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Flora’s first day at school

My daughter Flora started school last week and, with the youngest Beatrice starting playgroup at the same time, Jessie (wife) and I have, for the first time in five and a half years, had some time in the house to ourselves.

We had, no we still have, great plans. The possibilities seemed endless when we sat down last week to discuss them.

It was decided I’m going to benefit massively from the peace and quiet. I’m, supposedly, going to be able to think freely and produce some scintillating writing to take my “career” to the next level. I’m not too sure what I’m going to write about at this point, but we’re certain it’ll come.

Jessie created a list of tasks to rival anything since Eurystheus handed Hercules a sheet of papyrus and said, “Get on with it.” She’s going to, or at least planned to: paint the outbuildings, fix the conservatory roof, fix various plumbing problems, sort the ceiling in our shed, paint the decking, paint the wrought iron fence, completely weed the garden, sort the mountain of paperwork that’s built up on the “to-do” shelf in the kitchen… yes, it’s a shelf rather than a pile, various other jobs and, oh yeah, think about getting a job.

Anyway, a week and a half ago, this all seemed highly do-able. 10 days in and we’re not so sure. As it turns out, having two children in education frees up less time than we’d imagined. This, for example is how yesterday panned out:

From 7.30 to 8.30 it was: breakfast, locating and putting on the correct clothing, thinking about a snack for playtime, brushing teeth, finding school bags, shoes and hair clips, arguing about the suitability of wearing plastic necklaces to school, talking about the importance of listening to your teacher and going for last-minute piddles.

Then at 8.30 Jessie took Flora to school. They’re currently cycling down the road with Beatrice on the back of J’s bike. Then, at 9.00, J and B hightailed it back up the road to get home in time to drive B to playgroup, starting at 9.30. After dropping her off, J made it back here for 9.45 to begin her “free time.”

But, before she could do that, we just had to quickly fill out a, “pupil information survey” from Aberdeenshire council….

What is your first language? English. What is your second language? Schoolboy French… Oh right, Flora’s second language. None. What other languages are spoken in the house? Erm. None. After answering these crazy questions for half an hour or so, it was time for me to get back to creating my opus and for Jessie to embark on her projects.

Minutes after sitting down at my desk, the phone rang…

“Hello?”
“I’m calling from a company in your area and we’re doing a survey and I’m just going to ask you a few questions and…”
“Wait, wait, I don’t want to answer a few questions.”
“… and it’ll just take a minute of your time and I’ll just start now…”
“But I said I didn’t want…”
“…  and what kind of property is it that you’re in there?”

At this point I decided if I was going to be spoken to in this silly way, I was going to speak back in a silly way.

“This is a house.”
“Yes but what kind? A detached, terrace, bungalow..?
“It’s a neo-gothic tower house.”
“Right, neo-gothic. And how old are your windows?”
“Funny you should ask, I had them all replaced last week.”
“Right, and how old are your doors?”
“Oh, one is about four weeks and the other is about 250 years.”
“Right, quite old then. Would you consider changing that door?”
“Probably not. It’s proved itself quite durable to this point.”
“Right, would you consider a conservatory?”
“I would consider a conservatory.”
“And where would you put that?”
“Probably out the back. We’ve already got one there but I don’t see why we shouldn’t have another, just for the banter.”
“Right, and can I ask who I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with.”
“Mr Johnstone.”
“Right, thanks Mr Johnstone, bye.”

So, now it was 10.35 and I was feeling a little less like writing War and Peace than when I woke up.

Next, the dog started whinging at the bottom of the stairs. He refuses to empty his bowels in the garden and has to be taken for a walk each day. Jessie volunteered and headed off.

Right, peace at last, it was time to get down to it. The phone rang again…

“Hullo, Could I speak to a Mr Johnstone please?”
“Sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong number. Bye.”

And now, to work… A knock at the door. Oh, an order from ASDA, excellent. With Jessie out I had to take it all in, check the substitutes, sign for it, clean yoghurt off everything in one bag because a pot had burst, put the frozen things in the freezer and the perishable things in the fridge. Right, done. Back to work at 11.00am. At this point I had achieved basically nothing. The phone rang again…

“Is that Mr Johnstone?”
“Wrong number.”

