Lewis Story 5

Sunday 19th June 1982, late afternoon


It had been a long slog, getting back out of Pairc. Even under the circumstances, it had been very hard to walk past several potential golden eagle nest cliffs. Not every day you find a body, though.

Ewan didn’t feel like hanging about, suddenly this ultimate empty place had become threatening…not that he’d seen anything that suggested the man had died violently…not that he believed in ghosts or lost souls, or any of that religious mumbo-jumbo…it was the lack of any life, the sheer emptiness, that was causing a growing feeling of unease.

Ewan had found dead birds and animals before, like any “raptor worker”, in upland Scotland, he had seen his share of poisoned baits and victims. He knew that you didn’t touch or move their bodies, you kept the “integrity of the crime scene”, as the police wildlife officer had told them on a training course. That was dead birds of prey – a human body was even more important, of course but he had to touch the man’s neck, to make sure he was really as dead as he looked. He would never forget how cold the skin felt.


Even though he had left his heavy tent and food, the journey was tough and it was 6 hours later when he stumbled into the yard of the steading. The Big House was as usual, empty, its millionaire Belgian owner, looking after business elsewhere. The shepherd’s collies were the first to spot him and responded with an orgy of delighted barking – sometimes it was days before any stranger visited this road end. This in turn, set off the black labs and Border terriers in the keeper’s house across the yard.

Gordon Stoat appeared from round the back of a landrover, where he had been preparing a couple of cut open rabbits, covering their flesh and entrails in “sugar” – keepers slang for alphachloralose poison – ready for dropping off near the raven roost on the cliff at the end of the sea loch. Shit!!..it’s the bird man…. “I’ll be right with you, Mr Caldwell”. He hastily threw a couple of sacks over the illegal baits and closed the van door.

“What’s happening?…didn’t expect you back for a couple of days yet – did you get lonely down there?”

“No, no…Ive come to get help – I’ve found a body..”

“A body?…not an eagle!?..that won’t be me, they die naturally too, you know..”

[Ewan would laugh about that one later, when he was regaling his mates from the BNT in Edinburgh. .”he thought I’d caught him out poisoning!!”]

“No, no. .its a man’s body…its in a cave towards the south end…east side..big guy…he’s definitely dead, quite recent, I think…”

“Jesus!”….Gordon looked genuinely shocked…”how on earth did you find….?………..whereabouts ….exactly?”

Ewan told PC McLeod about this strange reaction later. .at the time he was too busy thinking about who to call…Coastguard, Police, the Boss at HQ!??

“Ah’ll need to call the polis right away…”

“Aye, ye’d better come in the house then, …….hang on a minute and I’ll get the number…”

Dear God..a BNT official in his house..what he’d always dreaded..well, he won’t be looking in the freezer…but better hide that stuffed peregrine in a cupboard..Jesus, how did he find the body?…bastard, bastard!”. Stoat ran round the house clearing up.

“OK, I’ve found it”….he was lying, he knew the Stornoway police number by heart, he was always calling them out, when he thought Macaskill or his pals, were on the river or out at the stags.

“Hello…, this is Ewan Caldwell, the bird man, I’m phoning from Pairc, Gordon Stoat’s place…I found a man’s body in a cave this morning…Aye, I’m sure, I touched him, he’s cold…he’s dressed like a local; boiler suit and jacket…I think he’s one of the regulars from the Long Island…what do you want us to do?”

Ewan gave the policeman a six -figure grid reference, for the cave and arranged to meet a PC McLeod in Stornoway, as soon as he could drive there – the policeman had mentioned trying to get the use of the Customs cutter and he would need Ewan, to show him the location.




Lewis Story – 4

Sunday 19th June 1982, morning – Pairc peninsula, Isle of Lewis

It had been a long day already for Ewan. He had been up since 6 o’clock,   when a passing stag had wakened him from a pleasant dream……the close attentions of an adoring female fan, after playing the gig of a lifetime, through a PA that made him sound like John Martyn in 1972…… When he sat up, the stag had rushed off , outraged, with its head up and legs stiff, before disappearing into the rising mist of the valley below.

He knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep and he also knew, that if the mist rose and the day got warmer, the midgies would be on him in minutes – the only things that kept the buggers down were cold and wind. Yesterday had been a good day, no midgies and good clear air, in the stiff breeze. Just the thing for finding soaring off-duty eagles, close to their nests.

All the nests he had found, for the last couple of weeks, had held increasingly large and well-feathered chicks, still relying on their parents for food but with less being brought in, as the adults tried to tempt their young, to make that first, necessary but still terrifying, flight. The nests he had managed to scramble onto, reminded him of two things. Firstly, what a fantastic view there always is from an eagle’s nest, they know how to pick them. Secondly…he must be completely mad – five miles off the road in places and free climbing rocks, covered in a thin layer of woodrush, grass and heather which as often as not, would only take one foothold before starting to slide. Still, it beat sitting in the office!

