Write Around Scotland

Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer



St. Patrick's Day Parade, Celbridge

2020-02-26 07:14:01

The flags were out. So was the bunting. Between lampposts on the town’s main street, a thousand triangles of green white and gold fluttered in the wind. Teenagers blew whistles. Younger children toot-tooted cardboard trumpets while in every other passing car a not-so-young driver sounded the horn.From the church a few yards back from the road, came the murmur of a Mass in progress for this was a Holy Day as well as a public holiday in Southern Ireland.

The cacophony of noise was merely a warm up before the main event, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, a small town to the west of Dublin.

Now, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City may be the biggest in the world. In Dublin, they boast their parade is best. But here, in Celbridge, the whole community appeared to be out on the street and involved. They took part in the parade, or lined the pavements to cheer and wave their flags, while local dignitaries looked on from the stage. .

In March 2007, the enthusiastic crowd had an added bonus - Ireland’s Strongest Man was there to give a demonstration. In a show of strength he went on to lift an amazing amount of weight!

Near the middle of the main street, final adjustments were made to the microphones and the loud speaker system that had been installed on a make-do stage on the back of a lorry. Now the music, Irish jigs and reels, could be heard all over. You could sense the anticipation mounting. Then as parade time neared all went quiet.

“Can youse hear me out there,” bawled the man testing the sound system.

The crowd on the pavement opposite acknowledged him by waving their flags and cheering even louder.

“The parade will begin in a few minutes,” he shouted again, ‘’but first, let’s give a big, Celbridge cheer for Jason Reilly, Ireland’s strongest man!”

On the roadside near the pavement where the crowd was deepest, a car had been backed up onto a raised metal ramp. Now Jason took hold of the handles on this ramp affair, bent his knees, huffed and puffed, then proceeded to lift the back of the car. The crowd, at least those who were near enough to witness this spectacle, were delighted.

For his next feat of strength, the big, ‘broth of a bhoy’ grabbed hold of a barrel - ‘20 stones it weighs’ said the commentator from the stage. Red faced with exertion, the strongman lifted the barrel above his head. The crowd were impressed and applauded his every move.

When the Parade came in sight it was led by a leprechaun holding tight to a pair of waist height, Irish Wolfhounds.

“They must be awfully good dogs,” said a wee girl waving her flag to distract them.

“Well trained,” said her mother, smiling.

Next there was a long line of vintage cars. One driver wearing a bishop’s hat waved slowly to the crowd. “Who’s he meant to be?” someone asks.

Then St. Patrick, complete with bushy beard and bishop’s staff, marched up the middle of the road to a great cheer.

In turn there follows troops of girl guides, boy scouts, children from a playgroup and a very young school group playing recorders. On instructions from their teacher, they stop marching, turn to face the dignitaries on the stage and play a slow air, the theme tune from the film, Titanic.

Next in line come the motor bikers, decorated tractors and three - wheeled tricycles. One tricycle is pedalled by Superman. Other huge agricultural machines are driven by more leprechauns.

Whenever a new group reaches that part of the road overlooked by the stage, they stop and give a short performance of their skills. There’s a show of martial arts and a mock fight by characters from the film, Star Wars. This is followed by a demonstration of juggling by a cohort of colourful clowns.

Gymnasts were led by a girl doing cartwheels. She keeps on cartwheeling - down the middle of the road.

There were groups from various sports clubs and a team of high kicking Irish dancers stepping out in colourful dresses and soft leather dance shoes.

As the theme music from Riverdance, the world famous Irish Show, was belting out over the loudspeakers another troupe of dancers, this time wearing hard black shoes, rapped out their steps in quick time on the tarmac. Some in the crowd couldn’t resist joining in with a few steps of their own.

Nearing the end of the parade, the pipe band of the Dublin Fire Brigade stopped in front of the stage. The drummers and pipers formed into a circle then played a set of tunes. Meanwhile the two mace carriers stood to attention.

