Friday, 15 April 2016

Memories and Anticipations

I have dragged myself away from my friend Lucy Lawrie's new story, The Last Day I Saw Her, to write a much-needed update on Blair House. Lucy was my great Blair House childhood friend and we have been longing to get back there together for years. And The Last Day I Saw Her, I discover, has a starring role for one Glen Eddle, a place of forests, rivers, crags, friendship, peace, and idyllic childhood holidays. I think my picture dated November 1987 of charging through a conifer plantation on a treasure hunt fits Lucy's descriptions better than the elegant girls actually on the cover...

Meanwhile, the refurbishment of Blair House is coming on excellently. I went up today with Dad and found the tops turning white:

The builders are going to finish the inside before doing various bits of work on the outside, which means we can get in and start painting and moving back in much earlier than I anticipated, in May! Opening in June?!

Showers are appearing: this one replacing the bath in the downstairs bathroom, and one in a new shower room upstairs. George Harris exploring in the background:

The basin has been refitted in the big bedroom - after my sister pointed out it was really handy for families with small children. And a new toilet and an old door are just hanging out there chatting:

New windows and cupboards everywhere: these are in the former scullery, now hopefully a more convenient entrance:

This platform is solving the health-and-safety hazard which was coming straight out of the porch door and down two concrete steps. It has already been christened the Knitting Platform:

Not everything is new. Most of the doors have been put back this week: I like the way this one has "keep" pencilled on it, and still has its number 10 on it. When we are painting I think these old numbers may just have to be preserved!

The old kitchen is the new drying room/ coats room. It has also gained a cupboard thanks to a kitchen unit muddle.

I'm sorry I haven't got a picture of the kitchen going in: it was full of builders sitting around the fire. It looks good though: I will definitely take a picture next week.

I'm hugely grateful to the builders Barry Greenhill and his team from Forfar who are making it all happen so efficiently and cheerfully.

Lady's Mantle and turf-moss in the snow in the garden.

And if you've ever stayed at Blair House - or lived in Edinburgh - or wish you had - I think you're going to like Lucy's book.

More Blair House photos and updates on the Facebook page.

Eleanor Harris

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Refurbishment underway

It's taken 18 months, at least 7 experts (the Bat and Freshwater Pearl Mussel ecologists were my favourites), at the serious illnesses of 2 of the team to get to this point, but Blair House is at last being refurbished. The contractor is Barry Greenhill of Forfar and he is due to finish in early summer, after which it will be over to me and my eager volunteers to get it painted and ready to reopen. 

Please follow the Blair House page on Facebook for updates and photos over the coming weeks. 

Discussing gutters with Barry

New car park in progress - and in use - it will have grass over it eventually
Everywhere has been insulated to within an inch of its life. This is the plumber and I discussing refurbishing and re-fitting the old washroom sinks (behind me) in new places. 
Two varieties of interesting wallpaper which appeared in a bedroom!

Creating an upstairs bathroom: out with the old immersion heater; in with a new door.
Re-plumbing, re-wiring, insulation, door re-hanging: it was like DIY SOS! 
New (unfinished) platform in the porch, dictated by the need to prevent the scenario of coming out of the door and falling down the steps. In my head it is called the "knitting platform" and where all that insulation is will have a comfy chair on it looking out of the window...
There were changes up the glen too: the great flood in December has changed the river in many places and created a more natural course after years or centuries of human intervention. Here it's scoured out all the old branches and gubbins which used to disfigure this waterfall.
Red deer among the birks of Clova. Did you know the Scottish deer population is now over half a million, and was already considered too high in terms of ecology and crop damage when it was a mere 100,000 in 1959? *
Simon Pepper, A brief history of "the deer problem" in Scotland, 2015.

Meanwhile, I've developed a craze for moss, something Glen Doll has in abundance and deer don't eat.

Some pretty cool lichens too...

The obligatory Corrie Fee with frozen waterfall photo.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Forty years at Blair House by George Harris

Eleanor's father George Harris, who taught history at the Edinburgh Academy 1973-2010, remembers forty years of expeditions to the glen.

There's at least one of my paintings of Blair House hanging in the Staff Room at the Edinburgh Academy. I left it behind when I retired, as a reminder of a great place that was soon to be sold. How wonderful that it is going to be a field centre still, always bustling with folk. I don't see why not.

