Time to Up Stumps

STOP PRESS!  NEW WEBSITE!  www.merrynglover.com

Team Highlight

Team Highlight

Friends, family and other folks, thank you for journeying with us on Eighty Wickets.  It’s time, alas, for this log of our cricket capers to draw to a close.  Not because we’ve stopped playing, because I can’t see that ever happening so long as the Spin Doc is amongst us (and he seems in pretty good health), nor because  we’ve stopped exploring, which we never will (even if it’s just to work out what really does lurk at the bottom of our wheelie bin), but because my time is focused on other things.

What am I up to?  Well, there’s been a lot of very interesting work in the mix, with supply teaching in History and Modern Studies taking much time and head space.  I suddenly find myself grappling with the Scottish Wars of Independence (Wallace and friends), development and aid, the Holocaust, the European Union and NATO, contemporary China, and crime and punishment – all in two days a week!  I also recently led a creative writing workshop for the Highland GP (family doctor) Trainers’ Conference which was hugely rewarding, and am planning a Murder Mystery writing day for high school pupils at a local grand house.  (Cluedo meets Monarch of the Glen.)

On the writing front, there’s that radio play series I mentioned that’s slowly working its way through the hoops towards commission (hopefully).  It’s the story of a Scottish family who find themselves obliged to make a hazardous journey to a remote school in Nepal.  Funny where the ideas come from…  Then I’ve usually got a new short story on the go and was recently short-listed for the Willesden Herald competition and will be published in their anthology.  I’m also writing some poetry every day and will give time soon to polishing that and getting it published, and there are a few articles on the bubble, with another one recently accepted by the Guardian.  (Will let you know when it’s published.)  And there’s my novel, which I thought was finished (several times actually) but is back on the desk for the final, final, FINAL time.  The changes this time are ruthless and quick and I am determined to secure publication for it before the year is out, even if that means doing it myself.  (An increasingly viable and attractive option.)

But for more on all of the writing, teaching and creative buzz, I’d love you to visit my brand new sparkly website: www.merrynglover.com

That is where the story continues.  Come on over and play!

And for those who would like a nostalgic review of the Eighty Wickets tour, here are some of the top posts: The First Pitch, Old School Ties, Payback Tour, Bowled Over at the Top of the World, People’s Republic of Cricket, Raiders of the Lost Pitch and Capetown Fair and Foul,



Merry Christmas From Eighty Wickets!

DSCN2877 comp

Greetings all from a busy, festive house in the Highlands of Scotland, where we await the arrival of the Aussie cousins with much anticipation.  Our last game with them was on an overgrown pitch on the east coast of Victoria.  See Raiders of the Lost Pitch.  Will the next game be in snow?  At the moment, there is better chance of it being in rain, but we live in hope.

There has not been much activity on this blog in recent months and some of you have been kind enough to say you’ve missed it.  It’s mainly because I am working on various other projects, including setting up a proper author website with a new blog.  I’ll keep you posted on that, and hopefully have it up and running early in the new year.

Meanwhile, the indoor cricket season went well, with a small but enthusiastic team.  (Very small, at the end, with just the Spin Doc and the Swing King doing all the batting, bowling, running, fielding and sledging between them, but having a  cheerful time, nonetheless.)

I have been busy with a combination of writing and supply teaching, plus some fun workshops on reading for pleasure in libraries, and ‘Wild Writing’ with the local high school.  In January I will start a series of creative writing classes for teenagers as part of the CREATIVE programme at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, and there are some more author workshops lined up in libraries and schools, plus helping with a local primary school production, so lots to keep me on my toes.  On the writing front, I’m developing a new radio play series and starting the next novel.  For something completely different, I have a feature coming out in the Family section of the Saturday Guardian on the 29th of December, all about my life with sons and their computer games…

For now, though, may you and yours have a beautiful and blessed Christmas and a New Year full of good things.

