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Aspen

Aspen
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Member since: 22.12.2000

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      16.12.2002 03:22
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      I make no apology for endorsing my local community website. From humble beginnings in 1999, with an ambition only to serve the local community, caithness.org has marched on to be a world player. This is a site run entirely by volunteers, yet is currently attracting over five million hits per month. And perhaps more significantly, is attracting over 1.5 million page views per month. Parochial it is not. Granted, the front page is full of local news, available much more quickly than the local press can achieve. And, granted, much of the content is locally-orientated, which is exactly what a community website should be about. Bur through user-friendly indexing, and excellent links, caithness.org provides access to everything which is happening around the globe. For me, this is what sets caithness.org apart from other community websites. It manages to combine local interest with world interest. Perhaps this is why it was elected Site of the Year 2001 in the Yell.com awards. I quote: ?SITE OF THE YEAR Winner ? Caithness Community (www.caithness.org) Caithness won top spot because of its ability to punch above its weight. Created in February 1999 bay a father and son team (the former coming out of early retirement), along with a few volunteers, the site manages to combine the freshness of grass-roots activism with a high degree of professionalism. Originally intended just for people in the UK?s most northerly mainland county, it quickly outgrew this role, with the web site's exhaustive content and commerce attracting a global audience.? And it was also elected Site of the Month in the Mirror in Dec 2001, an achievement picked up on by Simon Mayo at BBC FiveLive. (www.bbc.co.uk/fivelive/mayo/traffic_tv.shtml) Nowadays, traffic to the site far exceeds that in the days of these awards. This is a site growing, and growing in confidence. The growth is part
      ly explained by the non-parochial enthusiasm of the team behind it, and the open-mindedness and ambition to be not just a local site, but a little bit more. The use of photographs on the front page ? regularly updated, often twice a day ? is undoubtedly a major factor. Archives on the site are a tourist?s dream and wish-list. A little bit of browsing will throw up photos and information on historical and recreational sites and activities in the North of Scotland which the Tourist Authorities have barely touched upon. I could use up lots of words describing what you can find on this site, but I?d far rather you just went and had a look at www.caithness.org. Bill and Niall Fernie deserve all the kudos which come their way. The fact that Bill Fernie was voted Caithness Citizen of the Year in 2001, is testament to the value if this community website locally. And recognition of the site?s achievements on the global internet. (Forgive me if this is in an inappropriate category. I searched for "community websites", and failed. The fact that these days I find it increasingly difficult to find categories on DY, or indeed to find anything I want, is understandably connected to my advancing senility. And my irregular visits. I am in no way suggesting that the DY of today is virtually un-navigable. Or even -navigatable.) (c) Mike Clark 2002

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        10.12.2002 05:04
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        Get down on your knees. Shove your hand in your soil. Pick up a handful and let it run through your fingers. Does it run freely? Then it lacks dung. Does it stick in your hand in a claggy lump? Then it lacks dung. Already, you can see where this op is going. The average garden is seriously deficient in humus and organic matter. We work our plots and borders year after year, expecting them to perform to our ever increasing demands with the occasional addition of some chemical fertiliser to which the manufacturer appends the epithet "Miracle", or similar. Chemical replacement nutrients are no substitute for natural nutrients produced by recycled material, which is after all, what Mother Nature does if left to her own devices. Organic matter, whether farmyard or stable manure, homemade compost, recycled waste, spent mushroom compost, leafmould or any other, contain essential nutrients and trace elements in ideal, natural proportions, which our scientists cannot emulate. And they provide moisture retentive and drainage properties, which are essential to good plant growth, and which cannot be replicated by the chemical companies. Artificial fertilisers are an imbalanced food source. They provide certain forcing ingredients which provide vigorous, visible top growth at the expense of all round good health and disease resistance. So you buy inorganic fertiliser which produces wonderful, lush foliage on a plant which has grown too quickly to establish its natural disease resistance. And so is susceptible to moulds and fungal diseases. And the forced soft growth is irresistible to aphids and other pests. So off you go to buy fungicides and insecticides. And they are made by . . ? No, surely not the same chemical companies which sold you the artificial fertilisers in the first place. Clearly, Aspen would not be so irresponsible as to suggest some
        sort of Conspiracy Theory. This humble contributor merely observes, and points out coincidences. It is worth noting, however, that Monsanto, the main player behind GM crop trials, is also the main producer of the herbicides which can curtail the spread of modified crops, should they get out of hand and make like triffids. Allegedly. Play safe and make your own garden compost. Please don?t be conned by the designer products in the designer gardening catalogues. You don?t need a tumbling barrel with 24 carat (carrot!) gold trimmings, and a proprietary chemical activator produced under an innocuous brand name by Mons . . . a major chemical manufacturer. Nope. All you need is a basic box made with posts and chicken wire, or some scrap timber. Put in all your vegetable kitchen waste, but not any animal by-products which attract vermin. Add leaves, dead stems, non-woody prunings - in fact anything out of the garden apart from diseased plant parts, woody stems, and perennial weed roots. Add some grass clippings, but not too much - no more than a third of the total volume. It is often advised to add layers of soil, but in my experience this is not necessary, though it does no harm. Also not essential, but very helpful, is the occasional sprinkling of high-nitrogen fertiliser, because the decomposition of green material is a process which uses nitrogen, and the addition of same speeds the process. Proprietary compost activators are basically high nitrogen fertilisers in fancy packets at inflated prices. To avoid artificial fertilisers, and achieve the same result, add a sprinkling of dried chicken manure, which is high in nitrogen. Keep your compost heap moist, watering it if necessary. Cover it with a piece of old carpet or similar, to keep the moisture and heat in. And mix it with a fork now and again, to aerate it. And in a few months you with have a crumbly organic soil conditioner good e
        nough to eat. Dig it in, and you will be amply rewarded. However, it goes without saying, if you have access to quantities of well-matured dung, this is even better. Sensitive souls should stop reading here, and rate accordingly. But it must be pointed out, in conclusion, that human urine is the best organic compost activator. So don't take the piss out of organics - get out there and put it back in. © Mike Clark 2002

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        • Lettuce / Plant / 1 Reading / 20 Ratings
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          06.08.2002 09:52
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          It has been so long since I have written a gardening opinion that I can't remember how to start. I used to have a formula, which usually ended up by fermenting said plant and drinking the alcoholic consequences. Sadly, you cannot make wine with lettuce, which is maybe why I'm finding this one difficult to get into. Right, let's get on the soapbox, and have a wee shout. NO-ONE SHOULD EVER BUY LETTUCE. Whether you have an allotment or a window box; a smallholding or a large one; a flat or a well-rounded; a de Thame garden or a Wilde one; YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE. There is a lettuce for every location, in every season. Lettuce will grow in conventional garden soil. Aspen states the obvious. Lettuce will also grow in a gro-bag, or in a pot, on any soil-based or soil-less compost. Lettuce will grow in a tub on the patio, in a pot by the back door, in a window-box, on a balcony, on a roof-garden, or even on the lavvie window-sill. If you have none of these, you are an alien, and don't deserve lettuce. Cos lettuce (that's Cos, not 'cos) is favoured by the supermarkets these days, because it keeps well. For the home-lettuce-grower, Cos is a good choice because it is particularly hardy, will grow in almost any conditions, and has a very long season. Cos has largely replaced the traditional Butterhead varieties - you know, the round limp ones which look like they have a heart but you can never find it. Butterheads have a short season anyway, so avoid. Avoid particularly any variety bearing the name "All the Year Round", because they never are. Want to grow lettuce out of season? Got a bright windowsill? Try Little Gem (a small Cos variety) at any time of year. Use young. The small young leaves are the tastiest anyway, and they may not heart in the winter months. Who cares? Use the young leaves and sow some more. It's gotta be better than the limp, chemic
          ally-preserved supermarket pre-washed, bagged leaves. Fancy a bit of colour? The red-tinged Lolla Rosso which you pay premium prices for in the supermarket, is one of the easiest, trouble free lettuces you can grow. And it's a cut-and-come-again - that is, you don't harvest the whole lettuce, you just pick the outer leaves, and the plant will continue to grow. Given the right conditions, this type of lettuce will produce leaves for three months or more before running to seed. And so we move on to Frisby. Frisby is a green cut-and-come-again. Frisby will grow anywhere - in the garden, in a pot, on a windowsill, in a gro-bag - given my standards of house-proud-ness, Frisby would probably grow on my sitting room carpet. Frisby will grow at any time of year, even right through the winter, given a little protection. I have sown Frisby under glass in November, and have been masticating her tender leaves in early February. Yes, here, in the frozen North. There is only one barrier to self-sufficiency in lettuce. Imagination. If you don't try, you won't succeed, and will forever be condemned to consuming the chemically preserved limp produce of our supermarket shelves. If this wasn't a Lettuce category, I would go on to tell you how easy it is to grow Rocket, Lamb's Lettuce (Corn Salad), and Cilantro (Leaf Coriander). Maybe another time. Meanwhile, I will content myself with extolling the virtues of my beloved Lollo Rossa. Maybe if I could ferment her, I would turn over a new leaf. © Mike Clark 2002.

