Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Here's post I did for MIE last week... hope you like it!


It’s a well known phenomenon that if America sneezes Britain catches cold. Some things that have infected us from the other side of the water are very welcome; Brad Pitt, ‘Castle’ and Robin Williams. Some not so welcome; spray on cheese, lack of the correct number of vowels in words, MacDonalds.  And the phrase ‘Trick or treat.’
It’s guising!

                                                          Why is this cat so grumpy?

After wandering round a supermarket being bombarded with pumpkins, apples, peanuts all blazing with a  ‘trick or treat’ logo, I felt very nostalgic for dressing up in a sheet, making two holes for the eyes and scaring people.

As a youngster we would dress up in something we had made – not bought. We liked to think we were unrecognizable.  We would go round the doors of neighbours ( with a 'u') and ‘do a turn.’ -  sing a song, tell a joke, do a dance. Wickedpedia says “In Scotland, youths went house-to-house on 31 October with masked, painted or blackened faces, often threatening to do mischief if they were not welcomed.”
This is sounding more like it!


There were some strange goings on. Treacle scones would be dangled from the ceiling on a rope and then covered in lashings of dripping sticky treacle. Some poor sod would then have their hands tied behind their back and then attempt to eat the aforesaid scone, now swinging happily on its rope. And happily smacking them in the face.  If it didn’t- if it  hung still enough to let the poor sod have a nibble, a ‘friend’ would give it a good shove…right in the face of the nibbler, rendering them a treacle face and therefore unrecognisable.
                                              These are sophisticates, using a newspaper as a bib. 

Small children would have to kneel on a chair, backwards (hope you are following this). Under them was a basin of water full with bobbing apples. The child would hold a fork in their teeth and drop it, trying to spear an apple. This is precision forking.
 I believe that bobbing is world wide but we call it 'dookin'.  Kneel down and stick their head in the basin, trapping apple between teeth and basin bottom… dead easy you say. So far so good, they get an apple and might even get the treacle washed off their face.
Not so easy to do while your pals are resting one foot on the back of your head.
I don’t recall ever having a pumpkin. We used to hollow out a turnip… and use the middle for soup. If skint we’d use a big potato. We carried the turnips and their enclosed candle through the streets keeping the ghosts away…. As the candle cast fearful shadows through the holes in the turnip, the scariest thing was the turnip itself. I wonder if there is a word for turnip phobia.
                                                        This is a mangel wurzel. Seemingly.

Wickedpedia says….blah blah by turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces to represent spirits or goblins". These were common in parts of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands in 19th century, known as jack – o’- lanterns.

It also says "particularly appropriate to a night upon which supernatural beings were said to be abroad and could be imitated or warded off by human wanderers". As early as the 18th century, "imitating malignant spirits" led to playing pranks in the Scottish Highlands. Halloween lanterns didn’t spread to England until the 20th century, maybe due to a lack of turnips.

The term Halloween comes of course from the Scots term for All Hallows' Eve, i.e. the evening before All Hallow’s Day. Although the phrase "All Hallows'" is Old English for the mass day of all saints.  Wickedpedia again; ‘It initiates the tridiuum  Hallowmas the time in the  liturgical  year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithful departed believers.”

Or in Glasgow, just dress up in case the ghouls get you.

Wickedpedia goes on to say that it is a Christian festival influenced by the Celtic harvest festivals and their pagan roots. Pagans would mark the end of the harvest season and beginning of the 'darker half' of the year. Spirits could more easily come into our world and were particularly active. They had to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Offerings of food and drink, or portions of the crops, were left for the souls of the dead who were also said to revisit their homes. Places were set at the dinner table or by the fire to welcome them.
It made sense, looking into a long dark winter, the good spirits had to be with you to survive. The nuts, the fruit, the fire, all that they needed to see them through and if the odd dead relative popped in that night for a wee dook of an apple,   even better.
                                                           pagans having fun.
The lighting of bonfires by the ancient Celts was a tradition carried on into Halloween to frighten away witches but we now do that on 5th November to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

I didn’t know the connection between Halloween and the Danse Macabre in continental Europe, France in particular. The danse is the dead of the churchyards rising for one wild, hideous carnival at Hallowe'en.
                                                  Bernt Notke: Surmatants (Totentanz) in St. Nicholas' Church, Tallinn.

