Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Rock memorabilia #2 - Marillion (part a)

"The Web" - Marillion fanzine - issues 1-3 (from 1982)

I'm guessing most people who know me now won't be aware of just how much of a Marillion fan I was when I was a lad. You see, you have to understand... I was already a Genesis fan and it was, oh, ages (well, a few years) since Peter Gabriel left them for better things and he was definitely the Factor X, the magic ingredient in the band as far as I was concerned. Then up popped this weird band of loon-pant wearing young musos, with a giant Scotsman as their frontman and motormouth, "behind a greasepaint mask". And he was called Fish (for an obvious alcohol-related reason). And he was from my part of the world, well Dalkeith which was just up the road, and then he moved down to East Lothian where I grew up, which was just the coolest thing for us. Still in school, pretty well reviled as hopeless progrock heads by most of the new romantic or punk fans in our year at school and here was a new band which played music like the music I already loved - progressive rock, with very theatrical live performances from Fish, backed by an ever-so musically tight band. We LOVED it. I loved their music so much, it ACHED. They were OUR band - me, Pete, Simon, Dougie, John M, Mun and a few others from school. I was a fan of Marillion before they had a record deal, when they were just playing live, living on tour out of a wee van and selling their own tapes.

We first heard their music on a late night Radio Forth show called "Forth Bridges" (Lonesone Kate, where are you now?). I can't remember if Chris John was still the DJ or if it had moved on to Dave Stewart by the time Marillion appeared but I still have a treasured cassette recording of an interview by Dave Stewart of Fish and bass player Pete Trewavas in which a pre-release version of their first single, Market Square Heroes was played. We were SO excited at the prospect of the first single and then the album to come, I can barely tell you!

Anyway, to memorabilia - more Marillion memories another time. I find I still have the first six copies of Marillion's fan club magazine "The Web"(did the word fanzine exist in 1982? I have no idea), produced by Tim and Stef in Aylesbury, the band's home base (that's home base, not Homebase). When I sent off my Stamped Addressed Envelope, I was hoping (so it seems, from the reply letter I received) to obtain a load of tour posters and tapes, all of which were sold out. Instead, I got these six copies of The Web, plus a "Christmas 1982 Special", plus this great signed photo of Fish in full "greasepaint mask" and wearing a horned Viking helmet which I can only imagine he used to wear during their live version of the 18-minute song "Grendel" (yes, 18 minutes); if so, it was replaced later by a helmet that looked like a replica of the famous one from the Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard at Sutton Hoo! Much more authentic (as you can see below!).

If I could make my scanner produce pdf documents instead of just photos, I would post these fanzines up in full on a side page for fanboys and fangirls to enjoy!

"The Web" - Marillion fanzine - issues 4-6 (from 1982)

Happy hippy days!!! Prog rocks!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Bracklinn Falls (or wandering around in the Giant's Lego box)

Back to the proper business of Scottish Nature Boy…

On Sunday, to do something special for our little dog Ella’s fifth birthday, we drove out to Callendar, a gateway town for the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park (Scotland’s first National Park), to visit the Bracklinn Falls, a popular tourist spot since Victorian times, when Callander itself became a favoured destination for early tourist visitors to the Trossachs, much loved by Queen Victoria, and popularized by Sir Walter Scott and the Romantic movement. The name is thought to derive from the Gaelic words “breac” – speckled or tawny, possibly referring to the colour of the water of the Keltie Burn which flows over the falls, and “linn”, a narrow river gorge.

A fortuitous wrong turn walking out of the visitor car park took us up the hill behind Callander where we came upon a great view of the south face of Stuc a’Chroin (Gaelic: peak of harm or danger), at 975m, one of the southern Munros (Munro number M176) visible from the Forth Valley.

We also found this old Observer Corps bunker (according to a local dog walker), a World War II relic, complete with its original ventilation structures. Probably quite a quiet wartime posting, methinks?

