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

 

Time out in the Trossachs 2: it’s BLiSS out there!

The LookOut mirrored cabin on the shores of Loch Voil and Loch Doine

On a dreich day in February getting out-of-doors might not be uppermost in your mind! On the other hand, it can be a time to think about, and plan for, trips in the not-too-distant future. A favourite place of mine is one of the innovative Scenic Routes installations in Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park: The LookOut on Loch Voil.

Strictly speaking, it’s not on Loch Voil, but sits in a flat meadow between the head of Loch Voil and its smaller neighbour, Loch Doine.  Here the stretch of water between the two lochs is so short and narrow that the south bank is barely yards away and accessible by stepping stones for the brave!

Even the puddles are reflected in the LookOut cabin!

To reach the LookOut you follow the twisting single-track road that runs through Balquhidder Glen along the beautiful north shore of Loch Voil, until you come to Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel, where you can leave your car and walk down to the shore.

The LookOut is a Tardis-like mirrored cabin, that reflects different views of the landscape in which it stands. Depending on the light, it can be almost invisible as it blends in with the surrounding meadow, hills and lochs: so much so that it can be easy to miss, only to come as a surprise as you begin to see yourself approaching!  In a curious way it can make you feel that you’re part of this beautiful landscape.

Balquhidder is also on the BLiSS (Balqhuidder, Lochearnhead, Strathyre and St Fillans) Trail: a community extension of the Scottish Scenic Routes project. Gordon Watson, Chief Executive, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park welcomed BLiSS, saying: ” I wanted to say how impressed I am at your efforts to extend the success of the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative through the launch of the BLiSS Trail.  I was delighted to see the coverage that the launch attracted. Your dedication to improving the visitor experience in the area is a real credit to the National Park, so thank you.”

Monachyle Mhor farm restaurant and hotel

The BLiSS Trail is in Rob Roy Country and it’s hard to miss that Balquhidder Glen is very much MacGregor territory!  On the approach to Loch Voil you come through the village of Balquidder, with its tiny church and the graves of Rob Roy and his family.  While across the water from the LookOut is Monachyle Tuarach, a working farm and a comfortable hostel today, but once home to Rob and his wife before his final move in 1722 to Inverlochlarig, at the head of the glen, where he lived peaceably until his death in 1734.

If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s possible to drive to the end of the public road at Inverlochlarig, where there is a small car park and picnic area, and from here you can take to the hills!  But what is a dead-end to us today was once the ‘Coffin Road’ from Glen Falloch to Balquidder Kirk.  Take a look at a map and find Bealach nan Corp – Pass of the Corpses – and it’s amazing to think that coffins were carried for such a distance and over such wild and high terrain as this.

The road along Balquhidder Glen

Balquhidder Glen had long been of spiritual importance and legend has it that St Angus, who brought Christianity to the area in the 8th century, recognised it as a “thin place”, a spot, the Celts believed, where Earth and Heaven, the earthly and the spiritual, are very close.

St Angus is said to have spent the rest of his life in Balquhidder and to be buried somewhere near the site of the original first church there: Eaglais Beag, the Little Church. Clach Aonghais, the Angus Stone, which once covered his grave, can today be found in the church.

Looking down Loch Doine

So, if you’ve not yet been to the LookOut, or followed the BLiSS Trail, put them firmly on your to-visit-list. And when you reach the LookOut, make sure you take a photo of yourself reflected in its mirrors. Designed by Daniel Tyler and Angus Ritchie, this scenic viewpoint is one that, quite literally, puts you in the picture!

Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park

Rob Roy Country : Bliss Trail

Scottish Scenic Routes

What lies beneath? – unearthing the past at Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Church and Discovery Centre, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Church and Discovery Centre in Portmahomack

“The past is still a place that is not safely settled” wrote Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, best known for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient. At the start of Ondaatje’s tale neither the patient’s name nor his past are known, but as the story unfolds his true identity, and the tragic events leading to his desperate state, are gradually revealed.

Just as the history of an individual is uncovered in this many-layered story, so archaeologists continue to delve into the past, unearthing new levels and discovering artefacts that reveal ever more about our country’s history and the lives of our ancestors.

The entrance to the Basilica (Church) di San Clemente

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

It’s surprising how often we think of the past as something fixed and final – but nothing could be further from the truth. The past is not static and archaeology and historical research are our tools for learning more.  As new finds comes to light, we’re able to reassess our understanding of how people lived in bygone days.

