The Three Distilleries Path on Islay

Port Ellen in the South of Islay and the opening pages of this month’s iScot article

It’s a winning combination. A glorious walk on a Scottish island combined with visits to some of Scotland’s finest distilleries. But what makes The Three Distilleries Path even more inviting is the fact that the route is chock-a-block with historical and archaeological sites.

You can wend your way through this ancient landscape, moulded into shape hundreds-of-millions of years ago, and discover the effect the island’s unusual geological make-up has in the creation of its unique and very distinctive whiskies. Whiskies that all come from one not-very-large island, and yet have an unexpected range and variety of tastes.

The starting point of the path at Port Ellen

You can look, and pause to wonder, at the standing stones our neolithic ancestors took such pains to raise. Mysterious stone circles. The wells that were so important to our Celtic forefathers. The tumbled remains of stone walls that reveal the sites of early Christian chapels. Mighty Dunyvaig Castle, powerful even in its ruinous state, as it guards the entrance to Lagavulin Bay. The sad tale of an act of kindness that led to the death of the settlement of Solam and all its inhabitants.

The wide skies. The ever present sea. The abundant plant-life.  The winged and four-legged wildlife. The hills to climb. The lochs to fish. The peace and tranquility. Both the calm and the stormy weather. A place to enjoy and explore whatever the elements may throw at you!

And of course an island that, more than any other, really does offer whisky galore!

iScot Magazine

The Raising of Submarine K13

Tragedy in the Gareloch: the Raising of the K13

There would have been many more deaths that cold winter’s night in January 1917 if it hadn’t been for the sustained efforts of the rescuers. Rescuers who spent three long days and nights hoping, praying and battling to free the survivors trapped in the stricken submarine. They knew it was unlikely that all on board would have survived the submarine’s sinking: those four open hatches had let in a rush of ice cold water that instantly flooded the engine room and sent the submarine plunging down into the dark depths of the loch. But they knew there were some men still alive, and they were determined to do everything in their power to prevent the K13 becoming a tomb.

It’s a sorry tale that lies behind the K-Class submarines. Unwanted by the navy, this new design was pushed on them in the drive to create a submarine to match, and outdo, the deadly German U-boats. But instead it led to the creation of a vessel that killed not the enemy, but its own men. Over 300 submariners died in accidents on board these notorious craft.

Curiously though, some aspects of the K-Class submarines were ahead of their times. Certainly too far ahead for 1917, and wartime pressures that left too little time for trials and adequate training of the crews, men who had to deal with a whole new underwater beast at very short notice, and with disastrous results.

Thomas Grant Dey

My grandfather, Thomas Dey, was present throughout the rescue and wrote a first-hand account of events. It’s the sort of document that’s invaluable to historians and those with an interest in submarines alike. But it’s also an insight into the life and attitudes of a man I never met, but would have loved to have known.  It’s a document I treasure.

In one way, his account is of the men who would later become invisible in the story of the jinxed K13. Wartime secrecy played a part in that, but also the fact that commendations seldom go equally to those who deserve them. Take the men of the Merchant Navy who played their part in the Arctic Convoys, under the most appalling of circumstances, yet who had to wait decades for proper recognition of their bravery.

And yet it’s not rank or accident of birth that makes you braver, better or more worthy than other people. It’s how you behave and treat others that matters and that’s certainly not a new idea. Just think how well Robert Burns summed it up way back in 1795, in what’s arguably his best known poem, A Man’s a Man for a’ that. Yes, we still have a long way to go, and right now we seem to be going backwards in how the poorest and most vulnerable are being treated. But as has been the case throughout history, it’s up to us what happens and what sort of world we want for the generations that follow. Hopefully we’ll be as constant as people like my grandfather were, and that we’ll be as steadfast in our words and deeds. And maybe we will keep inching towards making Burns’ heartfelt desire a reality:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

*********

 

Thomas Grant Dey

Thomas Grant Dey 1882- 1948

I never knew my paternal grandfather, Thomas Grant Dey, but I wish I had. He died in 1948, long before I was ever thought of. He was someone who lived a life very different from mine, and yet I feel sure he would have been pleased that his grandchildren have enjoyed the opportunities he never had.

When he was growing up, unemployment meant poverty, a grinding poverty that we can’t even begin to comprehend today. Only recently I discovered that he fathered eleven children, but of those only six survived into adulthood. What pain and sorrow all those deaths must have brought him and my grandmother, Janet.

During his working life as a shipwright he often had to travel far afield for work. To England, Spain, India and Africa. Early in his career he suffered a serious back injury and endured a lifetime of pain. But not working was not an option. The healthcare we enjoy now was unknown to him.  Doctors were too expensive. So people suffered in silence and all too often died young.

