happy to indulge. The bassist, who Kristin recognized as a librarian from Special Collections up in St. Andrews, is apparently Canadian. I instantly regretted not wearing my Canucks tshirt.

Next were two local, younger acts: a singer-songwriter whose name I've forgotten and I neglected to get a photo of (apologies), and Black Power. The singer-songwriter and his accompanying drummer performed a few slower, acoustic tunes. His cover of Jack Johnson's "Waiting on You" was good, but I much preferred his own songs. Black Power, out of the Waid Academy (local high school), came out with masks of various African-American recording artists. I think it's an in-joke I don't quite understand. They worked a bit of an Arcade Fire vibe, with the guitarist clearly working a Johnny Greenwood experimental angle. The standout here was the drummer... as well as the fact that they were clearly thoroughly enjoying their time up on stage.

Then it was onto King Creosote and (I'm assuming) members of the Fence Collective. I recognized "Homeboy," but not being a local, I didn't know any of the other songs. Gummi Bako was providing supporting vocals, but his rendition of "Little Man" (the alternate title is just too long to type here) had Miguel bopping around. The love song that Gummi Bako and King Creosote sang to each other (sort of), which I don't know the name of but have spent the morning looking for, has been an earworm for around 9 hours now. I'm currently downloading every King Creosote song I can find on iTunes. My first foray into Scottish hipsterness. Hipstericity?

Lastly, Onthefly were up and were a complete departure from everything else we'd heard (blues, indie rock, and folk). Sure, there was no Moby hairlight, but it was solid electronic music. But by this point in the night (already over 3 hours of music) we'd reached our saturation point. Miguel was quick to remind us that in Madrid, 1130pm is when you get ready to go out for the night.

The last time I'd been to a show this full of community was back in the 1990s at a benefit put on by some local high school bands (Faded Muse, anyone?) at the Lantzville Town Hall for the Kosovar Refugees. No proper stadium or theatre can approximate that sense of community. We've lost so many of our halls in Canada. Shows are confined to pubs and bars, which is fine and all, but it doesn't offer the kind of mentoring opportunities for the younger, underage musicians that filled the middle of last night's concert. It also means that musicians have to move away from the smaller towns if they want to play to a crowd. Who is really left in Nanaimo trying to make music? Everyone has packed off to Vancouver where the venues are. It'd be dreadful to see that happen here as well.


In other Scottish Acclimatization news, I'm still looking for more beer tasting ideas. Innis and Gunn is high up on the list, but I came across this thistle beer at the Co-op yesterday and was rather curious about it. Thistle beer: yea or nae?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

beer googles

Today's soundtrack:
"Pvc" by Suuns
"Stop or Start" by Fine Mist

Perhaps the most obvious difference between Canada and Scotland (accents and spurtles aside) is the availability of alcohol in supermarkets. Initially, I was thrilled. This feeling was soon replaced with confusion as soon as I stepped into the beer aisle. There were a few brands I recognized: Grolsch, San Miguel, Hoegaarden, Carlsberg and Becks. They even stock Budweiser. But what's Tennants and how does it differ from Newcastle Brown? Guinness I recognize, but what's this Innis and Gunn?

Excitement turned to dreaded culture shock. I realized I knew nothing about Scottish beer.

Back in Canada, I got into the habit of avoiding (more or less) the bigger beer companies in favour of the smaller, independent breweries: Paddockwood's IPA 606, Great Western's Pilsner, Big Rock's Grasshopper, and (Miguel's favourite) Alley Kat's Goldspur (only available at Calgary's Hop in Brew, my hands-down favourite pub). I don't claim to be an beer expert by any means, but I knew what I liked. And what I like isn't available in Scotland.

Going out to the pubs with Kristin helped the situation, as she directed me towards St. Andrews Ale rather than Tennants, and raved about Ossian. As a result and as part of the Scottish Acclimatization Project, I've decided to learn about Scottish beers.

The first thing to get my head around is the categorization system. Beers are not colour-based (white, brown, or red), as in Canada, but rather by alcohol content and a 19th-century system of pricing beer. The higher the content, the more expensive the beer was to buy by the hogshead (54 Imperial gallon), and therefore, by the pint. A 60/ (shilling) pint is considered light at 3.5%, 70/ is a heavy pint at 3.5-4%, 80/ is export strength at 4.5-5.5%, and 90/, at over 6%, is called a wee heavy (source: Wikipedia). By this ranking, my beloved IPA 606, which sits at 5.4%, is an 80/ ale, and Miguel's 10% Goldspur is more than just a wee heavy.

Still with me? Just barely? This might be a good time to pop open a beer. Mine's a McEwan's Export. Cheers.

The second thing to do is (obviously) to try as many different Scottish beers/ales from local, independent breweries as possible. Jonathan has been raving about Innis and Gunn's use of whisky barrels to add flavour to the beer during the fermenting stage. I've only tried St. Andrews from the Belhaven Brewery, but there look to be plenty more to search out.

Are any of my local, Scottish readers ale aficionados with a particular favourite in mind that I should try next? Make your best case in the comments.

Are there beers back in Canada that I should look for on my next trip back to Vancouver Island?

What's your favourite beer, gentle reader? And why?