Island Tales

I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and amongst these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people … that find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” Lawrence Durrell, from Reflections on a Marine Venus.

At a very young age I too was diagnosed with islomania. And it seems there is no known cure. Not that I’d want there to be one, as it’s a malady I’m more than happy to suffer from. Rarely fatal, though often chronic, it means, basically, you can’t get enough of islands! And as there is no known cure, the only way to live with it is to visit as many islands as you possibly can. And I do.

The Colonsay Hotel

What is it about islands? They come in all shapes and sizes. Even continents are little more than enormous islands. Land surrounded by water. There’s a children’s book by American writer Margaret W. Brown called The Little Island and a line in that sums up beautifully what it means to be an island: “A part of the world and a world of its own.” I suspect that also sums up the way many of us feel at times! An island offers that bit of distance, that apartness that we often need to slow down and deal with all that goes on in our busy, and at times stressful, lives.

Not that life on an island is without its ups and downs. Wherever people are, there will be challenges and tensions along the way. You only have to look at William Golding’s chilling novel Lord of the Flies for a horrific example of what can go wrong! I doubt there’s a perfect utopia for any of us. But I do find that people I’ve met on islands, or remote communities, often have the ability to apply ingenious lateral thinking when need arises.

The landing strip on Barra

And it’s this ability to look at things differently that I write about in the current issue of iScot Magazine (issue 79). Whether it’s that narrowly avoided storm in a communion cup, or the young doctor who appeared on a boat out of nowhere, or getting the right patient to hospital, or even defining ‘Mañana’, there are very many wonderful stories to tell!

“I to the hills will lift mine eyes”

And when the hills look like these at the far end of Glen Arklet, there aren’t many better places to be!

Travelling north-west on the B829 from Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, you pass four very different lochs. There’s mighty Loch Ard, tiny Loch Dhu, slim-waisted Loch Chon – Loch of the Dogs – and Loch Arklet, lying at right angles to the rest. A short distance beyond the end of Loch Arklet you reach a T-junction and here you have the choice of turning left to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond, or right to Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine. Lochs galore to choose from!

Just short of that T-junction, we stopped to savour the view. Looking westwards along Glen Arklet, the snow-covered peaks of the Arrochar Alps rise to form a magnificent backdrop to the loch, which, like many a loch in the Highlands, is now part loch, part reservoir and linked to the hydro-electric scheme that changed life in the Highlands forever.

Then there’s the Rob Roy MacGregor connection – this is the Trossachs after all! Mid-way along Glen Arklet sits the tiny settlement of Corriearklet, and it was here, in January 1693, that Rob married Mary MacGregor of Comar.

Loch Arklet lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and on The Great Trossachs Path. There’s an excellent off-road walk from Stronachlachar to Inversnaid that runs the length of the glen. Parts of the route follow the tracks of old Statute Labour Roads and old Military Roads – so you really are walking through – and on – history!

And at both ends of the walk you’ll find food! Whether at the Inversnaid Hotel or the Inversnaid Bunkhouse to the west, or the Pier Cafe to the east at Stronachlachar.

It’s a wonderful part of the country and we are very fortunate to be able to enjoy this wild landscape. Returning from a day out, you realise just how much we benefit from spending time outdoors, especially among our hills and lochs. The natural world gives us so much, and for that I am truly thankful!

Thank you for the Music

There’s something about music. Indeed, as Shakespeare didn’t quite say, “If music be the food of life… play on!” And when it does, it makes the world a better place for us all.

Music is such an integral part of human life. I doubt there are many who don’t get real pleasure from listening to music or playing an instrument themselves. In fact, it’s reckoned that our ancestors started developing musical instruments as long as 50,000 years ago – and haven’t stopped since!

Music has real power to lift our mood. There seems to be a deep connection between music and human wellbeing. It’s not surprising that Jane Austen commented, “Without music, life would be a blank to me.”  Or Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese philosopher and poet, for whom music was the language of the spirit, “It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

Making music doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be at a professional standard. Making music can, and should be, fun!

As our ancestors discovered, almost anything can be used to make music. To produce a few notes. To create a rhythm. And there are people still putting that into practice today, as this biscuit-tin-ukulele proves!

Music brings people together. The 19th century American poet, Henry Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” A sentiment echoed by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen who wrote, “When words fail, music speaks.”

Being furloughed by covid lockdowns, I took up the ukulele and discovered a whole new world of music.  And fellow ukulele novices who are enjoying the musical journey as much as I am.

A favourite author of mine, Mark Twain, wrote, “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. The moment it arises, all your irritations and resentments slip away and the sunny spirit takes their place.” And learning to play the ukulele has certainly prompted much laughter within my group!

Put laughter and music together and you’ve got a winning combination. So pick up a ukulele, or the instrument of your choice, and play!

You can read the full article in issue 78 of iScot Magazine.

The Dead of Appin

DI Angus Blue is back! From solving mysteries on Islay and Jura (with visits to Ireland, Germany and Poland along the way) he’s now back on home territory and has another crime to solve.

Just outside Oban, within sight of the Connel Bridge, there’s a burnt out car containing the charred remains of a human body. A woman is missing, but this body is male.

In a high stakes game of business and politics, what secret does the bustling port of Oban hide that’s worth killing for.

The Dead of Appin will be published on November 30th, 2021 and can be ordered from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

The Vaccine Challenge

Viruses will continue to appear and to mutate. They’re not likely to disappear any time in the foreseeable future. So how do we deal with them?

In the 19th century we fought epidemics with clean water and the creation of a sanitation infrastructure. These days we need an effective vaccine infrastructure.

But how do we respond, quickly and equitably, to the current worldwide lack of manufacturing capacity in the face of pandemics? Can a resilient Scotland rise to the vaccine challenge?

We could create a National Pharmaceutical Company to secure the supply of essential medicines under greater public ownership and to help manufacture and deliver them to the world’s most vulnerable.” Anishka Cameron

Will Scotland establish regional bio-hubs to produce and distribute vaccines rapidly and effectively? We have the knowledge and the skills to do so. But is there the political will to set this up? That’s the six-million-dollar question.

I spoke to microbiologist Lynne Copland in a search for answers. You can read about her proposals in issue 77 of iScot Magazine

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.