Easter Egg 2020
Tayside, SCO & John’s Island, SC
All Over the Place in ’19
In 2019 we didn’t make a Fall trip to Maine as was our wont. Instead:
- I met up with my daughters and their families for a week in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, in July. Karen formed the rear party, took a week off work and looked after the dogs back in NOVA.
- I returned the favour when Karen flew halfway around the world to visit her sister in New Zealand.
We did get away together though for a Low Country Christmas and New Year with all the dogs.
We also spent a week away on Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga and a long weekend in Davis, West Virginia.
On the work front, Karen managed to:
- Spend a week in Las Vegas at the annual Amazon Web Services event again.
- Go to Cyprus too, for a week in June. Somebody had to do it!
She didn’t get to go to Japan in April ’20. Wuhan stopped that .
Back to Blair
I spent most of my formative years in Blairgowrie in Perthshire. For longer than that, I called it home. Even now, more than half a century later, I invoke its name when asked, “Where are you from?”
My last visit had been for just a couple of days in 2009 with Karen. For three or four decades before that, a few infrequent short visits for funerals and the like. So I didn’t know quite what to expect in 2019.
From Many Directions
I flew direct from Dulles (IAD) to Edinburgh (EDI) overnight in the last week of July. The flight was unremarkable. My daughter Lindsay’s flight from Luton had arrived minutes earlier, so she was at the EDI international gate to meet me. It was the first time I had seen her in person since Maine 2017.
The plan was to pick up the rental and to meet up just outside Blair with my other daughter, Victoria and her boy, Will. They were flying into Glasgow (GLA) from Southend (SEN).
Rendevous at An Old Haunt
The RV was the Meikleour Arms. It’s in the village of the same name four miles to the south of Blairgowrie. An hour’s drive from the airport for us and ninety minutes for the other two. I hadn’t seen either of them in person since 2013.
We enjoyed a reunion lunch outside in the garden. When I was a callow youth, the pub was decrepit but fun. And, it was a Mecca for underage drinkers. One got fueled up there before arriving at the Saturday Night Dance in the Village Hall up the road. Closing time was a random event. So, it was marvellous to see the place transformed and in such splendid form almost sixty years later. Check it out if you are ever up that way.
Finding someplace to stay
Blair always gets a fair share of tourists in the Summer. So, once we had decided to go, we had to move quickly to find someplace good to stay. We needed four bedrooms and a bunch of bathrooms to fit us all in comfortably. We looked through the listings in VRBO and Airbnb. I was pleasantly surprised at the enormous variety and often shear originality of them.
Anyway, in the end, we settled for something prosaic and practical. We rented a holiday house in the Altamount Park development in Blair.
A bedroom and ensuite each made for happier co-existence. Also, it was conveniently close to the local Tesco and an excellent Fish and Chip shop. So it was a safe choice.
What Was Up – Berry Picking Of Course!
The soft fruit picking season was in full swing in Blair while we were there. These days they grow raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, red currants and cherries. In our day (the 50’s) it was almost exclusively the first two. The land given over to soft fruit production today is only twenty per cent of what it was back then. But they make extensive use of polytunnels now. So, yield and quality are much higher. The growing season now lasts from July through October.
Berry picking has drawn casual workers to the region for well over a century. We encountered lots of East Europeans. Poles and Czechs mostly, I thought, but some from the Baltic States too. My immediate assumption was that they were there to help with the berries. But an old friend set me straight; they were straight EU immigrants settled in Blair for the long term. I had been away for too long and was hopelessly out of touch. I was to learn that most pickers are Romas from Romania. The heat in the polytunnels is too much for the locals.
July 2019 Visit
It seemed apt during our stay in Blair to make a trip to Dundee for old times sake and to see how the old girl was doing. The City featured large in my kidhood and beyond. I remain attached to it.
It was impossible not to be aware that the City is labelled as the ‘drug death capital of Europe’. Recently, from the Sunday Times
The £80 million V&A museum on Dundee’s waterfront projects an image the travel guides love: a rough diamond of a city on the brink of a new age of prosperity. A few hundred yards away, however, the picture is altogether different.
It’s a bleak winter evening in the drug death capital of Europe. Outside the Wellgate shopping centre an endless parade of dealers trade “vallies” — the lethal street valium that’s rife in the city. Discarded needles, a little metal cooker and a litter of plastic bags, the detritus of class-A drugs, litter a nearby lane close to the city chambers …
We didn’t dwell on the darker aspects of the City. In a busy morning, we took in the Law, the V&A (Dundee) and Discovery Point. All three were full of visitors but still interesting and worth visiting.
As a bonus, Sir Thomas John Woodward OBE (Tom Jones to you!) was set to perform in an open-air arena opposite the V&A that evening. As we gathered ourselves to get into the museum, the man himself mounted the stage to make his sound checks. We couldn’t see him, but we could hear him. So could the several hundred Dundonians and others in the square. After the obligatory “Can you hear me“s, he belted out a couple of lines of ‘Delilah’, and the several hundred of us joined in as one – great fun and it left everyone wreathed in big grins.
