Death Stare for Gullie

It’s happened to me. I’m sitting, calmly enjoying a sandwich outside on a bench, and then …

A seagull swoops in and tries to steal my food.

It’s terrifying. Seagulls are scary, especially up close and especially in Dundee, where I used to live and frequently sit outside eating something or the other. They have mean eyes.

I remember the seagulls in Dundee being quite peculiar. An anecdote: I was walking along the sidewalk, edging close to a corner where a seagull was digging through a ripped trash bag. When I was a few meters away, the seagull looked up and did this little walk away from the bag, pretending as if they weren’t just digging through trash. After I passed the corner, I glanced back and saw that they’d done a u-turn and went back to digging.

Okay, maybe I’m giving the bird too much of a personality. But it was weird.

Back to the food stealing; a research conducted at the University of Exeter showed that if you stare at a gull, it is less likely to steal your chips (for US readers: french fries which are totally not from France but from Belgium and stop calling things the wrong name and, never mind, I’m okay).

Granted, the study had a limited scope. They tried to test 74 gulls, but more than half of them flew away. And it is likely that a lot of seagull related crime is due to a few bad seeds and most seagulls are perfectly happy leaving you and your food alone and digging through trash for snacks.

Nevertheless, seagulls that were “looked at” while they were approaching food, were a lot less likely to touch that food. In fact, only a quarter of seagulls that were being watched while they tried to approach and eat food actually touched the food.

Maybe they were just scared of getting caught while committing food theft. Maybe they hate the color of our eyes. Maybe our stare is truly terrifying (I certainly know a few people with a scary stare). But next time you see a seagull approaching your food, give them the death stare. Perhaps your meal will be saved.

Come at me bro



Dundonian chicken

A few days ago, the Dundonian police made an unusual arrest: a chicken. She had been terrorising East Marketgate’s traffic by performing her own version of a very well-known chicken related joke [I’m not sure anyone knows the actual punch line though]. This caused major distractions to passing drivers and what I presume was a “viewing traffic jam”. [Google translate tells me “rubbernecking” is the correct translation of the work “kijkfile”, but I don’t quite believe it; I basically mean cars slowing down because their drivers want to look at the spectacle, resulting in congestion.]

The police arrested the chicken in their very own headless chicken manner. Twitter tells me this was hilarious to watch and possibly led to more VTJ. The chicken is still in custody, for all I know, until someone claims her back. The police promise to be taking very good care of her – maybe so she would provide them with omelette ingredients – and has placed a lost-and-found post on facebook.


For me, the best part of this story is that I found out thanks to my friend, who lives on the other side of the channel and read the story this morning in Metro during her daily commute. This Dundonian chicken has reached international news.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part II: Dragons

Now that I read (obviously, within 12 hours) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I felt is was time to continue my endeavour of fantastic beast post series.

So without much further ado, we’re here to talk about dragons.

Dragons are amazing and so are wyverns and drakes for that matter,because who doesn’t marvel at the thought of giant fire-breathing, flying lizards existing; and are the subject of many fantasy stories and fairy tails. Just to mention a few (it won’t be a few): the dragon Smaug that Tolkien envisioned in The Hobbit (and got surprisingly little screen time in the three movies), the four dragons that the Triwizard Tournamant champions battled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Donkey’s fiery  girlfriend in Shrek, the topic of Lady Brent’s studies in Marie Brennan’s books, the telepathic Saphira (let’s forget there was ever a movie), Dani’s dragons (hopefully we’ll see more of them soon), and – of course there are many more – the dragon of Dundee.

Which is who I wanted to focus on in the first place.

Walking through the the city centre, it is hard to miss the Dragon statue perched on the main shopping road. Of course I have posed there for my very own “Mother of Dragon” photo (though I don’t really look blond or fierce enough), and it is quite common to see children climbing on it. But why is it there? All the other statues of Dundee (or at least the big ones, there are a few subtle hidden ones like the monkey and the squirrel that might be just random) are linked to Dundee itself; there is a Lemmings statue because the game was developed in Dundee, there are several statues of comic figures reminiscing the Journalism J of the three Js of Dundee, but what is the meaning of the Dragon?

