31 December 2006

Happy Hogmanay!

Well, I was supposed to be down at George Square right now, but the event has been canceled. We're having 80mph (128 km/hr) winds and rain. And the lights are flickering. So it's a bit crazy outside.

Instead we're spending the night in, and eating and making merry!

My Bolivian friends Liliana and Paula gave me these (right), as part of a Bolivian New Year's tradition. Red means that I'll have love and passion in the new year. Since this is a family oriented website, I cannot show you them on my person (nor would I otherwise!), but please know that they are very comfy. :-)

I have more posts to make about my Christmas vacation, but they will have to wait until the new year!

May all your 2007s be happy, healthy, and safe!

30 December 2006

Trip to the Trossachs - December 21 - 23rd, 2006

Just before Christmas Kate and I took a wonderful trip to the Trossachs with a group called Glasgow Friends International (the same group I went to New Lanark with). Anyway, the trip definitely earned them a link in my links section. If you're an international student in Glasgow and want to take affordable outings with a group of inviting individuals, then get in touch with these people. They are great!

The Trossachs is an area in the Stirling region which consists of many bens (hills), lochs (lakes) and glens (er... glens). The Trossachs are also referred to as "the Highlands in Miniature" or "the Gateway to the Highlands", as it is where the hilly and loch-filled terrain of the Highlands begins. We began our trip by heading to Callander, where we learned how the original kilt was made. The kilt was made of a large tablecloth-sized piece of material called a "plaid", which was spread on the ground and then pleated. The wearer then sat on the plaid, laid back, and wrapped it around their waste, fastening it with a rope. The pleating effect at the back looks exactly like the modern kilts of today, and excess fabric above the belt was used for warmth, pockets, or protection from the rain. To the right you can see an example of a kilt made from a plaid, even Kate got in on the action and donned some female Scottish dress.

Just outside of Callander we stopped to say hello to Hamish, the Highland Cow. Highland cattle are impressive beasts with very large horns and a thick ginger coat which hangs in their eyes. They are built for a Scottish winter on the hillsides, taking the rain and mud in their stride. Hamish, unlike his hillside brethren, lives like a king near one of the distilleries, with ample hay, little mud, and a nice little shelter from the rain. But as they say, "heavy is the head that wears the crown", poor Hamish appears somewhat lonely when you compare him to the hillside cattle which have a nice little congregation for company.

We then traveled up to Balquhidder, stopping at Loch Lubnaig (pron: LOOB-nag) along the way. The hamlet of Balquhidder is home to the final resting place of Rob Roy MacGregor, notorious cattle thief and Scottish Robin Hood. It is also home to an old kirk whose ruins now serve as a heritage monument/landscaping feature. Rob Roy lay with his wife and one of his four sons at the door of this old kirk with the defiant epitaph "MacGregor Despite Them" - which while never fully explained, seems to have something to do with the surname MacGregor being denounced for the clan's participation in a bloody raid long before Rob Roy's birth. The epitaph was not put in place until 1981, along with a rail marking each grave - the headstones having been taken back by the earth and rendered unreadable.

The story of Rob Roy seems to have been heavily romanticized, with his character drifting from bully to benevolent outlaw depending on who is telling the tale. The historical facts include stories of betrayal, theft, revenge, uprising, secret alliances, royalty, mafia-esque extortion, and philanthropy. The question of whether Rob Roy was truly a Robin Hood for the Scottish Highlands, or simply a bully with an ax to grind, is openly alluded to in the introduction of the somewhat campy Rob Roy historical video we were shown in Callander. Like many things in history the answer seems to be a little from column A and a little from column B.

