Life finds a way

If you’re a fan of the Jurassic Park films, you’ll remember the scene where the park’s owner John Hammond (aka Richard Attenborough) tries to reassure Dr Ian Malcolm (aka Jeff Goldblum) that there’s no need to worry about the park’s dinosaur creation programme. Totally unconvinced, Dr Malcolm replies with those prophetic words, “Life finds a way.”  And it certainly did in that film! Whilst in some places humankind is busy destroying vast numbers of species, in others, nature makes a come-back as soon as our backs are turned.

I was delighted to be asked by Autumn Voices, an organisation that seeks to celebrate creativity in later life, to write a guest blog on their theme of the natural world. In my post I looked at how, very often, life does find a way, with or without our help, and in some of the unlikeliest of places. Rock becomes home to lichen and even trees. Trees become home to fungi of every shape, size and description. The tiniest foothold is all it takes and growth begins, however precarious. Given half a chance plants will make a go of it. And we need them to do just that! We need them for food and for our health. Go for a walk in the countryside and you’ll see trees draped with Old Man’s Beard and other lichen, telling you the air is clean and free from pollutants.

And bogs. You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of bogs in Scotland, but before you curse them for your wet feet, it pays to remember that sphagnum moss takes in, and holds onto, the nitrates that are so harmful to humans. And as long as the bog remains wet enough, these won’t be released back into the atmosphere. We need our bogs!

Old Man’s Beard lichen

Sphagnum moss has also been used for centuries as an antiseptic dressing for wounds. Never more so than during World War I. Absorbent and extremely acidic (think preserved bog bodies), it inhibits the growth of bacteria. The horrific prevalence of sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to infection, was killing more men than their actual wounds did.  And even by December 1915, field hospitals were running out of bandages. The situation was critical as the numbers of wounded continued to rise unabated.

The work of two Scots, eminent botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and military surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart, saved the day. They identified the mosses that served best to staunch bleeding and to heal wounds. Unsurprisingly, both were mosses of which there was no shortage in Scotland! Their research saved the lives of many young men. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Cathcart’s only son died of his wounds during that barbaric war.

Mr Grumpy Fungi

We know that the human race is wiping out other species faster than ever before. But what if, ironically, our civilisation, our way of life, was the one to go first, and nature (think nettles, brambles, bracken and dandelions) ended up taking over the world? At school we read John Wyndham’s terrifying Day of the Triffids and I don’t think I ever quite looked at some plants in the same way again! Yet we need plants for our survival far more than they need us. So rather than have a Day of the Triffids scenario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

Read my post in Autumn Voices: If you go down to the woods today…

“I could have been a spy!”

It can often take  someone asking you to answer very specific questions about yourself to make you stop and think about what you’ve done in your life. And, obviously, the older you are, the more there will be to think about!

When I was asked to write a guest blog for the Autumn Voices Project, I was also asked to answer their “Quick and Quirky Questions.” Questions like: “Tell us four important facts about yourself?” or “Tell us something about yourself that’s surprising or unexpected.” Not as easy to answer as you might at first imagine!

Yet it can be a very productive exercise. Anyone who’s attempted to research their family history knows how important it is for there to be written records of the doings of their ancestors. And if there’s little, or even nothing, written down, tracing them and their life stories can be frustratingly difficult. But do we leave a traceable record ourselves? Often not!

Answering some simple questions can be an interesting start to a process that will give the next generation of family historians a point of departure when they come to add you to the ever-growing family tree. And may make you realise just how interesting your life has actually been. Below is a link to the questions and my answers, but why not try them for yourself and see what you discover!

And yes, I could have been a spy – for either side. But in retrospect, I’m glad that I wasn’t!

Try the Quick and Quirky Questions here!

Across Atlantic Airwaves

“I feel I may have come into this world with a whimper, but it looks as if I may be going out with a bang!!”

So said my 98-year-old great-aunt to me after being interviewed for an American podcast. Not that this was her first interview, nor, hopefully, the last. But there’s no doubt that the past year has been quite a roller-coaster ride for this remarkable debut novelist.

Born in 1923, Tonie Scott Ritchie has had a long and adventurous life. Married to a Naval Surgeon, she and her five children lived all over the globe. And without doubt it’s been a life lived to the full. A life, as with so many of us, filled with a never-ending mix of  joy, tragedy, challenge, bad times and good times. All ingredients that can fire imagination and creativity. As they have with Tonie Ritchie.

And that’s a great example and inspiration to everyone. No matter the circumstances, it’s never too late!

You can listen to Tonie’s interview here:  Old Women Who Write Interview

The Show Must Go On!

It’s been a long hard eighteen months. A year and a half that’s seen tragic loss of life, of jobs, of income, of hope for the future. And it’s not over yet. But while we’re still a long way from what passed for ‘normal life’ in 2019, we are beginning to learn to live and work in a world where covid is now endemic.