These nest visits were a quick check, of what food had been brought in – a messy business of sorting through tangles of bones, feathers and guts, strewn around and on top of the big piles of heather twigs. The soft, thick, cosy linings of deer grass which had been so useful in keeping vulnerable eggs warm in April, were now a distant memory, having been trampled and fouled by the feet, food and excrescences of a fast- growing chick or chicks. Sitting on such huge nests, next to an eagle chick the size of a turkey, while its mother glided silently past on 7 foot wings, would be a memory that Ewan would hold forever – the closest to the reality of primeval nature but also to the strange contentment of absolute solitude, that he would ever know.

Yesterday morning, he had made it on to a nest in a large overhanging cave, 150 feet above the sea and had scared himself so much, that he took several photos of the climb, to remind himself, never to do that again. As he sat on his high perch, he noticed a large rusty ship out in the Minch. At this distance, it appeared to be standing still but he could see flashes of white where the waves were pounding its flanks. Irritated as always, by seeing such a potential pollution hazard so close to the seabird colonies of the Shiants, he soon returned to worrying about the truly terrifying descent.

Today, he would continue his coastal odyssey – over 100 square miles of mountain and shore to survey, with the knowledge that this had never been done before. Paradise. Not by eggers, not by ornithologists – how good was that! He had a week’s supplies in the tent which he had brought in on his back, no need to carry water round here and nowhere more than a few hours from his central position. Ideal. What could go wrong? …

He walked the half mile or so to the clifftops, pleased to see that the mist had gone from the coast and that although it was a grey day, the worst he could expect was the odd sharp shower. He had started to get used to this place, where the wind was never far away and sleet showers and biting winds meant gloves on, even at midsummer. He began to head south, scanning the rocks with his *bins above, below and in front every few minutes. The golden eagles around here were astoundingly confiding and in the last few weeks he had seen several individual birds which flew low overhead, with their heads turned down towards him – literally eyeing him up. But he  knew how variable in character they were and it would be just his luck to walk past a nest, where the adults had slipped away quietly, like the ones he had monitored in Perthshire last year – a whole season and hardly any good views – birds which had been selected, by a century and a half of gamekeeper’s persecution.

He saw the cave entrance, when he was still a good mile away – a very large landmark, when you are looking for a single giveaway feather, or splash of white eagle shit, on two-hundred foot cliffs. Unusually, there was a gap in the cliffs at that spot, with a steep heathery slope. He could see a squall blowing up the Minch towards him and realised that the cave would make an ideal spot, for shelter and a sit-down. As he slid down the heather, he could already taste the ginger biscuits and orange he had in his rucksack…….

*[Historical note for younger birdwatchers – “Bins”, the birders slang for binoculars, in the early 1980s, were restricted to a handful of makes and types – compared to the bewildering profusion found in most outlets, by the early 21st century. Those in the know had got hold of the fabled light and handy, 8 by 30 Zeiss Jenoptems – made in what was then East Germany, using pre – Second World War precision tools. Those not in the know, such as a young fieldworker on his first contract, would use 50 times magnification brutes, more suited to being bolted to the bridge of a navy destroyer, than round the neck of a partially fit young eagle worker, struggling up a mountainside – all the while, wearing a sodden Barbour jacket. Such giant optics were described a few years later, in a spoof birdwatching magazine as  – “Donner und Blitzen 70 by 100s”! The common mistake made then, as now, was to associate large magnification with visual acuity – binoculars are one area of life where there really is no substitute for quality – oh yes and size really doesn’t matter! 

Sunday 19th June 1982- Tolsta, north of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis


PC John Macleod’s day had not started well, what with herself, defying the neighbours by refusing to take in the washing – even after a phone call from the widow Morag Mor Mackenzie, asking if everything was OK??….and then being hit with a face full of summer sleet, which seemed to have been waiting round the corner for his exit, from the bare, white-washed bungalow.

Working on a Sunday was usually a treat, or as good as it got, on that “barren windswept lump of peat” as he liked to describe the island of his forefathers. As even the few families of troublemakers were scared of offending the black-hatted mafia of the “Wee” Free Kirk Elders, nothing ever moved on the Sabbath and a policeman’s lot was not too bad – as long as the duty sergeant didn’t have him on some half-arsed training course or “patrol”. John Macleod – or *“kipper” as all his colleagues called him– was looking forward to an easy day-shift in the main office – a little light paperwork and a surreptitious read of his new model aeroplane catalogue without the public phoning in and annoying him.

As he drove sedately [and of course, always legally – you knew they were all watching, on this day in particular] through the puddled roads of the township, there was nothing to warn him, that this was not just an ordinary wet June Sunday.

*[The nickname “kipper” had been given to him when, in an unwary moment, he had mentioned to two, seemingly friendly, older cops, that he had once worked as a fish filleter – that was 10 years ago, during his first week as a probationer…]


Lewis Story – 3 Chatuchak…

eclectus and credit cardsSaturday 5th December 1982 – Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok, Thailand.


