Our Edinburgh Fringe Weekend

As usual our Edinburgh Fringe weekend started with breakfast at London Kings Cross Station. We’d heard about a new fast food joint in the refurbished station called Kiosk and the idea of a breakfast roll made with Gloucester Old Spots bacon, Portobello mushroom, Cumberland sausage and black pudding (£5.75) to kick off a weekend of comedy, beer and decadent grub in our favourite European city  sounded too good to miss. As it happens it was pretty good, but next time I have one I will ask for it without the grilled tomato, since it makes the bread soggy and eventually fall apart.

It didn’t come as any surprise to discover that our train was delayed arriving because of ongoing engineering works over the weekend, but to give East Coast trains credit, they suspended the normal irrelevant ticket checks and just opened the automatic barriers so when it arrived at 10.20 the passengers were disembarked and we were in our reserved seats and off by 10.29. I suspect that in the twisted world of lies and privatised railway statistics this meant that our departure fell inside the window of being close enough to the advertised schedule to count as not being late.

Aside from an obnoxious stag party who boarded the train at Doncaster and got off at Newcastle it was a fairly unremarkable journey. People often remark about how as you get older time seems to fly past ever quicker, but the hour and half we spent in the company of those idiots ably demonstrated to me how to drag time out to the extent that immortality could come within humanity’s grasp.

Somehow East Coast managed to make up the time lost on the journey and we got into Edinburgh early. Amazingly when we got to Dr Caligari’s Travelprison

they let us book in early and we didn’t have to ask for towels, mugs or toilet paper, although judging from the massive great crack in wall by the bed the previous guest had been Wolverine.

So on to the shows. we kicked off with Ed Byrne’s Roaring Forties. As the title suggests Byrne turned forty this year, but the show also includes some wry observations on politics. I particularly liked the notion of how following Scottish independence Ireland, Portugal and Greece would have to club together to buy an embassy in Edinburgh and then let it out to Jason Manford for the festival. Here’s the bit about Ski holidays.

The following Sunday we woke up to find Edinburgh swathed in mist, a bit like a Hammer Horror movie. After a good breakfast at the Circus bistro in Mary Street,

Circus bistro

Circus Bistro

we took the free gallery bus from outside the Scottish National Gallery in Princes street to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art which is on the west side of the city in Belford Road. It was the first time we had been to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and we had been drawn in by the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition (£7.00) that was running there. Sadly no photos were allowed inside the exhibition but some interesting material by artists ranging from Durer and Goya to William Blake, Frederick Sandys and Paula Rego.

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

We’d only found out about the exhibition because of an article in the Fortean Times that one of us was reading on the train on the way up and now we have discovered that free bus I think we will pay another visit to the Gallery to see some of the regular exhibits over the two buildings on either side of Belford Road. I did get a sneaky peak at the reconstruction of Eduardo Paolozzi’s Sci Fi collection on the ground floor before we left, it’s always good to discover that someone famous is a bigger nerd than you are!

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Earth and water ground sculpture, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Edinburgh

Back in town we had lunch at the Auld Hoose in St Leonard’s Street, This is a great little boozer if you like punk, metal or goth (there were some confused looking tourists amongst the regulars), it has real ales, Czech lager and a great value menu.

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

Monster Chicken Burrito at the Auld Hoose

My chicken burrito (£7.50) was massive and packed with good-sized chunks of chicken while the tower of onion rings (£5.00, including dips) was huge,

The Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

The towering Onion Rings of the Auld Hoose

so it’s just as well we had a brisk walk across town before taking in some more comedy.

First off was Stewart Lee at the Stand Comedy Club. Unlike Ed Byrne’s stadium gig at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre the Stand was a sweaty little room below a hotel, ideal for Lee’s observations on the Torys and UKIP. sure they were easy targets, but still very funny.

following Lee’s gig we traipsed back out into the street to queue in the sunshine for Alexie Sayle in the precise same sweaty little room. Sayle was brilliant, the 17 years between this and his last stand up gigs have not mellowed his material, brutally funny stuff about Alastair Campbell, the Millibands, Ben Elton and a wicked parody of Michael MacIntyre. I couldn’t find a recent clip of Alexie’s stand-up so here’s the pet Bishop sketch from his TV show

Leaving the show the daughter says to me ‘he’s just like you’

As an old sweary fat bloke with a beard I took that as a compliment!

Final gig was Omid Djalili at the Assembly Rooms.

Another very funny show from the British-Iranian comic with plenty of  gags about cross-cultural misunderstanding which rounded the weekend off perfectly.

Edinburgh – We hit the Road to Portobello

There can’t be many of the world’s capitals that can boast of a beach looking like this.