From Balquhidder we visited Loch Voil, and took in the scenery while walking down a rural road that snaked its way along the lake. The scenery of the Trossachs is eerily similar to that of the Haliburton Highlands, with me having to remind myself every so often that I was still an ocean away from home. The differences between here and home are incredibly subtle, being more a collection of impressions rather than list-able features. The forests of the Trossachs are mixed conifer and deciduous, with a higher proportion of pine and evergreens than back home. So even in winter, the forest still has the appearance of being lush and green. The trees are also more gnarly, growing in different directions with kinks and twists in the branches, rather than the young arrow-straight trunks that are more prevalent back home. The trunks here are also more likely to be covered with moss and ivy, while back home the lichens are still working hard at taking over, the moss still some years away from calling the trees home.

After dark, which has stabilized at a very early 15:48, we arrived in the small town of Killin and settled down in the initially chilly youth hostel. The hostel was very inviting, and old house with a large communal kitchen, big dorm-style rooms with very comfortable bunk-beds, and a cozy common room with a propane fireplace.

The next day we ventured out to Ben Lawers mountain, one of the many Scottish bens in the area. Hill walking is a sport in Scotland, the mountains being quite small and relatively easy to hike up. Here is where I got my first taste of truly Scottish looking landscape - or at least landscape that my poorly traveled eyes had not seen before. The mountains here rise just above the tree line, and are covered with scrub, heather (not blooming this time of year, unfortunately), grass, patches of trees, and rocky streams. It is difficult to determine which peak is which, because there are so many hills on the hills themselves. The streams add a pretty soundtrack to the outright remoteness of the hillside, as well as a refreshing drink. We were supposed to be able to see Loch Tay from Ben Lawers, but the rolling fog obscured our view. Despite this, walking the mist covered hills still had its atmospheric charm.

Another interesting thing about the Scottish bens is that they are used for livestock - mainly sheep but also Highland Cattle. Looking up the side of the hills, which appear reddish in the winter because of the non-blooming heather, with green grassy patches, you can see the tiny roaming white dots that are sheep going about their business of grazing.

After Ben Lawers we drove along the River Lyon, and through Glen Lyon. Glen Lyon is a remote glen that cuts through the hills, navigable by a windy little road that is really only wide enough for a single vehicle. Hydro lines, sheep, and the occasional small house dot the hillsides. The hills are imposing, cutting you off from so-called "civilization" - in my mind, these quiet places are much more civilized than any big city.

Once through Glen Lyon, we stopped in Fortingall to see the old Yew. The Yew is estimated to be between 2000 - 5000 years old, and sits in the Fortingall Parish Churchyard. The ancient tree is protected by a gated wall, the old trunk having been reduced from it's 16 m (52 ft) girth (marked out by posts) to many stem-like projections by over-enthusiastic souvenir seekers and vendors during the 19th century. Despite this, the old Yew seems to be in good health, with nice green foliage.

Our next stop was Aberfeldy for another scenic walk and a little shopping. Some of us opted out of the walk, wanting to warm up with a nice hot beverage. We stopped at a small coffee shop/bookstore/gallery for some excellent hot chocolate. Afterwords, we roamed around this pretty little town poking in the shops and buying some postcards.

Back at the hostel we had a Christmas dinner consisting of chicken, stuffing, vegitables, party crackers (complete with tissue paper crown) and Christmas presents. We also had a traditional Palestinian dessert made by one of our fellow travelers that I must have the recipe for... especially since it was just as good the next day for breakfast.

Our last day of travel sent us back towards Glasgow, stopping at the Falls of Dochart (pron: DOUGH-cart) - a set of impressive and picturesque rapids - before we left Killin. We then wound our way - past Loch Tay, Loch Lubnaig again, Loch Earn, and Loch Venachar (pron: VEN-a-car ; same tempo as vinegar) before reaching Loch Katrine, home to the Lady of the Lake and the steam ship named after Sir Walter Scott. Loch Katrine is where Glasgow gets most of its water, and has been since 1859. Loch Katrine is overlooked by Ben Venue, home of the Urisks, a tricky group of fairy people who like to play tricks on passers by.

Our final stop was in Aberfoyle which entailed a visit to the Wool Centre. At the wool centre I bought a couple of skeins of hand-spun Shetland fleece to make a scarf... another piece of Scotland for me to craft a souvenir out of.