“How many you wann??”…”ten!?”  that’s gonna cost you!

Roger loved the way they did business out here. Never a problem, as long as you’ve got the cash – the national slogan appeared to be “no problem”, he must have heard that a dozen times in the last few hours, since he got into the air conditioned taxi at Bangkok airport. The traffic though! He was glad he wasn’t travelling like the backpackers, stuffed into those rattly tuk-tuks, weaving dangerously between the lines of trucks and cars, inhaling fumes and god knows what else.

He had been dropped off at the entrance to Chatuchak market, the famous weekend bazaar, where you could buy anything, from fried water scorpions to “genuine” Royal House of Laos silks. The directions he had received from Jim the finch dealer were spot on, without them, he would have wandered for hours; past the dancing salesmen, selling silk scarves and the packed stalls laden with household goods and furniture.

He heard them, well before he saw the rows of cages – thousands of small, brightly coloured birds, cages stacked three and four high, on each side of the narrow passage way. And then, Shangri La!…A stall, with a crudely painted white backdrop with tree stumps [the irony of that passed him by completely!] and seven large birds, chained by their legs to the ground.

Cockatoos!… Dear God…pure white umbrella cockatoos from Halmahera, lesser sulphur- crested cockatoos from Sulawesi – getting harder to find now – and then ….Salmon Crested Cockatoo, the fabled Moluccan!…and finally, the star of the show, a single huge Palm Cockatoo, with its spiky black head crest raising and lowering, above its bright red cheeks. It stared back at Roger, as though daring him to move closer to its scimitar bill, capable of splitting rock- hard nuts in an instant.

“Beware the smiling Thai” – that’s a phrase thai people use against themselves..and in general, it has no more reality than “scotsmen are mean”, “the irish are stupid” or Americans are all warmongers. This particular smiling thai , emerged from the back of the stall and watched Roger closely. He quickly scanned the chubby ferang, with his sharp creased white jacket and trousers, expensive watch and clean leather shoes …and his smile widened. Not just a passing tourist? This one has money and he is staring with greedy eyes, at the two most expensive birds on the stall. Maybe I’m in luck.

“Eh…I was looking at the cockatoos…are they all for sale like?” ..Mr Boonmee looked steadily at him. “You serious buyer?…you pay me straight cash?” “Oh yes, I pay you cash…and I pay for more of these”. Roger pointed at the Palm Cockatoo…lapsing into the international language of short, easy to understand, English phrases.

“OK, we go talk business, you follow me…”

So Roger found himself in a small café, made entirely of bamboo – counter, tables, chairs, walls, ceiling – at the edge of the market. Mr Boonmee was fast becoming his newest best friend.

“Oh I can pay for them alright, you know they are very hard to find now?”

Daw Boonmee, realised that this stranger meant what he said. They had exchanged business cards – even the man who swept his stall for him had a business card, that’s how things are done here – and he was staring at the western script and drawing of a cockatoo on the gold edged card.

“You realise that such a big order may be difficult…it will take a little time?”. .he was squirming inside, this went against all his usual quick-sale instincts… but surely this customer knew the risks, he wouldn’t be coming back looking for his money, when the man at the airport confiscated his parrot and told him it had been against the law, even to advertise an Appendix 1 species for sale? ….Not when he was paying out nearly a million baht!!

Nine hundred thousand baht….£15, 000…£1500 each. Paid for in dollars of course…$3,000 each…Both Roger and Daw were working hard to conceal their excitement. A fortune for both of them…if Daw could get the birds to Bangkok….and if Roger could get them into the EU.

Two bottles of coke later, mobile phone numbers written down …and the deal was made. Roger to collect the birds in Bangkok, in two months time. Fit and healthy. What he did with them after that, was not Mr Boonmee’s business.



LEWIS STORY – episode two.

birding gear 1982 Rannoch


Friday April 15th 1983


Ewan had felt distinctly uncomfortable going into the Police Office – it wasn’t that he had anything on his conscience, particularly, he just felt out of place. Not an unusual feeling up here, as some of the locals had reminded him already that he was far from home, with their gentle criticism. “Oh, you’re from Glascoo, I went there once, didn’t like it…” or even worse, when he admitted to an elderly crofter that he couldn’t understand Gaelic – “what, you mean you don’t have the native language?”. That remark had rankled for days and he continually thought over new, witty, ripostes to the old man’s pointed remark, most along the lines of “ I’ll speak your language when you stop stealing our cattle”!. He was surprised to find that the centuries old enmity between the Lowland Scot and the Highlander [Glasgow Keelie v  Highland Teuchter] was so close to the surface, he would never have harboured such thoughts about those of a different religion or colour – after all, he was a civilised man, wasn’t he…..?

