Minus Tide

I’ve been feeling all at sea recently. My head has been all over the place.

Here are some fragments of some thoughts I’ve been wrestling with.

* * *

I miss the truck.

* * *

Since arriving in UK in late July, the kids and I have travelled from the Midlands to London to Plymouth to Cornwall. On Sept 18th, the day of the Scotland’s independence referendum, Ruby and I extended our ‘UK Clockwise’ tour by travelling up to Dundee to see a dear old school friend of mine.

I had been following the media coverage closely before our departure, hoping that the trip would offer some insights unobtainable from down here directly at the other end of the country/ies. Before the 8th September and the first poll to show the Yes camp were ahead, the attention of both the English press and Westminster had been very much focused elsewhere.

Stammygaster: a Northeastern word meaning a shock or an unpleasant surprise. He was fair stammygastered by the news.

On 9th September, panic ensued and all the radio talk was of the impending Scottish calamity and Dave and Ed racing upcountry tomorrow to save the Union instead of doing Prime Minister’s Question Time. The unholy scrimmage precipitated by the unexpected poll had all party leaders united in falling over themselves to woo the Scots, with Gordon Brown the unlikely superhero. Scottish First Minister Alec Salmond said he was so confident their appearance would be counterproductive, he would “happily pay their bus fare up”…

Clanjamfrie: a word used to refer disparagingly to a group of people especially if one considers them a rabble.

Sitting in bed on the morning of 10th September, sipping hot water and lemon and listening to Radio 4, I reflected that when John Major starts sounding statesmanlike and dynamic, you know you’re in trouble on the leadership front.

Wanchancy: is a literary word meaning unfortunate or unlucky.

The Scottish referendum was a wonderful kick up the backside for democracy in these islands; the dynamic nature of the campaign and the way that thousands of previously apathetic voters were galvanized to register reflected the complacency of those in charge. The English have been given a short sharp shock about the dangers of ignoring the needs of diverse teams, and should continue to do so at their peril. Minority groups will only be patronised so long before choosing to kick against the pricks. I can completely understand how for a huge number of Scottish people, the financial risks of splitting from the Union pale into insignificance beside having to continue to endure the dismissive attitude of those in power in Westminster. The diminishing attitude and selective hearing of the English Parliament leads to Scotland being treated at best like a little brother, and at worst like an abused sister.

The language used to discuss the issue on Radio 4 was most revealing. When asked why the Scots should stay in the Union, snobby-sounding Scottish Labour peer Lord Reed referred to the need for a number of “tools in the box” and said it wasn’t about “changing the rules of the club, but who’s in the club”. A Marxist feminist semantics lecturer would have a field day with that lot.

Warmer: An exceptionally annoying or disgusting person. Is she away hame and left you tae finish up? Oh, she’s a warmer, that yin!

On 15th September, a woman in government (whose name I sadly missed) said that the No campaign had made a huge mistake in Scotland, behaving like an unwilling man being sued for divorce: instead of telling his weary partner how much he loves her, he had wasted valuable time telling her how much worse off she’d be financially in the event of a split.

Reflecting on my upbringing here in the UK, I think it’s shocking just how much I don’t know about Scotland. I don’t recall learning anything about it in school apart from how it came to be brought under English power in the era of the Stuarts. I’m lucky enough to have been to Edinburgh, several times, for the Festival, but, until now, had never explored beyond.

If you too are feeling rather ignorant of Scottish culture, allow me to illustrate this rather random blog with some tidbits culled from the Collins Gem Scots Dictionary – ‘The perfect wee guide to the Scots language’ – devoted to explaining ‘Scotticisms’ i.e. words and phrases which Scots think of as standard English without realising that they are just Scottish. For example:

Messages: are everyday shopping especially groceries for a household; to go the messages or do the messages is to do everyday household shopping. I’ll get the messages on my way back from work.

You can see how mixed messages could create problems in an English/Scottish partnership…

There are many Scottish words English speakers use regularly without thinking much about it: clan, laddie, a wee dram. But there are many more obscure ones I think I could find very useful:

Carnaptious: a word meaning grumpy, bad-tempered or irritable. He was a carnaptious auld devil.

