History in the Time of Covid: memory, identity and the importance of recording our history

My mother aged 16

Just think for a moment about what makes each one of us a unique individual. It’s our memories. And just think how tragic it is when we lose those, when dementia strikes and robs us of who we are. Author Julian Barnes wrote, “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

A few years ago I lost my mother to cancer. Yet in some ways I’d lost her to Alzheimer’s before that. I’m sure many others have gone through the same loss. As her memories went, the person she was gradually slipped away. It’s a terrible thing to happen. I remember vividly the day she looked at me and asked “What did your mother do?” “A good question!” I replied, trying not to cry. That comment however, spurred me to write a biography of her life. I contacted those who had known her at different stages of her life: growing up in India, teaching in one of the toughest schools in Glasgow, as well as in schools in London and Shetland, travelling to Bosnia in the wake of that terrible war, campaigning in local elections in Edinburgh. For a time, even as her memories gradually disappeared, looking at what she called “The Book”, helped her cope with what was happening to her, reminded her for a while of the person she had been and the life she had led. Words and images that spoke of her history, and offered brief respites from that insidious disease that was slowly but surely robbing her of her identity.

I’ve written about these issues before, but feel they’re worth revisiting because loss of identity doesn’t only apply to individuals, but also to nations. If we lose our collective memories we lose our identity as a people. What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home?

Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? And why did so many of us in Scotland grow up with so little knowledge of the rich history of our own country?

In this month’s iScot article I look at all these fascinating issues and at the wealth of places that exist that make it possible for us to know more about our past and, by extension, ourselves. If we hope to create a better future for ourselves and our country, we have to not only be able to make sense of the present but also to understand the role of the past in our lives. Our history is preserved in a myriad of ways. The more we learn about it, the more we want to know. And it’s all just waiting for us out there!

Death in Tallinn

The computer keyboard is getting well worn! From the author of The Peat Dead and The Dead of Jura, comes the first book in a spectacular new series – Death in Tallinn.

Set in a newly independent Estonia, poised precariously between the growing threat of Nazi Germany and the menace of the Soviet Union, Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets has to tread a fine line between political opponents. A man of integrity, he’s determined to see justice done. But that’s not always as straightforward as it might seem.

The 1930s were a time of great unrest and turmoil throughout Europe. The so-called War to End All Wars seemed to have failed to be just that. Stormclouds were everywhere and the rumblings of future conflicts never far away.  In the midst of this, the small republic of Estonia is trying to find its feet and decide what sort of country it wants to be after centuries of foreign suzerainty.

Against this backdrop, Tartu-based Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets is invited to head north to Tallinn to take over the investigation of the suspicious death of a senior policeman. But his presence is not welcomed by all.

To mark the launch of Death in Tallinn, Sharpe Books are offering, for a limited period only, the eBook at a special discounted price of 99p! Details here:  Death in Tallinn

Around Loch Torridon

Lower Diabaig

The Beatles famously sang about a ‘long and winding road’, and while it might lead to the door of a loved one, I think we would all agree that it would be a much more comfortable journey on a road that is smooth and not one made from crushed rock and gravel. And yet that’s exactly what many roads in the Highlands were like until the 1960s and 70s.

Travel was hard going. Communities could only survive and thrive if travel and communications were, if not good, at least adequate. And very often they were neither. But the eventual arrival of tarred roads was to make a great, and very positive, difference to the lives of people in remote areas.

‘Cycling county’ 1930s style!

The roads around Loch Torridon in Wester Ross were a classic example of the tough going involved. A time when travelling by bike, bus or car involved a ‘right good jolting’ for both passengers and goods.

Poor roads also helped exacerbate worrying trends in depopulation, as they made trading, shopping, visiting friends and family, getting to secondary school, to church, to hospital, to and from work all much more difficult. While some today may hanker to be ‘off the beaten track’, it most certainly wasn’t always seen as a good thing!

Fortunately much has improved not only for Torridon’s residents but also for the many visitors drawn to this area of rugged and spectacular beauty. From the dizzying heights of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe to the rolling breakers and dunes at Redpoint Beach, there’s much to experience. And we are fortunate to be able to do so with an ease and comfort that our forebears could only dream of!

