Aberfoyle

From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!

Sometimes we like to think that our ancestors were far more superstitious that us: less sophisticated, less modern or up-to-date. But pay a visit to your local cinema and take a look at the large number of films full of vampires, zombies, ghosts and  horrific creatures: all there to scare the living daylights out of us.  And we even pay for the pleasure! It’s curious, isn’t it.  Just what is it in us that enjoys being terrified and faced with such primeval fears?

Back in the 17th century Rev Robert Kirk, the young minister at Kirkton Church in Aberfoyle, wondered just that. He collected folklore and stories from local people about their experiences with the supernatural. He then examined biblical references and asked whether there might in fact be a class of ethereal beings in this world which we didn’t yet understand, or could fully explain. He’s remembered today as The Fairy Minister, which tends to belittle him, and makes it easy to shrug of his work. But who really knows? And sometimes it’s worth keeping an open mind on such matters!

Certainly you’ll find that his grave is, more often than not, covered in coins, put there by the superstitious of today hoping for some good luck from their gesture. Or at the Minister’s Tree atop Doon Hill, where there’s a ‘clootie well’, with so many pieces of cloth that the whole hill top can look fairly dirty and untidy. Yet these things are put there as ‘wishes’ to the fairies: or to whatever power may be willing to offer assistance. I sometime wonder if we’re really much less superstitious today after all.

Kirk’s short study, The Secret Commonwealth, helped put Aberfoyle on the map, as did Sir Walter Scott, and the arrival of the railways. Yet there’s much more to the history of this small town than you might think. On top of which, it’s a wonderful base for exploring the Trossachs on foot, by bike or in the car.

This is just a taster for what’s in my article in July’s edition of iScot magazine. So if you want to find out more then simply download the online edition (116 full-colour pages for only £2.99) from iScot at Pocketmags or buy a print copy (£3.99) from any of these newsagents (right):

You won’t be disappointed. But, be warned, you might just find yourself checking under your bed before turning the lights out!

 

Glenelg – Spacemen and Spies!

It’s easy to dismiss small or seemingly remote communites as offering nothing much of interest. But that’s a very mistaken assumption. Everywhere has a history. Everywhere the impact of human life leaves a mark. And small places are no different. In fact, it’s in these places that change is often felt more intensely and with far greater repercussions.

Glenelg in Lochaber is a good case in point. As the title of this article shows, a lot more has happened there than you might expect! Sometimes it can take a bit of digging to discover past events and fully appreciate the legacy they’ve left behind. But echo down the years they do: leaving their mark on the land and the people.

Iron Age brochs, redcoat barracks, Gavin Maxwell and his otters, sailing over the sea to Skye: Glenelg has all that and much, much more. I know Glenelg well and have visited often, but I still find there’s always something more just waiting to be experienced.

If it’s a place you don’t yet know, or even if you have visited, but would like to find out more, then my article in the June issue of the iScot magazine is just right for you: and costs less than a pint of beer in the pub! So treat yourself to something that will last a lot longer than that pint – and probably do you more good to boot!

iScot from Pocketmags

Rev James Dey

A man who could make chocolate cakes!

I first posted this piece about High Corrie in 2015.  It was linked to the article I’d written about that unusual coterie of men and women for whom High Corrie was a special place. Just last week the last of that group, my father, Rev James Dey, passed away. In many ways it’s the end of an era. They were all men and women who had experienced the reality of war, of poverty, of suffering and hardship. Yet they were all men and women who looked to the future with courage and determination.

They helped make their world a better place for all, not just for a few. Something I’ve tried to do in my life, and see reflected in the words and actions of my own children. Life is never static. Change is always with us. I hope we always try and make those changes good ones. Just as my father did.

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Burnbank Cottage in High Corrie

High Corrie on Arran, Scottish Islands Explorer, September/October 2015

If someone asks you to name your favourite book, or song, or food, or place, it’s not always easy to come up with an answer, even though the question itself seems perfectly straightforward.  Somehow it all depends on a host of factors, and in the end, for most of us, it isn’t really possible to come up with a once-and-for-all favourite.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t books, or songs, or places that are special to us – and  some that are more special than others.  For me, a very special place is High Corrie on Arran.

Sunshine on Burnbank, 1973

Sunshine on Burnbank, 1973

It’s special because of the island it’s on, special because of its wonderful setting and special because of all the happy associations and memories it brings with it. Wonderful carefree family holidays, when the sun always shone (well, most of the time!) and we were free to roam the hills and shore and cycle safely wherever we chose (there were far fewer cars back then!).  Each year we stayed in Burnbank, one of the small cottages in High Corrie, a clachan designated by Historic Scotland as being of ‘outstanding historical interest’.

