Gecko by Gaslight

It might be Bus Pass Year, but I am not that old. Not really. Not in today’s terms. However, a passing reference in my last post about the lunar eclipse prompted surprise from a reader, that there was no electricity supply to the house I was brought up in. The reader herself was a school friend and therefore she was familiar with both the location and the era. And her surprise in turn opened a whole area of memories of my own, of times not so long ago in a place not far away, but incredibly distant and hazy.

This was not a century ago. This was only the 70s, the time of David Bowie, Slade and the distant strains of the pirate Radio stations – Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg – beaming out the latest chart hits on tiny, tinny transistor radios. The time of bell bottom trousers, platform shoes and flowery patches on our jeans. A wonderful time to be a teenager.

My childhood and teenage home was in idyllic setting, nestling on the shores of a Perthshire loch, two miles from the nearest village where the primary school, three hotels, a garage and the sole shop were located. The main road ran outside the front door, the village two miles to the north and the town with the secondary school seven miles to the south. In front of the house sat the loch, with a forested mountain behind the dark waters and another tree lined hill behind the house.

The bus route and main road with the twice daily buses passed right outside our door, but the electricity line did not. At the northern mouth of the loch the electricity cables veered off on the other side of the loch, only to re-join the main road at the southern end of the loch, just as the first cottages of the approaching town appeared. We were on the ‘inhabited’ side of the loch – we had two neighbours to the south as the road wound its way to the town. But the electricity supply had been laid on the uninhabited side of the loch. There was a dirt road alongside the electricity poles and the stone track which had once held the Callander and Oban Railway Line. The line had opened in 1870 and ran between Callander and Glen Ogle/Killin closing in 1965 – a couple of years before we moved into that house.


Old postcard of Strathyre Station

The house had no access to electricity, but it was “piped” for gas and for the first few years that we lived there, the house was solely powered by gas.

There was a gaslight in every room, suspended from the ceiling. A fragile mantle set in a plaster frame would be placed into the setting housed within a bell shaped glass. This glass was like a shade, and served to shelter the delicate flame from any breeze as this would make the light flutter. Within the glass bulb, the protected lit mantle would glow brightly, lighting the whole room, until weeks of daily use would render it too fragile to continue and a new mantle would be placed in its socket.

Lighting these mantles required enormous care. We would use a long match, or more frequently a wood shaving spill. We would have to hold the flame close enough for the gas to ignite, but not so close that it poked into the mantle and damaged it, causing the bright light to dim and the wrath of my parents at wasting a precious mantle. It was equally important to ensure that the spill was not too far from the mantle, or the smell of gas would quickly fill the room. This was an exact science that I seemingly became expert in during those years.

One mystery to me was our fridge. We had a calor gas fridge. Initially that made no sense to me at all. How could gas, which created warmth, go on to produce a chill? I never did totally understand the precise science behind it but had a simplified explanation that the ignited gas caused a chemical reaction, which eventually produced a finely regulated coolness which kept the fridge interior at the right temperature. (If you are interested in some of the science it is explained on how stuff works.

After a number of years fiddling around with mantles, and candlelight if the gas supply ran out unexpectedly, and with no prospect of mains electricity in the near or distant future my father decided to install electricity into the house. The only way to do this involved procuring a generator. As an engineer, there began a long research and discussion phase which brought us to the point of deciding to move forward with this plan. Next came a similarly long, and meticulous process of wiring the house. In fact, this was made easier by using the lines of the existing gas piping to install electrical wiring.

I was intrigued by the thought of a generator and surprised to see when it arrived, that it was rather a small beast. It would be housed in an old out building beside the house and this also involved a period of setting up a suitable home for this wonder. It sat on a kind of platform in the middle of the concrete floor.

I could not imagine how this unassuming machine could possibly conjure up enough electricity to light and power the house. But eventually, everything was in place, and the first light was switched on to great excitement and celebration. And it did manage to produce an electricity supply, but it had its limitations and quirks. The generator would be silent until it was woken by switching on one of the electrical switches. When it was running it would hum away in the distance, like a car idling on the roadside. Which is not surprising really, because the generator was just that. A small engine, We became used to the noise quickly.