For the final tune the band played the Irish National Anthem. Now the dignitaries, each wearing a bunch of shamrock, rose to their feet, adding their voices, singing in Irish. Many in the crowd, young ones as well as much older, stood with hand on heart and sang along. It was a poignant moment.

Celbridge’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade ended with a few “Hip, Hip, Hoorays,” everyone being thanked who had contributed to the occasion. As the pipe band marched away up the street, mothers pushing prams, young fathers with infants on their shoulders and older people, elbows linked, fell in behind, carried along with the music.

I suspect the pubs were soon overflowing and many a drop of the “black stuff” would be taken. The “craic”, as they say here, ‘’would be mighty’’.

What St. Patrick would make of the Celbridge celebration in his honour, we cannot imagine. But while it continues to bring local people and some of the many incomers to Ireland together, it must be a good thing.

Since 2007 when I enjoyed the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Celbridge, the event has continued to grow.

Want to Know More? Saint Patrick was born sometime between 387and 390 AD to a wealthy, high ranking Romano-British family. It’s uncertain exactly where he was born, but it is believed to have been in the village of Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton. Patrick was not overly religious as a child but this changed when he was kidnapped by Irish raiders, taken to Antrim and sold as a slave. For the next six years he worked as a shepherd. He eventually escaped and spent the next few years studying at a monastery in Auxerre. In 432 he was called to Rome where Pope Celestine consecrated him as a bishop. From there Patrick travelled to Ireland with 25 followers. Over the next few years he made extensive and successful missionary journeys throughout Ireland, spending his time preaching, teaching, building churches, opening schools and monasteries and converting chiefs and bards the length and breadth of the country. After his death, Patrick became a legendary figure and was credited with many miracles, the most famous of which is that he chased snakes from Ireland. However, it is believed that this referred to him eliminating paganism as snakes are a pagan symbol. He is also famous for describing the concept of the Trinity by using a shamrock leaf. Patrick is remembered as a bishop and missionary and is best known as the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day is 17th March. However, he is also recognised as the patron saint of Nigeria, engineers and excluded people. The National Museum in Dublin has the little hand bell he used to summon his congregation as well as a tooth which is believed to have been Patrick’s.

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In Flanders Fields

2019-10-29 09:31:05

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place: and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days agoWe lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Fields.

This poem was written by Lieutenant – Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian physician, after the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, on May 2nd 1915.

A plaque containing the poem can be found on the wall of a concrete bunker that was used as a field hospital.

Not far away, in graveyards throughout the area, thousands of simple white headstones carry the names of the war dead.

For those British and Commonwealth soldiers whose graves are unknown, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres, Belgium, is dedicated to them. The walls of this memorial bear thousands of names.

The ‘Last Post’ is played at the Menin Gate every evening.

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River Spey Canoe Trip

2019-09-29 04:46:18

A wildlife guide once told me I should wear a hat with a peak when bird watching. ‘In bright light, if you look up to the sky to focus on a bird, the peak helps shade your eyes’, he said.

With the hope of spotting some rare birds on a canoe trip down the River Spey, I followed his advice and wore a favourite cap, grey with a red band round the peak.

I also wore a waterproof jacket, waterproof over trousers, kneepads, old trainers and the most important addition to my less than sartorially elegant outfit - a buoyancy aid.

Before getting on the water, our group, friends for many years, had met the previous evening to acquaint ourselves with other pieces of necessary kit that included paddles, waterproof storage bags, a rescue rope and heavy blue plastic barrels which were something of a mystery. All of this equipment plus our own individual luggage would be packed into the Canadian canoes.

We were a party of seven which included our leader Dave Craig – a vastly experienced canoe coach, whisky aficianado and sole proprietor of the company Spirit of the Spey. Before heading out to a local hostelry for dinner he had poured each of us a wee dram and we all raised a glass of 12 year old malt in a toast to the success of our forthcoming adventure on the River Spey.

The next morning we met on the banks of the river near the Old Spey Bridge at Grantown-on-Spey. Here, still on dry land, we packed the canoes, tied everything in and practised various paddling strokes that we would need over the course of the next three days. Instructions in case of capsize were listened to with rapt attention!