Jessie got back in at 11.15 and began thinking about tasks. 30 minutes later, she had to leave to pick Bea up from playgroup and, an hour later, both girls were back in the house with pandemonium reigning even more determinedly than when they were out.

I had written about 150 words of drivel and Jessie had made one phone call to a plumber who didn’t answer. Is there any limit to the potential of human endeavour?

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There are some things in life that strike irrational fear into the sanest of minds. A best friend of mine is one of the most practical people you’re ever likely to meet. He has a socket-set in the back of his car in case of emergencies for goodness sake. But, put a wasp in his vicinity and he turns into a desperate and panic-stricken lunatic. Once, when we were sitting in a pub garden on the west coast, a curious wasp smelt our lager and homed in. Our pal was up as if we were under shellfire. He put on the most impressive display of arm flapping and swearing ever seen (until the Ukraine coach after their not-given goal against the English last night,) before legging it out of the garden and off up the road.

I’m not overly bothered by wasps – can’t afford to be really as we have at least three nests on, and around, our garage that I just can’t be arsed to do anything about.

I am prone to contracting “the fear,” although this usually follows a particularly heavy bout of drinking and can be treated with a careful dosage of more booze.

Over the last few years my most prominent irrational fear has been the dentist. Until a couple of weeks ago I hadn’t been for over a decade. I’d known for quite some time that I really needed to go – the obvious black holes on a number of my teeth and the searing pain every time I bit into something sweet were tell-tale signs. But, I had built the dentist up to be like something from a horror film. Every time I thought about picking up the phone to make an appointment, an image of a psychotic, white-coated, drill and needle wielding freak, laughing maniacally as he causes me unimaginable pain flashed into my head. I knew this wouldn’t be the case as Jessie (wife) has been going to the dentist every year without any reported cases of sadistic torturing. Also, others I’ve spoken to who’ve taken an extended holiday from receiving regular dental work have told me there’s been nothing too desperate on their return to action. But still, I’ve put it off and put it off.

When Jessie told me she’d taken the children to get a check-up and had booked me in for a preliminary appointment, I responded with nonchalance.

“Oh great, yeah, about time I went really.” But I was a duck on the surface of the pond: calm on the top, legs going like crazy underneath.

I thought about cancelling the appointment and making up some fictitious excuse to tell Jessie before, somehow, failing to make another. But then, I spent a few minutes with a little torch in front of the mirror examining the rotting rows of gravestones in my mouth and decided I had to bite the bullet. Well, actually I’d probably just have to suck gently on the bullet. My teeth weren’t up to biting it.

The preliminary appointment was rather pleasant really. The dentist turned out to be a lovely chap – totally un-psychotic and interesting to talk to. He had a quick glance around my mouth and said some letters and numbers to his assistant. I heard the odd word like “decayed” and “significant cavity” that had be sweating a little, but I managed to keep calm and I’d like to think I played the whole thing pretty cool. I was totally casual as I made three further appointments to come back and have the work done that he had deemed necessary.

It was only when I left the surgery that the reality of this sank in. Three further appointments! And he’d said there would be drills and needles and protective glasses and all sorts… The fear was back.

Yesterday was my first session to have two fillings done on the left side of my mouth – one on the top row, one on the bottom. My appointment was early afternoon so the morning was a total write-off. I sat at my desk researching on the Internet for dental procedures and complications until I’d reduced myself to a state of near paralysis through fear. I’ve never driven as slowly as I did on the way to the surgery. It’s only three miles but I reckon it took me about half an hour, I was overtaken by an old man on a bicycle at one point.

But, there were no major traffic incidents or acts of god to save me and I arrived only a few minutes late.

When I got in there I somehow turned on the, “doesn’t bother me, do your worst,” smokescreen. It’s amazing how good I am at that: Outward denial of any problem when internally the problems are all too obvious.

