Monday, January 28, 2008

Is that a sabre in your rucksack...?

This post isn't going to have a lot of continuity to it.

I was down to Edinburgh on the weekend to do a Level 1 Sabre Coaching course. The weather was pretty wild, with high winds and rain from Inverness down to Edinburgh. I took the bus, a 3.5 hour trip during which I was in a state between wakefulness and sleep for much of it and couldn't wait to get off the super-heated bus at the end of it. When I came back Sunday night, I heard that the rail line had been closed due to flooding in some parts, so if I had taken the train I would have ended up on a bus anyway.

The course was challenging for me, but I definitely learned some things about coaching fencing, in particular in giving individual lessons which is not something I've done before and lacked confidence in doing. I also learned that if you walk around with a large backpack with two sabre blades sticking out of the top of it (at least a foot in length) that you will attract a lot of curious/fearful/strange looks, but will never be asked what it is that you have in your backpack.

On a related note to that: last Tuesday when I was returning from fencing with the afore-mentioned two sabres in my hand, I boarded the bus to find that the supervising bus driver (she was training the driver) was eyeing me quite closely. I thought to myself that she was not going to allow me on, and that I was going to have to argue through the whole deal about sabres being sports equipment and no more dangerous than a hockey stick or a cricket bat. As it turned out, she used to fence way-back-when in school and had always been looking for a fencing club to join. So I gave her the coach's contact information and I answered her fencing questions for most of the ride back to Inverness.

I've had some visits with friends as well in the last week or so. Jamie was up to Inverness from Cairngorm Lodge (where he's working with Rob now) on his birthday (the 16) at my invitation, and we went out to celebrate. Then Rob and Tina were here the middle of last week due to interviews and courses being held at our hostel, so I got to hang out with them some as well. I tried to meet up with some buddies in Edinburgh, but their work schedules didn't mesh with my course schedule, so it'll have to be another time.

I also learned last week that various levels of management have read my blog, since it pops up on Google if you search "Inverness Youth Hostel" and "blog" (usually when looking for reviews of the place - hey, we're great!). So the readership is growing!

Taxi's in Inverness have the most easy-to-remember phone numbers that I've ever seen. One is 222 555. Another is 222 900. And, for the immensely drunk, all you have to do is go to a payphone and mash the 2 key until it starts ringing, and you'll get the company who's number is 222 222.

Pedestrian crossings in Inverness make people wait for a minimum of what seems like 5 minutes before crossing. The closer you get to the city centre, the longer the wait. Traffic seems to flow twice in each direction before the pedestrians get to cross. Which is why no one waits for the lights in the city - I certainly don't, and I've basically given up on pushing the button in order to get the little green man (the walk symbol - the don't walk symbol is a red, stationary man) to eventually come up.

I see a lot of BBC news these days since we often have the reception TV at the hostel set to that channel. A regular feature of the news programming is a segment when they look at the day's newspapers to see what the headlines and pictures on the front pages are. Now, I don't know about you, but I find this extremely odd. Here we have the medium of television, in which moving pictures (they call them videos, I believe) and sound are available to convey information. And what do the news anchors do with that medium? Let's all take a look at some typeface and still-pictures printed on poor quality paper. Also, they've become journalists once-removed. They're reporting on what other journalists have already reported on. Strange.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I've been planning to write about the money over here for quite some time now, as it's different in more ways than you'd think. So let's get cracking.

The basics, you probably already know. The currency in all of the UK is the pound sterling (£). It's divided into 100 pence (p). For coinage, there's 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p, 1£, and 2£ coins. See picture here. Just like in Canada, you get different pictures on the coins on occasion, although this doesn't occur with the frequency that quarters get done over back home (i.e. every year). Mostly, I see different versions of the pound coin - ones with a coat of arms, with 3 lions, with a thistle, with a dragon, with a rose and cross.

The 1p coin is called a penny, and collectively with the 2p coins they're referred to as "coppers". All the other coins are called by their value: i.e. "a 20p". I know some people that refer to the silver coins - 5p, 10p, 20p, and 50p - as shrapnel, but I would not say that's universal.

It's not the coinage that's quite different over here, but the banknotes, or what we would call "bills" in Canada. Firstly: they're different sizes. The £10 note is about the size of a Canadian bill of any denomination; I compared when I was home and found the £10 is a bit shorter and a touch wider. However, the £5 note is smaller than the £10, and the £20 note is bigger than both, so that the edges of it always stuck out of my old, Canadian wallet and got bent. I've only seen £50 notes on occasion, but they're bigger still. So I figure if I ever get my hands on a £100 note, I'll have to fold it two times just to get it into my wallet.

If you just went to England, you probably wouldn't find anything other than the sizes out of the ordinary - you'd have the coins, and then notes issued by the Bank of England for £5, £10, and £20, etc. If you went to Wales, it'd just be the same. However, it's a different ball game when you go to Scotland or Northern Ireland.

