To Kiev and beyond – more of Mum’s Travels

Last time, we left Ellen just about to pack to travel from Moscow to Kiev. Let’s pick up the thread from there.


18th May Wed. 

Bykovo Airport, then a lovely flight 1 hr 10 min to Kiev. Lovely, gorgeous place, full of nice flowering horse chestnut and poplars. Fantastic drive in from airport up in the 80’s. Every street is lined with seats. Thousands of Tourists. The Hotel – Rus – is the one built for the foreign athletes for the Olympic trials. The Stadium is next door.  Went for walk after lunch, different from Moscow. People very friendly, talked to old lady. Built on River Dneiper which is very wide. Had ice cream. 

Went to see the Ukraine Ballet Co in the evening –  very dramatic, I loved it. Theatre beautiful Venetian style. Walked home.

19th May Thur.

Went to the Beryoska shop but did not buy anything apart from book about Kiev. I could spend a lot on books but they are so heavy. 

These are just a few of the books Mum collected over the years! She also brought back souvenirs, but it was always books that first caught her attention.

19 to 23 May – Five days packed with yet more cultural delights. Here’s just a taste of them – click on the pictures to read the captions.

Let’s go back to Ellen’s diary for a description of what she regarded as the highlight of the Kiev visit. First, an anecdote…

We also went into a Hospital grounds and a shabby-looking man came and talked in English to us. His phrases were very flowery. He said he was a Doctor, but if so I’m the KGB – or perhaps it was a mental hospital!

After lunch the Highlight. We went to the Monastery of St Anthony, and went into the Catacombs. A monk, Anthony – and Theodacious – lived in caves near the River Dneiper in 1051. In 1070 they started to build the Monastery. The Catacombs are a series of caves which were burial places as well as for the Monks – I bought a book about them. The soil is such that it preserved the bodies and many of them are housed in caskets with glass tops. The bodies are quite short, in vestments with embroidered cloths over the faces, but the little brown hands are on view. St Anthony’s cell is there and what looks like little alcoves where they lived. Full of Grottos and treasures but an unbelievable place. They are still venerated as saints – I have never heard so much about Saints and Religious matters. Lovely weather, in 90s.

On Monday 23 May, the group headed off to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) for the final leg of the tour. Again, here is a montage of just some of the wonderful places they visited.

Our bus – the Leningrad Driver is so polite, he gets out first and helps each of us off! The others in Kiev and Moscow just looked out the window – though I always made a point of chatting them up! And thanking them for being so kind – you can do these things when you are a granny!!! We have a Leningrad guide, Katerina, a lovely girl – vivacious, lovely English. She has a great sense of humour! Like, Peter the Great’s hobby was dentistry – he used to take out teeth for free!

Katerina took us into the Winter Palace and showed us right through the Czar’s private quarters. Such rooms of gold, porcelain dinner services – the one presented by the English with the “green frog” lovely and the Clock under the mushroom. Fabulous wealth – I am not surprised the serfs rose and swept them away! Such opulence I never saw, furniture from France inlaid with gold and ivory, beautiful rooms and each room had its own theme and colour. The dining rooms and gold legged chairs and – oh I could not describe it all, you’d have to see it.

Tonight we went to the circus. Very good. Quick acts and some great acrobats. Beautiful horses and Cossack-type riding. Dogs, monkeys, 8 tigers, 7 lions. High wire walkers, 2 porcupines, rats, a cockerel and a young clown who was best of all. The tigers and lions were naughty all over the floor and the smell!!!

circus dolls

After breakfast went with Guide to the House of Friendship – once a palace which Catherine II presented to one of her Courtiers, a most beautiful place of marble and gold, We went into a big panelled room and were met by 8 or 9 Russians who introduced themselves. There was a girl who translated, two engineers, a science and maths lecturer (a grandmother by the way), some teachers and an old boy who seemed to be from the Politburo. They invited us to form groups and ask them questions.

I went and sat beside a girl who turned out to be a post-graduate student of English, which she spoke quite well. Her mother had been in England and Scotland 8 years ago. She asked me about what kind of house I had, if I owned it, about my family, if we were diet-conscious, and what we ate – she was very hefty and had trouble dieting. She worked hard at English and played the piano. I told her all about our government, our orchestras, and film making, our election! The Loch Ness Monster (she had heard about it). I told her I believed in Nessie! I told her all about Dad. She gave me a carved spoon as a gift and we exchanged addresses. I must send her something from Scotland. Her name is Vera.