Now I’m off for tea and mince pies,



All Out on the Wild West

Gruinard Bay

Before burrowing into the community hall for a season of indoor cricket we decide to take our outdoor kit with us for a final fling on the beaches of Scotland’s west coast.  For our holiday week we have booked the First Officer’s Quarters of the Rua Reidh Lighthouse on a lonely promontory that looks across the waters of the Minch towards Skye and the Outer Hebrides.  It should be about three hours drive, but a navigational error (he thought I was reading the map, I thought he knew the way) means we miss the turn-off and end up on a longer route, adding an hour.  A low moment for the team.  However, all is not lost, as we discover our accidental detour takes us along some of the west coast’s most spectacular scenery past Little Loch Broom, Gruinard Bay and Loch Ewe.

We arrive in the coastal town of Gairloch in time for a heartening bowl of soup at the Mountain Coffee Company, a cheery little establishment stuffed to the rafters with books and bits and bobs about mountains, climbing and the wilderness.  The scones are mountain sized and the coffee strong as fire, so you can approximate an outdoor adventure from the comfort of a leather sofa.  The café flows into the Hillbillies Bookstore next door, one of the few remaining independent bookshops in Britain and a last bastion of individuality, quirky humour and hippy spirit.  We are right at home.

Rua Reidh Lighthouse

Half an hour up the road, our lighthouse is the only building on its corner of rugged coast.  Rua Reidh is Gaelic for Rough Point, and the red sandstone rocks here plunge into the sea like the debris from a giant’s battle.  Opened in 1912, the lighthouse was automated in 1986, and the keepers’ quarters that used to house three families have been converted into a hostel and an apartment, where we stay.  Wildlife is abundant here in the summer, but we don’t see much apart from the young Irish lassies and burly eastern European gents migrating down our hallway instead of into the hostel.  Our rescue missions are largely successful.  Outside, we love watching the sunsets over the Western Isles and the seabirds diving like torpedoes into the water to catch fish.

Weather on the west coast can be anything at the best of times, but for October we have packed full winter kit and waterproofs.  We use it all – like the day we go bog-hopping in the pouring rain – but also enjoy two days of jaw-dropping sunshine and wide, blue skies.  One is down at Red Point, where a friendly seal watches us from the surf, and the other is at Big Sand near Gairloch, where we play hide and seek in the dunes and, of course, cricket.

Bowling Like the Wind

Other highlights of the week are the community market in the village of Poolewe, where the stalls include home-baking, pottery and wildlife prints, as well as a lumbering tortoise in a tank.  The boys come away with stringy sweets in a shade of radioactive blue, I get a second-hand ring, the Spin Doc a pair of chisels and all of us, from the tombola, win a pair of fluffy baby boots.  Hoping not to need them…  And last, but not least, on our final evening we discover the alternative universe that is The Melvaig Inn.  On a bleak stretch of coast with soggy fields, squat houses and about three trees, the inn at first appears to be little more than a brown stone barn.  But entering is like dropping into Alice’s Wonderland.  Aglow with light and warmth, every nook and cranny is filled with the colourful, crazy collections of the eccentric owner.  Robot toys jostle for space with classic car posters and African statuettes, while the wooden floors are a patchwork of bright rugs.  The inn houses one of the largest record collections I’ve ever seen, and iconic covers range across the walls, incongruous beside Picasso prints and paintings of landscapes and chickens.  Large sofas by the stove and a pool table offer something for all of us, as does the food, which is generous and good.

So, holiday over, it’s time to head home, work off the west coast home-baking and kick-start the Indoor Cricket Club.

Boat at Badachro

I leave you with my cricket quote of the week.  In the quieter moments of the game (quite a lot of them, from what I can see) commentators must find other things to talk about.  Bird life around the grounds is a common choice, though even that can be baffling, judging from this classic by BBC commentator Brian Johnston:

And a sedentary seagull flies by…

Over and out.

Second Series

It’s been awfully quiet at Eighty Wickets recently.  No family adventures or tales of derring-do; no hi-jinks on Indian trains, no Himalayan quick-step, no Aussie surf or South African safari.  Nothing.  Not even any cricket.

Perhaps, like me, you had been lulled into a false sense of security.  The whole travelling-with-bat thing is over and we can all heave a huge sigh of relief and get on with normal life.

Sorry.  It would seem not.