In Scotland, there are three banks that issue banknotes, so for every denomination, there are three different notes. Now, these banks aren't like the Bank of England (or the Bank of Canada) - the Scottish banks are actual banks, as in you could go to a branch and open up an account with them. For example, my bank over here is the Royal Bank of Scotland, and it's one of the banks that prints notes. The other banks are Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank.

So in day-to-day life in Scotland, it's common to come across 4 different versions of banknotes. Here's some pictures I took of my own money (you can find pictures of all the UK possibilities on this site, where they want to sell you signed notes):

£20 notes: Clydesdale on top left (Robert the Bruce pictured), Bank of Scotland on top right (Walter Scott pictured on all their notes), Royal Bank of Scotland on bottom left (Lord Lay, First Governor on all their notes), Bank of England on bottom right (with the ol' Queen).Reverse side of the notes above.
£10 pound notes ("tenners"): same bank order as above. That's Mary Slessor on the Clydesdale note; I'm guessing she has something to do with the African missionary work shown on the reverse.
Reverse side of the above notes - that's Charles Darwin on the back of the English note.

£5 notes ("fivers"): I commonly only see these two versions, and when I took these pictures ages ago I actually thought that they were the only two. But there are fivers made by Bank of Scotland - I've only seen the "new" ones (more about that in a minute). Robert Burns is on the Clydesdale note. Reverse of the fivers. That mouse is in reference to Burns' poem to a mouse.
There's also one pound notes in Scotland, but I haven't seen any of them since I worked at the Coylet Inn, where customers would have them and I'd get them in my change when shopping once in a while.
Also, there's now new Bank of Scotland notes that are much more colourful then before (looking more like the new Canadian notes, so I assume the added colour is for security reasons).
As I mentioned, Northern Ireland has different notes as well - I've occasionally seen banknotes from Ulster Bank and Northern Bank when I get customers who've been there recently. Wales doesn't have its own notes any more since the last bank that issued them there folded. And English provincial banks used to issue their own notes up until the 1800's, I've gathered.
It gets more complicated. I hear frequently of how businesses in England won't accept Scottish banknotes, either because they don't think it's legal tender in England or because they're not confident they can spot counterfeit since they don't see the money often (then there's the theory that they do it as just another way to oppress the Scots).
The Wikipedia article on banknotes states that Scottish notes aren't legal tender even in Scotland, because they are promissory notes (this is based on a very strict economic/accounting definition of legal tender that I won't pretend to entirely understand, not the common usage definition of legal tender). Indeed, all the Scottish notes bear some statement that the bank "promises to pay the bearer on demand X pounds sterling". However, the banknotes are as good in England as they are in Scotland in terms of legality; the Scottish banks have to back up their banknotes with that actual amount of currency to the Bank of England.
Anyway, there's a lot of information out there on it and I'm not going to regurgitate it all, so I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to research more if desired.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Old New Year

On Saturday, Inverness marked the "Old New Year" (an t-Seann Bhliadhn’ Ùr in Gaelic) - that is, the date that was January 1st until the adoption of the Georgian calendar system. By the time Scotland adopted the calendar (in 1751 according to my internet research), the calendars were 11 days apart. The Highland Scots, stubborn lot that they can be, kept their celebrations to the old calendar (11 days late) for several centuries more.

Since 2007 was the Year of Highland Culture in Scotland, in keeping with Highland tradition they started the year on January 12, 2007, and had its finale on January 12, 2008. So the city put on a few events for that, including a big fireworks display from the Kessock Bridge, accompanied by music. It was a pretty good little fireworks show, although it was so cold that the smoke hung in the air, partially obscuring later fireworks but also being lit up by them.

There was a shinty match scheduled earlier in the day which I wanted to see, but when I went down to the park there didn't seem to be any match on, and I heard tell that it might have been cancelled on account of the freezing conditions (frozen ground makes a hard surface to play on). So I've yet to see a shinty match, but I'll be keeping my eyes open for one.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Photos around Inverness

There are now photos up on my post about Cairngorm.

I've had pure maple syrup for the second time in my life. David my manager saw me eating pancakes (termed "Scottish crumpets" by the supermarket - I bought them pre-cooked) with Golden Syrup (pretty much tastes like corn syrup), and offered me some maple syrup that his friend in Waterloo, ON had sent him. I guess he has a large jug. So I finished off my crumpet packet with maple syrup instead of Golden.
Below is the view from my room at the hostel. That's a school being constructed in the foreground, but the interesting bit is in the back. That's the Moray Firth and Fort George is the point of land, I believe. I can also see a bit of the Black Isle through the trees (to the left of this picture but not shown). My camera's zoom isn't good enough to avoid the building though.

I've taken a walk along the Caledonian Canal a few times; it's about 1 km north of the River Ness. I walked out to where the canal joins up to the sea at the Beauly Firth (which then becomes the Moray Firth once it flows past Inverness and under the Kessock Bridge, to the best of my understanding). From there I took this picture - that's some mountain covered in snow, in behind the hills of the Black Isle.
I commented last year on the "furry" trees in Ireland; well they exist in Scotland as well and here's an example:

Finally, a swan in action on the canal. Doesn't look quite so graceful when it's wiggling its arse in the air.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Well, I finally got out to the fencing club last night - it had been not meeting over the holidays. The club's in Culloden, and handily-enough there's a bus that goes straight by there, and even better one that comes back.