In the current issue of iScot magazine I take a look at the story behind the lives of the people of Torridon both past and present. At the challenges faced both then and now. And how we owe a great deal to those who went before us. It’s a fascinating area and though remote, there’s much more to it than you might at first believe.

iScot magazine

The Road to Shieldaig

Red Roof Cottage, Loch Torridon

It’s been a long lockdown but we’re gradually getting out and about a bit more – albeit very, very carefully. From home, I’ve been using the time to write more about that glorious part of northern Scotland, Wester Ross. I’ve been looking at the lives and times of the people who live and work there. Discovering places to be enjoyed at leisure like the gorgeous Attadale Gardens. Or the not-to-be-missed experience of that nail-biting drive (or cycle) up the hair-pin bends of the Bealach Na Bà. Or looking at the fascinating history of the village of Shieldaig, set up in the early 19th century to provide cannon fodder for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Or discovering why Strome Castle ended up a ruin!

Yet there’s a lot more than just magnificent scenery here, though that’s undoubtedly a huge part of the appeal this area has for visitors. For it’s also a part of Scotland that’s lived through good times and bad, where people have had to struggle simply to survive in the face of both the rigours of the landscape and the depredations of landowners. Challenges indeed!

The Road to Shieldaig takes you on a journey from Glenelg to Shieldaig via Eilean Donan Castle, Attadale Gardens, Lochcarron, Strome, up-and-over the Bealach na Bà, around North Applecross and down onto the shores of Loch Torridon. And once there, you’ll also find some of the finest mountain scenery Scotland has to offer.

It’s all just waiting for you in iScot Magazine issue 64.

Sea Roads of Wester Ross

The Covid pandemic has turned life upside down. So many things that we took for granted suddenly became impossible. For the benefit of everyone, we’ve had to curtail travel and holiday plans. Frustrating perhaps, but a frustration that pales into insignificance in light of the horrendous loss of life all four nations of the UK have sustained.
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We may not have been able to go out while lockdown restrictions were in place, but for many of us it’s been an unprecedented opportunity to spend time at home and discover new interests and abilities.
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Yet even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still in a position to travel and explore ‘virtually’. To read and think about places we want to see again and to discover new places that we can look forward to visiting when the time comes. For me, one of those places is Wester Ross. We’ve visited many times before and hope to visit again when circumstances allow.
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For those of us who live in more densely populated areas, Wester Ross is often regarded as remote or isolated. But that’s a misconception. Not only is Wester Ross no stranger to excitement or danger, it’s also an area of outstanding scenic beauty. And rich in history. Everything from Russian Arctic Convoys to Gruinard (Anthrax) Island, to the Summer Isles and to what was the smallest distillery in Scotland. Be in no doubt there’s plenty to discover!
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In the first part in a new series, I’ve taken a look at the coastal area from Ullapool down to Loch Ewe. And even in lockdown I’ve discovered plenty to interest, and even surprise, me on the way!
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It’s all in issue 63 of iScot magazine.
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The Dead of Jura

Angus Blue and his team are back. A shooting on a Scottish island opens up a can of worms. Those in power want to keep it closed. But DI Blue’s not one for giving up. 

The Dead of Jura is the second novel in the Inspector Blue series and will be published on September 27th.

Inspector Blue is called to the island of Jura after a  junior Defence minister is shot by a sniper at his estate. However, they find security personnel at the site less than willing to co-operate, especially Special Branch Chief Inspector Ffox-Kaye. The crime scene has been tampered with, the victim has been whisked away, and no witnesses will talk. There is more to this than meets the eye, and Ffox-Kaye has his own agenda, but Blue and his team will not be deterred. And forensic archaeologist Alison Hendrickx is back too.

The action moves between Scotland, England, Ireland and Germany, as Blue and his team home in on a crime covered up by those who should know better.

“A ‘must read’ for fans of Scottish crime fiction.” Marion Todd

“Subtle, complex and intense as a fine island malt.” Olga Wojtas

It’s a brilliant follow-up to The Peat Dead, which was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Debut Prize 2019!

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

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

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

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

Pitlochry Dam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir William Macewen – Bute’s father of neurosurgery

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

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

The Macewan family plot at St Blane’s, Bute

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

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

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

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

Wee Mac Arran – worth waiting for!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort of the Skulker: Dun an Sticir, North Uist

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

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

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

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

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