Glorious Glen Finglas

For those living in the Central Belt of Scotland the countryside is never far away. Despite being the area with the highest population density in Scotland (3.5 million out of 5.4 million), it doesn’t take long to reach the clean air and open spaces of the countryside.

For many of us, heading north or west leads to the Trossachs, an area of woods, glens and lochs that lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. And right in the middle of this expanse is glorious Glen Finglas.

Made famous by Walter Scott (as with so much of this part of Scotland), Glen Finglas has never lost its popularity, and today is managed by the Woodland Trust for Scotland. But it’s also part of ‘a forest in the making’, the Great Trossachs Forest, a long-term project (200 years!) that aims to create 160 square km of native woodland across this area. This innovative and far-sighted venture is the brainchild of the Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Woodland Trust.  Described as a ‘forest for the future’, the Great Trossachs Forest is also the largest National Nature Reserve in the country. Quite an achievement.

A cottage in the village of Brig O’Turk, Glen Finglas

While this work is being carried out in the present and will provide great benefits for the future, Glen Finglas has a long and varied past. And it’s this past that has shaped the landscape we see here today.

In the current issue of iScot magazine I’ve written about the past, present and future of Glen Finglas under the headings found on the unusual stone compass that’s set into a rocky hillock up the glen. Carved into the stone are three mottoes: Enjoy the Present, Sense the Past, Ensure the Future. It’s a wonderful encouragement to get out and walk (or cycle), to learn about the people and events that have gone before and to discover what is planned for future generations.

To find out more about what this all entails, get hold of a copy of September’s iScot and then be inspired to pay a visit yourself!

iScot magazine digital editions

 

 

Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

Coire Fhionn Lochan – Arran at its best

‘Climb every mountain …’

… and take this walk to the beautiful Coire Fhionn Lochan on the west coast of Arran. It’s name means the Little Loch of the Pale Corrie, and its crystal-clear water is fringed with white granite sand. There’s something quite strange about coming to a beach up in the hills, but its a lovely spot for a rest or a picnic. And for the more energetic, there are walks that head further into Arran’s stunning mountains. I’ve written about this walk in the September/October issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

What intrigues me about exploring the landscape of Sotland is just how much has happened in almost every area of the land. Even in places that seem deserted and remote to us today, you’ll find that not so long ago they were home to generations of people who lived and worked the land. And that usually means there’s something left behind that tells their story, if you know how to look for it.

You can find clues in the place names that describe the natural features of the land. Or those place names with a mixture of linguistic roots, that tell of the invaders from other lands, with other cultures, who descended upon these shores. Often arriving as deadly raiders, many then returned as settlers, marrying into local communites and adding to the mix of nations that make up who we are today.

Then there are the myriads of old tales and legends, which although fictitious at one level, do very often contain a grain of truth about otherwise long-forgotten events.

Even the shape and size and hair colouring of a commmunity can tell you something of its background. Whose blood flows through your veins? Are you descended from dark-haired Celts, or fair-haired Norse Vikings, or those unfortunate Spanish sailors whose ships floundered in the stormy waters off the Scottish coasts in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada of 1588 and stayed on (think of Jimmy Perez!).

This walk has echoes of St Columba, a visit from Robert the Bruce and a beautiful poem, amongst other intriguing aspects. It’s a walk in the present that resonates with the past and contains hopes for the future. Not a bad mix at all!

Should you wish to find out more, you can read my article in the latest edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Print copies are for sale in many local newsagents and it’s available online for only £1.99 at:  pocketmags-scottish-islands-explorer-magazine

 

Follow the Dead

Unlike the characters at the opening of Lin Anderson’s new novel, we weren’t trapped in the Cairngorms by a blizzard. Unlike them we were free to walk away from the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue (CMR) Base in Inverdruie whenever we chose. And unlike her fictional protagonists, we wanted to be where we were. We’d come Aviemore for the weekend to hear about the 12th book in the Rhona MacLeod series, Follow the Dead.

A mountain rescue base must surely be a unique setting for a book launch, but it was also very apt, as the CMR team play a major role in the story and Lin had spent many hours in their company, picking their brains for tales of nail-biting rescues and learning about the real-life risks and challenges they face when trying to reach walkers and climbers trapped in the harsh mountain landscape of the Cairngorm Mountains.

Prof and Mrs James Grieve

The skill, commitment and bravery of mountain rescue teams is legendary. John Allen, whose exploits are described in the book Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue, was at the launch. As was Willie Anderson, the current leader of the CMRT, who spoke about rescues the team had been involved in, some of them requiring extraordinary bravery and truly heroic efforts to bring bodies – alive and dead – down off the mountains.

Also present was Lin’s chief forensic expert, Dr James Grieve, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Aberdeen. A man with a long title and a great sense of humour! He confirmed the realism of the technical aspects of Lin’s books, applauding the work she does in ‘educating’ readers to the reality – and limitations – of forensic science in the solving of crimes. It’s this accuracy that gives the books such an authentic feel, and helps make the character of Rhona MacLeod so believeable.

The author (right) and the fictional character!

Among the audience was a ‘real-life-fictional-character’, Mary, who plays a pivotal and intriguing role in the story. But just what that role might be, is a mystery you’ll only be able to solve by reading the book for yourselves!

After Lin, the second most celebrated guest must have been Oor Blaze fae Skye – perhaps the best-known resident of that fabled isle. With a Twitter following in the thousands, Blaze is a mountaineering (and Portree pub) legend in his own right.

Oor Blaze fae Skye

He even has his own much-sought-after calendar: a calendar signed last year by the author and stars of the spectacularly successful Outlander series, amongst many others. The funds raised from the auctioning of the autographed calendars go to the Skye Mountain Rescue Team. So Blaze has a very appropriate connection to the book launch we were attending.

A brilliant book with the best set of autographs possible!

Some of you will already know that Blaze’s other great claim to fame is that he writes regularly for iScot magazine, sharing his mountain exploits with the magazine’s readership. There’s something rather special about having a fellow contributor who has four legs and a penchant for tennis balls: which, I must add, he catches with unfailing accuracy!

Shush! I’m reading!

And so, having spent time with Blaze (whose literary efforts are penned with a little bit of help from his ‘dad’ Steve) and having heard about the real-life background to the drama in Follow the Dead, as well as having met some of the real-life counterparts to the fictional characters, all I have to do now is get reading – so shush!

 

Crime wave!

Crime writing in Scotland has never been more popular. From Bute Noir to Bloody Scotland there are events taking place all around the country, giving readers a golden opportunity to meet and talk to their favourite authors.

However, rather than discuss their fiction, I wanted to pose a different sort of question to these dealers in death. Tracking down three of the Tartan Noir brigade – Douglas Skelton, Lin Anderson and Louise Hutcheson – I asked them where in Scotland they would choose to be when they’re not penning the dark deeds and murderous machinations of their characters, and their answers took me to three very different parts of the country.

Lin Anderson

Douglas Skelton

For Douglas it was the Kinloch Rannoch area stretching from Pitlochry to the wilds of Rannoch Moor.  Lin chose the Highland village of Carrbridge, with its historic coffin bridge. While Louise plumped for the Queen of the Hebrides, the Island of Islay. And their reasons for these choices? Well, that’s for you to discover when you read this month’s iScot magazine: and you won’t be disappointed!

Louise Hutcheson

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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.

***********

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

 

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