Tall tales and tackety boots

The 25th of January 2019 sees the 260th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Burns has been voted the Greatest Scot by the Scots themselves and his work is known and admired the world over. For a man who died when he was only thirty-seven, that really is an amazing achievement.

Burns lived through personal poverty and ill-health, and also witnessed the harshness of life faced by his fellows on a daily basis. Yet he didn’t shy away from writing about these things. What, to me, makes his work so special, and why I believe it still resonates so strongly with so many of us today, is the way he wrote: for despite all the difficulties, he wrote with warmth, humour and with hope.

The first stamps commemorating Burns were issued in the Soviet Union in 1956

Writing in both Scots and English, Burns’ work moves easily from the comic to the romantic to the political, ringing true in every case.  And I have to admit that while researching and writing this article, I discovered that there was much, much more to Robert Burns than I had realised when I started!

Burns was always generous in acknowledging those who inspired him. And he, in turn, has inspired generations of people ever since. Among that number was Thomas Grant Dey, my shoe-making, ship-building grandfather who grew up in Ayrshire, not many miles from Alloway, where Burns was born. For him, the egalitarian ideals expressed so vividly by Burns, were something all of us should strive for and be proud of.

How fortunate we are to have a man like Burns as part of our nation’s history and culture.  How worthwhile it is to take a longer look at who he was and what he did.  How worthy he is of that glass raised in his honour at your Burns Supper – a man whose works are definitely worth remembering, not just on the 25th of January, but all year round!

The full article is available in iScot Janury 2019

Scoraig – almost an island

There are one or two places on the west coast of Scotland that are not islands as such, but which are, to all intents and purposes, islands. Scoraig on Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is one. To reach Scoraig you can either go by boat (the easy way – though always weather dependent!) from Badluarach on the south shore of Little Loch Broom – or you can walk. There is no road, no vehicular access, only a dramatic 5-mile cliff-side path. This was the route we chose. The walk starts at the road end at Badralloch and offers spectacular views down the length of Little Loch Broom.

Until the mid 1800s the peninsula supported a number of farming townships: houses grouped together surrounded by feannagan – ridge and furrow rigs for growing crops. By the mid-19th century, however, the estate had been sold and the new owner dramatically changed the landscape of the area by breaking up the townships and laying out crofts. These were hard, harsh times in the Highlands and Islands. New homes had to be built from scratch, infertile land worked until a living could be eked from it.  And all the while increased rents, both in kind and in labour, were being demanded by landlords.

But battle on they did, and that so many survived is a tribute to the courage and determination of the inhabitants. Life continued, families grew and according to Scoraig’s community website, there were 61 children at the school in 1873. However, as steamer transport declined and road and rail routes passed Scoraig by – as well as the drastic toll of two world wars – the population began to dwindle and it looked as though Scoraig was finished.

The path alongside Little Loch Broom towards Scoraig

But surprisingly Scoraig didn’t die. The story of the hard-work, determination and ingenuity that have kept Scoraig alive is one well-worth the telling. And in this month’s Scottish Islands Explorer I’ve tried to do just that. It’s a story with plenty of hardship and heartbreak along the way, especially when resistance from landowners doomed a ground-breaking post-war scheme to rebuild and repopulate the area. But persistance paid off and a new wave of settlers arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and have succeeded in rebuilding this unique community.

New housing in Scoraig!

Back then some of their practices were regarded as odd – but their approach to self-sufficiency, wind and solar power are now seen as the way forward for the rest of us. They were real innovators, hard-working pioneers ahead of their time. And thanks to them, Scoraig has continued to grow and thrive; that the community supports a nursery and a primary school is proof of that. What was once seen as ‘alternative’ living has stood the test of time and proven its worth. And can teach us all something for the challenges we face today.

The jetty at Scoraig

The jetty at Scoraig

Keeping you Posted

Spent time in a queue in the Post Office recently? Stamps for Christmas cards? Parcels to post? This is probably the one time of year many of us use stamps. They’re such small things that we tend to take them for granted. Yet, before their introduction in 1840, you had to be rich to communicate with anyone who didn’t live close to home. The Penny Post was a huge, beneficial, change for ordinary people and letter writing flourished. Postcards appeared and greeting cards for every occasion soon  followed.

There’s a whole history in stamps. Not only do they get your letters and parcels from A to B anywhere in the world, but they also commemorate major events; illustrate who and what certain countries see as important; and even reflect changes in the very existence of countries themselves. As in these Irish stamps:

Postmen in rural areas travelled mile after mile over rough terrain to make sure that the post got through. Getting mail to Scottish islands could be a real test of ingenuity. Everything was tried; from sheep’s bladders to rockets! Post offices abounded and were at the heart of small communities everywhere. Everything came by post!