It was great to get out of Glasgow for three days and spend some time in the fresh air of the Scottish countryside. I got to get to know my flatmate, Kate, a bit better and we are becoming fast friends. I also got to see some Scottish scenery that is very difficult to get to if you don't have a vehicle. I've posted a selection of photographs on flickr for your perusal - enjoy!

Glasgow Pre-Holiday Blues Buster - 16-Dec-2006

So, after our crazy two weeks, most of which was completely gray and rainy, Lesley and I decided to break out the cameras, on our first truly sunny day in a month, and go tourist on Glasgow. Our first stop was just across the street to Glasgow Cathedral, with the blue police callbox en route. There are 4 of these throwbacks to the 1920's and 1930's in Glasgow, one of which is a "Coppuchino" outlet - a coffee kiosk. Once victim to the march of progress, they are now protected by the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust and
the Doctor Who Society (no, I am not making this up if Wikipedia is to be believed), and kept to their authentic trademark design. The really hilarious bit is that they are actually now referred to as a "TARDIS" style police box. Again, I'm not making this up.

Then we walked down High Street, along Saltwater Street to Glasgow Green. The Green dates back to the 15th century, and throughout history has been the site of public hangings, demonstrations, and the final resting place of many very large artifacts including Nelson's Monument, and the McLennan Arch (right) which once served as the centre piece of the Assembly Rooms on Ingram Street before they were demolished in 1890.

Beside Glasgow Green runs the River Clyde, which divides Glasgow into north and south. The Clyde is a major river in Scotland, and the third longest. The Clyde is also home to some of the more dodgey places in Glasgow (as you can see below), and probably should not be visited at night. During the day, you're likely to pass quite a few tourists and locals making their way to and fro - but on the whole the walkway along the river remains fairly quiet compared to the shopping streets. Several large bridges span the Clyde, and boat tours can be taken down river to a massive shopping mall (and presumably the nicer end of the Clyde). Unfortunately the boat is out of the water until March, but when it goes back in I plan on taking a tour.

We walked pretty far down the River Clyde and when the sun began to set (which was still only around 2:30 pm), we decided it was best to begin heading north (especially after we passed a bunch of guys who looked a little mafia-esque). Then we headed up to George Square to check out the christmas lights, and to get ourselves beer and a burger at the Counting House.

And thus ended our great sunny day walking around Glasgow! More pictures, as always are available for viewing at my flickr account.

25 December 2006

Take me with you!

Thought you might find this an entertaining picture. :-D

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick post to say Merry Christmas to everyone!

They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the virgin birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas tree smell
And eyes full of tinsel and fire

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked to the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas we get we deserve

-Emerson Lake and Palmer

17 December 2006

Oh, and I forgot to mention...

I finished my afghan! It's a little on the narrow side, but it will be great for cuddling up with in front of the tv or computer.

16 December 2006

Stepps - Crime Capital of Glasgow

Stepps is a very odd place. It's a small village on the outskirts of Glasgow, only slightly larger than Minden. Most notably, it houses the University of Strathclyde playing fields. But, every December, it becomes a hub for criminal activity, with no less than 8 crimes occuring all within yards of eachother. Each crime seems to be repeated every year, from armed robbery, to amateur bomb making, to drug crime. No one has quite figured out why this occurs, but it keeps the M.Sc. Forensic Science students busy for a couple of weeks anyway.

The Stepps exercise, or as it is formally referred to the "Crime Scene Exercise", is a crime scene to court experience in which we were split into groups and given each a crime scene to process outdoors, transport the evidence back to lab, and then analyse the evidence, and anymore incoming, for two weeks. At the end, we had to write a court report on the analysis we've done. In March we will be called to court by the Law students to testify. In the meantime, we may be called upon by the defense from other crime scenes within the exercise to do analysis as well.