How different his life would have been if he had lived now. The lost children wouldn’t have been lost. The lifelong pain wouldn’t have needed to be endured. But back then the Welfare State was still undreamt of.

From talking to my father I know that my grandfather believed education was the way out of poverty and the opportunity for a better life. Thomas Dey wasn’t a forelock-tugger and saw the ruling elite for what they were, and still are. Greedy, uncaring and self-centered people, who enjoy a life of undeserved privilege, yet who hold the power and control the finances of the UK. Recently we have seen that they, quite literally, have the power of life and death over others. They are people who manipulate the system to their own benefit while letting others suffer, with no compunction whatsoever.

He’d be so angry at what’s happening today as the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable are targeted by the UK government. The UN and other organisations try to call Westminster to account, but are ignored. The rich are richer than ever before, ensuring the wealth of these four nations ends up in their pockets or in their offshore accounts. Britain is awash with money, yet the gap between rich and poor is greater here than anywhere else in Europe. And is greater now than ever before. Poverty and its ever-present henchmen, depression and suicide, are on the increase. While in England the NHS, perhaps the greatest achievement of post-war Britain, is being systematically dismantled and sold off by the Tories.


Link:  Selling off the NHS: How privatisation in England will impact on Scotland’s NHS


My grandfather died in January 1948, only months before the inauguration of the NHS, and so didn’t live to enjoy the huge changes that have improved all our lives since then. Yet so much of what was achieved in those post-war years is now being swept away. The enormity of the betrayal is staggering. The lack of responsibility or accountability in Westminster is staggering. Even more worryingly, laws are being passed without Parliamentary scrutiny, and Brexit legislation will allow Westminster to remove powers from the Scottish Government and alter the Scottish legal system without any say from the Scottish people.

Perhaps it’s the enormity of what’s being done to the democratic process, coupled with the sense of helplessness that this brings, that’s causing so many people to shut their eyes to what’s going on. Heads down. Watch reality TV. Agonise over which channel Bake Off should be on. Pretend it all has nothing to with them. I’m all right, Jack. Walk by on the other side. Keep below the radar. Don’t stand up to be counted. Concentrate on Strictly.

And yet at the same time, we’re repeatedly told how brave and courageous people were in WWI or WW2. How Black Africans stood up to Apartheid. How women fought for votes. How the Chartists struggled for the most basic of rights. How Thomas Muir is the ‘greatest democrat’. We’re encouraged to celebrate their actions and sacrifices. Yet we’re in the process of losing so many of the things they fought for. It’s as if we’re sleepwalking through events while being systematically stripped of what those before us achieved.


Link: Thomas Muir: Father of Scottish Democracy 


Change doesn’t happen by itself. Progress doesn’t happen by magic. Evil grows if not challenged. And each generation has to do its own challenging. It is our responsibility, not someone else’s. Remember the Big Yellow Taxi, that Joni Mitchell song where she sings, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

How I hope we’re thankful for what we have, and understand just what others have sacrificed for our sake. And how I hope that we will all fight to preserve such precious gifts for the generations to come. For our children’s sake. But also for those who had so little and struggled so much: our grandparents.

Glorious Glen Finglas

For those living in the Central Belt of Scotland the countryside is never far away. Despite being the area with the highest population density in Scotland (3.5 million out of 5.4 million), it doesn’t take long to reach the clean air and open spaces of the countryside.

For many of us, heading north or west leads to the Trossachs, an area of woods, glens and lochs that lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. And right in the middle of this expanse is glorious Glen Finglas.

Made famous by Walter Scott (as with so much of this part of Scotland), Glen Finglas has never lost its popularity, and today is managed by the Woodland Trust for Scotland. But it’s also part of ‘a forest in the making’, the Great Trossachs Forest, a long-term project (200 years!) that aims to create 160 square km of native woodland across this area. This innovative and far-sighted venture is the brainchild of the Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Woodland Trust.  Described as a ‘forest for the future’, the Great Trossachs Forest is also the largest National Nature Reserve in the country. Quite an achievement.

A cottage in the village of Brig O’Turk, Glen Finglas

While this work is being carried out in the present and will provide great benefits for the future, Glen Finglas has a long and varied past. And it’s this past that has shaped the landscape we see here today.

In the current issue of iScot magazine I’ve written about the past, present and future of Glen Finglas under the headings found on the unusual stone compass that’s set into a rocky hillock up the glen. Carved into the stone are three mottoes: Enjoy the Present, Sense the Past, Ensure the Future. It’s a wonderful encouragement to get out and walk (or cycle), to learn about the people and events that have gone before and to discover what is planned for future generations.