The painting shows the building in snow, from the Acharn end with the Doll woods behind, disappearing into wintry mist. It was done in about thirty-five minutes, with big brushes, for it was done from life, and no weather to be standing around outside.

George with daughter Sarah, son-in-law Andrew, and a friendly local in the woods near Moulzie.
Winter is always a great time to be at Blair House. I wonder if anyone who reads this remembers the time we set off on a walk with Maurice Garret before dawn and that evening, in darkness and falling snow, argued about the route. The argument was settled by the fortuitous passing of a car, about twenty yards away, so close were we to the road below the Clova Hotel. Later on there was a great family holiday one Easter when we were able to build the children a working igloo up at the Viewpoint. As for Hogmanay, that was often booked up years in advance. Those feasts can't have been better than the glorious Christmases we spent there with the Marshes, with a ceilidh in the washroom. The first time I used my crampons in anger was coming from Mayer and then down the Kilbo. Before I was even appointed my interview (Feb 1973) was supposed to include a day in Glen Doll with Rector Mills. Thank goodness we got a phone message that the road was blocked with snow; I doubt if my lack of winter mountaineering skills would have impressed him. 

Spring for a long time meant the great Higher Revision Week that Henry Marsh and I used to set up. Other families – Roberts, Trotters, Cowies – often came too, and the most we sat down for dinner was 24. The pupils were guaranteed five hours supervised work as day, interspersed with fresh air and exercise. Only once, I'm afraid, was a wood-gathering party led up the track by a piper. It ought to have been a tradition. Spring comes late to those high glens, and the main flower as I remember was primroses. There always seemed to be frogs in abundance, and great herds of deer on Craig Mellon.
With Henry Marsh at Blair House. "This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present Wall..."

I rarely managed a visit in the summer term, though that was when so many lucky pupils – the Primary 7 that we called Geits – experienced the place. However, there was a time when my A-levels finished well before term ended and there was a chance to take senior pupils for some serious walking. I don't know if anyone else went up and down and up again to Glas Maol, but that was a great day in remote country. Three times I took parties to Lochnagar, once in mist so thick that the top of the summit cairn was out of sight from its base. The line back to the top of Jock's Road was the longest compass bearing I have ever managed. Though I do remember someone saying on Tolmount in mist: “Well. I've been lost with Mr Boyce, I've been lost with Mr Williams, I've been lost with the Rector. Now it's your turn.” For trophy hunters our best such day was the complete horseshoe, starting with Dreish and finishing (still a long way from home) with Broad Cairn. Six Munros in a day.

Climbing the Kilbo Path to Driesh with a much smaller Sarah, one Easter revision week c.1990.
Summer holidays were families and children. What a great experience for everyone. Craig Mellon and Corrie Fee had limitless possibilities for exploration and wonderful flowers. There was the occasional foray down the Glen to castles and gardens and hill-forts and Pictish stones. There was Jeremy Fenton's wonderful wayfaring course, which took youngsters to strange glades and rocky outcrops deep in the forest. In recent years improved paths and extra bridge-building have made all sorts of easy circuits, and easier access to the rivers for swimming or boating.

Photographing a lizard on the Capel Mounth Path, with Andy Heald, 2011.
In the autumn term (or “Winter Term I” as cynics called it) one was usually glad of the open fire. Autumn spates and autumn colours gave the glen and the corries a different sort of beauty. One never knew what to expect. Blair House is certainly the only house where I have seen a cuckoo and a stoat out of the front window and a red squirrel out of the back. I only once went completely on my own – a heavy pile of marking and an exam paper to set – but while I was sitting on the patio I was able with binoculars to watch deer feeding and two eagles circling. It is not easy to do that from town.

"Eagle!" Veronica Harris, George Harris and Henry Marsh on Jock's Road, c.1990.

For my last few years of teaching I was officially in charge of the bookings and did my utmost to maximise the field centre's use. I hope the small bus-load of Geits we took up to explore the history down the Glen still remember the splendid few days. We rehearsed “The Mikado” there, too, I recall. Geographers and Biologists found it ideal for fieldwork. But it could not be denied that there were all sort of problems. So my daughter Eleanor's decision not merely to buy the place, but to refurbish it and revive it as a place where young and old alike can live more close to nature than most places I know has been really lovely news. My reminiscences need not be “good old days” but exciting ideas for what to plan next.
Looking over Glen Doll Forest from Craig Mellon, 2009.
Stay in touch with the refurbishment by following Blair House on facebook. Until 24 March you can also provide much-needed financial support through a crowdfund. You can also contact Eleanor Harris,, if you are interested in being involved (painting party anyone?).

