Lockdown in Scotland

Arbroath Harbour
photo Claire Walmsley

I’ve been a townie for most of my life, living and working in central London.  Dealing with, crowded tube trains, traffic jams and rush hour was all part of everyday life. As I walked through London, I could easily navigate the hordes of tourists, gaping at our stately historic buildings, and I could simply drop in to see the latest museum exhibition or lose myself in an art gallery.

In an evening there was always music and theatre on tap at the National Theatre or the Festival Hall and, on a sunny day, there was the River Thames for a boat trip or the nearby parks for picnics and cycling.

Just over ten years ago, after I sold my London family house, I bought a small cottage by the sea in Northeast Scotland and I managed to escape here every month. I still worked in London but I had the joy and fun of a cottage by the sea. I really began to fall in love with Scotland and, over the years, I’ve met some fabulous people and made good friendships. I was accepted by the locals and I began to have adventures which seemed worth writing about. Having homes in London and Scotland was the best of both worlds.

Scottish painter at work
photo Claire Walmsley

When the Covid19 pandemic struck, I had to choose where to stay in lockdown and for the past eighteen months I’ve been living safely and happily in Scotland . It’s given me time to reflect on adventures I’ve had here in the past decade.

Living in Scotland has been a big change from my city life. I expected it to be quieter and I thought I’d have a lot of time for writing, walking and enjoying the sea and the fresh air. But what I didn’t expect were the unusual and often exciting experiences you can read about in later blogs – here’s a taster….. up at dawn to watch thousands of pink footed wild geese migrating south for winter; calling out our local lifeboat to save a dog that had fallen over a cliff; dancing at a ceilidh or two; learning to identify and collect wild chanterelle mushrooms; watching ospreys teach their young to fly; foraging fresh seaweed with my daughter on the rocks at low tide.

This has been a decade of discovery for me. Every day I learn something new about this hidden part of Scotland. People drive through on their way to ‘somewhere else’ in Scotland.  If only they knew what a hidden gem they are missing. But we don’t mind because too many people knowing about this beautiful place might spoil things for us.

For hundreds of years Arbroath has welcomed pilgrims and travellers.  You can almost feel the history in the red sand walls of the houses – many of them built with stones stolen over the ages from the ruined Abbey up at the top of the town. This famous Abbey is where the Declaration of Independence was declared 600 years ago. . The sun filters through its great O shaped window. It’s an ‘O’ that over the years has guided many storm-stressed sailors to safety.

Arbroath Abbey. Photo Claire Walmsley

Today this part of Scotland still provides the perfect antidote to C21 modern day stress. Travellers often arrive after making the spectacular train journey from England, along the East Coast – York, Durham Newcastle, Lindisfarne, the coastline of Northumberland, Edinburgh and Fife,. As they step off the train , they take a breath of fresh air and you can see them visibly relax. The Arbroath magic begins.

Dramatic seas photo Claire Walmsley

It’s a magic that starts with the huge sky and the powerful ocean. Some days the sea batters the coastline. On days like this the spray rattles down the windows of my cottage, waves crash over the sea defence walls and the  boats rock violently on the harbour moorings. By contrast, there are days where the sea is like a mill pond and the sun is reflected with a shimmering, dancing light.  But, even then, the tiny silhouette of Stephenson’s  Bell Rock Lighthouse, its light constantly flashing on the horizon and its horn booming if there’s a local ha’ar, is a reminder of the ever present danger of the sea.

Bell Rock Lighthouse photo Claire Walmsley

We have two harbours. The outer one is home to a handful of small inshore fishing boats where the fishermen use traditional crails to catch lobsters and crabs. The lively crustaceans were previously whisked away by air to Spain. Now post-Brexit this market has dried up and locals are seeing lots for sale locally. 

Arbroath harbour photo Claire Walmsley

The inner harbour, which fell into disrepair after the main fishing industry died, was transformed some years ago with EEC support and now provides a friendly, small marina. Here keen amateur sailors enjoy messing about on their yachts, occasionally setting sail through the lock gates for a day in the cold North Sea.

Nowadays the town retains a world-wide reputation for a local fish delicacy – the Arbroath Smokie.  This is a locally caught haddock, gutted and smoked in a traditional smoke house according to secret recipes which have been handed down over the generations. There is nothing to equal a warm and succulent Smokie after a day out on the cliffs. (And, for those who enjoy battered fish and chips, there’s even a local chip shop that batters the Smokie)

Someone just enjoyed an Arbroath Smokie
photo Claire Walmsley

There is nothing to equal a warm and succulent Smokie after a day out on the cliffs. (And, for those who enjoy battered fish and chips, there is even a local chip shop that batters the Smokie.)

I live in a 300 year old cottage at the Fit O the Toon (Foot of the Town) nestled next door to the Commercial Inn. This area was once a bustling community of fisher folk mending their nets, baiting fishing lines and gutting fish. The fishermen, the lifeboat crew and locals still gather at the Commercial but now they talk about weekend fishing trips.

In their different ways, wood carvers, sailors, artists and teachers have shared their wisdom, experiences, gossip and local history with me. One day, as I cleaned the brass numbers on my blue front door, a man walking his dog greeted me with the surprising line “I was born in your wee cottage”. It turned out to be true. His family were a fishing family and three generations had lived in my house – his parents on the ground floor, his grandparents on the first floor and he had been born in my front room!

I loved his memories. His grandfather playing the harmonium in the attic (now one of my visitors’ bedrooms) whilst his grandmother cooked soup in a big black cauldron over an open fire in what is now my en-suite bedroom.

He looked into my small walled garden, full of herbs and runner beans. He observed the old smoke house which is now my art studio. Lost in thought, he stood back and simply said “I remember this when it was a backyard with an outside ‘privy’. The women worked here all day preparing the nets and lines for the boats. Every line had to have 1000 mussels put on it to attract the fish.” I was hooked.

I often think about the harsh conditions endured by fisher folk over the decades, especially the families who lived their whole life at the Fit O’ the Toon without heating and hot water. As I settle down to write I am more appreciative of my creature comforts, my en-suite shower, my central heating and my cosy living room fire. Life here is good even with lockdown and restrictions. And, it’s most certainly very different to my city life.

Another perfect day
photo Claire Walmsley

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