The Hydro Boys: the men who brought power to the glens

Clunie Arch, a memorial to some of the men who lost their lives building the hydro schemes

The dramatic story behind ‘Power to the Glens’ has interested me for years. So widespread was the scheme that you don’t have to go far to find a dam or power station linked to the Hydro. Wonderful feats of civil engineering, with clean and beautiful designs that leave no scars on the landscape.

The scheme was designed to bring power to the glens through the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (1943–1990) and was masterminded by Kirkintilloch-born politician Tom Johnston (1881-1965). Johnston was a Labour MP and Secretary of State for Scotland during WW2, and was determined to improve life for the people of the Highlands and Islands.

Pitlochry Dam

The Hydro Board was tasked with the enormous challenge of designing, constructing and managing hydro electricity projects throughout the Highlands of Scotland: an expanse that covers almost a quarter of the total land area of Britain, yet with only about three percent of the population.

However, as it’s an area with the highest mountains, largest inland lochs and most bountiful rainfall in Scotland, it definitely has the perfect ingredients required to create hydro electricity!

The Hydro comes to Out Skerries, Glasgow Herald, October 29 1983

Think how much we take heat and light for granted. It may be wet and miserable outside, but we know we have bright, warm homes waiting for us. Every now and then an unexpected power cut might serve to remind us what life was like before everything was available at the flick of a switch. But it’s not a situation we’d want to last for long! And I suspect most of us would be hard put to really understand what life was like before mains electricity was available throughout Scotland.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until the 1960s, and thanks to the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, that 90% of the Highlands were finally attached to the national grid. A figure more than double pre-war provision. And many more years passed until that connection was nationwide. It’s an inspiring story of how belief in a better society for all can change the lives of so many. If there’s a will to do so.

And Tom Johnston had that will. I often wonder what he and his contemporaries would make of Westminster today? Not a lot, I suspect. But without a shadow of a doubt, there’s much that today’s politicians could learn from Tom Johnston!

My article about the advent of hydro-electricity, Tom Johnston, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, the Hydro Boys and those extraordinary Tunnel Tigers, appears in issue 62 of iScot magazine. And what a story it is!

Sir William Macewen – Bute’s father of neurosurgery

Bute’s an island that’s often overlooked. Perhaps because it’s almost too close to the mainland. Or perhaps because people sometimes fail to look beyond the rather tired buildings of Rothesay’s seafront. But, as with most places, there’s definitely more to Bute than meets the eye.

Getting to know a place isn’t that different from getting to know a person. It takes time. Right now we can’t visit, but we can still read and learn. I certainly learned a lot about Bute when I was researching the life of Sir William Macewen, a proud Brandane, who became the most eminent surgeon of his day. A man who not only radically changed surgical procedures, but who also went on to perform the first successful brain operation. And that was before the advent of X-rays!

The Macewan family plot at St Blane’s, Bute

He was a man who did so much for wounded soldiers, for those young men who returned with horrific injuries from the hellish battlefields of WW1. He designed the Erskine artificial limb and trained a team of engineers from a nearby shipyard to manufacture them for the hospital. He worked tirelessly both on the mainland and on Bute to help his patients, no matter who they were.

His work received world-wide recognition and he was a much sought-after surgeon. But he chose to remain in Scotland. He was appointed Surgeon-General, then named Surgeon-General to the Fleet in Scotland during the First World War. He also served as president of the British Medical Association.

He loved Bute and returned as often as he could. He had a house built at the south end of the island and his ashes are buried in the family plot at St Blane’s Church, one of the earliest monastic sites in Scotland. And so very close to the home where his heart was.

The full article is in the May-July issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

Wee Mac Arran – worth waiting for!

It should have been happening this September, however, like so much at the moment, it’s been put on hold. Yes, that’s disappointing, but I suspect it’ll be twice as enjoyable when it does take place!