There was probably about 20 people there, of whom 6 to 7 were adults, so good numbers. I fenced all three weapons in the one night, and had good fun, won some bouts and lost some as well. Today I'm sporting some good épée bruises for not parrying well enough (on my upper right arm). I've requested to have Tuesday evenings off from work each week, so I'll be able to keep it up. It'll be something to liven up the mid-week (I got excited about going yesterday, was doing my dog-waiting-to-go-for-a-walk bouncing around at times).

Just sitting at work now, eating a Cadbury Dairy Milk with Caramel bar. I had thought that it would be like a Cadbury Cara-milk bar, but it's not as good - there's less caramel. It seems the secret is confined to Cadbury's North American operations. Or it's been stolen by Galaxy's Caramel bar - they're good and caramely.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Hogmanay and Down to Cairngorm Park

It's January 7th already! Time's flying by - I've been in Inverness over a month already, and it's already a week into 2008. I've had to write '09 on the backs of SYHA membership cards that I've sold in the last week (they last a year), and that's even weirder.

I last updated here on the 30th, so since then has been Hogmanay. I took some German fellows who were staying at the hostel out that night (they'd been very nice to me by feeding me several times in the course of the week before that) for a few hours. They took some photos on their camera phone that are on their blog - it's written in German, but you can see the photos, including a scary one of me at the start. "Sylvester" is German for New Year's Eve - never knew that the cat was named for that.

On my days off this week I went and worked at another hostel. Rob, of Uig and Aberdeen fame, is managing Cairngorm Lodge, and has been the only full-time staff member there since just before New Year's (he had a part-time cleaner). So that he could have a day off to go about his own business, I went down to fill in for him for a day-and-a-half.

Le hostel Cairngorm Lodge (Loch Morlich):

The hostel from another angle:
I took the train south to Aviemore Wednesday evening, just a 30-minute trip. Then, owing to there being no buses after 5pm, I took a taxi the 7 miles to Glenmore, where the youth hostel is. It's in a nice location, and looks like a huge house - apparently it was an old shooting lodge before its youth hostel days. There's a conservatory off of the dining hall that lets you see the mountains (when the clouds aren't blocking them), and I liked sitting in it to look at the surroundings. The hostel has 78 beds, and attracts the outdoor types for hiking, climbing, and skiing, given its proximity to Cairn Gorm mountain. It was reasonably busy with groups of climbers while I was there. It's also right near Loch Morlich, and in the midst of a forest park of Scotch pine.

I hung out with Rob on Wednesday night and got orientated to the hostel. Starting 7am Thursday morning I was on duty since Rob was away. It had snowed overnight, so there was several inches of wet snow on the ground - the first time that I've walked through snow in this country. I spent a lot of time on the phone listening to messages about the road to Cairngorm Mountain being shut due to the plow needing to clear the road (a feat that took hours). Due to white out conditions later in the day the mountain was evacuated. Sections of the A9 highway through the region were also closed down due to the weather in the evening, causing a delay in the arrival of some of my guests. It was quite gusty around the hostel, and with the temperature going up the car park was getting a big slippy so I had to due some salt spreading and path clearing.

The slippy lane:Snowman made by one of the guests (English fellow):
The weather cleared up Friday, and was a few degrees above freezing by midday, but in the morning the car park was like a skating rink. Some guests were worried about driving up the lane, complaining that it was really slippery. To me, it didn't seem too bad - hard to walk on, but in a car you have better traction what with tire treads and weighing a lot more. I think a lot of it had to due with cars not having all-season tires as standard over, plus people aren't accustomed to driving on snow and ice.

I could really see how quickly the weather in the moutains can change - I watched masses of clouds move across the hills, obscuring them from my view (and annoying me as I wanted to take some pictures). Then within 15 minutes the hill-tops were cloud free and the sun was beating down on them. Rob was back around 2pm Friday, so after that I just rested, went for a bit of a walk, hung out and played pool, cards, and watched TV. It was a lot of work for a couple of days, but I had fun overall - just being in a different place, cleaning a different layout added enough of an element of interest to keep me going. The guests were all quite good, although some of the climbers had that clique-ishness about them where they were only interersted in talking shop to people who hiked, and one girl just walked away from me when I told her that I didn't get to go hiking often because I was generally busy with work.

I'll probably head down to the region again so I can do some walks in the forest and the hills, especially since it's so close. There's also reindeer nearby which would be neat to see in real life, since I've been looking at them on my money all my life without knowing it - I only realized while looking it up the other day that caribou is just a word for wild reindeer. I always thought that it was elk and caribou that were the same, but there you go. I suppose if I'm going to make a point of viewing things from Canadian coins, then in addition to a reindeer, I still need to see the Bluenose, a loon, and a polar bear (I've seen the maple leaves and a beaver). Oh, and the Queen.