High Corrie United c 1969

High Corrie United FC 1969

There was the High Corrie Burn to explore, Goatfell to climb, and a flat-ish area where we held our own ‘olympic games’ and football matches, along with a home-made two-hole golf course set on a steep slope with the sea far below.  Not far away was Corrie, and then Brodick,  so there was also putting and crazy golf and rowing boats and sandy beaches to enjoy. Adventure beckoned at every turn!

1973: James Dey and playwright Robert McLellan relax during a break in filming in High Corrie

1973: My father Rev James Dey of the BBC (left) and playwright Robert McLellan relax during a break in filming in High Corrie

It was also a place where summer-holiday stories were written and where there was time to slow down and talk and think and unwind.  But it was also a place where adults could stop and unwind too.  For my parents it was a break from their challenging jobs at the BBC and in a tough Glasgow secondary school respectively. The cottage opposite Burnbank was the home of the playwright and poet Robert McLellan and his wife Kathleen. Nearby, the summer homes of the editor of the Guardian, later the Controller of BBC Scotland, the Director of the Royal Scottish Museum and many artists.  A small place but one alive with thoughts and ideas.

It’s a place I’ve been back to on many occasions and I’ve written about some of the things that made this place special not just to me and my family, but to many others (see link below). It’s good to have places like this, places that played their part in our young lives and continue to hold such a store of fond memories. Whilst I’d still find it impossible to name a favourite place, High Corrie comes pretty close!

High Corrie article

 

King’s Cave on Arran – a message still resonating today

Remember the tale of Bruce and the spider? The tale of how a tiny creature’s persistence provided the spur that Bruce needed to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds? With the benefit of hindsight we know that success was eventually to be his. But he didn’t know that. He had to face his darkest moment without knowing what the future would bring.

Bruce faced terrible losses; the barbaric torture and death of some of his closest family, the imprisonment of others, the loss of Scotland. How much easier it could have been for him to turn and run. Give up and disappear from history. But he didn’t.

With hindsight life seems much easier than it is. But the reality is that, more often than not, we have to take a leap of faith, not knowing what the final outcome will be, but hoping that the decision we’ve made is the right one.

And it’s this that makes the central message of Bruce’s tale resonate just as strongly today as it did all those centuries ago. Right now, in countries like Syria and Yemen, men, women and children are facing the horrors of war, torture and starvation. Drug wars rage in South America. Torture and beheading go on unabated in Saudi Arabia. Ours is not a peaceful world. Yet despite that, there are always those courageous enough to stand up against oppressors, no matter how impossible the odds appear.

Standing up against injustice takes courage and conviction. While we may not fear for our safety in a physical sense, there are still anxieties that stop us speaking out against the insidious structural violence that dictatorial government in Westminster is inflicting on so many people. Right now the poor, the disabled, the widowed and the most vulnerable are being crushed. New laws are being slipped in silently, without debate, without scrutiny, without consensus. Legal?  Perhaps, but at the same time immoral.

In Europe we’ve had a long spell of peace and relative stability and it can be hard to take in the seriousness of what’s happening. Or have we become too comfortable to notice any more? Too cosy with our nice homes, our holidays, and more than plenty to eat? Is it just too easy to sit in front of our televison sets and shut out the reality of what others around us are going through?

Imagine you talk to friends of trying to bring about change. Someone mocks you, calling you naive, idealistic, says forget it, nothing can be changed. But they’d be wrong, for change is at the very heart of human existence. If it weren’t, we’d still be dressed in animal skins, slavery would still be legal, children would still be working down mines, there would be no NHS. Change is happening all the time. But all too often we allow ourselves to think that someone else will sort things out, someone else will fight our wars, someone else will be the hero. But those times have gone.

Think of the words of Edmund Burke, who said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Or the Bible, where in Proverbs 31: 8-9 it clearly states:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
    ensure justice for those being crushed.
 Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
    and see that they get justice.

WE are ones being called upon to act, to speak out – not ‘someone else’.

Bruce came out of his cave (with a little help from the spider!) and faced what had to be done. Now it’s our turn to make the difference, to fight for change, to be involved, to look beyond our comfortable lives and play our part.  That ‘someone else’ is now you and me.

King’s Cave article available in iScot

Amnesty International UK

Glorious Gorse, a great Scottish native

Glorious gorse

You know Spring has arrived when you walk past a gorse bush and the air is full of that delicious aroma of coconut rising from the yellow flowers in the warm sunshine. And right now the Island of Arran is positively awash with gorse.

Gorse, also known as whin or furze, is native to Scotland and has proved its usefulness over the centuries. A traditional winter feed for cattle and other livestock, it would be ground with mallets or with a whin-stone, until it reached an edible consitency!