Back on track, the footpath out to Bracklinn Falls runs along the edge of both native woodland (oak and birch) and mature non-native sitka fir plantation. Reflecting the high rainfall and lack of any significant air pollution in this part of Scotland, both the native and sitka trees and woodlands are fairly festooned with so-called lower plants: ferns, lichens, mosses, liverworts and algae.

Scotland, particularly the western highlands and the coastal temperate rainforests of Argyll, away to the west and north-west of Callander, is particularly rich in these groups of plants, being something of a global biodiversity hotspot for them. I am involved in steering a partnership project with Plantlife Scotland to promote awareness, understanding, identification and better management for habitats supporting these plant communities. You can find out more about the project and see all the great materials it is producing here. The cool humid conditions in and around waterfalls and their gorges are ideal for a wide range of these lower plants. And so it is around Bracklinn Falls too.

And what falls these are, although not so much for the actual waterfalls themselves. Admittedly, when the Keltie Burn is in flood or in spate, the falls are pretty spectacular (and the river here actually washed away the footbridge crossing for the falls in 2005). At the moment, however, following the recent weeks of frosty conditions locking up the groundwater, and very little precipitation (much of which is still on the hills upstream as snow), the river’s level is quite low and the waterfalls relatively quiet. But the geology and structure of the falls is pretty amazing.

As you can see from these pictures, the sandstone formations around the falls look like a spillage of great building bricks from a giant’s toy box. The massive square-ish blocks of red sandstone have broad veins of a much softer aggregate, a pudding stone, running through them which have been preferentially eroded away by the water’s steady, relentless efforts. Every litre of water will carry away a few molecules of rock surface, ongoing over millennia, combined with the periodic wearing, grinding, chipping, sanding effects of boulders, pebbles, sand and silt hammered against rock faces during floods, to create an eroded route of least resistance through the gorge, an ultra-slow motion carving out of a stone-washed aquaduct.

These great geometric geological formations induce in the visitor a sense of being somewhat diminished in size, like an ant in a box of Lego – Honey, I shrunk the tourists… The process of erosion continues today. In the following picture, the slow process of leaning over and collapse of these vertical bedding planes in the sandstone due to the undermining effects of erosion put me in mind of sliced bread tipping out of its bag. Notice the heavy growth of mosses on the horizontal slab.

This swirlhole or pot hole in the rock was created by repeated erosive swirling by the river of small stones in a depression in the bedrock, eventually forming this little hole. That fact that it is now about 20 metres downstream of the waterfall that used to fow over this edge and some four metres above the water surface illustrates that waterfalls move slowly upstream with time as they erode into the rock face, and that the river once flowed over this surface, however many years ago it took for the water to carve the adjacent gorge.

As well as the good habitat conditions for lower plant species, Bracklinn Falls also supports dippers, although we didn’t see any yesterday. Dippers (scientific name Cinclus cinclus), those little brown and white birds of Scottish gravel-bed rivers, were badly affected from the 1970's onwards by the acidification of Scotland’s rivers, which affected the little river invertebrates on which the dippers feed with their underwater foraging habits (walking upstream on the river bed, the water current on its sloping back helping to keep it underwater), and they became less common or even disappeared from acidified rivers.

Dipper painting by Raymond Harris Ching (from "AA Book of Birds", 1969)

Dippers are, however, likely to have made a bit of a comeback in recent years, at least in Scotland, as those acidification problems have slowly resolved following tighter legal controls over emissions of sulphur dioxide and other acidifying substances from industry in the past three decades. The presence of dippers is a good indicator of a healthy gravel-bed river ecology and the Keltie Burn and Bracklinn Falls are usually good places to spot them flying up and down the river, or bobbing up and down on favoured boulders in the river. A treat at any time!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Rock memorabilia #1 - Rory Gallagher

A new thread for my blog. Looking back at some of the little bits and pieces of rock memorabilia gathered over years of fanhood and listening to and watching bands live.