When the last light was switched off at night, the generator would slow down and be silent in a few minutes. Switching on a light would start up the generator, so there were certain unwritten rules. No turning on lights for night time trips to the bathroom. A flick of the light switch would start up the generator engine, sending thundering reverberations into the silence of the night. The fluorescent light in the bathroom was not “heavy” enough to fire the generator up properly though, and it would struggle to gather a steady speed, sounding like a car revving and then slowing. Only a regular light bulb would start the thrum of the engine in a nice orderly manner. Similarly, a kettle required too much energy and would upset the generator by demanding too much power as it started. We continued to use the gas fridge because an electric fridge with its thermostat and need to switch on and off to maintain the right temperature would mean the generator being woken up at all times of the day and night and that was not acceptable. To this day I have a keen, and accurate sense, of the amount of power which the various appliances use which is rather useful.

It was also important not to allow the generator to run out of fuel as that meant that the fuel tank would have to be drained and that was a Big Job which could only be carried out by my father. That meant regular trips to the outhouse to check on the level of fuel, and alerting my father to a need to refill in plenty of time. If he was out, then we would be very cautious with our electricity consumption if the level dropped to near the minimum level.

Coincidentally, in addition to the lack of electricity, there was also no television signal at the lochside so my childhood and teenage years were devoid of TV. It was many years later that I realised that I grew up without many of those cultural references, or conversation topics which TV provided.

The house is still there today, with a few more neighbours than there were all those years ago. I visited the village a few years ago and was able to stop off briefly at the house and chat with the new owners. I believe that there is now mains electricity but I didn’t think to ask.

The setting is just as idyllic as my childhood memories suggest with pine forests, the hills and the loch on the doorstep. But I do wonder if the walls remember the days of gaslight and generator with the same fondness as I do.

frangipani candle


When I was very young our family lived in a little house which was called “Sanctuary”. We were there for only around two or three years. I had no idea what sanctuary meant but it was a familiar word with associations of comfort, safety and the warmth which a child associates with home.  Even today, decades later “sanctuary” is a word which wraps me in a feeling of comfort and transports me to my early childhood.

As well as being a place of safety, refuge or a haven Sanctuary is also a term for a reserve or area for wildlife and is often protected.  In Borneo, there are sanctuaries where endangered species have a safe space, often to recover from capture or ill treatment or if they have been orphaned.  The Sanctuary provides a safe space, in their natural habitat but under the watch of naturalists to ensure their safety.

Most well known is the orang utan and the facilities and spaces for their protection from a variety of dangers and risks.  Funnily the name orang utan is another term which instantly takes me back decades, to my earlier school years.  As an only child in a remote Scottish area, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, but weather would often curtail outdoor time.  The other thing I which took up much of my time was reading, and I would spend hours reading all manner of reading material – books, stories, poems and what I would probably call “discovery” books.  These were any books which could absorb me completely.  They could be encyclopaedias (yes, I could spend hours being led on a journey in an encyclopaedia), books about space and the planets, natural history books, books about other far away countries, or long ago people.

Reading is, of course, a solitary experience although I was far from lonely or bored. (Of course my parents may have had a very different recollection!) The thing about solitariness however, is that there is not a cross reference for many things and I would often find that the pronunciation of a number of words which my mind devised from the written word, sounded very different when I heard them pronounced.  It could be quite unsettling finding out that I had not emphasised the right syllable or had lengthened an ‘a’ or ‘i’ incorrectly.  I am not sure how old I was when I discovered that my inner pronunciation of orang utan was completely wrong. What others called “arangatangs” was to my astonishment that very animal which I called an “orange oootang” (with emphasis on the first syllable of utan). Try saying it aloud, it is really rather different!  My childish mind had associated the colour of the primate with its similarly sounding name. it all made sense to me! In fact,  the word “orang” is Malay for “person” whilst “utan” is derived from “hutan” meaning forest. Thus, orang utan literally translates as “person of the forest”. And absolutely nothing to do with its auburn colouring!