After loading the last blog on board the coach about midnight, I saw that the early returns were all going the No vote’s way. I managed to grab a couple of hours’ sleep, and woke up as a damp dawn was struggling to rise over the Borders. There seemed to be an air of deflation emanating from the land, though maybe it was just mist. Dismay was almost palpable.

Dreich: (pronounced dreeCH) dreary or tedious. Wet dismal weather may also be described as dreich. It’s awful dreich this morning.

We arrived in Dundee to find that the fourth biggest city in Scotland had produced the highest margin of Yes voters – even greater than Glasgow’s – but the final tally was against them. The wind-tattered Yes posters hanging off lampposts seemed wistful already.

Wabbit: to be wabbit is to be tired, run down, lacking in energy. I think I’ll have an early night; I’m feeling a bit wabbit.

I felt sorry for the thousands of grassroots agitators who had worked so hard to persuade their countrymen to be brave-hearted enough to believe in themselves. But I felt more grateful to the 55% who had ensured that the rest of us Sassenachs weren’t condemned to a Tory majority for the rest of time.

Broughty Ferry castle

At Broughty Castle, the saltire was still flying

Emma in front of Broughty Castle

Emma in a sunny spell in Broughty Ferry

At the weekend, on a changeable day, my friend Emma took me on a long drive from Broughty Ferry up the coast via the Arbroath cliffs to Stonehaven and then inland, skirting the highlands. I was humbled by the revelation of the land: it was breathtakingly beautiful.

View from the cliffs at Arbroath

View from the cliffs at Arbroath with a gull skimming the horizon

Medieval fortress Dunnottar Castle outside Stonehaven

Medieval fortress Dunnottar Castle outside Stonehaven

The coast of Scotland is very like Cornwall, with picturesque fishing villages, tiny harbours and tearooms. The main difference is that there are far fewer tourists in the Scottish ones. Their stone cottages tend to be grey or brown rather than white, which might suggest dourness but rather gave me a sense of comfortable solidity; an endearing, stocky prettiness.


Stone houses

village of

in the village of Johnshaven

We drove back inland through Banchory, Aboyne and Ballater, past Balmoral to Braemar, (where the Highland games are held) to the Spittal of Glenshee (which is a ski resort in wintertime) to the Kirkton of Glenisla.

Imagine this all covered in snow. Brrrrr.

Imagine this all covered in snow. Brrrrr.

Green and gorgeous

Green and gorgeous

My overwhelming impression was that of Wide and Wild. Although both Scotland and Cornwall are predominantly rural areas, here I felt there was far more space to breathe. The epic emptiness was as cowing as the soaring transept of an ancient cathedral to a small child.

Skirting the highlands

Skirting the highlands

 Laroch: ruins or remains of a small domestic building such as a cottage

Hillsides covered in heather

Hillsides covered in heather


…still purple in places

I loved the heather; I could almost see the Famous Five tumbling down the hills carrying ‘armfuls’ of it back to some cave to sleep on. The landscape was so achingly lovely, being driven through it was like a moving meditation. And it was surprisingly warm. The driest September in the UK since records began in 1910 was a really good time to visit (climate change anyone?). I took way too many jerseys. My friend teased me mercilessly.

My friend also loves to tease the children at her school by reminding them that their national flower is a thistle and their national animal (the unicorn) doesn’t exist!

Q. When is a flower not a flower? A. When it's a thistle

Q. When is a flower not a flower? A. When it’s a thistle. Admittedly these are past their prime

Scottish village names are as delightful as our local Cornish ones of Goonhavern, Ventongimps and Zelah. But it’s going to take a while before we beat Auchtymuchty. Who knew the hamlet boasts such musical luminaries as the Proclaimers and Sir Jimmy Shand?

Back in Broughty Ferry, Ruby was out having fun with my friend’s daughter, getting her hair curled and henna tattoos done. Thanks Evie!