You can also follow George on Twitter @historylecturer.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Blair House Plans

As plans for the Blair House refurbishment are now well-developed and as people are so generously supporting it through the crowdfund, it seems a good time to provide a bit more information about what these plans are. I would add the disclaimer that none of them are set in stone, but they are well advanced and I hope work will be complete and Blair House reopened later this year.
Blair House and the adjoining Acharn Farm

The refurbished Blair House will have 20 beds in 7 bedrooms. Its basic rate will probably be £250 per night which works out as £12.50 per bed or £35 per room (maybe less for a week/ more in peak season etc).

These competitive rates are possible thanks to low housekeeping costs: visitors will have to bring their own bedding and towels, and will be expected to leave it clean. This does not mean it is not also homely and luxurious!

It may be possible to book only part of Blair House, but as it will not be staffed this will only be by special arrangement. For the same reason, it will not be possible to book individual beds. For small groups the nearby Clova Hotel has bunkhouse, lodge and hotel accommodation and I can testify to its excellent bar and restaurant.

My aim with the refurbishment is to solve three major problems -- fire safety, bathrooms, and heating -- while changing the character of the house as little as possible. This is likely to cost around £200,000.
We've all fallen down the bunkhouse stairs ... They will be replaced, and turned 180 degrees!

Those who remember Blair House from its Edinburgh Academy days will be particularly interested in what this means in practice. The major changes are:
  • Central heating powered by log-burners, replacing the coal fires and storage heaters
  • Solar thermal supplementing the hot water immersion heaters
  • Insulate loft and inside internal walls
  • Five shower rooms (two upstairs) to replace the washroom
  • Old washroom area divided into downstairs ensuite bedroom and new 'playroom' 
  • Old toilet block to become new drying room
  • Dorms and stair on bunkhouse side reconfigured to meet fire regulations
  • Dining room to become kitchen-dining room
  • Clear roof to porch reducing the blockage of light to the dining room
  • Full rewiring and specialist fire alarm system
  • Easily-accessed and hardcored car park for 5 cars
The proposed ground floor plans. Not much change to the house side (right) but a reconfigured bunkhouse side (left).
The upstairs plans. Upstairs toilets, such luxury! And the 'study' will be a real library, full of books, and, I hope, a log-burner (not yet marked on the plan)
Site plan, showing non-muddy-slope carpark; solar panels; and clear porch roof. Suncatchers!

As the plans show, it is an odd building. The whole site is a nineteenth-century farm steading. The 'house' side seems to have originally been one-and-a-half of three farm cottages and the 'bunkhouse' a barn. I believe it was all acquired in the early twentieth century from the farm by the Forestry Commission, which converted it into a bunkhouse for those planting Glen Doll Forest. It was purchased with the Blair bequest by the Edinburgh Academy in 1970 and refurbished, and the porch added, by staff. I have been visiting it since about 1985 with my father, history teacher George Harris.

Eleanor and George Harris exploring in Corrie Fee in 2006. Silly hats.

Blair House will be run on a social enterprise basis, meaning that after its refurbishment debts and people's time has been paid for, any profits will go into a fund dedicated to fulfilling its aims which I have summarised as 'restoring nature by inspiring people'. This might include funded trips for groups which could not otherwise afford to go; subsidising training courses; or supporting other charities or projects with similar aims. My intention is to publish an annual report on this activity.

As part of the social enterprise ethos I also plan to maintain the link with Trees for Life established through the crowdfund, by inviting visitors to plant a tree (£5) for each car that travels up and for each basket of logs used in heating.
I plan to redeploy the washroom sinks in the new bathrooms. Waste not, want not - and they're lovely!

I hope you like the plans which are the result of many people's ideas and comments. Please do add your own especially if you have valuable experience or expertise. I would also invite you to make a donation, however small, to the crowdfunder which runs until 24 March. This will not only help directly with the cost of refurbishment, it also means Blair House is re-founded on the basis of a community of support.