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          • Dunnet Bay / Theatre / Musical National / 0 Readings / 19 Ratings
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            17.05.2002 07:42
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            It?s a b*stard. It?s a b*stard. It?s a b*stard always trying to hook the audience within the initial displayable number of characters. Even worse when you?ve been away for a while and forgotten all the tricks. Okay, tricks apart, I spent five months on this one. December 2001 Crazy, prancing horses dance towards the shore, moonlight glancing off their white, frothing backs like reflected light from gems more precious than mankind has ever known. The wind turns, picks up, and whips sand from the dunes, stinging my face with an oh-so-gentle pain. A gentle pain, which echoes the effect of this moonlit seascape upon the soul. It is one thirty am, on a December Monday morning. Normal people are abed. I have walked the half mile of car-less single track road which separates me from Dunnet Bay, equipped with woolly hat and hip flask. I am seated on the dunes, the frosty December night air coursing through my lungs, as my heart absorbs the raw power of the Pentland Firth in winter. There is nowhere I would rather be. I have felt at home in Skye. I have a great affinity for Glenelg and Arnisdale. I have a rapport with Sandwood Bay. And I am comfortable and at one with many parts of the North and West of Scotland. But when I first walked the sands of Dunnet Bay, one sunny, but wild and windy afternoon; when I watched the waves breaking towards the shore, with the wind whipping the spray from their crests, and trailing it behind them like the smoke from a flotilla of steam trains hurtling towards the shore; I knew I must return by moonlight. And now I have. And on a frosty, moonlit winters evening, this is an incredible place. To the west, the frothing waves break over Castlehill Harbour, now derelict, but whence, in its heyday, sailing ships departed for Argentina, Spain and Africa, bearing cargoes of Caithnes
            s flagstone, the designer material of its day. Ermm, next time you?re in Euston Station, cast your eyes downwards, if you have time. What are you walking on? And to the east, the majestic cliff formation which is Dunnet Head. We don?t get frost this close to the sea, do we? So explain the ghostly shimmering grey-white profile, of the most northerly point of mainland Britain. Sorry, John o? Groats, but the truth must come out. B*gger me, I didn?t know the St Ola sailed so late. I can see the lights of some pretty hefty vessel out in the Pentland Firth. Maybe it?s not the Ola. After all, this is one of the busiest shipping lanes in Europe. As well as being one of the most fearsome. I open the hip flask, and reflect on how lucky I am to be frozen rigid, sitting on the dunes in such a wonderful environment. As the moon sheds copious light on the sparkling breakers, eclipsing the fading lights of the passing ship, I know where I?d rather be. May 2002 Far on the North West horizon, a solid hand of cloud rises, and like the claw of some enormous prehistoric bird, separates into webbed fingers. The fingers of steely grey stretch over my head, into the unseen east behind me. The webs start translucent, then become transparent, revealing the indigo of the evening sky. Somewhere behind it all, the sun is setting. Each webbed finger bears a halo of russet. It is 10.30 on a May evening. Almost half a year since I wrote ? but didn?t post ? the first part of this op. The intensity and clarity of the evening colours is overwhelming. The grey of the fingers blends to indigo, then romps through a spectrum of reds and oranges, to arrive, finally, at something almost cream in the middle. I wish I was an artist. Maybe then I could describe all this to you without contradicting myself, and confusing my hues. Sadly,
            I?m not, but I know what I see. I lower my eyes from the sky to Dunnet Bay, wherein all which is happening above is reflected. The steely greys and indigos are reflected beyond the Bay, on the fringes of the Pentland Firth. Closer to shore, the breaking waves catch and reflect the dying embers of soon-to-be-yesterday?s sun. A gilt edge on the silver surf. All of this is in the distance, of course. In the middle ground two lush green fields play host to fifty cows, each with a calf. And each calf born within the last fortnight. Most of them born easily, in these calm mild nights, and all of them romping without a care in the world, as the dying sun heads for Orkney and beyond. One or two not born easily, though. Being a handyman ? of course I?m handy, I just live round the corner from the farm (he writes, skating perilously close to a very old joke) ? I get called upon to help out at any time of day or night. I now have fetching and carrying down to a fine art. And the utmost respect for a vet, who can perform a caesarean section on an old cow with a bad delivery history and the temperament of a Serie A central defender, and a kick which could crack reinforced concrete at twenty paces, and at the same time keeping up a patter of jokes which rendered me, the farmer, and the stockman incapable of lifting a hand to assist. And it was all done with his right hand. A fag seemed permanently attached to his left. The following morning, mother and baby were both fine. Baby is now one of those gambolling between me and the sunset. Frank, if I wore a hat, I would doff it to you. But I may not eat veal again. I?ve digressed, haven?t I? Better summarise then. Above is the sky. It goes on for ever. It contains every hue in the rainbow, but it?s not raining, and you have to be here at sunset to appreciate it. Ahead is Dunnet Bay. The windsur
            fers have enjoyed their day, but have now retired to the pub. The inshore fishermen are still there, though. And so are the auks. And various ducks. And at low tide, dunlin, redshank, plovers, turnstones, oystercatchers, and more wading birds than you can shake a stick at. And the colours. Let?s not forget the colours. Lest I become repetitive, refer above. And in the middle distance, and in the dying sun, gambolling calves. Again, refer above. And to complete the picture, in the foreground, a disused silage tower of nineteen forties vintage, precluded from demolition by a local heritage society?s conviction that even the recent past merits preservation. It has for many years been colonised by pigeons. The vertical trail of faeces, leaching downward from the turreted apex, becomes almost luminescent when the last rays of the setting sun turn it a whiter shade of pale. And if all of the rest of the foregoing failed, the last few lines must have reminded the oldtimers on this site, that Aspen may be long gone, but still lives. Of course, a travel opinion is incomplete, without expansive details of where to stay, how to get there, what does it cost, etc, etc. I could cheat, and enhance my chances of a crown, by copying such details from other websites. But I can?t be a*sed. Any t*sser can cut and paste. Wanna great holiday in the North of Scotland? Check out www,caithness.org. And if all else fails, email Aspen. Post Scriptum (inevitably) I must confess that I have in a previous life subscribed to a ?Writing Magazine?. One major article was on travel writing. And the absolute rule was never to write a travel feature in the first person. Oh well, broke another one then. What?s new?