Anyway, he knew he should have gone there before now but he’d been enjoying himself out on the hill – all that space, those huge skies, the eagles everywhere!! – and passing on his details had felt a little like losing a part of his freedom. No one knew him here and he knew none of them…not like the countryside where he’d grown up, where your every move was reported back to your mother. Even the man that swept the roads knew where you lived. The city was at first a haven of anonymity but within a day or two, of starting this contract, he realised how much he had missed the hills and the stunning surprises of nature in a Scottish Spring, even a very often chilly Hebridean one.

The police station had a new glass and wood entrance, with the standard police blue paint kept to a discreet minimum. Bright lighting and modern posters on the wall and pale birch wood everywhere, added to the welcoming air. He could see right across the reception counter, to a back room filled with banks of television screens, showing an incongruous series of soap operas – the outside of a school, the harbour with the big black and white Calmac Ferry tied up, a narrow street of shops, the car park at the back of the station. The two uniformed policemen behind the counter were engaged in a discussion about the Superintendent in Inverness, who had got “caught out” in some way, when they spotted Ewan standing at the counter.

Stornoway  may be the largest centre of population in the Western Isles, by a long way, but a policeman soon gets to know everyone – the fact that PC Ross didn’t know this small man, with his black beard and *dark green waxed jacket, meant possible trouble, aka work, so, although he responded instantly and with a professional look of concern, a close acquaintance would also have noticed a certain hesitation, in both action and speech. “Good morning Sir, how can I help you?”

“Hello, I’m Ewan Caldwell…I work for the British Nature Trust…we’re carrying out a national survey of golden eagles….I thought you might like to know my car number…I might be leaving it parked at the side of the road overnight…sometimes…” Once again, Ewan felt that odd situation of hearing his own accent, as though it was a foreigner’s, which of course up here, it was…

“Certainly Ewan…very considerate….what’s the number?….right…and make and colour?…OK”….he wrote the details down – Mackenzie hire van, Ford Escort type, Reg No —- colour white, Ewan Caldwell, birdy man…British Naturist Trust – in the large Day Book which sat at the side of the counter.

“That’s you on the record…we don’t get much in the way of criminals up here, but we’re always watching…my brother helped with that big case over at Dingwall last year…you know, where they boys got caught trying to steal eagle eggs?”

“Aye, ah heard about that… I met the lads that caught them, they were doing the same work as me….here, you’d better see my ID and licence to look at nests, those guys last year were pretending to work for RSPB”…Ewan reached into the “poachers pocket” in his Barbour and took out the sheet of paper with the crown at the top, which the BTN had got for him at the start of his contract.

“Never seen one of these…very interesting…so you work for the government?”

“No, no!…I work for the Trust…but the government gives out the licences…I don’t work for them…” the last remark slightly overemphasised, the government’s conservation division was particularly unpopular in the Highlands – mind you, Ewan was finding out, that any government official was unpopular on Lewis…the local police joke up here was, that no one even spoke to the postman, because he wore a uniform.

Half an hour later, as Ewan left the Police Station, he felt that he’d been giving a lecture on nature conservation – a feeling he would get very used to in the years to come.

John Macleod looked at the Day Book when he arrived a few minutes later – “ a birdy man?…I wondered whose van that was, saw it parked near Garynahine the other night, thought it might be poachers….that’s a great job he’s got, birdwatching all day!…wonder if he gets overtime?”

John would remember that moment, 15 years later when he was a DS based in Inverness, a distinguished career behind him …but he never liked his second nickname…the Beetle.


*[Historical footnote for younger hillwalkers – Before Ewan began his career in bird of prey monitoring in Scotland, at the start of the 1980s, there was no “dress code” amongst fieldworkers. Most walkers wore thin nylon hooded jackets called Anoraks, over woolly jumpers, shirts and woollen thermals. Over- trousers were uncommon and were bought from agricultural merchants – most of the tiny band of Scottish bird surveyors wore jeans or cords over “long johns” in cold weather. When it rained you got wet…and cold. 

By 1982 a new fashion had appeared – Barbour jackets. Previously the domain of the huntin,’ shootin’, fishin’ class, these were discovered to have rugged qualities and good deep pockets for hiding your binoculars – from the aforementioned huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ class! After a couple of seasons of hard wear and neglect, however, they began to fray round the bottom and cuffs – splits across the back, became the badge of honour for your hard working eagle or peregrine man. They were also very heavy, after a couple of hours struggling around nest crags. 

By the time the Barbour jacket [aka wax jacket] began appearing on the streets of Edinburgh, as a yuppie accessory – in the same way that the 4 by 4 has become the “Chelsea Tractor”, in the 21st century – the modern era of cagoules, layering and entire shops devoted to the needs of a growing army of Munro baggers and weekend hillwalkers, had begun. 

In the early to mid 80s, virtually all these men had beards – facial hair was almost a badge. Female fieldworkers were an as yet unknown and unthought of phenomena, in that macho world.


