Winter School 2017

I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to go to summer school this year, and so instead I booked myself for the first time into Winter School.

One of the downsides of summer school for me is the rather spartan conditions in University Hall, so would a fabulous hotel, promising a wee dram by an open fire, in a spectaular setting and with a ball in a real castle, live up to expectations?

Atholl Palace Hotel

This event has been going for 17 years, mostly in Pitlochry, a very picturesque spot in the Highlands.  When people asked me where I was going, I said “stick a pin in the middle of Scotland, you’ll be close”.

Thursday dawned, heralded by chaos in the form of Storm Doris.  There were widespread reports of heavy snowfalls, trees down and power outages.  Oh well, I reasoned, I had all day to get to Pitlochry.  Anticipating some delays along the way, I set off for Lisburn train station (Lift from husband – cost, one kiss).  I bought my single to Sydenham, (cost £4.70) the stop for the airport, and a cup of tea from the stand (it’s gone up to £1.50 since my last time here, I notice).  I spotted my friend Deborah in the waiting room, and she raised one eye at my laden suitcase, and said “I hope you’re not flying anywhere today!”

The train reached Central Station and stopped, rather than continuing on the Bangor line.  Alighting and enquiring, I was told that a tree had fallen on the line, and the next service was probably in an hour.  I decided to cut my losses and get a taxi (cost £8).  But as we pulled onto the Sydenham bypass, traffic was really slow, and a quick consult on Twitter informed me that there was a tree down here as well!  It was just at the footbridge at the top end of Victoria Park, and to give credit, it was removed swiftly and we made the airport in good time.  My luggage weighed 17 kg, and there were no queues at security, though my dodgy trainers did have to go through the scanner twice.

Once airside, I studied the departures board.  Many flights were delayed, diverted or cancelled, but mine remained steadfastly and optimistically “scheduled”.  I decided to settle down with a Bloody Mary, only the bar had no tomato juice!  The horror!

Incredibly, our flight was called for boarding on time, and we pushed back right on schedule.  The flight is very short, and with a following wind took 20 minutes.  The woman beside me in a lovely leopard print coat was interested in my tales of Scottish dancing, and I gave her a leaflet.

After a safe landing, my bag appeared on the carousel very quickly, and as I left the terminal building there was a shuttle bus ready for boarding, including a helpful member of staff who put my case in the rack for me.  A return is £10.

At Glasgow Queen St, I found that the direct train service to Pitlochry wasn’t for another couple of hours.  So I had just about decided to try to find somewhere nearby for a relaxed lunch, but went to double-check the timetables in the travel centre.  The staff assured me there were no storm related delays, and I found that there was indeed a service I could take which only involved a short changeover at Perth.  Return ticket, £30.

The journey to Perth was very comfortable, and there were seats aplenty.  The transfer to another platform was a bit tricky, involving quite a lot of changing levels, and then standing on a rather windswept platform for 20 minutes.  I was glad I had my furry earmuffs and a pair of gloves.  This train was much busier, but I managed to find a little single seat in a corner.  I recognised a few familiar faces among the passengers, and quite a posse of us alighted in the charming little station at Pitlochry.

It was a bit of a struggle manhandling our suitcases over the footbridge – I’m not sure how passengers with mobility problems would cope.  But someone kindly offered me a ride in their taxi, and before long we were sweeping up the imposing drive and checking in at the Atholl Palace Hotel.

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The hotel began life offering hydrotherapy treatments, and has gone through several owners and refurbishments since then.  It still retains a spa, inspired by the lavender beds in the gardens.   My room took a while to locate, and was up a hidden staircase, again with no lift.  The room itself was large and bright, although cold, and with a rather worrying large step into the bathroom.  I unpacked, and hung my clothes in the wardrobe, which was well stocked with hangers, before making my way into town briefly to find a cash machine, admiring the Japanese garden en route.

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I’d originally signed up to go on the theatre tour, and needed cash to pay for that, but as I was looking round all the lovely things to do and see in town, I was happy to allocate my place to someone else when I got back to the registration desk.

A drinks reception took place in the Bow Lounge, which was another chance to get caught up with old friends.  We were assigned tables for dinner that night, and though I didn’t know anyone at my table, we were soon chatting away.  I discovered that one lady was even more of an eclipse chaser than I am, and had visited far flung regions of the world to see the phenomenon. There was dancing down in the Atholl Suite, which is a large circular room, but it’s mostly carpeted with a small wooden floor in the middle.

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This makes dancing on it rather difficult.  A soirée was held in the lounge with some singing and dancing.