Then I read this;-

 “North American almanacs of the late 18th and early 19th century give no indication that Halloween was celebrated there. The Puritans of New England, for example, maintained strong opposition to Halloween, and it was not until the mass Irish and Scottish immigration during the 19th century that it was brought to North America in earnest. Confined to the immigrant communities during the mid-19th century, it was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the 20th century it was being celebrated coast to coast by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds.”

Sounds like a Halloween hoolie to me!

Hope you had a good one and the ghouls didn't get you.


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Grantown on Spey dark deeds!!

Here's a post about my recent trip to the Grantown Crime fest that appeared in MIE this week. The wondrous Bill at the museum  has sent me some great stuff in response to this so he will have his reply next week and reveal all about the gorilla!  You have to read on now don't you...

 Just below Inverness two feet to the right of the middle of nowhere is a place called Grantown on Spey.  I was invited to appear at a inaugural book festival called Dark Deeds, Dark Nights. As Grantown sits in the Cairngorm National Park the drive up was pretty spectacular. The drive down was in the middle of a gale so we only saw the tail lights of the car in front.

Thanks to David Ross for picture

Here is Grantown on Spey in the rush hour....

It’s a marvellous wee place with a great sense of community. The residents know that if they don’t make things happen nothing ever would. Last year I did an event there “at the bookshop” one of the few bookshops mentioned on Tripadvisor.  I seriously thought the audience would consist of me, a dog and some old bloke who had popped in out the rain as the Aviemore bus was late.  I remember walking into the bookshop, which is slightly smaller than my linen cupboard and thinking that with me and the dog in the shop, there would be no room for the guy waiting for the Aviemore bus.
Here is the mighty atom (or Marjory as she was christened)
                                                        What a treasure trove.....


                                                  Look what we found.....

The event however took place in the local hotel where they have a special meet and greet room with comfy chairs, wine and Pringles. That room opens into a small informal lecture theatre with all kinds of fancy gizmos (laptops, laser pointers...stuff !!!). It functions to lecture coach parties of walkers/drinkers/ twitchers about the fantastic wildlife of the area and the local whisky trade… boy does this hotel specialise in whiskies. On the wall is a white board where the hotel residents mark what they have seen that day; wild cats, red squirrel, pine martens, the smaller crested goobly whatsit, the greater crested goobly whatsit.  It is quite amusing to read, a bit like a foot ball result table. Red deer 2 - otters 0. Roe deer 4 -  ospreys 2.
The roe deer /red deer play off could go either way.
There is a stuffed gorilla in the high street- that gets a few mentions on the sightings board as well.
That event was very well attended, sold a load of books and the dog in attendance was a guide dog called Bounty who sighed and broke wind all the way through my reading.
                                         The Grant Arms Hotel. Whiskies galore.

This year the mighty atom, all four feet eight of her, decided to run her small crime festival. Dark Nights.  No wonder she has been nominated for Book Shop Manager Of The Year. Two of the main authors called off at the last minute and one of the stand-ins did a fantastic talk on the highland whisky wars and just listening to that gave me plots for the next three books! And next week's blog! He did his talk in a top hat with a walking cane.

At my big event the blind lady turned up again and told me that Bounty had retired and here is a picture of her replacement.
                    He spent much of our talk lying on his back, wriggling with his legs in the air. 

The mighty atom did well organising a big dinner on the Friday night where the authors had to swap tables.
                                        Micheal, Alex and I, all clean and shiny.

                                                   There was an awful lot of wine....

A workshop with Michael Malone on the Saturday morning, where Aline Templeton and I went along to give moral support in case nobody turned up.  Of course it was crowded and we caused a seating problem. 
                                               Michael preparing for his workshop

In the afternoon, I was on with Alex Gray and Aline again with lots of readings while trying not to be distracted by aforesaid paw pedalling.
In the evening the mighty atom had tried to have all the writers on stage at the same time but physical injury and an oncoming storm reduced us to five. The audience were well oiled by this time, most of them having been to every single event.  I did start off that event by saying that we were happy to be 'buzzed for repetition'. 