To find out more about what this all entails, get hold of a copy of September’s iScot and then be inspired to pay a visit yourself!

iScot magazine digital editions

 

 

Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

Coire Fhionn Lochan – Arran at its best

‘Climb every mountain …’

… and take this walk to the beautiful Coire Fhionn Lochan on the west coast of Arran. It’s name means the Little Loch of the Pale Corrie, and its crystal-clear water is fringed with white granite sand. There’s something quite strange about coming to a beach up in the hills, but its a lovely spot for a rest or a picnic. And for the more energetic, there are walks that head further into Arran’s stunning mountains. I’ve written about this walk in the September/October issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

What intrigues me about exploring the landscape of Sotland is just how much has happened in almost every area of the land. Even in places that seem deserted and remote to us today, you’ll find that not so long ago they were home to generations of people who lived and worked the land. And that usually means there’s something left behind that tells their story, if you know how to look for it.

You can find clues in the place names that describe the natural features of the land. Or those place names with a mixture of linguistic roots, that tell of the invaders from other lands, with other cultures, who descended upon these shores. Often arriving as deadly raiders, many then returned as settlers, marrying into local communites and adding to the mix of nations that make up who we are today.

Then there are the myriads of old tales and legends, which although fictitious at one level, do very often contain a grain of truth about otherwise long-forgotten events.

Even the shape and size and hair colouring of a commmunity can tell you something of its background. Whose blood flows through your veins? Are you descended from dark-haired Celts, or fair-haired Norse Vikings, or those unfortunate Spanish sailors whose ships floundered in the stormy waters off the Scottish coasts in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada of 1588 and stayed on (think of Jimmy Perez!).

This walk has echoes of St Columba, a visit from Robert the Bruce and a beautiful poem, amongst other intriguing aspects. It’s a walk in the present that resonates with the past and contains hopes for the future. Not a bad mix at all!

Should you wish to find out more, you can read my article in the latest edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Print copies are for sale in many local newsagents and it’s available online for only £1.99 at:  pocketmags-scottish-islands-explorer-magazine

 

Follow the Dead

Unlike the characters at the opening of Lin Anderson’s new novel, we weren’t trapped in the Cairngorms by a blizzard. Unlike them we were free to walk away from the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue (CMR) Base in Inverdruie whenever we chose. And unlike her fictional protagonists, we wanted to be where we were. We’d come Aviemore for the weekend to hear about the 12th book in the Rhona MacLeod series, Follow the Dead.

A mountain rescue base must surely be a unique setting for a book launch, but it was also very apt, as the CMR team play a major role in the story and Lin had spent many hours in their company, picking their brains for tales of nail-biting rescues and learning about the real-life risks and challenges they face when trying to reach walkers and climbers trapped in the harsh mountain landscape of the Cairngorm Mountains.

Prof and Mrs James Grieve

The skill, commitment and bravery of mountain rescue teams is legendary. John Allen, whose exploits are described in the book Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue, was at the launch. As was Willie Anderson, the current leader of the CMRT, who spoke about rescues the team had been involved in, some of them requiring extraordinary bravery and truly heroic efforts to bring bodies – alive and dead – down off the mountains.

Also present was Lin’s chief forensic expert, Dr James Grieve, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Aberdeen. A man with a long title and a great sense of humour! He confirmed the realism of the technical aspects of Lin’s books, applauding the work she does in ‘educating’ readers to the reality – and limitations – of forensic science in the solving of crimes. It’s this accuracy that gives the books such an authentic feel, and helps make the character of Rhona MacLeod so believeable.

The author (right) and the fictional character!

Among the audience was a ‘real-life-fictional-character’, Mary, who plays a pivotal and intriguing role in the story. But just what that role might be, is a mystery you’ll only be able to solve by reading the book for yourselves!

After Lin, the second most celebrated guest must have been Oor Blaze fae Skye – perhaps the best-known resident of that fabled isle. With a Twitter following in the thousands, Blaze is a mountaineering (and Portree pub) legend in his own right.

Oor Blaze fae Skye

He even has his own much-sought-after calendar: a calendar signed last year by the author and stars of the spectacularly successful Outlander series, amongst many others. The funds raised from the auctioning of the autographed calendars go to the Skye Mountain Rescue Team. So Blaze has a very appropriate connection to the book launch we were attending.

A brilliant book with the best set of autographs possible!

