Roses and Writing: Perseverance Pays


I seem to be writing a lot of posts about roses just now, but they really have been spectacular this year here in Scotland! 

About twenty five years ago - perhaps a little more - we had an expedition to beautiful Holker Hall with good friends. That's a picture of our respective kids, before they became all grown up - Charlie and Lucy. 

They had got candy canes from the gift shop and were busy sucking away at them to turn them into sharp points, so that they could duel with them, as far as I remember! 

It was at Holker that I first saw how rambling roses could be grown into trees and how beautiful they looked. So the following year, I managed to buy a couple of suitably tall ramblers from David Austin Roses: Paul's Himalayan Musk, and another called Rosa Felipes Kiftsgate. 

It was ambitious, but we do have a handful of quite tall trees in our cottage garden.

Paul's Himalayan Musk took off right away. It was a few years before it was properly established, but look at it now. 

Kiftsgate was different though. It grew a bit, and then seemed to get some kind of fungus. I cut it back and left it alone. It grew again, but not much. And to be honest, I kind of forgot about it. It had been planted in a little shrubbery, with a gorgeous holly tree that grew taller every year. Sometimes I would see a few flowers, and sometimes I would trim back a bit of the resulting growth. Often I would think I should get rid of it, but then I would forget and just leave it to its own devices. The slightly chaotic shrubbery with holly, honeysuckle, spiraea and philadelphus, provides great cover for the smaller birds in summer and winter alike, so we trim it back a little, but otherwise leave it alone.  

Cue forward to this year, which has been a bumper year for roses of all kinds. The Himalayan Musk had flowered and mostly died back by last week, when I was standing beside the holly tree and suddenly noticed that here and there were clutches of rosebuds. Lots and lots and lots of them. 

Quietly and without fuss, Kiftsgate has clambered up and through the bigger branches of the holly tree - and here it is, twenty five years later, flowering beautifully and almost reaching the top of the holly. When I walk down the garden at night, I can smell the gorgeous scent of it. I can see it from my window as I type this.

As with writing, sometimes gardening just takes a little time and patience! 

Swedish Cinnamon Buns, Seeing Family, and More Bureaucratic Fudging


Yesterday, in spite of the heat - it's still warm and sunny in south west Scotland - I baked some Swedish cinnamon buns. They're delicious, and I had to freeze some, otherwise we'd have eaten far too many of them. I'll put the recipe at the end of this post so if you want to, you can skip the small rant that follows and go straight to the recipe! 

I first came across these gorgeous Scandinavian pastries when I worked in Finland for a couple of years, back in the 1970s. Then, I forgot all about them until I started reading crime fiction from Sweden, in which everyone seemed to eat them, which made me want some too, so I had to seek out a recipe from a friend. 

A few months ago, mid pandemic, our son moved to Sweden. Before that, he had been working in Barcelona for a couple of years. We were meant to visit him there, but Covid put a stop to all that. And then, at the request of his company, he moved to Stockholm. He loves the city and he loves his job, so there are no complaints on that score. In fact I'm delighted for him, because if he was unhappy, we'd be doubly unhappy too.

It would be true to say that Brexit has done him no favours, making everything infinitely more complicated than it need be. But at least, working in video game design, he has skills that are very much in demand. 

In the same boat.

However, we haven't seen him for some 18 months now. We are not alone. I could name at least a dozen friends in the same boat. There are people who haven't seen longed-for grandchildren, there are people who have missed weddings and funerals, there are chronically ill people who are desperate for a (vaccinated and tested) visit from a much loved family member living abroad. There are probably millions of us, although nobody knows, because nobody in government, not in Westminster and not in Scotland, seems to care. Nobody seems aware that vast numbers of families have members living elsewhere. In fact it feels like a concept with which most politicians are totally unfamiliar.

We are at the back of a long queue, while the government and the media focus almost exclusively on holidays. 

