Of Rayburns and Trolls … winter in Scotland. – NewLife Steev

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I have decided to publish this by removing the names and the place where the action happened.  I know that anyone could find out the place and names in the piece with a minimum of online searching – but I will feel more comfortable with this at the moment.  All of the following is of course my personal experience and is open to debate.

This has to be one of the most difficult posts that I have ever written for all sorts of reasons.  For one, most of the principal characters are still alive – so, unlike some of the posts about my family of origin, I am running the risk those people might read this stuff.

For another, there is this sense that the more outlandish a tale is, the more unbelievable it might seem to an outsider.  Thirdly there are some parts of this that I don’t want to relive, especially seeing my part in the mess that occurred.

Where to start?

I moved up to Scotland – to the hamlet of D to be precise – in November 2020.  Partly for a change in scene and partly because I thought that my health issue gripes might get more understanding from the Scottish NHS.

I was a bit uncertain about what I was getting myself into.  For a start the place was within my budget and yet it shouldn’t have been.  What I mean is that it was a mainly self-contained space (it was attached to the main house by one locked door) with its own garden, in countryside close to Edinburgh, and the grounds included a lochan, a tennis court and five acres of wood and landscaped grounds.  It took me around ten minutes to walk from the main road (with bus access to Edinburgh) along a shared and then independent drive.

Secondly, I did some research on the owners.  A has an unusual name (I could only find one other) and she had been a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anne and because of protocol she still holds the title even though she retired from the position many moons ago.  Her husband C was a brigadier, one of the highest offices in the British army.  Latterly, he was head of operations in Northern Ireland during the troubles and lately the military attaché to France. He famously decided drape the Royal Standard over the coffin, which was a controversial decision at the time.  They also had a son, P who lived in the gatehouse on the corner of the shared and independent driveway to the House.  More on him later. 

As usual, I asked the questions about the quietness of the place, warmth and the internet access and on being assured that all were okay, I made the decision to leave my lovely flat in Totley, Sheffield (never to return) and head on up.   

On arrival, I met both hosts and the Rayburn – the beast in the sitting room / kitchen which was to become a major part of my story there.  I had never used a Rayburn or Aga before and given my general uselessness around kitchen appliances (my photo of confusing washing machine controls in Brest became my most commented on photograph in 2019), I already knew I was in trouble.  Another problem was quickly identified: the internet access.  Yes, it was there and was good enough for most things, but the only way I could get a signal strong enough to work on Cambly was to position myself as near to the shared doorway as possible, meaning I had to work from the living room; not a problem at first, but it was to become so as time wore on.

Hills covered in snow
It got cold out there!

Soon things settled down.  I got used to the poor internet connection. At least I was able to work… and I tried to master the Rayburn but was becoming annoyed at how erratic it was.  Sometimes it would heat up enough to boil my eggs and sometimes not and there was no way of knowing that at the start.  When I complained about it I was told that it was me who was not handling it right, not that there was any problem with the beast. 

I mentioned earlier the washing machine photo; well I couldn’t have shot a photo of one from D. as there was no washing machine, even though one was mentioned in the listing.  I was told that if I handed them my washing each time I needed it doing it would be washed and dried in their place, but I couldn’t go in and do it myself because of the Covid risk.  I wasn’t sure about this.  Who wants to hand in their dirty underwear to their Airbnb host?  But there was no real alternative.  I would guess the nearest launderette would have been in Edinburgh some 30 minutes away and not feasible to do on a regular basis.  When I handed my first lot in, it came back not only washed and dried but also ironed and buttoned up too!

In fact, it was the last thing I ever said to C.  When I was handing my washing to him he said “what marvellous gift are you bringing to me?”  I responded “nothing but dirty washing milord” and he laughed.  My last memory of him is of a laugh.  A day later the washing was brought back by A. quite late in the evening and it was obvious that something serious was wrong.  Apparently that night C. had had a fall downstairs and she phoned the doctors who suggested an ambulance should be called. He was rushed to A&E but had a stroke in the ambulance and was not expected to make it.  He died that evening.

Talking about the washing and the problems with the Rayburn seemed a bit trivial after that.  But the latter couldn’t be ignored.  It was also my only source of heat and the weather was getting increasingly cold and icy.  I tried to be as supportive as I could to A during this difficult period and I was pleased to see that she was getting a lot of support from people around her including her son who was showing up more and more.  

The piper who will lead the funeral procession for C.

I am not sure of the sequence of events.  There was the funeral.  There was the inevitable breakdown of the Rayburn and being without heat for 24 hours whilst the repair guy came.  There was my skidding my car off the drive and then having to be towed by P. and slipping whilst pushing the car and being helped up by him (at a time when touching was frowned upon).  Some weeks later I had a much more messy slippage when I cut and burst my nose at the same time and had to take a shirt to A. for washing that used to be yellow but was now blood coloured. Not pleasant.

