“Hunting the Shark”: or Bearsden’s oldest resident!

Walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden, it can be hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life!  But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.

The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.

The Bearsden Shark fossil can be seen at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, while a replica is now on display in Bearsden Library

Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world!  In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.

Dr Neil Clark’s reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!!  A formidable foe indeed!

It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal!  However, even though unearthed forty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!

The new ‘Bearsden Shark’ fencing across the Manse Burn in Baljaffray

Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour! And thanks to the work of the Bearsden Shark Group, volunteers who have done so much to keep the shark in the public eye, there’s now a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray. The board, which marks the shark’s importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago, was unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

And should you visit the library in Bearsden you’ll be able to view the display set up by the Bearsden Shark Group, complete with a replica of the fossil. You can also buy a small booklet telling his story.

So there you have it. A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”.  So suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper – made up of shrimps! – but nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago.  Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!

The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan

Stoneymollan Coffin Road

Our earliest ancestors were nomads, so it’s not really surprising that we humans have always been on the move, one way or another. I’ve written previously about old ways through the glens: drove roads, drowned roads, and one type of old road that served a very particular function: coffin roads. Though I have to say right away that they weren’t ‘roads’ in the sense we understand them, rather narrow tracks or paths, often over harsh and hostile terrain. (You can read more here: Old Ways through the Glens)

A recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme, hosted by Edward Stourton, looked at an excellent new book by Professor Ian Bradley; ‘The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West’ and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the item. I chose a route not too far from my home which we’ve walked many times: The Stoneymollan Road. It’s a former coffin road that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. You can listen to Professor Bradley and myself in the coffin roads item here (at 18.04 minutes in): Scotland’s Ancient Coffin Roads BBC Radio 4 Sunday, 31/07/22

While Stoneymollan may no longer be used as a coffin road, it’s a fascinating part of our country’s history. One that ties in with Scotland’s long maritime past that saw early missionary monks travelling the sea roads of the west, bringing Christianity with them. It also shows the importance of landscape in shaping the life of a nation. And, for me at least, knowing the history of this route adds a very memorable element to walking the Stoneymollan Road.

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!

“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!

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.