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Sandy McKinnon – Man to Remember

sandy service page

The picture says it all

On Friday we buried Sandy in his family town of Penicuik in Midlothian. Those who knew him were enriched by the experience; those who didn’t are unfortunate.

For those that were not aware of the cause of his passing Sandy had a successful operation on a brain tumour, however, inoperable secondary growths finally defeated him.

Although we did not see each other from 1964, when I left 13 Signal Regiment, until 2009 when we met again at Bangkok airport it could have been less than a week.  Both he and Kay made us as welcome as if we had been family.

His friends came from across the globe to pay tribute to one of the most generous people you could meet and they in turn reflected this generosity of spirit.

St Mungo's Parish Church

The service was held at St Mungo’s Parish Church and was taken by Reverend Peter Taylor who, having served with Sandy in 9 Signal Regiment in the late ’60s, left the army to take holy orders. Not that the two events could possibly be connected.

His daughter Fiona read for us and son Alisdair gave the eulogy. Rarely have I heard such a perfect reflection of somebody’s life.  No remorse; he reached out to everybody, and it was large congregation, with stories of events that had touched all our lives at some point in time.

Sandy was laid to rest in the Kirkhill cemetery with a piper in attendance. The weather was kind and the rain held off.

piper at the graveside

Piping him home

The family held the wake in the Craigienield House Hotel and an a personal note I would like to thank Kay and the family for inviting me and their friends for making me so welcome – a special note to Jim and Susan who introduced me round.

We moved to the family home from whence we eventually made our individual ways back to various points across the country.

A very moving day and a fitting tribute to a wonderful person.


Bangkok March 2009 - How I'll remember him

Oberammergau Passion Play September 2010

Oberammergau 2010


Oberammergau, a small village in Bavaria, has staged the passion play every 10 years (with 2 exceptions) since 1634. It plays to audiences of 4,900 five days a week from May to October and you will be very lucky to get a cancellation. Even for the non religious it is an experience not to be missed.          

Our tour started in Dublin on 15 September where we were originally booked into the Clarion at the Airport.  By a quirk of fate we were transferred, all expenses paid, to the brand new Gibson Hotel opposite the Point, sorry O2. As we were not flying until 5p.m. this was a veritable godsend.          

Which way?


Our companions had never visited Dublin as tourists so I inaugurated a crash tour starting with the Luas to Jervis and then walking up through Temple Bar, Grafton Street, the Green and then back down to Dublin Castle.          

We had lunch in the Cow’s Lane branch of Queen of Tarts whose home made cakes and, believe it or not, tarts are something to wonder at. Click here for Dublin photo show.          

Schneerose Guesthouse


An uneventful flight saw us in Munich around 8pm and from there it was a two hour bus journey to our hotel in the village of Oberau in the Wildschöenau area of the Kitzbühl Alps region of Austria.  It turned out that the 3* Hotel was actually a 3* Guest house which was somewhat disappointing as it certainly lacked the facilities of a hotel. One could not fault the family running it as they were very accommodation and were only supplying that for which they had been contracted.          

Arriving at Fugen Station


The following day, Friday, we started our tour of the Austrian Tirol, Driving to Fugen in the Ziller Valley and taking the narrow gauge steam railway on the one and a half hour journey to Mayrhofen.  The weather was not perfect but the drizzle managed to stop when we were out and about so really could not complain for the time of year. It is obviously a popular ride as  about 5 or 6 other coach parties arrived. The train meanders at a maximum of 32 mph through the valley, pulling into sidings here and there to let the diesel service through.          

We arrived in Mayrhofen, a noted ski resort in the winter, in time for lunch and, in accordance of our guide’s, Julian, advice, headed into the Neue Post hotel for lunch.          

Following this we spent some time exploring the town by way of the Mayrhofen 1, a tractor thinly disguised as a train.          

Maids (& Elmer) in Mayrhofen


It is a fact that towns such as this really come alive during the winter sports season and unless one is on a walking holiday they lack the this vitality during the autumn. Maybe I am biased having spent a lot of time in the general area during the ’80s. We re-embarked on our coach and headed for home, stopping off at the small town of Rattenberg on the  River Inn.          