The Rayburn broke down about four times in total and one of the issues was that it was creating a lot of soot in the process.  I wasn’t at all happy, both because of the interruption to my cooking and heating but also because of the health and safety implications.  Again, I felt that I was being blamed, even though I was the victim.  A. would say things like, “this has never happened before” and “it is because it is in constant use and most visitors do not stay in the annexe all day,” (when it was virtually impossible to go out anywhere because of the snow and ice!). 

The health and safety aspects to this was because the Rayburn, even when it seemed to be behaving itself, was kicking out an awful lot of soot and, although there was a CO2 detector in situ, I was not convinced that the fine particles were doing me any good.  However, it turned out that the fine particles were also not doing the annexe any good.  But I am getting ahead of myself.  The Rayburn actually first broke down within the first week of my being in D. and the engineer (Jim – yes we were on first name terms by the end) managed a temporary fix. 

It worked well for a few weeks but as the weather got colder and the Rayburn had to be put to more and more use, it was clear that something was not right.  Although I tried to keep it as clean as I could, it was getting more and more dirty, mostly with soot.

I can’t recall when I first noticed that something was amiss, but it was late at night after looking up from the computer that I saw a faint shadow above the windows and dark lines where some of the woodwork was.  I didn’t know then that this would turn into another nightmare.  The days and especially the nights got colder and the Rayburn was getting more and more use.  I did notice that the dark marks were getting darker but I guess I thought that it was to do with the cold and damp and for some reason it did not occur to me that the soot was the cause of the problem, causing “ghosting” as it tended to stain in the thinnest parts where joists etc. were.  Eventually things came to a head as the Rayburn broke down yet again and I called A. to look at it first before Jim was called.  When she saw the dark marks around the room she nearly had a heart attack as it became obvious that the whole place would need to be redecorated.  There was talk of them doing this around me as there was a booking for the place immediately after me, which they had to honour.  I did not want this, so made the decision to leave a week earlier than I had planned.  But, by then, there were other things that had come into play.

It happened at Easter.  Although I had been invited into the main house for a meal at Christmas (actually Boxing Day lunch), I was not allowed in again until Easter Monday when again I was invited for lunch, this time in their conservatory.  It was nice enough and at the end I was offered a piece of tart and was asked if I wanted ice-cream with it.  I had already explained that I was lactose intolerant and P. suggested that I try some vegan ice-cream made with soya milk that he had at his place.  He ran down the road and brought some back and it tasted good.  Later that evening, I was impressed to find a carton of it outside the house and he later said he had been into the town and bought it for me.  Anyway to cut a long story short, I decided to do an internet search on his name as he had been telling me about the company he had set up and I had to admit I was finding his explanation hard to follow.  So I googled his name and the name of the village,  expecting the usual company director stuff – but no.  What I got was national newspaper headlines of “businessman troll in court”, “Scottish businessman admits to hate mail of Remainer politicians.”  He had sent hate emails and threatening letters to several prominent “Remainer” politicians, including  Amber Rudd, John Bercow, the then Liberal Democrat leader – Jo Swinson and Ian Blackford of the SNP.

Of course I was shocked – not only by what he had done, but by the fact that I had had no suspicion of it.  Of course, I suspected that the owners were not nationalists but I was less sure about their views on the EU, especially as they were second-home owners with an apartment in the south of France.

I was also shocked as he had been so good to me and because I thought I was a good reader of people, (I am not – the evidence is there, but I still like to believe the myth). 

Some days later, they asked me if I would look after the chickens, whilst they went to London to visit some relatives.  Immediately I thought of the pending court case and of course saw in the news that the dates matched.   This put me in a bit of a moral dilemma: do I play along with them and not mention that I know their secret – do I ask how it went in court, or just stay with the “how were the relatives?” knowing that this was not the real reason for the trip?

View of the House of Commons London UK
House of Commons.

In the end I could see no positives in bringing it up, though it felt really odd on my last day wishing P. well, yet knowing that in a short time he would be facing the prospect of being handcuffed and taken in a waiting van to the clink.  In the end he got 12 months, which was about half of the maximum sentence for what he did.  I guess with good behaviour he would be out in six, probably home for Christmas.  How A. is going to manage on her own in that time is another question. I guess friends and other family members will rally round to help. 

Another interesting facet to this which I ought to mention was her selective memory.  Whilst Jim was working on the Rayburn for the fourth time of my stay, A. came out with the line, “I am not sure why this is happening – it has never happened before.”  Jim replied, “have you forgotten?  It broke down a couple of years ago and I said then that it would keep breaking down as it really does need replacing and I can only do temporary fixes.”  There was no response from A. – well, unless a look can be a response.

I have checked her page on Airbnb and her reviews have all been excellent.  No-one else has mentioned problems with the Rayburn, but then it has been the summer when the heating has not been needed so much and most people have only stayed for a few days at a time.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the winter.

I left a week early, ostensibly in order to give A. and P. time to redecorate the room without being in there and therefore in the way.  Finding somewhere else to stay proved really difficult and I ended up breaking my journey with a few days in Darlington and a few near Washington in Tyne and Wear.  I had more trouble at the Washington digs, but I was only there for a few days and it can be the subject of another post.  My top ten Airbnb nightmares perhaps?