I had a skiing crash once and suffered a pneumothorax – basically a burst lung. I passed out then came to. I told everyone I was absolutely fine despite the fact I could feel air bubbling around inside my chest. It wasn’t until three days later, after we’d got home, I passed out again on the way to work and was forced to admit there was an issue. It turned out the air was compressing my heart and causing it to go from 80 to 200 beats per minute and back again every few seconds. They thought they were going to have to crack me open but, luckily, decided that if I didn’t move for a few days the air would slowly re-absorb itself into the bloodstream. Anyway, I digress…. The dentist.

So what was it like? It was totally fine of course. I hardly even felt the needle for the local anaesthetic and the drilling was barely noticeable. He was finished before I thought he’d even started and my left-side teeth are now hole free. Yesterday evening I ate some sour snakes I found in my glove compartment – I chewed them extensively on the left side and felt nothing…. Hooray.

So, the moral of the story is: Fear nothing, it’s all in your head. No, wait a minute, that’s not a very good one, how about: Know your enemy. No, maybe: Try everything once. Oh sod it, there’s no moral.

The current state of play

The current state of play

When we moved into this house we inherited a beautiful garden packed with a wonderful array of shrubs, flowers, heathers and firs, all planted in raised beds on a number of different levels. We arrived in early summer when it was a controlled kaleidoscope of colours – no plant too large, nothing overpowering, nothing unsightly. Everything grew beautifully and we enjoyed many evenings sitting outside with a glass of wine simply admiring it.

The first thing we killed was a lovely, miniature variegated tree that stood alone, growing through the gravelled area on the mid-level. It looked like something you’d find in a Japanese ornamental garden.

Well, I guess we pruned it too heavily and, when I used weedkiller to get rid of the grass that had begun to poke through the gravel, some must have got into the poor thing’s roots. It went rather anaemic then the leaves fell out and never grew back. I pulled it up and threw it on our compost heap.

I must confess, we were always rather half-hearted when it came to tending the garden and, with the arrival of children, the time we were prepared to dedicate to hauling out buttercups became even more limited. Gradually the weeds began to take over. Each year another selection of plants would fail to emerge through the jungle of long grasses, sticky willy and other intrusive species.

It was a little depressing to look back at pictures of how it used to be and, occasionally I’d embark on a frantic mission to win back the borders. But it was always in vain. Two hours of maniacal weeding on a Sunday afternoon, once a month simply wasn’t enough. This garden needed half an hour of attention every day to maintain order.

This past winter, Jessie (wife) made a decision that something needed to be done. She suggested we dug up most of the borders and turned a large portion of this section of the garden into lawn. At the time, I remember looking out nervously from our conservatory window.

“Do you have any idea how much work that would be?” I said.

“Yes, I suppose there will be a bit of digging required,” she replied.

A bit of digging! A bit of bloody digging! Nobody has used a spade so extensively since Hercules had that horrible day at the Augean stables way back when.

Firstly I had to get rid of the gravel that covered all the walkways and gaps between the raised beds. I should point out: this part of our garden is highly inaccessible, difficult even to get a wheelbarrow into and out of. So I began to fill a large bucket with the gravel, take it to a point where the wheelbarrow would reach, fill it then wheel it round to the front of the house where I used it to replace the gravel lost from our drive through years of floods and snows.

This first, supposedly (according to Jessie,) straightforward section of the project was quite hard work. I would estimate some 50 barrow-loads of gravel. At first it was ok as the gravel was easy to scoop up. It became more difficult as I came to the harder to reach corners. Plastic sheets had been laid down under the gravel and these tucked under great rocks bounding the edges of the borders. These had, in turn, become embedded in the earth over the years.

Anyway, you’re starting to get the picture. Suffice to say, I have a very sore back and my golf swing has gone to pot as a result. I’ve broken a spade and two garden forks. I’ve dug up the roots of a pretty sizeable tree; I’ve cut down two smaller trees with an axe; I’ve uncovered a wall and dug down two or three feet to level an area of 10 square metres or so; I’ve dug out two huge rockeries and shifted all the rocks, cut through roots and searched through the earth to save the bulbs – no we didn’t want to lose them did we darling? Perhaps we could build a rockery at the other end of the garden? I’ve done more raking than an Olympic long jump official and twice had to turn over the whole lot, as it’s become a swamp after huge downpours of rain.