The vital contribution made by postal workers was celebrated in the 1936 GPO film Night Mail, with W.H. Auden’s famous poem recited to the rhythm of the rushing wheels of the train.

And there’s much, much more! Whether you prefer print or digital download, it’s all there to be discovered in December’s wonderful 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) trys 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.

For very often life does find a way, with or without human help, and in some of the unlikliest 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. Absorbant 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 senario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

As old as the hills: the North West Highlands Geopark

Time and tide may wait for no man, but the hills do. And in Scotland we have some of the most magnificent hills and mountains in the world. Mountains that were forced into being over 400 million years ago when three continents collided, creating a mountain chain of umimaginable proportions. Mountains that, over millenia, have been worn away by ice, wind and water to reach the forms we see today.

Sadly there’s no Tardis to take us back to witness those times, but the story of the Earth’s formation can be read in the physical landscape itself. One man in particular came to understand the language of the rocks and that was James Hutton (1726-1797). Hutton was one of those remarkable Scots who fuelled that great intellectual and scientific movement, the Scottish Enlightenment.

Prof Lorna Dawson, ‘soil sleuth’.(Photo: Ross Johnston)

It was an exciting time when many people started to look at the world with new eyes and came to a new understanding of how the world had been shaped, and how it worked. They not only discovered the patterns at work within the natural world, but also those which applied to the social structures that shaped human life and society.

Hutton’s work was so groundbreaking that he would become known as the Father of Geology. And it still impacts on us today, even if not always in the most expected of ways! Take, for example, the work of forensic geologist, Prof Lorna Dawson, of the James Hutton Institute, whose work in soil forensics has brought some very vicious criminals to book, both here and around the world.

The view from Knockan Crag, NWH Geopark

Reading the landscape isn’t always straightforward, but a visit to the North West Highlands Geopark can help you understand some of the processes involved in the creation of modern Scotland. And offer one of the best holidays you can imagine!

The North West Highlands are a part of Scotland that I’ve visited often and love deeply. In this month’s iScot Magazine article I look at some noteable places in the geopark and at why they are important to us all. If you don’t know this part of the world, it’s an article that will give you plenty of ideas and much food for thought. And, I hope, the desire to head to the hills for a visit. They’ve been around for a very long time and are just waiting for you!

Glorious Clachtoll Bay

Glen Fyne

The path to the tree house

The clocks have gone back and the nights are definitely drawing in. Autumn is firmly in place and the trees are looking glorious in their shades of red, russet and gold.

With the days noticeably shorter, those long days out-of-doors are over until next spring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still places that can be visited and enjoyed in the shorter daylight hours available. From where I live, Glen Fyne and the surrounding area is just such a destination. Starting at the walkers’ car park by the old Telford Bridge at the head of Loch Fyne, or from the Oyster Bar car park, there are walks aplenty to choose from.

The shortest of these walks takes you firstly to Kilmorich graveyard, a medieval burial ground, then on to the ‘Tree Hoose’, half a mile or so further up the hill. As the tree house is full-size, there won’t be many adults or children who won’t enjoy a visit. From the upper platform, set in the canopy of a large ash tree, you can savour the long views up and down the glen, or let your imagination run free and be a pirate in the crow’s nest of a many-masted galleon!

The burial ground at Kilmorich is very ancient and first appears in written records in the mid-13th century. Although once home to a parish church dedicated to an Irish saint, St Muireadhach, nothing remains today of the medieval chapel. Interestingly though, the path up to the tree house is on the route of an old ‘coffin road’. These coffin roads were used in the days when only certain churches had burial rights (as Kilmorich had) and the coffins of the dead often had to be carried long distances to their final resting places.

The path follows the line of an old coffin road

The D-shaped enclosure around the burial ground dates from the 19th century, while the present day church of Kilmorich, situated in Cairndow, was built in 1816. But the old graveyard wasn’t totally forgotten and some of the trees around it are thought to have been planted by parishioners in 1819. According to Kirk Session records, a group took young trees to the old kirkyard to mark its special place in their lives, planting them ‘for to ornament the place where their Relations who have gone before them & their Forefathers have been Deposited’.

Also in the 19th century, a late 15th century font, complete with an incised galley, was removed from the old graveyard. It was then forgotten about until it found again very many years later at Inveraray Castle. It was finally returned home in 1990 and can now be seen in the vestibule of Kilmorich church in Cairndow.

The incised galley on the ancient baptismal font now in Kilmorich church in Cairndow

There are a host of other walks and bike rides up and down this lovely glen and some take you well up into the surrounding hills and mountains. And you certainly won’t go hungry, as there are eating places here too. There’s a great café at the Tree Shop, which sits beside the Here We Are centre in Clachan. Then there’s the smoked seafood of your choice at the Oyster Bar, or the beer of your choice at Fyne Ales, or over in Cairndow the Stagecoach Inn.

