Meconopsis magic

The Himalayan Blue Poppy, Meconopsis, has a special place in my gardening affections.

In years past I sometimes bought them at the garden centre. Alive, vigorous and ready to flower at the time of purchase, in the autumn they would disappear into the ground, never to return. In retrospect I think they were planted in thin soil and prone to dry out in summer.

Then a couple of years back, I made progress and got a small clump established in a shadier spot. I began to take real pleasure in their unfolding buds, their varied blues and their drooping aspect. Now, to quote Beth Chatto, with some of the right plants in the the right place, I became more ambitious about growing them.

In the autumn of 2019, the plants set seed for the first time. With the poppy heads nice and ripe, and in the nick of time as a visiting deer started to nip them off for a tasty snack, I collected a paper bagful. I then cracked out the fine, shining black seed before storing it carefully in a labelled envelope.

In March 2020 I filled several trays with scattered seed on damp compost and then sprinkled fine grit over the top. Having no greenhouse at that time, I left the trays on a low wall where they would attract some sunshine, but not dry out.

By May I had a patchy but gratifying array of seedlings. By July I was re-planting into four-inch pots. Some grew faster than others. Some poorer specimens struggled and died. 

But by mid August, when a sense of early autumn pervades the morning air in these parts, I felt confident that my modest stash could be planted out in the ground. There they sat for a few months, in their new location near a rill that runs from the burn into the pond. In dappled sun and unequivocally damp.

Over Winter they slumbered beneath the leaf mould. Returning hesitantly in March 2021, they were un-phased by the frosts of the late Spring. If they took a knock in the early hours when the April chill descended, they were soon back in business and giving me hope of a return on my efforts.

In May 2021, to my delight, I got my first two flowers, seen here, their blooms not quite fully unfolded but looking majestic in a porcelain deep blue. I felt ridiculously pleased about it. 

That year I repeated the process, with good results.

Then in autumn 2022, I varied my method and did as experts suggest – sowing the seed immediately – ‘just like in nature’. At first, things looked promising, with good germination. By the shorter days of November I had several trays of healthy seedlings. But then came the terrible frosts of December last year. I entered the greenhouse one morning to find my seedlings turning grey and looking beyond rehabilitation.

Over the Winter I left the trays where they were, and waited for Spring. Slowly, some new seedlings have emerged, but I will be lucky to have 10 plants in total, whereas last autumn I was hoping for far more. Such is gardening. I’ll try to nurture them along and plant them out at the end of this summer.

Even with hit and miss results, growing from gathered seed is a lot less costly option than buying-in Meconopsis plants year on year – and much more satisfying!

I’ve read that the blue poppy was first cultivated by the French botanist Viguier in 1814. I also understand that the Meconopsis has many named varieties and that these are often shrouded in debate as to provenance. Some do not set seed at all and have to be multiplied by plant division. Informally, I have named my home-grown friends Meconopsis Pennylandis, after the lovely Dumfriesshire burn that runs past them.

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Garden Musings on 16 May 2021

The Infinity Pool

The pool sits high above the loch. Find the correct vantage point and the two waters merge into one. On the far side, pebbly beaches, scrubby woodland, and low hills. Above them, long wisps of white cirrus that streak the cobalt blue sky.

It’s a luminous May afternoon in Argyll and the holiday weekend is well underway. I stretch out after the journey here, easing my limbs in the warmth, shaking off the mental clutter.

Young children with parents and grandparents splash and play. Glasgow voices joke and chat. People in the sunshine, enjoying the moment, free to have fun.

Continue reading “The Infinity Pool”

The Camassia: from Pacific North West to Scottish South West

As a student of anthropology in the early 1970s, I still remember some classes we had on the phenomenon known as Potlatch. Part of the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West, it relates to large gatherings in which alongside story telling and feasting, a special emphasis is placed on the conspicuous display of wealth and largesse, in some cases even the destruction of valuable possessions in order to demonstrate one’s high status in the community.

I have often thought of the parallels between these practices and the ‘conspicuous consumption’ so prevalent in Western culture. But until now I had no idea there was a link between the Potlatch and the world of horticulture, and in particular my own Dumfriesshire garden.

Continue reading “The Camassia: from Pacific North West to Scottish South West”

What’s in a place-name? An interview with Colin Mackenzie

This latest interview in my series about creative and inspiring people living in Dumfries and Galloway, is someone I have never met. Indeed, when I contacted him earlier this year, he informed me that he was about to leave his home region and relocate to Orkney. So I’m looking forward to meeting with him in person some day – in one or other of those places.

Colin is a primary school teacher, a linguist and an expert on place-names, a field of study known as toponymy. Using a variety of methods and new programs for studying maps he has built up a remarkable knowledge of the place-names and associated stories of Dumfries and Galloway.

He is highly trained in his area of study and holds a PhD, but his research is a labour of love that he works on alongside his ‘day job’ and he has eschewed any thought of a university career. He is the kind of person who makes the world a richer place, but seeks no particular reward or recognition in doing so. He has harnessed modern social media for the best of reasons – to share in detail what he has learned about the names of places that are all around us.

Continue reading “What’s in a place-name? An interview with Colin Mackenzie”

Epiphanies and Robberies Chapter 4: April – The Devil’s Stone

Anne-Marie has brought her lunch outside. It’s one of those early April days when the earth offers up composty aromas and the breeze, at least for the moment, has lost its chill. She tilts her head to feel the sun’s warmth, soft on her face for the first time in months.

Unusually contented, she opens the brown cardboard box to find a mixed green salad, a small bread roll, a pat of artisan butter, a pastel de nata, and a sparkling drink. Yes, the Carse House folks know how to look after people, that’s for sure. Her meeting here last month with the trustees had gone well. The Maxwell Band was duly booked at a generous fee and now here they all are, assembled for a full rehearsal later this afternoon.

The lunch is delicious.

Afterwards, with a little time to spare, she takes one of the paths from the garden and makes her way down through the trees to the beach below. Great drifts of cockle shells have been washed up on the pebbly shore. The tide is in, and the ever-shifting light of the Solway Firth shimmers on the calm water. An oyster catcher circles overhead, warning her away with its shrill piping.

She’s been along here many times, walking parts of the coastal path with her parents, on school trips, and later hanging out with teenage pals round late-night campfires. In places the sedimentary rocks tilt at impossible angles, rock pools forming on their revealed edges. There are sea stacks, rock arches and lots of fossil possibilities. These don’t detain her today. She’s looking for a very specific and singular landmark. Rounding a small bluff she finds it.

The Devil’s Stone is a massive silver-grey granite boulder. Reputedly a mouthful taken by Satan from a nearby hill, and then spat out onto the shore, the taste not to his liking. Anne-Marie grabs some photos on her phone. She knows from her geography lessons that it’s an ‘erratic’ deposited during the departing Ice Age. Has it moved in the interim she wonders, or sat here quite still for millennia, immune to tide and storm. Bewildering, inspiring, maybe scaring some of the countless humans who have set eyes upon it?

Resting her hands on the stone mass, it’s obvious to her that this symbol of continuity in time passing, must somehow find its way into the Calendarium. There’s a millennial calendar as well as the lunar version. She pauses for a few moments, then turns away from the deserted shore and wanders slowly back to the bustle of Carse House.

The place was purchased by public subscription five years ago. Through the work of a charitable trust and with significant royal patronage, the house has been restored to full 18th century elegance. Its location is exceptional, away from the main east-west road route, on a wooded promontory looking across the waters and sand banks to the silhouetted Lakeland hills on the far side.

There are lots of people in and around the building, moving things from one place to another, setting up and testing equipment, checking on seating and staging. The Carse House management is leaving nothing to chance for the actual event in about a month’s time. The festival will be called Three Days in May and is being planned and scheduled down to the last minute.

At the centre of interest is the large and beautifully proportioned former drawing room which is now to be the permanent home for six contemporary figurative paintings. They are the work of the most commercially successful artist Scotland has ever produced. The paintings have been given to the Carse House trust by Danish entrepreneur, art lover and philanthropist, Jens Pedersen. The festival, will see the paintings on public view for the first time and also the opening of a new atrium to be used for concerts and performance events.


Notwithstanding the opulence, Anne-Marie and the band are always chilled-out in settings like this. Being a gigging musician can involve a lot of sitting about. No matter the hustle around them, they know how to relax into their own ‘down-time’ zone. In this business you get used to waiting for other people to do things. The sax and keyboard players are poised over a game of chess. The drummer is listening to music on headphones. The cellist is deep into a much-thumbed, weighty novel. The vibraphonist makes a few technical adjustments to her instrument. Anne-Marie is people-watching.