With her new friends, the alumni of the Montifieth Dramatic Society Spencer and Eve

Ruby with her new friends, the alumni of the Montifieth Dramatic Society, Spencer and Eve

Another day, we climbed a Lomond, one of the ‘Paps of Fife’, just south of Dundee. At 1512ft (461m), East Lomond is far from being a Munro, but was quite enough of a stretch for me.

Munro: any of the 282 Scottish mountain peaks over 3000 feet (915m) named after Sir Hugh Thomas Munro who published a list of them in 1891. Munro-bagger is a term for someone who is attempting to climb every one of them. Hillwalkers often use the term derogatorily with the implication that by concentrating solely on the size of the hill, the Munro-bagger is missing the true point of the activity.

I have known my friend since we were 10 and 12 respectively; I feel privileged to have journeyed through life together, sharing our views, even though for most of it we have lived on different continents. It was a joy to be able to take a few days to walk beside her.

Girl meets hill

Girl meets hill

There's nothing like going for a hike with a friend you've known since before you were Ruby's age

View from the Lomond 1: Guess who’s wearing the excessively warm ski-jacket?

View from the Lomond 2

View from the Lomond 2

View from the Lomond 3

View from the Lomond 3



On the way back, we drove past a little castle; it was almost too perfect, like the animated one that precedes a Disney movie, white with fluted turrets which looked like they could house Rapunzel. I was amazed to discover it was someone’s private pad – but too late to take a pic.

Falkland Castle

Falkland Palace, a proper castle, open to the public

In Falkland we passed a statue of Onesiphorous Tyndall-Bruce. I loved the name because it sounds like a cross between Obstreporous and Vociferous, a candidate for the latest Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. ‘Onesiphorous’ actually means ‘bringing profit’ or ‘useful’, although Onesiphorous himself managed to do that only after marrying a very wealthy wife to pay off his debts.

Meanwhile, within 24 hours of The Pledge being published on the front page of all Scottish newspapers, Cameron was reneging on referendum promises with the focus shifting to the ‘West Lothian question’. It is quite incredible how the narcissistic English still manage to make a fundamentally Scottish issue all about them.

Chocolate: In the Glasgow area the phrase ‘If he was chocolate, he’d eat himself’ is used of a person who is conceited or boasting about his achievements.

My time in Dundee was far too brief. I regret being too preoccupied to snatch photos of some spectacular sprays of starlike yellow flowers and ripped ‘No thanks’ posters. But I am incredibly grateful to have been given a glimpse of this beautiful country. Good luck to Scotland, choosing to stick with an unappreciative partner in testing times. May her loyalty be rewarded.

On the 20 hour coach journey back through the rain on Heritage Day, Sept 24th I waited greedily for pics of the 10th eMzantsi Carnival to appear on my Facebook feed, feeling very far from home.

* * *

I miss the truck.

* * *

I’m no Munro-bagger; our Africa Clockwise trek is not about ticking off the countries like hours on the clock, in the shortest time possible. The point is to experience life in each of them, to get a feel for each, to start to understand how African cultures flow into each other around the coast of our continent. Right now I feel utterly dislocated, as if someone just picked me up and upended me like a crab; my place and purpose lost, I’m waving my legs in the air helplessly.

So imagine being an orphan who’s just lost their whole family to Ebola and whose relatives won’t take them in for fear of the virus.

Get a grip, Sam.

Before we left for Scotland, Ebola death toll had topped 2500 and the WHO was calling the outbreak “Unparalleled in modern times”.

By the time we got back, 6 days later, it was running at more than 2800 with projections of 20 000 infections by November. Estimates put the number of orphans at 4000 so far.

One day, sitting looking out across the sea in Broughty Ferry, my friend described a minus tide. This lowest of low tides sinks beyond the mean level, exposing all sorts of rocks you don’t normally see. Creatures marooned on them have no choice but to hang on in stasis, in the knowledge that the water will return, eventually, so they can breathe and move again.

Broughty Ferry outlook

Broughty Ferry sea life

Hang on in there

…hanging on in there

Liberia has the highest rate of infection of all countries currently affected by Ebola. Monrovia is now the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak with over 60% of new cases in the capital itself.

