House/pet sitting in the UK

I love travelling, but I’m not made of money, so I have to watch my budget and think of ways to travel a little more cheaply.  A few months ago, I offered my house/pet-sitting services to friends and family (free in exchange for the use of their homes in the UK) and am currently undertaking my first ‘job’.

I am thoroughly enjoying myself, but it’s been a huge learning experience. Here are a few of the things things I have learned that will help me (and perhaps you) next time. Most of them are common sense, but they’re always worth repeating.

Most importantly –  If you can, try and spend 24 hours in the house/with the animal before the owners leave.  Ensure you have their contact details.

Wish I could put her in my suitcase and bring her home with me!

LOOKING AFTER THE ANIMAL:

Keep to the animal’s routine, not yours.  (eg Walking, feeding etc.)

Make sure you know what food they eat – where to buy more if you run out – and only give them allowed treats.

Keep to the owner’s rules  (eg not being allowed to climb on furniture etc) not yours.  I’m a big softie, and the dog I’m looking after can sense that, so she’s tried to push a few boundaries. It would be so easy to give in… but that wouldn’t be fair on her. Or my friends.

Know the animal’s health history.  Know any medications and how to give them.  (eg must they be taken with food?)  Know the vet’s phone number, address, opening and emergency hours, and ensure you know how to get there if needed.

Does the owner need to be informed before you take the animal to the vet, or are they willing to leave it to your judgement? How will the vet bill be paid?

HOUSE:

Know who are the spare key holders.  Carry their phone numbers with you when you go out… just in case you lock yourself out. (Haven’t done this myself, but you never know.)

Have a list of all emergency contacts – electricity, gas etc.  Get neighbours’ phone numbers if you can.

If there is an alarm system, make sure you know how to use it and ensure you do, as it could affect their house insurance if you don’t.

British homes can be quite different to North American ones, especially when it comes to the heating systems.  Heat is usually not left on 24 hours a day, so make sure you know how to use and override the timer in case you need to.  I have been asked to monitor the boiler pressure every two days, so make sure the owner writes down exactly how to adjust it.

CAR:

In North America, it’s common to insure the car rather than the driver. In the UK, it’s the other way around. If you are going to be driving the owner’s car in the UK, confirm that it will be insured for you, know the exact dates,  and know where the papers are.

Remember to drive on the correct side of the road.  :o)

A few years ago, I bought a cheap UK satnav because I visit here so often.  If you have one that works overseas, bring it along, just in case the owners don’t have one, or you can’t figure out how to operate it. (Ahem!)

YOURSELF:

I wouldn’t have thought about this except I fell on the street while out walking the dog yesterday, crunched my knees and barely missed hitting my head.  It’s unlikely – but possible – that something might happen to you, so be prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Carry your phone with you.  Consider buying a cheap one when you are in the UK so you don’t have to pay carrier fees, or arrange a plan with your usual carrier before you leave home.  You can buy a basic phone in the UK for about $20 with a pay-as-you go facility.

Buy adequate health insurance before you leave home.

Have someone to call in an emergency.

Have someone who can take care of the animal(s) if you become incapacitated.

Consider house sitting with a friend, so there is someone to take over if anything happens to you.

It’s quite a responsibility looking after someone else’s home and animal, but I have to say I’m loving it as I’m not allowed to have a dog where I live.  It’s a ‘quiet’ kind of holiday. I’m not dashing around taking in all the sights, although I could if I wanted as I have the use of my friend’s car, and the dog is used to being on its own all day. But I’m loving going for long walks with the dog and just… puttering and relaxing. Neighbours and friends have been very welcoming – and I’m enjoying the chance to slow down.

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Culross

View across the Forth

Wow!  Is it really so long since I last added a post.  I guess so.

I had an amazing trip back to Scotland a few months ago.  There were many very special moments: staying in a renovated 15th century castle; a ghost tour of Edinburgh; delicious scones at all the National Trust properties we visited; visiting old castles; horse-riding along the beach; long, lazy chats with old friends; visiting family; did I mention the National Trust scones…

But perhaps the biggest highlight for me was visiting the town of Culross (pronounced q-ross), in Fife, not far from Edinburgh on the other side of the Forth.  As the guide-book says, ‘Culross is a town which time has passed by; the most complete example in Scotland today of a burgh of the 17th and 18th centuries’.

One of the old streets in Culross

Not the Mediterranean but Culross Palace courtyard.

The Mercat Cross – used in Outlander

If the town reminds you of a film set, it is, in fact, frequently used as one! If you are a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, many of the buildings are instantly recognisable, including Geillis Duncan’s home, or the market cross where a young lad has his ear nailed to a post.

Lost in time it may be, but it is a thriving community. There’s little I can say to adequately describe what a fascinating place Culross is.  From its Palace and garden, to the Town house, Stinking Wynd (don’t worry, it doesn’t smell), Mercat Cross, House with Evil Eyes, Abbey and Abbey House, to the stunning views across the Forth, not to mention the great coffee shops, there’s something for everyone.

 

 

 

 

Edinburgh – City of Writers

You’ve got to love a city that has a museum dedicated to writers.  The three celebrated in Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson – remain widely read and revered even today.  Sir Walter Scott has been credited with ‘inventing’ the historical novel with tales like Kidnapped and Ivanhoe, we all sing Robert Burns’ most famous song, “Should Auld Aquaintance Be Forgot,” at New Year, and who hasn’t dreamed of finding their own Treasure Island or been frightened by a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character.

writers museum

For a small city of less than half-a-million people, Edinburgh has produced (or been the home to) an amazing number of writers.  Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, Irvine Welsh, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Robert Fergusson, Muriel Spark, Kenneth Grahame.