The hotel we stayed in was a fairly typical highland hotel trying to do its best in the economic downturn. Fabulous open fires, stag antlers, etc. I always like hotels where you get the sensation of either walking up or down hill  as the floors are so uneven. The breakfast menu was magnificent, just reading it took about an hour and everything liberally dressed with smoked salmon.

                                          The Grant Hotel

I did have an interesting chat with a gentleman who had something to do with the displays in the local museum.  They had tried to mock up a crime scene.  But because everybody was elsewhere there was nobody to open up the museum for the Friday or Saturday of the festival but I believe the four persons at the crime scene were as follows.
1.       A mannequin slapper in a black dress with long blonde hair. He told me this as I stood in front of him looking like a slapper! She had a noose round her neck, an empty bottle of whisky in her hand and an invisible stab wound somewhere.  I said I would move her head to see if she had been strangled or if her neck had been broken.  'Oh,' he said, 'definitely broken. It's not actually her head.' It turns out she had no left arm either.
2.       The scene of crime officer was a child’s dummy in an over large CSI protection suit which gave her the appearance of a crew member of Apollo 13.
3.       Chief investigating officer was a police officer dressed circa (I’m guessing now 1920s, 30s when it was fashion to have long hair and a beard) although I understand that the police officer mannequin doubles as Santa during the Christmas period. Police Scotland had been less than helpful with updating a uniform for him.
4.     The other gentleman present had borrowed the dead person’s left arm to hold his rifle dressed as a gamekeeper circa turn of the century … by that I mean early 1900s as I don’t think Grantown Museum has yet wandered into the 00s!

                                                       Aline, Myself and Michael

But the greatest things about the place are the clean air, the friendly locals and the total lack of mobile phone signal!!  And quiet places like this to read....
Oh, in the end we decided that the lifesize statue of the gorilla in the High Street had something to do with the murder of the slapper in the museum.  After a few drams anything is possible....

Caro   Scotland 01/11/13 

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Greyfriars Bobby

I really enjoyed writing this for the MIE blog spot, so thought you might like to share it.. especially Figbane the wonderdog....

A heinous crime was committed in Edinburgh in the first week of October this year, an assault on one of the world’s most courageous canines. The vile atrocity happened sometime between 1pm on Tuesday and 5pm on Wednesday. The police have appealed for witnesses. The area round the scene of the crime is well covered by CCTV and the police have examined hours of footage in a bid to track down the culprits.

The crime?
Somebody made a dog’s nose shiny. With an abrasive scourer.
Yip, that was on the news on the TV.

The ‘dog’ of course is the most photographed sculpture in Edinburgh, that of Greyfriars Bobby. The ‘nose’ had just been refurbed after being worn down to its underlying shiny brass by tourists rubbing it for good luck. The restoration work was carried out after a campaign on Facebook entitled “Stop People Rubbing Greyfriars Bobby’s Nose, it is not a Tradition”. The facebook campaign caught the ears, eyes and noses of those in high places and a repair was commissioned.

The monument is Edinburgh's smallest listed building. It was originally built as a drinking fountain with an upper bit for humans and a lower fountain for dogs. This had the water supply cut off (as did all Edinburgh's drinking fountains) around 1975 amidst health scares and both basins were filled with concrete.
The statue has a colourful history. It was daubed with yellow paint on General Election night in 1979. It/he was hit by a car in 1984 and then some restoration became critical. It/he is always joining in with the cultural events of the day. 
A plaque on the base reads "A tribute to the affectionate fidelity of Greyfriars Bobby". In 1858, this faithful dog followed the remains of his master to Greyfriars Churchyard and lingered near the spot until his own death in 1872.
A red granite stone was erected on Bobby's grave by The Dog Aid Society of Scotland, and unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester on 13 May 1981. Since around 2000 this has been utilised in a shrine-like manner, with sticks for Bobby to fetch, dog toys, flowers etc.  The monument itself reads: Greyfriars Bobby – Died 14th January 1872 – Aged 16 years – Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.
But how much of that is true? Do we care, the sentiment itself is enough.
Bobby was a Skye Terrier who spent (allegedly) 14 years guarding the grave of his owner, John Gray.  Gray was a night watchman for the city police and died in February 1858.
                                               I think this is what a Skye Terrier should look like.