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            • dooyoo Addiction / Discussion / 0 Readings / 33 Ratings
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              14.04.2002 06:45
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              You should have been a straight man. "I sit here alone and I wonder why?" - Kim Wilde - Kids of America. We all have our reasons for finding, joining, and becoming addicted to, opinion sites. Frankly, I?m not interested in the psychology behind those who sign up in the hope of making a fast buck, and disappear once they realise they can?t make one. Nor am I interested in those who appear to join with the sole intention of stirring sh*t and abusing others. The former don?t have any psychology worth exploring, and the latter may intrigue real psychologists, but for me, they just want eradicating, unceremoniously, like mice in the larder or moths in the wardrobe. No, folks, thanks to an off-hand comment by a good friend and respected member of several opinion sites, I was prompted to analyse my own addiction, if that is the word, to several opinion sites for well over a year. And why am I writing in this category, rather than a general one? Because there is no general category for addiction to opinion sites. So, Ciao was the first one I found, and more recently was the first I became disenchanted with. Hindsight begs the question, was this disenchantment caused by Ciao?s dramatic changes and apparent dumping of its loyal and long-standing contributors, or did I simply reach a stage where Ciao had served its purpose? I have watched successes and failures among Ciao members. Thanks to various e-groups, I have come to know many contributors, and have witnessed the trials and tribulations within their personal lives. As they have witnessed mine. The one common factor is this. When your life takes a turn for the better, you leave opinion sites. Because suddenly there are more important things in your life. And the role of an opinion site, or even the internet generally, becomes relative. Now I?m not suggesting for one moment that Ciao or Dooy
              oo contributors are sad w*nkers who need to get a life. Far from it. Ciao is (perhaps was) a wonderful community, wherein the core of regulars were if anything more active outwith the actual posting of opinions. In other words, the community spirit is (was) fantastic, and the whole set-up was like a support group. Ermmm . . .exactly. For many of us, for our many personal and diverse reasons, Ciao, Dooyoo, and all opinion sites, is/was an escape from reality. A world of alter-egos. Somewhere to be anonymous and to be taken at face value. Somewhere you could arrive with no baggage. And a place to air your (hypothetical) problems, in the guise of helping others. And getting feedback, hypothetical, of course, from others who had similar hypothetical experiences. All very anonymous and therapeutic. So, when I came to Dooyoo, did I come here for all these reasons? Probably. Because there is no such thing as Dooyoo addiction. And the sad person who created this category needs help. Or a medal/payrise from the marketing manager. What does exist, is opinion site addiction. Which, like some other addictions, may actually be more helpful than harmful. It has been a long while since I contributed here, and from the outside looking in, I can see many absentees and many new faces. So I appreciate that many of you reading this will not know me, and will therefore not be aware of the difficult times I have shared with members here at DY, and at Ciao. But I recognise now that I fall into the category of those who use, or have used, opinion sites as escapism, and as a route to communication with others who have problems, but who escape those problems by using words and the internet. And sharing, and helping other. I do not criticise anyone. This is not an attack on Dooyoo?s or Ciao?s contributors, nor a generalisation ? though there are more who will recognise a self-des
              cription here than will ever be brave enough to admit it. No, this is neither an attack nor a criticism. This is simply an observation, that opinion sites attract people who, for their own very personal, individual and diverse reasons, need an escape and an outlet. Dooyoo, intentionally or by accident, recognised that and created a community (Speakers Corner, etc) which allowed its contributors an outlet, but at the same time retained them, and they contributed to product reviews, the site?s raison d?etre and financial crutch. Ciao, however, failed to recognise that its contributors had their own needs. Ciao thought greater competition was the answer, created league tables, and coloured dots, and totally failed to understand that its best writers and most valuable contributors were not there for ego-preening, or for money. They were there primarily for the support system, which happened almost entirely outwith the site itself. Many then defected to Dooyoo, but gave up because the community they sought was very hard to penetrate. Forgive me, for this is a criticism closer to home. The Ciao community outwith Ciao was very accessible. The Dooyoo community outwith Dooyoo is about as hospitably welcoming as an Orange Lodge meeting in an Arctic winter. Cutting back to the chase, I have chosen to write this on Dooyoo, under the addiction heading. I will write something similar on Ciao, if I can find a similar category. But not identical, obviously, for copyright reasons. If I can remember where it is, I may even do something on Mouthshut. (Remember Mouthshut?) The point being, these are observations valid for all opinion sites. Do you still think this is a criticism? I personally believe opinion sites have saved lives. They have certainly introduced friendships between like minded people, and have created relationships which will last far longer than the sites themselves. In a way, it is sad that Dooyoo and its friends/rivals have to survive or fail by the commercial dollar/euro/whatever. These sites are performing a community service. They should be receiving grants from the NHS. Speaking personally, I reckon Dooyoo, Ciao, and even Mouthshut, have saved the NHS a fortune on Prozac. © Mike Clark 2002 PS - For those of you still here who remember me, Aspen is alive and well, and has got a life back. But still likes to stir the sh*t now and again. Credits - Israi Oliver (White, specially selected for Safeway) - 1 bottle. Les Chateliers Blanc de Blancs (specially selected by me) ½ bottle, but still going. Bisto, the Geriatric JR, who's determination to go for a walk will sober me up George, a good friend and neighbour, who gave me this gem - George turned up on Sunday forenoon, looking rough, and for coffee. "Out last night"? I enquired, brewing up said coffee. "Cheese and wine," he croaked, from deep within the dark glasses. "Good night?" I smirked. "Didn't have enough cheese." Deadpan. Wish I could do one-liners like that.

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                31.01.2002 05:48
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                Yep, that's right. I'm not looking for a VU, or even a U. And if I were not an Aberdonian by birth, I would have done this as a Short Opinion. A wee while back, I wrote in less than complimentary terms about BT Openworld. I have watched and waited. I have even tried to communicate with the Great God BT. Which/Who clearly does not demean itself by replying to mere mortals. I took on board the advice of those who commented on the previous op. Including the suggestion that I should contact BT and ask for the "gain" on my line to be increased. I don't know who was more technophobic, me or the lassie at the BT call centre. Anyway, "Sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about" sums it up for me. Meantime, I have been trying to relay a complaint to BT Internet. This is really a fun game, because it is a race against time. The challenge is to click on the "Contact Us" button, which doesn't. But only takes you to another help screen (with "Contact Us in a side bar) And if you spot it, and click on it, it takes you to another help screen . . . . And all before BT disconnects you, again. Hey, guys, this is the biggest race-against-time game ever devised. Find the BT "Contact Us" which works before you get disconnected. And the conclusion of this customer service announcement, for which I expect no ratings whatsoever, is this. If you are using an ISP which does not contain the letters B or T, stick with it. If, like me, you have been duped into believing that because it's big; because it's BT; it must be OK - Join me in my protest. Eventually, after many expensive online minutes using another ISP, I tracked down a BT Customer Service email address. I won't bore you w
                ith the details, but the expression "Trading Standards" cropped up more than once. You have been warned.

