Diary of a Reluctant Innkeeper

Wood wasp extra 4 September 2011

Some time ago I promised to publish the epic poem written by our friend and near neighbour Graham on the subject of wood wasps. He was inspired by the following cutting from The New York Times, 8 September 1901. The poem follows on underneath.

A female giant wasp has just been captured at Chapelgill,
in Peeblesshire, and is a rather formidable looking insect.
It measures from tip to tip of wing two inches, and from end
of ovipositor to end of antennae, two and a half inches.
The wings are glossy brown and the body black, with two
sets of orange bands round it.

I often heard my Grandpa say
That he could clearly mind the day
When, cycling home to Broughton Place,
He first encountered, face to face,
Beside the bridge at Rachan Mill,

It flew, like lightning, o’er the dyke
And knocked him headlong from his bike,
Then stung him through his moleskin breeks
(The man could not sit down for weeks),
Concluding this malign display
By leaving Grandpa where he lay
And buzzing back up Whitslade Hill:
Such was the WASP of CHAPELGILL.

This was the first recorded sight
Of what was soon to prove a blight –
A veritable scourge indeed –
Throughout the whole of Upper Tweed.
The wasp hid up in Helmend Wood,
From whence, as often as it could,
Like a tornado, it would race
To sting the local populace.
Through village, cottage, manse and farm,
It spread despondence and alarm;
And folk were feared to go outside,
From Peebles to the River Clyde.
The sheep and pigs and cattle too
Endured assaults from out the blue.
The chickens gave up laying eggs –
Dogs couldn’t even lift their legs –
No animal dare turn its back
For fear of a surprise attack.
The wasp, they said, could kill young lambs
And snatch small babies from their prams;
What’s more, the brute would simply not
Stay still enough for to be shot:
It needed superhuman skill

Wild rumours, without base or cause,
Described its terrifying jaws
And mentioned bulging, waspish eyes.
Opinions varied as to size:
Some folk were sure it equalled that
Of a domestic pussy cat
While others stated that the beast
Was half as large again, at least.
One man had definitely seen
That it was iridescent green,
Striped black and yellow round the chest –
Just like a Melrose rugby vest.
It was a female creature, for
It had an ovipositor,
But also, round its bottom bit,
It bore a nasty bit of kit:
A sting, like a pneumatic drill,
Adorned the WASP of CHAPELGILL.

At length the general distress
Found voice within the local press.
An item in the Peebles News
Expressed the most alarmist views
(Reprinted, with the ink still wet,
By London’s own Pall Mall Gazette).
But what provoked a lot of talk,
Was when it made The Times (New York)
And cables flashed from shore to shore
For, to supplant the Boer War,
The people found a newer thrill:

So great was the concern, in fact,
The Government was forced to act,
Which meant it mobilized, of course,
An Expeditionary Force,
Comprising sixty-five police,
Two vets, a Justice of the Peace,
And (folk were very pleased to see)
A troop of Horse Artillery.
(The Navy, with unusual speed,
Despatched a gunboat up the Tweed,
But somehow this did not succeed).
Assisted by the Fire Brigade,
A dose of DDT was sprayed
On every single blessed tree,
In which they thought the wasp might be.
In vain were all these schemes essayed
And useless all the efforts made
To capture, neutralize or kill

At Chapelgill there dwelt a boy,
Called Alexander MacInroy,
And he devised a cunning trap,
Consisting of a leather strap,
A lump of meat, an orange box,
Some string and several heavy rocks.
It worked ! The wasp was taken to
The famous Edinburry Zoo,
Confined in an enormous cage,
And proved the wonder of the age;
For people thought it quite sublime
To view the beast at feeding time.
(Five shillings was the entrance fee:
Half price for children under three).
It took a lot of food to fill

In course of time, the creature died
And, stuffed, it was displayed inside
That treasure trove in Chambers Street.
These days, you’ll have to make discreet
Enquiries in the proper sphere,
To find out if it still is there,
And ask the men who run these things
To pull the necessary strings
(And also it would do no harm
If you could grease the Keeper’s palm)
And maybe then you’ll see this star
Of giant hymenoptera –
A sight to make your blood run chill –