Finishing the swan


This is famous for its crystal and we were given a demonstration of glass blowing in one of the major establishments. For a slide show of the photos of our first days excursions please click here .          

I will not dwell on the repast at the Schneerose but we managed a few beers and some great craic in the dining room later in the evening.          

On Saturday after a breakfast of cereals, salami, cheese and ham we were to cross the Brenner Pass and enter the Italian Tirol (Südtirol) and the border town of Vipiteno.          



For those who don’t mind a bit of history this area of Italy was originally Austrian and the predominant language remain German, or Austrian.  It is an autonomous state within Italy. I first crossed the Brenner in 1971 on my way to Venice; then there were queues of lorries miles long waiting for customs clearance.  Now there is not a sign of  a customs post. It really is not possible to get photographs from a coach that do the views of the the bridge and the pass justice so I make no apology for omitting them.          

The Town Band


The Europa Bridge, opened in 1963 was a feat of engineering and took pressure off the original pass road which still meanders along 180 metres beneath it. Vipiteno, or Sterzing in German, is a typical border village which dates back to the 10th century. It has seen its fair share of history being a staging ground for various Nazi generals on their way to South America.          

Robi tries a hat


There was a official municipal  function taking place in the square, complete with the inevitable local band which added an element of local colour.  Of course we also got shepherded to the major tourist shop, which, it must be said offered a great line in wines and spirits.  I succumbed to the temptation of a bottle of excellent Grappa!          

The Golden Roof


The statue takes a break


From here we made our way on to Innsbruck, which is at the confluence of the Inn and Sill rivers and is the capital of the state of Tyrol. It was the home of the Hapsburg’s, one of the most important royal dynasties in Europe and who ruled for over 500 years.  It is a wonderful city and well worth a visit. It’s most notable attraction is the “Golden Roof” which was built in 1500 by Archduke Friedrich IV to honour the second marriage of Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor.  In more modern times Innsbruck has hosted the Winter Olympics twice and is due to host the 2012 winter paralympics in 2012.          

We had an excellent guide who met us off the bus and took us round the city starting through the Hofgarten.  We also had an extensive visit to the Hofburg, the Imperial Palace which contains much of the history of the Hapsburg dynasty.          

Click here for the photos for day two of our adventure          

Mystic Mountains


Sunday morning saw us on our way again, this time for for a boat trip on at Zell am See and from there to the well know resort of Kitzbühel. Well, it’s well known if you watch Ski Sunday or you indulge in winter sports.          

Enjoying the breeze


The weather held for us and we drove through the magnificent scenery up into the alps and the mountain lake.  The boat duly arrived and we found seats outside on the upper deck.  The speciality of the day was coffee and apfelstrudel with cream.          

Wouldn’t you know it; they ran out at the table before us! In a fit of self denial we decided to give food a miss and wait until we disembarked for lunch.          

Zell Town Band


Amazingly enough there was a band playing in the town square. The recommended eating house was the Sportstürbel, which it turned out, offered among other things an amazing home-made bratwurst with sauerkraut.          

Following a leisurely walk round the town and the lake side promenade we were shepherded onto the bus once more and set off for Kitzbühel.          

It being Sunday there were no shops open. The continent has not succumbed to great British seven day week and shops close on Saturday at around 2p.m. and do not open again until Monday. This is a good thing! Another good thing is that HGVs are not allowed on the roads on Sunday which makes for a more pleasant journey.          

100 years of Mountain Rescue


Even out of season Alpine towns do have an atmosphere and Kitzbühel is no exception. My only gripe was that the restaurant at which we stopped for coffee had run out of Sachertorte, the inimitable Austrian chocolate cake conceived by Franz Sacher, a kitchen apprentice in the court of Prince Metternich in 1832.          

Not the best place to land


On our way back we passed the ballooning festival.  The best picture I have is of the NASPA balloon sinking slowly into the village.          

We arrived back at the Schneerose for our last evening and in good alpine tradition partook of a few beers before calling it a night and packing our cases.          

Photos for the day can be seen by clicking here.          

I had been intrigued by the statues used to mark the footpath from Oberau to Neiderau, a distance of about 5 km and decided to walk it before breakfast on Monday morning. Thus I rose early and set off for the round trip.          