Dundee Dragon (designed by Alistair Smart, photo from

I’m sure if I had lived through them, I would have now missed the days where I would have to go roaming in the archives of an old library to unravel the origin of the statue and the legends of Dundee Dragon. But it was a much easier task in the days of internet and google, the answer was just a click away. How anticlimactic.

As far as I understand, the story – the tale of Dundee Dragon and the Nine Maidens of Pitempten – was transcribed by Jervise, who lived in the nineteenth century. Though the story must be much older.

Because it obviously happened long, long ago, as these stories often do.

In that time, there lived a farmer in Pitempan (google does not give me an indication whether this place is real). He had nine pretty daughters, as one would have in those days. One day, the farmer was very thirsty, he probably had just woken from a night of ales with his mates in Pitempan Pub. The well, or his favourite well – because in those days one could be picky about the source of water – was in a marsh nearby the house. His youngest daughter, the fairest of all nine, though they were all so fair that had all one the Miss Pitempan title at some point in time, loved her father dearly and wished to aid him in quenching his thirst and ran to the well to fetch water. It was already noonish, so all the water had been used to do the washing and therefore new water was to be fetched. But the girl took too long to return and the father grew more restless. The eldest daughter took it upon her to check on her sister and fetch the water for her father. When she did not return either, the next sister took the trip to the well and so on (there are nine in total, the story is quite repetitive) until only the middle sister was left. She assured her father that she would return soon, and followed the path her eight other sisters had taken into the woods. When she reached the well she was faced with a terrible sight! Among the bulrushes, her sisters lay mangled at the feet of a horrific dragon. She let out a cry in horror and tried to run away, but her head was chopped off immediately. Her cries had however attracted the attention of the inhabitants of Pitempan; amongst these townies was her bae, Martin, who was very noble and brave. He took up his sword, challenged the dragon and a long battle ensued. It is said the battle carried on from Pitempan to Balkello, whatever that means, but that eventually Martin succeeded in slaying the dragon. He was however overcome with grief, and his tears cause the spring in Pitempan, that was henceforth named the Nine Maiden Well, to be 0.01% more salty than fresh water springs should be. Multiple sculptured stones where erected to commemorate the tragic event: St Martin’s Stane at Balecco and the sculptured stone at Strathmartin. A carved Pict symbol marks the spot where the dragon was slain and Bishop David de Berham dedicated a church to St Martin – oh, did I mention this caused Martin to be sainted – in 1249.The farmer/father was never heard of again, legend says he tried to shed tears he did not have (you know, dehydrated from the night before) and shrivelled up and died (his body was never found). Finally, the city of Dundee wished to remember the tragic death of the dragon by erecting a statue in the centre of town, centuries later. *

Tempted at Pitempton,
Draigled at Baldragon,
Stricken at Strathmartin,
And kill’d at Martin’s Stane.

*Note, I may have made some of this up.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Part I: Unicorns

Welcome to the first piece in our three-part series on fantastic beasts and where to find them. Or rather, exploring the question of why some countries or cities choose creatures from mythology and fantasy to represent themselves.
In this first part, we look at Scotland, that has chosen the unicorn as its national animal. That beautiful, noble creature that has annoying friends (Heeeeey, Charliiiieeee) perhaps, or maybe you know it for it’s mercury-like blood that grants the drinker an eternal but cursed life. 


The Unicorn.

Maybe first, let’s point out that unicorns


exist. They’re just not as elegant as we thought. No, I’m not talking about rhinos, their horn is made out of only keratin and do not have a bone core. So they are not technically horns.



Okay, I misspoke, unicorns 


existed. Quite recently 

scientists found

 that the last unicorn roamed Siberia 29,000 years ago. 

Elasmotherium sibericum. Face it, it’s just a really hairy unicorn.

And in a way narwals are the unicorns of the sea.

Or not.

So why is the unicorn the national animal of Scotland then? Well, it’s quite straightforward actually. Unicorns are the natural enemy of Lions. The symbol of the English royals was a Lion. And Scotland hasn’t always been the biggest fan of England. Especially not in the late 1300s. Bam, you have just been 



The Lion & The Unicorn - Traditional Nursery Rhyme Poster

The (mythological) hatred between Unicorns and Lions goes back 3,700 years, to ancient Babylon, where unicorns where worshipped (and Lions presumably were not?). Another random fact: in the Middle Ages, recipes for how to cook a lovely unicorn steak circulated, many think these were spread by the English, perhaps in an attempt to prey on the Scottish urge for fine cuisine.


