Comrie Croft: Not Just For Mountain Bikers

Comrie Croft has some great little mountain bike trails but it isn't only a campsite for the sort of person who takes their bike to bed with them.

There is plenty for their non-wheeled loved ones.

My bestie turned forty just after me, and ten of us went for the weekend to celebrate with frothing mugs of prosecco and grilled steaks in the High Meadow.

 There are no photos of this because I was incapable it was dark. We missed the aurora borealis by a day but the stars were incredible. Like the permanently blue skies above the clouds that you only see from planes, I forget all those stars are there, plainly visible, away from the city glare. It's so important to be reminded. They made visiting the compost toilets in the night well worth the excursion. 

What I mainly want from camping is to have no one or thing man-made in my field of vision or hearing, except for my tent, because the payoff for eschewing a hot bath and down duvet is perfect solitude and natural beauty. I want to be able to sleep wherever my legs tell me the day's hike needs to end and I don't want to pay for the privilege. Ideally, I want to cook freshly gathered mussels on a driftwood fire. But there are other kinds of camping: there's just wanting to get together with friends, outdoors; there's desperately needing to lure your thirteen year old away from screens for a weekend. Both of these are only made possible by easily accessible locations, hot showers, phone charging lockers and limited wi-fi - all things you might want to hike a mile from under less sociable circumstances.

Most of the camping I've done has also been on foot or public transport which is worthy and righteous but, after twenty-two years and counting as a car-free adult, I now value the times I have access to a grown up with a driving license and a vehicle. It enables the transportation of French presses and catering-size blackberry and plum crumbles made the night before from the glut of garden fruit and eaten cold for breakfast.

Add to this, the further luxury of an undercover open air tea garden and we were still very happy campers despite a day of heavy rain.

Because everyone knows survival against the elements requires a few of these little essentials, like condiments and garnishes.

And forget baked beans - for any nights when you've left it too late to wait for the embers for grilling meat or cooking camp toasties on the fire, rucksack-forbiddingly heavy jars of Polish bigos, pulpety and fasolka on the Trangia are the thing when weight doesn't matter.

You still have to have a fire though. Always a fire.

Maybe it was the weather or the fact that coffee-drinking hikers were heavily outnumbered by tea-drinking bikers, but I did virtually no walking at all. I average about ten miles a day in my city life and, for the first time in months, my post-tibial tendonitis eased up and I stopped fretting about problems and concentrated on the small, pressing tasks of fire and food. I love this about camping.

We did walk around the short site trails

and into nearby Comrie,

past a few of Perthshire's big trees, but Ben Chonzie will have to wait. It's probably not going anywhere.

My menfolk and I stayed a day longer than everyone else

and woke to thick mist

that sank into the valley revealing blue skies and sunshine.

Next time I want to camp on one of the lovely woodland pitches that make it easier to pretend you're not on a campsite. My family have already complained they are too dark/midgey/scary but I thought they were utterly perfect.

They are full of ferns and streams and bats and PINE MARTENS.

There are also nordic katas with wood-burning stoves and sheepskin beds for the winter. 
I wanted to stay.

The Kitchin

Unbelievably, given the fact I don't look a day older than my nineteen year old son*, I just turned forty. This landmark occasion has been celebrated throughout the year with various trips to Poland and Italy as well as on Arthur's Seat and Portobello Beach - IN THE SUNSHINE - on the actual day. And afterwards my husband took me for a lovely lunch at The Kitchin in Leith.

I don't care about Michelin stars (although my favourite restaurant in the world has one); my favourite place to eat in Edinburgh at the moment is Reekie's Smokehouse, overlooking the NCP car park. They have the best burnt ends, chips with rosemary sea salt, coleslaw with apple and Irn Bru bbq sauce, on paper plates. (The fact you can now get pulled pork on everything from your petrol station sandwich to your pudding is hilarious to me. Ten years ago I was making big shoulders of pulled pork with vinegary eastern North Carolinian sauce from my eastern North Carolinian friend's friend's dad's friend's recipe and no-one here had ever heard of it. This world weariness clearly comes from being forty and becoming a sniffy old bag. See also: #quaxing. LIKE THE MAJORITY OF THE WORLD, I HAVE BEEN TRANSPORTING MY SHOPPING AND FURNITURE HOME WITHOUT A CAR OR A HASHTAG FOR MORE THAN TWO ACTUAL DECADES. YOU DIDN'T INVENT IT, WHIPPERSNAPPERS*.) I particularly don't care about the fanciness factor of restaurants: shiny things do not impress me; I just want your sweet, sweetbreads. This is why I fell utterly in love with pop up place The Scratch Series on Valentine's Day and, as luck would have it, half of the chefs responsible are planning another fabulous venture, Edinburgh Food Studio, where I hope to be cheating on my husband with my [fellow food] lover G, next month as a joint birthday splurge. 