Looking around, she knows a few of the crew from other places and events. There are some people she recognises from the pages of Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine. Plus one or two folks from past liaisons, never fully realised. There are plenty of opportunities in her world to meet like-minded people, but their backstage ways don’t always fit the onstage persona. Since Sam returned to Glasgow, Anne-Marie has been happy living alone and celibate. This year is one for focussing on her career and it wouldn’t do to let love or lust get in the way. 

For all that, she gives a friendly smile to an attractive lighting technician, always to be seen around these parts. Someone else she knows is talking to an odd looking middle-aged couple. They are weirdly dressed, even by the standards of an event like this. The woman has greyish-blond hair scraped back from her face, and a healthy tan. Her immaculately cut dark blue clothes look like they’re made from canvas and she has an exotic leather bag across one shoulder. The man sports a chiselled beard and is wearing a black, rather shiny suit with a fully buttoned white silk shirt, a gold ring in one ear. They don’t look at all Scottish, more continental European perhaps, and certainly prosperous.

The rehearsal goes like a dream. The Maxwell Band run through some items from their regular set, and then close with three pieces from the Calendarium. As these new, extended works get into their stride, and the swirling soundscapes suffuse the building,  Anne-Marie notices several people drifting in and taking seats to listen. One little group moves away from the paintings and comes to sit near the front. Among them, and apparently deeply engrossed in the music, are the ‘Europeans’ she’s just noticed. When the set finishes, there’s polite applause and a few supportive yelps. The ‘audience’ then disperses and the band prepare to do the same.

In the van on the way back, Anne-Marie begins to doze, her head nodding and jerking along the uneven road.  She wakes up with a sickly stomach and is glad when she’s dropped at home and can get a bit of a walk and some fresh air.

In bed that night, now feeling better, a realisation dawns. Maybe those ‘European’ odd-balls were scoping out the paintings at Carse House. For goodness sake, surely not. Lightning striking twice? No, really.  But still … better tell Andrew as soon as she can.


On a damp morning, he is walking away from the centre of Kirkgate and along Station Road, its importance much restored now that trains are stopping here again. The fields open out on either side and then the golf course comes into view. A few enthusiasts have made an early start. Andrew hears distant banter from the 15th green. He’s never been one for golf, but the sight of people only a little older than him, out enjoying the ‘third age’ with their spouses, brings a heaviness to his heart.

At the station he finds a former patient, working in the small office.

‘Good morning Dr Stuart! Making a wee trip somewhere today’?

‘No just up for a nosey Bobby and to see how it’s going’.

‘Well, Glasgow train is on time and as you can see there’s a fair few folk waiting to travel on it’.

‘Yes indeed. That’s great to see. Business brisk then?

‘Well it’s early days, but we cannae complain. And if we get a summer like last year, there could be quite a few day trippers descending on the Nith valley, and travelling “the green route” in the months to come’.

‘Let’s hope so!’ says Andrew with a smile. ‘But actually I came to ask a favour.’

‘Just so long as it’s not above my pay grade’.

‘Well I fear it might be, but I’ll try anyway’.


‘The station opening was a grand affair. I saw some of the pictures in the Weekly and was wondering if you had kept the CCTV film, let’s say for posterity. Thought it might be something worth preserving, for historical interest’.

‘I’m sure you’re right doctor. Lots of folk still talking about the re-opening. But funny you should ask ‘cos when it came to do the routine CCTV check, we seemed to have a had a few teething problems. Working fine when the Silver Band was playing at the start. Then it just stopped recording and didn’t pick up again until about an hour later. We’ve had it looked at, but they couldn’t find any fault. Given no trouble since then either.  But most of the bit you’re talking about, that’s gone I’m sorry to say’.

Andrew looks intrigued, then frowns and shakes his head. ‘Oh well, not to worry Bobby. It was just a thought that occurred to me this morning.  Anyway it’s got me out for a walk. Think I might pop into the Lowther for a coffee on my way back’.

‘Aye, sounds a good idea doctor. Catch you again soon, maybe in need of a ticket next time?’

Andrew turns back down the hill, pondering what he’s just heard.

As he reaches the village, he turns in through an old wooden gate and passes between a stand of yew trees. As so many times before, he finds himself in Kirkgate’s graveyard, head bowed in front of the well-kept last resting place of Dr Sarah Carlyle Stuart.


Anne-Marie has suggested coffee in the Lowther Arms and is sitting in the lounge when Andrew arrives. She sees him first and notices how sad he looks, his handsome face drained of colour. Then he spots her and brightens suddenly, striding across the room, and to her surprise, giving her a big hug. Both now feeling clumsy, they fall to choosing their coffees.

Anne-Marie gets straight down to business, filling him in on the Carse House rehearsal and the dodgy ‘Europeans’.

‘I don’t suppose you got a photograph of them?’ he asks, not hopeful.

‘’Fraid not. That was a wee bit daft. Wouldn’t have been difficult’.

‘Your description is curious. Two people standing out from the crowd. Almost in fancy dress’.

‘You could say that’ she agrees. ‘So, what do you think?’

‘Well right now, I’m thinking rather a lot’. He tells her about the tweedy types and the lycra cyclists. She sits like a stunned mullet, jaw dropping at the import of it all.

‘You’re joking me! So they’re here at the start of the year to scope out Nithsdale Lodge, looking like they’re up for the shooting. Then they come back for the heist in March and make their getaway on bikes. Now it seems like they’re here again, looking ever so arty and with Carse House on their agenda! What the feck’s going on Andrew?’

‘I don’t know, but it’s all sounding very suspicious, as I also discovered this morning, when I called in at the station’.  He explains about the missing section on the CCTV film. It seems more than a coincidence.

Should he speak to the police? She thinks not. He’s not so sure. They agree: at the moment it might all look a bit flimsy.

‘No need to go making fools of ourselves’ says Andrew, still keeping in mind the status of his name in the parish.

‘Quite right. Maybe we should wait to see what the cops come up with. But it seems to have all gone dead. Could be they’re running out of leads …?’

‘Perhaps, but there is one thing we could try while we’re here in the Lowther. Come on, let’s give it a go.’

They walk out to the hotel reception and Andrew is pleased to see the manager on duty.

‘Good morning Dr Stuart, is there something I can help you with?’

‘Well possibly yes. Bit of an odd question. But back in January I was here with my Friday evening pals and thought I might have seen a couple I’d known at Medical School. I forgot about it until yesterday when I got an email about our next class reunion and the organisers were asking for information about people not on their lists’.

The manager is disarmingly unquestioning. ‘I see, well let’s take a look …’

‘Oh … many thanks indeed’.

‘… what date was it exactly?’

‘The 6th of January’.

‘OK … here we go’. With a single index finger, he taps the keyboard, then shakes the mouse and gets preoccupied in the way people do when they’re helping someone with the aid of a computer. He ‘pomm pomms’ to himself as he checks the spreadsheet.  ‘Well … hold on. Yep, that’s right, oh but just wait a wee minute now … what? Oh that’s very odd … very odd indeed.’

‘Why, what is it?’ asks Andrew, as Anne-Marie looks on, puzzled.

‘Getting an error message. Looks from this as if something unusual has happened. All our booking details for the hotel and the restaurant on 6th January seem to have been deleted from the system.’


It’s a coolish April night but Andrew’s kitchen is cosy. Michael is grateful for that. His own place sits above a cold shop and he’s on a pre-paid meter for the electric heating.

‘Right, let me get you a drink. You’ve walked up haven’t you?’

Michael nods and gives the thumbs up.

‘G&T, beer, glass of wine?’

‘I’ll have a gin please, bit of a treat on a school night!’

‘Too right’ Andrew replies, picking out a bottle from the sideboard. In fact he’s a pretty good barman and soon conjures up something that Peregrine’s would be proud of. They clink glasses and the host bustles about with the food.

‘We’re kicking off with smoked salmon from the Thursday van and then having my signature dish’.

‘Which is?’

‘Dauphinoise potatoes with peppered steaks and a tomato salad. Managed to get the salad on the black market, despite the shortages!’

‘Sounds terrific’.

The food is top notch and the small talk continues pleasantly through the main course. The football, the legacies of the last First Minister, the prospects for the new one, the strikes, the rate of inflation. But as they push back their plates and Andrew tops up the claret, each of them feels the mood change. They both know what’s  coming next.

Andrew speaks first.

‘So about what you were saying on the hill last month’.

Michael looks decidedly uncomfortable.

‘I think I should apologise. I had no right to go spilling out my troubles like that, particularly in the circumstances. You really don’t need to know about all my woes’.

‘Why’s that?’

‘Well it’s pretty obvious I suppose …’

‘You mean because I’m a widower?’


‘But that’s just the point, you see.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, in a way we’re two sides of the same coin’.


‘We’ve both lost our wives, but in different ways’.