The Sun Song - beginning of the path


The Wildschoenau Dragon


The statues and their accompanying stone plaques are a philosophy of life and guide one along the route.  They are lit at night so as to make the going easier. Also along the route one comes upon the Wildschonau dragon who reputedly cleft the valley in it’s death throes, having been slain by a farmer. A slide show of the statues is here.          

I got back to the guest-house in time to shower and change for breakfast, which was really needed after the walk, and to get our cases down ready for our excursion to Achensee on our way to Oberammergau for the final stages of our tour and of course, the passion play. Once breakfast was over our mover and shaker, Anita, organised everyone for the group photo.          

The group - click to get the name tagged version


Having achieved this not unremarkable feat we bade farewell to the valley and headed of to the village of Pertisau on the Achensee, the largest lake in the Austrian Tirol. This village was the favourite of the Emperor Maximilian who based his hunting and fishing expeditions here. From here we embarked on our boat, the oldest in the fleet of 4 that are licensed to cruise the lake.          

Pertisau and the Karwendel Mountains


The sun shone in an almost cloudless sky and yet again we were presented with a series of amazing mountainscapes. the pictures say it all. We returned to Pertisau and had plenty of time to explore. The Parish church from which Ave Maria, in a multitude or vairiations, is broadcast to village at midday and 6pm each day is one of the many delights and we duly listended to that days rendition.          

The Parish "Ave Maria" church


It’s other claim to fame is the extraction of mineral oil from the local slate which is said to have all healing medicinal properties. They even have a visitors centre the “Steinöl Vitalberg” given over to it.          

“Steinöl Vitalberg” Center


This area is not only a winter resort but caters for walkers, climbers and paragliders, of whom we saw many, throught the summer. It also boasts the oldest golf course in Austria. The lake itself has drinking quality water and views are stunning. It is certainly an area I’ll consider revisiting for a pleasant walking holiday (and maybe a round of golf, but don’t tell Josephine).  We had lunch in the Christine and this proved to be another excellent hostlery. Try their fried eggs on fried potatoes!          

The photos of the lake and village are here          

It was a shame to leave such an idyllic spot but needs must and we headed off on the road to Oberammergau.          

Zum Kirchenbauer - Our guesthouse


Tour coaches are ot allowed into the centre of the village so they are all directed to a holding park where one is  then collected by taki or minibus and ferried to the selected accommodation.  As most of the guesthouses are relatively small, taking up to about 4 couples at most, we were split up for the first time on the tour.          

Do not expect lifts; do expect steep narrow staircases and sloping ceilings. Also expect to be greeted with a friendly smile. We were allocated, together with David and Vicki, to the Zum Kirchenbauer adjacent to the main church so we had no problems finding our way back.          

The wood carvers


Having deposited our bags we set out to explore.  The main occupation of the village is woodcarving and every other shop displays this art in various forms.  The ones that attracted me were either far to expensive or would certainly not have looked at home in NI. As to be expected there were throngs of tourists of all nationalities roaming round.          

We returned for our evening meal and found that our table companions were a South African couple which made for interesting conversation. The other table also had a South African couple and two ladies from the States.          

Ettal in the morning mist


We retired fairly early and in the morning I made an early start and walked the footpath to Ettal about 4 km up the valley.  What I had not realised was that I should have taken the footpath on the other side of the river and which followed the valley.          

My choice of route went up the side of the mountain.  Ah well, one lives and learns.  I also found, having nearly reasched my objective, a signpost saying “Ettal 1 km”. Greatly encouraged I pressed on and about a kilometre further came across another on offering the high pass to Ettal 1 km and the other the alternative route – stall at a kilometre. I picked the high pass as this was more or less on the flat.  Then round the corner there it was nestling in the valley in the misty morning. Task accomplished and only the walk back to negotiate.          

At 10 o’clock we went to the theatre and attended the pre play seminar given by Otto Hüber, the deputy director.  It was an excellent lecture and gave a great insight into the the production of the play and its evolution from the first performance is 1634. The auditorium holds just under 5000 and the acoustics are good enough that there are no microphones required by the cast. iT is impressive!  The stage is open but they have added the facility of a sliding roof in case of inclement weather.          