Portobello Beach

Portobello Beach

Naturally being in Scotland, Edinburgh’s suburb of Portobello isn’t exactly a tropical paradise, but there were a few brave souls splashing about in the water even if most of those had four legs and a cold wet nose! Portobello is about five miles from the centre of Edinburgh and easily accessible by a number of buses from the city centre (£1.50 each way).

Originally known as Friggate Muir, it used to be hangout for smugglers and other miscreants, but in 1742 George Hamilton a former sailor who had served under Admiral Edward Vernan at the capture of Panama’s Porto Bello in 1739, built a cottage on the high street, named it Portobello Hut after the victory and the name stuck.

In the early 19th century Sir Walter Scott used to drill with the Edinburgh Light Horse on the beach at Portobello and it was here that he finished The Lay of the Last Minstrel after being kicked by a horse and confined to bed.

By the middle of the 19th century Portobello had developed into an industrial town and then later into tourist resort, a sort of Scottish Southend with similar amusements and a pier.

Portobello's Gothic Police Station - originally the town hall

Portobello’s Gothic Police Station – originally the town hall

Most of the amusement arcades and the pier are long gone now but the town does still have some splendid 19th Century buildings like the Police Station (built in 1878) and this rather nice, if a little bit pricy boozer on the sea front, the Dalriada where I enjoyed a nice pint of hand drawn Macbeth bitter.

The Dalriada

The Dalriada

Another local landmark is a small community garden on the seafront promenade. Within the garden three coade stone pillars rescued from the garden of Portobello’s Argyle House stand. Coade stone is an artificial ceramic material  containing crushed flint which can be moulded before firing to produce quite exquisite results. It was perfected by Eleanor Coade in the 18th century, but fell out of use with the invention of Portland cement.

Coade Stone pillars - Portobello Beach

Coade Stone pillars – Portobello Beach

Portobello’s most famous son was the entertainer Harry Lauder, who was born there in 1870, and an aspiring actor from Edinburgh, one Sean Connery no less, used to be a lifeguard at the now demolished outdoor swimming pool. The floodlit football match in the film Trainspotting was filmed on the site of Portobello’s former Lido. Also gone is the original Arcari’s ice cream parlour where the 99 ice cream cone, the one with a chocolate flake stuffed into it is said to have been invented.

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

Chuffin Puffins at Planet Gannet – The Return to Bass Rock

Just off the east coast of Scotland and only a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh is the largest breeding colony of Atlantic Gannets in the world.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

Bass Rock is one of a group of volcanic islands  off the coast of North Berwick that also include Fidra and Craigleith and during the spring they are host to 300,000 pairs of nesting seabirds. On a previous visit I joined the Scottish Sea Bird Centre’s RIB boat excursion out to the island (read about it here), which was pretty exciting, but now the RIB has been joined by a high-speed catamaran which gets you as close to the birds as the RIB, but in much more comfort and with no need for those alluring oilskins! It’s also cheaper at £16 per adult.

It only took a few minutes to speed out to Craigleith where the puffins were perched along the heights, just like Red Indians in a Western movie,



while out on the sea rafts of puffins were fishing for sand eels

Puffins all at sea

Puffins all at sea

to take back to their island burrows and feed their young.

Puffins Craigleith

Puffins Craigleith

Further down the rock face guillemots were nesting upon the precarious cliff face,

Guillimots Craigleith

Gillemotts, Craigleith

along with kittiwakes, fulmar, cormarants, eider ducks and shags.

Shag, Craigleith

Shag, Craigleith

From Craigleith it was about ten minutes to Bass Rock.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock

As I’ve said before there is something pretty primal about Bass Rock. Every space on the rock surface is occupied by these majestic seabirds.

Gannets Bass Roak

Gannets Bass Rock

The noise of 300,000 birds is incredible, (as is the smell of their fishy poo).

Nice bit od seaweed for the home

Nice bit of seaweed for the home

The catamaran was soon surrounded by birds searching for nesting material and fishing. Gannets are Britain’s largest seabird with an eight foot wingspan and you really get to appreciate the size of these birds as they take to the air around you.

Gannets Bass rock

Gannets Bass Rock

As we rounded the island a small voice piped up ‘seals’ and there in a cave were a group of around five or six grey seals bobbing around in the water.