Earlier this year our son booked - and then cancelled - a trip home on 17th July. He had holidays and was planning to spend a week with us, but it wasn't to be. Partly it was that the flights kept being changed. Mostly it was that he had had only one vaccination by then, he would have had to isolate at home with us, which he would have willingly done for the days of his visit. But nobody, not even our - otherwise extremely helpful and obliging MP - could tell us what the protocol was for getting tested. As a UK citizen coming back here, he would have to register and pay a rather extortionate amount up front for two tests, only one of which he would use, since he would be returning to Sweden within 7 days. Nobody could give us any information about how he would obtain the other test necessary for travelling back to Sweden. (Test centres are only for residents, not UK passport holders.) Or what would happen about the expensive but wasted test, meant to be submitted by post on day eight. 

The Same Vaccinations

Now, he's hoping to come back for a few days in late September, or early October. Taking the bull by the horns, I wrote to the Scottish health secretary, pointing out that even though rules had been relaxed for double vaccinated people returning to the UK, neither Scotland not anywhere else in the UK was prepared to recognise the very same vaccinations, given in the EU. Even though proof of said vaccination would be available. 

What I got from the 'operational management team' was disappointing. It was a standard, vague and faintly admonitory email as though I had asked an unreasonable question, and not one that is exercising many thousands of people in the whole of the UK right now. In fact it didn't really answer my detailed question at all. Basically, it said, we know best, best get back in your box till we tell you what you can do.

It surely shouldn't be beyond the bounds of possibility to respond to a concerned citizen by saying that EU and indeed worldwide vaccinations and tests will be recognised as soon as possible and that tests will also be made available while people are visiting family in Scotland. Most people would be happy to pay for them. We don't expect miracles. We don't expect it to happen tomorrow. Just a response that refrains from sending out a bureaucratic finger-wagging one-size-fits-all exercise, recognises the pressing problem and promises a solution some time soon. 

If, like me, you need something to sweeten your temper, here's the recipe for cinnamon buns

I mix it in my bread-maker and bake it in the oven. I use the measuring cups that came with the bread-maker, which I think are very similar to US cups. but this is a very forgiving recipe so as long as you get the relative proportions right, it should be OK. 


1 cup milk

4 tablespoons melted butter

half a cup of caster sugar

1 tsp salt

2 tsp ground cardamom (I had run out so I pounded a few seeds and used them instead but you can leave this out altogether if you're not keen on cardamom.)

1 beaten egg plus extra for glazing

4 - 5 cups plain flour

1 packet dried yeast


2 tablespoons melted butter

three quarters cup of soft brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon (more if you like) 


I chuck all the pastry ingredients into the bread-maker on the 'dough' setting. This is usually about an hour and a half, but I sometimes give it another half hour or so on the same setting. If you don't have a bread-maker, you can just put the dry ingredients together, add the wet and mix it all in a bowl, kneading it very well in the usual way, and then leaving it in a warm place to rise for an hour or so. It should be very soft, but not sticky. The spices can be variable - you can add more or less according to your taste.

Divide your yeast pastry in half, and roll out one half into a rectangle, brush with plenty of melted butter, and sprinkle with mixed sugar and cinnamon. Then, roll it up, starting on the long side, cut your roll into about seven triangles, pinch each into an ear shape (I'm not very good at this, but they still turn out OK) and put on a well greased baking tray. Do the same thing with the other half. You finish up with about 14 buns and you can put them reasonably close together on the tray. The filling will leak out a bit but this doesn't matter. Leave in a warm place till they start to rise again and then brush with beaten egg.

Bake in a hot oven: 400F or 200C for about 15 minutes, perhaps a little more. My oven is over hot, so I find 175C works better and doesn't over crisp them. Leave them to cool on the tray for a little while before lifting so that any leaked sugar has time to set. Best eaten warm. They don't need butter. Lovely just as they are - especially with a large mug of coffee. 

My Husband's Extraordinary Hand Carved Chess Set - and the insect bite that nearly cost him his life.


My husband, artist Alan Lees, used to be one of Scotland's foremost woodcarvers, making everything from huge outdoor carvings to gorgeous sculptural rocking horses. Then along came serious arthritis, and even more serious mobility problems. He turned his hand to painting in acrylics, which he could do while he was sitting down, and he has had some success with his work in his unique 'outsider art' style. In fact his work has been described as a cross between Lowry and Bruegel.