The Stage - Passion Play Theatre


Act one started at 2p.m.  I will not attempt to describe the passion play; it is awesome both in scale and presentation. The narrator and choir of about 30 provide the continuity betwen scenes and “living sculptures” are used to as flashbacks to the old testament stories.  The clearing of the temple scene sees over 500 people, dogs, donkeys and doves on stage at the same time. It is impossible not to be enthralled by the majesty of it.          

The first act, which lasts about 2 1/2 hours finishes with Jesus being arrested. Then there is a three hour break for dinner and the second act starts at 8.  This lasts up to 3 hours depending on who plays Jesus (all the major roles have two actors who play on alternate nights), one taking half an hour longer than the other. One would not see the time going in and suddenly it was the resurrection and the end of the play. My advice to anyone who has not been is to make it one of their “must do before I die”  events.          

Click here for photos of the village and area          

The next day we set off for Munich and the last visit of our tour.  Had I been able to afford the time I would have rearranged my flights and stayed on until the weekend.          

The route follows part of the Via Claudia Agusta, an ancient Roman road, now a cycle track, linking Ostiglia in Italy with Donauwörth on the Danube in Bavaria.          

Nymphs of the Nymphenburg


Our first stop was at the Nymphenburg palace, a 17 century masterpiece of baroque architecture. From there we went on into the city and were left off at the Marienplatz. They have brought the Oktoberfest forward a couple of weeks as they have had such bad weather in Bavaria for the past few years, so the city was alive with tourists.  The temperature was around 23° so their optimism paid off!          

Hofbrauhaus Munich


A party of us decided that we would forgo the wonders for a while and headed off to the famous, or notorious, Hofbrauhaus for a litre or two of Bavarian beer and something to eat. After that we headed down into the open market to watch the world go by and get a bag of the ubiquitous frites and mayonaise.          

We finished our day over a final beer in the Marienplatz and then it was back to the airport for an uneventful trip home!          

For photos of this final leg click here          

The following are links to the @trip maps of our travels.           

Ziller Valley          

 Vipiteno & Innsbruck          

Zell am See & Kitzbuhel          


 Oberammergau to Ettal walk & Munich          

The Husky Years, 1980 – ’84

Heinsberger Volkszeitung 21 Feb ’83

Exhilarating, definately;  terrifying, sometimes: the most vivid memory of my husky racing period is bouncing down a mountainside near Bernau, in the Schwarzwald area of Germany, underneath the sled and with no way of getting the team to stop! It was probably one of the fastest runs I ever made!

How to start a team

To the questions:  “Are you still racing” and “Do you still have Siberians”, the answer is no.  The former is because one needs to live near the snow and to be extremely fit and the latter because, although huskies of various breeds are now common as pets, they are essentially working pack animals.

Press cutting from “The Field”

Having said this it was a wonderful period and I will be ever grateful to the support I got from the Royal Signals in particular, the Intelligence Corps and the army in general for sponsoring the vets bills and giving me the time off to train and race my team for the European Championships as well as a number of other club races. I should also include the REME whose workshop I borrowed to build my 8 dog travelling kennel which was based on a mini sun frame.

Playing Father Christmas in Helmstedt

Not only did I get a great thrill out of racing but there was also some great sidelines, the main one acting as Father Christmas taking presents to schools on the last day of term.

A little bit about Schlittenhundrennen, Sled dog racing:

All races take place over two days and results are based on the combined times for the two runs.  For the three dog class the distance is normally between 5 and 6 km and for 5 dogs 10 – 12 km.  The big teams, 7 – 12 dogs run over around 20 km. Most of courses are round mountain tracks so one spends a great deal of time running behind the sled rather than standing on it.

The Nugget Trophy

Trail Club of Europe – Championship points ’04


For anyone interested the European championships were staged at 4 venues, Tannheim in Austria, Bernau in the Schwarzwald, Bruneck in the Italian Tyrol and Saignelégier in Switzerland.

The Wire – March 81

One starts in the unlicensed class. To obtain a licence you have to compete in a number of races and finish within the average time set by the licensed teams. I got my licence after winning the Austrian and Italian 5 dog “Digger” class races in ’82. From there on one is competing for the Nugget Trophy against teams who can train on snow for most of the year.  The best 3 results out of the four races count towards the trophy and one receives 1/10 gram of pure gold for every minute one is better than the average race time. e.g. If the average time for all runners over two days is 65 minutes and your time is 55 minutes you earn 1 gramme of gold.