* * *

The truck is there.

* * *

Counsellor Sean Pike sends us reassuring emails. Big Reg is safe, under the watchful eye of the security guards in his apartment compound. But even the diplomatic might of the SA Embassy has not been able to find a way for us to cross the closed border into Sierra Leone. So, we are stuck here.

Listening to the wonderful MSF volunteer Cokie van der Velde on Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29245149 I feel so frustrated. If I didn’t have kids I would be back there doing something useful.

Here, we are keeping ourselves occupied. Sampson is in the attic, going through a life’s worth of mementoes collected by his Mum and Dad ahead of a giant jumble sale.

Redd: to redd or redd up a place is to clean or tidy it up. We’ll need to give the front room a good redd up before your mother comes.

On 2nd October I woke to hear that Ebola was finally top of the headlines as a conference was about to open in London between Sierra Leone and Britain to decide on a course of action. This was great news, although the Sierra Leonean president Ernest Bai Koroma had been delayed because the aeroplane sent to pick him up broke down on the runway. Rather a painful metaphor for the progress of international intervention so far.

One of bonuses of home schooling is that you don’t have to stay at home. That day, we took advantage of what could be the last day of summer and headed for Fistral Beach at 8am. We did our lessons in the pizza restaurant overlooking the surf while Sampson got his fix.

Good morning

Good morning!

for all - making the most of the last sunshine

Making the most of the last sunny day

Beautiful Fistral Beach below the Headland Hotel

on beautiful Fistral Beach below the Headland Hotel

a picnic in between lessons

with a picnic in between lessons

Chitterin’ bite: is a snack or sweet eaten directly after a swim to prevent one from catching a cold.

Sampson laughing because his mate Ant is wearing shorts but he's had to put on jeans, a fleece and a hat after coming out the sea

Sampson laughing because his mate Ant is wearing shorts but he’s had to put on jeans, two jerseys and a hat after coming out the sea

I am very proud of Sampsons junior finishing term 3 only one week behind our South African peers, even though they started on July 21st and we started on Sept 1st! We’re cracking on with term 4 straight away so we can reward ourselves with a Halloween half term with our UK mates.

On 3rd October I was sickened when half the lunch time news was devoted to ONE man in Texas who had gone down with Ebola and Americans at the state fair were being interviewed about this ‘terrifying threat’, when projected data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had the best case scenario of 500 000 people in West Africa infected by the new year and 1.4million at worst. I wrote furiously to a friend in Nigeria “Why are the ‘boots on the ground’ discussions still centred on Iraq and Syria and not Liberia and Sierra Leone?”

Cloud over Fistral

Cloud over Fistral

* * *

Minus tide.

* * *

On 7th October it was revealed a Spanish nurse had become infected due to a ‘breach in protocol’.

Sampson phoned his UN contact in Robertsport for an update. She told him the sick woman he saw being carried down the road by members of her family in August has survived Ebola.

Her husband and her daughter died.

On 8th October it was announced that Britain was committing 750 military personnel in Sierra Leone and sending the Royal Navy’s ‘floating hospital’ RFA Argus from Falmouth.

The weather has turned: today there was a proper storm with hail and it’s proper cold – we’ve got the gas fire on every night now. Perhaps the tide is finally turning as well.

* * *

Let’s pray it’s not a tsunami coming.

* * *


Written 8th Oct, before the tidal wave of panic hit the US.



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3 Responses to Minus Tide

  1. spencerjude says:

    I’m always so completely in awe of your use of language and general story telling, you manage to keep things running along but always with this deep thread of care/love/just you being wonderful! I know I don’t always read them all, cos I find them a bit too long and daunting, but I never regret reading them when I do. Sob!xxx

  2. Bon courage, nous pensons a vous. Toutes nos amities. Danielle

  3. john says:

    I see Johnshaven is in Scotland!! Plans on hold difficult to plan forward does the threat of even a temperate English winter encourage a return to SA?

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