In the past few days, some very suspicious parcels have been arriving at my door.  Some long, some squishy.  There are no birthdays coming up and it’s way too early for Christmas, but the packaging says things like “The Toy Store” and “Just4Sports” and… oh no!… “Upfront Cricket”.  It’s not over!  That quiet, apparently, was just an interlude, a bit of time-out for the team to do some cross-training (hill runs, shinty, mountain biking) and re-group a little.  Time for the Spin Doc to hatch his next plan.

For these parcels, you see, are all his doing.  The on-line shopping trail reveals it.  I’m sure it is no coincidence that they are arriving in precisely the week he has slipped away for a few days, no doubt allowing me to get the wails of protest out before he re-appears, grinning.   Because he certainly has not given up on cricket, and nor – it would seem – can I.

But now?  I hear you cry.  (Or is it just me?)  At the start of the Scottish winter?!  This is madness.  That has never stopped us before, but this time there is a little method in it.  All this new equipment is for indoor cricket.  Yes, such a thing exists, with dedicated rules and special kit (like softer balls, for a start) and my husband can think of nothing better for a Sunday afternoon than descending on the local sports hall with a bunch of pals and whacking sixes into the walls.

So, if you’re within striking distance of the Badenoch Centre, Kingussie in the coming months and would like to join this silly scheme,  give us a yell.  We’re back on the pitch…

Don’t forget your white polyester!

Running Rings Around London

Photo: Komonews.com

Well, I say!  That was quite the Olympics Opening Ceremony, wasn’t it?  After early reports about pastoral scenes with sheep and maypole dancing I thought we were in for three hours of excruciating embarrassment even worse than those eight minutes at Beijing four years ago when the world must have seriously regretted giving us the games.  However, I do believe the Brits have redeemed themselves and I, for one, was thoroughly wowed.  That said, during the extended sequence on British pop music I (like the majority of international viewers, I suspect) felt keenly aware of not having grown up here and not having missed much.  Also glad to have escaped the worst excesses of fashion in the seventies and eighties (a precedent which probably explains my life-long knack for being off trend.)  A few baffling and bizarre moments aside, though,  I felt the ceremony was creative, spectacular and wonderfully funny.  Gold for Danny Boyle!

The Queen, very convincing as herself.

I loved: the involvement of so many volunteers, especially children; the astonishing evocation of the industrial revolution, climaxing in the suspended golden rings; the Queen as Bond girl; Mr Bean in Chariots of Fire; Emile Sande’s haunting Abide with Me (a favourite of my English-born Papa); and the inspired decision for the torch not to be lit by a celebrity but by young, unknown athletes.  The torch itself was a stunning marriage of artistry and engineering and a moving finale.  (Well, the finale was actually Sir Paul McCartney discovering why you make more money as a pop star than a choir director.  Now, he’s a nice enough chap and “Hey Jude” a memorable wee tune, but what, pray tell, did it have to do with the Olympics, or Britain, or anything else, for that matter?)  I was also proud that the ceremony included disabled people and not in a patronising way.  Who could match the power of Evelyn Glennie, deaf from birth, on those drums?  Beat that!  And last, but not least, the ceremony was the only moment when cricket has made it into the games.

Struggling to find a gap in the field
Photo: mirror.co.uk

However, as we didn’t manage to be there in person (despite our efforts to get tickets through the lottery system) we compensated by having a holiday in London just before the rush.  Our Olympic highlight was running around the world’s largest Olympic rings mown into a field in Richmond Park.  (It has since inspired the Spin Doc and Swing King to mow a replica into our neighbouring field.  Cue a few puzzled sheep.)  Richmond is the largest of London’s Royal Parks and home to hundreds of deer, who seemed unperturbed by us walking and cycling by, even covering the route used for today’s Olympic road race, though perhaps not quite as fast.

Peloton lacking a bit of focus

We also visited a host of London’s exceptional free museums, getting hands-on at the Science, arty at the National Gallery, pre-historic at the Natural History and nostalgic at the Museum of Childhood.  Our luxury was going to see the stage show The War Horse, a moving adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel in which the rendering of horses as life-size puppets was extraordinary.  We also explored all six floors of the legendary Hamley’s toy shop, which opened over 250 years ago, and is an Aladdin’s cave of treasures and treats.