Some years ago I read Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica (Church) di San Tommaso. The setting is based on the real Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

The underground portico at the west end of the 4th century church

The rediscovered underground portico of the 4th century church in San Clemente

On top is the 12th century basilica. Below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, a lower basement served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed.

It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. These exciting discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The crypt under St Colman's Church at Portmahomack

The crypt under St Colman’s (Tarbat Old Church) at Portmahomack

But what about Portmahomack? Similar far-reaching discoveries were made here between 1994 and 2007, when archaeologists uncovered the site of the only known Pictish Christian Monastery in Scotland. Founded around 560 AD, perhaps even by Columba himself, this monastery in Pictland grew and flourished for the next 300 years. Archeological evidence suggests that the monastery had a farm and a cemetery, as well as workshops for the making of sacred church objects, intricate sculptures, and illustrated books (similar to the Book of Kells). Even the design of the monastery itself shows architectural skill well-ahead of its time.

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Picts have long been one of history’s great mysteries, but discoveries like these at Pormahomack have given us unique insights into their civilisation. They were not simply the barbaric ‘painted’ warriors of Roman propaganda, but an artistic, highly cultured people, skilled craftsmen, well-organized, well-travelled and not isolated from contemporary politics and events: Portmahomack was a key point on the North Sea trade routes.

But then tragedy struck when, around 800 AD, the monastery and the surrounding community were destroyed by Viking invaders. The wonderful treasure that was this unique Pictish monastery was reduced to rubble and gradually disappeared beneath the earth, to be eventually forgotten.

Portmahomack

Portmahomack

But sacred sites draw people to them, and other churches were built on this hallowed ground.  Until finally, centuries later, gravediggers unearthed fragments of ancient carved stones and it became clear that something very ancient and substantial lay beneath their feet. And the re-discovery began.

One way or another we are all shaped by the past. A better understanding of that makes for a better understanding of ourselves.  And who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?

Tarbat Discovery Centre

Saints, Kings and Vikings – 300 years of history carved in stone in Govan

The Jordanhill Cross

The Jordanhill Cross

Although almost on my doorstep, I have to admit that I’ve only just discovered the magnificent carved stones housed in Govan Old Parish Church.  Hundreds of years of history, belief and kingship set in stone and preserved for all to see in the heart of Glasgow.  The Govan Stones are an exceptional array of early medieval Christian sculpture that show clearly the importance of this place to the Kings of Strathclyde.

According to tradition, the original church on this special site, dedicated to St Constantine, was founded early in the 6th century, built of wood, close to a holy well (a location much favoured by the Celts) and surrounded by an almost circular wall.  The people who lived here at that time were neither Scots nor Picts, rather Old-Welsh-speaking Britons, part of a powerful kingdom ruled from Alt Clut – Dumbarton Rock.  But then came the dreaded Vikings who sailed up the Clyde and in 870 AD the mighty fortress of Dumbarton fell to those ferocious Norse warriors.

However, Dumbarton’s loss was Govan’s gain as it was to Govan that the new kings of Strathclyde looked to establish their power base.  Already an important religious site, Govan now grew as a political and administrative centre: the Christian and the secular powers in the kingdom very closely intertwined.  A growing sign of that increased status and subsequent wealth is reflected in what became known as ‘The Govan School’ of carving, which flourished between 900 and 1100 AD.  Swirling snakes, elaborate interwoven decoration, mounted warriors, biblical scenes, huntsmen and saints – it’s all there!

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

One of the weighty hogback Viking Stones

As are five massive Viking hogback grave markers, which are truly monumental!  At first glance they look like huge humpbacked beasts, but on closer inspection you can see that some are carved to represent wooden-tiled roofs; copies, possibly, of the wooden houses of important Viking chiefs of settlements or bases further west, who recognised the immense spiritual prestige of St Constantine’s Church at Govan and who craved the recognition burial at such an important Christian site would give them.  A “thin place” perhaps?

The Tomb of St Constantine

The Govan Sarcophagus: but who was laid to rest within it?

For me though, the most amazing piece is the Govan Sarcophagus, a stone coffin carved from a single massive block of solid sandstone – apparently the only one of its kind left today from pre-Norman Scotland.  Just who was laid to rest within it can’t be known with absolute certainty, and theories and speculation come and go. But it is thought that it could well have been the final resting place of the 9th century Scottish king Constantine, son of Kenneth mac Alpin, or even Constantine’s own son, Donald.