Sarawak is very proud of its wildlife and especially of the orang utan. One of the most popular trips for a visitor is to see the orang utan and generally we crave seeing the animal is as natural a surrounding as possible. Although my research was not extensive I knew that I did not want to see a caged animal and that the setting I would be most comfortable with, would be a Wildlife Sanctuary, such as the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Nature Reserve.  However, I also learned that luck is a major factor if you go to the sanctuary where the animals live in the semi wild. There is no guarantee that they will come down to the feeding platforms where bananas and other seasonal goodies are left out for them.  This is especially the case in fruiting season when they do not have to forage so much with an abundance of fresh “still on the branch” food. When I made arrangements to visit the Sanctuary, it was made clear to me that a combination of rain and abundant food made sightings very rare at this time of year.

However, I rose very early, and swallowed a few mouthfuls of rushed omelette before  waiting for the transport to arrive.  I was all set with a small backpack, no visible food or water, and plenty of mosquito discourageant. And of course my camera and a heap of naive optimism.

The morning was unusually clear, the clouds had parted although there were still wisps threaded across the peaks.

Early morning

Early morning

The drive was pleasant, and my mood one of enthusiasm with a tinge of that guarded optimism. No matter whether I saw an orang utan or not, I was heading on an adventure and somewhere new.

Driving towards the Sanctuary, across the Santubong bridge

Driving towards the Sanctuary, across the Santubong bridge

As we walked through the forest towards the first feeding platform, the guide touched my elbow and pointed through the trees.  There, hanging like an acrobat was a hulky orang utan tucking into a banana feast.  I was spell bound.

These bananas are MINE!

These bananas are MINE!

We were given a very detailed and clear briefing.  There are strict rules in the sanctuary, and for good reason:

  • Do not hold, feed, touch, play with or in any way disturb the orang utan, and always move at least six metres away from an animal that is on the ground. There are three very good reasons for this. Firstly, the animals may become too attached to humans, making it harder for them to survive in the wild. Secondly humans are able to communicate certain diseases to orang utan, and vice-versa. By eliminating contact the possibility of disease transfer is reduced. Thirdly, an orang utan may feel threatened and attempt to attack you – some of the Semenggoh wardens carry ugly scars from protecting thoughtless visitors from injury.

  • Do not bring any food or drinks into the Centre. The orang utan and other animals at the centre already receive a balanced diet, and the smell of food may encourage an animal to approach too closely.

  • Do not smoke in the feeding area or any other part of the Forest Reserve.

  • Do follow the warden’s instructions and advice at all times.

  • Do not collect, or pick plants or animals in Semenggoh Nature Reserve, or in any other Totally Protected Area.

  • Do not litter. Please use the litter bins provided.

We were also told that the flash should be disabled while taking photographs.  The orang utan thinks it is lightning and could become alarmed and unpredictable. We were also told that the orang utans become distressed if they hear children crying or shouting.

We then spotted a mother and her young.  Apparently there is not a specific term for the young, so they are called babies or infants. This mum and wee one were hanging around in the trees, seemingly listening to our briefing!

mum and infant in the trees

mum and infant in the trees

borneo orang utan 2They soon joined by the large male as he swung over to help himself to some more fruit.

The male on his way through the jungle canopy

The male on his way through the jungle canopy

I have no idea why, but we were extremely fortunate. For whatever reason, that morning a number of orang utans had decided to hang around near the feeding platforms, and the nearby jungle where we could see them.

borneo 6I watched from a distance, as they carried on with their own day. Watching them quietly, listening to the sounds of the rainforest and soaking in a very special atmosphere.

borneo 4Returning afterwards, people were surprised that we had such a fortunate morning. I had been advised that I should not be disappointed if I saw no orang utans, I  have no idea why of all mornings, that morning they were out and about.  And really, the why does not matter. It just was what it was, and I am really very thankful.

Sunlight on fur, watching through the trees

Sunlight on fur, watching through the trees

The memories are still so vivid. If I close my eyes I can hear the rainforest sounds, and see the orang utans peering through the jungle canopy, the sun lighting up their bright fur. A true sanctuary in many senses.