Dispatches From The North

Tania Kindersley lives in the North East of Scotland with two amiable lab collie crosses and one very grumpy Gloucester Old Spot pig. She co-wrote Backwards In High Heels: The Impossible Art of Being Female, with Sarah Vine.

An island holiday

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Last week, I went on holiday. I went to the island of Colonsay. It was very heaven.

When I was younger, I fancied myself as a bit of an exotic. When I went away, I went to Malacca and Venice and Cochin. I stayed in one of those glorious old black-and-whites in Singapore and drank bloody bulls staring at the Bemelmans mural in the Carlyle. I was hysterically poncy, and I really ought to apologise to anyone who was there.

Stanley herding the sea.Stanley herding the sea.

Now I am a hoary old horse person, dug into the earth. Pretty much every article of clothing I possess has mud on it. I live in bashed-up old boots, and quite often have strands of hay in my hair. (So this season.) I don’t want to fly off any more to glamorous long-haul destinations. I just want to get on a creaky old ferry and see a good Scottish island.

The ferry itself is so hysterically old-school that at one point the ramp refuses to rise, and Stanley the Dog and I watch in interest as an operative in overalls climbs up a rickety step-ladder and starts hitting a random piece of metal with a hammer. It’s the ferry equivalent of kicking the television. Amazingly, it works, and off we rumble. Oban is, as usual, wreathed in rain and low clouds, but two hours out to sea, as the low hills of Colonsay come into sight, a shaft of wild sunshine dances out from the clouds and illuminates the sage green land. Ah, I think, I am back.

Kiloran BayKiloran Bay

I have not been for four years, and it’s like coming home. Everything is exactly the same. The forecast is, as always, dour and dreich. I have brought gumboots and a hat, to ward off the rain. The days when I used to pack bathing suits and sunscreen are in a distant past.

But, amazingly, the next morning the sky is a singing blue and the sun blazes out of a wild sky and the beaches are as gleaming as the Caribbean. All the beauty dials are set to ten. When the Hebrides are like that, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be. I take Stanley to see his first ever glimpse of the sea. He clearly thinks it is a living thing, and attempts to herd it, chasing the waves with faintly baffled determination. I breathe in the strong salt air, those winds that come all the way from Canada, and can sense every atom in my body reviving. I had forgotten about the sea.

Sea and sky as blue as the West IndiesSea and sky as blue as the West Indies

The pace of life slows and settles. My shoulders come down. There is nothing to do but read a book and look at the view and walk on the sand and have a picnic with old and dear friends. I eat langoustine and drink pints of Guinness. Across the sound, the blue hills of Jura wear their customary white hats of discrete cloud.

There are many lovely things about taking a holiday on a Hebridean island. One of the things I love the best is that I have to drive across Scotland to get there. Once you are above the central belt, crossing Scotland is no straightforward matter. There is no direct route. The most modern of technology and advanced of engineering skills cannot counter mountain ranges and long, black lochs. The tiny ribbons of road wind up and down and round the houses. Except, for long stretches, there are no houses. I actually counted the miles: at one stage I drove for thirteen of them without seeing a human habitation, which feels like a miracle in this crowded land mass. The wilderness is so proper that the radio suddenly disappears, with a fizzing phfftt. When you can no longer hear Radio Four, you know that you are out in the lost places. It was just me and the sheep.

Looking across to JuraLooking across to Jura

Now I am back to work, back to normal daily routine, back to rushing about with never enough time. But every so often, I get a little mental snapshot of the wild glory of Kiloran Bay, and the perfect week rushes back to me, and I think how lucky it is that I don’t have to cross oceans to see exotic beauty. One hundred and eighty miles across Scottish mountains, a few leagues of sea, and I am in another world.

A difficult subject

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 07 August 2013
I’ve written here before about the work I do at HorseBack UK. It is an organisation which takes wounded veterans, puts them together with American Quarter Horses in the wide Scottish hills, and builds confidence and hope for a meaningful future. It’s very difficult coming out of the institutional nature of the services into civilian life at the best of times; if there are legs missing, or Post-Traumatic Stress so acute that sleep is a fleeting luxury, it is even harder. HorseBack addresses some of those difficulties.

I’ve been volunteering for them for about eight months. I am used to things which once disconcerted me. I’ve never been good at disability; I even dislike the word, although I cannot think of a better one. I had all that very British embarrassment when faced with a person with bits missing. I always felt as if I were in a Bateman cartoon, constantly on the verge of making a shattering gaffe. It’s a don’t mention the war scenario. Now, I am quite accustomed to talking to men with no legs. I know not to do the pity face; I no longer have the acute uncertainty of where to look.

But occasionally, even though I have grown used to the rhythms of military jargon, the sensibilities of those who have served (the blackest of black humour is a trademark), I get brought up short. This morning I spoke to a gentleman who said, quite matter of factly, as if he were remarking on the weather: ‘I was blown up three times.’ It’s not just that; I work every day with a Royal Marine who was blown up twice in Afghanistan. It’s that the being blown up three times was the least bad thing that had happened.