5 April 2010

Urban Culture (previously published in June edition Upper Tweed Community News)

Those lucky enough to live in Upper Tweed are swift to enumerate its traditional rural pleasures. Rivers, hills, and empty roads are the luxuries on our doorstep. To the urban dweller the villages of Broughton and Tweedsmuir can seem impossibly remote. Drivers delivering to the Laurel Bank Tea Room for the first time arrive exhausted as if we were only a mile or two short of Timbuctoo.

Yet we know better. The desirability of the Upper Tweed area is at least partly due to its ready access to Edinburgh. Hip Glasgow is not much further. We may not be in the Border heartland around Melrose, but we are much less isolated.

It is not just the early morning commuters who enjoy our metropolitan connections. Often overlooked is how easy it is to enjoy the many cultural pleasures of the Central Belt from a Borders base. For a large part of my life before moving to Broughton I worked as a music critic, flitting endlessly between the concert halls of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Some years after we got here I found myself the owner of the village tea room and the writing career lapsed in favour of scones, curry, and the responsibilities of the beer cellar.

Now, with children who are no longer children, we find ourselves once again able to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and Scottish Opera, all of them world class cultural institutions performing in halls and theatres that would be the envy of many a nation. The Usher Hall was the acknowledged favourite of Brian McMaster, last but one director of the Edinburgh Festival. He told me that he would happily programme anything there, from solo recitals to huge choral masterworks, and he did. This was even before the recent improvements that have restored the organ to full working order and created much needed new space for audience and performers alike.

I have been going to this hall on and off for thirty years and I always feel fortunate to be there, even if seats now cost rather more than the £1.50 student standby you could get in 1980. This season we have heard Shostakovich’s blistering Leningrad symphony, Brahms’ serene German Requiem, and an exquisitely performed Don Giovanni, better acted than any I have seen despite being only a concert performance.

The prospect of an opera house in Edinburgh was just pie in the sky for most of the 1980s. As journalists we were exasperated by the city’s incapacity but equally struck dumb by the suggestion that a dilapidated bingo hall could be the answer. When the Festival Theatre finally opened in the mid-1990s my infant son Alexander attended the press conference in a papoose and I later went to an astonishing performance of Tristan and Isolde at which I wept copiously. Now, less than an hour after leaving Broughton we can be walking into the great glass foyer to witness opera or ballet from any number of international companies – not least our own Scottish Opera whose recent production of Strauss’ Intermezzo was a joy.

A few hours later, we are on the well-travelled road home. In summer the hills are a crisp silhouette against the darkling sky. I reflect that those leaving Covent Garden for Notting Hill would probably take longer to get home, and wouldn’t have such a good view either.

Two Torridon ascents 27 May 2011

Shortly before Easter we escaped the responsibilities of curry and beer cellar for a short holiday in the Torridon hills. Top of my list for mountain ascents were Beinn Eighe, which I have never climbed, and Slioch, which had defeated us sometime in the 1980s. We approached Beinn Eighe conventionally via the great cleft which separates it from Liathach, then rounded the buttressed end of Sail Mhor to enter Coire Mhic Fhearchair. From there we took a direct route up to the summit Ruadh-stac Mor having been advised to avoid the red gully at the top of the Coire. Bad advice. The ascent was near vertical and became steeper. The rocky gully we expected to take us up the final 100 feet turned out to be a jumble of loose rocks. At one point I stepped clumsily and the entire hillside started moving beneath me. It stopped, but not before my heart had missed a beat. On the top, the wind was brisk. I started eating my sandwich but it was blown to pieces after the first mouthful. There was some snow but nothing to cause anxiety – on a visit to Torridon 20 years ago I had tobogganed down a snow gully on Bein Damh but was unable to stop. From Ruadh-stac Mor we traversed the fine ridge to Spidean Coire nan Clach and thence down to the road by Coire an Laoigh. 7 hours.