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My Friday morning class was back in the same room, with Mary Marshall teaching, and Adam Brady on piano.  Mary reminded me of the character Gretchen Betjamin in The High Life, and she put us through our paces for The Cocked Hat, and finished with a big circle dance, the Dunedin Quadrille (cross right foot over left, and limp to the left for 8 steps….).  There was a TV crew present for some of the morning, so we made sure our steps were neat and our smiles bright.

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I wanted to see a bit of the town, so I headed in for a bit of retail therapy.  The weather was cold, verging on icy, with bitter winds and rain.  So I felt I should have more sturdy footwear, and hunted the charity shops until I found a pair of grey brogues from Hotter.  I tried on a few items of clothing, and was sorely tempted by a lavender tweed jacket reduced from £250 to £99.  I had lunch at Cafe Scozia, where I was the only customer.  I ordered fish and chips, and was served a huge portion, complete with a red onion laden side salad (bleurgh), and garnished with curly parsley, which made me smile.  I felt I maybe should have ordered something more Italian, and saved my fish supper treat for a proper chippie.

Anyway, the waiter was very friendly and chatty, and he recommended that I go and see the new     Pitlochry Dam   Visitors centre, which was a short walk around the corner.

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I loved learning about the construction of the dam, and the explanation of hydro-electric power generation.  And why fish need a ladder.  The views across the water were just beautiful, and I continued my stroll down to the Festival Theatre.  I called in to look around, and found a cream scarf and a turquoise ring in the half price basket.

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Back at the hotel, I was just in time to catch Janet Washington with her beautiful collection of clothing, and I found a blue peachskin skirt with tartan hem down to £40.  For dinner I had a haggis starter, followed by sea bass and a frangipane tart.  Dancing was again in the Atholl Suite, with music provided by Angela Young and Peter Shand on two pianos. The dances were mostly easy enough, but I was struggling to find a willing partner at times, and sat out the Jubilee Jig.  I nipped back to my bedroom to put my feet up and watch The Last Leg, before heading down to the soiree, where I enjoyed a local Eradour whiskey and listened to Angela and Peter who were taking requests and playing songs from the shows.

Saturday morning means parkrun! Sadly there was no such thing nearby, but I decided I would go out running anyway, and see the local Black Spout waterfall.  I met a fellow runner on my way, who turned out to be Alastair Smyth, whose wife had been one of my examiners last year.  He showed me the best way to the waterfall, and revealed that he runs every single day.

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The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the waterfall itself absolutely magnificent.  I was really struck by the amount of birdsong I could hear, and the carpets of snowdrops under the trees.

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I had definitely earned my breakfast, and tucked into a bowl of porridge supplied by the school’s sponsors, Hamlyns.  Glad of my Hotter shoes, I hot-footed it (geddit?) to this morning’s class, accompanied en route by the couple from Guernsey (hey, isn’t there a parkrun there? I spy a trip coming on).  There was much surface water on the roads, and I ended up being splashed head to toe, sitcom style, by a passing van.  Class was in the leisure Centre with Mervyn, accompanied by Angela.  This was a nice big space, but the floor was rock hard, there was no drinking water, and the toilet was smallest one I have ever been in.  I went back down to the main street for tea and carrot cake, only later discovering that there was tea and biscuits provided up in the Town Hall.  You’d think someone might have mentioned this!

Mervyn was featuring older dances, and I found the Long Chase particularly challenging – it was certainly long.  We also did the Chapman, and the Bramble Bush, and revised polite turns, and changing feet between pas de basque and slip step, which required great concentration.  Angela’s accompanying tunes were from the same era, and I loved the Pachabel’s Canon used for the cool down.

Ooooh, that   Janet Washington!  She entices you in to her shop like a gingerbread house, then plies you with wine, crisps, chocolates and cheesey oatcakes!  I managed to escape having purchased a black T shirt with tartan trim, a blue tartan flower, and magenta silk top to go with the skirt I bought from her   a few years ago.  Oh and a sash in County Fermanagh tartan, having taught her the correct pronunciation.

Staying in town for lunch, I went to the Cafe Biba, a charming little stone single storey building, which to my delight had a selection of mini dishes available for lunch.  I had the Spaghetti Bolognese, which came with a slice of garlic bread and generous helping of cheese.  And a garnish of curly parsley.

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I managed to scrape into the RSCDS shop before they closed, and found a CD with Blue Bonnets on, which I’m planning to teach soon.  And also made it to the final tour of the day of the   Blair Athol distillery, which is right on the doorstep of the hotel.  The name means “Burn of the otter”, but I have yet to discover why there’s only one L when all the other Atholls have two.  The distillery is owned by Bells, and most of the whiskey produced goes to be blended, so I took the opportunity to buy a bottle.