One of the great things about history is that we are always learning more and more about what went on in the past.  New archaeological discoveries, new research, and resultant re-assessment, often by younger historians, continually brings new evidence to light.  Our knowledge and understanding of the past is not set in stone: but fortunately for us all the wonderful carvings here in Govan are!!

The Govan Stones

DDR Museum – the ‘Living History’ of East Germany

Life in the DDR - East Germany - becomes history in a fascinating new museum

Life in the DDR – East Germany – becomes ‘living history’ in this fascinating museum

It’s not often that the immediate past becomes history as quickly as did that of the erstwhile East Germany.  The hated communist regime of the DDR (or GDR or East Germany) vanished almost overnight in 1989.  But now, 25 years after the end of the Cold War, life in the former soviet satellite state is being looked at and explored as never before.  That the regime of the SED (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands) was a brutal and cruel one is obvious to all, but the majority of East Germany’s citizens were decent human beings living their lives as ‘normally’ as possible despite such difficult circumstances.

The DDR Museum in Berlin does a wonderful job of showing how ordinary people lived. Through familiar, everyday things, it shows how East Germans made the best of a bad job and tried to make life as bearable as possible for themselves and their families.  It also offers remarkable insights into the insidious ways the state attempted to manipulate, bully and threaten its citizens into silent conformity to a regime that was patently unfair, corrupt and inhuman. The propaganda machine rumbled on for 40 years spewing out distortions and half-truths – but most people saw through the lies.  And it was the people of East Germany themselves who finally had the courage to stand up and be counted and who brought down that hated regime.

When we visited last week, I was pleased to see that the positive role of the church has been acknowledged too: the protection it offered to dissenters, the space to be quiet, to think, to articulate peaceful protest against the regime.  The church was not a political party, but neither was it a pawn of the state.  As one of the exhibition boards says: “The SED forced the church onto the margins of society, challenging its existence, symbols and articles of faith. The discrimination against church members in the educational system and the professions was designed to weaken its membership. Nevertheless, the persecution strengthened the church, which then developed into a politicized public space.  Initially a rallying point for small groups, the Protestant Church attracted thousands in the 1980s and provided the starting point for the peaceful revolution.”

The church played an important role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany

The church played an important role in bringing down the communist regime in East Germany

But one thing in particular really came home to me during our visit.  So much of what we saw there could apply just as easily to Britain today: from the ‘propaganda’ used daily in our newspapers, to the lies and half-truths told by our politicians as they abuse our system to line their own pockets, blatantly ignoring the wishes of the people they were elected to represent.  Democracy is a very, very fragile thing and needs to be carefully guarded and nourished.  Like the people of East Germany back then, we need to be committed to playing our part in the life of our country.  Some things can’t be left to politicians or to those who use money and privilege to abuse power.

“Wir sind das Volk!” – “We are the people!” was the cry that was heard in the streets of East Germany 25 years ago.  It’s a cry that has begun to be heard again in this country and one that needs to continue to be heard loud and clear if Britain is to become a better place for all its people – not just for the few.  We need to re-engage with politics.  We need to have the courage to stand up and be counted.  Without doubt, we could learn a thing or two from the people of the former DDR!

Link to the museum: The DDR Museum in Berlin

The Berlin Wall – Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross

The view from a derelict watch tower on the former 'Death Strip' of the Berlin Wall

The view from a derelict watch tower on the former ‘Death Strip’ of the Berlin Wall

Sunday 9th November 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was delighted to be asked to take part in BBC Radio Scotland’s “Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross” programme to discuss that exciting time.  It was an historic turning point for Europe – and the world – and I was privileged to have made many visits to East Germany both before and after those amazing days.

The courage, determination and hope of the people who lived through that brutal regime is remarkable.  The endless shortages, the ban on travel to the West, the constant spying and fear of the dreaded Stasi (the secret police) made life extraordinarily hard.  But in the end the regime fell and life changed for the people of the former East Germany.

My friends there live a very different life now and although the transitional period was not always easy,  there was a whole new Europe for them and their children to explore, enjoy and contribute to. Political reform is rarely easy as those with power seldom wish to relinquish any of it!  But events in what was East Germany – and the other countries in the former Soviet Bloc – show what can be done if people are determined, courageous and persistent enough!

