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.

Spring.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Tuesday, 11 March 2014
As world events get very gnarly, and Russia rattles her sabres, the shouting about Scottish independence seems to stop for a moment. The headlines in my little field are all about the changing of the season. Every year, this takes me by surprise.

Crocuses.
We have not had a bitter winter as we did last year, when snow and ice lay on the ground for three weeks at a time. It’s been quite mild, with hardly any of the glittering hoar frosts that usually run through January and only a little snow on the hills. But it has been wet and stormy and we have been hock deep in mud. The thing that wears away at the spirit is the lack of anything growing. At first, in November and December, this stark minimalism can seem quite delightful. The trees look dramatic and sculptural; the single robin stands out like a star actor, because there are hardly any birds around.

But by March, one’s very soul is weary of the nothingness. I suddenly crave green grass and leaves. I stare doggedly at the horses’ paddocks, willing something verdant to begin.

Snowdrops.

The grass is not yet arriving, and the mud still reigns, but, just as I can’t stand it any more, there are growing things. My hellebores are in their pomp, and the brave little winter viburnum is putting on a show. The snowdrops came two weeks ago and are particularly dramatic this year, bigger and bolder than ever before. The first daffodil shoots, which are only just arriving, are starting to poke through the thin turf as if they really mean it. Tiny, delicate, acid-green leaves have come out on my philadelphus. There will not be a leaf on a tree for a long time yet, but if you look closely, you can see the minute buds filling with life.

Viburnum.

Birdsong has returned. I do not realise how silent winter can be until the birds begin to sing again. There is a proper chorus now, so that even the questing lurcher lifts his head to listen. Yesterday, I saw the first pied wagtail of the season. She flew low over the horses’ heads and came to a dramatic landing in the west paddock and preened and flirted about, as if delighted to be back. They go south in the winter, not to Africa like the swallows, but just over the border, perhaps to somewhere charming like Northumberland or the Lake District. The oystercatchers, who take themselves off to the coast, are also back, singing their gaudy songs all night like drunken sailors. They come here to nest and breed each year, and they are the official harbingers of spring. I also saw a perfect gang of black-faced gulls yesterday morning, milling about as if they were at a cocktail party.

It is not quite yet serious spring. But is the promise of spring. And it is like being given a present.

Between perception and reality.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 26 February 2014
On Monday, the Minister for Government Policy came to visit HorseBack UK, the charity for which I work. The whole thing was a great success. As the shouting about Scottish independence grew more raucous, here, in this quiet blue stretch of Deeside, under the benign gaze of the hills, a politician was doing something practical, on the ground.

It was a fascinating reminder of the perception gap. There is the famous old saw that when the public is asked about politicians as a class or government as a whole, it grinds its teeth and tears its hair and rends its shirts, despairing of the whole shower. The very idea of the Whitehall bubble makes people want to throw heavy objects. When they are asked about their own constituency MP, they are often full of praise. She actually got the council to do something about the potholes; he sorted out my benefits muddle. The approval difference in percentage terms, between the individual and the generality, is consistently wide.

With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.With Peopleton Brook, the ex-sprinter who is starting a new life at HorseBack UK.

The Minister, Oliver Letwin, was absolutely charming. He was quick, intelligent and polite. He got the point at once. He asked all the right questions. He was self-deprecating, making jokes at his own expense. It is not only politicians who have a bad reputation; the civil service is not much better. But his civil servant was delightful too: thoughtful, courteous, and clearly blindingly clever. For one morning, it was just two human beings, who happened to stalk the corridors of power, with a bunch of other human beings and some lovely equines, in the Scottish mud. Everyone stomped about in gumboots and looked hopefully at the sky, where the sun was struggling through the clouds.

Those men, I thought, will have to drive away and go back to the battlefield, where they must wrangle with impossible policy decisions and take flak from the papers and the opposition and every single keyboard warrior who has an opinion, which seems to be pretty much everyone, just now.

In the good old Scottish mud.In the good old Scottish mud.

Of course politicians have to take it. It is right that they do. Their decisions affect actual people in the actual world. They sometimes get it catastrophically wrong, and must be held to account. But I sometimes wonder whether the blanket condemnation and the endless tribalism help anything. The kneejerk negativity may not have much utility, and I am all about utility. Whatever the rights or wrongs, it was oddly pleasurable to see someone step off the public stage, out of the general herd, and just be a person. It might sound an odd thing to say, but I think it is often forgotten that politicians are people too. They have families and friends, hopes and dreams, griefs and joys. I admit it might help if they answered the question and did not speak jargon or hide behind weasel words, as some of them do. But they are as real as you and I are.

