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

Bute’s West Island Way

iScot magazine have a special free download offer this month. Among many other interesting items, it contains an article I’ve written about the wonderful West Island Way walking trail on the island of Bute. https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine

You can also read about Robert Burns, the remote but beautiful Applecross Peninsula, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, current affairs, whisky, the dreaded midge, Meal Makers (help for the elderly) and much more.

And if you love the great outdoors here’s a new website devoted to Argyll: http://www.wildaboutargyll.co.uk/  Watch the short film and see how many of these places you have already been to – and then visit the rest!

There’s something for everyone in Scotland!

It’s Tintin’s Birthday!

Today Tintin turns 88 and he and Snowy are still going strong! His enduring appeal is due partly to the exciting stories, partly to the wonderful drawings and partly to Hergé’s use of authentic locations. One of my favourite books is The Black Island and it was a thrill to discover that real places in Scotland had inspired Hergé and his team when they updated the original edition for publication in the UK.

Which places? Which castles? Which islands? I hear you ask: and so, without further ado, here are the answers, as we go:

In search of Tintin!

Lochranza Castle on Arran

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

The village of Castlebay on the Isle of Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island

The village of Castlebay on Barra became Kiltoch in The Black Island. Photo courtesy of Annie Houston

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Both share that exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement on a rugged, wild and isolated Scottish island.

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1933

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

Getting back to our roots – walking among the tall trees

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
–  John Muir

Scots pines rise majestically around Dornoch Bay

Is there any one of us who hasn’t, like Maria from The Sound of Music, ‘climbed a tree and scraped a knee?’ Or swung from a rope tied to a sturdy branch? Or tried to build a tree-house? Or collected conkers?  Or looked tree-wards to listen to birdsong?

Trees are all around us and there’s not much that they don’t give us – or our planet. They help our climate by removing harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Under their protective canopy animals and plants thrive. They help combat erosion. From time immemorial they have given us shelter and shade. Timber to build our homes. To build ships for fishing and exploring. Wood for the fires to cook our food and to keep us warm. And think of all the fruit trees that give us nourishing, healthy food.

Trees can outlive any other living thing. Ancient and wise, patient and long-suffering, they have inspired awe and reverence. Like springs and pools they have long been regarded as sacred.  Myths and legends have grown up around them.  Folklore is full of them.

In the Bible God plants The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree, sends its roots and branches off to other worlds. In many cultures trees are believed to have their own individual spirits. For centuries they have inspired the works of poets and writers: even today appearing as characters in films, as any of us who have watched The Lord of The Rings trilogy will know!

Benmore Botanic Gardens, Cowal, Argyll

The landscape of Scotland has changed many times. The fortunes of our trees and forests have waxed and waned. And there’s no doubt that there have been times when Scotland’s forests and woodlands have indeed suffered at the hands of John Muir’s fools!

Today, however, more and more of us understand the need for a vision for our forested landscapes.  Attitudes have changed and work is now underway to actively protect, extend and restore our forests. And thankfully we have greater freedom to enjoy them than ever before.

They fuel our imaginations. They bring us pleasure. They bring us health, peace and relaxation. They are ours to enjoy and to protect and to grow.  Go find a nearby forest – or even a single tree – and discover just how much our trees have to offer!

Great Trossachs Forest

Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park

Forestry Commission Scotland

Woodland Trust Scotland

Landmark Forest Adventure Park

Benmore Botanic Gardens

 Scottish Wildlife Trust 30 Days Wild

Estonia: Flying the flag – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 3)

St Andrew's Cross - the Saltire - seen in the sky!

St Andrew’s Cross – the Saltire – seen in the sky!

Sometimes, on a clear sunny day when the sky is blue, the vapour trails from jets flying high overhead can leave a beautiful image of the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag.  The Saltire is believed to be one of the oldest national flags in the world and although no-one knows for certain how it came to be chosen, tradition has it that in AD 832 an army of Picts under King Óengus (Angus), with support from Dalriadan Scots, found themselves surrounded and outnumbered by Angles. Things looked bad and Angus prayed for divine help: to his amazement the clouds formed a white Saltire against the blue sky and the Picts and Scots won the battle.  St Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland and the Saltire, St Andrew’s Cross, became our flag.

St Mary's Lutheran Church in Otepää

St Mary’s Lutheran Church in Otepää

In the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford – where that momentous battle is believed to have taken place – the Scottish Flag Trust run the Flag Heritage Centre where the story of Scotland’s flag is told.

When we were back in Estonia in May of this year, we visited Otepää, a ski resort in southern Estonia, the country’s ‘winter capital’. There we discovered that, like Athelstaneford in Scotland, Otepää had played an important part in the history of the national flag of Estonia. In St Mary’s Lutheran Church we heard how the blue, black and white – the sinimustvalge – of Estonia’s flag came from the three colours in the caps worn by Tartu University students in the 19th century: and that these three colours were also used in the Estonian Student Union flag.

Blue, black and white colours on traditional Estonian student caps

Traditional Estonian student caps at Tartu University

It was this flag that was consecrated in St Mary’s Church in 1884 to become the national flag of the whole country.  In 1918, when the Estonian Republic was established, these three colours  became the new republic’s official national colours.  Then in 1991, when Estonia once again regained its independence,  it became the official flag of the the Republic of Estonia.