Wee Mac will be a first for Arran, that beautiful island in the Firth of Clyde. A book festival with a difference. And one that will be open to all. But Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening in isolation, rather it’s to be held under the auspices of the island’s prestigious McLellan Arts Festival: and that’s something that pleases me greatly.

James Dey of the BBC (l) and playwright Robert McLellan (r), High Corrie, 1973

Growing up, we spent many a holiday on Arran, usually up in the small settlement of High Corrie, and it was there that we got to know Robert McLellan, the poet and dramatist in whose honour the festival is held each year.

He was an uncompromisingly honest, deeply caring, man who did much for the island. And I strongly suspect he would be delighted, not only at the festival in his name, but also that it’s expanding to bring in a new, younger generation.

So, while Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening this year, it’s something to look forward to in September 2021.

You can find out more about the festival and Robert McLellan in my article in the current iScot magazine: https://www.iscot.scot/

Or keep an eye on the Wee Mac Arran website for updates:  https://www.weemacarran.scot/

Fort of the Skulker: Dun an Sticir, North Uist

There’s no doubt about it – North Uist can be windy! But that didn’t really bother us when we spent our summer holidays there a year or so ago. We’re used to Scottish weather, whatever the season. And we know how to dress for everything Scottish weather can throw at us – be it spring, summer, autumn or winter (and sometimes they can be hard to differentiate!)

That summer we walked, drove, climbed and explored this strange, at times almost lunar landscape, but one place in particular caught our attention: Dun an Sticir – Fort of the Skulker. I’m not sure if that’s the original Gaelic name, or one that came about much later due to dark and dire deeds that took place on the island. Whatever the truth may be, though, there’s a strange air to this island within an island.

Not just one island though, but three, all linked together in a small tidal loch. Leaping from ancient causeway to ancient causeway with the water rising around us, was excitement in itself. But definitely not as exciting as some of the events that took place here! From an Iron Age Dun to a medieval hall, (along with a Viking interlude!) life was seldom static, nor without risk. And we probably don’t know half the story even yet. If you’re familiar with Finlaggan on Islay, the medieval seat of power of the Lords of the Isles, then you’ll get an understanding of Dun an Sticir.

The last resident of the island came to a sticky end – thrown into a dungeon in a castle on Skye and left, not to starve to death, but given salted beef with nothing to drink and left to die slowly and agonisingly of thirst. Not a pleasant way to go!

If you want to find out more, there’s plenty to get your teeth into in issue 60 of iScot magazine!

Museum of Islay Life: home to an island’s memory

When we come out at the other end of this corona virus pandemic, just how will we look back at what happened to us, to our families, to our communities? Every generation lives through history in the making, but when you’re in the middle of events the end result is unknown: you don’t have the luxury of hindsight. And that uncertainty isn’t just unsettling. It’s frightening.

Life is very strange right now. On one level, everything looks just the same, be it your house or your street: but in reality it’s very different indeed. The silence for one thing. Virtually no traffic, or planes; even the sound of children playing is diminished.

Fishing and ferries – an island’s lifeblood

In an earlier article I looked at how vital our memories are for our personal identity. You only need to see the devastating effects of dementia on a loved one to appreciate that. The writer Julian Barnes puts it very succinctly: “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

The Tuscania Bell and the flag sewn by Islay women for the burial of the young American dead

But equally, we are social beings and the collective memories of our communities are an integral part of our existence too. Who we are today is influenced by the lives of those before us. Japanese author Haruki Murakami examines this in his unsettling novel 1Q84, with his protagonist Tengo saying, “Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime. Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Powerful words.

Bottles recovered from the WW2 airbase, including Brylcreem!

We can contribute to, and access, that vital collective memory in many different ways: books, films, photo albums, family history and tales told us by our parents and grandparents. But we’re a tactile species and sometimes seeing and touching objects brings the past to life in a very immediate way. And that’s where local museums come in.