One noticeable green shoot of recovery is in the world of the performing arts. Recently I spent time with Roza Stevenson, a young woman who set up an amateur theatre company, Happy Sad Productions, in 2019.

Roza Stevenson

The company got off to a flying start with a hugely successful, sell-out production of Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier (you’ll never see Aladdin in the same light again!!), only to have covid arrive and everything close down around them.

But that didn’t stop Roza and her company completely. Admittedly there were no public performances, but they used what was available to them – namely Zoom! – to keep in touch, rehearse, share ideas and keep each other’s spirits up.

A scene from Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier

All being well, their first live performance will be in a few weeks time, 6th-10th October to be exact, in Edinburgh, opening with a family show, the popular musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

So if you’re looking for a great show with a vibrant, talented and committed cast, and a way to help both a fledgling theatre company and our performing arts, then this could be the show for you! And who knows, you might just be watching future household names treading the boards before your very eyes!

You can read more about Roza and Happy Sad Productions in my article, The Show Must Go On, in issue 76 of iScot Magazine

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Happy Sad Productions proudly present You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, at the Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 6th-10th October 2021

Booking information here: Happy Sad Productions

High Adventure in Ardtornish

There’s a lot to be said for literary tourism!

Certain books have meant a great deal to me and I’ve enjoyed visiting the places that play a key role in them. Three spring immediately to mind: The Black Isle of Jane Duncan’s novels. Wester Ross and Sutherland of Sheila Stuart’s Alison books. And Ngaio Marsh’s When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of a famous church, which was based on the real, very ancient and with an extraordinary archaeological significance, Basilica di San Clemente.

Many different things trigger novelists to write a particular storyline. A conversation overheard on a bus, a dream, a snippet of information on the news – then the writer’s imagination takes over and the process of “What if…?” begins.

Sheila Stuart

But whatever the inspiration for the plot may be, I’m a firm believer that the location, a convincing sense of place, can make a good story even better.

On a visit to Ardtornish in the Morvern Peninsula I discovered that this had been a special place to Scottish novelist John Buchan (1875-1940).

It’s hard to describe Buchan as he was a man of so many parts: a son of the manse, lawyer, novelist, historian, poet, war-correspondent, diplomat, colonial administrator, army intelligence officer at the Western Front and later Director of Intelligence, politician and finally Governor General of Canada. All these and more. But predominantly a man who loved to write.

John Buchan

If you’ve read The 39 Steps, or seen one of the cinema versions, you’ll be familiar with the derring-do of his hero Richard Hannay. And be familiar too with the global, and at times very fanciful, conspiracies and evil-doers of the day.

However, one of his other classic tales, and perhaps a more plausible one, is John Macnab, first published in 1925. It’s a tale of adventure, the story of an unusual  challenge taken up by three men, plagued by inertia and depression in the aftermath of the First World War, a time when the world was for very many people a bleak, sad and difficult place.

Andrew Greig

It’s also a book which I feel is worth reading in conjunction with it’s ‘sequel’, The Return of John Macnab, penned by author and poet Andrew Greig in 1996. Both novels revolve round tales of poaching and challenge at a time of personal crisis for their characters.

In Buchan’s John Macnab, it’s three dissatisfied and world-weary establishment figures who take the challenge; in Andrew Greig’s it’s a very different cast of characters, with a strong critique on present-day land ownership in Scotland to boot. Both different, both of their times, and yet they make for an intriguing pairing.

It was John Buchan’s visits to Ardtornish that shaped the setting and action behind his fictitious tale of John Macnab. And in issue 75 of iScot Magazine, I take a look at Buchan’s time spent there and how this magnificent landscape shaped both him, his imagination and the high adventure of John Macnab.

Comings and goings in Morvern

Life is seldom static but some changes are much more far-reaching than others. Losing your home and all your possessions, to be left with only the clothes you stand up in, happens to refugees from war-torn countries today. Yet it also happened in the past in Scotland, and the Clearances are a well-documented and grim part of our country’s history.

While staying in Morvern a couple of years ago we visited two deserted settlements, one at Aoineadh Mòr, the other at Arienas Point on the shores of Loch Arienas. Settlements that were cleared by landowners to make way firstly for sheep, then for deer and the “huntin’, shootin’and fishin'” brigade. The fate of all the people – men, women and children – made homeless was not something that caused many of the landowners to lose sleep. Profit was the great god.

Very occasionally however, there has been movement in the other direction. To my surprise, I discovered that the bulk of the people who were evacuated from St Kilda in 1930 came to new homes and a new way of life in Morvern.