14 years?  (My dog is 16 years old and a fine and faithful hound. She’d not lie outside on a cold wintery night for anybody. I am kidding myself...she’d be off as soon as anybody offered her a sausage.)

There must be some truth in it though as in 1867, nine years after the owner passed away, the Lord Provost William Chambers paid for Bobby to have a licence as required by law and bought him a new collar, now in the Museum of Edinburgh. A year after the death of the dog, Lady Burdett-Coutts had the statue and fountain erected at the south end of George 4th Bridge.
The wee dog appears in many films and books, often changing breed like some mutant canine, sometimes to a Cairn Terrier, like this
 a Westie.....


 and sometimes in huge disguise as Lassie.
There is a Scottish joke here. When walking with a dog of uncertain pedigree it is often said… ‘Its father was a Cairn and its mother wisnae caring.’

Jan Bondeson wrote a book exploring the theory that the facts are wrong. In 19th-century Europe it was not uncommon to have 'graveyard dogs', or 'cemetery dogs'. These were stray dogs which were fed by visitors and curators to the point the dogs made the graveyards their home. This led to  people coming to believe that the dogs were waiting by a grave, and the result being that the dog was looked after. This is another great example of dogs conditioning human behaviour to their own wily ends – usually a sausage. 
                                 I wonder how many doors could really have this plaque!
                                             I bet that dog was fed everywhere!

Bondeson claims that after an article about Bobby appeared in The Scotsman, visitation rates to the graveyard increased and that was financially lucrative for the local community. I don’t know about then, but the wee dog makes the city a fortune now. Bondeson also believes that in 1867 the original Bobby died and was replaced with a younger dog, and that this explains the longevity of Bobby. They pulled the same trick on Blue Peter with Petra.

The story becomes more believable with reports that folk fed Bobby, a few claimed ownership of him and no doubt he got sausages at more than one door by being wet, bedraggled and generally far too cute. This is now sounding more like dogs I know.
                            This is believed to be 'Bobby'. Who could resist giving him a sausage?

To confuse matters further, there is also more than one John Gray buried in the kirkyard.  Social history has the dog belonging to both of them..
                                                wrong type of dog? wrong grave?

As I have said, the dog and the story just captures the essence of what dogs are in our society. Bastions of faith and loyalty when the rest of the world is chasing a pound or celebrity or a twenty inch waist. Dogs just are.  Bobby appears in many films but my favourite is the oblique reference to Bobby in the 1945 film, The Body Snatcher, where Boris Karloff has a wee wander through an Edinburgh graveyard looking for a tasty corpse to dig up, as you do in a quiet evening. He encounters a brave little dog defending a grave.
Karloff kills it.
By the way, the hunt for the culprits of the shiny nose incident goes on. They’ll be onto Interpol next.
Suppose they could get the dog branch to have a sniff around.....
Caro 25th Oct 2013

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A full moon or something

Yesterday I had a nice little event in Bearsden library. Lovely audience, good questions, great turnout. The preceding few hours were a bit fraught, starting off with the faithful PA who decided for some reason best known to herself to have excruciating toothache and had to be off work so the dentist  could drill her root canal.  She did say that work was preferable to that. But only just.
It must have been a full moon or something, lots of people just doing and saying things that made me think I live in a parallel universe.

Great place to have an event

“Oh I wish my hair was as long as yours.”
“So why not grow it then?”
“It won’t grow that long.”
 “Why not?”
 “I keep getting it cut.”
                                                   Trust me, I'm a doctor...