In any case, one can understand the Scottish choosing the unicorn as their national animal. Apart from the lion-unicorn-feud, unicorns where known for their nobility and purity. As one myth goes, a snake would regularly poison the water hole, but luckily the unicorn would always come and dip it’s horn in it, cleansing there water for all the other animals. It would use its immense powers to protect the others rather than dominate. In times where chivalry was considered one of the greatest virtues and everyone wanted to seem nobel, this mythical animal must have sounded very attractive. King Robert thus chose this animal, with amazing powers and the ability to dominate but with the modesty and grace to use this power to protect the other animals, to be the national emblem of Scotland in the late 1300s.

The unicorns’ existence wasn’t disproved until 1825 when the evil scientist Baron George Covier, who theorised that an animal with a split hoof could never have a single horn. (I’m sure Baron Covier was not actually evil, I just don’t understand why anyone would want to disprove it’s existence!)
In Scottish folklore, the Unicorn is not the only mythical creature thought to exist. And after I’ve spent some time in the highlands, I’ve started to understand why. Some landscapes, views and forests seem to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale (or out of a Lord of the Rings movie sometimes. It’s not so hard to believe that fairies and Will o’ the wisps reside somewhere in mighty redwoods or in a lone blooming trees…



Over the past two months I have collected pictures, taken with my not-always-so-smart phone, of views on the Tay Bridge from the top floor of my building. I mainly wanted to characterise the different types of suspended water particles based on how limited the resulting view was. However, in the mean time, the clouds have lifted, or at least occasionally, so I was unable to gather all the reference pictures needed for my mist-classification project. It was going to range from “I cannot even see the church tower” to “wooooow”. Instead, I was treated on some colourful sunrises. Hardly something to complain about.

Here is a mini subcollection of those pictures, including one from yesterday showing the hint of snow we have received:

So, before January ends and I sound like a complete div: Happy New Year. May it be filled with beautiful sunrises and other things people wish each other.

A tabby cat’s walk – part II

Forgive me. In my excitement of being able to make a Harry Potter reference, I did not adequately research the previous post.

It all became clear yesterday. It was a lovely day, a Sunday deserving its name. I was out for a walk, had just explored the Dundee Botanical Gardens, and was now heading towards Tesco Riverside to stock up for the upcoming week (Thanksgiving, hurray!). On my way, I passed aforementioned McGonagall’s walk.


Turns out, that in my previous post, I had quoted the wrong poem! Mr. William McGonagall had written another poem about the bridge, some time before the Tay Bridge Disaster. Nevertheless, I think the jest of my post still rings true: this poet was an absolute disaster.

The full poem will be at the end of this post, as to not force you read through the whole thing, but I will quote one verse here. It seems Mr. McGonagall was a bit of a fortune teller. Sadly:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Before I leave you alone with the full poem (feel free to not read it), I’ll leave you with some pictures from my Sunday walk. Better use of your time to look at those, I’d say.


The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay – by William McGonagall

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
With your numerous arches and pillars in so grand array
And your central girders, which seem to the eye
To be almost towering to the sky.
The greatest wonder of the day,
And a great beautification to the River Tay,
Most beautiful to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
That has caused the Emperor of Brazil to leave
His home far away, incognito in his dress,
And view thee ere he passed along en route to Inverness.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
The longest of the present day
That has ever crossed o’er a tidal river stream,
Most gigantic to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay !
Which will cause great rejoicing on the opening day
And hundreds of people will come from far away,
Also the Queen, most gorgeous to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Provost Cox, who has given
Thirty thousand pounds and upwards away
In helping to erect the Bridge of the Tay,
Most handsome to be seen,
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
I hope that God will protect all passengers
By night and by day,
And that no accident will befall them while crossing
The Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
For that would be most awful to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay!
And prosperity to Messrs Bouche and Grothe,
The famous engineers of the present day,
Who have succeeded in erecting
The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay,
Which stands unequalled to be seen
Near by Dundee and the Magdalen Green.