Unlike the Clearances, this was a voluntary evacuation. One looked on with regret perhaps, but unavoidable once the island’s population had fallen to only 36 souls. Life there had finally become unsustainable.

Lochaline, where the St Kildans settled after the evacuation of their island

But land ownership in Scotland is still benighted and unequal. Land reform well on the Scottish Government’s back-burner, despite previous promises and hopes. So much so that author, broadcaster and expert on all things outdoors, Cameron McNeish, recently spoke of his dismay at the lack of progress in Scotland, a dismay that led to his resignation from the SNP:

It’s been coming for a while. The party has done absolutely zilch on land reform and the environment since Nicola Sturgeon came to power, and I have had a deep frustration over issues like raptor persecution, grouse moors all over Scotland, and what muirburning is doing to the environment.” He also described progress on land reform as being “glacier slow” and argued that the previous environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s efforts in that area had been frustrated. He said: “There is no real interest in the SNP on these issues.”

Sunday Times, July 25th 2021

In the 1990s Karen Matheson of Capercaille sang the song “Waiting for the Wheel to Turn’, which contains the words:

‘Don’t you see the waves of wealth
washing away the soul from the land

Here come the Clearances, my friend
Silently our history is coming to life again
We feel the breeze from the storm to come
And up and down this coast
We’re waiting for the wheel to turn’

Has anything changed since then? There are tiny shoots, for example the community at Achabeag on the Ardtornish Estate in Morvern, where new housing is available to families who want to live and work there. But the work of individuals isn’t enough to turn that wheel in the right direction. Only genuine land reform and housing policy at governmental level can do that. And it seems to me that despite Scotland having had the opportunity to make those changes for quite some time now, we’re still waiting. Waiting for the wheel to turn in favour of the people of Scotland.

Waiting for the Wheel to Turn, my article in issue 74 of iScot Magazine.

King’s Cave on Arran

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

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

Visiting the cave and writing about it for the current edition of Scottish Islands Explorer, I found myself thinking that the central message of Bruce’s tale resonates just as strongly today as it did all those centuries ago. Like Bruce, we often have to take a leap of faith, not knowing what the final outcome will be, but hoping that the decision we’ve made is the right one.

Bruce faced terrible odds and knew only too well that his decision would impact on the lives of many, many people. That was a heavy responsibility. Right now, in countries like Syria and Yemen, men, women and children are facing the horrors of war, torture and starvation. Drug wars rage in South America. Torture and beheading in Saudi Arabia. Ours is not a peaceful world. Yet despite that, there are always those courageous enough to take the decision to stand up against oppressors, no matter how impossible the odds appear.

Fortunately our decisions seldom put us in physical danger, but they’re still important. They affect us as individuals, but also the wider community around us. So, like Robert the Bruce, what we decide to do – or not to do – is important for more than just ourselves.

Arran is a beautiful island; rich in geology, archaeology, history and natural beauty and this cave is full of signs that it’s been used for centuries. For one thing, it’s a treasure trove of carvings: everything from present day graffiti to ogham (Celtic) writing; animals, crosses, swords and much more. Carvings from the Bronze Age, early Christian era, Norse, Medieval, and Victorian times. It’s all there for the eagle-eyed to spot!

King’s Cave on Arran may or may not be the actual location of the Bruce story, but that moment in Bruce’s life was nonetheless a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history. The cave is an evocative place to visit and ponder on the courage it can take to stand up for our convictions. And should doubts arise, remember Bruce and his spider!

Scottish Islands Explorer June/July 2021

Dundonald – A Castle for a King

There’s definitely more to the village of Dundonald than meets the eye. On the surface it looks like a quiet little Ayrshire town, but it has an unexpectedly rich history: everything from kings, smugglers and Covenantors to swashbuckling naval heroes.

Visually, the most noticeable thing about Dundonald is its castle. It’s hard to miss! Perched imposingly upon a crag that rises steeply above the village, it’s a formidable building. It’s a commanding site and a natural place for a defensive settlement, and not surprisingly has a long and very ancient history of fortifications from Neolithic times onwards.

I knew very little of the castle’s history and so decided to join a tour (in accordance with covid restrictions). It turned out to be an excellent decision, as our guide was a young woman, Blythe Paterson, a PhD history student originally from Connecticut, and the castle’s education officer. She was able to guide us through the long, and often complex, history of the castle in its various permutations and various owners.

For the present castle was not the first medieval castle in Dundonald, but the third, commissioned by Robert II when he became King of Scots in 1371. By the end of our visit we had a much clearer idea about the history of the site and its significance to Scottish history.

But Dundonald has another claim to fame or, depending on your views,  infamy. For in the 18th century Dundonald was part of a highly successful smuggling route from the coast at Troon, to Dundonald Glen.  It’s telling that the guide to the trail opens with the words, “Virtually everyone in the Parish of Dundonald was linked to the 18th century smuggling trade.” Not in a haphazard or ad hoc way. Not at all. “This was highly organised by David Dunlop so that the Loans Smuggling Company (David Dunlop & Co) was the most successful in Scotland.”