 The next day the forecast was good and we headed for Slioch. We knew, as everyone says, that “it’s a long way in”. The walk from Incheril along the Kinlochewe River to Loch Maree and thence to the foot of the mountain is stunning, full of trees, watery reflections, and goats. But you want to climb a mountain and the path seems to go on for ever. The climb itself is not too bad, but it’s a lump of a mountain and the summit rather featureless apart from the splendid views down Loch Maree and over the great wilderness to An Teallach. And the walk back out is mind numbing. 8 hours. “At least you’ve done it now and you won’t have to do it again” said a friend the next day. Two days later we returned home to find some old climbing notes from 1987. The day before the toboganning incident we had in fact climbed Slioch – in  snow. 

Tigh an Eilean in Shieldaig remains a lovely place to stay, even if dinner is preceded by a “tasse” of soup which is in turn preceded by various arty nibbles. Not really necessary when you have fresh langoustines on the menu.  

Locus Iste 22 March 2011

 Locus Iste is probably the shortest piece of music written by Bruckner and deservedly one of the most popular. It has always been a pleasure to sing but it was a real treat to hear a lovely performance by the Scottish Chamber Choir in St Giles’ Cathedral the weekend before last. Bruckner’s music is always architectural. As a choral singer I have always thought of Locus Iste in terms of a rather stately procession through an ancient cathedral, but under Roddy Bryce the Scottish Chamber Choir loosened the tempo, softened the beat, and gave the piece a lyric beauty that I would have imagined impossible. It was the first item in an all a capella concert whose principle exhumation was a remarkable mass by Josef Rheinberger, a 19th century composer little known anywhere except perhaps in his native Liechtenstein. His Mass in E flat for double chorus contains much beautiful music – maybe a little in the shadow of Schumann or Brahms – with subtle melodic inflections and scrunchy harmonies. But for a first time listener the most extraordinary aspect was its unpredictability. Romantic choral music tends to follow patterns that have become gradually engraved in our expectations. But Rheinberger obviously went to a different school: here’s a chorale, you might think, or a fugue, but then the music would squirm away in another direction. Not so much as to be alarming, mind you, just gently unsettling.

 Wood Wasps 16 March 2011

At this time of year the quotidian task of wood splitting is bad news for wood wasp  larvae. As the logs crack apart these plump white maggots are revealed beneath the surface of almost every log. It is tempting to describe each one as nestling within its own wooden sarcophagus, except for the fact that this is a nursery, not a tomb. As the months go by, the larvae slowly burrow out of the wood, until they eventually emerge transformed as a large dozy insect – sometime in May or thereabouts. Here at Chapelgill we see quite a few adult wood wasps during the summer. They are unmistakeable – the Flying Fortress of the wasp kingdom, about two inches long and with what looks like a massive hypodermic sting on the end. You can hear the drone of the approaching wood wasp about a mile away followed by dull thuds as it crashes into furniture or walls wherever it happens to be trapped. They are, of course, harmless. There is no sting. The needle is in fact part drill, part ovipositor: the adult finds a suitable log and drills into it, depositing the eggs about an inch beneath the surface. I have never seen this happen: all you ever witness is an adult wasp panting heavily on the surface of a log. Is this post coital, pre-drilling? Who knows? Nor have I seen the youngsters actually emerge from the nursery: the first we notice are the new hatchlings trapped in our porch where the wood is stacked for burning. Clearly  I don’t have the patience to be a naturalist but it is satisfaction enough to be able to piece together the life of this extraordinary creature from observations at key points in its development. I am still baffled at how the egg laying syringe can penetrate solid timber and how the female manages to accomplish this deep drilling operation without being vulnerable to predation. I have noticed that the drill path is back-filled with a loose sawdust, which presumably guides the exit route of the larva.

Curiously, our house has a historic association with the wood wasp. A sighting in 1901 prompted a short article it the Pall Mall Gazette which was, bizarrely, picked up by the New York Times. It can be found on the internet if you search wisely. A friend recently wrote a splendid poem to commemorate the Giant Wasp of Chapelgill. I hope to make it available on this website in due course.