Then we slid the canoes down the bank and into the water. Now we were ready. We set off in a line.

The river here is some 40 yards wide and appears black with depth. For long stretches it runs rippled but placid with occasional breaks showing white in the flow. When our canoes glance off unsighted half submerged rocks, it’s a reminder we have to be ever vigilant. These rocks could cause difficulties but we manage to steer clear of most of them.

Whenever there is a potential hazard ahead, such as a bridge or rapids, Dave explains how we should tackle it before he goes ahead. We then attempt to follow his line.

Along the river we pass a few fishermen and women. Usually they are standing in the water, sometimes waist deep, casting a fly in the hope of hooking an elusive Atlantic salmon. Here the grass banks have been cut to allow easy access from the huts provided for their comfort. With a shout, Dave attracts their attention as we approach and they let us know on which side they would prefer us to pass to avoid their lines. From time to time large fish rise and fall back into the water.

Beyond the edges, the river banks are thickly tree lined with oak, birch and rowan. Higher up the slopes conifers reach for the sky.

We spot grey herons, buzzards, one red kite, numerous ducks and one osprey. To follow the flight of these birds, I’m pleased to be wearing my peaked hat.

Our first stop is at a fisherman’s hut. We enjoy a substantial lunch, packed that morning in Grantown-on-Spey. Dave gets the primus going. Tea and coffees are followed by a wee 12 year old whisky produced nearby in Dufftown. We sniff and sip the whisky as instructed and listen to our own expert who enthuses about this particular nip. Now we know what’s in the blue barrels!

On this first day of paddling in fine weather we’ve covered about 15 miles. In late afternoon we leave the water and while our equipment is being transported, we walk the short distance to Cragganmore House. Not so long ago these canoe trips involved overnight camping. Now the participants partake of the hospitality, quaintness and excellent home cooking of this family run guest house.

Cragganmore House can be found near the Cragganmore, Ballindalloch and Glenfarclas distilleries. There’s no bar in the guest house but it seems only natural, having brought our own makeshift bar to savour a pre-dinner whisky aperitif in the guest’s lounge.

On day two, suitably rested and replenished we’re back on the water in fine weather. The rapids we will meet today have acquired reputations that have grown with each telling over the years and have been named – the Washing Machine, Knockando and Millionaire’s rapids. These stretches of churning white water are much longer than we’ve met so far. The waves are bigger, but we bounce through – damper but undaunted - to calmer water.

In the afternoon we leave the river by the Thomas Telford Bridge at Craigellachie to visit the new Macallan Distillery. It’s a vast complex where whisky is made on an industrial scale. The tour with a knowledgeable guide includes an impressive sound and light show. When it ends, visitors are then entertained by the guide and offered small tastings of different stages of a final aged and bottled product before exiting by the gift shop.

When we leave the distillery a prearranged taxi takes us to Craigellachie Lodge. After another tasting session where slices of lemon add something else to our whisky aperitifs we walk the short distance to the popular Copper Dog pub in the Craigellachie Hotel.

For the menu here, locally sourced produce features as much as possible. As well as our dinners, we enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, live music and the ‘craic’ (conversation with many laughs) as they say in this part of the Highlands.

Our overnight stay and fortifying breakfast before leaving Craigellachie Lodge sets us up for our last day on the water. The scenery may be glorious but we can’t see much through the mist and heavy rain. It’s cold and we’re buffeted by a wind from the north. We paddle on, under bridges and through rapids. But at a particularly big rapid, our canoe is caught sideways in a standing wave. In the blink of an eye we’re tipped into the water.

Our leader is aware of what’s happening and issues instructions. I leave the now upturned canoe – turn on my back and with an ungainly frog–like leg action, soon reach the shore. Being in the water is actually warmer than being out. Meanwhile my canoeing partner has wrapped the extended rescue rope round a large rock. It’s not long before we’re back in the canoe and paddling once again. However, my hat has sailed on down the river.

Some distance away the hat is rescued. All is well until our friends, in turn, now capsize. Once again the hat is sailing.