And then there’s the larger-than-life adventures of the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, whose naval exploits both at home and abroad made him the hero of many small nations fighting for their independence. And earned him the nickname of The Sea Wolf from none other than Napoleon!

His was such an eventful, and unconventional, life that it’s not surprising that he is said to have been the inspiration for both C. S. Forester’s hero Horatio Hornblower, as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey.

So quiet little Dundonald has had its share of swashbuckling sons and daughters and a visit to the castle, as well as a journey along the Smugglers’ Trail, make it well worth a visit.

You can read more about all of this in my article in issue 73 of iScot Magazine available in print or digital format!

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, and its people, than meets the eye.

Getting to know a place isn’t that different from getting to know a person. It takes time. I certainly learned a lot more about Bute when I was researching the life of Sir William Macewen (1848-1924), 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!

Then, in 1898, he saved the life of young Malcolm McAlpine, son of the civil engineer Robert McAlpine, whose company still exists today. During the building of the West Highland Line extension to Mallaig, a devastating blast shattered that young man’s body and it looked as though nothing could be done to save his life. Yet, they hadn’t reckoned with the skill, dedication and compassion of William Macewen. The young man, who had been at death’s door, not only recovered, but lived to a ripe old age. And the West Highland Line extension was completed on time.

Macewen was also the 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 newly-founded Erskine 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 despite a host of tempting offers, he chose to remain in Scotland. He was appointed Surgeon-General, then named Surgeon-General to the Fleet in Scotland with the rank of Rear-Admiral 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, close to the water that had always been a great part in his life. 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.

An extraordinary man, full of humanity and compassion and with a never-failing verve for life. You can read his story in my article in issue 72 of iScot Magazine.

Inverie and Scoraig – defying the odds

As land ownership in Scotland clings grimly to its feudal roots, there are still far too many obstacles that make it hard, if not impossible, for Scots to live on and work the land. But it’s not only who owns the land that affects people’s lives, it’s also access. Access is vital for communities to survive and there can’t be many places in mainland Scotland that are as inaccessible as Inverie and Scoraig! Yet these two communities have shown that it’s possible to defy the odds and to thrive.

It’s not been an easy journey for either community. Neither have what we would consider ‘ease of access’, nor, until fairly recently, the opportunity to own the land they live on. However, you may have noticed that Inverie has been in the news again recently with talk of a community buy-out of the ‘remotest pub in mainland Britain’, which happens to be none other than the Old Forge in Inverie.

Inverie is a small settlement on the Knoydart Peninsula, and although not an island per se, it might as well be, because the only way of reaching the village, and thereby enjoying a drink at the Old Forge, is either by walking 15 miles (25km) over rough terrain or taking the little ferry from Mallaig and making a seven-mile (11km) sea crossing into Loch Nevis. The choice is yours! (tip: we took the ferry!)

The Falkirk Herald, September 1948

Fortunately, the challenge of a community buy-out is not a new one for the residents of Inverie. Like much of rural Scotland, Knoydart saw continuing depopulation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. So much so that there was even a suggestion in the 1990s that the peninsula be turned into yet another military training area. However, the community pulled together and in 1999 successfully bought out the old Knoydart Estate. Since then, under the auspices of the Knoydart Foundation, there have been a wealth of positive changes: everything from improved housing, affordable homes, the introduction of a Ranger service, expansion of local enterprises, forestry, a community owned trading company and, very importantly, their own hydro-electric scheme, Knoydart Renewables.

Press&Journal November 1969

Scoraig likewise, saw its population dwindle and almost die out over the years.  As with Knoydart, attempts to re-populate and revive the area, particularly after the Second World War, started off with high hopes, only to come to naught because of inequitable land ownership. But Scoraig has survived, thanks in no small measure to an influx of young people in the late 1960s. Although initially greeted with scepticism, they were determined not to be defeated.

Scoraig Heritage Centre!

At the time theirs was labelled a crackpot ‘alternative’ lifestyle. But in reality their approach to crofting and self-sufficiency, along with the harnessing of wind power, was ahead of its time and is now seen as a way forward for the rest of us. So much so, that one of Scoraig’s residents, Hugh Piggott, who helped build many of Scoraig’s original wind-turbines, now writes and teaches on the subject and runs Scoraig Wind Electric.

The story of both these communities is a long, and at times depressing one, so out-dated is land ownership in Scotland. But perseverance has paid off and they’re inspirational stories well-worth hearing and that’s what I’ve looked at in some detail in this month’s article in issue 71 of iScot Magazine.