Please stay in touch by following Blair House on facebook and following Eleanor Harris on twitter.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Glen Doll Forest

One upon a time, there was a dark, dark moor,
and on that moor there was a dark, dark wood,
and in that wood there was a dark, dark house...

Blair House, Glen Doll, Angus

So began a beautifully-illustrated children's book. I loved it because after the spookiness its ending is all homely, and because it made me think of Blair House, Glen Doll. I didn't know one day Blair House would be mine, and I'd be restoring it as a field centre.

Doll is the Angus glen with the forest: the biggest on the Munro-strewn plateau that heaves between Deeside and the Mearns. Glen Doll forest clothes the midway point on Jock's Road, the ancient drove road from Braemar to Kirriemuir.

Blair House, on the edge of the forest, was acquired from the farm which it adjoins by the Forestry Commission, who sold it on to the Edinburgh Academy after the forest was planted. Its history is entangled in the forest.

I love Glen Doll forest because it has no pretentions. It panders to no human constructs of aesthetics or authenticity: neither "picturesque plantation" nor "native restoration". It's a functional timber crop of spruce, larch, fir, and lodgepole pine, yet it has grown so much richer than that. It provides vital shelter and variation in habitat. It covers land which would have been forest originally, now denuded and degraded by millenia of overgrazing, nothing like the pristine bogland notoriously damaged by ill-placed spruce plantations in Sutherland.

Glen Doll Forest with the peak of Mayar (top left) above Corrie Fee, Craig Rennet (centre), and Jock's Road running left to right.

Parts of Glen Doll forest have grown over-mature and begun tumbling down, creating glades and deadwood. Parts are being clearfelled, parts replanted, parts managed for leisure and biodiversity.

Summer larches and bilberry understory (V's photo)

Conservationists argue incessantly about how Scotland's landscape should be managed, but on one thing they all agree: we need more trees. We need them for biodiversity, and we need them for ourselves. Trees are our best renewable fuel and building material, and, vitally, our only effective method of carbon sequestration.

There is nothing 'wild' about Scotland's landscape: humans have been shaping the Angus glens since the stone age. Glen Doll forest is a fine example of how our influence can enhance, instead of degrading it, while making our own living from it. It is practising John Ruskin's economics: "THERE IS NO WEALTH BUT LIFE".

The woods on the Kilbo Path are strewn with boulders, full of the sound of tumbling water, and rich in mosses, ferns, and starry flowers.

Glen Doll forest has got into my Blair House refurbishment. I investigated biofuel pellets and ground source heat pumps; I was recommended oil; but I came back to log burners. I've contacted the foresters, and they can supply me. Instead of switching a switch to keep warm, people staying at Blair House will feel the roughness of Glen Doll timber in their hands, smell its scent, see it glow and hear it crackle. That's being in touch with nature.

Loving the trees at Blair House. That's me in green.

But we must plant more trees. And it is no good to say; we'll do that later. The ease with which we can spend nature's resources while so busy with our own thing is our downfall. There is no economics too costly, no politics too urgent, no religion too true, to delay restoring nature. The World Wildlife Fund as calculated that when Blair House first became a school field centre in 1970, there was twice as much nature in the world as there is today. Unless we put more back into nature than we take out of it every day of our lives, we will lose, catastrophically and soon. We need to write restoration into our every act.

This is why I have teamed up with Trees for Life for my Blair House fundraiser. For every £25 donation, £5 will plant a tree. When Blair House is open, guests will be invited to plant trees for the cars they drive and the wood they burn. This is not a gimmick, or a distraction, or a romance. This is writing restoration of nature into the down-to-earth running of Blair House.

Pines at Bachnagairn. (V's photo)

Trees for Life are restoring the ancient Caledonian pine forest which once reached as far as Angus, but their work currently focuses on Dundreggan further north. You can find scraps of it around Glen Doll at the steep corrie-ends and amongst the boulders out of reach of deer: Corrie Fee, Bachnagairn, and one above the treeline above Jock's Road which we christened 'the magic wood'.

'The Magic Wood', Jock's Road, showing the natural treeline should be far above the extent of the planted forest.

These are my tales of Glen Doll forest. If you like them, please help me restore Blair House, and plant a tree: here's the link.