How standards have slipped.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 19 February 2014
My mother looks at me quizzically. ‘In my day,’ she says gently, ‘we did not ride in gumboots.’

This is what it has come to. The rain is so relentless and the mud so deep that I cannot put on my lovely brown suede riding boots, but have to keep on the old wellies. Luckily, the kind of riding I practice is a sort of Western hybrid and does not require much leg on. But even so. The Derby-winning ancestors of my red mare would be horrified.

What my mother does not mention, but what her beady eye doubtless takes in, is that the grand horse is also covered in mud. The moment the rain stops, the rugs come off, and the mare takes the opportunity to open her own day spa. Often, when I return to the field, she looks as if she has taken some kind of extreme mud bath. The earth is caked so deeply into her coat that even the sternest brushing will not remove it.

She may be scruffy, but she is as happy as a nut. And that is all that really matters.She may be scruffy, but she is as happy as a nut. And that is all that really matters.

Must be good for her skin, I tell myself. Still, this means that on top of her winter furriness, there is now a regular dose of dirt which I can never quite banish. I look at my mother. I remember the days when she would wake us at five in the morning so we could get ready for shows. She was the mistress of the best turned-out. My grey pony was washed using Reckitt’s blue bag, so that he was whiter than white. Vaseline was applied around the eyes, to make the dark skin there shine. Our boots were polished to such a shine that they really were like mirrors. We did win an awful lot of silver cups.

Now, it’s gumboots and a gracious thoroughbred who looks more like a donkey than someone who can trace her bottom line back to the Byerley Turk. I do feel a bit sad for my poor old mum. She must wonder how I can have let her standards slip to such a catastrophical degree.

I take the mare up to see her, once or twice a week. My mother is not very mobile, so she cannot come to us. Instead, we trot up to her front door, and my stepfather comes out and gives the good mare apples, which he carefully cuts up into nice, elegant pieces. He is the only person who is allowed to feed her by hand. The whole thing makes my mum smile, and cheers her up as the horrid osteoporosis gallops through her body. (Eat your calcium, I want to shout at every young female I see.) I think that she forgives me for having a bit of a scruffy horse, and for riding her in a rope halter instead of a double bridle. I explain that I think about horses in a different way now, and imbibe cowboy wisdom rather than dressage rules. The most important thing is that the horse is allowed to be a horse.

All the same, as winter drags on, scuffing its feet on the floor, I do dream of light days, and green grass, and a moment when the red mare loses her teddy bear aspect and her coating of mud, and grows sleek and smart once more.

More on the Scottish question.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Thursday, 13 February 2014
As the argument about independence really gears up, and Scotland is suddenly front-page news, people are still not talking about it in the shop.

What they are talking about is poor, drowned Somerset. This is a rural community. You can see the men who work the land in the Co-op, with their muddy boots and their earth-covered overalls, and the distant look in their eyes that comes from worrying about cows and weather. Perhaps people here may more easily imagine what those fellow farmers in the south are going through, with their stranded herds. This is a place where people know about mud fever and foot rot.

But still, apparently that is not what the village is supposed to be talking about. A fairly well-known Scottish woman was on the radio at the weekend. She was asked about the floods. She said, not quite joking, with an odd, hard note in her voice: ‘Oh, we don’t talk about what is going on in Somerset.’ I think, the moment it came out of her mouth, she realised it was rather a brutal thing to say, so she laughed, to take the sting out of it. The only problem was that it wasn’t very funny.

This time, we have been lucky enough to miss the worst of the weather.  Just a little bit of snow and sleet, but nothing to frighten the horses.  Literally and metaphorically.This time, we have been lucky enough to miss the worst of the weather. Just a little bit of snow and sleet, but nothing to frighten the horses. Literally and metaphorically.

It also illustrated the perils of the universal we. This is one of my particular bugbears, especially when people use it to mean all Britons, or all women. Don’t speak for me, I think crossly. In this case, I think the woman was referring to all Scots. Unless my little part of the north-east is a complete freak, she was empirically incorrect. It was such a strange thing to assume, as if everyone in Scotland is so blinkered and parochial that they would remain blind to a natural disaster happening in the same landmass.