Bas-relief on the outside wall of St Mary's Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Bas-relief at St Mary’s Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Otepää is home to the Estonian Flag Room which was established in 1996 to commemorate their flag – a flag that is as important to Estonians as the Saltire is to Scots. In fact, it was a delight to see so many Estonian flags being carried and waved with pride at Laulupidu, the Song Festival the previous year: not waved in anger, or superiority – but as a natural part of their lives : this is my land and I love it!

Today, November 30th, is St Andrew’s Day and is celebrated by Scots the world over. Celebrated as a mark of respect for our country and its long history. Celebrated as a sign of our shared heritage and identity. Celebrated to mark all that is good about Scotland. Almost every other country in the world celebrates their homeland in a similar way.

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford - birthplace of the Saltire

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford

Symbols are important. Identity is important. Knowing where you belong, and why, is important. Sadly some people deliberately attempt to equate national pride with imperialism or xenophobia. A foolish mistake. For there is no doubt at all that it’s good to know who we are and what we believe in.  It’s good to know about our past and to understand – and value – the struggles of all the ordinary people that have brought us to the point we are at now: though it can also be daunting to know that we have to play our part in these difficult times if we are to ensure that our country continues to grow and develop in a way that is good for all its citizens and not just the few.

Flags are wonderful symbols and I will be celebrating St Andrew’s Day this evening. But I’ll be celebrating Scotland every other day of the year as well!

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Heritage Centre

The Estonian Flag Room in Otepää

 Laulupidu

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Great Tapestry of Scotland : The Battle of Carham 1018

The Great Tapestry of Scotland : The Battle of Carham 1018

I’ve just spent a day at Stirling Castle viewing the Great Tapestry of Scotland and it’s wonderful! Wonderful because of its aesthetic appeal, wonderful because of its succinct telling of thousands of years of Scotland’s history. Wonderful because of the way intricate, individual stitches turn into whole stories from our history. Wonderful for its sense of continuity – and that it can be added to as this country of ours continues to grow and develop and move forward.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Haakon's Fleet at Kyleakin, Skye and the Battle of Largs 1263

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Haakon’s Fleet at Kyleakin, Skye and the Battle of Largs 1263

I hadn’t expected it to make such an impact on me – after all it is silent, nothing moves, no CGI special effects or 3D specs – and yet it’s something far deeper and more lasting than that.  In detailed panels it tells Scotland’s ongoing story – the good and the bad, the tragic and the joyous, the heartbreaking and the courageous; all part of the rich tapestry of life that makes Scotland the country that it is.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Somerled First Lord of the Isles

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Somerled First Lord of the Isles

Are there any particular themes that run through this magnificent Tapestry? On the one hand it celebrates the music, the literature, the scientific discovery, the exploration and political endeavour Scotland is rightly so famous for. The great high points in our history. But without doubt it clearly highlights the constant battle for survival faced everyday by ordinary people. The challenge to have enough to feed and clothe your family. To survive the ravages of war and famine. To retain dignity in the face of the harsh treatment of rulers, landowners and employers who held the power of life and death over the people they controlled. Life was seldom easy in the past!

But equally it highlights many of the brave and determined men and women who have, throughout the centuries, struggled to make life better for ordinary people – all too often at the cost of their own lives.  Ordinary decent Scots who have battled over and over again against enemies both within and without.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: The Scottish Reformation, a School in every Parish, 1560s

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: The Scottish Reformation, a School in every Parish, 1560s

It celebrates the poor and downtrodden who stood up to grasping landlords. It celebrates the men and women who strove to make life better for their fellows against the horrific conditions in mines, in rural poverty, in the wretched industrial cities and the factories where greedy owners cared nothing at all for the cruel suffering they inflicted, interested only in their own comfort and wealth.  How many people have struggled over the centuries against the inhuman and barbaric treatment those with wealth and power have meted out on the poor and vulnerable?  And how often have all those who should have spoken out, stood by silent in the face of such iniquity? How uncaring and how callous the rich and powerful have been and all too often still are. For even today so much of this country’s wealth, and land, is still held in the hands of the few.

The Discovery sails from Dundee, 1901

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: The Discovery sails from Dundee, 1901

But, as The Great Tapestry so eloquently shows, life is never static and history moves constantly onwards. Everything changes, slowly but surely. As long as enough people care and are prepared to stand up for what is right then a future where the people of this country really matter – all of us – is possible. But equally, it’s all too easy for the precious gains of the past to be lost and for the rich and powerful to continue to hold sway over the rest of us.  Sadly, it’s very clear right now that it is not the goal of all in Britain today to see a country where there is social justice and all are treated with equal value and worth.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Women get the Vote

The Great Tapestry of Scotland: Women get the Vote

Perhaps this tapestry can be a wonderful lesson to all who view it.  A chance to reflect and think on how we, the citizens of Scotland today, can add to this history in a way that does honour to all in this wonderful country of ours.  How will we play our part in the life of Scotland now? How will the things that we do now be woven into the tapestry of our future?

We all have a wonderful opportunity in our own lifetime to work for the good of all in this Scotland of ours. To stand up against the injustices that continue to exist today. What will we chose to do?  And will our choices stand the test of time?  It is in our grasp to do so much for good.  Will we do it?  It will be interesting to see. People make history. What sort of history do we want to make right now?

For the story of the making of the Great Tapestry follow this linkThe Great Tapestry of Scotland

For the designer’s website and his other works follow this linkAndrew Crummy