You can add the flowers to a salad or use the leaf buds to make ‘tea’. Apparently the seeds are mildly astringent, containing tannin, and were used to treat diarrhoea, varicose veins and slow down infections. Then, like most plants, it can be used to produce a dye (replace the The Good Life’s nettle green with yellow!)

Goats love gorse!

Importantly, it was regularly used as a fuel, burning well even when quite green because of its high oil content. The ashes are rich in alkali and gorse was often burned off to improve the quality of the land. These alkali-rich ashes were also mixed with animal fat to make soap. And it’s a sanctuary for small birds, who can hide safely inside this thorny shrub.

On the other hand, there are few things worse than fighting your way through gorse that has been allowed to grow unchecked – then those spikes become just too vicious. But, on the whole, gorse has been a friend to farmers and crofters and fitted in well with rural life in this country.

Skunk cabbage fringes the pond at Brodick Castle

Gunnera aka ‘giant rhubarb’!

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the rampant rhododendrons that grow unchecked in so many parts of Scotland. In the right setting, as in the gardens of Brodick Castle, rhododendrons flourish alongside other exotic plants that were brought here in the late 18th and 19th centuries to fill the gardens of the new, fashion-conscious, owners of country houses. In Brodick Castle grounds you’ll see American skunk cabbage (with its very curious smell) and Gunnera (looking for all the world like enormous rhubarb) arranged to create areas of great interest.

However, as the management of many large country estates has declined, their gardens have been left to run wild. As a result, some of these non-native species have been allowed to escape and are now too rampant, too invasive, and are causing wide-spread difficulties. In particular that ‘Victorian monster’ Rhododendron ponticum, has become a severe problem throughout Scotland.  It shades out other plants – and their attendant wildlife – and soon creates dense jungles which are not simply hard work, but also almost impossible, to clear.

There a numerous projects afoot now to try and contain and clear these plants which are deadly to all other growth if left unchecked. Though I would have to say that the relatively new-kid-on-the-block, Japanese Knotweed, is now regarded as the world’s most invasive species. It’s found a foothold here and is spreading, and any plant that can grow up through concrete floors and bring down houses is definitely a real menace!

Give me gorse spikes (and a pair of secateurs) any day!!

A bank of gorse protects the grass and sand dunes along the shore at Brodick Bay

The Problem with Ponticum

 

Cape Wrath – remote but reachable

It’s genuinely remote, there are plenty of obstacles to getting there, but it can be done – and it’s definitely worth it! Time of year, weather and MOD activity in the bombardment range, all have to be taken into consideration before you set out. Once these factors are sorted, however, you’re on your way. And fear not – there will be a cup of tea waiting for you when you finally reach the lighthouse!

We felt a real sense of achievement when we visited Cape Wrath. There’s the lighthouse and the welcome Ozone Cafe, as well as the decaying Lloyds Buildings, which are described on the Visit Cape Wrath website as: “a signalling station complex established by Lloyd’s of London Marine and Commercial Insurers to monitor passing ships, tracking their cargos, ports of departure and destination along with estimated arrival times”. Built between 1894 and 1903, advances in communications led to their closure in 1932, although they were reused at the start of World War II as a coastguard station.

The decaying Lloyds Buildings, closed in 1932

The small group who travelled on the ferry and minibus with us were from all corners of the globe. There’s obviously something very addictive about getting to the (almost) unreachable parts of the world!

I’ve written an article describing the journey and the history of the Cape – from the terrifying arrival of the Vikings – those fearsome Sons of Death – through the trials and tribulations of the Clearances, to the present day set-up where the MOD own vast tracks of the land. The article is available in the April edition of the excellent iScot magazine. iScot is a wide-ranging publication, which looks at what’s happening in Scotland today: what’s going on in the news and what there is to see, do and think about in this wonderful country of ours. If you have an interest in Scotland it’s well worth considering a  subscription, whether in paper form or in a digital edition.

Cape Wrath was the hvarf, the ‘turning point’ for the Vikings. Life is full of turning points and our reactions to these can have a profound effect on how we live our lives and relate to those around us. At times life can be more challenging than we might prefer, but, with places like Cape Wrath to visit, at least we can’t complain that it’s dull!

Visit Cape Wrath

iScot Magazine

Walk Highlands

The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph

Caves full of bones? Mass murder in the peaceful Highlands of Scotland? No, not in this case! But rather a tale of how some things in nature are undoubtedly stranger than fiction!

I’m not a mountaineer, but I delight in the splendour of these ancient hills and glens and find myself amazed at the thought that they were once shared with bears, lynx, arctic lemmings, reindeer and even polar bears! It’s good to know that animals and men roamed freely here for thousands of years, in a landscape, wild and untamed.