‘I hadn’t really thought about it like that’.

‘And nor had I at first, as I unreasonably spilled out my grief to you and Anne-Marie in the Lowther Arms and then talked to you on the hill about our childless marriage’.

‘Well I guess we do have some things in common’.

‘But only up to a point. When I go to Sarah’s grave I do talk to her. But it’s all one-way, apart for the things I imagine she would say.  Are you able to have a proper conversation with Esme?’

‘We always could talk about things, made plans, organised our lives together, moved here against the odds and seemed to make a success of it. But now that’s all out the window. There’s almost no talk, and if there is, it very quickly turns sour’.

‘So where is there to go from here?’

‘That’s what I was hoping you would tell me. But of course that’s ridiculous’.

‘Correct. I can’t tell you what to do in any way, shape or form. But maybe this conversation with me could be a prelude to something a bit deeper with Esme? Talking about feelings and emotions that is, not the price of fish’.

‘You think so?’

‘I do, and what you said on the hill was a very good start. Could you now summon up the will for a proper talk with her? One where you give time to how this all happened and where you go from here.’

‘That’s the nub of it. True, my current living accommodation isn’t wonderful, but I guess that could change in time. Likewise there’s tension about childcare arrangements, but maybe that’s sortable. Could be the money is just about manageable. I’m not a spendthrift and neither is she’.

‘These are all very practical things you might say. So that leaves one very important not so practical matter’.


‘Your marriage. Do you think it has somehow run its course?’

‘You’ve hit the nail on the head there. But the answer is I don’t know’.

‘Then could you talk to Esme to try to find out?

‘Maybe I could, but most of the time I don’t want to see her, let alone sit down and talk together’.

‘Which may in fact be the most important thing you can do Michael …’

The two men sit quietly, not knowing where to look or whether to resume the discussion. Andrew decides it’s enough for one night and gets up from the table.

‘How about a last drink, “afore ye go”? I’ve got a very nice Arran malt here. A wee dram is probably the best thing for both of us right now’.


Easter Sunday dawns with a cool wind from the East, whisps of cirrus cloud scattering across the sky as it modulates from slate grey to China blue. The roads out of Kirkgate froth with the white blossom of blackthorn, as it briefly fills the hedgerows.

Anne-Marie’s ageing car pushes on up through the Dalveen Pass. Near the summit and down to her left she sees a quad-biked shepherd sweeping in a wide arc to pick up a stray lamb. The leggy creature sits on his lap for the short journey back to its mother, and the two are quickly reunited. The Agnus Dei comes to mind: ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us’.

She joins a still quiet motorway. Heading north, listening to the news magazine show on the radio. There’s been more trouble for the SNP in the past week, as police conducted searches of the party’s headquarters and the former First Minister’s own home. The ex-leader’s much publicized driving lessons won’t be enough to distract the public from this unfolding story. Meanwhile, the president of the party says it’s facing the biggest crisis in 50 years. From hubris to chaos can be a swift journey. Labour and the Tories are making a meal of it and are already looking ahead to the next general election.

Anne-Marie’s appetite for the news gradually wanes. She also needs to keep an eye on the traffic as it thickens up on the outskirts of Glasgow. Passing a large shopping centre, she turns off the main road and weaves her way into the Parkhead area. It too is in the headlines after a controversial victory for Celtic in yesterday’s ‘Old Firm’ game. Some verities are eternal.

She parks the car, turns a corner and climbs the worn and curving stone staircase of the tenement. At the second floor, the familiar yellow door is on the left. She taps, not too loudly, on the brass knocker. The door opens in moments and she steps inside.

‘Hi Ma. I hope I’m nae too early’.

‘Not at all’ comes the smiling reply. ‘It’s good to see you Anne-Marie’.

They embrace and then push apart, each holding the arms of the other. Mother looking with sad warm eyes into the face of her daughter. Anne-Marie gazing back, already wondering how she will get through the next few hours.

Fortunately the routine is well established. ‘Ma’ makes some instant coffee with hot milk, and serves it with a tray bake. Sun pours in through the south facing window and they sit side by side on a low and squidgy sofa, juggling cup, saucer, and ‘Rocky Road’.  TV on, the sound turned down, they chat about nothing much in particular and the day unfolds according to pattern.

These visits began about seven years ago, sometime after Anne-Marie’s father had suddenly left home. For weeks they waited for him to come back to Kirkgate. He’d gone away before and always returned, never saying where he’d been. But this time there was a letter. Sent from Woolangong, in Australia, it was brief, but the message was clear. He was never coming back. The Kirkgate lad had finally flown the coop for good. No explanations.

Already working in Glasgow, Anne-Marie urged her mother to come back to the neighbourhood where she grew up. It didn’t take much persuasion. Life in the country had never really suited Senga, though she was sad to leave her job in the Kirkgate Co-op.

By and large and over time the move to Parkhead worked out OK.

First came the legal separation, then the divorce. Each born with grim determination, cross-hatched with unwarranted guilt. Nervously, Senga started going to Mass during the week, when few folk would see her. Then on some Sundays she would attend with Anne-Marie. After her first confession in decades, she cooried back into the religion of her childhood.  Her faith seemed to deepen,  but never in ways she could describe to anyone else, not even her only daughter.

Anne-Marie found it all difficult to fathom. Anger with her father modulated into bitterness, and eventually came to rest in an ironic cynicism. Most of the time she didn’t think about him. Except on the Sunday visits. Despite that, a routine established itself. It was the least she could do for Senga, who never pressed for more.

Today is no different. The errant father/husband goes unmentioned but hangs in the air like a tasteless joke. The two women enjoy the church service, brightened by more than usual numbers of young children and families. As the song goes ‘Mother Glasgow nurses all her weans’.

Back in the flat they sit at the kitchen table. The soup and sandwiches are already prepared. Afterwards there’s a cup of tea. Anne-Marie washes the few dishes and then, hands on hips, exhales with a well-rehearsed smile.

‘Well, I’d better get down the road, Ma. There’ll be holiday traffic today and I don’t want to get stuck at Hamilton’.

At the door, her mother kisses her on the cheek. ‘Thanks for coming hen. It’s good of you. See y’ again next time’.

The drive home is much as usual. By the brown sign turn off to Drumlanrig, the visit is back in its box, a meagre duty, duly discharged.  Now she concentrates on the keys and melodies of April in the Calendrium. ‘The Devil’s Stone’ has a lot of heavy lifting to do, as the advancing year brings a slew of surprises and disruptions.


A weekday afternoon. Andrew’s doorbell rings at some length and he wanders into the hall, expecting a parcel delivery.

Opening up, he finds a youngish man in a trendy, if slightly cheap-looking blue suit, his brown pointy shoes protruding from skinny trouser legs.

‘Good morning sir, I’m looking for Dr Andrew Carlyle Stuart’.

‘That’s me!’ Andrew replies with a smile.

The response is unsmiling. ‘I’m Detective Constable Logan Harris, Police Scotland CID’. He holds up a double flapped badge just like on the television.

Guessing already what this might be about, Andrew invites the officer in, shows him to the kitchen and offers coffee, which is politely declined.

‘So DC Harris, how can I help?’

‘Well sir, you’ll know we are currently investigating a recent theft of valuable artworks, from Nithsdale Lodge’.

‘I do indeed’.

‘Well our concern, sir, is that some other people may be interested in the crime too, even pursuing investigations of their own’.

‘Oh really’ Andrew replies, quelling a smile that is hovering on his lips.

‘Yes’ says the officer, looking carefully at Andrew. ‘And we regard this as a serious matter’.

‘So how does it involve me?’

‘In the following ways, Dr Carlyle Stuart. We know that on the day after the robbery you were in the crowd at Nithsdale Lodge and even spoke to one of our uniforms. Then last week you made enquiries about CCTV footage at Kirkgate station. You likewise sought private information about guest bookings at the Lowther Arms. Prior to both of these you spoke to a photographer at the Dumfries Weekly asking about images generated at the ceremony for the re-opening of the station. Perhaps you can explain all this?’

‘I’ve been a doctor here for almost 30 years. I know a lot of people. I talk to them and they talk to me’.

‘With respect sir, I am here to ask you to bring these particular conversations to an immediate halt. This is a high profile matter. No doubt you will be aware that the involvement of amateur sleuths, social media influencers or just plain nosey parkers can negatively affect a police investigation’.

‘I can see that officer’.

‘Then I must tell you to cease your own enquiries into this matter forthwith and let the police, the professionals, get on with their job unhindered’.

‘That is understood DC Harris’ replies Andrew, adopting his most professional pitch and timbre. ‘Now, may I show you out?’