A tabby cat’s walk

The Tay Bridge, after the collapse

More than a century ago, a tragic accident occurred in Dundee: during a violent storm, the bridge crossing the Tay river collapsed while a train was passing over it. All passengers were killed. The architect who had designed the bridge had his reputation ruined; his design for the rail bridge over the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh) was never used. A poet wrote a poem.

Along the river Tay, there is a walkway. A small bit of this walkway, close to the new railway bridge, has been named “McGonagall’s walk”. The first time I came across it, I have to admit, my mind jumped to the strict but fair, animagous Hogwarts teacher Professor McGonagall. Yes, I’m from the Harry Potter generation, how did you guess?

McGonagall’s walk is engraved with a poem by a certain William McGonagall – hence the name -, The Tay Bridge Disaster :

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

I felt slightly guilty, that first time I walked over McGonagall’s walk and read the poem, for finding it absolutely hilarious. Things like these do not call for comedy. Fortunately (for my soul), I am not alone: this poem is considered to be the most famous poem about the Tay Bridge disaster, it is also thought to be of very low quality and borderline comical. Some more reading tells me that William McGonagall is known as the worst poet in British history. So it was okay for me to be humoured by the poem. (Hurray, I’m not a heartless person.)

Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall

Quite by accident, I was reading about Professor McGonagall yesterday. It turns out her surname was indeed inspired by Mr. William “disaster of a poet” McGonagall, because J.K. seemed to love the irony of naming her after such a ridiculous man, especially because McGonagall (the professor one) is absolutely brilliant and bad-ass. Luckily, she was blessed with the name Minerva, the Roman Athena, the goddess of wisdom, a name worth living up to.

In any case, that tiny link between my current city of residence and those books that took up so much of my teens, just made my day.

The Tay Bridge today (photo by Eric Niven)


The Wikipedia page on the Tay Bridge disaster
The Pottermore page on Professor McGonagall

“All these autumn leaves are yours tonight” *

Lets just skip over the (slightly depressing) fact that we seem to have skipped over summer this year. I’m not really sure there was even a proper spring, though in Scotland’s defence, I wasn’t in the country for most of it, so maybe I just skipped over it personally. But I think it’s official now, the clocks have been turned back, petty colds have made their introduction, people have started to quote Game of Thrones and the trees have started painting a colourful palette. Autumn is here.

Autumn leave pallet as seen through PDMS drip lenses.
Autumn leave palette as seen through PDMS drip lenses.

You might have noticed I said autumn and not fall. I may sound very American (not that you can hear that by reading this), but let’s be fair, autumn is simply a much nicer word.

Let’s dig in a bit deeper. Until the 16th century, autumn was referred to as Harvest, from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck.” In those days, a lot of people were dependent on farming, and this was the time to harvest crops, so it makes sense. But as more people went to go live in towns and cities, the word wasn’t as relevant anymore. Two new words came into use then: Fall, which was probably short for “fall of the leaf” and Autumn from the Latin automnus. There were both used, as far as I understand, but at a certain point of time the colonies stuck to the word fall (maybe because it’s easier to spell?), while fall fell into disuse in the UK. It’t quite interesting how US english and UK english started to evolve differently, and this season’s name is just one example.

Etymology aside, what I have noticed most, is that here in Dundee, in the autumn, it’s like living in a cloud. No, I’m not being particularly dreamy, or aspire myself to be in the virtual datacloud. It’s literally in a cloud. It gets really really foggy, or misty, or hazy, and this results in feeling like your stuck in a The Gothic Archies song.

View from my office. (This is not actually a picture I’ve taken of the view, this is just a image of a white square, or the cover of an album with the band name omitted if you will. But that is the view we get a lot.)

Okay, turns out foggy is the best word. In ye olden days, it would have been hazy, but language has evolved since then (yes, were talking about the words again). In general, mist and fog both consist of tiny water droplets, a low hanging cloud if you will, and their difference is quite vague and depends a lot on who you ask. Let’s just say fog is thicker than mist and is what caused my plane yesterday to be cancelled, and the next one to be delayed (because they waited until it got foggy again!), causing me to finish 2,5 books over the whole day. Haze is used to refer to a particularly thick fog, but now means “a rather thin fog and other causes of reduced visibility”, for example heat haze, something that I have not seen occur here yet.