There is an ugly strain of this kind of assumption in the independence movement. The die-in-a-ditch crowd seem to be working off the negative, not the positive. It is not so much that they think Scotland so glorious that she must stand alone, it is that they seem willing to do anything to get perfidious Albion off their backs. This then falls into the inaccurate cliché of bitter Scots, with their long memories, and their refusal to forget Butcher Cumberland. Then the English themselves get chippy, and start banging on about how dour Andy Murray is. And the two old neighbours get very cross and scratchy and nobody can say anything right and the whole thing falls into a mess of resentment and misunderstanding.

It may be that during sporting events many Scots feel very Scottish indeed, but in testing times, many of them can also feel British. I have English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish blood, in true mongrel fashion, and I feel connected to all those places. The kind lady in the shop shakes her head sorrowfully, as we talk of the rising tides and devastating storms in the West Country. ‘Those poor, poor people,’ she says. I have absolutely no proof for it, but I like to think that she is more representative than the cross person on the radio.

Searching for Scottishness.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 05 February 2014
Over breakfast, my mother and stepfather and I speak of Scottish independence. Although it is whipped up into the stormiest of storms in the newspapers and on the radio, it is not something that people round here talk of much, in regular conversation. If it does come up, people tend to state their position and then change the subject. The auld wifies are not discussing it in the village; the farmers do not seem to be pondering it as they check their livestock for foot rot. Yet it hums away in the background, like a discordant orchestra tuning up. Those who are for independence hold steady at around a third of the population. Of that third, I should say there is a small minority willing to die in a ditch, whilst the rest wish for the thing in a gentler, more philosophical way. (I have absolutely no data for this; it is merely an impression.)

Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.

What interests me in all of this is the very nature of Scottishness. The morning discussion got me thinking about what Scotland is, and how it differs from England. There is no doubt that Scotland is another country. When I first came to live here, after almost twenty years in London, I felt it was very foreign indeed. I did not know Scotland well; my part of the Celtic fringe was Ireland, where my father grew up. I knew the winding west coast of Connemara; I had heard the songs of the hunger; I could recite much of Yeats by heart; I knew every play O’Casey had written. It was not just the place but the culture that was stitched into me. Scotland was other. We had never gone there on childhood holidays; we had only one set of distant relatives way out in the Hebrides, whom we never quite got to see.

Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.

So Scotland was all new to me, and different and surprising in ways I find hard to put into words. And that is the thing: hardly anyone seems able to put it into words. My stepfather says he watched a programme last night about what it is to be Scottish, and despite vox-popping until their ears fell off, the poor producers could not find a single Scot who could tell them.

I wonder if it is because, for such a tiny country, it has an amazingly various character and culture. Here, in the north-east, there is a flintiness which is easy to mistake for rudeness. People here think that saying please and thank you is absurdly gushy. They actually have very proper manners, but there is a restraint, especially with words, which can feel excessively brusque until you get used to it. The cliché-merchants would call it dourness, but it is much more nuanced and subtle than that. The people here are like the land from which they and their ancestors spring: they have a streak of metaphorical granite in them. They also have a very particular and vivid dialect called the Doric, which is liltingly beautiful, completely incomprehensible to an untuned ear, and so alive that the local schoolchildren put on entire plays in it.

The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.

This strong and delineated character is completely different from something you would find on the west coast. When you drive from east to west, you can almost feel yourself crossing some kind of international date line, where the entire complexion of the country changes. That’s before one has even started on the islands. The people of North Uist are not like the people of the central belt. And once you get to the far northern reaches, you are in another country again: Orkney and Shetland are like little realms of their own, absolutely other and of themselves.

In a way, because of this variousness, Scottishness cannot mean any easily identifiable thing. Scotland herself is a very different lady from England. She is wilder, emptier, lonelier, more savage, more ragingly beautiful. (That last is a subjective opinion, and I do occasionally miss the boskiness of an English hedgerow, or the glorious Norman church spires, which do not exist up here. But for sheer aesthetics, the untouched glacial valleys and deep lochs are hard to beat.) There are very few places in England where no engineer could build a road. There are great swathes of land on my doorstep which cannot be navigated by humans. If you look on the map, they are merely blank spaces. To get to my friends in Glen Clova, so close that I can almost see its peaks, I have to drive an hour and a half, the long way round, because there’s a socking great mountain range in the way.

I feel, in some strange way, closer to the elements here, and more conscious of being surrounded by sea. I feel the sense of history which emanates from the very landscape itself. But can I tell you what it is to be a Scot? No. I cannot even come close.


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