The City was hectic on that beautiful sunny day. So, we escaped up the coast to Carnoustie for a spot of lunch. It was peaceful there and a good move on our part.
More than a Drive Home
We enjoyed the drive back to Blair from Carnoustie on a succession of quiet country roads through Strathmore farmland.
Nothing more significant than a hamlet lies along the way, and there is very little traffic. It took me back to the annual Sunday School picnics when I was a bairn. The bus drivers used that route to get us to and from the bitterly cold and rainswept North Sea beaches invariably favoured by the Minister for his annual event.
I had planned to rent an Audi at the airport for the duration of the trip to Blair. I was familiar with the controls and technology because that’s what we drive in NOVA. It was going to be challenging enough for me to “Tenez a Gauche” without the added task of coping with a different driving layout. In the event, an Audi wasn’t available, and I had to ‘make do’ with a BMW Series 5. I had never been in a Beemer before, let alone driven one. It wasn’t too much of a chore becoming accustomed to the controls. But, the driving performance was outstanding. The car ate up the rural route back to Blair. Passing the occasional slower-moving vehicle ahead of us on the narrow back roads was a breeze. I was impressed, and this was to have a consequence.
We celebrated Vic’s birthday with Sunday lunch at another former haunt. We used to go for a beer to the Kinloch House Hotel fifty plus years ago. It was always a pleasant place and we would be on our best behaviour. The exterior still looks the same, but it is much changed inside. It’s posh in a genteel way now. It was lovely to see it all.
Lunch was splendid. Everything is sourced from the local area, smoked haddock from Arbroath, beef and lamb from nearby farms and vegetables from the hotel’s kitchen garden outback. Service was terrific, attentive but not intrusive. All seven of us enjoyed it enormously. Settling the moderate bill did nothing to diminish that either. It was good value.
Some Faux Pas and Some Regrets
I ventured out towards Kirkmichael up the Glen one evening. The aim was to catch some good images in a promising sunset. As the sun sank, it presented lots of opportunities. But I couldn’t find any place to pull over. I had forgotten how narrow the country roads are around Blairgowrie. And, that they are mostly bound by dry stone dykes that prevent pulling over. By sundown, I had managed to take a few half-hearted shots of a farm from a hurried vantage point. A little disappointed, I turned and headed back down the Glen in the dark to Blair. I had driven about seven miles when a startled motorist coming the other way let me know I was driving on the wrong side of the road. Oops!
I met up with old friends for a beer in the Angus Hotel. I hadn’t seen them or forty years so there was a lot to catching up to do. Two beers into it, we were driven out by a band starting up and drowning conversation. Tesco was still open and just around the corner so we decided to buy some beer and take it back to the house in Altamount. As I was browsing throught the many brands, I couldn’t remember if Scottish beer was drinkable at room temperature.
The best part of being back in Blair was, without doubt, meeting up with old friends. I wish that I had managed to do it earlier in the piece, and more often. The worst part was that I only had a week there.
Where to Stay in Blair
Finding a place to stay in Blair presented some exciting possibilities. Here are three of many that piqued my interest:
1 – Keathbank Mill
A ‘penthouse’ apartment in Keathbank Mill seemed just the thing. My Ma’s mother was born and grew up in the mill workers’ accommodation there. Her father was foreman, and she worked there spinning flax for weaving into linen.
I would have loved to stay there. It’s such a good location but not enough beds for all of our party.
2 – Ballintuim Schoolhouse
Or, maybe the old Ballintuim Schoolhouse in a hamlet five miles’ up the Glen’ outside Blair. It is beautifully repurposed and a lot of fun, I think. Too bad that it was one bed too few for us.
3 – The Bridge House
Or, The Bridge House, a two bedroomed apartment in a bridge over the River Ardle. It’s near Ballintuim too. An astonishing place, but sadly not big enough for all of us.
4. – My Old School
We could not consider this excellent four bedroomed, two bathroomed cottage in the center of Blair. They were still converting it from the old Victorian school building that closed for business decades ago.
It was the annexe that housed the Art Department of the old High School in the town.
The Berries Back Then
Bad Old Days
Blair’s relationship with it’s Berry Pickers did not start well. At the start of the 20th Century, Travelling Folk and those from the tenements of Glasgow and other Scottish cities were invited in to do the work. But, the farmers made no arrangements to accommodate them during the six to eight week long harvest.
An article in the 3rd of May 1904 edition of the Dundee Courier explains the problem and the initiative taken by a local farming company to remedy matters:
THE INDUCEMENTS HELD OUT TO BESPECTABLE WORKERS.