The road south takes in open country, with wide-angle views of the lower Nith valley. Broad swathes of farmland run down to the estuary, giving way here and there to uncultivated heath. The sun bursts occasionally through heavy rain clouds, bright and dazzling on the Solway tide.

With Andrew at the wheel of his comfy estate car, they pass Annan and Gretna, then curl round to join the motorway to England.  

They are briefly in the ‘Debateable Lands’, that ancient pocket of clan-ruled lawlessness. The place out of which raiders and thieves journeyed forth to enrich their enclave by plundering the property of others. In the early 17th century between the death of Elizabeth 1st and the succession of James 1st and 6th, the Grahams, Armstrongs, and Elliots assumed that no law prevailed, and so went on a thieving rampage which came to be known as  the ‘ill week’. These names still abound in the area, descendants of the Border Reivers, who gave the term be-reived, later bereaved, to the language 

On a slender hunch, Andrew and Anne-Marie are heading to Carlisle. The possible art robbers were last seen boarding a train that ended its journey in Cumbria’s county town. They were on rather conspicuous bikes. Might a visit to the train station prompt some new thoughts about where they went subsequently? It’s worth a try Andrew thinks, and as he also points out, if all else fails, there’s an excellent coffee shop just a few blocks away where they can have lunch and pick up some freshly roasted beans.

Andrew hasn’t mentioned to anyone his recent visit from the CID.

‘So’, he asks, hands at ten to two and glancing briefly to his left, ‘How’s your work going these days, apart from those intrusive Europeans?’

‘Pretty well. I think I mentioned, at the beginning of the year I decided it was make it or quit. But already some good things are happening’.

‘What sort of things?’

‘My tutoring’s going well. Not too much, not too little. Regular income and there’s a decent few dates pencilled into the diary for the Maxwell Band – mainly festivals’.

‘I might get along to one of those if it’s fairly local’.

‘No problem. The Multiverse in August will be handiest for you. Plus it’s a fairly mainstream audience’.

‘Is that what you’re suggesting I am Anne-Marie?’ Andrew laughs. ‘What an indictment: mainstream!!!’

‘Ooops. Sorry about that doc! Anyway – moving swiftly on – the best thing just now is this ‘annual cycle’ composition I’m working at. The guys are always eager to try it out at rehearsals. I’ve sort of surprised myself at how each month it seems to come to me, in very different ways’.

‘So when will we get to hear some of it?’

‘Well next month actually at the Carse House gig. The plan is to play four sections in the second half of the set. Finish with something to blow their minds. Come to think of it, we’d better let Michael know about our curious European friends. Maybe he’d like in on it, he could come to the show with you?’

‘Good idea. I’ll tell him. He came over for dinner the other night, but we didn’t talk about the robbery’.

‘Really, that doesn’t sound like you Andrew!’

‘I know, I know …’ he smiles, then switching back to the Calendarium: ‘So it’s a different piece of music each month, taking us through the whole year?’

‘That’s right. This month’s a bit dark. I’m calling it the Devil’s Stone. Hope that doesn’t cause me problems’.

‘How’d you mean?’.

‘Well, I dunno. Maybe provoking the dark side, or something … ‘


Carlisle feels more like a city than Dumfries, but the two places have a lot in common. Both suffer from inequalities in health, wealth and esteem, and both have elected Conservative MPs to represent them at Westminster. Where once the people looked to local authorities to change their fortunes, now the golden eggs are promised by quasi-government organisations or else reside in pots of money set aside for levelling up. But it’s hard to see the benefits in the boarded up town centres and the decaying infrastructure.

They park in a multi-storey not far from the station and close to a cinema. It’s Saturday morning, the right time for shoppers but mercifully too early for the night-life revellers who will appear later. Carlisle can get quite lively after dark. Across the road is the site of a proposed new medical school. ‘Now that could be good for the place’ says Andrew. ‘Like Dumfries and Galloway they are short of doctors here, so they’re aiming to “grow their own”, just like we’ve already started to do with some success’.  

They turn into the station concourse, ticket booths on the left, a shop on the right. Built in the 1840s in an ornate neo-Tudor style, the wide platforms, the elegant footbridge over the mainline, the spacious waiting rooms and other facilities, all speak to a different age of travel.  Andrew and Anne-Marie wander along and across the entire expanse of the station. Trains rush through, others stop for passengers heading to Scotland, or south beyond the Lake District, to the post-industrial north of England and all points east and west.

But despite their search, no idea is sparked, nothing revealed. Then, just as they turn to leave, Anne-Marie sees some cyclists wheeling bikes onto the platform. They don’t look like they’ve pedalled far. She has an idea and goes to speak to them.

‘What was that about?’ asks Andrew.

‘Well let’s go and find out’ she replies, and they head back out of the main building and turn towards the station car park.

‘Those guys arrived here first thing and have been looking around the city for a couple of hours’.

‘OK. So …?’

‘I asked them where they’d left their bikes. Just along here apparently’.

In the carpark, slightly beyond the last row of vehicles, is a set of cycle racks, with several machines chained up.

It’s the work of a second for Andrew to spot them. Two expensive racing bikes, neatly secured. Out comes the double spread from the Dumfries Weekly, to confirm the suspicion. Winner! The very same machines are there in the photograph, being lifted onto the train by the sportily attired suspects.

Looking swiftly round and seeing no one, the two quickly unbuckle the panniers. As expected, the contents, all neatly packed, comprise two sets of cycling gear: helmets, shoes, leggings, tops and sun glasses. The bags and the expensive bikes, look like they’ve been abandoned.  It’s nearly three weeks now since the robbery. Anne-Marie rootles a bit further and pulls out a map wallet containing a few leaflets. One is titled ‘Snowdrop walks in Nithsdale’ and the other ‘Events at Carse House’. They put everything back in the panniers and remove themselves as quickly as possible.

In the coffee shop over toasties and the Costa Rican ‘brew of the month’, they consider what they’ve learned.

Andrew’s suspicions about the cycling duo seem confirmed. With or without assistance, they appear to have organised the burglary of Nithsdale Lodge and made off with the miniature sculptures in their touring panniers. Likewise Anne-Marie’s hunch about the ‘Europeans’ and Carse House is looking very credible.

‘But why leave the brochures in the bags?’ she asks.

‘Perhaps taunting the police. Getting a bit cocky …’

‘Could be. Or maybe it’s a double bluff?’

‘Good thinking. But the circumstantial evidence points the other way’.

‘Except for the fact that in the previous examples, there’s only been one robbery per decade’.

‘As far as we know …’

‘OMG’, shrugs Anne-Marie, ‘this is getting a bit too convoluted for me’.

On the walk back to the car, Andrew stops at a phone box. Trying desperately to remember how it works, he puts in a brief call to Carlisle police station.


Days after the meal with Andrew, Michael is still ruminating on the conversation they had.  There’s no denying that he and Esme have got stuck in a bad situation. It’s not much good for either of them and it’s certainly not good for the girls. On the other hand, he’s working as hard as ever and in fact beginning to incubate some new research ideas for a big grant application. In Andrew and Anne-Marie he’s met a couple of people, who could easily become friends. He likes living in the village, if not in his flat. But as the months go by, it’s becoming more obvious that some things need to be dealt with and can’t be put off much longer.

It’s a Sunday afternoon. Michael decides to go for a walk to clear his head. There’s a good circular route that takes him out from the flat and back to the village. About five miles. He knows of course that it will bring him quite close to the eco-house.

He heads north west and crosses the Nith at an old stone bridge. In other circumstances the walk would be life-affirming. Nesting birds, new growth in the trees, primulas and wild garlic in the hedgerows. After the blackthorn, the first heady bloom of the hawthorn has appeared. But Michael’s sensory faculties seem dulled and his thoughts go round in circles, making his head ache.

It was along this lane that he and Esme had driven in search of the plot of land with planning permission. Now the eco-house can be seen on the hill, a small wood just to its right. On an impulse, he opens a farm gate, crosses several fields and heads for the shelter of the trees.

From the edge of the copse he has a good view of the house, but is hidden from sight. He feels guilty at what he’s doing. Tucked away at the end of the drive, he notices the rear of a second car. Esme has visitors? Probably a shared ‘play day’ for the girls.

It’s warm in the sunshine and the wood is giving shelter from the persistent wind. Fighting with his conscience he sits and watches the house, trying hard not to feel like a stalker. After about half an hour the front door opens and he can hear voices.

A man a bit younger than himself steps out into the porch. Michael thinks he knows the guy and wonders what the hell he’s doing there. The next few seconds give an indication. Esme closes the house door behind her and folds her arms around the visitor. He reciprocates, kisses her briefly on the lips and then hugs her tightly. It looks like a warm embrace and it lasts some time.