Further on we stop to meet old friends who now live locally. They inform us the temperature is a mere 12 degrees centigrade. We stand around, gratefully gulping the hot drinks and munching the chocolate biscuits they have laid out on a picnic bench. Between drinks, time is spent running and jumping on the spot – a futile attempt to get warm.

On this last day of paddling we had planned to meet the sea at Spey Bay on the Moray coast. The weather is still miserable. The wind is now blowing offshore. Conditions could not be much worse so we stop some yards short of our planned destination.

As we’re cold and very wet it’s an effort to get the canoes and other equipment stored safely aboard the trailer. When it’s done, we’re more than glad to feel the warmth of the Spey Bay Café. Once changed out of our sodden canoe clothes and supping hot soup the world appears much brighter. However, I envisage my hat bobbing along, somewhere out in the North Sea by now.

But we are all in agreement. Our leader, though he is also disappointed that the conditions prevented us from reaching the sea, has made the right decision. Better to be safe than sorry.

While we still sit around the table, one of the last of his many kind gestures on this memorable trip is to present each of us with a new hat – blue with a peak and the embroidered wording ‘Spirit of the Spey’.

Further information: photos by Dave Craig


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Slow Food on a Slow Adventure

2019-08-26 13:05:41

The A82 runs north from Glasgow to Inverness. Along much of the route the scenery is magnificent and favourite views are often topics for discussion. Some folk rave about Loch Lomond or the mountains of Glencoe. For others the rushing rivers, woodlands or the watery wastes of Rannoch Moor are most appealing. Yet it’s no secret that at times this road can be frustratingly busy with tourist traffic, especially at popular viewpoints.

Leaving it all behind however, is easy. At Corran, a few miles north of Ballachulish, you can cross the narrows of Loch Linnhe on a Caledonian MacBrayne Ferry. Minutes later, leaving the ferry and the village of Ardgour behind, you’ll appreciate the absence of traffic and the equally magnificent scenery. This is Morvern, a peninsula that feels like an island.

Though Morvern is connected by ferries to the mainland and the Island of Mull to the south, there is a sense of remoteness. Should you ever long for serenity such as you’ll find here, you might consider driving some twenty odd miles more to Ardtornish House near the southern end of the peninsula for a slow food adventure.

Ardtornish House is the focal point of Ardtornish Estate which extends over a large area of Morvern. Here, like other proponents of the Slow Food movement, it is believed food should taste good and be produced in a way that fully respects the environment, human health and animal welfare. Where possible, as Ardtornish Estate is also a working farm, food is grown and sourced on the estate and failing that as close as possible from like - minded providers.

Should you visit Morvern to take part in an Ardtornish Slow Adventure you’ll have opportunities to eat well while escaping the pressures of modern living – at least for a few days.

On arrival you’ll be offered home baked cake and coffee before a stroll through the estate kitchen garden to select salad leaves, vegetables or fruit in season for your dinner.

There are different Slow Adventures on offer. One might involve a walk from Ardtornish House of less than three miles to Leacraithnaich Bothy (more easily pronounced Tearnait Bothy) which stands on a hillside overlooking Loch Tearnait. Like other bothies on Ardtornish Estate it belongs to the Mountain Bothy Association whose members volunteer to maintain their properties.

The accommodation at Tearnait Bothy is basic. There’s no running water, electricity or toilet – just two rooms of rough stone walls beneath a corrugated iron roof. A fitted platform raised a few inches covers the larger area of floor. Bothy goers claim their space on the platform by unrolling and laying out their sleeping bags.

The living room boasts a dining table and two benches, three chairs and another table where food can be prepared in front of the window. When logs are burning fiercely in the fireplace and candles and tea lights are lit the room is cosy, though still somewhat other worldly.

After lunch and more coffee and cake mid - afternoon, adventurers can attempt to catch fish from Loch Tearnait for their supper. Should fishing lessons be needed, an Ardtornish Estate ghillie and a deer stalker/fisherman will demonstrate the fine art of casting a fly. Chances are they will also tell tales of the ones that got away.