But that wasn't the only problem. 

Somewhere in the middle of his arthritis treatment, he was in the garden, when he was bitten on the finger by a horsefly, or cleg as they are called in Scotland. At first we thought it was just an insect bite, but within an hour or two, his finger had swollen and he was in excruciating pain. Not only that, but by bed-time he was running a temperature, shivering and shaking. An on-call doctor came out, looked scathingly at his finger and said 'I don't think you're going to die from an insect bite.'

He almost did. 

By the following morning, it was clear that he was very ill indeed. Another doctor arrived and - fortunately - called for an ambulance immediately. That small bite had turned into full blown sepsis. The speed with which all this happened was horrific. 

There followed a nightmare few months. First of all the wound was drained and he was pumped full of antibiotics. By Friday of that week, though, a consultant breezed into the ward and told him he could go home, before breezing out again. I glanced at the finger and thought that it certainly didn't look too good to me. Alan was still in a lot of pain. The junior doctor who came along to do the discharge paperwork also looked at the finger, pursed his lips, looked embarrassed but was clearly much too scared of summoning the consultant from whatever he was doing on a Friday evening. With hindsight, of course, I should have insisted. 

There followed another horrible night of pain and fever. In the morning, I contacted a friend along the road who had trained as a midwife. She came in, took one look at finger and patient and said 'A & E, right now.' You could actually see the infection tracking through his system from the finger. 

Back at the hospital, he was triaged by a hugely competent and sympathetic senior nurse, whisked through almost immediately and again attached to mega antibiotics. 

Mid chess project 

There followed six operations on the offending finger. A very fine surgeon, a specialist in hand surgery, was determined to save it, although even she almost gave up and suggested amputation. The problem was that the cleg had injected something particularly nasty into him. The hospital had to do some kind of culture to find out which antibiotics might work. Eventually, there had to be skin grafts to try to restore the finger that had been practically eaten away by the bug and really didn't want to heal. For a time, there were daily visits to the surgeon's clinic so that the special dressing could be changed and eventually, weeks and weeks later, it began to heal.

The finger is intact, and still works, albeit it's thinner than it was, and less capable. And it responds painfully to anything but the hottest temperatures, so he has to wear a modified glove, covering it most of the time. For a while, he thought he would never carve again. 

But over lockdown, he set up a small workbench at a slight angle, so that he could sit down to carve and work for a few hours each day at smaller, and less stressful items. He mostly worked indoors, until with the warmer weather he could take it outside for a little while. First of all he completed a spectacular high relief carving of the Last Supper. It took many months, but he finished it.

Last Supper, in lime.

Then he designed and made this chess set: the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, focusing on the battle at the gates of Vienna, in which the Polish Winged Hussars played a key role in the defeat of the Ottoman army. 

Six months later, you can see the finished item. 

It is stunningly beautiful, intricate, detailed - amazing. The Ottoman side is carved in American black walnut - a lovely hardwood. Alan  found a piece in his workshop that he had been hoarding for almost 30 years! The Hapsburg side is in lime. 

The board is hand painted, and the reverse of the board is also decorated. 

It's a wonderful piece (or many pieces) of highly original work and although we're a bit reluctant to let it go, if you have a passion for chess and deep pockets, do contact us. One or two people have questioned whether you could play with such intricate pieces - but because it's made of wood, it is actually pretty robust. Nevertheless - I reckon it's as much a precious, one off artwork as an everyday set. 

Inspired by this chess set, and how much he loved making it, I think Alan is going to carve more chess sets in the future but realistically, he can only make one or two in a year, these will be very rare items, and will be priced accordingly. 

If you'd like to see more pictures, and discover more of Alan's work for sale, including the Last Supper carving, you can go to our Etsy store, the 200 Year Old House. 