My best placing was 9th out of about 22 teams and for this I won 3 grammes of gold (worth about £80 at today’s gold price).

It was quite a wrench when I left Germany for the last timer and had to sell my team, but they all went to other kennels so I knew they would be well looked after. Christine took Bambi back to the UK as he was really too old to go to a new team.

Intelligence Corps Magazine 1981

In ’83 a reporter from The Soldier came to Bruneck and wrote an article on my achievements. This was after I had qualified for my licence and hence the 7th place in the licenced class

Soldier article

The Soldier Mar-Apr ’83


I would pay tribute to my ex, Christine, without whose dedication I would never have achieved the success I did and whose love of the dogs (and taking them to shows ) knew no bounds.

Rhine Cruise, New Year ’09/10

We considered that sitting in Newtownabbey from 27 December to the New Year was not a top priority objective so decided that, after feeding the family on Boxing day, a river cruise from Düsseldorf to Rüdesheim and then to Köln for Old Years Night would fit the bill.

Miss the bumf – click on the picture for the photos

Getting the dogs to kennels through the snow proved an adventure but having achieved this we set off.  The flight to Heathrow was mundane.  The Hotel Hopper buses are a godsend and we spent the night at the Quality Inn by Terminal (T5). The rooms are fine (They put the radiators under the window and behind full length curtains!) but do not eat there!  Hoppered back to T5 in the morning for the BA flight to Amsterdam. T5 is fully automated and works a treat but  no cheap shopping,  Harrods were offering a handbags reduced from £950 to £648!  Gave it a miss!

Our plane was parked at gate 10. There is a big sign above the lift saying “time to Gate 10, 10 minutes” . One gets in the lift goes down one floor and ,Lo, we’re at Gate 10!! Flight on time, no strikes: they’ve cut out meals but one gets a free drink (wine naturally) and a packet of nibbles.  Also lots more leg room that Aer Lingus or squeezy jet.

Weather on arrival 10° and sun shining. The tour rep at Schipol had taken off to chat with her mate,and it took two phone calls to the tour helpline before she turned up and asked us where we’d been!

After an uneventful 2 1/2 hour drive to Düsseldorf  (It was great to see near empty outside lanes on the Autobhan  and cars overtaking and returning to the inside) we finally arrived on the Serenade 1 about 6pm and I had my first Bitburger Pils for a few years!  Our cabin was superb with separate bath & shower and a balcony over the stern. Amazing how much storage they can build into a small space. We had time to shower and change in time for dinner at 7.45.

Our last exprience of “on board” cuisine was on the Nile where buffets were the order of the day.  Not on the Serenade.  Four course international dinner menu  plus coffee.   The John Dory was perfect.  So was the bottle of Riesling that went with it.  We were paired with couple from Shropshire, Margaret (whose brother, in another of those small world coincidences,  had trained at Constance Spry and had been the Queen Mother’s florist, my cousin having also trained there and been a royal florist) and  Charles, who made excellent companions and with whom we sat over port and brandy until sometime after midnight.

The air conditioning in the cabin worked a treat so we slept well.  Coffee is served from 7 am and breakfast from 7.30 -9am.  The breakfast spread was superb.  Great selection of fruit and cereals, cold buffet with German wursten, cheese and a selection of smoked or pickled fish, or a good old fry.

Went up on deck, to watch the world go by as we chugged upstream past Koblenz and Boppard. Wind chill factor pushed temperature well below zero.

There was a compulsory safety briefing at 10.30 which finished just in time to  go out on deck again as we passed the famous, or infamous, Loreley massif.

The link will take you to the history but  the S bend on the river is scary.  You have huge barges coming down stream and doing a sort of handbrake turn into the bend. as it there is a  huge blind spot going up river into the turn they have a set of  “traffic lights” that lets the captain know what is coming and roughly where it is!

Having negotiated this it was time for a three (or four) course lunch, to the standard that we had already become accustomed.  The chefs salad, as a starter, was fit for a king.  Soup, main course, sweet and coffee. Forewent wine with lunch and stuck to pils.