Lego kits aren’t what they used to be

It also became something of a minotaur’s labyrinth for us when we lost each other and spent half an hour trying to re-connect.  The charms of Magna-doodles and Talking Teds were beginning to wear thin…  (Note to Self.  Always take mobile on holiday.  Always take charger.  Never leave charger behind. )  But best of all, and free as air, was the people watching.  Nothing like having your sandwiches in Trafalgar Square for a first-class performance of the circus of life.  We, I think, were the clowns.

Country bumpkins on the loose

Chariots of Fire

I am in such agony I think I’m going to die.  My breath is coming in strangled gasps, my legs are giving way, my heart is on the brink of total collapse.  Why me?  I cry out in one of those moments of profound existential crisis.   Why am I doing this blasted hill race again?

Why?  I guess it’s because it’s my local hill, right above my house, and because the race is part of our local village fair, and because I have just, this very morning, given my sons a rousing speech about the importance of taking part.  It doesn’t matter, I declaim across the corn flakes, whether you win or lose, you just need to join in and be a good sport.  ‘Stuff that,’ I think, as I stagger to the cairn at the top of the Suie Hill.  Which is precisely what Junior son did, though without saying it.  When his Dad, brother and I all lined up for the race, he took off and got a burger.  Fair enough.  The other part of the morning’s sermon, if anyone was still listening, was the need to make one’s own decisions and live with the consequences.  He is showing no ill effects as a result of his choice, whereas both his parents have been hobbling around like extras in a horror film.

The Suie Hill
Photo: Rex Sircus

But this is what the Kincraig Fair does to you.  It draws you in and gets you taking part in stuff that sane people wouldn’t normally contemplate.   Why else would you toss a hay bale, chuck a welly boot, or run up a hill with an awful lot of cow dung at the bottom, prickly juniper in the middle and no trail at the top?  The Fair is also the finish point for the Corrieyairack Challenge, a 43 mile adventure run and cycle race over a high pass, which makes the Suie Hill run look like a toddlers bug-hunt.  But this year, for the first time, a competitor (and friend) managed to finish the Corrieyairick in time to add the hill run as a little flourish at the end.  Don’t you just hate him?  Well, not too much because it meant my husband was able to beat him for the first time.  (Not that we’re getting competitive or anything.)

Photo: Rex Sircus

This year the Fair also featured the Badenoch & Strathspey Pipe Band in all their kilted, blasting glory, chain-saw woodcarving, Harry Potter’s owls (the real ones!) and Riders of the Storm, girls dressed like Texas cowgirls doing stunts on horseback.  I admire the courage of anyone in Scotland wearing tiny shorts, but to do so dangling upside down from a saddle must be worthy of a Queen’s honour.  Along with all the crafts, cakes, lucky dips, raffles and ice creams, we also boasted a box of ‘locally grown coconuts’ in the tea tent where I helped out.  An income-generation project for our homeless street children, I explained to sceptical customers.  (Rejects from the coconut shy that never happened, actually, but why ruin a good story.)  In the field we also had tug of war, 5-a-side football, kids’ races and shinty matches.  Shinty is a highland sport, a cross between hockey and gladiator combat, and for some reason deemed perfectly acceptable for children.  Perhaps next year we should introduce cricket.

Local Wizard Makes Contact
Photo: Rex Sircus

Till then, I can ease myself back into motion with some physio, warm baths and the occasional polishing of my trophy.  Because, can you believe it, I won the shield at the hill race for “First Local Woman”?!  No, I couldn’t believe it either till it dawned on me that the half-dozen local women who normally shoot ahead of me were all doing other things this year, and the impossible had happened.  So, for this year only, I’m going to ditch all that high-minded nonsense about just taking part and being a good sport.  Here’s to winning!