OK then…. She must have been a friend of Mr “These exercises you gave me don’t work.”
“Did you do them?”
“No. And the painkillers the doc gave me are useless.”
“Are you taking them?”
“Why not?”
“Because they don’t work.”
“So have you tried them before?”
“So how do you know they don’t work?”
 “Because my leg still hurts.”
 “But you are not taking them….”
 The last lady was telling me a story of her outrage when she went into a cafe at five past four to be told that they close at four… as it says on the sign.   She was outraged and staged a sit in, so they gave her a coffee and then proceeded to mop the floor around her and put chairs up on the tables. She stayed there. Feeling uncomfortable but glad that she had made her point. Whatever that point was.

Then I was on the train to Glasgow central… just jumped on in time but the train was going nowhere as the ticket man was telling a blonde that the fare was four pounds twenty.
“But I don’t have it.”
 “So why are you on the train then?”
“Because I need to go to Glasgow”
 “But you need to pay to use the train so you need to give me the money.”
“I’ll pay double next time.”
 “Do you know how often I hear that?”
 “Gonnae give me the money?” she asked the man sitting opposite.
“Have a wee bit of faith,” he said to the ticket man.
“I have plenty of faith, it’s a wee bit of cash I am after!”

                                          I have a dirty hand, I need my handwashing scene now. It's in the contract.

 But then I got home to watch Whitechapel, all flesh eating zombies and cops working in a station where health and safety have never, ever looked at the lecky. And the world suddenly made sense again.

                                          Handsome dude wondering when he last paid the electricity bill


Friday, 20 September 2013

The killer cook book non cooking cook off!

Again, here is a copy of the MIE blog for this week, you can see that we have been busy...

 Here’s a wee question for you. What is a cranachan?
Is it         a) a very small house in a cold and rainy place
                b) a wee fuzzy creature that lives at the bottom of the garden     
                c)  a whisky based dessert


All will become unclear … 

As you may know I edited the killer cookbook  for the Million For a Morgue campaign. I was rather pleased when  I got the programme for the Bloody Scotland Crimefest and saw that as well as my own event, there was the “Killer Cook Book Cook Off’ based on the  TV programme "the Great British Bake Off". There was to be four crime writers cooking live (and it was to be filmed for TV) plus me running around with a mic. The hotel chef was going to do the Paul Hollywood bit ...  (He’s the chef on the TV)
             This is Paul Hollywood, I have no idea what the hotel chef looked like. He was keeping well clear.

What could go wrong?

Well, turns out the hotel changed hands and nobody checked with the new owners that they were OK with isolating the fire alarms for the event. And only told us on the Thursday  evening ( the  event was due on the Sunday ). The hotel cancelled it. With about 70 tickets sold. And only my name was on the tickets.

Mmmmm …

I don’t really know what happened next but the hotel seemed to go in the huff. The organisers tried to cancel the tickets and then that wee bit of Scotty recalcitrance came in ... the one thing you don’t say to me is health and safety …. For a morgue !!!!….

All week I had been doing press interviews and being photographed in my own kitchen (!!!!) saying ‘’ oh we are very much keeping it under wraps re who is appearing etc,” basically talking bull pooh.

So I got to work. I baked 70 flapjacks, had to  buy booze for the two cocktails (not the Grey Goose Vodka, this was supermarket cheapo). Then buy all the ingredients, then  go through the non cooking  recipes and think  about what we would need to make them, then serve them ... and … get them to Stirling. I live in Elderslie ( an hour away by motorway). Then there was the real health and safety issue of keeping food in hotel room for 48 hours … fresh cream… raspberries…..fromage frais ….salmonella etc.

In the end, we left some stuff in the  car boot.  Stuck some stuff in the freezer. Alan ran down the very steep hill to Marks and Spencer four times on the day to buy ‘more stuff’. And back up again laden with ‘couldn’t get that stuff but got the nearest I could get’ stuff. He’s used to running marathons so feel no sympathy. Wee cheapo shops were a great  source of comedy bloody hands, plastic shot glasses, napkins,  cocktail sticks ... and slowly a planned formed. I woke  up in the middle of the  night and told the dog that  we would not be downhearted. We were going to do  "can’t cook, won’t cook" but change it to  "want to cook, not allowed to cook."
Who needs Paul Hollywood when you have criminal minds!
                            Criminal masterminds armed, dangerous, ready to cause liver damage.