This first one is a fragile and much treasured piece of paper:

A ticket for a Rory Gallagher concert at the Apollo in Glasgow which I managed to get the great man to autograph. it was the only piece of paper I had when we met him!

Pete Mill and I were on study leave for our school "Highers" exams and took the train through to Glasgow on the afternoon before the gig. We were hanging about outside the theatre in the late afternoon when Rory and the guys from the band turned up. We had a quick chat and he signed this ticket, which I've managed to hang on to for the last 28 years! The gig was fabulous, as I recall.

Rory G was a stunningly good blues rock guitarist from Ballyshannon in Northern Ireland who died too tragically young in 1995 at the age of 47 following complications after a liver transplant operation. You can read more about him here. I was introduced to his music around the age of 10 or 11 by my mum's brother, my Uncle David, the source of so much of my early musical listening inspiration. I remember the first time I ever heard him (Rory, not Uncle David). I was on holiday at my Gran's in Irvine and Uncle David was watching Rory on TV perform live on something like the Old Grey Whistle Test - even at that relatively tender age, it blew me away and Uncle David raved about him. I quickly learned to love his music (as well as learning to love my Uncle David's LP and tape collection!). Even though there were occasional "heavy" tracks that were and are too much for me, his playing still gives me goose bumps today. Rory was a consummate talent on guitar, both electric (his beloved and much battered Fender) and acoustic, as well as on the mandolin and harmonica. What else do you need?

Here's a link to a TV studio live performance of one of my favourite Rory tracks, Out on the Western Plain (which, incidentally, he performed at that Glasgow Apollo gig and the other time I saw a full show, on 27th August 1986 at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh).

A couple of years ago, when my wife and I took the old campervan around Ireland for a fortnight in summer, we made a wee pilgrimage to Ballyshannon to pay homage to the Ballyshannon Man, talked to a guy who claimed to know him, etc. I found it quite moving really. There is a small "shrine" to Rory up a wee alley beside where he lived in the town:

Tribute to Rory Gallagher in Ballyshannon. This was next to a laundry, which seems to be as good a reason as any to put in a link to Rory performing his classic "Laundromat"!

Finally, it's impossible not to love this and to lament a talent lost far too young. This is classic Rory G. Sit back and enjoy "Going to my home town"!

Addendum: When I posted a link to this on Facebook, my oldest friend, Dougie, reminded me that we had been to yet another Rory gig together, at the Playhouse. I found I still have the ticket (with his surname on it, so I presume he booked them)- it was on a 3rd of October sometime between 1982 (my first Rory gig) and 1986 (my last) (but the ticket, annoyingly has no year on it!) and we had front row seats in the stalls, not that the crowd stayed in their seats, so we were right down at the front - Dougie reminded me that Rory shook our hands about five times that night! And he also remembered that Rory's band included Mark Feltham, astonishing harmonica player. I'd forgotten all this (well, it was probably 25 years ago!), so many thanks to Dougie for that!

The rest of my Rory G tickets

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The back of the winter is broken...

Last night, the now-quite-definitely later sunset made me feel like winter is on the way out and reminded me of lines from a song:

"The back of the winter is broken
And light lingers long by the door"

(from "Follow the heron" by Karine Polwart)

Signs I like #6

However obscured it is, you can't miss the essential wisdom of the message "Eat More Kale" - you know it makes sense and you heard it here first.

Message courtesy of the Kale Farmers of Vermont...

Sing, sing, sing...

After seeing Dick Gaughan last week, another interesting musical experience this week. Our singing group was privileged to have a guest teacher, Brendan Taffe, a Vermont-based musician, song-writer and leader of singing workshops who introduced us to two hours American harmony singing, plus some songs from Zimbabwe. Brendan has a great musical philosophy and is in the UK on a tour of singing workshops. We learned the shocking statistic that probably only 2% of the music we listen to nowadays is live music and Brendan left us encouraged that our involvement in live singing helps to build community spirit and connect better with people in our area.