Not all of the veterans can tell you their story. Some of them still cannot give it words. It’s too hard. Some of them will, though. This particular story was so relentless, so filled with horror, that I did have to remind myself to keep my face still. They don’t want a big reaction. They don’t want open mouths and frowns of shock and wide eyes of outrage. As I hear things which make my very brain stretch and snap in incomprehension, I breathe slowly and stand still, and let the thing unfold. I think, and I am guessing now, that what some of them need is just to be heard, to have a witness.

I use my imagination for a living; it is the muscle I work every day. It’s in pretty good shape. What I am hearing is so far beyond my imagining that it makes my puny neuronal paths look like amateur hour. I keep my voice low and ironic and matter of fact. I nod and let the story come. ‘Sometimes,’ says the gentleman, ‘it is easier to talk to a stranger.’ At least I understand that. I want to say I am sorry, but that is beyond inadequate. I want to say I feel privileged that he chose to tell me all this, but that would sound girlish and stupid.

‘Everyone has a story,’ he says, at last. ‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘But you sort of win the story Olympics.’ I pause. I say, with another dose of low irony: ‘It’s not a very pretty prize.’

The blue Scottish hills

As he tells me all this, we are standing in peaceful woodland, with the blue Scottish hills stretching away to the horizon. Every day, I go out under the benign gaze of these mountains, surrounded by quiet and beauty and the gentle sounds of nature. This morning, as I rode my mare, a buzzard was circling, letting out its mournful cry. The swifts and swallows flew low over the paddock, letting out their own sweet song. Crickets jumped in the grass, the dog found a thrilling stick, the horse let out a low, contented whicker. My daily life is about as far from the dust of Helmand as it can get.

I don’t quite know what to do with this sort of story. But I wanted to record that it was told. The war is not on the front pages any more. There are other more urgent headlines. But the fighting is still going on, its effect is still rippling out, the lives which have been changed by combat are still being put back together. There is that haunting line in the Ode of Remembrance which goes: at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. I think it is important to remember.

A week of festivals

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 31 July 2013
It is festival week in this house. There is the wonderful unfolding of Glorious Goodwood, the most scintillating gathering of top thoroughbred horseflesh since the Royal Meeting at Ascot. Each evening, the storied Galway Festival carrries on its joyful way, a giddy mixture of jumps, hurdles and flat, over one of the most eccentric racecourses found anywhere in Britain and Ireland. Up hill and down dale they go, with only the most balanced horses able to keep their galloping stride. The ongoing festival of the Ashes is about to get into gear again, and even in my own little village there is a party mood, as the green begins to prepare for our annual highland games.

Having a full highland games at the end of the drive is one of the most delightful privileges of living in this place. I can walk down with Stanley the Dog and find the quiet grassy space transformed into a wild medly of pipers, caber-tossers, hill-runners and Scottish dancers. All the clans gather, with their tents, and their quiet, unspoken rivalries: the Gordons eye the Frasers, the Hays stare beadily at the Farquharsons. (The ancient clashes and sackings and castle-burnings are not forgotten, despite the fact that everyone is very polite and smiling on the surface.)

The greatest moments are the two tours of the arena by the local massed pipe bands; when they march past you, you can feel your heart banging in time to the drums. I never thought I would find myself entranced by a hard-stepping phalanx of pipers and drummers, but each year I look forward to it as if it were Christmas morning.

In the middle of all this, I try to do serious work, and keep up with the voluntary job I do for HorseBack UK, just up the road. But even there the festival mood persists, as the dear old Scottish sun shines down and the new foal, almost three weeks old, is so inspired by the thought of Goodwood that she shows off her newly-discovered galloping skills, hurtling round her clover field as if she were practising for the Sussex Stakes.

I wish I could take the whole week off, deck myself in bunting, and become a one-woman festival myself. But I must sharpen my wits and concentrate and stick to my word count. It is quite hard, as the blue skies shimmer invitingly outside, and the best horses in the kingdom roar over the emerald turf in their jewel colours, and, just occasionally, I can hear the faint, distant sound of a lone piper, practising.

An odd snobbism

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 23 July 2013
In my little part of Scotland, there is a quiet pleasure in the arrival of a new prince. Balmoral is not far away; half the shops in the village sport By Royal Appointment crests above their doors. There is a long connection with the royal family in this valley, and an enduring affection. It is not gaudy or flag-waving, but more an acceptance of them as part of the fabric of these hills. The Queen is rumoured to love Scotland as much as she loves her racehorses and her dogs; there is an understanding that this is where a very public set of people can come and be left alone, and the locals take a gentle pride in that. Intrusive journalists and snappers are met with a blank stone wall, as if the very granite of the north-east is used to repel them.

Out on the antic prairies of the internet, the cross voices, as always, are lifted in dissonant song. I see one furious remark, from a disaffected gentleman. ‘Who are these 'well-wishers' who 'throng' outside Buckingham Palace at such a time?’ he writes. ‘Do they really exist? Why?’