It’s a rich and fascinating story of how landscape is shaped and how man fits into that pattern. And how even old bones can tell us so much about our long-ago past.

To find out more, follow the link below for a free download of the March edition of the excellent iScot magazine. And once you’ve read my article about the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, you’ll be packing a bag and heading off to Assynt to see them for yourselves!

iScot Magazine FREE March download with The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph

What is it about islands…?

Just what is it about islands that authors, playwrights and poets are drawn to use them as settings for their works? Especially crime writers? I wrote an article on this very topic, which is now in The Island Review.

If you haven’t come across The Island Review before, it’s an online magazine which is: ‘dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.’

So if you like books, enjoy crime stories, are intrigued by islands and wonder what William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? Then read on, Macduff!:  ‘A distant isle, where darkest deeds are done’

Power and Beauty in the Glens: Loch Sloy Dam Part 1

It was freezing cold, with snow in the air and on the hills, and colder the higher we went. But, as so often when walking in Scotland, we knew the destination would be worth it. And that destination was the Loch Sloy dam, flanked by the mighty and rugged Ben Vorlich.

Parking at Inveruglas Visitor Centre on the west bank of Loch Lomond, we followed the signposts for Loch Sloy & Hills, which took us past the impressive Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric power station. Construction of the dam began in May 1945 and was the first in the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board’s revolutionary scheme. Work was completed in 1949 and the station officially ‘switched on’ in October 1950. The construction work was back-breaking and dangerous, with twenty-one men losing their lives in the process.

Loch Sloy Hydro-Electric station on Loch Lomond

The dramatic history of ‘Power from the Glens’ has long interested me. The water for this power station comes from Loch Sloy, high in the hills, with its massive dam, 56 metres high and 357 metres long. From here it is channelled through a 3km tunnel, hewn through of the massive side of Ben Vorlich. On reaching the valve house it thunders down through four mammoth pipes to drive the turbines below.  Such is the power of the water that the station can generate enough electricity to meet sudden peaks in demand, reaching full-capacity within 5 minutes of a standing start!

It’s a straightforward walk, a round-trip of 11km. When you reach the access road to the dam, walk under the railway bridge and then it’s up! And the higher you go, the better the views of Loch Lomond and the surrounding hills become. The construction of the Loch Sloy dam and power station was, quite literally, a groundbreaking start to one of the most progressive and far-reaching engineering projects in the world. So when you reach the dam, take a look at your map, and wonder at how it was possible, all those years ago, to carve such tunnels through these mountains. Some of the work force were even prisoners-of-war awaiting repatriation. In a booklet published by Scottish Hydro Electric, due credit is given to these men:

After the Second World War, men from all over Scotland came to work on the schemes, attracted by high wages. The highest wages were earned by the men who dug the tunnels. Germans, Poles and Czechs were acknowledged to be skilled tunnellers. They became known as the ‘Tunnel Tigers’ because of their cavalier approach to safety in their quest to earn the huge bonuses that were available. The lower regard for health and safety issues than there is today inevitably led to high accident rates and deaths amongst the workers. No definitive accident statistics exist, but in one camp alone, which housed some 1,000 workers at its peak, there were 22 deaths in just one year. For the vast majority of workers the rewards were great. In the late 1940s, a ‘Tunnel Tiger’ could expect to earn up to £35 a week, compared to £3 or £4 for a Highland estate worker. Mostly they lived in temporary work camps built near the construction sites. Not surprisingly, the sites looked like military camps, sometimes housing up to 3,000 men.”

The scheme was masterminded by Scottish politician Tom Johnston (1881-1965) and, under the auspices of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Scheme, succeeded in bringing power to the glens in a way never before imaginable. By 1963 90% of the Highlands were attached to the grid, more than twice as many as when the scheme began just after the Second World War. ‘Power from the Glens’ ultimately changed the face of rural Scotland and the benefits continue to this day.

Their achievements are all the more remarkable given the harsh conditions and often unforgiving terrain they had to work in, and we owe them a great deal. For not only is Scotland a country of great natural beauty, but it’s also one rich in natural resources. And so it’s doubly remarkable that Tom Johnston and his fellow visionaries harnessed hydro-power without damaging the landscape, and also left dams and power stations of great stature and beauty.

As renewable and sustainable energy become increasingly important, the hydro-power schemes these men bequeathed us become equally more significant. We need renewable energy like hydro-power: and in a country of rivers, lochs and plentiful rain, hydro-power is definitely here to stay!

Snow- and cloud-capped Ben Lomond from the road to Loch Sloy dam

Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park