It was the icing on the cake for our trip and to think it was only half an hour from the centre of Edinburgh. (off peak Scotrail Day Return from Edinburgh Waverley £6.80)

Photos copyright QueenMab/Shipscook Photographic. contact simon.ball3@btopenworld.com for commercial reuse

Lord Of Tears

As anyone who has read my about post will know I am a big fan of horror movies, maybe growing up in the 1960s and 70s when Hammer, Tigon and Amicus film horrors were a regular fixture on late night telly is something to do with this. However there are few post 1975 horrors that I have really enjoyed. I think this is largely because of a shift of focus away from traditional supernatural monsters like vampires, werewolves and ghosts to serial killers, torture porn and the ubiquitous bloody zombies (which technically are not even zombies) and the consequent replacement of that shivering anticipation of something nasty that is about to happen with gratuitously graphic gruesomeness . There are some notable exceptions like the gloriously deranged Dog Soldiers or Reanimator, but I guess I’m kind of an old school horror fan.

So imagine my delight when I came upon Lord of Tears, a new Scottish movie that Lawrie Brewster, the director/producer, claims is influenced by such British classics as The Innocents, The Haunting and The Wicker Man. I’m quite excited about a filmaker with these influences, as I remember The Innocents, with the lovely Deborah Kerr as the governess haunted by the spirit of evil valet Peter Quint through those awful children, as one of the most frightening films that I have ever seen. One of the reasons that The Innocents worked as a scary movie was the haunting cinematography by Freddie Francis and from what I have seen in the trailer Lord of Tears also employs some stunningly brilliant camera work too.

So over to the movie press release: The film tells the chilling story of James Findlay (Euan Douglas), a school teacher plagued by recurring nightmares of a mysterious and unsettling entity. Suspecting that his visions are linked to a dark incident in his past, James returns to his childhood home, a notorious mansion in the Scottish Highlands. There, he finds love in the form of aspiring dancer Evie Turner (Lexy Hulme) who helps him to unravel the dark history of the house. But, when James finally uncovers the disturbing truth behind his dreams, he must fight to survive the brutal consequences of his curiosity…

The Owl Man cometh

The Owl Man cometh

What’s even more encouraging about this movie is that it has been made outside of the traditional studio system and is therefore more of a product of love and enthusiasm than the commercial imperative. The film is shot and edited, but Lawrie is looking for support with the marketing costs through Kickstater, if you want to pledge a few quid you can here.

Certainly the quality of the footage in the trailer looks very impressive and there is a memorable monster in the owl man. I can’t wait to see the whole film when it is released.

The Tolbooth, The People’s Story and the Museum of Edinburgh

About two thirds of the way down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in Canongate is the Tolbooth Tavern.

Tolbooth Tavern and the People's Story

Tolbooth Tavern and the People’s Story

It’s one of our regular Edinburgh boozers and you can read more about the Tolbooth’s history here. The pub only occupies part of the building. Sharing the former tax office and jail is The People’s Story (163 Canongate), a museum that celebrates the lives of ordinary Edinburgh folk.

The People's Story

The People’s Story

Oddly enough we had never strayed inside the museum until last week, but it was quite an interesting way to spend an hour or so. Inside there are a number of displays  illustrating the city’s trades and social activities from the 1700s right up to the present: everything from bookbinders and fishwives to Trade Unions, the foundation of the Labour Party and life in the worker’s hostels is neatly brought to life. Some of the exhibits could do with a bit of loving care and some clearer labels, but it is free to get in.

And while we are on the subject of free stuff, on the opposite side of the road is The Museum of Edinburgh (142 Canongate).

The Museum of Edinburgh

The Museum of Edinburgh

This is another place we hadn’t got around to visiting before the weekend, but I’m really glad we did. Although it doesn’t look that impressive from the front it does extend quite a long way back through a maze of 16th to 18th century buildings set around a central court. In Victorian times over 300 people lived within what is now the museum in very cramped conditions. Today it is home to an eclectic collection of things from the historical to the decorative.

Arts and Crafts Ceramics

Charles Bellfield Arts and Crafts Ceramics

I was impressed by the collection of 19th century ceramic ware from local potteries like Wemyss Ware from Fife. This fabulous carp tureen is very rare particularly because it still has its lid.

Wemyss Ware Carp Tureen

Wemyss Ware Carp Tureen

Amongst the historical displays we were horrified to discover that Greyfriars Bobby, far from being the wee dog who pined over his owner’s grave was actually a mutt trained to turn up at Mr Trial’s Coffee House for his lunch when the Edinburgh midday gun went off, what’s more the first Bobby was such a tourist draw that when he died a second lookalike was secretly procured to carry on the tradition! See the shocking fibs here.

I think my favourite set of exhibits were in the gallery devoted to Britain’s World War One General, Earl Douglas Haig. Set amongst his uniforms, trophies and photos was a fabulous set of Toby Jugs featuring the Allied war leaders.