The Death of Scotland's Greatest Poet, Robert Burns: 21st July 1796


225 years ago, on this day, 21st July, in 1796, Robert Burns died at his home in Dumfries. He had been growing increasingly ill for months. On the advice of his doctors he had spent his last weeks wading out into the chilly waters of the Solway in hopes of a cure. In all likelihood, he was suffering from acute endocarditis. This was a condition which may have been chronic for many years, but which had possibly been triggered into an acute and deadly phase by a severe tooth infection. The sea bathing only hastened the inevitable end. He was terminally ill, desperately worried about his wife and children, and about small debts that any one of his friends would have paid, but that were obviously looming large for him in his weakened state. He was thirty seven years old. 

When I was writing my novel about his wife, Jean Armour: the Jewel, this was one of the hardest passages to tackle. By that time, I felt I knew the poet and his wife very well, and loved them both. I frequently found myself in tears as I tried to describe his final illness. If you would like to read more, you'll find the novel available as an eBook on all platforms, and in paperback, online and in various bookshops. There's lots of useful information on my publisher's website, here

Meanwhile, it seems a good time to post my description of the last days and minutes of the life of Scotland's greatest poet. 

'He sent a flurry of terrible, panic stricken letters: to James, (his father in law) to an unresponsive Frances Dunlop, to Gilbert, to his cousin in Montrose, James Burness, asking for money to pay the haberdasher. He wrote to Mr Thomson in Edinburgh, with the same plea. Both Thomson and Burness readily arranged for money to be forwarded, said later that they had had no idea how ill he really was, but it all came much too late. Although he had been ailing for some time, the slide into acute illness happened so quickly that it seemed to take all of them except those closest to him by surprise. He wrote to Jean, in Dumfries. He said that the sea bathing had eased his pains but he could eat nothing. He told her he was glad that Jessie was beside her, helping her.

He called her his dearest love.
He had to borrow a gig to bring him home ... There was a farmer in Locharwoods, John Clark, who lent him his gig, with a fine gentry horse to pull it, and a man to drive it. He could not have ridden by himself. His landlady ...  had persuaded the farmer that it would be a good thing to do and that he would be remembered afterwards for his kindness to the great poet in his last days.
    Rab could barely step down from the gig when he arrived home. He was all wrapped up in his plaid, although it was high summer. They had to stop at the bottom of the Mill Vennel that was much too steep for the horse. There had been a shower of rain, and the cobbles were slippery. His face was grey from the pain of the journey. He couldn’t stand upright and Jessie, the lass who was helping Jean in the house, had to go out and oxter him in. He was muttering that he was worried about his papers, his poems. He still fretted that he had left indifferent pieces behind and they would be thrust upon the world when he was gone, with all their imperfections still upon them.
    They were shocked by the deterioration in him, but Jean most of all. She gazed at him and thought that her heart would break. He looked skeletal, shook and shivered, and seemed in even more pain than when he had left. They put him to bed, and there he stayed, slipping in and out of sleep, or delirium, or both, it was hard to tell, and whenever he slept, they feared that he would never wake again.
    Once, he came to himself abruptly and said, ‘Don’t let the Awkward Squad fire over me!’ to Jessie’s brother, John Lewars, who was watching at his bedside.
    He meant the Dumfries volunteers, of course, few of them very efficient or soldierly. And John reassured him that they would not, but of course, they did.
    Jean nursed him as best she could, determined to see her man out of the world, if it was God’s will that he should go. But she would not have been able to do it without Jessie’s help. Jean could and did sing to him, quietly, as she had sung to all their children, and her voice seemed to soothe him.
    Very early on the morning of 21st July, she had been dozing in a chair, so far advanced in her pregnancy that she could not comfortably fall asleep. The child was kicking and tumbling inside her, as it did whenever she rested. Jessie had come in with his medicine, and tried to hold the cup to his chapped lips, tried to rouse him a little, but he pushed it away. His face was so thin now that he looked all unlike himself. Even his nose seemed to have become finer, sharper.
    Jean got up, steadying herself on the arm of the chair, and took the cup from Jessie. 
    ‘Rab, my dear, you need to take your medicine. It’ll do you some good, ease the pain, if you can only try to swallow it.’
    She sat on the edge of the bed, stroked his forehead gently, stroked the dark hair, shot through with grey. Suddenly, she had the strangest feeling, as though this was all unreal, as though there might be some magical place where she could turn back time, make it all different, if only she could get to it, if only she could reach it. There, he would be as she had known him at first: her strong, young lover, her husband, her man.
    He woke at the sound of her voice, or perhaps her familiar touch, gazed at her, raised his head and drank a mouthful of the cordial, coughing at the bitter taste of it. He tried to say her name, recognition in his eyes for an instant, reached out his arms to her and then fell back on the bed.
   ‘Oh Jeany,’ said Jessie Lewars. ‘Oh dear Jeany, I think he’s gone.’ 
     She was right.'