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                  30.12.2001 12:28
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                  One of the most memorable episodes of my past life was a three-week-spell on the island of Hoy. Not as a tourist, I must add, and not even in the tourist season. No, I spent a miserable (not really!) 3 weeks in Rackwick Hostel, in a wild, wet, windy November. Working. Yes, working. Far out of my home territory, but through a friend of a friend, two of us ended up erecting a mere two miles of stock-fencing for a conservation project, and working to a very strict deadline, on the island of Hoy.. In the interests of economy and profit, I had to find cost-effective accommodation. Rackwick Hostel is only available to groups or parties, not (sadly) to the itinerant nomad. And only by prior arrangement with Orkney Islands Council, of which contact details later. Fortunately, my client knew the warden. And equally fortunately, but not surprisingly, the facilities were not in great demand during the winter months. Thus we crossed on the St Ola from Scrabster (Thurso) to Stromness (Mainland Orkney), passing Rackwick Bay (our destination), close by the Old Man of Hoy, less than a third of the way into our outward journey. From Stromness, whence the ferry departs, you can see the Old Man of Hoy and Rackwick Bay. It is but spitting distance for a kittiwake. But logic does not prevail. You have to travel approximately five times the distance the kittiwake flies, because, as a human, you have superior intelligence to a kittiwake, and therefore know best. Ermm . . . so we got off the Ola at Stromness, along with all the other green people. Yes, green. This is the Pentland Firth in November, to the power of which jambutty will no doubt attest. If ever Martians wish to invade Earth, undoubtedly their best chance is landing in Stromness as the Ola docks. Green men on the quayside are the norm. How
                  ever, in our decrepit 4x4 pick-up, we headed for Orphir. Orphir is the inter-island-ferry-embarkment-point for Hoy. We expected a ferry terminal. What we found (luckily) was an oil-drum at the roadside, with “Ferry” in white paint thereon, pointing down a track. The ferry took four vehicles. Backwards. Because several weeks previously, the skipper/captain/madman (sorry, I’ve still not got to grips with these nautical terms) had rammed the pier and b*ggered one end of the ship/boat/craft. And Orkney Islands Council didn’t have the money to do the repairs. So this Ro-Ro ferry was now a Back-On-and-Ro-Off ferry. And the punters could only get on one end. Which meant the ferry had to do a three point turn and “reverse” – another nautical term – into the pier at Orphir. Much to the amusement of humans, seals, auks, shags, otters, cormorants, kittiwakes, and even scallops. Watching the p*ssed Hoy farmer reverse his Landrover and sheep-trailer down the pier and on to the ferry was an education. I realise I am becoming anecdotal, and perhaps drifting away from the specific topic of Rackwick Hostel. But you know me. I’ll get there eventually. And so we did. We found ourselves in a building which had once been a one-roomed school. And most meritorious of ODC to have retained the building, and put it to a positive use. (Though personally, I would rather it were still a school – but that’s too political a topic for an op such as this. We don’t want to be troubled with issues like the deliberate rape and decline of rural communities by Governments with exclusively economic objectives; now do we?) However small the Rackwick (or indeed the Hoy) population, I firmly believe our children deserve an education within a
                  reasonable radius of home. My brief experience in Hoy made me aware that in our more remote parts (not only islands), even primary school kids are required to be away from home five days a week (in many cases), because our Government (Holyrood, Westminster, it doesn’t seem to matter which) has decided it is uneconomic to sustain local schools with only a few kids. Hands up. I confess I was writing an op on a remote Youth Hostel, and I became a bit political. I accept this is improper, and I won’t do it again. (Hrmm!) Back to the tale. We found ourselves living in Rackwick Hostel, which used to be a school, and which in it’s naiveté/wisdom, OIC has decided to subdivide into two bedrooms and a kitchen. Using cheap timber framing and plasterboard to six feet. And the original room is seven feet to the eaves, and at least ten to the ridge. How can I put this politely? This is a spectacularly beautiful place. If your hobby is rock climbing, come here, and seek out the Old Man of Hoy. If your hobby is bird-watching, yes, this is the place for you, because the seabird colonies on these cliffs in spring and summer are something else. If your hobby is shagging, find another youth hostel. Unless you are very familiar with your friends. I suppose you want consumer-type details. God, this is the really boring bit. I mean, if you wanted to go to Hoy, you would check out far more web-sites than I’m going to list. Well, okay, I’ll play the game. Rackwick Hostel is available at any time of year, but only to organised groups/parties. Telephone Orkney Islands Council for details on 01856 873535, ext 2604. This is a department phone in the Council Offices in Kirkwall. Don’t quote me, but the chances are you will speak to some wee lassie/laddie who has never even heard of Hoy, never min
                  d be able to tell you about Rackwick Hostel. Such is the centralisation of local government, even on the islands. You can but try. Perhaps you should visit www.syha.org.uk/pages/hostel_pages/rackwick.html where you will learn substantially less than I have already told you. Since I cannot help you very much with your travel arrangements, perhaps I can give you a little assistance for surviving your trip across the Pentland Firth on the St Ola. I am no seafarer, as you know. But I have overheard a few phrases on the occasions I have made this trip. I hope these nautical terms will be of some assistance. Fore: Duck! Golf balls crossing the Pentland Firth. Port: a necessary alcoholic, and medicinal, anti-dote for sea-sickness. Ro’locks: An apt description for this opinion. Bo’sun: a plastic container useful for containing sea-sickness. Pieces of Eight: for which read Pieces of Carrot. Draft: the beer you can’t drink, ‘cos you’ll throw up. Ferry: An islander’s adverb, usually preceding “scary”. Bridge: I believe OAP’s play it, but I’m not quite old enough to know for sure. Fo’c’sle: a mis-spelling. I’m chucking up, and the suffix should be ‘..sake. First mate: Anyone contemplating losing their virginity while crossing the Pentland Firth must be completely off their trolley. Second, third or fourth, or even umpteenth, must be aware that on the Ola, the expression Knee-trembler refers to something you perform with your head either over the side, or down the sadly few-and-far-between bogs. Hard-a-stern: I have no idea what this means, but whenever I hear the expression, I stand with my back to the fo’c’sle. Oops – have I digressed slightly from topic? Terribly sorry, and I am sure my anecdotal ramblings are less th
                  an helpful to seeking-genuine-consumer-info-type-people, - of which there may be a few. If I may quote someone without naming names, I was told a wee while back on Ciao “ This would be a good opinion if you cut out the guff.” ‘Fraid I can only be me. Guff is what I do best. If you want bald facts, read somebody else.. Doubt if I’ll contribute anything else this year, so all the best for 2002 to all involved with dooyoo, contributors, staff, and peripheral wankers. ‘Tis the season of goodwill to all, even abusers. Who, after all, will see very little of 2002 on this site. (Power to your elbow, Jo.) © Mike Clark 2001