Lloyd George and Admiral Jelicoe

Lloyd George and Admiral Jelicoe

Naturally King George V took pride of place in the centre.

King George V and Earl Haig

King George V and Earl Haig

But for an Apostrophe and a Word Space

I have really been enjoying the Dundee based comedy Bob Servant Independent on BBC4. Great performances from Brian Cox and the rest of the cast, clever writing and some lovely location photography. It’s just the sort of thing that I am happy to see my TV licence money being spent on.

Desperate Dan, outside DC Rhompson's offices Dundee

Desperate Dan, outside DC Thomson’s offices Dundee

The show reminded me of our visit to Dundee back in 2009. Now back when I had a regular job we always used to bring back a local delicacy from our trips to share with people in the office, however marmalade is not exactly easy to share so I settled for some packs of Scottish shortbread. Ever the one to shun expensive tourist shops I popped over the road from the Dundee Travelodge (we stay in some of the most exclusive places!) to the local Aldi where I bought a couple of packets of McAllisters Shortbread Fingers.

I then got to thinking that with the use of an apostrophe and a word space I had the Scottish equivalent of Edward Scissorhands on my hands:

The raw morning light of the Scottish Lowlands poured through the kitchen window as Gavin sat at the table waiting for his mother to bring him his lunch.

“Och Gavin here’s your Cullenskink, but Aldi had nae rolls”

“Aye fear not Maw for do I not hae fingers made of bread”

“Aye lad but every time yae has some soup they be getting shorter”

Really Useless Engines

Yesterday’s overhead cable problems on the line from London to Edinburgh reminded me of this little story from the blizzard of December 2010:

Jimmy the Scottish Express engine was very excited. Fresh snow had coated the countryside from his highland home and he had the important job of taking lots of passengers all the way down to London.

The big station was very busy because it was the weekend before Christmas. Some of the passengers had presents for friends and relatives they were planning to visit. There were also lots of students going home with cases full of books and dirty washing, people with dogs and even a lady with a cat in a basket.


Everybody was looking forward to the holidays.

Just before the station clock struck eleven the station master shouted “All aboard” then blew his whistle and waved his flag as Jimmy puffed away from the platform. Soon Jimmy was speeding through the countryside on his way south past snowy fields s full of sheep and cows.

‘Hello Jimmy’ called the Angel of the North ‘is the snow bothering you?’

‘Its nae trouble with my overhead wires, daft soft stuff’ he replied as he sped past. But then as he got near Peterborough Jimmy started to feel ill, gradually he slowed down and ground to a halt.

‘What’s the problem?’ the passengers asked.

‘Jimmy’s overhead cables are broken’ said the guard ‘You are all going to have to get off and get a bus.’


‘Oh bother!’ the passengers grumbled as they collected their belongings and trudged off the train.


It was very cold and all the station staff had hidden in their office because they were scared that the passengers might be cross.

The passengers, who included old people and little childrenengines6

were very, very cross, especially when they asked a policeman if he knew where the bus was, and he said


‘I don’t know’.

Some of them said some very, very bad words about the railway.


The station master called Sir Pussum Phat the controller of the privatised railway.

‘Jimmy’s power lines are broken and the customers are very cross that we have stranded them in the freezing cold without enough buses to take them all home” said the station master “They are saying it’s a really rubbish railway’

Sir Pussum was very annoyed to be disturbed as he had just finished rolling in his bonus money and wanted to count it all again. He asked his media relations manager what he should do.


‘Don’t worry Sir Pussum’ said the media relations manager ‘the newspapers will be too busy reporting the snow chaos at Heathrow Airport tomorrow to notice this mess, just tell the staff to keep out of their way and hopefully they will all get desperate enough to hire taxis when they get fed up with standing in the cold’

‘That sounds like a plan’ said Sir Pussum as he helped himself to another bowl of unicorn cream.

As it happened East Coast could not find enough buses to transport all the passengers to Huntingdon to catch trains to London and ended up booking people into hotels overnight (as was reported on the BBC News). While we were queuing in the sub-zero temperature the price of a black cab to London rose from £250 to £350. Fortunately we overheard someone calling a mini cab firm and they very kindly gave us the number so I was able to book a mini bus (there were seven of us and a cat in a basket) to take us back home. I eventually managed to get the fare refunded from East Coast, but regrettably had to raise the matter with my MP before they did the decent thing.

Edinburgh’s Wise and Foolish Virgins

I have often remarked about how much there is to see above street level, if only people took the trouble to look above street level there is a wealth of interesting material to be discovered.  After lunch at the rather splendid Dome on our recent Edinburgh adventure (see here) I discovered these wonderful relief sculptures along the pediment of the Standard Life Building just over the road in George Street.