Outwith Edinburgh, the list of Scottish writers includes J.M. Barrie, Val McDermid, Louis Welsh, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Nigel Tranter, Alistair MacLean, A.J. Cronin, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown… it goes on and on. and on…

For a wee country, Scotland delivers a ‘muckle’ literary punch.

writer quote

SCOTTISH WISDOM

castle-campbellAlthough I was born and brought up in Scotland, I’ve lived overseas for so long now, that sometimes I forget just how rich and humorous and wise some Scottish sayings are.

Here’s just a sampling.

WE’RE A’ JOCK TAMSON’S BAIRNS. (We’re all Jock Tamson’s children.) We’re all the same under the skin/ We’re all God’s children. (Here’s an interesting link as to who Jock Tamson might have been.)

ANE AT A TIME IS GUID FISHIN’. (One at a time is good fishing.) Be content with your life. Don’t look for everything at once.

MONY A MICKLE MAKS A MUCKLE. (Many small things make a lot.) Lots of little things add up into big things.

AULD CLAES AN’ CAULD PORRITCH. (Old clothes and cold porridge.) After a period of expense, it’s back to basics. Or… after a holiday, it’s back to real life.

WEANS WI’ BIG LUGS TAK IT A’ IN. (Children with big ears take it all in.) Watch what you say in front of the children.

YER JAICKETS’ ON A SHOOGLY PEG. (Your jacket is on a wobbly hook.) You’re close to being fired from work.  (Maybe not a wise saying, but I love the imagery!)

Visiting Glasgow – Byres Road

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All cities have their iconic streets. One of my favourites is Byres Road in Glasgow’s West End. It stretches from the working class district of Partick at one end, to the beautiful Botanic Gardens and mansions of Great Western Road at the other. With both the University of Glasgow and, until their recent move to Pacific Quay, the BBC Scotland studios close by, it has a vibrant, diverse feel to it.

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Visiting Byres Road on my trips back to Scotland, it remains familiar, and yet new enough, to still excite me. I love how Byres Road honours its past by not knocking down ‘old’ buildings, but by repurposing them, turning an old church into a theatre,  and an art deco cinema into a restaurant.  The city – and street – is alive!

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My grandparents used to live about halfway up Byres Road, and I spent a lot of time there when I was a wee girl. Much has changed since then. The pork butcher shop, which I remember having tiled walls, carcasses hanging from hooks which dripped blood onto the sawdust covered floor, is now an Oxfam shop, while Colquhouns, where we used to go for lunch on a Saturday, now houses a Pizza Express.

Across the road from their flat was Ashton Lane, now a trendy mews, with the famous Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and entrance to the Grosvenor Cinema.

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Byres Road has many of the stores you expect to see on any High Street – Boots, Marks and Spencer Food etc – but there are some great independent shops too where you can buy  unique gifts.

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And if you fancy getting a cup of coffee from ‘The Tardis’ you’ll find that there too!

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The butcher shop I remember has long gone, but down near the Partick end there’s another butcher with a good sense of humour.  I used to hate potted meat!  Yes, I guess that means I was a ‘toff’.

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And if you fancy stepping back into history, pop into Curlers Rest (formerly Curlers) for a drink. Established in the 17th century, it used to stand beside a pond where – you guessed it – they curled in the winter.

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Ross Ainslie

As an emigrant from Scotland, and with Burns Night almost upon us (January 25th), it can be all too easy to get caught up in twee images of Scotland and its music.  You know what I mean – pipers marching through the glens, kilts a-swinging, belting out Scotland the Brave.

And while there is definitely a place for all that, my visit back to Scotland for The Perthshire Amber Festival last October, really opened my eyes to the vibrant contemporary Folk Scene that currently exists in Scotland. Especially in the world of piping, where I was introduced to the music of Ross Ainslie.

What can I say apart from – What a musician! With his tattoos, long hair and ripped jeans, he is definitely not your traditional image of a piper.

Unfortunately, none on the photos I took at his concert turned out, but here’s a wonderful clip of him performing from Youtube. Check it out. The energy of the music is intoxicating and exciting.

But Ainslie can also play beautiful, mellow and traditional.  Below, you can hear him playing on my most favourite song, Caledonia.  (at 2mins 46secs and 4 mins 22secs.)

 

Swimming Cows

Visiting a museum in Dunkeld, Scotland, a few months ago, I came across the term ‘swimming cows’ for the first time.

Back in the day, droving cattle from the Highlands down to the markets in Crieff and Falkirk was huge business and the major source of income in the Highlands. From Crieff, the cattle were herded south to England, where their meat was in great demand.  At the peak of the industry, 100,000 cattle left the Highlands every year. The droving way of life only fell into decline with the arrival of the railroads in the mid-19th Century.

But what has this to do with ‘swimming cows’?  In the days before bridges were available – or their tolls affordable – the cattle had to be swum across rivers. If the lead cow could be persuaded into the water, the herd would follow. But occasionally, if his herd balked at crossing a particular river, the drover might hire a local ‘swimming cow’ to lead the cattle safely across. This ‘swimming cow’ would then be returned home to await being called on by another herd.

Even in this day and age, cattle are still swum across rivers or seas to fresh pastures. I came across this article about a farmer in Skye who swims his herd across the water to fresh pastures every year.  Now in his 80s, he used to swim alongside them, but now accompanies the herd in a row-boat.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the drovers when their industry collapsed, many travelled to America and became cowboys on the famous Cowboy Trails.

If you’re interested in learning more, please check out this documentary of a modern-day recreation of a drove from the Isle of Skye to Crieff.