The Ewan Caldwell Stories – part 1 “Lewis Story”.

remote site LewisIntroduction

This is the first part of a planned three part work of fiction, following the career of a scottish ornithologist/naturalist/investigator working in the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st. Write about what you know, they tell me! So I did…All persons in these tales are entirely fictional but could easily have existed, any resemblance to real persons I will take as a compliment to my writing. Anyone who takes offence at anything in here needs to “sort themselves oot” as we say down here in Dumfriesshire.

Finally, I do not and never have taken wildlife crime lightly. The theft from the wild or killing of protected wild birds and animals anywhere in the world, is a theft from all of us and our children’s children. Having said that, the human condition is often unwittingly hilarious, even in the darkest of circumstances, as I can personally attest. I [and Ewan] will not shy away from laughing at and with any characters I may have created in here. Enjoy.


  1. Saturday 18th June 1983…Pairc, Isle of Lewis…


Lachie Macaskill wasn’t big on landscapes – he also wasn’t much at hesitation, deviation or contemplation…you could say he regarded thinking too much, as a complete waste of his precious time….or he would, if he ever thought about it. It was a strange thing about the Scottish Highlands – the more beautiful and remote it appeared to an incomer, the less some locals seemed to care.

Lachie had few pleasures in life but he indulged them to the full – whisky, poaching and spite being the chief ones, though not necessarily in that order and he would never call his large annual take of salmon and deer, as “poaching” – the fish and deer belonged to him by right and after a few wee goldies with his cronies, he could become quite wet-eyed as he talked about the fabulous exploits of his illustrious forebears, none of whom were ever caught while exercising those rights, of course.

A large, dark-looking man with bushy eyebrows and small brown eyes, he had luxuriant ear tufts of the sort only seen, in remote farming stock. His clothing would have shown any interested onlooker – though they’d better not look too close, like – that either there were no mirrors or close female relations involved, or that they had both long ago ceased being effective, as far as Lachie was concerned. A man of considerable presence, when he entered a croft or the snug of the “Long Island” – but he was still able to melt into a ditch, when the police car passed, on a summer’s night.

Mind you, the vast landscapes of south Lewis could have swallowed up whole armies in a minute and Lachie always felt very small, out on the Pairc, no matter how many times he had been there before. You quite literally left civilisation behind you and faced more elemental fears, in that place.

Lachie smiled, as he watched the small boat head out of the cave and into the open water of the Minch. The pile of wooden crates that were so obvious on its first appearance and that had weighted it down dangerously, in the choppy water, were no longer there. He could hear the roar of the outboard and the slap of the bows, as the orange rust-stained hull rose up into the waves. The return journey to the big ship, a mile offshore, was going to be a good deal faster, now the cargo was unloaded.

Half an hour later and with the large ship beginning to head east, across the open channel, Macaskill wound his way down from the hilltop -occasionally slipping down the leggy heather on his backside, excitement growing, as he neared the cave entrance. A few nervous moments on the ledge and he was inside.

He knew this place well, as did his great-great grandfather, who used it to make and store the best whisky in the Hebrides. Even after the best part of two centuries, there were old bits of wood and stones showing, where the big still had been sited, at the dry back of the cave – and where a shaft of light shone miraculously down, on a dozen wooden crates, neatly stacked and with some foreign scribblings stencilled across them.

“Well, well …what have we got here” .Drugs maybe? Guns? Explosives?” A whole range of possibilities raced across his mind – well, perhaps they walked a bit faster than usual. “Whatever is in them, it will be worth something to someone… “He began to lever open the lid, which had rows of holes neatly punched in it, using a sharp ended stick, found at the water’s edge among the seaweed. He thought he could hear a scuffling sound from the neighbouring crate and then felt a familiar tingling on the back of his hand – instinctively he stopped working and slapped with his other hand. “Damned clegs” he thought…it was his last thought, as the muscles of his heart and lungs simultaneously closed down.

[Before his lifeless body hit the ground, the squashed remains of a small iridescent blue beetle bounced on to the dry shingle…..]


[Next episode in a week or so..thanks for reading!]

If I Ruled the World – How to run a pub….

I’ll start with pubs…and feel free to disagree with any of the following!..We all know that the state of the “british pub”, particularly the rural ones, is in freefall.They’ve been closing all around us for some years now. The reasons given are fairly obvious – the smoking ban [yes, it did seriously affect many people’s decision over whether to go out for the night], the availability of a huge range of much cheaper alcohol in shops, the growth of an insular culture where reality TV computers and iphones means less desire for face to face interactions.

Much of the above, however [with the possible exception of the smoking ban – although a large section of today’s young smoking folk have merely altered the ingredients!] applies to folks under 50 or 60….and the population is ageing. Old geezers like me are surviving much longer. Our parents would have been out of the game one way or another well before this. There is a large part of the population who looks to the pub as a pleasant socialising option – or at least they would if it wasnt for..