But I've wanted to go to The Kitchin for ages, because anywhere whose tagline is 'From Nature to Plate' has me, so my husband chose well. They do a very good value three course lunch menu but, whilst my men can dispense with diamonds and Range Rovers, I'm afraid I am not a cheap (dinner) date: I had the supplementary choices for each course which doubled the cost (*winning smile* to quote G). It's not that I seek the indulgence of luxury food - I just like wild, sustainable meat and shellfish and it's expensive. My ambition for my next forty years is to own a crumbling wreck in an isolated forest on the coast where I can stumble around in a tattered, grey, silk ballgown and hiking boots, wearing a live ferret stole and a crow's nest in my bouffant, foraging. I shall be penniless and quite mad but eat oysters and roadkill venison every day. 

My lunch at The Kitchin was the perfect template for this life. It came with a map of Scotland that showed the provenance of the ingredients - this, as a cartophile, I loved very much. I didn't take any pictures of the food because I don't do that in restaurants any more (see: a decade ago/everybody else/sniffy old bag etc). I had the razorclams (spoots) from Barra which were like an angel and a mermaid making out on your tongue, followed by the Borders grouse - the best game bird (and I've had a few) ever, perfectly tender and moist - with bread sauce, blackberries, girolles and buttery celeriac puree, and then some wonderful cheeses including the chevre in ash which is what I want to be done with my cremated remains but so far everyone I love is refusing to eat me*.

Tom was in his Kitchin, yelling at his staff. I should counter this by also reporting that a few years ago my son - who was then, prior to taking to the stage, an aspiring chef - was brought here on his sixteenth birthday by his stepfather, and Tom Kitchin came out and talked to him and was very lovely and encouraging. Plus he is a genius and can shout all he wants as long as he keeps making angel mermaid sex food.

The Kitchin is conveniently sited opposite Tiso's outdoor store so you can pick up a bottle of meths afterwards as a digestif, I mean for your Trangia, if you are off for a weekend of further birthday camping as we are. If I find a forest for sale, I may never return!

*Forgive me, I have drunk of the champagne, it makes me ranty and delusional...

Get Up It

Arthur's Seat: for all your Christmas Days, Boxing Days, New Year's Days, May Days, birthdays and bad days. Because: I LIVE IN A CITY WITH A MOUNTAIN IN THE MIDDLE.


I have a sun room, which for the past few years I've used for housing animals from quail to ferrets. However, the clue is in the name and it gets far too hot on the three days of Scottish summer. Instead of putting fans, ice packs and sprinklers in there, I am training hops over the roof to cool it down a little. But that will take time,

so for now I am only keeping long-deceased creatures in it.

And the cats, 

who wander in and out to sunbathe on nice days.

It lends itself well to the display of found treasures

like owl pellets full of vole skulls, and Ionian greenstone and plant cell book art.

When we bought the house, the previous owner had been growing tomatoes in here, so this year I thought I would do the same and, after Rome, try and get some courgette flowers to deep-fry too.

It's just that I'm a lot better with wild things - plants, animals, kids - than those that are needy. I try to foster a high degree of independence in all my charges. The aim of a forest garden is to create a self-feeding, self-watering, self-weed-suppressing system that just needs a little editing. It's the opposite of grow bags of indoor vegetables that require copious food and water. I managed the food and water but I failed to provide adequate pollination. I mean, really, who wants to have to assist another living thing in getting it on? Is that green fingered or blue? 

Anyway, the tomatoes we did get were really good. Both of them.

Badger in a Box

A couple of years ago, I posted how Badger was getting old and sleeping a lot.

This isn't a eulogy. He is still sleeping a lot. He combines it with climbing Arthur's Seat.

It used to be that, as a house ferret, he slept in his cage but free ranged around the house and garden whenever he was awake. Now he prefers to sleep in a variety of places around the house too, which - given his (selective?) deafness, means it can be hard to find him when we're going out and need to shut him in his cage again.

Often he's hiding in plain sight...

but his favourite location is the blanket box which has a loose slat in the bottom, through which he burrows up. (We're going camping next weekend and those sleeping bags are not going to be daisy-fresh.)

He often doesn't wake up when you carry him back but I promise you: he's still alive.

La Fringe

So I had this fringe cut
to hide the tramlines
on my forehead (because,
like Edinburgh’s, they are  
unsightly and regrettable
but too costly
to remove at this stage.)