You can find out more about his music and work here on his website. A Stirling friend's illness meant Brendan was short of accommodation after the workshop so we put him up in our spare room here at Ella Towers for the night - he proved to me that my guitar wasn't really broken by playing the best tunes it has experienced. It seems the problem is me, not the instrument. At least we managed a mini guitar/ harmonica jam.

Brendan has just released a new CD, "Little Boots", which features lots of interesting, moving songs, dance tunes, African instruments (kora!) and some fine playing:

You can hear, and download for free, some of the CD here, and, indeed, order it if you like it here.

A fortuitous, enjoyable and stimulating crossing of paths and hopefully we'll see Brendan round these parts again!

On the road again

Friday, 12 February 2010

Face to face with Scottish history

Stirling Castle's Great Hall at night

This seems to be the month for unrepeatable, unplannable, unique opportunities. Tonight, Historic Scotland offered its members an early view of an exciting restoration project in Stirling Castle. For several years, there has been ongoing major public investment in the restoration and re-creation of both outdoor and indoor parts of the castle. Anyone with an interest in Stirling, Scotland’s castles or the work of Historic Scotland will be aware of the amazing restoration of the Castle’s Great Hall and its controversial (but, to me, beautiful) repainting in its original “King’s Gold” colour.

A physically smaller but still highly exciting project is the ongoing restoration of the Castle’s Palace, and the subject of tonight’s viewing, the set of 34 carved oak roundels showing faces of kings, queens, courtiers and classical and mythical figures. The Palace was built from 1540 to 1542, mostly by French masons, for King James V and his queen, Mary of Guise (the parents of Mary, Queen of Scots) and it remains one of the finest Renaissance building in Scotland.

The Palace, Stirling Castle

The King’s “presence chamber” had a ceiling studded with over 100 large carved oak heads on roundels, known now as “The Stirling Heads”. Although many of these were pulled down and destroyed in 1777, enough survive to the present day to allow the present re-creation project (thanks to Craig Mair’s “Stirling. The Royal Burgh”, John Donald Publishers, Edinburgh: 1990). A master woodcarver born within sight of Stirling Castle, John Donaldson, has, over the course of five years, recreated 34 Stirling Heads in oak (the originals were in oak imported from Poland), taking approximately a month to carve each one. He said tonight that, as he had painstakingly had to copy the originals, this was a slow process and he thought that the original carvers could probably have carved one from scratch in a fortnight. All 34 of the new Stirling Heads have been laid out for viewing on the floor of the Great Hall in the pattern in which they will eventually be mounted on the ceiling of the Palace.

Yes, they do indeed remind me of large shortbread moulds

We viewed them tonight in their original unpainted state but they will be painted in the bright colours in which they were originally displayed in the Palace. The colours were identified from paint traces on the original roundels. It almost seems a crime to paint these beautiful wooden objects, but they were created with that intention and, while they do look stunning in wood when seen close up, I’m certain they will look equally stunning when brightly painted and set back in their original location when the Palace re-opens in 2011. Tonight was a one-off chance to see them all and see them close up although, from tomorrow, a detailed exhibition about the Stirling Heads project will open in the Castle.

Stirling Heads showing Hercules

There is a really useful set of information from Historic Scotland on the Stirling Heads, the master carver and the restoration project here. Meanwhile, here are some more photos from tonight’s viewing showing the new Stirling Heads.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


My first successful moonshot, so to speak...


Selene, you shine on me and mine,
Your cold light borrowed from the sun.
Sometimes you eclipse that great ball,
Dark dragon bringing early night,
Then the certain slide back to light.

Ripped untimely from Earth’s womb
But too small to slip loose from her strings,
Forever thrown together and apart,
Pirouetting face to face
In a spin over the gravity at your heart.

No warmth, yet you dragged life from the deep,
Ancient strandlines, first faltering steps
Up the shore to the high and dry.
Ironic effect of you, desiccate and cold,
On the waters of my home, my cells, my brain.