Is this the most seductive movie scene of all time?

I've watched a lot of movies over these two wretched pandemic years. In fact I find it extraordinary that I have so many friends who don't watch films. I first noticed it when we were doing mid lockdown quizzes and realised that so many people, when confronted by quotes like 'nobody puts Baby in a corner' and 'Shoot the hostage!' couldn't begin to name the film.

How do you survive without watching Dirty Dancing and Speed at least once a year? 

I love films. Although I'm not keen on graphic gratuitous violence or women in peril or Westerns or old war movies or those films where the director seems intent on making real live actors look like animated characters in a video game. Which narrows my choice a bit. 

So what does this have to do with writing? 

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about my own writing came from another woman, a bookshop owner. 'Catherine,' she said, 'You write female desire so well!' 

It was a remark to treasure, and I have. She didn't mean 'sex scenes'. She meant something else entirely. Hard to define but you know it when you see and feel it, and you know it when you're writing it. Male writers very seldom do it well. Instead, female characters gaze at themselves in the mirror and fondle bits of themselves as they never ever do in real life. But all too often female writers don't even try to investigate this nebulous idea of desire. They find it embarrassing, or are afraid of crossing the line into prurience, so they avoid it altogether. Dot dot dot, as the girls in Mamma Mia said. Or our hero and heroine go to ever more ridiculous and frankly unbelievable lengths to avoid the overwhelming sexual attraction that is staring every reader in the face.  

At the other end of the scale, women and men write erotica which isn't, as it turns out, very erotic at all. Mind you, it sells extremely well, so who am I to argue? But it never quite feels real does it? 

Anyway, to go back to the movies and what we, as writers, may be able to learn from them. (And I'll bet you really want to know about that seductive scene now, don't you?) So many depictions of passion on film make the whole thing look, from a female point of view anyway, profoundly unsexy. A visiting Martian would assume the couple were involved in some unpleasant and painful interaction that had to be got through as quickly as possible. You've only to watch the wonderful, intense, passionate love scene in Desperado between Banderas and Cruz to then notice how dreadful some supposedly sexy movie scenes are by comparison. And I know I said I didn't like violence, but there are exceptions and this film, violent as it is, is one of them, mostly because the sexual chemistry between the two beautiful leads is so enticing. 

Writers, we can learn from movies, how to do it, and how not to do it. Write about it, I mean. What you do in your own time is entirely up to you. 

So here's what is probably, from a female point of view, the most seductive movie scene of all time. I love this film. It's gentle and funny, it's about female friendship and small town life and aspirations and real things. And the guy, this big, good looking guy, loses patience, tells it like it is, climbs aboard his boat and just motors off into the sunset. 

Why is that seductive?

Partly it's that it probably wouldn't have worked with any other actor. It has to be somebody who can play tough and caring and attractive and a wee bit vulnerable, all at the same time. Somebody who looks as though they could be a fisherman, could have that gentle side, could get really fed up of being used. One who is not afraid of the direct, honest, but oddly unthreatening gaze. Watch how he does it. It's truly and very deeply desirable. See for yourself.  

'I don't want to,' he says. Fine bit of acting too. Don't you just love it? Not the endless postponement of fulfilment to be followed by the final unsatisfactory clinch, but the realisation that love and - yes - desire has to mean more than that on both sides. You can take it or leave it, but you have to at least try to engage with that notion. 

Now when you can write that, you'll be onto a winner.