I remember this exact thing from before the royal wedding. There is a certain kind of curmudgeon who finds it all too much. I remember too a roving reporter going into the happy crowds who had camped in the Mall, and finding a little boy, all decked out in his red white and blue. The small fellow was about eight, and he expressed his excitement and joy in clear, wondering sentences. He was unaffectedly entranced by the whole thing: the great event, the collective goodwill, the sense of occasion. The reporter went on to find jolly ladies who had set up tents and were making jokes about getting out the gin. It was all very British, slightly eccentric, and wholly delightful. How, I remember thinking, can anyone be cynical about this?

Of course, on paper, in strictly rational terms, the monarchy is absurd. Anything involving accidents of birth is. Although, in a sense, all humans have accidents of birth – you are randomly born clever or kind, sanguine or gloomy, tall or short. But still, being born to a palace and a crown is the accident to end all accidents. I was a tremendously bolshie republican in my youth, when I saw the world in clear terms of black and white. Now, I feel pleased and happy, in the same quiet way that the people of this valley do, at the arrival of a new baby I shall never meet.

It was the crowds that changed my mind. As I grew up, and stopped wagging my finger and being so ruthlessly judgemental, I came to see that there is a lot of simple joy in the monarchy. As ceremony followed ceremony through my formative years, I observed the happy throngs who would come out, with their flags and bunting and very British jokes, and think: how can I look down my nose at them? Because that is what a lot of these sneering voices are doing. They are not just attacking an institution, but all the ordinary people who celebrate it. They are mocking that small boy, his eyes dancing with awe.

These ‘well-wishers’, put into disdainful inverted commas, as if they are somehow bogus or misled, are exactly that. They are good-hearted people who wish a young couple and a new life well. They are not idiots or sheep. They come out because they want to express a benign, collective sense of hope and pleasure, and in uncertain economic times, that cannot be a bad thing. It may be very clever and lofty to look down from one’s rational pedestal, but it’s a cheap shot, all the same. It’s a mean-minded snobbism – look at the ordinary people, with their bread and circuses. It’s a self-regarding way of saying that the mocker is above the common herd.

I say: let the bells ring out, the flags fly, the crowds smile. Ordinary, decent Britons are having a fine summer of it: Wimbledon, the Ashes, a royal birth. These are all straightforward pleasures, a way of shaking the dust of gloom and decline off workaday feet. So much of the news is bad; dear old Blighty deserves her moment of rejoicing.

As I write, people are gathered patiently outside the Lindo Wing in the pouring rain, brollies up, banners of congratulation unfurled. Let the cynics curl their superior lips. I know whose side I am on.


Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 17 July 2013
Write without thinking, I tell my students.

I am giving a small writing workshop. I love doing this, and dread it; find it thrilling and draining. It’s oddly hard work, and I have to go and sit very still afterwards, but it is also intensely rewarding, because I watch people gradually let go of their terrors and start to believe in themselves.

Write without thinking sounds idiotic, even impossible. But it can nearly be done. It’s about vanquishing the dark destructive voices, the ones that say you are no good; the ones that stop the fingers moving over the keyboard. Write without thinking is all about getting the stalled mind moving: don’t edit, don’t pause, don’t ponder – just trust your instinct and go.

I got this from the great Dorothea Brande, who wrote possibly the best book on writing of them all. Becoming a Writer was published in 1934 and is still as fresh as ten fields full of daisies. Her idea was that in order to shut off those ghastly, shouty, you’re-no-damn-good voices, to bash through cultural hesitations and imposed politesse, you should roll out of bed each morning and, before you were half awake, write for twenty minutes without stopping. Her contention was that in this way you could tap the gold within. It was a sort of automatic writing, and was supposed to build up the habit of allowing the real creative to rip, without those wagging fingers getting in the way.

I did this faithfully all the way through my twenties, when I wanted only to be a writer and had no idea how to do it. I came out of racing; I knew no poets or playwrights. I could tell you how to muck out a box or clean a double bridle, but I knew nothing of narrative structure. So I bought all the books. How to write, How to be a Writer, How to Write and Get Paid for It, The Art of Fiction, On Writing Well; I still have them now, their dear old heads drooping on the shelf, their spines yellow and cracked from use.

The funny thing is that now I am passing on that accumulated wisdom to my students. I can tell them about writing partly because I have done it for twenty years. I have been round the block. But it turns out it is my special subject because I read all those books, over and over, as the eighties gave way to the nineties, when I was making it up as I went along. There’s some kind of pleasing symmetry in that.

The kind, wise people who walked beside me when I was callow and ignorant now inform a new set of questioners. So I tell my students of Brande, and Anne Lamott (‘bird by bird, buddy; bird by bird’) and William Goldman (‘nobody knows anything’) and Ray Bradbury and Stephen King and William Zinsser. I don’t tell them about Strunk and White, because everyone should read Strunk and White, even if they are just writing a letter, and I don’t like stating the obvious.

They are my old friends, these writing books, my faithful compadres who kept me going when I couldn’t remember how to do it. Stephen King is perhaps the most surprising. I never read his fiction because I’m too much of a wimp for horror, but he wrote one of the best books about how to write I ever found, in the days when I was digging around in bookshops looking for salvation. It is tender and stern and very, very true. And I pass it on, all this accumulated wisdom, which is not really my own, and my students smile and nod and take notes, and one day one of them may write something remarkable.

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