Strange attractor of pale, lonely types,
And the mad and dangerous to know,
Howling, their changeling other selves
In monthly worship of your full, round face.
Hidden forces, subtle fingers tweaking neural chords.

Blue moon, stain of far-off forest fires,
Red moon, each revolution’s bloody period,
Harvest moon, gratitude for summer’s bounty,
Silver moon, shining echo of day’s warmth, Selene,
On winter nights, my bright moon, serene.

Scot Mathieson
February 2010

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Spring is a-coming!

Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!

(Thomas Blackburn: "An Easter Hymn")

Monday, 8 February 2010

Signs I like #4

"Otters crossing" sign on the Vatersay - Barra causeway, July 2008

I like this as it combines a number of Scottish Nature Boy obsessions: Scottish nature, signs, campervanning and visiting islands. And what a great thing to do, putting up road signs warning motorists about the risk of running over Britain's most popular semi-aquatic carnivorous mustelid. No danger of running any over that day - or for the whole fortnight of the trip. Not a sniff of an otter anywhere along the full length of the Western Isles, although I did see my first corncrake, after years of only ever hearing the devious little blighters. But that's another story...

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Signs I like #3

This was in the highest mountain restaurant in Europe, between Cervinia and Zermatt, on the Italian-Swiss border. I love the lack of ambiguity about this warning sign - no messing - go here and you and your expensive skis and poles will end up as a mangled mess at the bottom! Oh, and one of your skis will come off...

Fair winds of coincidence

Dick Gaughan

I posted about the following on Facebook on Friday morning as a "Great coincidental, unplannable, unrepeatable experience" but I wanted to make a more permanent record here (hopefully) for a wider audience.

My wife and I are members of a singing group in our town and, after the Christmas break, the group reconvened last Thursday. We meet in the local music venue and arts/ performance centre, which also hosts gigs most weeks. Our first night back together coincided with a gig by the great, near-legendary Scottish folk musician, Dick Gaughan. A gig I’d normally have leapt at the chance to attend, I was disappointed that I had already committed to going to (and had paid for) our singing session. I was delighted, therefore, when Jo, the leader of our singing group announced that, as not all the tickets had been sold for the gig and the manager of the Centre was inviting us to join the audience for the second half (for free!) after our singing was finished. With that to look forward to, we started practicing a new range of songs that we aim to record for a CD this Spring. One was “Now Westlin Winds”, a beautiful song in five verses by Robert Burns which I can see becoming a firm favourite of our group.

Dick Gaughan recorded one of the best-known versions and has said it is his "favourite song of all time", as it also seems to be for our teacher Jo. Gaughan has also said that it is the perfect song as it says, in five verses, absolutely everything that it is conceivable to say about every subject. In those five short verses, Burns covers autumn, others' obsession of hunting birds for pleasure, cruelty, wooing, love and taking joy at the beauty of nature. Wow! Anyway, our class finished during the gig’s intermission, so we sneaked in (as invited!) at the back of the hall to watch some of the second half. “Now Westlin Winds” was the second song played after the break, and he played a blinding version. I don’t know if it is just because of the coincidence that we’d been singing the song earlier, seen Dick Gaughan when I thought I wouldn’t, and maybe even because it felt slightly subversive to be allowed in for free, but it gave me goosebumps to see his performance.

Here’s a link to a similar recent performance I found on YouTube. It captures really well the sheer musicality of the song, the musicianship of Gaughan and the emotion with which he manages to invest his favourite song. I hope you enjoy it.

Signs I like #2

A rather hilarious doctoring (not by me! I wish I'd thought of it!) of one of the fairly pompous signs posted on the footpath around the outside of King's Park in Stirling - well done the marker pen graffiti-ist. I have thought about putting some signs on the tees saying: "DANGER! Dog walking in progress. Please attempt to keep golf balls on the fairways and greens", but I suspect the golfers might have a sense of humour failure...

PS "Signs I like #1" was in my first post but I hadn't thought about themed series of blog posts - early days!