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                    27.12.2001 05:49
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                    You know, I didn’t really want to do this. I’m heading home to Aberdeenshire tomorrow, weather and the apparently rather inept Bear Scotland permitting, and though I had already indicated I would be absent over Christmas and New Year, that wasn’t quite true. I was home for one day in between, but didn’t anticipate having time to log on. But here I am. In very Festive mood. Regretting the fact that I had asked Jo and Simone to create new topics for me to write on over the break. Although I fully intended to do so. But partly ‘cos I’m not here much, and partly ‘cos they’re serious things, they’ll have to wait until after Hogmanay. Yes, I was reading some great ops tonight, and looking for a category to write some funny, Aspen-type, tongue in cheek, p*ss-taking, un-crown-worthy, but suiting-my-festive-mood opinion, when I came on this subject by accident. Having found it, I now have to do it justice. Firstly, it is a crying shame that the very wording of this topic should imply “sympathy”, or “being sorry for”. But it does. It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction in our society that being on one’s own at Christmas is socially unacceptable. Now I am the first to recognise that there are many, many people, who spend Christmas alone NOT out of choice. I had a great aunt, who died many years ago (bless her), who became housebound in her last few years. But she was such a sociable character, it broke her heart to be unable to get out and walk down the street on Christmas Day, and call in to her even more infirm pensioner neighbours. So, despite the young family at the time, my ex-wife and I always found and hour or two on Christmas Day, to visit my housebound great aunt. Because she craved company. What society fails to recognise, is that some people crave solitude. Sorry, but that does not make them s
                    ocial misfits. It simply means they are individuals, who are capable of thinking for themselves, and are capable of making their own decisions. I had a family (I still have, obviously, but they are grown up now), who loved Santa. Who loved Christmas. Christmas is a wonderful family occasion, and when the kids were young, we all enjoyed every Christmas moment every year. And I would not go back and change a single thing. But things are different now. The boys are men. I will see them between Christmas and New Year, and we are as close as we have ever been. But Christmas for them now is spent with the families of their respective partners. My ex-wife has a new significant other. I’m not entirely sure what they do for Christmas, and it’s none of my business. They boys don’t go there, but even if they did, I wouldn’t mind. My point is this. I have an ex-family. We spent many, many bloody good Christmases together. For me, the only drawback was the inlaw involvement, which left me with a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I loved the bits of Christmas which I spent with my immediate family. However, in the few recent years I have been on my own, my sons have invited me for Christmas. My elderly parents have invited me for Christmas. My friends have invited me for Christmas. Sh*t, even my ex-wife and her new partner have invited me for Christmas. Why is it so bloody hard to find excuses to decline? And what so many people fail to understand is this. Some people actually enjoy being alone at Christmas. Some people actually find it a great relief to be able to do their own thing, without having to fit around someone else’s agenda. And it’s not as though the well meaning offers aren’t appreciated. Believe me, they are. They are appreciated for being well-meaning. And please, do not let this opi
                    nion influence you against visiting a lonely neighbour this Christmas. All I ask is this. Keep an open mind. Not everyone feels as you do. At Christmas, and at all other times of the year, treat your fellow humans with care and understanding. Those who have different needs, and different priorities, are not weird. They’re just different. And for their own very personal reasons, they may just WANT to be alone at Christmas. © Mike Clark 2001.

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                      22.12.2001 08:02
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                      I have tried all the search options; every possible route, but I cannot find anything on this site which extends beyond Boxing Day. I was doing this searching thing, given that it is approaching Christmas Time, looking for anything – yes anything – related to Hogmanay. Well, obviously – yes, obviously – any internet site with any sort of UK connection would have recognised the importance of Hogmanay. But not dooyoo. Clearly, Euro-dooyoo equates the UK with Englandshire. Kenjohn, and even the expat sidneygee, and many others, will empathise. We have dooyoo categories for top ten Christmas wish-lists. Correct me if I am wrong – and for once, in the interests of UK diplomacy, I sincerely hope I am wrong, but I can not find any topics even remotely connected to Hogmanay. And I certainly cannot find a category for Top Ten New Year’s Resolutions. Which would be a cracker of a topic, if not in mainstream dooyoo, at least in Speakers Corner. But no. The land of Mel Gibson has been ignored yet again. You know, pals, I really wanted to write an op on my top ten New Year’s Resolutions. It was going to be a wee bit funny; and a wee bit personal; and a wee bit Aspen. What the fork. Gonna doo it anyway. 10. Stop smoking. Okay, I know this is a joke. We do it every year, and fail abysmally.. I only record this item as a diary entry. I feel obliged to replicate this diary entry of 1973. It makes me feel good that I have a memory going that far back . . . 9. Reduce alcohol consumption. Arising from which, my DY contributions would be more meaningful and less cyber-space-consuming. 8. Feed the geriatric JR less. I know it’s kind to be cruel.. I’m too kind – she’s too fat. We’re both going on a diet. 7. Stop having lascivious thoughts about Carol Smillie. 6. Stop preten
                      ding I don’t buy cheap wine from Lidl. 5. Stop pretending I only drink Glen Ord. I can’t afford Glen Ord. (Cringe) I drink Glen Orchy from Lidl. 4. Jonathan Cainer assures me the world is my oyster. If I can find a pearl up my ar*e, I will believe in my stars. If not, de facto, I have piles. 3. What am I doing here? Remind me? Yes, of course, this is a very important top ten which DY is sufficiently culturally inept to recognise. My number three wish is for dooyoo to recognise not only its UK input, but its Scottish input. Not only because the Scottish input is significant, but because it won’t be too long before the Scottish input is a damned sight more important than the English (depending on the UK for recognition as a somebody) input. 2. I am b*ggered if I can remember what two is. I have been working so long and hard on this, and I am now concentrating on number one. Know something? It doesn’t matter My Number Two wish for 2002 could be that Susan Deacon has a child that looks like Tommy Sheridan;. Or that Henry McCleish gets the managers job at Rangers, and Big Eck stirs big sh*t in Holyrood. Big Eck probably would gain a bigger turnout on election night than either McConnell or Swinney. And this is a very serious subject, despite Aspen making light of it. Sadly, 75% of the DY population, like 75% of the UK population, assumes a patronising looking-down-the-nose-pose. And does not even recognise names. And even worse, in patronising ignorance, will give this an SU with the caveat “what the f*ck’s this about?” My number two resolution is this. Despite the fact that I don’t trust Jack McConnell further than I could throw Ben Affleck into a prevailing wind, I wish for Scotland in 2002 a bigger return to their local government’s per capita, than they have had for many a year, give
                      n that the oil revenues this country ( yes, country) produces, has for many years exceeded the returns government has provided to our infrastructure. I think I am still under heading two. Though I am not too sure, ‘cos I am getting emotional. Sorry, my other UK pals, but my number two New Year’s Resolution, is to fight with my dying breath for Scotland’s independence within Europe. 1. My number one resolution – and you’ve all been waiting for this – is DO NOT POST WHEN P*SSED. Technology sucks. Go back a decade. I now have a big cardboard notice above my PC, which says “Memo to self – DO NOT POST WHEN P*SSED” Sadly, I have yet to be convinced of it’s efficacy. © Mike Clark 2001

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                        16.12.2001 06:58
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                        (Correction at the end) *** Cynic that he is. I mean, you just don’t write another opinion until the last one has gained a few reads, now dooyoo? Or at least you wait until it has been dumped off the latest opinions cross-site. What could possibly prompt the calculating, cynical Aspen to shoot himself in the foot like this, reducing his potential reads? ANGER. ‘Tis an irrational emotion. It is an emotion which positively encourages shooting-in-foot and regretting-it-afterwards. Thank (my) god (small G), that dooyoo can still attract advertisers. And as a consequence, can still offer a pittance to its contributors. Unlike some others. Long may this continue, and I wholly understand the requirement of a site like dooyoo, to sell advertising space and earn its crust from sponsorship. I wholeheartedly support dooyoo’s marketing campaign, it’s sponsorship deals, and all of it’s commercial links. I fully understand the need for banner advertising, and the essential income it generates. But if I am thwarted by another pop-up, my monitor’s oot the rented, double-glazed windae. I resent the fact that every click within the dooyoo site is interrupted by a “security warning”. For a technophobe like me, this is very misleading, and could, in fact, make an interesting Trading Standards case. The pop-up headed “Security Warning” is in fact an offer to install Macromedia Flash 5.0. Well, not so much an offer, more a demand. Because I cannot progress from one dooyoo screen to another without first taking an action (ie cancelling) the pop-up. Now, sure, my technophile friends will tell me that I can disable pop-ups. But why should I? I do not ask for these to interrupt my surfing. They are uninvited and unwelcome. If I ask nicely, the Post Office (sorry, Con
                        signia), will not deliver unsolicited mail. BT will bar unsolicited Fax advertising. I want my server to bar pop-ups. It should not be down to a technophobic Aspen to work out how to disable pop-ups, because they are an infringement of my privacy. Even more importantly, a responsible website (as undoubtedly dooyoo is), should not inflict this curse on its members. If for no other reason than sheer commercialism. How many people will you p*ss off before you realise it’s a bad idea, and maybe the sums won’t add up? Funny – and as I say I am a technophobe – and I am sure this is pure coincidence - but since the Flash 5.0 pop-ups started to appear, not only was every action within dooyoo infinitely slower, but during the course of this evening logged in to dooyoo, I have had to re-boot five times. Immediately after the pop-up appearing, I have had the “you have performed an illegal operation, etc, etc, . . shut down”. Coincidence? The cynical, technophobic Aspen does not think so. And talking of pop-ups, After I have logged into dooyoo – Geniepopup1 will not let me proceed until I have closed it. And, though they don’t stop me, Daryl and Natalie, and their pop-up friends, have the fact that they irritate Aspen as the least of their worries. Daryl and Natalie better save their pennies for their defence in court vs. Post-It Notes. Advertising is necessary and essential. No-one recognises that more than me. But there is acceptable advertising, and there is unacceptable advertising. Tread the line carefully, dooyoo. ***(Correction - Thanks for the many comments on this opinion, some of which have been an education. I was not aware that the item I have described was a software dialogue box, and not a "pop-up", and hence that this op was
                        not relevant to topic. Neither was I aware that the item was from Microsoft, given that it doesn't say it's from Microsoft. If Macromedia.Inc is a Microsoft alter-ego, I'd be grateful if someone would tell me. The whole point of this is simply that not everyone who uses the internet understands the technology, in much the same way, I suggest, that many of us who drive cars have no inkling of what goes on under the bonnet. The one thing I do know, is not to download something I know nothing about. So I cannot agree that the best way to get rid of this item is to download it. Now that I know what it is, I will. But I cannot agree with downloading an irritant as the best way of getting rid of it. And I would ask you all to remember, that there are many users of the net who have no inkling of what goes on under the bonnet.)*** © Mike Clark 2001