Our day at Stepps playing fields consisted of trying to recover our badly burned cardboard victim in gale force winds that lasted all day. The winds were nothing that I've ever encountered before. Absolutely relentless! The wind just kept blowing and I found myself just hoping it would stop for 30 seconds so I could write my notes without my paper blowing all over the place. And then it would rain just enough to dampen the paper and make my pen run all over the place. And it was nuts trying to get in that white suit in that wind too... kind of like trying to put on a kite.

The subsequent two weeks was spent sifting through the evidence we collected, receiving more evidence from the "police" and doing analysis on the evidence we gave priority to. It was a big lesson in group dynamics, being thrown in the deep end without any waterwings whatsoever, and learning that a biologist and chemical-phobe like me can actually do chemistry when the situation demands it. It also made me seriously question whether this is the line of work I want to get in to. In the end, after all the stress and uncertainty, I still learned immensely from the experience and still want to see this all through to whatever end it gets me to. I'm also somewhat proud of myself because I demonstrated some serious perseverance in some of my analysis.

Anyway, I'm now putting the whole exercise aside for the holidays, and am refusing to worry about it until it comes up again around March. I have two more days of class left, and then I'm free for a couple of weeks! Yay!

Stirling - December 2, 2006

Lesley and I decided to go to Stirling before the two week stress-marathon that was to be the Stepps exercise. Stirling is a lovely little town... comparable to Peterborough, Ontario in size. It is home to a number of attractions including Stirling Castle, Mar's Wark, the Old Town Jail, and the William Wallace Monument. We unfortunately missed the Wallace Monument, but since Stirling is only 20 minutes north of Glasgow, and less than $20 for a train ticket, we'll certainly be going back.

Stirling Castle is really cool. Right now the Palace is undergoing renovation, but many of the other buildings are open. But just walking around the grounds and peeking in all the different passages is interesting. Stirling Castle is a Renaissance castle and was home to Mary Queen of Scots, and James IV, among others. The Castle was built as early as the 14th Century, but mostly 15th and 16th Century buildings remain. The outer defenses were built in the 18th Century. There's a certain vibe to castles, especially ones like Stirling Castle which have been kept true to their original style. They are massive, solid buildings that seem incorporate the out-of-doors and nature with their opposing man-made-ed-ness (yes, I'm really just making up words here). They were no doubt massive and busy places all of the time, decadent during the best of times, and downright frightening during a siege.

My favourite part of Stirling Castle was down in the cellars (I think they were cellars) of Elephant Tower where you could see fragments of the old spiral staircase and low ceilinged rooms. It was like spelunking without the claustrophobia, having to duck around columns and under low archways. Although it was all still above-ground (there were a number of low windows at about grass level), it had the feeling of being below ground... maybe because there was just so much above you.

We also stopped at Mar's Wark, which is the facade of a Renaissance Mansion. The mansion was never finished, and all that remains of it is the outside front, comprised of a number of low doorways (a testament to the shortness of stature of Renaissance Europeans), and windows. You can walk up into the graveyard behind Mar's Wark, and then along a little pathway to actually walk around what would have been the upper floor. From the upper level you can look below to the different rooms - what's left of them anyway. It is all very forlorn and spooky with everything covered in leaf litter and pop bottles carelessly tossed in by unappreciative passers-by.

A definite highlight of Stirling is the Old Town Jail. The jail was built in 1847 and was an attempt at Victorian prison reform. The focus was supposed to be rehabilitation and education, rather than meaningless drudgery and squalor. While it was still a far cry from 50 prisoners in a single cell with no food or water unless it was brought from somebody on the outside, it still fell back into the old penalties of being made to turn a crank that did nothing for hours on end, and picking apart pieces of rope coated in tar. You get 10% off if you've visited the Castle, and it consists of a guided tour with an actor. Afterword, you get to tour around a modern day exhibit of what prison life is like. The actor is absolutely fabulous, representing everyone from the old hangman to an escaped convict.

Anyway, as usual, pictures are worth 1000 words... though I think quite a bit more. So pop on over to the flickr account to have a peek.