Now, at last, it’s pretty much finished and ready to sow grass seed on. It better bloody work.

Where next?

More on life – Click here then scroll down for earlier tales of woe. 

At 1309 metres, Ben Macdui is the second highest mountain in the UK. It’s also only a 40-minute drive from my house. It seems incredible then that, until last week, I’d never climbed it.

My pal David and I had often talked about going up and I’ve walked past while doing the Lairig Ghru. But, in 25 years of living on Deeside, I’ve never bothered to stroll up to the peak.

It’s amazing how the proximity of things often causes them to be overlooked. I’m way too blasé about the attractions and activities in this area. There are hills, castles, lochs and forests here that people will travel miles to see. Yet I (and many other locals) don’t bother. I’m going to try and bother more from now on because we’re pretty spoiled.

They may be stunningly beautiful, but the potential dangers of the Scottish hills are real. These dangers are often talked about but they’re also often scoffed at. I must confess I’ve been a little dismissive in the past. I’ve been up in the high Alps for goodness sake, what’s a little hillock in Scotland?

But it’s not so much the severity of the terrain that’s the problem; it’s the weather. If the mist closes in when you’re high on the mountainside it can be extremely disorientating and it’s all too easy to lose your way. And, with a whole lot of nothing covering 95% of the Scottish Highlands, heading in the wrong direction could mean a walk into the abyss.

Seemingly, it was a lovely day when David and I set off on our bikes from the Linn of Dee car park – warm with broken high cloud and little wind. It was so warm, in fact, that I was able to wear my most ridiculous outdoor outfit – the one I put together for a duathlon I recently competed in over on the west coast. The lower half of this outfit consists of: compression running tights with shorts over the top, white socks and trainers. It looks bloody awful and, if David weren’t such an old friend, he would have been entirely justified in kicking my arse for looking like such a dufus.

Anyway my arse remained un-kicked and we enjoyed a pleasant cycle up to the Bridge of Lui where we dumped the bikes in the heather. At this point I changed my trainers for a pair of hiking boots, yes, still with tights. This made me look like even more of a numptie and when David showed me a picture he’d taken of me posing beside the burn, I was tempted to kick my own arse.

But there was no time for sartorial discussions as we were keen to complete our ascent as quickly as possible. We forged speedily up the first pitch and enjoyed a Mint Aero after 45 minutes or so of climbing.

Progress was good as we headed up the ridge but some cloud looming to the south looked a little ominous. The main path up to the summit from the south side runs out when it hits a large boulder field that basically surrounds the peak. From this point it’s a question of picking your own route and scrambling up. Not a problem, except the cloud rolled in at almost the exact time we reached the boulder/scree field.

We were careful to take compass bearings against the map and were confident we were heading in the right direction. It turned out we were and, without too much fuss, we reached the summit. Unbelievably there was no snow up there. Pretty incredible for mid-March at the top of Scotland’s second highest mountain. It just goes to show what stunning weather we’ve had recently.

Anyway, we enjoyed a relatively chilly lunch, sheltering from the wind behind the summit cairn, before beginning our descent. The mist was pretty thick at this point, visibility down to about 100 metres or so – not uncommon up there, the myth of the Old Grey Man has something to do with seeing your own shadow against the cloud doesn’t it?

We were pretty confident we had set off on the same bearing we had come up on. But, after some minutes of scrabbling over the rock field we had still to recognise any of the landmarks we’d spotted on the way up. A little frantic compass comparing and map studying ensued and we concluded we were on the right track; we must have just narrowly missed the points we’d passed on the way up.

Another five minutes of descending though and we were pretty sure we weren’t on the same bit of hill. We stopped to take stock. It was suddenly rather cold and the wind had picked up. There was a bit of me (probably the bit only covered by a pair of tights and some tennis shorts) that suddenly felt rather exposed.

Then we got lucky, the mist cleared slightly below us and we caught sight of a river and I recognised it. We had come down in slightly too southerly a direction to start with and we were descending a different face to the one we had ascended – we were going down towards the Lairig Ghru. This was fine as I knew there was a path that led along the side of a stream to the valley floor – pretty jammy.