VERY LOUD MUSIC which is pretty obviously the favourite of the barista – and just as obviously hated by the the handful of ageing punters huddled over their pints and g and ts….That situation is incredibly common all over Scotland..as a “weekend awayer” when finances allow, to the exotic resorts of Fife, Pitlochry, Argyll, Edinburgh it is nearly impossible to find a quiet pub with subdued lighting, good beer – rather than the empty shiny metal horrors with ear bleeding techno or rap competing with a TV screen the size of  football pitch showing vacuous “celebrities” or failed politicians eating cockroaches in a jungle or grimly attempting some awful 1950s latin american dance routine in front of hundreds of baying hyenas.

Walking outside is a blessed relief. I remember the days when you had to be dragged out of a pub, they were such welcoming environments.

So..remember the bit above about an ageing but still healthy population?…They are what we call “a growing market”. The wild success of such as our local “all come in and join in on a musical instrument” night in one of our local pubs..the huge growth of ukulele clubs, slow session fiddle playing, the continued survival of folk clubs [against all the odds!] – all these are held in pubs with participants and audience in the 4o+ and often 60+ bracket. Pubs which would otherwise be empty – and these are pubs with no intrusive inappropriate piped music, gaming machines or TVs playing.

So..pub owners…rule number one – any music being played, live or recorded, should be for the patrons NOT THE STAFF! Rule number two -think about how to keep and attract your customers. Change is not always a good thing. Don’t rip out all the old wood fittings and tiles, they might be the main reason why people like your pub.Older customers may not drink expensive shots or 10 pints a night but they will keep coming back – WE ARE ALL LIVING MUCH LONGER.


On a related point of badly run pubs/venues – our band recently negotiated a gig in a small pub with no history of live music, in a local town. We are old hands, we dropped in on the place, talked to the owner sussed out the rooms, plug points etc…We sent him posters, put it on social media, all the usual. We played to one customer…there wasn’t a single poster up on the pub inside or out..they had done zero promoting. We got paid the agreed amount, the pub lost out. Their regulars didn’t know we were on, never mind any passers by. Its tempting to say “hell mend them!” but the fact is that sort of incompetence affects the performers too – it doesnt take a genius to put up a few posters [which have been provided to them!]……I actually don’t like taking money off venues/promoters when a gig doesn’t work out – but I do my job…why don’t they do theirs?

Dave’s Ideal Performing Place

Recent times have seen my spleen being vented on many occasions, usually related to my own personal live music wars. Now, with the ongoing state of the world – refugees, bombings, new diseases and the old ones coming back – some might say this is self-indulgent or even downright uncaring. Not at all, if anything, my internal strife has been exacerbated by the world’s struggles and pain, or more exactly by the filtered and selected examples of it that we either see on mainstream news or on the internet, which is increasingly the same thing. It may sound odd but Im finding it harder to keep my own small problems in proportion and under control, when I see a world on fire and with much of it under the jackboots of bigoted unfeeling zealots. Trump, Osborne, IS? take your pick.

All of the above is really a pathetic attempt to justify what Im about to write. A deliberately over-the-top fantasy involving unacceptable unpleasantness happening to groups of people who irritate me, almost beyond endurance.

It started with myself and the lovely Eryl drinking coffee in a cafe/converted large shop floor on a busy street, right on the edge of Glasgow’s West End. Coffee can be a dangerous drug for me, my imagination tends to spiral off, leading to lengthy diatribes which only stop when I’ve bored myself. Poor Eryl, shes a saint, never interrupts….

A large open space but with reasonably low ceilings, at first glance it looked ideal for live performance. It even had a separate long narrow smaller room seen through a low arch. Small performing area away from the bar/serving area at the back of the room. My ideal performance cafe bar, I was thinking…Then my darker pessimistic experienced side kicked in.


Which brings me on to the main theme of today’s symposium [to quote the great Tom Lehrer]…Dave’s ideal performing place…called, “Dave’s Ideal Performing Place”. Now a wonderful name like that would attract and encourage those persons who inevitably clog up any live performance – that group who want to be seen at the trendy happening action, but then go on to wreck it by braying at each other about how wonderful it is and totally ignoring the act on stage.The musician/actor/poet can’t hear their own efforts and therefore put in a poor performance. If experienced, they wait for the well-timed applause as the trendsetting noise mongers become aware that there is a pause in the proceedings. To the inexperienced performer this comes as a shock and pleasant surprise, although the applause often drops off later in the evening, as the conversation gets juicier and the alcohol gets a grip. What the inexperienced performer doesn’t realise is, that these folk arent appaluding the skill of the performer, they are applauding the ambience of the place and their own superb taste in choosing to patronise it. Meanwhile the experienced, and therefore probably more skilfull, players are turning in a lacklustre night as they realise that they could be miming to a recording of a noisy night in a cafe, for all the attention that they are getting…and thus the cycle of mediocrity is perpetuated.

