Bringing Christmas Into This Old House

 I very seldom post pictures of the inside of this cottage, except for the kitchen, occasionally - and the conservatory, which is where we put the Christmas tree. It's so cold there at night that it hardly sheds a needle.

Today, though, since we've just about finished trimming up - always traditional decorations, some of which we've had for years - I took a photograph of the hallway. Our hall and staircase in this two hundred year old house is bigger than it should be. We've sometimes wondered why it's so palatial in what is, after all, a stone-built terraced cottage. 

It was built back in the very early 1800s, by a retired gardener from Cloncaird Castle, who had been given a piece of land by his employer. Somewhere among the deeds are details of the plot of land and the 'house new built thereon'. He sold it very soon after, so I suppose it was his pension fund. Some of the stones of which it's constructed are huge  - boulders more than stones. You wonder how they lifted them into place. In the sitting room, there's an original lintel, still soot marked, over what was once a vast fireplace - the main fireplace in the house back then but reduced to manageable proportions over the years. 

The wooden floor in the hallway is pitch pine and comes - allegedly - from the deck of a wrecked ship - installed well before we moved here. The beautiful wrought iron balustrade and elegant banister rail are probably Victorian although again they seem rather grand - so this was no ordinary cottage. Previous owners included a sea captain and a doctor, so presumably it became a desirable residence over the years after  the gardener built it. I don't think it was ever a weaver's cottage, although the village was full of them. 

I keep planning to try to find out more about the man who owned the land and built the house but work tends to intervene. I remember that at one point in its history it was sold by 'candle auction' in the pub over the road - the winning bid being the last one placed when the candle went out. 

Not long ago, as he galloped about the house, trying to fix something, a frustrated tradesman exclaimed 'This is a difficult house!'  We know, we know! The thing about old houses - genuinely old houses - is that they really hate being disturbed, even when you're trying to do essential work. And boy, do they let you know about it. 

But we've been here a long time now.  It's a welcoming house. You get the feeling that it always has been. And we love it.  

A Sad Goodbye to a Very Fine Poet

 I was very sad this week to learn of the death of Sheila Templeton. Ours had been one of those friendships where you stay in touch online and meet up only very occasionally - but it was nice to know that she was there.  I've lost a couple of other friends and colleagues this year, and sometimes have to stop and remind myself that they're no longer in this world - but it's still hard to believe. Sheila was such a fine poet, such a wonderful talent. It was always a privilege to hear her read her own brilliant work. And she was an inspirational older woman who simply could not be ignored! 

But since whenever I think about her she's smiling, I have a couple of stories about her that I want to tell here. 

The first was when we found ourselves at the same gig, in a quirky Glasgow tea house (alas no longer with us either) organised by a mutual friend, both reading our work, along with various other writers, most of them Very Young Men. We were allocated ten minutes each, and Sheila and I stuck scrupulously to that, although to be honest, I could have listened to Sheila for hours. All the young men, without exception, mounted the stage with sheaves of paper, and proceeded to read for at least twenty minutes, sometimes even longer. Some way through the evening, Sheila leaned over and whispered in my ear, 'Do you think any of them can count?'

The other tale is even more characteristic of Sheila. Some years ago, we were asked to judge a competition for a writing organisation - she was judging the poetry and I was judging the short stories. There were many entries and it was a big task, but one that Sheila undertook with her usual enthusiasm. We decided that, although we had the final say about our respective tasks, we should each look at the other's entries, and compare notes, just to make sure that we weren't overlooking anything. We spent a long afternoon in a quiet corner of a cafe, going through the entries together, giving each its due. There was some excellent work, but what was both fascinating and reassuring was that - independently - we had reached the same conclusions about the various winners and 'highly commendeds'. 

Cue forward some weeks to the award ceremony. The organisation had kindly given us accommodation in a lovely little inn, not too far away from the venue. Arriving after the event, we had a drink in the bar but soon retired to our respective adjoining rooms. This was a small inn, with a single row of  bedrooms above the main bar and restaurant, with a door to the carpark at the bottom of the stairs.

At about 2am, on a chilly night, somewhere outside Edinburgh, the fire alarm went off.


I threw on shoes and a warm coat, grabbed my handbag, and met Sheila heading for the stairs. We were soon joined by a middle aged man in a dressing gown. We three were the only occupants. The bar and restaurant area were deserted, and the door into the body of the hotel was firmly locked. We stood outside for a while, shivering. The wind whistled around the car park. That was deserted too. There was no smell of smoke, which was probably just as well. 

'Where are we?' yelled the man, above the deafening racket. He explained that he had been attending a business meeting and had been dropped off at the hotel quite late in the evening. Nobody had told him where he was. 

My phone had no signal. Sheila's phone had no signal. Nobody came. The man, wandering about the car park with his dressing gown blowing in the wind, did finally manage to pick up a signal, and dialled 999. All the while, the fire alarm rang on. 

Sheila and I agreed that we were very glad we were together. 

Some minutes later Lothian's Finest appeared. They couldn't get into the body of the hotel either but suggested that we at least take shelter in the little lobby at the foot of the stairs, since it seemed that nothing was actually burning and we were freezing. A little while after that, somebody from the hotel turned up with the key. The brigade checked everything out. There was no fire. Something had tripped off in the kitchen.

Just before we were allowed to go back to our rooms and our sadly disturbed sleep, Sheila nudged me. There we were, two middle aged/elderly females in our nighties and coats. She nodded at the fire chief. 'Would you look at him!' she said. 'I wouldn't mind being rescued by him, Catherine. Would you?'

She was, of course, right. He was as tall and handsome as a firefighter in a movie. At breakfast, we agreed that it had definitely been worth the sleepless night. 

I could say rest in peace, dear Sheila - but after you've had that wee rest, do keep an eye on us. And send us some of your inspiration and your brilliant creativity and your remarkable positivity.