But, it was a salutary lesson about how easy it is to go wrong. What we had forgotten was, at the very final stage of the ascent we had turned more to the west to climb the last couple of hundred metres. We knew we had to descend in a south/south easterly direction but we forgot we had to walk almost directly east for a little way before we did it. Without anything to look at, it was so easy to make the mistake.

Anyway we got down fine and it turned out to be an excellent route because we ended up walking in a nice loop back to where we’d left the bikes. David and I agreed we would have probably done that on purpose had we been able to see, and that nobody needed to know we hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, now I’ve told them so you can add that to the list (just above the tights) of reasons to kick my arse.

Why did I say I'd do this?

I’ve always had way too much confidence in my physical ability. It stems from the fact I was super-fit as a youngster when I was heavily into athletics, swimming and tennis. Ever since I’ve blindly and ignorantly assumed there’s no physical challenge I can’t take on and pull off with more than a little style.

Some years ago we were staying at Jessie (wife’s) parents’ house in Glenfinnan, Lochaber at the time of the annual Glenfinnan Gathering. A friend of ours and a few of his pals were due to meet us on the games field at some point in the mid-afternoon. When making the arrangement he suggested we should compete in the hill race. I laughingly said “yes,” assuming he wasn’t being serious – I’d envisaged an afternoon of watching the strong man events while supping cans of Tennents Lager.

I should have twigged though. He was, after all, a former Scottish under-21 fell-running champion.

On the day of the games I was in relaxed mood through the morning and had totally forgotten my commitment to the hill race. Well, I didn’t think I’d made a commitment actually. I enjoyed a fine lunch: a large venison and cheese burger washed down with a couple of jumbo sized cans of the aforementioned Tennents Lager. The day was panning out nicely. But, just as I drained the contents of can two, our mate bounced into the beer tent wearing only the skimpiest pair of shorts and a running vest. My heart sank.

“Alright guys,” he said. “Fergus, take it you’re ready for this race? Start is in 20 minutes.”

The words that formed in my head were, “Nah, sorry to let you down but I don’t really feel like it today and, besides, I’ve just drunk a litre of beer and consumed half a deer.” The words that actually and inexplicably came out were, “For sure, I’ve just got to go and get my trainers.”

I didn’t have long so I had to jog back to the house to find a pair of trainers and some shorts. By the time I got back I could already feel my lunch swilling dangerously inside me. I barely had two minutes to pull on my shorts and pin a number to my chest before the participants were called to the start line.

Luckily for me the Glenfinnan hill race is a real sprint so I didn’t have to endure the pain for too long. But considerable pain is what I went through to somehow get back to the games field in fourth place (our pal had won by miles, much to the chagrin of the crowd he had beaten the local hero and defending champ.) Initially I received a number of pats on the back for a solid effort in the face of adversity. I felt pretty cool. But then the adrenaline wore off, my stomach went into spasm and I had to go and spend two hours lying down in the Red Cross tent – not so cool.

It turns out I didn’t learn from the experience. A few weeks ago I received an email from my friend Tom – a veteran of numerous endurance events (including an Iron Man) – suggesting we take part in a “winter duathlon” being held near Arisaig.

On paper it looked ok – 8km run followed by 25km bike followed by 5km run. I’ve been running and cycling a bit recently so, without really thinking it over, my fingers began typing…. “Yes, sounds like a good idea, let’s do it….” SEND….. Wait a minute, I’m not going to be very fit compared to Tom…. Wait another minute, Arisaig in mid February?…. Wait a further couple of minutes, 25km on roads and I only have a scabby old mountain bike…. RECALL, RECALL, please RECALL… Too late.

So I was in and, with only a couple of weeks further preparation time, I set to work. Well, I went on a few jogs and out up into the hills on my bike once. Tom also, very kindly, said he would find me a racer for the day.

We travelled over to the West Coast the evening before the race where Tom, and his friend Chris, joined us at Glenfinnan for a last supper. I had promised myself I wouldn’t drink the night before the event and I did fairly well, limiting it to one weak gin and tonic and four glasses of red.

