Life


(The good bits of…)

1960s

  • Hawaii: forgotten flickerings of tropical fish
  • Peru: an isolated memory of dark fish-shadows swimming deep in a cool water tank on a dusty afternoon
  • Connecticut: moon landings; ice skating; igloo building; I pledge allegiance to the flag, to the purple mountains’ majesty and to the fireworks of the 4th of July
  • Desert: lizards, scorpions & rattlesnakes; night stars; the smell of tamales in an adobe village
  • Water: alligators, mosquitos & watersnakes; catching a yellow fish; skinning a dead raccoon

1970s

  • Lessons: a good Scottish education in biology, chemistry, physics and stuff – but also breaking free to do Ceramics, Art and Weaving at a Steiner school
  • Family: biology, ecology, ornithology, greco-roman archeology, modern art, modernist architecture, and lots of PSS (Practical Self-Sufficiency)
  • Skills: basketmaking, butchery, candlemaking, cheesemaking, dying, foraging, knitting, pottery, preserving food, spinning, sewing, scything, shoemaking, tanning skins, woodwork and jack of all
  • Animals: chickens, calves, ducks, doves, one dog, geckos, guinea fowl, grass snakes, goats, geese, jackdaws, kestrels, soay sheep, shetland sheep, tortoises, owls

1980s

  • Head stuff: History of Art and Ψchology, but mainly Mental Philosophy (MA 1st class honours from Aberdeen University – with commendation for papers on both Logic and Love)
  • Deer: summer job organised by my father: studying red deer on a Scottish hillside; recording bite rate data; collecting faeces; catching the deer to weigh them and take milk samples; setting snares for rabbit pie
  • Poland: follow-on from the deer thing: solo visit, during General Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law, to study the transhumance of dairy sheep to their summer pastures
  • Munich: summer job organised by my mother: caring for experimental marmosets in the basement of a medical research centre; I knew no-one, and in German, I could only ask for cake…
  • Berlin: group visit to East Germany; crossing from one world to another at the Brandenburg Gate; Nebuchadnezzar’s monumental Ishtar Gate with its striding lions
  • Re-enactment: living as a Tudor peasant for several weeks each year; Kentwell was a vivid parallel life and my real home for a long, long time
  • Household: Hz’s theatre of life; parties in the great double-mirrored room looking out high over to Fife; encounters with robotics and artificial intelligence
  • Enterprise: supplying the sandwich shops of central Scotland with Spicy Bean Pate – a vegan alternative to the traditional Scotch pie lunch
  • Bivvy-bag: miracle gore-tex, waterproof and breathable; I slept on beaches, in woods, stone circles, hedges and roundabouts
  • Hitch-hiking: Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales; the exhilaration of being on the road and sharing life with strangers
  • Tipis: made, and made use of, two large canvas-and-pole tipis; possibly the first in Scotland, the question was, why?
  • Dance: everywhere, and often the only thing that made sense

1990s

  • PhD: drifting somewhere between Philosophy, Agriculture and Social Anthropology, a research project asking organic farmers what they thought about life – and farming
  • Pilgrimage: walking from Coventry to Canterbury as part of a WWF ‘Pilgrimage for Earth Survival’; did it work?
  • Sharing meals: cooking all day; spreading out a patterned cloth and sitting crowded on the floor with friends to eat, drink, smoke and talk
  • Ceilidhs: the Robert Fish Band and the Tartan Amoebas; hundreds of us under the vast reflected ballroom chandeliers; using steps learnt in school gym class to dance wild; often, there was a guy dressed as an ostrich
  • Silences: Sunday mornings at Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House
  • Factories: inspecting factories to ensure compliance with EU organic food processing regulations: shortbread & custard; fishmeal & dead chickens
  • USSR: on the trans-Siberian railway for 4 days 3rd class; camping with no food on a remote shore of Lake Baikal; timber yards & cattle farms; orthodox churches & pickled aubergines
  • Gujarat: friendships & festivals; walking in the desert with people who could see the edge of their world and wondered what was beyond; decay
  • Kirpi: partnership with a Gandhian organic farming campaigner; importing and selling hand-weeding tools; spanning the distance with blue air-mail letters, then faxes and then email
  • Greening: tasked by the Principal of Edinburgh University to help implement his overly-ambitious plan to turn the university green in its teaching, research and estate management
  • Wildwood: founding member, with my parents, of a community group which bought a 1,500 acre valley to re-create a wooded wilderness – the first ecological restoration project of its kind
  • Wanderings: followed friendships to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia; along GR walking routes in France; to Tuscany, Florence and Rome; to winter cork forests in Portugal; to ‘Ecotopia’ in Poland, and also in Broxburn…
  • Ethiopia: parents (not mine) and family; the smells of frankincense and lemon verbena; Lalibela churches and chanting; walking in the thin mountain air with people who sang all night and never slept; honey & berbere;
  • Fire: channelling unfettered male energy while painted Red all over and brandishing a seriously dangerous fire torch as part of Edinburgh’s annual pagan Beltane festival
  • Tech: a deep dive, brief but early, into the world of e-commerce websites