I am actually running…
Photo: Rex Sircus

Riverside Cricket Club

Back by popular demand, The Spin Doc writes about a game he’ll never forget:

The title conjures up images of a swathe of green, punts on the water, cold beer and warm pies for afternoon tea.  But it’s the middle of December, not a day for cricket usually.  Here in Kathmandu the sun is shining and a hazy row of snow peaks looks down as I cycle up to EKTA Educational Palace.  Among the rows of cheaply bound classics, copies of Time magazine and self-help books, I know I can buy a cricket bat for about £2.

Purchase in rucksack I head downhill, riding over a confetti of chicken feet outside the butcher’s and holding my breath through plumes of lorry smog.  I cross the sacred Bagmati river, a putrid grey emulsion of human and chemical waste. Rafting Nepal, the bible of kayaking and rafting, describes this as Nepal’s “most dangerous river descent”, not on account of any towering rapids but rather the toxic welcome of her waters.

Bagmati Blues

On the banks of the Bagmati. I enter a rag-tag town of tarpaulins, old pallets and bits of ply board. This is one of Kathmandu’s few slums and it’s here I have come to chat and play cricket.  I walk past a small shop made of  breeze block and plastic fertilizer bags, washing hanging in the sun and mothers relaxing with babies in the mid afternoon glow. A whole family squats beside their stall of odd-looking catfish.  They assure me, miraculously, that these can be caught in the river and we talk about fishing methods that centre around sticks of dynamite. Children in sky blue shirts arrive home from school.  They have something most Kathmandu children do not: a place to play. On the floodplain behind the houses is a good space with trees and an open patch of dirt big enough for an invigorating run around. A dad arrives back from work and shares his concern that they may be moved on by the government this week. I ask about the people in the slum. “Ordinary people with nowhere to live,” he answers, and I see just how true this is.

The Pavilion

Ashish is one of the first boys to join me. He hits out with joy but little technique and retrieves the ball from thicket and undergrowth with enthusiasm and a grin. Other boys arrive and the game becomes more competitive as the bowling speeds rise.  Ashish moves to a cameo role of ball finder and fielder, never losing his grin.  We play for an hour till I have proven that being a caucasian adult does not carry a genetic cricket advantage.

Perfect Pitch

As the light fades the boys gather round and I explain that I am leaving the bat with them as a Christmas present. The condition is that they form a Cricket Club and that the bat, available to all, will be kept by the team captain. I think about a phrase I heard recently about young people in developed countries having “ everything to live with and nothing to live for” and how different it feels here.

I cross the Bagmati bridge, squinting through the orange orb of sun, and look to my left to see the blue shirted boys still bowling leg breaks and shrieking  their pleasure. Ordinary people with nowhere to live.  Only tonight, as the December sun dips low over the river, Ashish is no ordinary person.  He’s Captain of the Riverside Cricket Club.

Dream Team, Ashish on left

Best Foot Forward

I wonder how Imelda Marcos ever decided which shoes to take when she travelled.  Even for those of us with a relatively modest range of footwear, the decisions can be agonising.  Well, for some of us, anyway.  I don’t think my husband gave it a second thought.  Nor, as I look back upon it, did either of the boys.  In fact, as my memory focuses in, they very nearly set off for the station on day one in the wrong shoes.  So, I guess it was just me that did all the shoe stressing.  (Somebody has to.)  Shoes are heavy and bulky, so you want to take the minimum, but then if your itinerary includes everything from the treks of Nepal to the dusty roads of India and the beaches of Australia – not to mention all the cricket pitches along the way – how do you make sure you’ve got the eventualities covered?  The Spin Doc doesn’t mind if he hasn’t and he should know, as he once ran a mountain marathon in his winter boots.  Or was it winter climbing in his tennis shoes?  Something like that.  He’d rather save time on the planning and just roll with the punches, whereas I want to make sure I’ve got the right stuff, and I’m not going to pass up an opportunity for a list, a chart and some exhaustive research.