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                          16.12.2001 05:06
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                          If I said this was a fascinating subject, would you tell me to get my anorak and leave the party? Please don’t. Pour yourself another double paraquat and tonic (only joking, kids), settle down, and listen. Herbicides are nasty, but perform a very important function. They are also one of the biggest consumer rip-offs of recent times. And the dooyoo categories pander to this rip-off, by creating a heading “herbicides”, then sub-dividing it with branded products. Herbicides are chemicals. The same chemicals appear in many branded products. The price you pay for the chemical depends on how famous and how well marketed the brand name is. To remain relevant to topic, let me mention Scotts Roundup. Briefly. Because it is no different from Monsanto’s Roundup. Or PBI’s Roundup. But until recently, no-one apart from Monsanto could use the name Roundup, ‘cos Monsanto licensed it. (Yes, the same Monsanto who are frantically genetically modifying every known vegetable, and breeding triffids which are even resistant to . . erm . .Roundup.) But the license expired, was not renewed, and all the other manufacturers of a glyphosate-based herbicide, who couldn’t sell sod-all because they had to market it under the consumer-unfriendly label of “glyphosate-based herbicide”, called it Roundup. As soon as that happened, they upped their prices, because they had a name to sell. And Monsanto had to reduce theirs a little to compete. Only a little. But some herbicide manufacturers are still not using the Roundup marketing handle. And therefore their product, although identical in chemical formulation, is much cheaper. If you have a small garden, and a small weedkilling requirement, by all means buy Scotts (or somebody’s) Roundup at the Garden Centre. If you use a lot of the stuff, go to an agricultural merchant, and buy five litre
                          s of Glyphosate 360, for about the same price as you will pay for a litre of Roundup in the Garden Centre. It is exactly the same product as basic Roundup. On the safety side of things, Roundup is one of the safest herbicides to use, although personally I would always advise erring on the side of caution. The concentrate should be handled wearing gloves, but inhalation has not been proven to be harmful. Note, I didn’t say inhalation was not harmful. The applied spray is safe to pets and humans when touch dry, assuming it has been prepared to the correct dilution. Please do not fall into the trap of thinking, I’ll just make it a wee bit stronger to make sure it works. The manufacturers recommended dilution is not only the safe dilution, but the most effective. Using more will NOT make it work any better, and will only cost you money, and increase the environmental risk. If you are in any way dubious of the safety of the product, or if you have uncontrollable young children or untamed pets, with a penchant for licking wet weeds, spend more money and buy yet another dreaded brand name. Monsanto’s Roundup Pro Biactive is approved by SEPA for use in watercourses, whereas ordinary glyphosate should not be applied within five metres of any watercourse. Pro Biactive has also dropped off the bottom of the COSHH list (Control of Substances Hazardous to Health), which means you can handle the stuff and eat your sandwich afterwards. Now, let me dwell a little on Roundup’s main adversary. The telly adverts are totally misleading. And the public do not understand the differences between herbicides, because they are not given enough information. Comparing herbicides is not apples with apples. Each herbicide has a different function, and that function must be understood by the user. Again, it does not help that so many brand names are involved. Always turn to the back of the pack/bo
                          ttle, and read the contents. “Contains glyphosate” means, whatever it’s called, it is basically Roundup. Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide, which is absorbed by an actively growing plant. The chemical works through the plant’s system to the root, kills the root, and the plant gradually dies. Hence, Glyphosate is slow-acting, but very effective. “Contains paraquat” is the main rival, and features on the packaging of Weedol, Pathclear, and others. Paraquat does not kill plants. Paraquat merely burns off foliage. As a result, annual weeds will die, but perennial weeds – dandelion, dock, thistle, creeping buttercup, bindweed, etc – will simply lose their current leaves and regrow. But paraquat is visibly effective in two or three days, which deceives so many of us into thinking it is worth spending money on. How many times have I heard or read “I sprayed Roundup a week ago and nothing happened.” Roundup will probably take a fortnight, but apart from pernicious weeds like Ground Elder and Nettle, which need repeat applications, the area you spray will be clear of perennial weeds this time next year. The area you spray with paraquat, will have a new flush of perennial weeds within three weeks. Work it out for yourself. Quick temporary fix, or long-term solution. And finally, even the bog standard glyphosate can be ingested, and though uncomfortable, you, your children or your pets will live to tell the tale. One ingested drop of a paraquat-based herbicide can be fatal. I fail to understand why paraquat-based herbicides can be sold to the general public. As a landscape professional, I have to be trained and certificated to handle and use paraquat. And when I buy it over a trade counter, I am required by law to sign a disclaimer, confirming that I am aware that it is a potentially fatal poison, and I am suitabl
                          y qualified to handle it. Think about that, next time you buy Weedol in Woolies, and check your garden shed for half bottles of Pathclear . . . © Mike Clark 2001