The fringe, however, has a life
of its own, by which I do not
mean a kink, a cowlick,
a tendency to stick
up or out, but rather that
she has her own pursuits belonging
not to her roots – they are the same
as every other mousey brown
hair on my head – but to her tips,
snipped, at eye level.

First she demanded I tease
out and tweeze out
the No Parking zig zags
she deemed offensive not for
the white of them but for
their coarse, wiry waves.
An act of unprecedented vanity.

Next she required mascara to
separate my lashes from all
the other hair now there.
“I don’t wear make-up”, I said.
“Well, I do”, she said.
Which is true since
the wand in my shaky hands
magically turned everything charcoal.

“Mmm, black. Like my coffee.’
She approved. This
was news to me, having previously
favoured a decaf soya latte
with sugar-free hazelnut syrup.
“Non”, she said (did I mention
She was French?) “I cannot
hang over that. Black.”
I sipped tentatively at first,
no real thirst
for change, but I’ll admit
there was something in it.

And then came the chocolate.
Locked in a cupboard behind
the shelves of sweet and creamy kisses -
“Pour les enfants”, she dismisses
as she swishes around -
thick and brown:
one hundred percent cacao;
no milk, no sugar.
It was like finding god in the second floor
café of a department store.
“See?” she said, “See?”

Soon we were skipping
breakfast and lunch for tiny mouthfuls
of silky ink that opened up the sky like Christmas.
Then we wrote for hours:
she dictated; I typed.
In the evenings, after a three course dinner,
I would rest my head against my husband’s
chest and she would tickle my ear and whisper
One finger between us in a jar that used to hold
Nutella. I have never drunk whisky in my life.
“Is not you, is me” she giggles coquettishly.

And afterwards, of course,
she wants a Gauloise.
I draw the line
straight across from the far corner of one
made-up eye to the other.
She falls limply to my nose, knows
that she could be back in a ponytail
by next year if she pushes her luck,
running 5k for a kale smoothie.
She soothes me, “No smoking, cherie!
Only joking, mais oui!”
And I stroke her back,
grateful for small mercis.


My arms are usually covered in bramble scratches, there are always suppurating splinters of plant material stuck in my knuckles and my fingernails are full of soil, but about this time of year I also acquire another gardener's malady: huge bruises.

The culprit has neon purple flowers and thorns like hypodermic needles. Every year I say I am going to pull them out but every year I can't bear to deprive the bumble bees who hang out there. This year I was only cutting back a few stalks across the path to prevent small children becoming impaled - I barely felt the tiny pinpricks that caused that bruise three days later. Another day I was scratching at what I thought was an insect bite on my thigh (I am available for hire as a midge trap for all your outdoor events) only to find an inch long cardoon thorn stuck in there which caused an impressive spurt of blood on removal and attractive green bruise which co-ordinates well with a summer wardrobe. Last year was the worst: I dropped a high, heavy stalk on top of me from a couple of feet above and the blood actually flowed down my arm and ran onto the grass. 
The bruises were BLACK. 
This is from a PLANT. 

This year THEY ARE GOING. I'll replace them with more globe artichokes, for flowering instead of eating.

Be More Ferret

Now that Badger free ranges the house and garden, he doesn't go out for walks so much. He's getting on a bit and being lugged in my bag/hoody to the park or beach is a bit wearing, not to mention the dogs.

But we had a car for the weekend so we went out first thing and took him up Arthur's Seat.

There were no dog walkers, just rabbits and a handful of tourists who talked to him and took photos. 

He fell asleep in the footwell on the way home.

Orange Is Not the Only Nasturtium

A joyful resolution to the conflict between my loathing of orange-toned flowers and love of eating nasturtium leaves, flowers and 'capers':


My garden is steadily being overtaken

 by beautiful, creamy 


that taste delicious.

Wait. What is that? Surely not A VIOLA?

Yes! After six years of struggling to grow them, they are now self-seeding amongst the rainbow chard. Extraordinary! I think the garden has finally found that balance whereby there are enough predators to control the pests. Maybe I should give cloudberries another go...?

Heart-shaped Tupperware

Day 1
Palms crossed red from the thin, string
handles of the mesh bag,
I carry home ten pounds of marrowbones.

Day 2
Roasted, then anointed with vinegar,
and herbs I grew from seed specks
that lodged in the farrows of my life line,
the marrowbones simmer for twelve hours -
bubbling babies in a soupy womb -
while my cats drink the thick, rich air.

Day 3
In the morning, the fat
is a full moon which lifts away
like ice from a pond,
leaving only the bones of the broth.
From this comes all life.
And stew.