Through the night the wind was howling and hail thrashed against the bedroom window. I lay there for hours contemplating my position and wondering how I could politely withdraw without losing face. I knew deep down though that pulling out was never going to be an option.

The morning dawned with the wind still raging and with squally, wintry showers blowing aggressively up Loch Shiel towards the house. Tom wondered if the biking section would be off – too dangerous in such high cross-winds. I must confess I wasn’t distraught at this prospect as I looked out towards the bike rack on Tom’s car. It suddenly dawned on me that I’d never properly ridden a racing bike before and it did have very thin wheels.

There was no time for doubts though and we struck out for Arisaig into a swift mini-blizzard. Tom kept spirits high by reciting his motto – “Remember guys, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that.

When we got to the registration area and start point, at the Sunnyside Croft just before Traigh Golf Course, (oh how I wished I was going for a quick nine holes,) I actually felt strangely calm. I think it was because I had no idea what I was getting myself in for. I just followed what the other competitors were doing: putting their bikes in racks, pulling up their running tights, going for a little jog etc.

Then we were off. The pace was decidedly steady. I actually found I could keep up with the lead group. No, I should be honest, there were in fact two whippets who darted off ahead, but they were clearly in a different league from the rest of the field so I’ve discounted them mentally.

But I paced along happily and found myself ahead of Tom and Chris after a few km. Something told me they knew something I didn’t. As I began to get closer to the transition area I began thinking – “Hmm. I’m ok, but that’s not the finish I’m approaching, that’s the start of a 25km bike… then I’ll have to run over half this circuit again.” I suddenly realised I was breathing more heavily.

It was on the bike leg I properly struggled. Not just because I had some technical issues – I couldn’t really figure out how the gears worked on a racing bike and I couldn’t comfortably get my feet in the toe clips – but also because of the wind. A long section of the 12.5km loop (that we did twice) was straight into the hurricane blowing down the main Mallaig road. On the uphill section, with 50mph gusts buffeting me head on, I found it hard to even make forward progress. More experienced cyclists (Tom included) whistled past me on a regular basis which I must confess, did little for my morale.

By the time I got back to transition again I’d dropped from fourth to 14th. Jessie was there to give encouragement – “What took you so long?” she asked. “Tom was here ages ago.” Thanks darling, morale levels further diminished.

Setting out to run again was an incredible experience – I’d never tried to run after a hard cycle before and my legs just did not want to do it. They felt like they belonged to someone else and I had to summon all my strength just to put one foot in front of the other.

I think you could describe my final 5km as a “plod.” I had thought I’d try and regain a bit of ground, but with two frozen lumps of meat for legs, it became more about finishing than improving my position.

I made it eventually, and even overtook one chap who seemed to have even heavier and deader legs than me – I hope he’s not still out there. When I crossed the line I had hoped to feel a sense of elation. All I actually felt was, “Where is our car? … “Must sit down,” “Must get warm.” The picture above gives an indication of this.

Through the two hours it took to complete the event, and in the immediate aftermath, I must confess I didn’t glean a huge amount of enjoyment. But, half an hour later, sitting with a pint in the Cnoc na Faire pub, I did experience that much anticipated feeling of elation. The sense of achievement, even in a relatively easy endurance event like this one, is tough to beat.

And there was great camaraderie too. Almost all those who took part headed to the boozer for soup and sarnies and a few pints to compare tales of their battle with the elements.

Yes, I got a lot out of it. But I’m not sure I’ll be rushing to enter another endurance event. Well not until someone asks me to and my strange inner override system accepts, without consulting the rest of my brain and body.

Note: The Winter Feast Duathlon was organised by No Fuss Events – www.nofussevents.co.uk They do a number of nutty events throughout the year: running, mountain biking, river rapid riding.. all sorts. Check them out.

There’s something primal about the Six Nations rugby. There are few sporting events that make the British public’s blood boil to such an extent. When Scotland takes on England at Murrayfield tomorrow, emotions will be sky high. Everyone watching will share the passion of those on the field. Whether in the stadium, the pub or on the sitting room sofa, spectators will scream in anguish, leap up in celebration and maybe even shed tears, whether through joy or heart-wrenching disappointment.