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                          • Pet Bereavement / Discussion / 0 Readings / 28 Ratings
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                            14.12.2001 04:07
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                            <**Updated Christmas Day, for one minor grammatical correction, and quite cynically, 'cos it's the best I've done this month, and it means a lot to me, so I want it at the top of the heap.**> When I hear another Homo sapiens say “But it’s only an animal”, I want to kill. Yet in some strange way, I understand their point of view. We adopt animals, treat them as part of the family, regard them in some (many) ways as human, and often grieve their passing at least as much as we do our relatives. But they are only animals. Yes, I understand their point of view. Because we are all different. But personally, I have grieved a damn site more for lost pets than I ever have for certain of my relatives. You can choose your pets . . . . Many years ago, our six-year-old Golden Lab (yes, only six), had gone through her third major operation to remove malignant tumours. The vet told us straight. This was only a prolonging exercise. His advice was to get a puppy. Now. While the “old” dog was still well enough to train the young one, and at the same time, ease, for us, her inevitable passing. We took that advice. We bought a ten week old black labrador crossed with a small percentage of tractor. The next couple of months were an incredible experience. Old Lab dragged herself out for a pee – only three legs functioned, the other trailed. But she would make several attempts, trailing that leg, until Young Lab followed her. Then when both were out together, Old Lab having done her thing, she would stand at the door, barring the way of Young Lab for as long as it took until Young Lab performed. Then they would come in together. The kids were infants at the time, crawling. We were a bit concerned with a boisterous puppy about the place. We need not have worried. Wherever they crawled, Old Lab crawled with them, and put her ai
                            ling body between the bairns and the over-exuberant pup. Put a big Golden paw on a small black neck if fun and frolic threatened to get out of control. It was both a joy and a sadness to behold. When the time came, I could not bring her home. And I know many of you will castigate me for this, but I wanted to remember a lively, loving Old Lab. I did not want my last memory to be a limp bundle. We said goodbye to the family, I took her to the vet, and came home alone. Not directly. I shed tears for a long time in a lay-by. After all, she was only six. Young Lab lasted twice as long. Perhaps it was the element of tractor (or collie). And thanks to the wonderful non-human training she received, she was so good with the kids she could have baby-sat. No formal training whatsoever, yet she was perfectly house-trained, totally obedient, everything you could ever want in a dog. That vet was so right. No human being can train a dog like another dog can. Of course, there are exceptions. Into Young Lab’s life came the (now) geriatric Jack Russell. Found a-wandering and unclaimed, and of indeterminate age. Incontinent and untameable. And the only person/animal/creature ever to push Young Lab over the precipice of canine restraint. But although she bit the geriatric JR’s arse a few times, it was only after intense provocation, and I have every sympathy. I have been tempted myself occasionally, but have been deterred only by the knowledge of where her arse has been. Young Lab went the way of Old Lab the Christmas before last. Christmas Eve, in fact. She, too, had endured three operations, for the same problem which seems to so afflict Labs. I had resolved (yes, I. By now wife and kids had grown up and fled the nest.) not to put her through another ordeal. Time comes when you have to ask yourself the question – Am I doing this for th
                            e dog or for me? But I could not undertake a repeat journey. This time (to hell with the cost) I asked the vet to come to me. But I also asked the vet to take her away. Once again, I wanted the mental images, and the photographs, of a lively dog in her prime. Though I was present at her lethal injection, that was not the memory I wanted. As it happens, had I opted to take both dogs home, and buried them in the garden – as so many people do – they would now be in the garden of someone else. We do not know what is around the next corner. Pets – whether dogs or any other animal – become part of the family, and unless you are a pet lover, you will find that difficult to understand. Pet bereavement is every bit as traumatic as human bereavement. More so in many cases, because no-one bothers to pretend to mourn a pet. Relatives you haven’t seen since the year dot don’t turn up when your dog dies and express their condolences. But we all turn up to plant Great Uncle Bert, though few of us have exchanged two words with him since nineteen oat-cake, and many of us have never even seen him. When you lose a friend from the animal kingdom, at least the few who mourn his/her passing are genuine. I don’t know if this helps anyone who has suffered pet bereavement. But I hope that the sharing of experiences will bring some benefit. {Old Lab was called Truffle. Young Lab was called Do’nut. Geriatric Jack Russell was, and still is, called Bisto. She is now stiff, partly deaf, definitely arthritic, but – touch wood – has not yet developed any of the problems of her Lab predecessors. I take her in the car to a country park, leave her in the car in the car park, go for a walk, come back, take her home, carry her into the house, and ask her if she enjoyed her walk. Invariably she says yes, and expects a biscuit.) © Mike Clark 2001 (Please ignore the mandatory "Recommend to a friend", which has no N/A field, but damned well should have)

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                              11.12.2001 03:16
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                              I was resolved to write nothing about Christmas this year. After all, it has been done to death, and though it is a great way of attracting a few extra reads, as a dooyoo topic, there are even more contributors who won’t read these things than there are who won’t write about them. But since very few of you read the John o’Groat Journal, I felt the need to share something with you. Something which, I suspect, is replicated the country o’er in one form or another. Take one northern town. Take one northern town which is over two hours drive from the nearest main shopping place. Take one northern town whose traders scratch a living by providing goods and services either for those who cannot do the four hour round trip to the city, or by providing goods which cannot be readily obtained by mail order. Take one northern town, for whom the fun has gone out of Christmas (if indeed you subscribe to the view that there should be fun in Christmas. I do. That’s not to say I do not recognise or appreciate the religious significance of this festival, be its origins pagan or Christian. But only Wee Frees would deny us some fun at Christmas.) Take one northern town, which is now divided. Santa’s Grotto, organised by local charitable organisations, opened on Saturday 8th December. Traditionally, the town’s Christmas Fayre (how I hate that word, and even my spellchecker doesn’t like it much), organised by local traders, coincided with the opening of Santa’s Grotto, and a Big Fun Day was had by all. Except that this year, the traders wanted the Fun Day on the 1st December, ie the first Saturday after November. Why? Because the biggest local employer, the notorious Dounreay atomic energy/reprocessing/whatever-you-believe plant, paid its employees on the 30th of November. And the local traders reckoned that if they left t
                              he Fun Day until the 8th of December, the “pay cheques will have gone to Inverness”. And in the midst of this furore, we had the same Traders Association lobbying the local authority about “unfair competition”. It appears that Charity Shops in the town are benefiting from subsidised Business Rates, which gives them an unfair advantage over “bona fide” traders. On the front page of the local paper, the local branch of Imperial Cancer Research gets most of the stick. It’s a difficult one to call, isn’t it? I mean, the knee jerk reaction of most of us is to condemn the commercialisation of Christmas. But for some small businesses, the difference between survival and demise can be the difference between a good Christmas and a bad one. We’re not talking about the nationals and multi-nationals here – we’re talking about the little people like you and me. This is not so much an opinion, more a question. Let me end with a press quote. “ ‘I forgot Christmas is about maximising profit’ says Traders’ disgruntled chairman.” © Mike Clark 2001.