So, if you’re planning to do some travelling soon, allow my agonising to alleviate yours.  This is what we took:

Trusty, Dusty Companions

  1. We each had a pair of general purpose walking shoes.  These we used every day in cooler climates and for trekking to Annapurna base-camp.  They were also light and comfortable enough for me to run in.  (I try to run off-road, if possible, and usually run bare foot on the beach.)  The boys’ shoes were a cheaper make, but that’s because they generally grow or wear them out within six months.  Ours are still going strong.  All the shoes claimed to be waterproof, but we never really put that to the test, as our walking tended to be over dry ground.  (Clearly, we weren’t in Scotland.)  On our Nepal trek we packed plastic bags for lining the shoes in case we hit snow, but we didn’t.
  2. We also had a pair of ‘sports sandals’.  We used these as every day shoes in hotter places and they are generally comfortable enough for walking over most terrains.  The one down side was that they got rapidly malodorous with even normal levels of sweat, let alone a monsoon downpour.  However, an excellent resource for the home-schooling science curriculum.

Never mind the thing at the back – check the shoes

  1. The boys and I took flip-flops which are handy as inside shoes for countries (like most of Asia) where you remove your outside shoes at the door.  (An exceptionally sensible custom and one we observe here.)  They’re also great for the beach, of course, but only for the car park.  After that they have a pesky habit of spraying sand up the back of your legs which, if you have dutifully slapped on enough sunscreen, (virtually moral law in Australia), will soon look and feel like strips of sandpaper.  Australians call this footwear ‘thongs’, which has no doubt caused great amusement and confusion when they come to the UK, as the word here refers to that most torturous of undergarments designed to slice people lengthways.  It reminds me of the Aussie podiatrist giving training here who advised that patients should come to appointments in normal footwear and not wearing thongs.  The Scots’ couldn’t imagine anyone even thinking about it.  The Nepali and Hindi word for these is ‘chappals’, which of course is the nick-name for junior son who developed a profound attachment to his, especially as cricket dress.

Chappals, flip-flops, thing-thongs?

  1. Instead of flip flops, the Spin Doc took a pair of lime green Crocs because he needs an orthotic which can be neatly glued inside.  An excellent system until his wife leaves them on the train.  Fortunately, we found cheap replicas at a market in Kathmandu and all bought a pair.  They are the perfect second set of shoes for trekking because they are light, you can wear thick socks with them and they keep your feet clean and dry in the ‘bathrooms’.  They also don’t smell.
  2. Three pairs of shoes should have been enough, but I was clinging to hopes of a very occasional night out on the tiles, or a stroll down Melbourne’s stylish streets, or a café table at Cape Town’s waterfront, and the image of me indulging this in either walking boots, reeking ‘sports sandals’ or – heaven forbid – thongs, was too much, even for my fecund imagination.  So, I squeezed in a little pair of navy blue pumps, and once in sunny Australia, bought a pair of strappy sandals, too.  And, ahem, some nail polish.  All bases covered.  (Or, should that be wickets?)

Best of all

Learning to Like Cricket

“So do you love cricket now?” someone asked me shortly after we got back.  That was the whole point, after all, wasn’t it?  (Was it?)  Well, it wasn’t the whole point of the journey, which was more about giving the long-suffering Spin Doc a break after 25 years of medicine, but it was the point of the blog.  Having come to terms with the fact that the three males were going to take a cricket bat with us, come what may, I had decided to turn my dismay into a challenge:  Could I figure this game out?  Could I learn to play?  More difficult still, could I learn to like it?

And so?  What’s the verdict?  Well, let’s see now.  (Cue embarrassed shuffling of feet, diverting of eyes, throat clearing…  Husband laughing.)  I think I’d have to say it’s a slow burn thing.  I can’t say I avidly follow the progress of international cricket.  (Can’t say I follow it at all, actually.)  I still don’t know the names of all the fielding positions or fully understand the rules of the game, and the umpire’s gestures remain a mystery, as does the desire of anyone to follow the fortunes of their team over five long days, but – and here’s a big but – something has definitely shifted.

Breathless Excitement – High Altitude Cricket

There was an undeniable magic about all those impromptu games along the way, when strangers, friends and family joined us to swing a bat at a ball and race madly down the pitch, be it grass, dirt, mud or sand.  I will always remember the lanky young men of Jaipur, the porters at Annapurna base camp, the cart wheeling kids in Cape Town – those moments when differences of language, culture, colour and money dissolved and cricket made us common.  That, certainly, has brought me under its spell.