Then the man turns and heads for his car. It’s a bit of a battered specimen and Michael recognises it now. The owner is one of his colleagues, a lecturer in sociology who came to the University about a year ago. Aghast, Michael is held in the moment. Then incredulity turns to despair and he lets out a series of quiet, gulping sobs, his fingers pushing hard at his temples.

Five minutes later he leaves the cover of the wood and returns to the route. Trudging back to the flat, his thoughts are moving much faster than his feet.


After a day in the garden battling the sudden changeability of the April weather, Andrew is looking for a bit of undemanding evening television. He scrolls down the channels until something catches his eye on the BBC. Coming up in a few minutes is the third episode in a series called ‘Scandals that Shook Scotland’. He hasn’t seen the previous two, but this one immediately grabs his attention. It’s about ‘a Duke’s stolen Da Vinci and its mysterious return’.

Jabbing at the remote, he leans forward in his chair.

The programme explains how Madonna and the Yarnwinder was stolen in August 2003, how the police enquiry quickly ran out of leads, and how the investigation gradually shifted to recovering the work of art, rather than catching those who had stolen it.

Then four years on from the robbery, two private investigators in Liverpool emerged, claiming to know the whereabouts of the painting and with ideas about how it could be restored to its owner. They enlisted their own lawyer, who paid a sum of money to a criminal gang for the painting. Two solicitors in Glasgow also got involved.  The five could see a way to come by a substantial reward for themselves. When the police got wind of the scheme however, they planned and executed an operation to swoop at the crucial moment, just on the point of handover.

The story was headline news, the painting was duly returned and in 2010 the five appeared in the High Court in Edinburgh, accused of a conspiracy to extort £4.25 million from the Duke of Buccleuch. For two of them the case was not proven, the other three were found not guilty. They all walked free, but disgruntled. Then in 2013, the now disqualified English lawyer sued the Duke for the previous amount, but lost the case in the Court of Session.

To this day, the thieves themselves have never been found.

As he puts the short documentary on repeat, most telling for Andrew are the clips of CCTV film which show two young men, both inside the castle and making their getaway in a white car that was later found abandoned a few miles away. Whilst the police are on record as saying the theft at Drumlanrig was a well-planned operation, the video footage looks a good deal less convincing.

The BBC documentary seems to throw up more questions than answers.

Andrew walks through to his study and starts assembling notes, printing off photographs and photocopying sections of maps. Just like the TV detectives, he begins to put together a storyboard. But nothing too conspicuous. After all, he wouldn’t want to be caught ‘bang to rights’, if unannounced,  DC Harris were to call again.

Copyright © David Graham Clark 2023

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this story I mix up and blur chronologies, geographies and biographies. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental. The 12 chapters of the novel Epiphanies and Robberies are appearing sequentially throughout 2023. I welcome comments and feedback on my novel, which is being written in ‘real time’. My thanks go to AG, FG, MB, SS and TH for advice and encouragement. All previous chapters can be found here:

The epimedium – understated elegance for all seasons

One of the hallmarks of my plant choosing habits is an attraction to anything that has what I consider to be an ‘old fashioned’ look about it. I shy away from sappy, gaudy overly hybridized and commercially tampered with plants of all kinds. By contrast I am drawn to things that look like they have always been there, plants with a quiet appeal, an element of toughness, and in particular those which will give interest over the longue durée.

About 10 years ago whilst browsing in the plant section of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, I came across something that met my criteria exactly. Glossy, spear-shaped leaves on thin, wiry stems, with what looked like a spreading habit and just a hint that rich green might turn a warmer colour come the autumn. As I waited to pay, my friend and I looked at the label and immediately lapsed into schoolboy humour. The lovely horticultural specimen I was just about to buy was called an epimedium, something we found inexplicably funny, and still recall with some affection to this day.

More important though, was the ‘discovery’ of a new plant, which would come to be much enjoyed and in time have a more prominent place in the Dumfriesshire garden.

Continue reading “The epimedium – understated elegance for all seasons”

Epiphanies and Robberies Chapter 3: March – Tracks and Trains

Welcome to chapter 3 of my serialised novel. You can find the previous chapters here: Chapter 1 Chapter 2

Andrew and Michael are hiking up into the Lowther Hills, about eight miles north of Kirkgate. They’re taking a rough track towards a dense plantation of Sitka spruce and then heading for the open moor beyond.

Part walk, part field trip, Michael suggested the outing as an opportunity to look first-hand at some of the environmental problems relating to forestry and peatbogs. Andrew readily accepted.

They’ve left the car in the Dalveen Pass and the climb is steep. It’s a matter of male pride to keep moving, but in due course, it’s the younger of the two who draws to a halt – on the pretence of admiring the view behind them.

They look down on a U shaped valley of distinctive morphology. Its green velvet sides swoop to the road below. Sheep dot the vertiginous hillsides, as if held on with Velcro. The Carron river in the foot is flowing south towards the Nith. Just over the hill, but out of sight, the source waters of the Clyde are starting their journey north.

‘It’s a textbook example’, volunteers Michael. ‘A deeply scoured glacial valley. Product of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. Barely the blink of an eye in geological terms’.

‘I never tire of it’ replies Andrew. ‘Driven up and down the Dalveen so many times, in all weathers, and not just going to and from Edinburgh or Glasgow! In fact I once delivered a baby in that cottage over there, one very wet night in winter. The family car had broken down so I had to go to them’.

‘Sounds a bit like a Sunday night TV drama …’

‘You’re right in some respects, except thankfully there was no jeopardy moment. In fact the proceedings went like a dream, and I was given a bottle of whisky by Dad to take a dram when I got home!’

‘What a career you’ve had. I’ve been at two births, but how many must you have attended’?

‘Well it could be into the dozens, albeit not recently. But I’ve never done what you have’.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well I’ve never been at the birth of my own child’.

‘Oh …’

‘You see, unlike yourself, I have no children’.

Michael realises he has given no thought to Andrew’s family, other than the little he has gleaned about Sarah. He doesn’t know what to say.

‘It wasn’t through choice. To begin we were very keen on the idea, but over time it didn’t happen and then Sarah developed further problems with a condition she’d had since her teens, meaning she needed to take more care of herself. We never made a conscious decision about it one way or the other …’

‘I know someone who’s going through IVF at the moment. It seems incredibly taxing’.

‘It is’, Andrew replied, fiddling with the straps on his knapsack. ‘Not a route we took, back then …’

The conversation fades into the early March air and now, lungs restored, they turn and resume the climb. The day is bright in an overcast sort of way. Light cloud cotton-wools the sky, torn open here and there to reveal flashes of greyish blue. But there’s no warmth in the weather and the wind could get up at any time. Andrew and Michael are dressed accordingly.

Familiar with the hill environment, they press on confidently towards the plantation. The ground flattens out, just as they enter the woodland. Here the light diminishes and with it the flora. Dead trees lean here and there. The mature spruces have lifeless lower branches. The sides of the path are littered with remnants of past thinning work. Only the curiously named mood moss seems to thrive. The place is an industrial arboreal cavern, soon to be gone. Before long the chain saws will be buzzing and the caterpillar vehicles will crawl in, dismembering and stripping the trees, then removing the logs to the roadside for collection. The whole area has been planted on drained peatland.

‘This kind of thing is a big challenge’. The easiest option here would be to re-plant after felling, preferably with a more diverse range of trees. But the better solution longer term would be to restore it as peatbog. Then it would capture carbon indefinitely’.

‘So how would that work? The scene after a place like this is cleared of trees usually makes the surface of the moon look lush’.

Michael laughs at the analogy and stores it away for future use. They walk on out of the wood.

‘It can look equally bad when a peatbog is eroded, dried out and collapsing into ditches and sometimes deep gullies. But worse still, peatbog in that condition is also going to be releasing carbon into the atmosphere that has been stored there for perhaps thousands of years’.

‘So what causes the erosion?’

‘Well, sometimes it results from drainage systems installed in the past, sometimes from the actions of wind, sometimes from the effects of grazing, sometimes because of burning. Often it’s all of these to some extent. Every damaged peatbog is unique and needs to be restored in a bespoke process’.

‘And what are the underlying principles?’ Andrew is catching on quickly.

‘Well, quite simple really. Blocking up ditches and repairing the damaged peat hags, using machinery where required. The degraded peatland needs to be re-wetted until it’s fully saturated and stable. The flora and fauna can then flourish, just like we see here’.

Michael walks to the top of the ridge, sweeping his arm across the panorama of healthy moorland stretched out before him.  As he does so, two curlews lift into the air, calling out in trilling, rising whoops and circulating above the walkers – cur-lee, cur-lee!!! ‘When the whaups are resident’, he says ‘it’s a sign of healthy peatland’.