One of my favourites is the wonderful Museum of Islay Life. In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at that museum and how its contents reflect the life and times of the people of that island. From the mesolithic right up to the present day, Islay’s people, places and history are there to discover in the Tardis-like building. The good and the bad. The joyous and the heartbreaking. Bravery in the face of war and cruelty. Kindness and generosity in times of adversity. The exciting and the mundane. The patterns of day-to-day life.

We’re all in limbo at the moment. We can’t go anywhere. Yet, inadvertantly, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to pause and take stock. To be inventive. To realise what we can actually do without and what really is essential. To create positive memories for ourselves and our families, even when that’s not easy. And be ready for the time we are once again free to go!

Crime Scene Investigation

What connects a Highland wilderness, a former east-coast fishing town and Glasgow’s respectable West End? The answer? Crime! But fear not, it’s fictional crime I’m talking about!

Assynt, Arbroath and Glasgow’s West End are the settings used by three crime writers in their latest novels. And the locations could hardly be more different. Yet even though they may not have much in common geographically, each one is shaped by the passage of time and the layers of history that add, bit by bit, to their unique heritage.

Whether the stark – and at times terrifying – beauty of Assynt, or the long, low, narrow streets of Arbroath, or the grand, self-important buildings of Victorian Glasgow, location plays a huge part in a successful novel. An authentic setting will draw readers in, help create a gripping atmosphere and be a believable backdrop to the twists and turns of the author’s tale. Readers have to believe in the setting as much as in the plot and the characters. Credibility matters.

Surprisingly, though, settings don’t necessarily have to be dark and Gothic to create a menacing atmosphere. That impenetrable Victorian fog, or the flickering candlelight, or the howling of a gigantic hound out in the mire aren’t the only ways to create suspense. Just the opposite in fact, for in the hands of a skillful writer, even the most ordinary, everyday settings can become something very much more sinister. We all like to feel safe in our home territory, but what if that’s the very place where the threat lies? In fact, sometimes that’s the most effective way crime writers can unsettle us: take the familiar – the known – give it an unexpected twist and suddenly it becomes very menacing indeed!

In the Highlands I’m often struck by that curious juxtaposition between the breathtaking landscapes and the tiny settlements scattered across them. Towering mountains and huge skies. All that space and yet so few people. What made Gareth Halliday chose this place for his debut novel From the Shadows?

Moving south-east, I suspect that even if you’ve never been to Arbroath, you’ll have heard of its abbey. Arbroath Abbey is special. Without doubt it’s lasting importance rests on an event that took place 700 hundred years ago, yet one which still resonates today. In 1320 Bernard, the Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, drafted a document which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the key documents in Scottish history. A document that contains the famous lines, “For so long as but a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never under any circumstances submit to the domination of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” And this is the ancient town where Jackie McLean sets her crime novels.

For Michael Mackenzie, it’s the University of Glagow, one of the oldest in the country that lies at the centre of his work. And with good reason! But to find out what that reason is, you’ll have to read the article in the Jan/Feb issue of iScot magazine!

John de Graham’s Castle

The view might be very different from John de Graham’s time, but the setting is still as commanding. De Graham, friend and ally of William Wallace, is believed to have had his home on this spot, overlooking the Carron Valley in Stirlingshire. There’s a picture on the information board showing what the ‘castle’ would have looked like: a medieval earthwork with a substantial timber-framed hall, defended by an impressive square moat. The line of the moat is still very much in evidence, though nothing remains of the hall, and today the mighty Carron Reservoir fills much of the valley below.

John de Graham of Dundaff (another name for this fortified site), was a 13th century Scottish noble who fought alongside Wallace in the First Scottish War of Independence, and who fell at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. On that terrible day the Scots, unable to withstand the force of the heavy English armoured cavalry and the deadly Welsh longbows, were defeated by Edward I of England. De Graham died but Wallace survived and is said to have sought out de Graham’s body and carried it from the battlefield himself. De Graham was the most notable casualty of that terrrible day and is buried at Falkirk Old Parish Church. Wallace then retreated to de Graham’s home by the Carron Water.