2000s

  • Daughter: born June 2000; her father was Blue at Beltane; she is many things that I am not, I like that
  • Song: just a village choir, but a very special one; drinking with the Greenmantle sub-committee; big dinner parties where everyone was known
  • NGO: Head of Soil Association Scotland; managing a team tasked with the overly-ambitious plan to turn Scotland’s food and farming organic
  • Driving: often in darkness; through rain and the parts that always flood; on ice, in blizzards, in fog; marking the places where others had died; passing neighbours; rendezvous on the Manor bridge; picking-up-roadkill-for-dinner stops; run-out-of-petrol stops; stopping-to-help stops; and “turn around we can’t go on in this”…
  • Snow: huge, slow flakes layering on the moonlit fields as we came out of a church on Christmas eve: hoar-frosted trees caught by low sun; boots breaking puddle-ice and the crust of old snow; the big freezes when our lives spun off from the rest of the world
  • Stars: catching the moment between car and home; Sagittarius stars in the black winter skies; baby sleeping bag warm and watchful in the freezing air
  • Village shop: rescued and re-launched the local shop; sold newspapers, cigarettes, booze, sweeties, canned food and lunchtime Scotch pies; also a modest range of wholefoods but not condoms, because they always got stolen
  • Celebrations: marking the seasons and the years; Christmas, Hogmanay & Easter; Edinburgh Beltane & then Peebles Beltane; Samhaim, Halloween & bonfire night all on top of each other; the changing styles of birthday parties as the children grew

2010s

  • Married: to someone with a back-story as varied as my own, but neither of us are Buddhist
  • Croatia: we fell for an old farmstead in a forest near a river, rebuilt the barn in a modernist style around the old frame; photo diary here; we loved the place but were always drawn to the distant sea and after ten years we drifted away
  • Swimming: learned the action of swimming like I never had before; stretching out doing pool lengths day after day; suspended in the illuminated blue of Croatian seas; fear of the weedy darkness below
  • Coastlines: Tiree for memories and myriad stones, extreme picnicking, extreme bodyboarding, fair-weather kayaking and the never-really scorchio weather; Cres for baking heat, long hard walks, wordless afternoons naked in hidden coves, and the otherworld of the sea; Sagres for high sun in winter, walking the windy clifftops and the open beaches, watching the surfer dudes and bodyboarding in the Atlantic waves
  • Violins: a joint venture with Martin, I manage the website www.martinswanviolins.com; the violin business is our livelihood and a constant thread in our lives together
  • Recipes: a joint venture with Maggie, this is our family cookbook www.maggiesmacaroni.com
  • Avenue House: a big house in the small city of Wells; big commitment, big renovation job; Avenue House Instagram here

2020s

  • Gardening: my lockdown obsession; designing and project-managing the landscaping of our garden and the creation of a formal pond; choosing plants for the diverse micro-climates; learning the characters of the plants and nurturing them
  • Photography & Art: it’s always been an on-off thing, but I’ve started putting some images and conceptual stuff on this page and on Instagram
  • Lunigiana, Italy: the first and last house in a semi-abandoned village on a wooded hillside in the valley of the moon; yet more renovation, but we’ll take it slow; high mountain views, night skies and the sound of distant waterfalls; a much-needed immersion in an ancient world