Now, some of you, if you’ve got this far, will be thinking…poor old Dave moaning again. Yes, he is..rage against the dying of live music, I say…and Im going to take that rage much further….Dave’s Ideal Performance Place would have punishments for those who chose to ignore the necessarily strict rules of conduct needed to guide audiences back to my idealised time, when there was an unspoken contract between audience and performer. That performer, be they lone musician, poet or actor didn’t have to beg for a listening – they seemed to get it by right. They had the courage/bottle/arrogance to stand in front of an audience and “do something”. I did see the undeservingly awful get basic respect…but I also saw the undeservingly awful get ignored or even heckled – no one had the right to be unrelentingly bad….but at least they got a listening…not in these modern times though…

So here’s how it will work…

There will be a bar at the back of the main room, with enough efficient bar staff to make sure no one has to wait more than two minutes for their drink. Anyone tempted to hang about the bar, chatting loudly during a performance will be approached by an efficient bar staffer, who will warn them to lower their voices. If they ignore this, the efficient bar staffer will spray ice cold water over the offender[s], moving onto spraying them with Mace [thank you, the late great Hunter S. Thompson] if they are large and aggressive. Meanwhile, in the main body of this larger room, similar rules will apply – I am not of course talking about normal low volume chat, which would be encouraged in the outer bar…we all know I’m talking about those cretins who move from a loud whisper to shouting, within two drinks..those guys..and gals…there will be full equality in “DIPP“.

Moving on to the smaller performing area with its slightly banked seating, gently raised stage, superb in-house PA with optional mic-ed up backline amps and foldback speakers, variable house lighting, stage lighting, superb acoustics..and all operated by a fully professional sound engineer, who actually likes the music being played and understands the routine stresses and strains of performing and has “ears”. The audience, while not all sycophants, are actually capable of enjoying intensely a well crafted and well presented performance. They notice mistakes but they also notice particularly good passages of play.

So far, so bloody great…but…any audience member who approaches a performer before the gig and says “you’d better be bloody good!”, even if he thinks its a joke..will be removed to the alley at the back of the premises and beaten to a pulp by our trained ex-military bouncers..and denied re-entry, for life.

Any audience member aggressively heckling/chatting to their neighbour during “quiet bits”/answering a mobile phone/texting ostentatiously/falling asleep will discover that their seat is above a trap door. The floor manager spots the offender, presses a button and the seat and occupant plummet into darkness, the door springs back silently and the show goes on. We will never know where they have gone..and we do not care.

I should also mention that all performers get paid. An absolute rule. Anyone suggesting having ” an open mic, they’ll do it for the exposure” or the truly disgusting, “pay to play”  – will be hustled from the premises, at the end of a cattle prod [again, many thanks to HST].


The above of course, is a fantasy – “its only a joke!” [see Stewart Lee’s attack on Top Gear]….none of us would really want these things to happen?..would we???




Salmon Geese And Brambles…..Folk and Jazz….

Yes, its autumn again…what happened to summer??..Once again we watched the daily weather map, with its division of the country, mainly in a line from about Manchester to Durham..in a strange parallel to the political situation. Gritting our teeth as the weather person smiles and gives the good news about another roasting hot day. Well not up here..”and Scotland will have blustery winds and showers, heavy at times…” Great.

Well, we just get on with it. So..brambles [or”blackberries” as our southern cousins like to name them], went out today for my third picking expedition round the hedgerows of upper Annandale. To find only one good spot, which provided nearly two pounds weight of shiny black berries. Masses of green ones still – we need a couple of days of bright sun but will it come in time? As I’m sliding down through the jaggies, clutching a bulging polybag and causing Mrs McCullochs nearby piebald horses endless fascination, I hear a vaguely familiar sound, a bit like a cross between distant bells and dogs barking. Geese! It takes me a good thirty seconds to spot them, high up against a grey sky – three long wavery v-lines coming down from the north over Hartfell. I’m instantly taken back to my mother calling us out into the garden, to watch them fly high above my 1950’s childhood. A fresh, strong memory that years of working with geese by the tens of thousands on Hebridean islands hasn’t erased or made mundane. Along with whooper swans calling in the night, its the sound of nature that really gets through to me, every time.