You may also hear about the seemingly unconcerned otters that swam back and forwards over the fisherman’s wellington boots while he stood in the shallows of a loch, concentrating on casting.

But fear not. If the fish are not biting, your alternative dinner will already have been a major consideration for someone else. On my evening in the bothy, along with two other adventurers and our guide Karl Bungey, we dined on a pre-prepared Ardtornish Estate venison casserole, lentil stew and potatoes with a side salad. Water from Loch Tearnait was filtered. The convivial evening passed with conversation and a ‘wee dram’ of whisky round the fireside.

Next morning Karl cooked a leisurely breakfast. The freshly baked bread, new laid eggs and small batch sausages with herbs had been sourced locally mere miles away. At the moment there are nine local businesses involved in this Slow Food venture.

After breakfast, as we walked back down the track to Ardtornish House, we learned a little about our natural surroundings and the wildlife of these hills including red deer, otters and golden eagles.

The walk took us to a slipway on Loch Aline, a short distance from Ardtornish House where we enjoyed a picnic lunch of sandwiches thickly spread with mackerel pate and chicken liver pate on home baked bread. There was fruit and nuts and cake flavoured with whisky. The hamper had been packed with considered care at the Ariundle Centre, Strontian, another of the local, Slow Food enterprises.

After lunch we paddled Canadian canoes on Loch Aline under the watchful eye of our guide, Karl, a canoeing coach and experienced outdoor education teacher.

Canadian canoes are designed to carry large loads and be stable. With two seated paddlers, one at the front and one at the back on opposite sides, the skills required to travel safely on the water can be learnt fairly quickly under instruction.

Loch Aline is a sea loch that opens into the Sound of Mull. Before the tide ebbed too far we returned ashore and were soon walking back to Ardtornish House where our bedrooms in the South Wing were in marked contrast to our bothy accommodation the previous night.

The present Ardtornish House dates from 1884 and was built to replace an earlier house that was knocked down. Bedrooms are spacious with period fittings such as heavy mahogany furniture and marble fireplaces. To keep these fires burning, servants would have been summoned by the ringing of bells which are still in place, high up on the wall of a back door entrance.

Walking instead of driving, or being driven, is the norm on a slow adventure and an evening stroll along the woodland path by Loch Aline is a pleasant way to arrive at The Whitehouse Restaurant in the township of Lochaline in time for dinner. The Whitehouse, no distance from the loch, is an award winning restaurant with close links to Ardtornish Estate. As well as having its own kitchen garden behind the restaurant, products sourced from the estate include beef, venison, lamb and mutton. Sea food and fish at their freshest come from local waters.

The restaurant has two smallish rooms. The waiting staff bring a board with a chalked - on menu to each table and explain the ingredients of each dish. The list is not long – from two starters, two main courses and two desserts the staff recommend you pick four taster dishes.

Your choice of a starter course might be - Smoked salmon, Lochaline quail egg, cauliflower crema, avruga, samphire and backyard beetroot.

Your choice of a main course might be - Sea water poached cod fish, roast Mull scallop, Fishnish geic, seashore botanics, sheep yoghurt, potted tomato and herring roe.

Your choice of dessert might be - Morvern Tart - a rich concoction of fruit and nuts soaked in whisky and baked in a caramel and pastry casing.

Now replete, the soft adventurers were grateful for the offer of a lift back to Ardtornish House. The rest of the evening was passed discussing the highlights of the previous days while seated in the comfortable armchairs of a lounge.

Breakfast in the South Wing of Ardtornish House next morning was followed by a gentle cycle to end our Slow Adventure.

For further information: Ardtornish Estate: www.ardtornish.co.uk

Ariundle Centre: www.ariundlecentre.co.uk

Karl Bungey Otter Adventures: www.otter-adventures.co.uk

Whitehouse Restaurant : www.thewhitehouserestaurant.co.uk

Slow Adventure contact: Jane Stuart – Smith 07884361545 info@thewhitehouserestaurant.co.uk

First published in The Peoples' Friend magazine

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