Andrew gazes in astonishment at the sphagnum moss, the heather, the reeds and the sedges.  He shakes his head. ‘How many times I’ve driven through the pass or walked round these parts, without properly understanding what I was seeing’.

‘You’re not alone there’. Peatbogs don’t exactly grab the headlines, though they are important’.

‘Oh yes. Don’t tell me, don’t’ tell me … ecosystem services’.

Michael smiles in reply, delighted to see someone animated by the workings of environmental science and restoration.


In the lee of the wind, they hunker down, pulling out flasks and lunch boxes.  Andrew peels open his filled roll to check its contents, never mind that he made it himself: cheese and ham. Michael chomps on a large sausage roll, bought in the village. For several minutes no word is spoken. As they sip their coffee, Andrew resumes the conversation.

‘You know, I’ve always found other people’s jobs to be more interesting than my own. That came in handy being a GP of course. I learned a lot about many occupations, but I have to say, I never encountered your line of work’.

‘Glad to be of help’. Michael bows his head slightly. ‘I suppose there’s a first time for everything … ‘

Another long pause ensues as the wind suddenly eddies round them, a reminder of their unsheltered whereabouts.  

Then Michael resumes. ‘In fact, I was wondering if you’d mind me doing something for the first time? If you can bear to listen to it. There’s something I need to get off my chest, and maybe explain a few things …’


The chill winds on the hill that day signal a change in the weather. Ice and snow are now creeping down from the north and spreading into the Nith valley. First come the china-blue skies of mornings where ponds are frozen and the sharp, cold air is a health kick to the day ahead. Then ominous grey-white clouds appear, leaden with snow. Soon the Dalveen Pass is blocked, schools are closed, and even the shortest journey turns into a feat of major logistics.

But if the weather is icy, the political temperature is rising. The campaign to elect a new leader of the Scottish National Party, and with that a new First Minister, is well underway. Initial civilities between the candidates quickly give way to internal culture wars. There are also divisions over ‘continuity’ versus ‘change’, with the merits of each being vigorously fought over. Once the TV debates begin, there’s plenty of scope for personal animosity on a public scale.

Andrew enjoys the snowy weather, but finds himself paying more attention than usual to the political scene. Like many GPs, he’s long had a default explanation for problems in the health service, consisting of two words: ‘Scottish Government’. One of the leadership candidates however is the current health minister and one of his opponents has made clear her poor opinion of his record  in that office. There are dirty tricks at Holyrood, every bit as devious as those in Westminster.

Sarah would have been immersed in all this, reading aloud from her newsfeeds, shouting at Good Morning Scotland on the radio, and alternating between optimism and despair for the future of the country. Andrew is sure the Friday guys at the Lowther will have plenty to say about it too. But for the moment he’s focussed on planetary matters, specifically the almost full Lenten moon. When clear nights or mornings occur there’s the chance of perfect sightings, and he’s even dusted off his digital camera to try his hand for a photograph. If he gets a good one, who knows, he might even put it on Facebook.


Half an hour before the Glasgow train is due to arrive at Kirkgate, there is already a healthy crowd building up, here to celebrate the re-opening of the platform. There are balloons and banners, hot drinks, veggie burgers and popcorn. Plus plenty of bunting draped along the Victorian ironwork. The Kirkgate Silver Band are playing their socks off. The members have learned a whole new repertoire especially for the evening. Who knew there were so many songs about trains?

When Anne-Marie arrives she hears the final notes of Chatanooga Choo Choo as they neatly segue into Last Train to Clarksville. It’s a railway medley that keeps on giving, and only pauses for the band to take a breather.

In the middle of the platform there is a small cluster of local dignitaries, some wearing medals. They are making polite conversation with Lofty’s action group who are resplendent in colourful wide trousers, huge boots, winter coats, woolly hats, and berets. Each member of the group has a large home-made badge, signifying their role: Driver, Guard, Station Porter, Luggage Attendant and Station Master (this worn by Lofty herself).

There is an announcement over a megaphone. ‘The next train to arrive is the 17.28 from Glasgow, expected Kirkgate at 18.50 – and bang on time folks!’ There are loud cheers from the crowd, who are now gently ushered back from the platform edge to stand in rows facing the track. Anne-Marie spots Andrew at the far end and also Michael, with his two daughters, just by the old Waiting Room door.

Suddenly, with three minutes to arrival, there’s a loud roll on a side drum that brings everyone to a silent halt.

They hear the piper before they see her. A fourteen year old girl from the Kirkgate Academy walks slowly along the platform, playing the much-loved tune Steam Train to Mallaig. It’s a brilliant moment. Smiles break out among the crowd, some look flush with emotion, not a few need a handkerchief to wipe away the tears.  As the notes of the pipes fade away, the train comes into view and a huge cheer goes up. The station is by now thronging with people of all ages, delighted to be here for this historic moment.

The train comes to a halt and the doors open. The silver band strikes up again, this time with Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train. The cheering is deafening and the crowd swarms around the train doors as they open. Some locals disembark and there, beaming and punching the air, is Caitlin, after a day in Glasgow on business. 

Then there’s a rush to get aboard. The train is going on to Dumfries, Annan and Carlisle. Several dozen people press forward. Most will be travelling just one stop down the line, and then coming back again. Something to tell the grandchildren. The doors close, a whistle blows, and the train is off to its next station stop. Years of campaigning have got their just reward.

Anne-Marie and Caitlin link arms and turn back towards the village. Andrew is now deep in conversation with some of the dignitaries. Michael looks like he’s heading to the car with his daughters. Anne-Marie sketches him a wave as she and Caitlin step out downhill.

They make an odd pair. The diminutive musician, fully made up, lips bright red, owlish glasses and a huge scarf. The tall solicitor in business attire, grey overcoat, white blouse and a pencil skirt.

‘So how about pizza tonight Cait? Let’s celebrate in style’.

‘You’re on. I assume we’re talking Luca’s?’

Anne-Marie ponders at first. ‘Well of all the Italian dining opportunities in Kirkgate, I think that’s my favourite at the moment. So yes, let’s go for it!’


The pizzas are large and lavish. The Valpolicella is light and fruity. The two women are hungry and thirsty and eager to catch up on the news. 

Caitlin, mainly holds back on hers, though she does explain that her parents are becoming a worry. Her mum had cancer a few years ago and got a lot of support from her GP. Now the good doctor is retired she feels bereft.

‘It’s always … “There’s no one like Dr Andrew. He really was the best listener and always gave sound advice. Now they say everything is up to me, what matters to me, what I want and don’t want. Dr Andrew would usually just tell me what was best and that seemed to work fine”’.

Meanwhile, Caitlin’s dad is getting quite withdrawn, and losing interest in life. She feels both parents are relying on her more and more. She’s calling in every evening, making sure they have the right medicines, and organising them for bedtime. It’s a growing worry.

To brighten the conversation she asks Anne-Marie about Calendarium.

‘Well first of all, I’ve come up with titles for the first two months’.

‘OK – fire away!’

‘What do you think of January: Rising Water, and February: Candlemas?’

‘Very cool indeed. A bit late night Radio 3 perhaps’ says Caitlin, not quite sure what Candlemas is.

‘We’re going to demo ‘February’ in a couple of days’ time. Its main inspiration is snowdrops. They’re everywhere in Nithsdale and a great symbol of the ending of winter’.

‘Oh yes, Candlemas!  I remember now, I think they had a special service for it this year in Dunscore’.

‘Could well be, it seems to be catching on, even in the Church of Scotland. Plus, I’ve had a few ideas for March, but at the moment nothing seems to quite fit together. When things are like that you can go on tweaking to make it  work, or just let it go, maybe just drop it all and start again. Especially as now I’ll just have to do something that evokes trains and journeys. So tonight I’m thinking along a completely different track, so to speak.’

‘Sounds promising’ replies Caitlin, wincing at the weak pun.

‘Yeah something with a rhythmic pulse, a bit like Night Mail – remember that short film – with spoken word too’.

‘Oh yes, and doesn’t our very own Beattock get a mention somewhere in there?

‘Indeed, and coincidentally that’s another local station folks want to see re-opened’.  

‘Oh wow!  Bit of a shout out then. You’re on fire with this at the moment. Feels like you need to just go where that train takes you!’

Her attempted joke is lost on Anne-Marie, who is now gazing out of the window into the street. A group of people are gathering, with a troubled air about them. Luca notices what’s going on and wanders out to speak with them. After a minute or two he comes back in, bemused and shaking his head.

‘What’s happening Luca?’ asks Caitlin. When the reply comes, Anne-Marie feels an electric shock right down her spine.

‘Well, it seems there’s been some kind of robbery this afternoon. Up at Nithsdale Lodge’.


When Anne-Marie gets home that night she immediately texts Andrew and Michael.