I chop the Holy Trinity
of onions, carrots, celery
and sear the steak and kidney,
then baptise all in liquor.
Another three hours of
wet window pane and
she is born.

But you, my oldest, are not there.
You are at McDonald’s.

Day 4
The better for sitting
in its thickening juices on the fat-
flecked stove top,
the meat has given up -
given itself up -
and collapsed,
languidly, into the liquid.

You didn’t see it there.
You already ate.

Day 5
I spoon the tender beef and gravy
into a cracked china bowl,
stretch plastic across the top
and write your name in
purple marker pen
with a little kiss
like this:

Day 6
I reach inside my rib cage
and slide out the heart-
shaped Tupperware there;
pour my meat and my bones
into it.
Snaplock it shut.
Tuck it in your rucksack.
Perhaps there is a microwave at college?

Day 19
In search of mugs,
I find my heart,
my flesh,
my blood,
under a gently steaming pile of lycra
in your room.
It blooms
blue and white and green
like a Mother’s Day bouquet.
I made this.

All of this.

Not Available in Ikea

When I went to view the house we now own, the owner opened the bathroom door and said, 'You'll want to rip all this out', before revealing an original, peeling, 1950's pink and black suite, reminiscent of a seedier early days Suicide Girls shoot. Like hell was I ripping it out.

It is accessorised particularly well with seagulls. Whilst my devotion to herring gull grey has been well documented, this lesser black-backed does co-ordinate better.

Pseudo-Extrovert, 40, Seeks Peace and Quiet

Realising I was introverted was the biggest thing that's ever happened to me. And I speak as someone who had a baby on her twenty-first birthday. Realising I was introverted, realising what that actually meant, and realising it was ok has made sense of the previous four decades of confusion for the first time. Now I understand why so many women in their forties say they wouldn't go back to the Western shrine of their flawless, teenage skin for anything: because it took them this long to find out who they actually are.

The confusion arises from the fact that I am also really, really extrovert. Or so it appears. I am outgoing and loud, not shy and quiet. I can go up and talk to anyone, make my voice heard in the most rowdy debates, speak in front of an audience. I am just absolutely exhausted afterwards and I fantasise about living on an uninhabited Hebridean island with tame otters.

As a teenager trying to find my identity, I once floated the idea that I was actually quite shy. This was met with universal derision from my friends. Maybe shy wasn't the word but I didn't know a word for being a teenager who just didn't like being out all night for anything other than bat watching. So I used alcohol to numb the skin-crawling horror of small, sweaty rooms full of strangers. Then I had that baby on my twenty-first birthday and was relieved of all partying duties.

There were a lot of play dates though. Over the next two decades it seemed like I was always letting people down. No, I didn't want a sleepover. No, I didn't want to go to a festival with a pack of other families. No, I didn't want to move into a commune. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I was a terrible mother, a terrible friend, a terrible person. I absolutely loved spending time with my friends and their kids but I didn't want to be around them all day every day - which was the norm in our alternative parenting world - or even for more than a couple of hours. I got so tired and so bad-tempered and then I would hate myself even more.

It was only a couple of years ago as I walked through my kitchen that I caught Susan Cain on Radio 4 saying introverts weren't necessarily shy, they were just exhausted by people. It was at this moment that everything began to change. Nobody I have ever known - family nor friends - had ever suggested that I might be an introvert. My ex-husband used to say that nobody outside our home really knew me - that I acted differently in public - but he never understood why. Suddenly, my terrible, shameful inability to be as gregarious as everyone else had a name and wasn't even an illness. And other people were like it. And some of them were proud of it!

Gradually I started doing life differently. In the past I had used dogs and smoking ('Needs a walk'/'Need a cigarette')  to get precious moments of solitude, but I had given up smoking before my kids could pick it up and my beloved greyhound died just before her fifteenth birthday. This, and the revelation of introversion, led to me starting to tell friends that I adored them but, actually, I just needed some time on my own now please. As if it were a reasonable thing!

Some got it, some didn't, so I saw less of the latter. I also started - for the first time in my life - to notice whether I was enjoying a situation or not. It seems incredible but I think before then, I had spent my whole life doing what I thought I should enjoy regardless of how it actually felt. Unsurprisingly it turned out I enjoyed writing, long solitary walks, reading memoirs and poetry in the bath, forest gardening, wildlife rehabilitation, hanging out at home with my family and coffees or lunches with close friends. I stopped forcing myself to do the things I didn't enjoy.