The recent controversy over the disgraceful scenes associated with the Blairgowrie berry-pickers is likely to involve improvements of decidedly radical nature in the conditions under which the berry-pickers carry out their labours. The fact that dining-rooms, toilet facilities, magazines, and, to crown it all, a piano are to be at the service of the Blair berry-pickers should attract workers higher in the social scale than the scum hitherto associated with such work.
A MECCA FOR TRAMPS.
In the current number of Organised Help, the organ of the Glasgow Charity Organisation Society, an article appears in which it stated that an application reached the Scottish Women’s Trades Council from a large firm of fruit growers in Blairgowrie asking help securing a hundred respectable girls and women to take part in the raspberry harvest there. Being a seasonal trade requiring only unskilled labour, the Blairgowrie centre had formed a sort of Mecca for the tramps from all parts of Scotland. This annual influx of vagrants was accompanied by deplorable results. The tramps of both sexes had arrived year after year and had squatted promiscuously in the sheds, stables, and even hen-houses on the fields of their respective employers, and had managed to successfully defy local opinion, the sanitary inspector (Mr George Mackay), and the most elementary laws, both of sanitation and decency.
ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE WORKERS.
One firm of fruit growers, Messrs Keay and Hodge, had determined to make a stand against the employment of tramps on their own farms, and to do what they could establish a better standard of conditions ’ the industry. The first step taken was to provide comfortable accommodation suitable for workers of a respectable class. Buildings were erected on the farm of Westfields, a little way out from Blairgowrie, and money and care were generously expended in making these healthy and comfortable and attractive. The building included a dining hall well lighted and ventilated and capable of holding over one hundred persons. The dining-room, being also supplied with a piano, magazines, &c, served as a recreation room, in which were held lantern entertainments and concerts during the workers’ sojourn in Blairgowrie
Above the dining-room was the largest dormitory, with 32 iron beds, and giving each person considerably over the 200 cubic feet of air required the sanitary bye-laws of the burgh. Several smaller dormitories accommodated from twelve to sixteen persons. In all ample provisions were made for lighting and ventilation. Suitable and adequate sanitary accommodation was provided outside. There was also a large wash-house; with seventeen set-in basins, each with a towel-rack, brush, comb, and mirror. The firm providing all little necessaries down to the soap and shoe-blacking. A stove, bath, and boilers for washing clothes were also set aside for the workers’ use. A separate cottage accommodated the manager and wife, and another had a room in reserve to be used as an isolation ward in case of sickness, while the services of a doctor specially retained for the workers’ needs. The terms offered by the firm were that workers would be engaged for at least one month, and that lodging, service, and comfortable board would be provided for at a charge of 6 s a week – a sum which, of course, covered only the actual outlay for food. The fruit was picked at 1⁄2 d per pound, at which rate it had been possible workers in previous years (with conditions of weather and crops) to earn from 3s to 5s day.
Not so bad Days
We had a couple of raspberry fields and a loyal band of pickers. They were mostly locals but often some incomers each year too.
We picked along with the gang as young teenagers and could earn anything from 10/- more than £1 a day. Much depended on the weather and the state of the crop. Mostly, we picked into small buckets called “luggies” attached around our waists with coarse twine. We decanted full luggies into a full-sized pail we placed strategically up the ‘dreel’. Once the pail and last luggie were full, it was a trudge down to the weigh station where your berries were weighed and poured into wooden barrels. We were paid by the pound. 1¾d was a typical rate but it could go as high as 2½d later in the season.
We were permitted to fritter away some of our earnings on sweets, trips to the pictures and so on. The greater balance was saved up for the post berry season trip to Dundee to stock up on items of school uniform and other clothes.
Dundee – When I was Wee
Back in the Day
Scotland’s fourth-largest city was an hour away on the bus. We would make several trips to Dundee every year. But the post-berry-picking-season trip was the most purposeful and to the point. Once there, the Ma would march us to Draffens, a vast department store on the corner of Whitehall Street and the Nethergate.
It was straight up to the third floor, where we were kitted out for the coming school year: Grey socks, grey shirts, grey pullovers and grey flannel shorts. Maybe a new blue blazer for me, my younger brother qualifying for the hand-me-down. In truth, all these items were available at the Co-op back in Blair. But, Ma’s sister-in-law Jean’s sister Cath was Head Buyer at Draffens, and there might have been a discount involved.
After the procurement phase was complete, it was into the lift and up to the top floor to Draffens’ restaurant for lunch. Breaded haddock, chips and beans for me, followed by apple pie. After lunch a detour to Woolworths in Murraygate on the way back to the bus station.
We were afforded anything we wanted there, as long as it was under £1.
I always liked being in Dundee and kept up regular social visits through the 60s. There was always lots to do. I went to concerts in the Caird Hall: Ella Fitzgerald, Acker Bilk and his Jazzmen, Dave Brubeck Quintet, and Peter, Paul and Mary. In later life, whenever an opportunity presented itself, I organised trips to the area on any pretext.