For most of the year I don’t follow the rugby, not at club level anyway. But if I consider the times I’ve felt most emotional about sport, Five and then Six Nations rugby matches feature a disproportionate number of times: pure joy when the Scots completed the Grand Slam in 1990; sheer excitement when Gregor Townsend slipped a pass to Gavin Hastings and the latter scored under the posts in the dying minutes against France in 1995; outright fury when Shane Williams scored for Wales with the last move of the game to beat the Scots in 2010.

So why does the Six Nations trigger such animation?

Owing to its physical nature and trial of strength, no sport seems more like a battle than rugby union. Each time Scotland runs out in the Six Nations it’s like they’re taking the field to defend our country. It’s tribalism that makes us so passionate about these contests. Our country’s pride and honour is at stake and we want to see it inflated rather than burst.

That’s no bad thing is it? It’s great to be patriotic as long as it doesn’t spill over into aggression. And that’s one of the things making the Six Nations such a superb event. Yes, there’ll be animosity between the Scots and the English tomorrow, yes they’ll taunt each other a bit, but there won’t be fighting in the streets… will there?

Tomorrow’s clash between England and Scotland undoubtedly carries increased tension. Relations between the two countries have seldom been so strained in recent memory. I can well understand why the English are fed up with us: The Scots continue to take the very most of what the Union has to offer, enjoying considerable financial advantages over our fellow Brits south of the border. Meanwhile we’re pushing hard to be offered a chance of breaking that Union. We demand to choose our freedom, well not quite yet actually, in a little while… Basically we want to have our cake, eat all our cake and be given a new cake.

The Scots have always been given free rein to express their dislike of the English – the oppressed and subjugated nation tends to get away with a bit of “hard-done-by” rhetoric. It has, for instance, been fine for us to support any other team against England in any sport (apart from cricket – for some reason we support the English at cricket,) and the poor old English have just given a slightly hurt sigh and gotten on with it.

But perhaps they’re not so willing to put up with it anymore. Increasingly there are commentators in the English broadsheets and elsewhere expressing the view that Scotland should be cut loose, left to their own devices, that the Scots need England more than vice-versa. I’m not so sure. Scotland abounds with natural resources and space, the country has a distinct national culture that’s known and loved across the globe, it has some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, in short it has a good deal that the English would be worse off for losing.

What concerns me most would be the instability and uncertainty created by a split, at this time of global economic strife (set to last for the foreseeable future,) it’s not what we need is it? What would happen to the currency? How long would it take to decide the future of the North Sea oil (years?) what about the military? And so on, and so on… The logistics of it are mind-boggling.

I’m not saying I don’t like the idea of independence, my heart emphatically says yes. That’s the same bit of my heart that will be willing the Scots to victory tomorrow at Murrayfield, the bit of my heart that stirs when I hear the Declaration of Arbroath, that breaks a little every time I leave the country and lifts a little every time I return.

If we lose tomorrow, I’ll be temporarily gutted but it won’t be the end of the world. I’ll still be Scottish and proud of it. In fact, whatever happens in the future, whether we remain a part of the UK or not, I’ll be Scottish and proud. At the moment, though, I’d like to keep my hands on that cake while I’m eating.

The proud hunter
Our dog goes by two names. The one we originally gave him was Hector – nothing to do with Richard Briers’ character in “Monarch of the Glen,” even though that would have made sense for a West Highland Terrier. Actually it came form “First of the Gang to Die” by Morrissey: “Hector was the first of the gang with a gun in his hand…” Not so appropriate for a slow, soft and generally useless little ball of white fur, although I suppose he was the first member of our little gang and will (with a bit of luck) be the first to die.

His second name is “Wiggins.” That moniker evolved over the first couple of years of his life. When he was a puppy I came home from the pub one night and stumbled over him in the dark hall. From upstairs Jessie (wife) heard me doing a crude impression of Scoobie Doo. Allegedly I was saying to him, “Hullo Mr Roggie, who’s a good roggie?” So that was apparently quite funny and for a time he was Mr Roggie (said in Scoobie Doo voice,) the silly voice remained but his name later changed to Mr Puppins, then Mr Wiggins then just Wiggins.