Some of you will already know that Blaze’s other great claim to fame is that he writes regularly for iScot magazine, sharing his mountain exploits with the magazine’s readership. There’s something rather special about having a fellow contributor who has four legs and a penchant for tennis balls: which, I must add, he catches with unfailing accuracy!

Shush! I’m reading!

And so, having spent time with Blaze (whose literary efforts are penned with a little bit of help from his ‘dad’ Steve) and having heard about the real-life background to the drama in Follow the Dead, as well as having met some of the real-life counterparts to the fictional characters, all I have to do now is get reading – so shush!

 

Crime wave!

Crime writing in Scotland has never been more popular. From Bute Noir to Bloody Scotland there are events taking place all around the country, giving readers a golden opportunity to meet and talk to their favourite authors.

However, rather than discuss their fiction, I wanted to pose a different sort of question to these dealers in death. Tracking down three of the Tartan Noir brigade – Douglas Skelton, Lin Anderson and Louise Hutcheson – I asked them where in Scotland they would choose to be when they’re not penning the dark deeds and murderous machinations of their characters, and their answers took me to three very different parts of the country.

Lin Anderson

Douglas Skelton

For Douglas it was the Kinloch Rannoch area stretching from Pitlochry to the wilds of Rannoch Moor.  Lin chose the Highland village of Carrbridge, with its historic coffin bridge. While Louise plumped for the Queen of the Hebrides, the Island of Islay. And their reasons for these choices? Well, that’s for you to discover when you read this month’s iScot magazine: and you won’t be disappointed!

Louise Hutcheson

https://pocketmags.com/search/iscot

Aberfoyle

From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-leggedy beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!

Sometimes we like to think that our ancestors were far more superstitious that us: less sophisticated, less modern or up-to-date. But pay a visit to your local cinema and take a look at the large number of films full of vampires, zombies, ghosts and  horrific creatures: all there to scare the living daylights out of us.  And we even pay for the pleasure! It’s curious, isn’t it.  Just what is it in us that enjoys being terrified and faced with such primeval fears?

Back in the 17th century Rev Robert Kirk, the young minister at Kirkton Church in Aberfoyle, wondered just that. He collected folklore and stories from local people about their experiences with the supernatural. He then examined biblical references and asked whether there might in fact be a class of ethereal beings in this world which we didn’t yet understand, or could fully explain. He’s remembered today as The Fairy Minister, which tends to belittle him, and makes it easy to shrug of his work. But who really knows? And sometimes it’s worth keeping an open mind on such matters!

Certainly you’ll find that his grave is, more often than not, covered in coins, put there by the superstitious of today hoping for some good luck from their gesture. Or at the Minister’s Tree atop Doon Hill, where there’s a ‘clootie well’, with so many pieces of cloth that the whole hill top can look fairly dirty and untidy. Yet these things are put there as ‘wishes’ to the fairies: or to whatever power may be willing to offer assistance. I sometime wonder if we’re really much less superstitious today after all.

Kirk’s short study, The Secret Commonwealth, helped put Aberfoyle on the map, as did Sir Walter Scott, and the arrival of the railways. Yet there’s much more to the history of this small town than you might think. On top of which, it’s a wonderful base for exploring the Trossachs on foot, by bike or in the car.

This is just a taster for what’s in my article in July’s edition of iScot magazine. So if you want to find out more then simply download the online edition (116 full-colour pages for only £2.99) from iScot at Pocketmags or buy a print copy (£3.99) from any of these newsagents (right):

You won’t be disappointed. But, be warned, you might just find yourself checking under your bed before turning the lights out!

 

Glenelg – Spacemen and Spies!

It’s easy to dismiss small or seemingly remote communites as offering nothing much of interest. But that’s a very mistaken assumption. Everywhere has a history. Everywhere the impact of human life leaves a mark. And small places are no different. In fact, it’s in these places that change is often felt more intensely and with far greater repercussions.

Glenelg in Lochaber is a good case in point. As the title of this article shows, a lot more has happened there than you might expect! Sometimes it can take a bit of digging to discover past events and fully appreciate the legacy they’ve left behind. But echo down the years they do: leaving their mark on the land and the people.

Iron Age brochs, redcoat barracks, Gavin Maxwell and his otters, sailing over the sea to Skye: Glenelg has all that and much, much more. I know Glenelg well and have visited often, but I still find there’s always something more just waiting to be experienced.

If it’s a place you don’t yet know, or even if you have visited, but would like to find out more, then my article in the June issue of the iScot magazine is just right for you: and costs less than a pint of beer in the pub! So treat yourself to something that will last a lot longer than that pint – and probably do you more good to boot!

iScot from Pocketmags