I started hating myself a little less and gained confidence. I had just finished my degree, by distance learning, so I started volunteering as a community-based/home-learning ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) tutor, working one on one or with groups of two or three. I enjoyed this so much and met such great people that I decided to get my certificate so I could teach professionally. I had been preparing to do exactly that nearly twenty years ago before I had my son. This time I got as far as the selection interview at college which was in a small, airless, internal room on one of the few hot days of the year. As well as the interview and some written tasks, prospective students had to prepare and give a short lesson to everyone else. I had no problems delivering mine and was accepted. But I realised straight away that classroom teaching, all day, every day, just wasn't going to be for me. The enormous toll that an hour or two of passionate, engaged, lively teaching to a group takes on me means I need the rest of the day - possibly several days - to recover with less intense, solitary work. I just couldn't teach in a classroom all day. I have home-educated for fifteen years but that is one to one or in small groups and, even then, I have had to schedule in regular independent or less intense periods. I have taught baby massage to huge groups of thirty-five mothers and their infants, but I only did it once a week. I knew that the intensive, four week, full-time course even to get the teaching certificate would kill me. Walking back from college in the sunshine - thinking about maybe finding part-time work as a gardener - I felt relieved and disappointed in equal measure, but also glad to finally know myself again.

As a child, careers I wanted - before becoming convinced only law or education were acceptable - included: haulage driver (as inspired by Long Distance Clara from Pigeon Street), RSPCA inspector and poet. All largely solitary occupations, as opposed to barrister and teacher which are akin to being on a stage - although I find even that much easier than teamwork. I tried to force my introversion into university dorms but a national residential A-level French course broke me. Group activities with strangers were scheduled back to back right through until bedtime in shared rooms. After getting through that horrifying weekend, and despite my excellent grades, I simply walked right out of high school and never went back. The needs of introverts are so widely ignored the entire way through education and employment.

I realise now, that a lifetime of the stress that comes from being an introvert in an extrovert society is also what caused me to suffer periods of severe anxiety. A few weeks after declining the college place, I finally read Susan Cain's book, Quiet, the title of which had always been off-putting to me. Quietness aside, there were a lot of descriptions that I immediately recognised. Smoking and dog walking (and hiding in bathrooms) are 'recuperative niches'! Being able to act like an extrovert when you have to to get what you want is a 'free trait'! Everybody thinking you are an extrovert because you act like one, which perpetuates the expectation to act like one, is 'reputational confusion'! These last two were revolutionary for me because my confusion has always stemmed from my combination of extremely introverted and extroverted behaviours. I had thought that maybe I was an ambivert but the best-of-both-world's tagline was laughable and I identified so totally with Cain's description of Professor Little, who performs extroversion brilliantly in order to do what he loves, that I think 'pseudo-extrovert' is more likely. The genuine, loudly-expressed, excitement and exuberance I exhibit whenever I see friends is not fake but I do think that perhaps I developed an extrovert persona from a very early age in order to exert control in social situations that a very sensitive, introverted, only child of older parents couldn't have coped with otherwise. It has become so normal to me for so long that I don't recognise it as anything but natural. It's only the exhaustion that gives me away.

And I get so exhausted because I perform extroversion in the manner of an introvert: intensely with total commitment, diligence and engagement. I am concentrating as hard as I can the whole time; I am giving a hundred and ten percent - that's why I can't do it for more than a couple of hours. I love that couple of hours! I enjoy playing extrovert! But then I need to be on my own. I can't stay until the end of the party, I can't spend the night, I can't go on group holidays. One of the hardest things for me is having people to stay or staying with other people because, although I really like the increased intimacy of it, there is nowhere to be on my own. I always end up having some sort of meltdown from burnout. This year, for the first time, I just went off on my own as much as I needed to - which was a lot - and the difference was amazing. In the past I have always felt I couldn't do that because it was so rude and people would be offended - the same with telling dinner guests it's time for them to go, or leaving parties early. But it's been nearly forty years and I can't keep apologising for being introverted. Introversion isn't a flaw. I am not introverted because I am anxious - I get anxious from the stress of being an introvert forced into too much extroversion by societal expectations. Introversion doesn't need to be treated or overcome. I love being introverted. I love limited periods of full-on teaching and hardcore socialising. I love my friends. But I have to go.


Never give up. (Amaro Montina)


In addition to Susie Wright's bear and my corvidry, I have acquired this beautiful fox, also by Rona Innes, and lovely badger by Adrienne O' Loughlin. (Reindeer skin sold by the Cairgorm Reindeer Centre in support of the Sami people who use every part of their free-ranging herds.)

He's not a wildcat but this gorgeous tabby print by Stewart Bremner also helps support the Edinburgh Cat Protection League.