Anyway Hector is a love/hate figure in the Bisset household. He provides us with a remarkable amount of entertainment but, despite the fact we’ve had two children since acquiring Hector, he remains by far the most problematic family member.

Let’s start with his physical failings. Even for a Westie he’s pretty tiny. We still laugh at the memory of the vet’s reaction when we took him in to get some jabs, aged two or three. He looked at Hector as if he’d been presented with a new species and said, “My goodness, this terrier is abnormally small.”

He has rubbishy short legs and can’t even run as fast as me. He can’t jump up into the boot of the car and can’t go out in snow more than four inches deep. If confronted by either he just sits looking helpless until someone picks him up. He’s scared of spiders and when we had a problem with mice a couple of winters ago, we’re pretty sure he just used to lie in bed watching them running around the kitchen. His ancestors were ratters on the Spanish Armada for god’s sake!

We wonder if he’s a dog at all. I once found an animal in an old encyclopedia that I thought fitted the bill more accurately – Nyctereutes procyonoides or Raccoon Dog. The description of it said something like: A squat, extremely furry animal that lives in abandoned burrows and hibernates for long periods. Owing to its unusually short legs, even the smallest amount of snow can cause it problems. Yup, that’s him. I can just imagine Hector in the wild. “Oh no, where am I going to live? Ah, here’s a nice hole someone has kindly dug for me. I’ll just go to sleep in here.”

Then there are his psychological issues. Possibly the most annoying thing about Wiggins is his flat refusal to empty his bowels unless he’s more than a quarter mile away from our house. It’s actually pretty shrewd of him as it means we have to take him for a relatively long walk at least once a day. And you can’t break him on this one. We had our garden completely fenced in thinking we’d be able to let him out to do his business when we couldn’t be bothered to walk him. But no, Hector just roams around outside barking incessantly at passing cars, falling leaves and bumblebees.

Even if he’s desperate to go, he won’t cave in. He’ll start howling in discomfort, scratching at the back door expectantly and won’t stop until you’ve put him on his lead and walked him a suitable distance from the front door.

Like most dogs he doesn’t like loud, high or unexpected noises. So, he’s terrified of the hoover, he loses the plot if you blow up a balloon and he has a strange aversion to the owl noises I make for the girls by cupping my hands and blowing into the cavity. But, the noise that distresses him most is a crying baby. I don’t think it’s because he’s compassionate, it’s just because it’s shrill and irritating. So this has been a problem for the last few years with two babies in our house.

Hector’s reaction to hearing a baby crying during the night is to pee wherever he’s lying. As he’s quite naughty and tends not to stay in his designated bed all night, in the past he’s peed on pretty much every item of soft furniture in our house.

To prevent this we now have an infuriating routine to go through every evening: We lift stools, baskets and occasional tables onto the sofas and chairs to prevent him lying/urinating on them. We let him out just before we go to bed but it’s a token gesture. Each night we watch him wander around for a few minutes, resolutely refusing to cock a leg and barking every third step until we call him back in.

Despite the fact he couldn’t catch a cold, Hector does consider himself a hunter. The problem is, he’s delusional about his potential. Although he doesn’t fancy his chances against a mouse or sizeable spider, he’s confident he could take a large stag, a horse or a bull – he’s chased all three in the past and, with the last two, was very lucky not to be kicked in the head.

A couple of years ago we were walking through the woods when an impressive looking fox crossed the path ahead of us. Hector gave chase (very slowly) and disappeared into the trees. We called him and searched for ages but couldn’t find him and eventually had to head home. We were thinking if the fox bothered to look round and saw the hapless looking critter chasing him it would have been all over for Wiggins. But a few hours later Hector came trotting back up to the back door, scratched to come in and walked past us to his bed as if nothing had happened.

He’s currently sitting on the step outside the French doors in my office. He’s making an incredibly irritating whining noise and rubbing his little wet nose on the glass, there’s an awful streaky mess at roughly mid-shin height. I guess I better go walk him.