What’s more, though I’m no better at batting, bowling or fielding, my critique of everyone’s else’s game is vastly improved.  I can now shake my head over the England score and say “Woeful!” like the best of them.

Glorious Ground

But I think the real turning point for me was the India Australia match at Adelaide Oval.  I’ve since learned it is considered one of the most beautiful cricket grounds in the world, and I can see why.  With its old scoreboard, jewel-green pitch and white canopies it captures the elegance and charm of the historic game, but with none of the stuffiness.  Filled with relaxed, friendly Aussies and wildly excited Indians there was little chance of that, to the point that I found the characters and performances in the stands even more entertaining than the game.  Till the end, that was.  Till that moment of surrender at 10pm when I accepted that watching the finish was more important than catching our train.  That moment, when there were just minutes remaining and India were just a handful of runs behind and the Aussies were getting tense and the Indians beside themselves and their captain hit a soaring six high into the crowd and the place erupted.

That moment, I believe, was my conversion.


Home Pitch

We’re back!  In fact, we’ve been back just over a week now, and Scotland has given us her usual warm welcome: cloud, rain, wind, hail, sleet and even snow.  Now, someone remind me, why did we decide to live here instead of Australia?  Ah yes, it’s because when we got married, 18 years ago, the Australian Medical Council was being very prickly about overseas doctors and the Spin Doc would have had to re-sit all his medical exams and still not be guaranteed a job or even registration.  And if they did register him, they would have probably posted him to the desert just to make sure he thoroughly regretted the move, and the marriage, no doubt.  (Oh, and the other reason was that my nomadic family members were forever leaving Australia and living somewhere else, so there wasn’t much point settling there to be near them.)

So here we are, then, in the Highlands of Scotland.  In the rain, as I write.  The things we do for love…  And after the colour and vibrancy of Africa, I have to say that Inverness High Street looks overwhelmingly grey and that’s not just the sky and the stone buildings.  Why do so many people here insist on wearing grey or navy or black?  And why do they have to look so grim?  Where are the smiles, the easy laughter, the warmth?  The expression “dour Scots”  wasn’t coined for nothing.   How many times have I walked into a cafe, or asked a shop assistant for help, and been scowled at like something the cat dragged in?  (OK, it was a bad hair day, but still.)  I know, I know, there are endless exceptions to these gross generalisations – Glaswegians for a start – but even most of my Scottish friends will admit there is a definite chill in the air.

And yet, it is this people and this place that has taken me to its heart with a warmth and loyalty almost unrivalled anywhere.  When we got back last week, there was a “Welcome Home” banner on our door, balloons in the porch and a kitchen full of cards and gifts of food.  Folks have hugged us with tears in their eyes and our boys all but disappeared in the first week racing round with their pals.  Friendships in Scotland go deep and there are many here who have extended boundless hospitality, help and humour to us over the years.  Yes, humour.  Didn’t I just insinuate above that the Scots are a cheerless lot?  Well no, I’ve discovered.  They just look that way.

And I blame the weather.  It’s easy in sunny, warm places to relax and open up in the street.  Folks sit on park benches and front verandas and parks and they can stop and pass the time of day without fear of hypothermia.  The very presence of sunshine lifts the mood and makes people smile.  But if you’ve got horizontal rain, or sleet sliding down your collar, or frostbite, then you’ve got to keep your head down and scuttle inside as soon as possible.  I’m one of the worst offenders, hiding inside the hood of my heavy-duty water/wind/glamour-proof jacket (regulation navy blue) with fingers too numb for hand-shakes and face frozen into an expression of mild despair.  It means pavements and school gates and bus shelters are not great places for kick-starting a social life.  (Except if you’re a teenager.)  What I have learnt, then, is that the place you will find true Scottish welcome and warmth is not on the high street but at the hearth.  Once you’ve broken through the ice and been taken into their homes and the drab coats are dripping in the porch and you are thawing by the fire, then the friendship flows as strong as the whiskey and you will realise you are amongst some of the kindest, funniest and most colourful people on earth.

Ach aye, it’s good to be back.

Not all bad - the view from our door