My chat turned out to be the most successful – they all talked about education and said afterwards they did not get any satisfaction of the visit. But I disagreed. Privately I think they all tried too hard to impress the Russians, who are not easily impressed. Vera told me about her mother, her holidays – she has been to Rumania and Bulgaria – but would like to come to Scotland.

After lunch we went to the Hermitage. After a while the crowds and noise got too much so five of us went for a sail on the River Neva, 2 hours out on the open deck. I enjoyed it so much. Only 70 Kopecs. I saw the Cruiser Aurora. Then back to the Hotel, dinner and dress. We went to hear the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra. Wonderful music. 

Sat 28th May.

Breakfast and a bit of shopping. I went across to the Monument of the Leningrad Freedom Fighters. As memorials go it is superb. There is an underground way in. Full of flowers, an eternal flame. There are groups of sculptures, dark bronze, and an underground museum. Most dramatic place. Rows of lights flickering – one for everybody who is buried there. Showcases where there are mementos of the siege. A continuous film at which teachers give a commentary to groups of school children. There were older people there who had lost loved ones – the siege lasted for 900 days and nights and thousands of people starved and were killed by the German shells. There is a violin in one of the cases presented by Shostakovich. An old Russian woman who was crying told me whose violin it was. Makes you think – these people really suffered.

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At 12.15 we got on the bus to go to the Airport. A lovely drive, sun shining. Had good look back at Leningrad and took last picture.

3.30 pm. I am sitting on the plane next to the window.  My five medals are placed as follows: 1 in the Kremlin, 1 just outside the wall in the Convent of the New Maidens duck pond! 1 in Kiev near the Hotel, and 2 in Leningrad in the River Neva. Our Lady will do the rest. Now I am just longing to see my loved ones – funny, I’ll be home by teatime.

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Ellen loved her family dearly. At the same time, she remained a self contained person whose instinct was always to rely on her own inner strengths. And not always easy or comfortable to get close to, at least not perhaps until later years. That’s why it has been such a delight to catch a glimpse, in the pages of this diary, of another Ellen, a more relaxed, mischievous, unencumbered Ellen, free to be truly herself with like minded people who shared her passions.

It was lovely to see our first glimpse of Scotland, dear old Scotland, so green and small! And do you know all our roads are curvy and the walls around our fields, and our houses and farms and hills. Lovely but so small! Even our blocks of flats look small, great to see individual houses. The lack of officialese at Glasgow Airport was just lovely – just a couple of guys standing there as if they would rather go for their tea! And best of all a little man on the tarmac waving two red flags – we all laughed at that, after the headphones and walkie-talkie things in the Russian Airports! Mary Chapman, Dinah McKay and I took a taxi from the Airport home and I was so excited to see my Grace and Catriona – who gave me a lovely welcome. I am glad to be back. I have had a fabulous trip – the most amazing holiday anyone could have. I shall never forget Russia in the warm sun. I hope they can come over here to sample our ‘Scotch Mist’.

Finito. God bless. Mum

In the next decade or so, most years saw Ellen – and Mary Chapman! – intrepidly signing up for one cultural tour after another. In 1986 it was to the Baltic, when she fulfilled her desire to revisit Moscow and Leningrad (where she and Mary were as likely to branch out on their own as to follow the official itinerary) as well as Tallin and Riga. Over the years, the passions that they shared for history, art, architecture, everything, took them on tours in Italy, France, Estonia, West Germany, as well as numerous interesting historical locations around Britain.

By this time, Ellen, with her inexhaustible thirst for knowledge, was a member of the archaeological society and various history study groups; she took art courses ranging in style from the Italian renaissance to Cubism, two classical music courses and she obtained diplomas in French and German. A true journey of the mind and a chance, at last, to indulge in the learning she always felt had been denied her as a child.