And to join a Friends of the Classic Malts group, where you get a special stamp on a passport at each distillery you visit, earning a special quaich at the end.

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Over dinner of garlic mushrooms, vegetable curry, and cheeseboard, I got chatting to someone who said that what they were looking for from Scottish Dancing was perfection.  I almost did a double take and asked, are you sure you’re in the right place?  I’ve greatly enjoyed watching extracts on You Tube from the display teams at the recent Newcastle festival, and that’s probably as close to perfection as one can get in dance – if one ever reaches it. (What does perfection look like?)  It’s certainly not top of my list of what I want to achieve either teaching or dancing in a class.  I like to get it right, certainly, but the joy of dance goes much further than that, and isn’t dependent on it.   Fun fitness and friendship sums it up better.

By this stage we’d already agreed to dance a strathspey together that evening, and I’m pretty sure my tournee fell short of perfection. Sorry!

During the soiree I felt rather left out.  Winter School has a reputation for being cliquey, and I could see why it had such a name.  I did manage a dance, though my feet were aching and in my Sketchers my footwork wasn’t great.

After breakfast on Sunday, I walked to the town hall, which is quite a trek.  Someone later mentioned a short cut, but in my experience a short cut is “the muddiest distance between two points”.  This at least had a decent wooden floor for dancing, though the pillars in the hall formed local hazards.  Raphaelle was teaching, with Peter on piano, who told us that Scott Skinner (the Strathspey King!) used to see different keys in different colours.  We were put through our paces, and challenged with a dance in 3 bar phrases, which had everyone counting furiously under their breath.  I wasn’t always totally clear about what we were doing.  This is an advanced class, which is a joy to be in, but I could have done with a bit more instruction on eg change of feet.

I had lunch in the  Fern Cottage, and again I was the only customer.  I had the soup and toastie option, which came with the obligatory curly parsley garnish. The leek and potato soup was really good, but note to self – don’t have tomato in a toasty. It makes the bread soggy, gets far too hot, and I hate the feel of cooked tomato skin in my teeth.

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The afternoon began with an entertaining session led by Angela on identifying different music and musicians and the era they came from.  We started by getting into groups and having to identify a selection of tunes, what book they came from, and who was playing.  Again, I was feeling sidelined, as the others in my group didn’t seem to be listening to what I said, and certainly weren’t writing it down. I was however totally entranced by the music of Tom Orr ,  and will definitely be looking out some of his CDs for my collection.

After that we had a gin tasting session led by Eden Mill gin distillers of St Andrews.  I’d bought their “12 gins of Christmas” for my parents, and so I was looking forward to the tasting. The fondness of gin among Scottish dancers is evidenced by the fact that the Co-op, the only supermarket in town, had sold out of tonic.  We tried 5 different gins in total, each with its own garnish and mixer.  I most enjoyed the Oak gin, which was almost on its way to becoming a whiskey, and which I could drink over ice, neat.

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So taken was I with the gin that I completely forgot I’d booked a spa session!  But I managed to re-schedule it for the next day.

Sunday evening was the celilidh.  I was planning to read a poem that my best friend had sent me for my birthday last year.  I’d attempted to find where it came from, and had asked several people who might have recognised it for a summer school in the past. It was well received, and Maureen Haynes was able to tell us who had written it.  Though she confided in me later that she was a bit puzzled as to how I’d got it, as she thought she had the only copy in existence.

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After a bit of a Google, I was able to find it in an archive of poems by Pat Batt which had been published in the London RSCDS branch newsletter, the Reel.  And what a useful archive that will be, I’ll never be short of a poem to recite at a ceilidh ever again!  My party skirt was admired – I always say it’s got a bit of everything in it, from tartan, to Celtic swirls, to little Dutch girl hearts.  And glitter.

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On Monday we were back on the carpet of the Atholl Suite, with Johann teaching us, and Luke accompanying.  I liked some of the work we did on posture and balance, but I felt there could have been more rotation of couples.  In a particular 3 couple formation we spent quite a bit of time on, there was a set of four, so two poor sods had spent quite some time standing doing nothing.  For Unit 4 I’ve been working on my observation skills, and seeing if there are things I could learn and copy, or avoid.

I knew we were having an early dinner, so I didn’t bother with lunch.  I had my spa treatment, and went to the   Thistle Shoesshop, where I treated myself to a gorgeous pair of bronze shoes, with insoles.

I tried them out during the walkthrough of the ball dances in the afternoon, which was a useful reminder of Alltshellach and its scary tournee.

I did some first stage packing, and changed into my grey ball gown ready for dinner at 5.  We piled into 3 busloads ready for the journey to     Blair Castle.  I was intrigued to learn that previous owners had included the designers of the Forth Rail Bridge, and the Jubilee tube line.

