SUMMER – A TIME FOR CELEBRATION, FOR HOLIDAYS – AND A BIT OF SERIOUS READING

CONGRATULATIONS:  To Fern and Mara Strang who live in Elshieshields Cottage. To Fern for straight As in her Highers and Advanced Highers, to Mara for straight As (bar one!) in her National Fives.   And also to grandson Alex Ramos for a First at Sussex university, and to granddaughter Isabel Ramos and her art collective ‘Keiken’ who have won a Jerwood Award and Arts Council Funding for their innovative installation work. To you all – very best wishes for the next steps!

SUMMER HOLIDAYS ‘How pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!’ (so the words begin in Psalm 133) – and even more pleasant, we might add, when a sister comes too and some in-laws, grandchildren, and cousins!  In fact we numbered 12 relations in the house over the summer holidays, not to mention quite a number of friends.  Not all at once I must add, but enough overlap to rejoice in each other’s company. There was swimming in the brown waters of the Water of Ae, bike rides round our lovely quiet local lanes, and even some fishing in the Liddle. We feasted on the fruits of the veggie garden – raspberries, chard, new potatoes, beetroots, carrots, salads, courgettes, spinach. The weather was kind and the house came into its own with family racket, thumping footsteps, and laughter …

Summer is also a time for reading and over the last two months I have tackled a great twentieth century Russian masterpiece, Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’. Though written in 1960 it could not be published in his own country until 1988. Luckily a microfilm was smuggled out of Russia and an English version in Robert Chandler’s masterful translation came out in 1985. Grossman was a war correspondent who lived through the battle of Stalingrad (more of his writings from that time have just been published this year). He had an unflinching eye and a generous heart and these qualities shine through ‘Life and Fate’.  It is written in small snatches of scenes and conversations – soldiers in the ruins of Stalingrad, the German High Command, Jewish victims on the way to the Holocaust extermination camps, Soviet intellectuals struggling with their consciences under Stalinism, glimpses of prison life in the gulag, as well as the struggles of family life and loves. Grossmann was a shrewd psychologist, philosopher and humanist. Through it all runs a condemnation of the terrible ideologically based tyrannies of the twentieth century – Nazism and Stalinism, and an affirmation of the values of freedom and sheer human goodness.  It’s a tough read but worth it! It was salutary to read this extraordinary book this summer if only because it gives a historical background to the impetus for the formation of the European Union after the war:  the longing for a society ruled by law, the decencies of civic society, a free press, for a world without threat of tyranny. Thankfully we in this country did not suffer under either of the appalling murderous tyrannies of the twentieth century. But every other country in Europe had experience of Nazism, and some countries in eastern Europe of both Nazism and Stalinism.

Grossman was not a Christian, he was a humanist from a Jewish background. He may or may not have known the Psalms, but I think he would understand Psalm 133 with its tongue in cheek symbolism of kinship and the natural world:

                        ‘How good and pleasant it is, brothers dwelling in unity!

 It is like precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, running down upon Aaron’s beard, upon the collar of his robes.

It is like the dew of Hermon which falls on the heights of Sion.  For there the Lord gives his blessings, life for ever.

Oskar’s First Birthday

4th July is a great day to start writing a diary. Today is Oskar’s first birthday. Oskar is (as far as we know) the only baby born at Elshieshields for at least 100 years. Oskar lives with his mum and dad in the Lodge. He is already a seasoned traveller: he went to Poland for his christening and now returning there for summer holidays.

What world will this friendly laughing little chap, with his big round blue eyes, grow up into? He will most likely be bi-lingual, a child of Europe and the UK, a living bridge for the future!

Looking back over the last month, what a marvellous time of early summer it was – the slow and glorious blossoming of roses, wild flowers, intense birdsong and, when the cloud lifts, those magical, luminescent evenings when the light seems to hold the darkness at bay – the ‘white nights’ which Scotland shares with all northern Europe. And yet at the same time we are witnessing the descent of our country into narrow factionalism and political impasse.

Doesn’t the healthy growth of people – and of nations – involve interaction with others, and an ever widening understanding of the Other and Others ? Isn’t that the way we become stronger and more mature? After all we live on a tiny speck of matter whirling in a vast and unknown universe. Isn’t it simply common sense to realise that we are interdependent on each other and we must join hands to save and nurture our little planet?

At the end of June we held a sparkling concert here in the Barn: pianists Peter Cowdrey and Kate Durran with singer Robert Lind performed in aid of the Moffat Children’s Choir. After a glass or two of Prosecco, the Rector of Moffat Academy spoke movingly of how the children in the choir learn to love music and how to cooperate with each other. It’s what they do together that produces the results, he said.

The evidence for this we saw in a film of the short opera ‘The Death of Captain Hook’ (composed by Peter Cowdrey with words by Hamish Robinson commissioned for Moat Brae, Dumfries’s Peter Pan house). ‘And the boys began to sing,’ we heard the choir, ‘A song for the end of strife, Such as we now sing!’

Happy birthday Oskar and many happy returns to you in a world of song and butterflies and hands outstretched in friendship!

P.S. Books which have gripped me this month include:
Wilding by Isabella Tree (Picador, 2019) – the account of how butterflies, rare birds, lichens and plants returned to an east Sussex estate which was handed over to nature;
Spirit of Fire by Ursula King (Orbis Books, 2019) – a life of the great Christian visionary, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who as an expert palaeontologist, saw the glory of God in the evolution of the astounding natural world we live in.

To find out more about the Moffat Childrens’ Choir: Go to their Facebook page here.


Ann Shukman has been the keeper of Elshieshields for the last 20 years. She is truly grateful to be spending her later years in such a beautiful place with many kind friends around .