We docked at Rüdesheim, the furthest point of our trip upriver about 2.30. The weather was unfortunately inclement.  Not particularly cold but a steady downpour attempted to put a dampener on proceedings. I wanted to visit Mechanical Music Cabinet museum but the conducted tour, in English, was an hour away so we hied it into the “famous” Drosselgasse to find a Rüdesheimer coffee. This is made at the table: put 2 tsps sugar and a very large Asbach brandy in a coffee mug and flambé to caramelise the sugar.  Add filter coffee and top with fresh cream. Mmmmmm!!!  The subsequent visit to the museum was money well spent and the detail in the small bird musical boxes was amazing. A snip at a starting price of €1,200.

After returning to our boat we dressed, posh frock/suit and bow tie, for the gala welcome dinner; a five course extravaganza including asparagus soup, veal schnitzel and apfel strudel and cream. There was supposedly a dance following but the “entertainment” consisted of a guitarist called Chris with a rhythm box  and a singer called Kirsty. He was pretty inept and their repertoire was extremely limited.  They were patronising and played only that whih they considered  we would want to hear. When asked for a Status  Quo number they said they had never heard of them!! A request to play a Queen track elicited ” we’re not allowed to play Queen on this cruise”.  At 10.30 they wrapped up and left!  Needless to say our group, now 16 strong and a pretty eclectic crowd, were still keeping the bar staff busy after midnight.

On waking on Wednesday morning I forgot that I had not reset my mobile to European time so we very nearly missed the wine tasting trip starting at 9.00am.  Yes, a wine tasting at nine in the morning.  I will say no more than that the Rhine whites were excellent, we were nearly late back on board as I had forgotten there was a change of embarkation time, and the rest of day sailed by.

We reached Koblenz about 3.30 and took off for a wander about.  It is lovely little medieval city and as enchanting as I remembered it.

Usual evening, dinner and bar.  Four of the group had spent last New year at the Regency in Drumcondra (just down the road from Dublin Airport).   Reckoned it was a complete disaster: entertainment even worse than ours and drinks even more expensive.

There was a musical quiz organised, which was quite good fun, but as nobody had one set of questions answered  we were informed that we should really know what the “in” entertainment in London was. More condescension.  We had no intention of letting it get us down and partied on.

Was up early on Old Years Night but, due to lack of information from our cruise manager, missed the bridge at Remagen, a WW2 landmark and now a peace museum.

Went up on deck and chatted to an ex RAF radar engineer for a couple of hours, Josephine having stayed in bed. We docked in Cologne at about 11 but we decided to stay on board for lunch before braving the elements. We  finally ventured off, having been lent the captains umbrella from the bridge and made our way up to the Dom.  The cathedral is another of those structures that impresses no matter how many times you see it. The crib is the size of a small room.

Having seen the amazing stained  glass windows and crypt we wandered through the shopping area to the Alt Stadt to find a Schnell Imbiss stall, the German equivalent of a chippy. Finally found one and bought a curry wurst (not really anything to do with curry),  “frites mit mayonnaise” (you work it out) and a pils with schnapps chaser.

Back to the ship to prepare for the New Years Eve gala dinner and subsequent “entertainment”. Champagne cocktails on deck at 11.45 and then the ad hoc Cologne New Year firework display.  Back down to the bar for an hour until we could celebrate the UK New Year.  The “combo” played their interpretation of what what we wanted to hear and we drank and enjoyed ourselves.  One of the Page & Moy management team performed a strange introvert exhibition on the floor!  (I’d worry about that girl).  Think we left about 3am.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful.  I spent a lot of time on the deck taking photos of the industrial north, an area I know from my stay in the area at various times through the ’60s, 70s and ’80s, and  chatting to anybody else brave enough to face the elements.

We ended the cruise at Arnhem, passing under the John Frost Bridge of “A Bridge Too Far” fame,  in the evening of New Years Day but, as there is nothing of any interest in the city we stayed on board.

Saturday morning we transferred back to Schipol, through snow and ice, for flights back to the UK.

All things considered it was a great holiday.  The company was scintillating, the accommodation and food unsurpassable, and the entertainment so awful as to be noteworthy.

If you are wondering what to do for New Year go on a river cruise.

Rhine Cruise New Year ’09/’10