 All Sunday we spent chopping and cutting and mixing, the salsa refused to defrost, the flapjacks tray was piled high, the cranachans kept eacaping etc. Five other authors had moments of insanity and because they are scared of me, ( I was wielding a large knife) offered to join in. 'Team bald’ Craig and Gordon (who has guest blogged for MIE) and ‘team blonde’ Alex, Lin and a Californian Scot called Catriona McPherson ( who was then flying out to Bouchercon!)
So ... to set the scene… I walked on behind a table laden with cocktail shakers… this is then what 
happened …

I introduce team bald. They walk in to the tune The Stripper. Gordon is six feet four and was wearing a tall chef’s hat. He was wearing a pink diamante apron. Craig was wearing chef whites covered in fake blood. Well that  is what  we told the police. They both carried their trays aloft and swaggered. Team blonde came in, with a swagger, to the tune of ‘I’m too sexy for my apron...’
                                        Mr Urqhart in action, see collie dog under Pat's arm

By the time I had introduced the girls, the boys were already on the way to making their cocktails. They had the bottles open. I’ve now seen the photos (at the time I was busy) and they are swigging the stuff behind my back, mm... the boys were supposed to be making the Margueritas donated for the book by the anthropologist’s husband.  The anthropologist said later that she was surprised more of the audience didn’t end up in her morgue the way they were slinging the stuff about, forcing the audience to knock back shorts of almost neat tequila. Team blonde were more organised. One was dressing her homemade scones and the table with jam and squirty cream as her team mates went to town with Peter James’ writing martini. As it was made with four quid vodka not his forty quid vodka, it turned out more like nail varnish remover.
The olives went down well though.
Two slaves from the audience walking through the crowds with trays  of Martini, shots of Margueritas, (supercharged), Bloody Mary tomatoes,(more vodka but some vitamin C), 70 flapjacks, and some half frozen salsa that  really did look as if it belonged in the  morgue. Mr “Urquhart” was a haematologist and the other was a nice lady called Pat McCollie (see photo and giggle). I think the collie was donated to a nice wee kid in the audience who asked the only sensible question. Probably as the grownups were all puggled by then. Pat  did a  whip round and we got more than a hundred pounds for the charity as well.
                                                      The green T shirts are crew, muscling in on the event.

Then the boys started on their Ewert Gren’s sandwich donated by new MIE blogger Anders Rosland.  Craig was starting to cut the ham with a whisk. Gordon’s wife had told me he was so hopeless in the kitchen that he couldn’t open a can of beans. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t. Catriona pointed out that the famous McSween haggis people had given her an award for making her own haggis as “there is no good haggis in California”.  Lin was chastising folk in the audience for olive swilling… that might become yet another national sport.
                                                Catriona persuading the audience to nibble some frozen salsa.

We then tried what I think might be a world record for cranachan assembly. I have looked back at the video. I had no idea that so many of the TV crew and the Bloody Scotland PR team had wandered into the event, and got on stage  to lend a hand. Or get in the way. Or steal something  to eat.
We had 50 or 60 glasses on the front of the stage and we then tried to fill them all up with cranachan….to the tune of Benny Hill…… never spilled a drop. I hope you enjoy the unofficial photos.

Later Catriona was hiding in the loo and overheard somebody say the event was the highlight of the festival for her, she had seen Jo Nesbo but thought we were funnier!  Someone came up to me in the car park and said they had never laughed so much in their life- was it all rehearsed…..( wit? ) It was a perfect highlight to a great weekend ... oh there was proper stuff like Lee Child,  Val McDermid, Dr David Wilson and others, but none of them had a supporting cast of cranachan the way we did!
The MIE bloggers have supported the campaign all the way through. Here is a video  link   to a spontaneous interview for the daily record you might  like to see, that  is a very sharp knife in my hand. Can  you tell I’m making it all up as I go along?

Enjoy, Caro 20th September 2013