The picture above shows the cover of the book I wrote about these experiences.  It is still available from Vival Publications and will soon be out on Kindle.

Links: Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross,

Listen to the broadcast here

Border Crossings

A Piece of the Berlin Wall

A piece of the Berlin Wall from that momentous year of 1989

A piece of the Berlin Wall just months after ‘The Peaceful Revolution’ when the Wall was finally breached

Believe it or not, but it’s 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down – or rather was brought down by the people of East Germany.  No-one thought it would ever go.  Set in stone, or more accurately in huge slabs of concrete, the Berlin Wall seemed to be there for all time, the bleak physical emblem of a brutal and hypocritical regime, dividing the lives of so many people.  An insurmountable and ever-present barrier.  Yet the spirit and courage of ordinary people were to prove that to be untrue.

From the late 1970s I had been in touch with young East Germans, friends made during an unforgettable visit behind the Iron Curtain in 1978.  I was one of a group of young Scots on a church exchange that was in fact no exchange.  We could enter the GDR, but they were not able to visit us in return.  On our departure at the end of that first remarkable trip we bought our S-Bahn tickets – one way – back to the West.  “Tickets to freedom…” as one of our new friends commented wryly, “…for only a few pfennigs“.  It was a tearful farewell – it didn’t seem likely that we would ever see each other again.

It had been hard enough for us to get there in the first place.  The visit had been discouraged by the GDR, an avowedly atheistic state that regarded both us and our hosts as holding undesirable beliefs, incompatible with the state ideology.  But it was also seen as undesirable in the eyes of the British authorities, who paid me a visit before our departure to encourage us to think twice about going.  However, go we did, facing a long and arduous journey from West to East, past heavily armed guards and grim border crossing points to get there.

Despite all obstacles though, we were determined that from that initial visit onwards this contact should be maintained and we visited whenever we could – later even taking our young daughter Alison with us.  These visits were of immense importance to us all.  We grew to understand the full extent of lives lived under a totalitarian regime, while for our East German friends we were the lifeline to a world outside, proof that other ways were possible. They asked us not to forget them. Through all those years we were deeply impressed by their dignity and courage and determination not to give up hope.

And it was this courage and determination that eventually proved too much for the regime – in November 1989 the Wall came down.  During those exciting – and dangerous – days, our friends would phone us, uncertain as to how much we were able to see in the West.  “Do you know what’s happening?”, “Can you see what’s going on?”  Then a momentous call when Dietmar and Martina rang from Berlin – “The Wall is breached!  We are in West Berlin!  We can hardly believe it’s true!”

But true it was.  I remember so vividly those heady days as the unimaginable happened and the whole edifice of Soviet control began to crumble, finally swept away for good.  As soon as possible we travelled to Berlin and, along with our friends, took up hammer and chisel and helped to bring down that hated edifice that had separated families and countries for so long.

It’s not been an easy transition – no system of government is perfect, but some are definitely better than others.  My friends faced a huge change from one of life to another – new and often daunting challenges – but now they were free from the mental and physical tortures used by the regime to keep the people down.  The Berlin Wall, monstrous in itself, had hidden from the West many of the horrific things done to people who dared to question the state in any way.

The piece of the Berlin Wall that I brought home from that visit is a treasured possession.  The symbol of the courage of my friends, who without weapons, took on a hated regime and brought it down.  My piece of the Wall is a constant reminder to me of their determination in the face of what seemed an indestructible and permanent evil.  My piece of the Wall is a tangible witness to enduring friendships that continue to this day.  Something I will treasure forever.

The story of these remarkable events is told in full in Border Crossings 

Reviews of Border Crossings from Martin Dey and David Pattie

Plague, Priests and Pirates – Islay’s intriguing past

The standing stone by Cill Tobar Lasrach, Islay

The standing stone by Cill Tobar Lasrach, Islay

From Port Ellen on the south of Islay to Kildalton, five miles to the east, lies a wealth of archaeological and historic sites, all of which add to the rich story of this beautiful island.  Ancient place names, standing stones, early Christian ruins, a battle-scarred castle, deserted villages, shipwrecks, the tragedy of the plague village of Solam, beautiful and weathered medieval crosses – all speak silently and potently of the lives of those who lived here in days gone by.  It’s an area of the island that I know well and have written about in Scottish Islands ExplorerI would recommend a visit to everyone.

Plague, Priests and Pirates: Islay’s intriguing Past