Visits to the family also took Ellen to Holland, the Cotswolds, Tyndrum, Switzerland, London. She also visited her family in Ireland and had them come and visit her in Glasgow. Ellen’s final long-distance trip came in 2001, when my sister Grace surprised her with a ticket to New York and the pair of them took off together for the Big Apple for a few days of sightseeing. Here she is, aged 78, still eager for new experiences.

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The Big Bang

A year and a half ago I was lucky enough to spend a week in New York with my daughter Sarah, who teaches Middle School in the East Village. We had a whale of a time, thanks mainly to Sarah’s meticulous planning – in fact if she ever decided to stop being a teacher she’d make a marvellous tour organiser! Here’s a wee taste…

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One out of many highlights was our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Central Park, where they had a display called the Cosmic Pathway which graphically illustrates the current scientific consensus about the origins of our Universe. The concept is that you start at the Big Bang at the top of a 360 foot spiral walkway and then walk down the spiral and follow the 13.8 billion year story of the formation and development of the universe, each step measured in millions of years. The relative blink of an eye that is the human era is depicted at the end of the pathway as the thickness of a single human hair.

Sarah and I were entranced by this display, and struggled to get our heads around the mind-blowing ideas being explained. Firstly the sheer enormity of the cosmic story, populated by the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies, and concepts such as nuclear fusion, black holes, dark matter and quasars. Not to mention the observational methods that have been developed in the last 100 years that have enabled scientists to present us with a fascinating view of our origins and show us phenomena like a background glow of microwaves. It seems that the spectrum of this cosmic microwave background identifies it as the fading remnant of the Big Bang.


The thing I take away from all this is firstly how very beautiful and awesome the cosmos is. The second is that although we are but tiny specks in that cosmos, we are nevertheless as much part of it as the trees and the stars – in fact we ARE the trees and the stars. We have all come from the same impossibly distant event (act of creation?) – a miniscule “singularity” of infinite density and heat which must have contained the potential for all matter and energy which then unfolded into the still expanding Universe we know today. Would it be messing with your head if I also mentioned the existence of a Big Bounce theory which supposes that over the eons the Universe could be in a cycle of expanding and then contracting down to the singularity when the whole process will begin again.

I don’t really mind what the rights and wrongs are, I just find it perennially fascinating to speculate in this way on the nature of creation. Even just the fact that humanity feels such a need to make sense of the world/universe is enthralling in itself. Here we are, this tiny speck of consciousness with big beguiling ideas about how we came to be here and where we are going. It’s not just religion, our quest is also expressed in philosophy, science, politics, literature, film, you name it, not to mention late night discussions into the wee small hours. It seems wonderful to me that we even bother – I mean the universe has been getting on just fine without us for close on 14 billion years, and yet we have the temerity to imagine that what we think even matters, and that we would strive to live well, be happy and to make a difference in the world. That seems the biggest miracle of all!

There’s a Science Fiction story by Arthur C Clarke called the Nine Billion Names of God. In it, a community of Tibetan Monks believe that it is man’s purpose to compile a list containing all the possible names of the Almighty, and they have been working on the task for the last three centuries, each generation taking over from the last. Initially, they expect it to take about fifteen thousand years to complete the task, until they hit upon the idea of acquiring a “Mark V Automatic Sequence Computer” (this story was written in 1953). The computer, along with two – sceptical – engineers, duly arrives and proceeds to churn out the entire list in a mere three months. The sceptical engineers make their way down the mountain just as the computer is finishing its run, and they wonder what will happen once the monks realise the futility of the task. The answer comes in the quietly chilling last sentence of the story. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.


Here’s a link to the whole story if you’d like to read it for yourself – I recommend it!

I like to conjecture that we can actually sense the interconnectedness of matter and energy. Have you ever walked into a place that made you shiver, or where you instantly felt happy or full of dread? We all have things that bring joy to our hearts, don’t we? Moments that make us want to breath deep of an ocean breeze, or a baby in our arms; to touch and caress a beloved person. Or feel the sun warming our skin, or watch a wonderful golden sunset from the top of the Empire State Building…

Some places have a reputation for being haunted.  I’ve heard theories that even the very bricks and rocks that surround us can pick up vibrations from living things, which we are capable of sensing in some way. And why should we not? We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe – why shouldn’t our molecules and atoms resonate in tune with the music of the stars?