Brahms 22 February 2011

About a week ago we managed to nip into Edinburgh for a rare performance of Brahms’ Requiem. “Nip” is probably an inappropriate word for a composer so serious and such a thoughtful piece of music. Ein deutsches Requiem is a popular piece but performances are rare because it is tricky, needs a large orchestra and chorus, and an organ. It was well publicised: good to see artistic-looking shots of conductor Donald Runnicles all over bus stops in the capital, as though culture really mattered. For the Edinburgh Festival Chorus this was an opportunity to show that it is not just a three week wonder in August. And for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra it was a high profile event to highlight a small but significant concert presence in Edinburgh.

If this event ticked all the right political boxes, the performance was equally wonderful. I have never before thought of Brahms as a great orchestrator. But Runnicles leavened the texture and showed us that despite his occasionally stodgy reputation Brahms had a mastery of sonic architecture to rival Mahler. I would go further and say that Mahler could not have written his great choral 8th symphony without the German Requiem as a pointer along the way. It was possible in this interpretation to see a clear line of descent from Bach, through Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mahler to the 20th century and the Second Viennese school.

 Coming home 7 February 2011

We, of course, think we live at the centre of the universe. But to many of our delivery drivers we are a far flung outpost at the edge of civilization. Their admiration for our surroundings on a fine summer’s day is only equalled by the horror of having to get here in rain, hurricane, or blizzards. I am often amazed they bother. Our three dozen white morning rolls start their day some 50 miles away in the suburbs of Glasgow – think on that as you munch a bacon and egg roll for breakfast. In fact we are not that far from couthy Biggar (6 miles) or douce Peebles (12 miles) but it is the visitor from Edinburgh who really experiences the sensation of travelling into the middle of nowhere. I enjoy the weekly return trip from the cash and carry outside the capital. It doesn’t take that long (I am sure it would take a lot longer to drive from Fulham to Fleet Street) and the views get steadily more and more majestic. There’s Broughton Heights, there’s Coulter Fell, and there, as you breast the rise at Broughtonknowe, is the great whaleback of Broad Law, with its satellite hills and glens laid out before it in incremental shades of grey. At that point, no habitation is visible, and it really seems as though you are entering a kingdom free from human interference. Two minutes later, the spell is broken as I start unloading the haggis.

Rachmaninov 31 January 2011

Into town last weekend for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and a menu of Dukas, Knussen, and Rachmaninov. It was the latter’s second symphony, presumably, that ensured a near sell-out. A week before the only seats available were in the gods – we were lucky to slip into the second row where the sound, by reputation, is superb, if lacking some of the sheer energy that one can experience in the stalls. The ever-charismatic Stephane Deneve did his best to persuade the audience that the Sorcerer’s Apprentice has wrongly been consigned to the children’s cupboard by Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. True, it has dark harmonies and some decidedly unsettling orchestration, but nothing can mitigate the jauntiness of the main tune.

Oliver Knussen’s violin concerto stretched the audience’s patience only slightly. The Usher Hall in Edinburgh on a Friday evening in January is pretty conservative but there was enough recognisable form and melody to make the concerto a fitting prelude to the lushness of Rachmaninov after the interval.

This was a fine performance. During the ravishing 3rd movement clarinet solo I gazed around the audience and saw two thousand faces unified by rapt attention. How extraordinary that music over 100 years old from another country, another culture, and another era, can so easily pierce a modern audience with its beauty. Best of all, however, was the whirlwind second movement, into which Deneve injected an wonderful lightness – part country band, part ethereal dream, and a lavish helping of schmaltz in the middle.

Reopening 21 January 2011

Opening tomorrow! After ten days of quietude, it is nice to think that this time tomorrow the place will once again be humming with electrical energy -- coffee machines, grinders, fridges, cd player, ventilation, freezers, mixers, whizzers, toastie makers, kettles and so forth. We really need our own power station. 

[Dates above are dates of posting on the website]