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                                03.12.2001 04:31
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                                This summer, I did something I haven’t done for nearly a decade. I rummaged in the shed under accumulated debris which I dare not list. I extracted the lightweight backpacking tent with the mouse-chewed corners, which once upon a time accompanied me in my forays into some of Scotland’s wild bits. I shoved it in the van, having first removed a rotovator, spade, slightly blunt chainsaw, half bag of NPK, part of a mouldy cheese and pickle sandwich, a can of de-icer (winter was past), and one wellie. Of the other wellie, there is still no trace. I dare say I will pick up the scent one day. On top of the tent, I shoved a camping stove of unknown vintage, a sleeping bag with more togs than a Terry Wogan fanclub, the odd change of socks (which, in my haste, subsequently proved to be a change of odd socks), and of course the mad, but geriatric, Jack Russell. And we went west. On the A87, four miles inland from the Skye Bridge, is Reraig Caravan Site. Now why, in their advertising bumph, the owners should choose to reference it to the Skye Bridge is a mystery to me. Me, I would pretend the Bridge didn’t exist. I would describe it as three miles inland from Kyle of Lochalsh, from where you can catch the WONDERFUL ROMANTIC FERRY to Skye. But then I’m not a member of the Skye Bridge fan club, so make allowances. And that is my only gripe. This is a great woodland site, with a well-laid-out and spacious area for caravans and camper vans. Beyond the main park, in the trees, are some wonderfully secluded tent pitches. There is only one toilet block (but lots of trees – for the dog, of course), but it is large and modern, with plenty hot water, and dish and clothes washing facilities. There are 40 touring pitches (excluding tents), 36 with electrical hook-up. Some pitches are on hard-standing, and there are ample waste water and chemical toilet disposal points. There is no sho
                                p on site, but there is one adjacent. A mini-market (very mini, but this is the remote Highlands), it also houses a post office and video shop. A short walk in to the village of Balmacara, there is a decent pub serving decent pub meals – note careful wording, not critical, nor enthusiastic. But when I was there, it boasted a very entertaining Aussie barmaid (sorry, person), and a pair of equally entertaining local drunks. At least, I think it was a pair, but the night was getting on . . . When I crawled out of the tent in the morning, not at all hungover, the first thing I saw, only feet away, was an otter. I consider myself very fortunate to have seen a few otters in the wild, on these Western shores, but never have I been that close. For that reason alone, I would return to Reraig in hope . . . Reraig is a perfect stopping-over place en route to Skye, but it’s a shame to use it as such. Stay a couple of nights at least. There is so much to see around this place, I urge you not to simply pass through. Just across the main road is Balmacara Woodland Garden. Owned by the National Trust for Scotland, this is a paradise for tree-lovers. Okay, we may be few, but we mean well. You, too, could be a convert after this. A few miles north is the village of Plockton, on the shores of Loch Carron. Please don’t go there. I want it all to myself. Palm trees line the streets, and Hamish MacBeth was filmed there. Shame. Too many MacBeth souvenirs and Wee Jocks now. Check out the periodic craft fairs in the local hall. I bought a woolly bunnet. Sad, or what? Not a tartan one though. I would never stoop that low. North still, for the brave, is Applecross. I’m not really as old as I sometimes think I am, but I can remember when Applecross was only accessible by sea. No, that’s a lie in poetic licence terms. I can remember being told of the days when Applecross was accessible only by sea
                                . I can, however, remember attempting to reach Applecross in an old Mini, which boiled after several vertical hairpins, and with no turning places on the single track road, reversed, sheepishly and defeated, back to base. The only way in to Applecross is via the Bealach na Ba (The Pass of the Cattle). It is steep. It is twisty. It is unsuitable for caravans, drivers of a nervous disposition, passengers of a nervous disposition even more so, or anything larger than a four-wheel-drive, articulated pram. Enjoy. South east of Reraig, ie back the way you came, is Eilean Donan Castle. Today’s trendy world reckons it is famous for Highlander and The World is Not Enough. Sad movie-fed generation that we are. Or as the castley-thing the BBC red balloon flies over. Funny. I thought it was something to do with Jacobites and the 45. Shows how out of touch I am. Then there’s Glenelg. Try reading it backwards. On the south side of Loch Duich is one of my favourite places. And only a stones throw from Reraig. Strike south from Shiel Bridge, over Mam Ratagan, and you reach Glenelg. Here, for the historians, are two of mainland Scotland’s best preserved Brochs – Dun Telve and Dun Troddan. Sadly, some of their stones were plundered to build – another historian’s dream place, Bernera Barracks. And if you have come this far, you are but a hop and a skip away from the site of Camusfearna. Eh? If this rings no bells, you have not read my piece on Glenelg, Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water, and otters. But as I do not plug my earlier opinions, I will not chastise you for this omission. Yes, this is where it all happened. I’ll say no more. But if you want a circular tour from Reraig, come this far. And continue. Because from near Bernera, you can get a ferry to Skye. Six cars at a time, summer only. You land at Kylerhea. And nearby is a Forestry CommissionOtter Sanctuary,
                                which is well worth a visit. Quietly. At dawn or dusk. Thereafter, umpteen miles of single track road. Slept overnight in a layby once, on this road, sprawled across the front seats of an old Landrover. Handbrake still gives me nightmares. Thence to Broadford, which in Skye terms is quite touristy. But on the northern outskirts, slightly off the beaten track, is a chainsaw museum. A what!? Yep, you heard. This is not a travel piece on Skye, so I’ll say no more. But if you are ever in Broadford, seek it out. You will be surprised. And so, back over the extortionately-tolled bridge to Reraig. To sleep. Perchance to dream of otters. © Mike Clark 2001

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                                  28.11.2001 18:17
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                                  What do the adjacent castles of Sinclair and Girnigoe, on the outskirts of Wick, Caithness, have in common with The Valley of the Kings and the Great Wall of China? Well, they’re all on the World Monuments Fund’s Watch List for 2002. And these ancestral seats of the Earls of Caithness are one of only two designated sites in Scotland, and rank with Catherine the Great’s Chinese palace in Russia, the old city of Damascus in Syria, and famous historic places in India, Guatemala, Albania, Japan, and more. Exclusive company indeed for these sagging ruins. Travel northwards from the harbour area of Wick, taking the unclassified road through the villages of Papigoe and Staxigoe. Follow the signs for Noss Head. You can’t go wrong. The road goes nowhere else. When you have gone as far as you can, you will find a large car park, and a gate in front of you bearing the sign “No Unauthorized Visitors Beyond This Point”. And another, just to reinforce the point, stating “Beware of the Bull”. Beyond this gate is the Nosshead Lighthouse complex, now in the ownership of the Clan Sinclair, and developed as holiday accommodation and a Clan study centre. The lighthouse itself is still fully operational, but it is all done remotely, with the wonders of modern technology. However, to the west, along the wild clifftops, you will see some imposing ruins at the cliff edge. A clear, marked path leads to these adjacent castles of Sinclair and Girnigoe. Girnigoe dates from around 1475. It was built by William Sinclair, the Second Earl of Caithness, and was the seat of government for Caithness for two hundred years. It is situated on a promontory on the coast north east of Wick. The accommodation became insufficient, and in 1606, a new wing was constructed, which became known as Castle Sinclair. The last clan battle to be fought on Scottish soil took place near Wick in 1680. The
                                  Sinclairs were forced to give up their lands to Campbell of Glenorchy, Argyll, in payment of debts, and thus Campbell became Earl of Caithness. This didn’t go down to well with Caithness folk, whose rebellious ways led to Campbell bringing a force north to sort them out, ultimately taking Girnigoe. The Castles were re-taken by George Sinclair in 1690, and have lain empty ever since. Girnigoe is protected by two dry ditches, behind the second of which stands the old keep. A passage emerges onto a courtyard, where there were many minor – now ruined – buildings. Beneath the main building is a dungeon, carved from the rock below, and there is a sea entrance with steps leading through a cave to the shore near the outer point of the promontory. Castles Girnigoe and Sinclair played an important role in the history of Caithness, and Scotland generally. It is sad indeed to see them gradually crumbling into the sea, and their inclusion on the WMF Watch List, with the prospect of restoration work, is good news indeed. Inclusion on the list will raise the profile of these monuments, and will hopefully aid the fund-raising already underway by the Clan Sinclair Trust to raise the necessary money for these desperately-needed works. The north wall of Girnigoe is in imminent danger of collapse, and this work is the first priority. Later phases will include restoration work at Sinclair, and establishing a clan centre, a nature reserve, and visitor facilities. Of course, there is far more to this wild place than a lighthouse and ruined castles. The views west and north from this elevated position are superb. One mile west along the coast is the restored Ackergill Tower, now a renowned international conference centre. Beyond Ackergill, the eye is drawn along the vast sweep of Reiss sands, and ultimately across Sinclair Bay to Keiss Castle. And for the birdwatcher, this is a place not to be missed. I
                                  n the summer breeding season, these cliffs teem with Guillimots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Puffins. Fulmar petrels lurk in every cranny, and Shags nest on the ledges. In late summer, sea-watching can throw up passages of Skuas, Sheerwaters and Gannets. When visiting the castles, and the cliffs in general, remember that these are not in official care. Although there is a marked path, there are as yet no visitor facilities, and no safety measures. Take great care. The cliffs are very dangerous, as are the ruins, and a slip on the wet clifftop could be all too easy. At all times, dogs, children and drunks should be kept on a lead. Sinclair and Girnigoe Castles can be found three miles north of Wick, at map reference ND379 550. © Mike Clark 2001

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