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The hall was very imposing, and everyone was busy taking photographs of themselves next to the portraits or the fireplaces.  People had warned me that space on the floor might be at a premium, especially with 160 people on the course, so I was prepared for tightly spaced sets. The “big bad tournee”, as Raphaelle described it,  was hard to do with enough swish and swoop, likewise the diamond poussette when everyone is dancing.  I again struggled to find a partner for some dances: I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong, standing in the wrong place, or people just don’t want to dance with me!  However, I only sat out one dance, the Eightsome Reel, which is a bit boisterous for a ball, but everyone seemed to be enjoying it.

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No tea or coffee, just water and juice available, which I think speeded proceedings up.   The band were terrific, and really gave the evening an extra-special zing.  At the final dance, the Reel of the 51st, my feet were complaining, and I was tempted to sit it out.  But Adam Brady asked me to dance, and as the devisor of tonight’s programme, and someone whose neat footwork I have often admired, I couldn’t refuse. The 160 hands round and back at the end were a rather special sight.

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On the bus back I was starting to nod off, and when I went to my room to take off my ball gown and rub down my feet, I decided that I had had quite enough for one day, and went straight to bed.

Tuesday was threatened by Storm Ewan, but I managed a final run up to the waterfall, which included hearing a woodpecker for the first time.  After breakfast, I completed my final packing and began much goodbying.  The train to Glasgow was on time –  I noticed that although there were lots of empty seats, passengers needed a bit of prompting to move their bags or scoot over. Smooth transit to the airport, and I was relieved that my case, with its extra bottles of whiskey and gin, weighed in at 19.5kg.  I had packed the grey Hotters near the top,  ready to ditch them if required.

No security issues, and I opted for lunch at the Caledonia, with its lovely views over the runway to the snow-topped mountains beyond.  I saw a few V-shaped skeins of geese (I presume?), wasn’t sure if they would be migrating at this time of year, or if they were just on their regular commute.  I only later discovered that there’s an airport lounge;  I like to try these out, so I don’t know what its price was or what facilities or views they had.  Maybe it needs more advertising earlier in the passenger’s footway.

The plane was on time –  I was sitting in the wrong seat, but the gentleman whose seat I took didn’t mind, and my baggage made it successfully with only minor losses ( my yellow beads had come unstrung and my silver scarf ring was a little bent out of shape.  But the booze survived!)

A helpful gent carried my case over the footbridge at Sydenham, where I had a bit of a wait in the wind and cold for the rain, and was met at the station by my husband.

Would I go again?  I’m not sure. Here’s why:

  • It’s very expensive – in previous years the 120 places have sold out straight away, so this year they upped that to 160, which also sold out in 24 hours.  So next year the price will rise.  I feel this can only deter more young people from attending.
  • The floors are not great for dancing on, and even me, with my sturdy runner’s calves, was finding it tough going.
  • The ball in the castle is lovely, but crowded.
  • Its reputation as cliquey and elitist is probably not undeserved.  I could have done with a “first timers” briefing, and maybe  each class could have had an appointed “care bear” to make sure newbies knew how to get to their class, where coffee was, to make sure they had a partner during the dances, and to perhaps even invite them to a party.  I was aware that there were parties happening, but I received no invites.
  • It attracts those who have grown frustrated with Summer School, especially the lack of proper differentiation between the classes.  To be fair, I’ve only ever heard this from people in the Very Advanced class (or technically advanced high impact or whatever it calls itself).  The names of the classes are confusing to beginners, and when people are making their self-assessment of abilities, I find that they fall into two camps.  There are those who think “Oh I hope my standard is high enough for this class”, and those who think “Oh I hope everyone else in the class is up to my standard”.  Realistically, every class is going to be a mixed ability class to some degree, taking age and injury into account, and there’s always something new to learn.
  •  Besides, there’s any amount of dance weekends in all sorts of places from Skye to Cyprus, from Budapest to Lyon, and I think I would like to try to visit some of those.

3 Responses

  1. Found this a fascinating read as I’ve only been on the Gay Gordons weeks in S.W. Scotland. I can see why you want try other venues and groups.

  2. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Winter School as much as you hoped. I was very jealous when I heard you were going. I’ve only been once, but had a ball. In contrast, I’ve felt left out sometimes when I’ve been to Summer School on my own. However, the more places I dance, the more people I meet whom I’ve danced with before – it’s a great way to make friends.

  3. Maybe I came across as too negative – I DID have a good time, and enjoyed making new friends as well as catching up with old ones. But I’m not sure I’d make it an annual event for me.

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