‘Have you heard? Robbery today at home of our resident rock star. Suggest we all meet tomorrow to share intel. Coffee in Peregrine’s at 11 o’clock?     A-M.’

The replies are almost immediate.

‘Hadn’t heard about this, but I can be there. All best Michael’.

‘OMG, I’ve just heard this from another friend too. Yes, I’ll be there. Meanwhile will do some digging. Andrew’.


Peregrine’s is the jewel in the crown of Kirkgate cultural life. Its eponymous owner, who parachuted in from London ten years back, has created an exuberance of food, drink, books, artwork, events, decorative home items and all manner of things you didn’t quite know you needed. It’s a great place to be at any time of the day and a favoured spot to see and be seen.

Andrew is glad when he arrives early and finds Michael already at a table. The two haven’t met in the days since their hill walk, and more significantly, their hill talk.

That day, Michael had suddenly opened up, his voice rising and cracking with emotion. Then it was like a dam bursting. The flow was over-powering: the trial separation from his wife, why she kicked him out, his worries about their daughters, why he is immersed in his work all the time, the crummy flat he’s living in. And what the hell he should do about it all.

Andrew had let the torrent flow, until gradually it subsided. Long years in the surgery had told him to refrain from dispensing advice at this point. He’d heard what Michael had said. They’d could meet up again and talk about it further. For now, conscious that Anne-Marie will arrive soon, he leans in by way of greeting. Michael stands up. They shake hands. Andrew’s left hand on Michael’s right shoulder is all that is needed by way of acknowledgment of the conversation they had last week.  There’s time enough to take it further.


The three of them sip their drinks: Americano, Latte, Espresso. Connoisseur coffee, exquisitely prepared. Worth savouring before they turn to the business of the day. Peregrine drops by in his trademark yellow moleskin waistcoat, russet corduroys and battered brogues. They exchange greetings and the proprietor is just about to mention the robbery when he’s called away by one of the staff, who is struggling with the till.

Anne-Marie goes first.

‘I texted as soon as I heard the news. Bit weird eh? After what we were talking about in the Lowther last month? There’s lots of rumours going round. They’re saying our resident Grammy winner had been away with his family, down in Manchester. On the way back, they’d stopped off for the station re-opening. When they got home nothing seemed agley until they went inside and noticed one by one that several artworks had gone missing. Nobody seems to know what they are though’.

Michael can’t add anything. ‘I did see them at the station, the family. Just like when one of them is in the Co-op, they don’t stand out or anything.  I didn’t know anything about a robbery until Anne-Marie texted’.

Andrew seems to know more. ‘Well I got on to the Rotary WhatsApp group and there was quite a bit of stuff flying around. Not easy to tell fact from speculation. But that, combined with Google, yielded a fair bit of detail’.

Michael shakes his head. ‘I can’t believe you predicted this only last month Andrew. And now it’s happened! You’re not in on it are you?’ There’s a slight air of insinuation in his tone.

‘No, I’m not, but I guess I would say that, wouldn’t I?’ He smiles.

‘Woah, woah, Mikey’, Anne-Marie dives in. ‘It’s our much-respected village doc you are talking to here’.

‘Not at all’ Andrew responds. It’s a fair point and Michael is right to make it. But it’s wrong on this occasion’.

Michael continues, in warmer tones. ‘Go on then, we’re bursting to hear what you know’.

‘Well it seems that when he bought Nithsdale Lodge your man thought it would be the perfect location for him to display a collection of Giacometti miniatures he’d been acquiring over a number of years. Of course there’s been no publicity about this, but apparently it’s quite widely known in fine art circles’.

Michael is shaking his head. ‘Sorry … Giacom …who?’

Anne-Marie helps him out. ‘Alberto Giacometti, a Swiss sculptor. Full of self-doubt. Famous for his slender, human figures, some very big, some very small’.

‘I’m impressed’ chortles Andrew. ‘I recognised the sculptures when I saw some pictures online but I wouldn’t have been able to name the artist.  So that’s what seems to have been stolen, we think. No idea how many. But the value is likely to be extremely high’.

Anne-Marie hesitates, and then responds. ‘It’s a bit of a co-incidence in another way Michael. I was actually at Nithsdale Lodge a few weeks back myself. Went to see the snowdrops in the grounds and to get some inspiration for a new piece of music I’m writing’.

‘Oh so you’re in on it too!’ Michael is smiling this time.

‘Did you spot anything?’

‘Well, I was ok in the grounds, but it’s obvious you’re not wanted up near the Lodge. Come to think of it, I maybe did see some sort of security cameras over in that direction’. 

Andrew pushes back in his chair, hands flat on the table. ‘Well that’s just about as much as we know at the moment. I think I’ll take a wee daunder up to Nithsdale Lodge this afternoon, and check out the lie of the land. I’ll get back to you both if I learn anything’.

‘Be careful though Andrew, don’t want to go poking a hornet’s nest’.

‘No worries. I’ll be the soul of discretion’ he replies, as he heads for the door, his face wreathed in smiles.


Anne-Marie and Michael remain in situ. She takes another sip of coffee and looks across. ‘So what’s on your agenda today?’

‘Well it’s another strike day actually, our third of three this week, I nipped in and did the first hour on the picket line. The talk is that there’s going to be some progress on re-valuing our pension scheme.  Meanwhile the university has imposed the pay offer on us and actually paid some of it ahead of schedule. We aren’t doing as well as the nurses, but that’s hardly surprising. The junior doctors down south don’t seem to be getting very far either’.

‘I’m always sympathetic to strikers. But I’ve never been on strike myself. Doesn’t happen that much in our world. The Musicians’ Union did support the right to strike day last month though’.

‘Yes that was a biggie and the start of our current round …

There’s a pause before Michael changes the subject.

‘But what about you. How’s the music going?’

‘Oh pretty well actually. You maybe don’t know I’m working on this fancy new project. A sort of musical reflection on life around here over the course of a year. Mainly about Nithsdale in fact, though I am picking up vibes and influences from what’s happening in the wider world as well. Having a great time with it actually’.

‘You play all sorts of styles don’t you?’

‘Well I guess so. I’m classically trained but I’ve done a lot of folky stuff too, as well as jazz and contemporary music. It’s a great space to be in, if not always easy to get an audience. I formed The Maxwell Band a few years ago, and draw on lots of different people according to the situation. Quite a few live locally, in and around Moniave’.

‘Yes, I’ve heard that. Some of them are pretty well known aren’t they?’

‘Indeed! Stunning players, great people, and very adaptable. In fact it looks like we might have got ourselves a nice gig for early May’. She smiles and waves her head from side to side. ‘Something a bit different’.

‘OK, tell me more!’.

‘So there’s this charitable trust thing that’s been restoring a Georgian mansion, near New Abbey ‘

‘Is that Carse House?’

‘Yeah that’s right. You know about it? Someone told me the “C” is silent ….’

She waits a moment for the penny to drop as Michael breaks into a broad and knowing grin.  ‘Well one of the committee has been in touch about a weekend they’re planning. Making a big splash. Lots of events. Live music, drama, film screenings, interviews with writers, get the drift? Somehow they’ve got wind of me and want to meet up down there for a chat. They’ve asked me to bring some recordings’.

‘Oh I’ve got you now. Read about that online and was wondering if they were doing anything environmental, given where they are just by the Nith estuary.’

‘Dunno about that, but I’m off to meet them on Sunday afternoon, can’t wait!’


When Andrew fetches up at Nithsdale Lodge there’s plenty of activity. He has to park along the road, the little area through the gate is packed with cars and vans and two uniformed police officers are keeping an eye on things. They greet him as he walks back along the lane. Everyone knows Andrew around here.

‘Making a house call doctor?’

Andrew smiles guiltily. ‘No,  just saw the crowd as I came by. Is this all to do with the robbery?’

‘Aye that’s right. Amazing how the word gets out. Some of these folk have been here all night’.

‘So what happened?’

‘CID are up at the Lodge. There’ll maybe be an announcement later. No one tells us much, but it’s an art robbery. Some expensive wee sculptures have gone apparently’.

Andrew wanders into what for Kirkgate is a media scrum. There’s ‘crime scene’ blue tape across the driveway and no one is going any further. He recognises a couple of folks from the local press. The rest of the crowd seem to be social media types, ‘influencers’ from out of the area, drawn here by the fame of the owner.  The journalists are picking up bits of rumour, but much of the talk is about the Drumlanrig robbery of 2003. It was just a few miles up the road after all.

The crowd wait patiently for the police announcement. When it comes it’s bland and non-commital.  There is nothing to add to what had been said in Peregrine’s this morning.   Disappointed, Andrew heads home to Townbrae. He’s picked up some lightly smoked haddock from the fish van this morning and is going to have it for supper with a couple of poached eggs and some broccoli.