Three wise virgins

Three unwise virgins

The friezes, known as the Glass Virgins, were commissioned from the sculptor Gerald Laing for the pediment of Standard Life’s headquarters when the Victorian building was given an otherwise bland corporate face lift in 1975, Laing’s sculptures were added to the pediment in 1977.

the last two wise virgins

the rest of the unwise virgins

I imagine Standard Life must have drawn a comparison between the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, where the smatypants virgins are bright enough to bring along extra lamp oil to light the wedding procession, and taking out one of their life assurance policies.


Five clever virgins

Personally I think the Wise  Virgins are rather lovely, looking almost like a piece of 1930s Art Deco, having said that it’s troubling that the wise should all look the same, but that’s a corporate stance for you.

We Roll up to the Falkirk Wheel

On the final day of our Edinburgh long weekend we took a trip out to Falkirk. Falkirk is located about midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and it takes about half an hour to get there by train from Edinburgh Waverley.

Falkirk’s most modern attraction is the Falkirk Wheel,

The Falkirk Wheel

a boat lift that reconnects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. The canals were originally linked by a series of eight locks, but with the decline of canal traffic in the 1900s they fell into disuse and were filled in during the 1930s. The Wheel, one of the Millenium projects, was completed in 2002 and the gondolas in the wheel’s eyes can move 600 tonnes of narrow boat and water the 34 metres between the two canals.

Rear view of the gondola at the Falkirk Wheel

Unfortunately the visitor centre is closed for much of the winter so we were unable to take one of the boat trips that allow you to ride the wheel. Still it was a lovely, if chilly morning so we set off to explore the countryside and visit the remains of the Antonine Wall that formed to northernmost frontier of Roman Britain.

Earthworks of the Antonine Wall

Not anywhere like as famous as Hadrian’s Wall to the south, the wall built for the Emperor Antoninus Pius stretched from Old Kirkpatrick to the Firth of Clyde. Construction began around AD 142 and took about twelve years to complete. Principally built of turf, what you can see today are the earthworks and ditches. The wall was only fortified for about twenty years before the Romans retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall, had they stayed a bit longer they might have built some more permanent structures. Having had a look around we decided to retreat ourselves and set out back towards the Wheel.

Just as the wheel was coming into sight I noticed it was on the move, so I legged it to a break in the tree cover to get some shots,

Gondola swinging into place on the Falkirk Wheel

as the wheel completed its action.

Almost back in place

Having seen at least part of the action of this engineering marvel, I didn’t feel quite so cheated about not getting a boat ride!

Next stop on our trip was Callendar House, the family seat of the Livingston family since 1345.

Callendar House

the present building’s facade is mostly 19th century,  the central core is a 14th Century Tower house. Over the years it has had some pretty important visitors including Mary Queen of Scots, Oliver Cromwell and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Today it is home to a very interesting local historical timeline display a working 19th century kitchen, temporary art galleries and the local archives. The grounds also have a stretch of the Antonine Wall.

One of the local industries that features prominently in the timeline is the Carron Ironworks, who used to cast the short stubby Royal Navy cannon known as carronades or ‘smashers’. Nelson had two 68 pound Carronades mounted on the Victory‘s forecastle, that cleared the gun-deck of the French Bucentaur with a single salvo through her stern windows. Carrons later went on to make far less deadly pillar boxes for Royal Mail.

With a bit of time to spare before our train we walked back into Falkirk. From what we saw it wasn’t much different from any number of small towns in the UK with branches of chains like Greggs and Phones 4 You and an abandoned bandstand full of furtively smoking hoodies. The only difference I did note was the large number of Turkish barber shops and tattoo parlours. We did find a friendly pub called the Toll Booth for a welcome pint though.

We got a group save return ticket for four, from Edinburgh Waverley to Falkirk High for £23.90 (about half price), by travelling on the 9.15 train. Admission to all sites was free.

Dr Caligari’s Edinburgh an Explanation

Anyone who has read my Edinburgh posts may be puzzled by my references to the Travelodge of Dr Caligari.

I christened the place so because the bedroom fixtures and fittings had been fastened to the walls without any use of a spirit level and their exagerated wonkyness reminded me of the German Expressionist set design of Robert Weine’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

Here’s a brief clip, best played with the sound off, but the full film can be found on You Tube, where the story of how Cesare the sonambulist is forced to carry out the evil Dr Caligari’s bidding makes for some very interesting viewing.

To be fair the last refurbishment seems to have taken care of the wonky fittings.