Many years later a famous narrative poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (also known as The Wallace), was written by the poet Blind Harry. It portrays Sir John de Graham as one of William Wallace’s principal supporters and describes Wallace’s feelings of loss and sadness at the demise of his friend. There’s no doubt that de Graham’s death was a sore blow to Wallace, who lost not only his right-hand-man, but also a close friend.

How certain can we be that this was John de Graham’s family home and that he was the man so close to Wallace? Matthew Ritchie, an archaeologist with the Forestry Commission Scotland who manage this site, writes, “A 13th century charter records ‘the whole waste lands of Dundaff and Strathcarron, which was the King’s forest’ being granted by Alexander II to John’s father, Sir David de Graham. That a John de Graham was the third son of Sir David de Graham is not in doubt – but was this the same John immortalised in The Wallace as having fallen at the Battle of Falkirk, or perhaps a son or relative?”

Ritchie continues, “Although Blind Harry’s poem was written long after the event, it does clearly link his Sir John de Graham to the area; and although the earthwork was likely built some years beforehand, it does mark the feudal estate of Dundaff, property of the de Graham family. Fact and fiction do seem to meet at Sir John de Graham’s castle to tell a story of place that is firmly rooted in the past.”

In the past spelling was not fixed or final and you’ll find that John de Graham’s name appears in different forms. In Blind Harry’s The Wallace his name is given as ‘Schir Jhone the Grayme’, while his tomb has him as Sir John the Grame. Then there’s the Society of John de Graeme, a group set up in 2016 to highlight the role of de Graham and Scottish history in general. But that’s not all. His name also survives in the Grahamston area of Falkirk – even in Falkirk Grahamston Station!

The Carron Valley

This site in the Carron Valley is an important part of Scotland’s story and heritage and as as such is a protected Scheduled Monument. We may never have known the man, but we can stand where both he and Wallace stood, and that’s a fine thing.

The Society of John de Graeme

A Fyne Day Out

I suspect some visitors head to Scotland believing it consists almost entirely of castles and ghosts. Not a surprising misconception, as that’s all too often the image presented to visitors by tourism agencies. While I agree that understanding the past is important, it’s also equally, if not more, important to be aware of what’s going on now and how that takes Scotland forward. There’s much more to Scotland than a romanticised past.

The great Scottish author and artist Alasdair Gray once said “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, a quote now engraved on a wall of the Scottish Parliament. It’s a very positive sentiment and a good starting point for looking at what’s going on in Scotland today. Seeing what people are doing right now and how these activities work towards making Scotland that better, independent nation Alasdair so longed to see.

With that in mind I took a trip up to Loch Fyne head to see what’s happening there. It’s an area I know well – long school holidays spent in the rambling manse in Inveraray saw to that! And then there’s the wonderful drive to get there – a real treat in itself. Up along the shores of Loch Lomond. Past Ardgartan and up into the Arrochar Alps with a welcome pause at Rest and Be Thankful. Then down to the small settlement at Clachan at the head of Loch Fyne.

I soon discovered that for such a seemingly small place, there’s an impressive amount going on. Alongside a hefty dose of fascinating history, there’s a present day array of businesses and projects all of which are helping create a sustainable environment for people to live, work and flourish in this beautiful area.

The visitors’ hub Here We Are is central to an impressive number of wide-ranging projects, showing just what can be achieved when a community is determined enough and not afraid to accept challenges. On their website I noticed an interesting and very pertinent quote by Magnus Linklater, “If we are not aware of our own values we become victims of other peoples’ decisions. We have to bend to their agenda rather than ours, and that means not just a lack of trust in ourselves, but an aversion to risk and an inability to take decisions of our own.”  This local community has certainly shown how well trusting in themselves can work!