I love the larch because it is deciduous, marking the seasons like a Japanese garden. In spring it bursts out in pink flowers...
... and in autumn transform to gold. (V's photo)
In autumn the forest's fungus community puts on a glorious display of mushrooms: if one isn't enough, here is an album.

In winter spruce and fir make far better shelter than larch. Looking down from Craig Mellon in December, the woods look like warm woollen rugs on the landscape.

"You struck off from Dundee, up through Angus, heading deep into the glens and up and over, aiming for Deeside. Snow covered the higher peaks. [...] You were in amongst a circle of pines, gently brushing the upper inches of the thick needle blanket into a deep, dry bed. [...] When you awoke you had been there long enough for a white sheet to have drifted down over you. You stood and shook yourself. [...] and soon you were on a track across a moor, climbing into the dimming light. The wind rose and the snow came on more densely, piling up with astonishing speed. In a while you realised you'd made a mistake by leaving the shelter of the trees." James Robertson, And the Land Lay Still.
 When I was very little, we used to make little houses for mice amongst the tree roots, inspired by Brambly Hedge and Beatrix Potter: a slate table and log benches, a carpet of fine red beech leaves, a feast of shiny mast, with their cuppy shells for candelabra, and lichen flames. 

Mum used to organise treasure hunts through the woods for me and my sister and my friend Lucy. Look, there's a clue in that tree! And we're deep in the woods on our own!

When I was twelve, Lucy, her friend Vicky and I were sent off by our parents to do the Edinburgh Academy wayfaring course right round the forest. We were into Eternal Flame, unrequited love, ghost stories, and, in my case, developing my arty photographs in darkrooms. It was October, mists rose out of the trees, and stags were bellowing on the hills all around us. We worked ourselves into an exquisite gothic terror, especially at one particular marker post, Number Ten, deep in a ride in the darkest part of a fir plantation.

I went back in 2012 to see how many of the wayfaring posts were still there, and found about half of them. I was excited to revisit Number Ten and approched it from the direction we had come almost twenty years before. But forest had been felled, and I found myself crossing a hundred yards of windblow. I thought I might never get out.

As I remembered how we had imagined Number Ten was enchanted, or cursed, it occurred to me that if I impaled myself or broke my neck here, no one would ever find me. Number Ten, when I eventually found it, was well outside the forest, amazingly still there. No, I'm not telling you where.

 We also used to love going for late night walks in the dark, letting the forest enwrap us. And when Lucy published her first novel last year, there it was:
"We let our eyes adjust to the dark, agreeing we would only use the torch if we got lost. Sound and touch became everything: the roar of the river, the crack of twigs under our feet, Jonathan's strong, warm hand taking mine. [...] After ten minutes' steep climb we came out of the trees at the viewpoint. There was a narrow bench and we sat down. The mountains were just traceable against the sky. They seemed to have a presence in the darkness. [...] "Look at the stars!" Lucy Lawrie, Tiny Acts of Love.

The landscape is always changing: the trees have grown up so far at Lucy's "viewpoint" that it is a name one can only pronounce now in inverted commas. When she came back with her own children last year, I showed her a new path through the woods along the river, where once we had struggled like pioneers in jungle. Her children were enchanted, like we were.


It's time for a re-enchantment of our landscape, of our society. Plant trees.
Or it's time for an evidence-based, long-term economic policy. Plant trees.
Or it's time to take practical action to mitigate climate change. Plant trees.
Plant trees.

Blair House will enable hundreds more people to encounter the enchanted, humble Glen Doll forest. Please follow this link to support its refurbishment - and plant a tree. You can find out about the Trees for Life Caledonian Pine Forest restoration on their website

Eleanor Harris @eleanormharris.

Photos mainly by me except for those by V who prefers to remain anonymous.

Red and green.

Looking across the forest to Craig Mellon from the window of Blair House in summer.
Larches and Scots Pines (V's photo).
Rainbow over a forest road.
The Whitewater in summer.
I love walking in the woods in heavy rain. You are sheltered and the trees turn to diamonds.
The woods immediately behind Blair House are not Forestry Commission, but associated with the old hunting lodge, and are full of ancient treasures and mossy riches.
V's photo.
Larches and fir at Lucy's Viewpoint.
Fern, sorrel, anenome: rich shapes in the forest understorey.
Blair House behind a licheny bough.

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