Just imagine a night out drinking: you might be hazy after a few beers, misty after a few more, and foggy would be the last step before a complete black out. Not that I would know.

There another mist/fog-phenomena occurs here quite often: haar. This is cold sea fog that occurs when warm air passes over the cold North Sea, causing it to condense locally. This haar seeps in over the Tay (the local river) and in some cases just stays confined right there. It feels a bit like a scene in where cursed pirates would use a cloak of mist to creep up on their victims, in this case the city of Dundee.

Well, I guess autumn in Dundee is not that bad. It’s occasionally eerie. But in the moments when there is no fog, the sunrises are absolutely stunning, and there is nothing better to wake you up than a morning stroll in the cold. Bring along a pocket microscope and have a blast.

Not always white views... The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into
Not always white views… The bottom left depicts why I have occasional urges to break into “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba“. An example of haar can be seen on the right.

Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.
Just some more PDMS drip lens images, taken during a autumn stroll.

* From Autumn by Paolo Nutini.

Sunniest city in Scotland (?)

I feel like I haven’t emphasised the “bagpipe” aspect of this blog a lot, so a short thought-train on Scotland, for a change:

I remember interviewing for the job here, and a professor that had lived his in California before moving to Dundee, told me that the Scottish weather is exactly how it’s always portrayed: dreary. However, a Dutch professor assured me that it wasn’t too bad. I concluded that it’s just a matter of what you’re used to and that I’d probably do just fine.

Additionally, I have been told over and over again that Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland. I started to consider myself Dundonian enough to claim the same someone asks me about Scottish weather (maybe unsurprisingly, this is one of the first questions I’m asked after telling people that I live in Scotland). I usually say something along the lines of “Well, I live in the sunniest city of Scotland you know, though that maybe doesn’t mean that much,” and then proceed to the most recent analogy I have conceived; It’s like saying “the best american chocolate” (well, I guess if you consider Hershey’s chocolate…) or “the best glass of Heiniken I’ve ever had” (yeah, best glass of water you mean?). After that, I usually add: “But seriously, it’s really not that bad.”

So I just spent an extensive 5 minute web-based research trying to confirm that Dundee really is the sunniest city of Scotland.

There are claims that Glasgow is the sunniest city, I found another article saying Aberdeen has the most hours of sunshine. The ever trustworthy wikipedia indeed says that Dundee is the sunniest city in Scotland [citation needed], so that doesn’t help much either. Other sites make similar (unverified) claims. A weather site tells me that Dundee has 1426.3 hours of sunshine each year, which is 0.3 hours more than Edinburgh and about 200 more than Glasgow. However Aberdeen had an average of 1435.7 hours between 1981 and 2010, according to the same site. (I didn’t look any further.)

So have I been telling lies? Do I not live in the sunniest city in Scotland? It is clear that the East coast is the place to be, if you do happen to end up in Scotland for whatever reason, and it is also clear that you have to be prepared for every single type of weather (or season) within a day, so dressing in layers and having an umbrella on standby are musts.

In the end it doesn’t really matter. I took my refurbed bike for a first test drive the Sunday before last to Broughty Ferry. It was lovely weather for a 5 mile trip to a lovely beach. I encountered a Finnish cyclist, who had just embarked on a 4-week bike tour of Scotland, I think this was his day two. We both got lost at the same point (apparently the solution to opening to locked gate on our path was ringing the bell), and once we got back on track – national cycle route 1 -, we started chatting. As we split paths (mine led to locking up my bike and getting my feet icy cold wet), he said he was in heaven.

I’m sure that the fact that the sun was shining that day and that it was a pleasant 20-something degrees worked in favour of this sentiment, but I have to say that I was enjoying myself quite a lot as well. I’m definitely looking forward to my next bike outing. I probably wait for the next weekend that the sun is out, and cycle off into my own little bit of heaven.

Getting my feet wet at the beach of Broughty Ferry – check out my awesome bike (oh, it was abandoned and I gave it a clean and a new home, or shed), – view on the river Tay – and the HM Frigate Unicorn 1824 battleship I passed on my way back.