In this month’s iScot article I talk to some of the people involved with these projects and look at the positive difference they are making to the future prospects for this area. Take a look at the Here We Are website and get a feel for what’s afoot. Or better still, visit Loch Fyne head yourself and discover its wealth of attractions and enterprises. Enterprises that aren’t there simply for the benefit of passing tourists, but are the lifeblood of the people for whom this is home.

My article can be read it full in this month’s iScot Magazine : https://www.iscot.scot/

Edinburgh – more than meets the eye?

How often do we talk to a friend, thinking we know them well, only for something to be said or done and suddenly we find ourselves realising we don’t really know them as well as we thought we did? We might have to reassess our relationship with them, take a more honest view of the sort of person they are. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides which, aren’t we all far more interesting for all our own quirks and idiosyncrasies?!

In that respect places aren’t a lot different from people. We see bits of them, forgetting that the public face of a city is incomplete, omitting a great deal of what that place is really like. Like people, no city is perfect. And it’s worth taking another look at the places we think we know best. Which is exactly what poet Gerda Stevenson and photographer Allan Wright have done in this new book about Edinburgh.

Sculpture by Tim Chalk celebrating the work of Helen Crummy

Robert Louis Stevenson was well aware that the city he loved was far from straightforward. After all it was Edinburgh that was the inspiration for his chilling tale of human duality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s important to recognise that while human creativity can be a wonderful thing, human imperfection can feed destructively into our surroundings; whether in the concrete monstrosities that we expect others to live in, or the casual destruction of the earth’s resources we’ve indulged in for decades. This book asks us to stop and look again at how we live – and expect others to live. And how that feeds into the surroundings we create.

Take the concrete desolation of Craigmillar. A far cry from Edinburgh’s much-vaunted tourist image. Yet a place that couldn’t quell the courage and determination of Helen Crummy, who would go on to found the Craigmillar Festival Society, and whose son would grow up to be the creative genius behind such marvellous works as the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

While writing this month’s article for iScot magazine, I had the opportunity to look at some of the issues they raise in their book. Although it’s not my home now, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to look anew at the Edinburgh I’ve spent many years in: whether studying, working or being a parent. And just as we do our friends a grave disservice if we expect perfection from them, we do ourselves a grave disservice if we fall for the picture-perfect view of Edinburgh so often presented to us.  People and places are a complex, yet rich, tapestry of history and experience. Never static and always changing. Edinburgh is definitely worth a second look, and this book might just help you to do that.

You can read the article here:

Edinburgh – more than meets the eye?

Or download the full issue of iScot for free here:

iScot Issue 57

 

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

How time flies! It’s 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and 5 years since Border Crossings, my account of a long-term connection between a group of young Scots and young East Germans, came out on Kindle. Many of the hopes of those heady days of November 1989 have come to fruition, though not all. Intolerance and inequality are on the rise at an alarming rate. But there’s a growing resistance to that hatred and greed. Every new generation has to stand up against the evils of their own time – and understanding past struggles can be a pointer to what can be achieved. So to mark the achievements of those young Germans that I have known for so many years, I’m re-posting this piece about that Scottish-German friendship, a friendship that began in 1978 and has played such an important part of my life.

*****

It’s 25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall – 9th November 1989.  A quarter of a century ago the seemingly impossible happened and that grotesque symbol of a brutal totalitarian regime was breached.  Not through violence or bloodshed, but through the non-violent, patient, persistent refusal of the people of the GDR – East Germany – to tolerate any longer the brutal, unjust and economically inept rule of a decaying communist regime. It was a day not many had foreseen but what a day of rejoicing it was!

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.

Bringing down that hated wall!

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!

Links:

Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross,

BBC Radio Scotland, The Fall of the Wall, 9th Nov 2014

Border Crossings Kindle Edition

A Piece of the Berlin Wall