Music Festivals – are wonderfully varied things with “personalities” that reflect both the type of music being celebrated and the type of people doing the celebrating. I say this as a lifelong performer, in my small way, who has seen music festivals large and small over the past 45 years, both as a punter and as a player. Recently, I played a small folk festival and a medium sized jazz festival, both relatively local to Moffat. On arriving at the folk festival, to open its first evening performance, I was amazed to see at least 10 large winnebagos/camper vans parked outside the venue with groups of middle-aged to elderly [these terms are becoming more fraught/important to me as each year passes!] men and women playing instruments and drinking beer and wine while sitting in little tabled enclaves next to their “covered wagons”. As clear an indication of the growing numbers of ageing retired, with money, in our society. These were the same folk who, when I were a lad, hitched-hiked with tents and sleeping bags, all over the UK, some of them playing cheap Yamaha acoustic guitars and broken down banjos and drinking cheap cider and red tins of canned heavy. Now they’re picking on top range Martins while sipping Pinot Grigio. Dont get me wrong, Im delighted for them…and I never forget, these are my audience!!..Still, its a reminder of the price you pay for working for a charity all your life…no winnebago and a constant diet of wine and festivals for me..on a tiny pension and dwindling savings. Rather more worrying for the folk scene though, was the lack of youngsters attending the concert, I would suggest. Those described above made up the bulk of the appreciative audience. ..Yes, I know there are hordes of talented well trained young players out there..but many of their pals probably cant afford to travel and get entry to concerts. Just a thought…

The next week and its a jazz festival – full of razzamatazz, bright posters and publicity material. The folk I talked to there were either locals or staying in hotels. Not a fair comparison perhaps, I wasn’t conducting a survey. What was much more obvious though was the presence of whole families at the sit down gig. I say “sit down”, but the biggest joy of playing there was the spontaneous dancing of a few adults and two pre-school tots. A wee girl smiling and dancing in front of you is always a treat, even if it is to Muddy Waters, Sleepy John Estes or Memphis Minnie. Little kids get it – “its all about rhythm”..as the great John Martyn once said to me. Now, I’ll put my cards on the table here, Im not the world’s greatest jazz fan – it very seldom moves me..and what jazzers call blues I certainly dont recognise as such….but that festival showed me that they will survive, by encouraging and enabling enough people of all ages to have a good time.

..and then it was back to autumn and nature…the sun has arrived and with it some warmth, the chilli plants on our windowsills are fruiting, some belated green tomatoes have appeared in the polytunnel…too late for a rather poor bramble harvest..and the river is down to a trickle. No self respecting salmon is going to get to the upper Beat through that. They’re catching a few at the mouth but the last few years have been pitiful. I see and applaud those who are trying to save the hen harrier in England, down to a pathetic handful of nest attempts due to the criminal conspiracy known as “managed” grouse moors…we need a similar awareness campaign over the desperate plight of the atlantic salmon. It is clear now, with these fish disappearing from rivers all round the North Atlantic that the biggest problem is industrial scale trawling and offshore netting on their wintering grounds off Greenland and the Faeroes, not helped by the abomination that is salmon cages, polluting some our most beautiful sea lochs and infecting passing salmon and sea trout with life-sapping parasites.Where is the outcry over that? Salmon are not just ” a rich man’s hobby” in our rivers, they are an essential wild creature component of a complex ecosystem. No salmon in our rivers will be every bit as disastrous as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” – the cry against foul chemical pollutants like DDT and Dieldrin poisoning wild birds that got this conservationist started, as a 12 year old boy. We need someone to step up, like Mark Avery has with the Hen Harrier…there have been many within the angling world, Bruce Sandison springs to mind, who have railed against the recent loss of sea trout and salmon but what is needed now is a similar online blast against those in our government and beyond, who have brought the wild salmon to the brink of extinction.




I could just leave these two photos as my Post….look at them for a moment. The black and white photo was taken in Vietnam on June 8th 1972..the naked girl is called Kim Phuc and has just been hit by napalm, sticky burning petrol, from a bomb dropped by mistake on a group of civilians by a South Vietnamese pilot – “friendly fire”. Scarred for life. It became an iconic photo showing the real cost of war and helping the anti-war movements in the US and Europe. I remember it well. The photo on the right you will all recognise, its been on the media and in newspapers in the last few days..it shows a 3 year old boy drowned and washed up on a beach near Bodrum, SW Turkey. His name was Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian Kurd. His family were fleeing from the war in Syria.

In June 1972, I had just completed my degree course at Strathclyde University, I was 20 years old. Long hair, guitar player, planning my trip East on the hippie trail. Vietnam was a news item on TV every other night. “They were burning babies, burning flags, the hawks against the doves” [Richard Thompson – “Beeswing”]…I wasn’t “political”, I didnt go on anti-war protests but I sang the songs and if asked would have been strongly anti-war…as would all of my friends…but it didnt really touch us..it was on the other side of the world..none of us were getting conscripted.

Now its Sepember 2015 – 43 years later – Im 63, I have a grand-daughter 2 years old…not much younger than the wee boy in the photo, who lies in a grotesque parody of a child’s summer outing to the sea-side. This is real to me. This hurts. I care.

Last night two of my friends were complaining on Facebook about having too many photos of “dead people” sent to them…

I have absolutely no sympathy with that point of view…one comment actually said the photos were “in bad taste”. Bad taste!!..Wake up and smell the napalm. War is getting closer.