Next morning dawns bright and clear. The woodpeckers are hammering like no tomorrow. The Nithsdale daffodils are at full tilt and with the eye of faith, a green haze can be seen in the silver birches. With calmer weather, March is going out like a lamb and there’s finally some warmth in the air.

In her cramped sitting room, Anne-Marie is working on the third ‘movement’ of Calendarium. Sitting at the keyboard she’s running through chords and phrasings, occasionally picking up the violin to try out a melody line. She has a lot of themes to juggle in her head. Trains, songs about trains, and now the robbery. It’s also very tempting to consider ‘March’ and its associations: Spring, the Roman month of war, and in Scotland ‘march’ stones, march boundaries and even ‘march laws’.  She decides to ‘mind map’ it in her notebook, but finds her thoughts wandering into other territories.

She’s noticed that Michael seems distracted. He hasn’t engaged much with the Nithsdale Lodge break-in and was even a bit snippy with Andrew yesterday. There are obviously issues with his wife and children, but she doesn’t dare to ask about them.

Michael has just enough emotional intelligence to know that he is not in a good place. Over toast and instant coffee in the flat, he’s ruminating. Three years ago the first lockdown had just got underway. Who would have predicted that three years on, he and Esme would be separated? Maybe he’d rushed into going over it all with Andrew. At first he’d been glad to let stuff out. But later he felt resentful. Had he said too much? He’s uncomfortable that someone else now knows all the details. Andrew had dealt with things well at the time and was careful not to jump straight into it when they’d met in Peregrine’s. But then, Michael acknowledges to himself, he’d been out of order with his remarks about the robbery. Anne-Marie had jumped on that pretty quick, and he had to admit to himself that she was right.

Andrew passes most of the day outdoors. It’s perfect weather and just the right time for getting the kitchen garden sorted out. A few years back he bought timber from the local sawmill and built himself some raised beds. These have made growing vegetables and controlling weeds, so much easier and he’s pleased with his efforts.

At the moment he has a whole bed devoted to garlic, its bright green stems looking fresh and healthy. These he’ll harvest in July and follow with salads, French beans and courgettes. He applies some gentle hoeing, all that’s needed to keep things in order for now. Likewise a patch of Mussleburgh leeks, bulking up nicely after surviving the Winter. His broccoli, by contrast, is meagre. Though last night’s tasted delicious, about two thirds of the plants were destroyed in the deep pre-Christmas frosts. Last in the rotation, is a whole bed earmarked for tatties. He wonders about waiting until Easter weekend at the start of April, but decides to take a chance and fork it over. After all, the spring Equinox is only days away. He lays out lines of sprouting seed potatoes, each row like a paternoster. Then comes the hard work. He barrows in about 15 loads of home-made compost and gently spreads the whole lot over the laid out rows. No digging trenches or creating furrows. Just 18 inches of compost spread evenly across the bed. Easiest way to grow them. The next job will be digging up the first of the crop, sometime in early July.

His shoulders aching pleasantly, he goes inside, puts on the kettle and catches up with the news about the SNP leadership election.  Things seems to have reached melt-down. Internal wrangling about the membership figures, conflicting public responses and now more high level resignations.  Sarah would not be happy. She’d got very committed to independence, even if she’d never managed to push Andrew off the fence about it.

He takes a quick shower and changes into clean clothes. Looking quite presentable in his new-style narrow khaki jeans, a cotton shirt and a French pullover, he decides to have an early bite to eat in the Lowther Arms before meeting up with the Friday evening guys. No doubt they will be full of the robbery and far ahead of the police in their deliberations. Someone will probably have an inside track on the SNP story too.


At the hotel he takes a small table in the corner, overlooking the road. Perusing the familiar menu he spots two lads across the street outside the closed-for-the-day bakery. White trainers, joggers and black Nike Tech hoodies they are dressed for a desultory Friday evening in Kirkgate.  As Andrew looks on, a white car pulls up, engine running. The passenger window comes down, an arm reaches out, takes money from one of the boys, and drops a small packet into his hand. The car drives away, the boys disappear round the corner and the broad-daylight drug deal is over.

As a GP he knows all about such goings on, but it’s still disturbing to witness them first hand. To distract himself, he goes looking for today’s edition of the Dumfries Weekly. He wonders what the headline will be and isn’t disappointed.

‘Rock and Stole!’ the paper cringingly declares. ‘Following a trip to his native Manchester, Kirkgate’s very own chart-topper returned to the family’s luxury home in Nithsdale this week only to find robbers had cracked into the sophisticated security system and lifted his priceless collection of miniature sculptures. Police sealed off the area and carried out a forensic exploration of the Lodge and finger-tip search of the grounds, but have so far turned up no clues or leads. Resident staff were on their afternoon off when the thieves struck, in an operation described as ‘slick and highly organised’. Police are appealing for anyone travelling in the nearby area on Wednesday, or with potentially useful dashcam footage, to come forward as quickly as possible’.  

Nothing new there, thinks Andrew, disappointed but unsurprised. As he waits for his lasagne and salad he idly flicks through the paper, with its local news, announcements of forthcoming events, sports results, adverts and funeral notices. He smiles to himself at the double page spread of colour photographs taken at the station re-opening. The piper, the Silver Band, the activists and the dignitaries are prominently displayed. But among the smaller candid shots of cheerful local people enjoying a memorable occasion, something catches his eye. It’s bottom left on the right hand page.

Two cyclists, a man and a woman, are about to board the train. They are impeccably turned out in multi-coloured lycra and aero-dynamic helmets. Their racing bikes look expensive and built for speed. But curiously each machine appears to have double touring paniers, which seem to be packed and full.

Andrew looks carefully at the photograph. Something is nudging at his memory. Staring at the two faces, it suddenly clicks. The Lowther Arms on 6th January, two tweedy types sitting in this very room, calling out not to be noticed. Hiding in plain sight. Now they pop up again, this time dressed like competitors in the Tour de France. Just hours after a dozen Giacometti miniatures have disappeared from Nithsdale Lodge, no more than a brisk 20 minutes cycle ride away from the station, and from there: all routes south.

Copyright © David Graham Clark 2023

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In this story I mix up and blur chronologies, geographies and biographies. Any resemblance to a person living or dead is purely coincidental. The 12 chapters of the novel Epiphanies and Robberies are appearing sequentially throughout 2023. I welcome comments and feedback on my novel, which is being written in ‘real time’. My thanks go to AG, FG, MB, SS and TH for advice and encouragement.

The hellebores keep on giving

I first came across the allure of the hellebore nearly 20 years ago when watching the BBC programme Gardener’s World.  Inspired, I went off in search but found them scarce in mainstream garden centres, where they were rarely sold to advantage or at their best.

In those days I was naïve to specialist nurseries and mail order services. Nor had online shopping become a commonplace. But one weekend, I think in 2006, I was visiting a small plant centre near Great Ayton in North Yorkshire with my elderly mother, when I came across a beautiful hellebore plant with fresh green yet leathery leaves and a flower of five white petals flecked with a paint splash of purple surrounding a heart of creamy coloured nectaries. It was pricey and I bought it with some trepidation, wondering if it would survive long in the Dumfriesshire garden.

For a few years it lived on a sloping bank with a path running below it. The position made it possible to look up from the path and gaze into its mass of elegantly drooping blooms. The idea was good, but the path in question was one rarely taken, and so I moved it to a spot I pass at least once every day. There it has stayed and seems content, though it has bulked up very slowly and I have not had the courage to spilt and divide it to create more plants.  

Continue reading “The hellebores keep on giving”

Frog seasons

The tell tale signs began to emerge a few weeks ago. Shifting a pile of newly delivered logs, a couple of semi-comatose puddocks required relocation to a safe damp spot. Then one wet late evening as I left the house for a dog walk, an inquisitive member of the family Ranidae, hopped straight towards me in the porch before making an abrupt right turn and then dissolving quickly behind a green Wellington boot. Next day the builder rescued a couple of Rana Temporaria from a watering can. 

The accumulating evidence was clear. Frog season was upon us. 

Continue reading “Frog seasons”

Heading Home: a miscellany of writings

In late 2020, on saying goodbye to four decades of work in academia, I resolved to devote time to something that had been bubbling up in my thinking for quite a while: the desire to continue writing, but to do so in a more creative and inventive manner. True, I’d recently written a biography which allowed some scope for imaginative interpretation, and in my academic blogging I was finding the confidence tentatively to break out of social science conventions. But now I wanted to bring about a more visible shift, from the data-driven and rational orientation of the scholar, to an approach to writing organised around personal reflection, imagination and careful observation of things around me.

Continue reading “Heading Home: a miscellany of writings”