When winter approaches and the weather can be daunting, even a few hours out-of-doors can be just the boost we all need. So get a map and see what’s near you that’s worth exploring, and go for it!

‘Neolithic chic’ – Coillabus on Islay

Holiday accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the reality turns out to be not quite as it seemed in the brochure, while on other occasions you arrive to find it’s even better than expected. Coillabus on Islay was one of those, especially when we arrived at the lodge and saw the breathtaking 180° views over the north-west of the Oa. In fact, we could even see all the way along Glen Astle to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the small island of Orsay!

Set into the hillside, the lodge is almost invisible from the road, with curving stone walls and a turf roof that blend into the surrounding landscape: “Traditional black house meets neolithic with a healthy dose of contemporary chic”, as one description imaginatively puts it! And that’s not far wrong. Even the instructions on how to get there were magical: “The road becomes narrow with twisty corners in places. Continue past…the house with hens and other livestock.  Go up round past Connachan’s Grave, a chambered cairn on your left…then up a really steep bend past a house with…more hens who might be responsible for your breakfast eggs”!  How often do you get directions like this!

An example of a traditional black house of the kind that inspired modern-day Coillabus

The Oa is home to a large RSPB reserve as well as a wealth of archaeological and historical sites. The American Monument, visible from miles around, marks the tragic loss of life when two US troop ships sank off the peninsula in 1918. And, as on so many Scottish islands, there are signs of old abandoned settlements, many from the time of the Clearances, when landlords forced tenants to leave their homes. This area once supported many more families than it does today.

However, there is continuity with the island’s past as the Coillabus lodges lie within a family-owned working hill farm and were built with local stone by local craftsmen. The modern, environmentally-friendly underfloor heating makes for a warm and comfortable stay. We were fortunate to have good weather during our visit, but the lodge is so well insulated the weather almost didn’t matter! In fact, you could say it’s a ‘weatherproof’ house where the drama of a storm raging outside would be thrilling to watch through the magnificent panoramic windows.

In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at some of the ways architects are taking the best from the past and combining it with modern technology.  Coillabus, and properties like it, give the lie to the notion that eco-friendly living means a primitive existence! In Scotland we’re well on the way to meeting our electricity needs through renewables. Using air and ground source heat pumps, it’s great to see a growing number of buildings where the old meets the new to create something both sustainable and comfortable – and in this case very much in keeping with a glorious island setting. Coillabus is undoubtedly an example of the way to go!

Coillabus Ecoluxury Lodges

Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

Isle of Islay

Outlander, The Eagle and the Devil’s Pulpit

Finnich Glen, The Whangie and the Auld Wives’ Lifts all feature in October’s iScot

Question: What’s the connection between Outlander and the lost Roman legion in the film The Eagle?

Answer: The dark, dank and decidedly creepy gorge in Finnich Glen, that comes complete with a  curious sandstone rock known as the Devil’s Pulpit!

Imagine you’re a film producer and you need a location that’s shadowy, murky and menacing. Somewhere timeless and atmospheric. Secret, subterranean and definitely spooky. The gorge at Finnich Glen, also known locally as the Devil’s Pulpit, fits the bill exactly.  And so it was that it came to feature in both the Outlander television series and the film The Eagle.

South of Drymen, the gorge is 100ft deep, at times very narrow, with sheer, dripping moss-covered walls. An old Victorian stone stairway is one way down to the bottom of the gorge. Over the decades the steps have slipped and become precipitous. Winter gales have brought down trees, some of which have crashed onto the steps, dislodging sections. But despite that it’s still possible to get down as ropes have been strung across the most difficult sections.

Several scenes in the feature film The Eagle, starring Jamie Bell, Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland, were filmed in the gorge. The plot is closely based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which was written in 1954, and has remained popular ever since. It was the first in a very successful series of stories set in Roman Britain and recounts the tale of the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion. A mystery, and a matter of heated debate among historians, to this day.

Diana Gabaldon’s phenomenally popular Outlander series, has caught the public imagination and interest in its filming locations in immense.  Finnich Glen is the setting for St. Ninian’s Spring, where a drink from the sulfurous water acts as a type of lie-detector.  Should Claire lie to Dougal after drinking it, she will suffer dire consequences. However, she tells him again that she is not a spy and remains unharmed, at which point Dougal finally accepts this as the truth. This ‘truth forcing spring’ has brought more and more visitors to Finnich Glen.

But what does the devil have to do with it? And why his pulpit? The answer may lie close-by in another strange and outlandish geological feature known as the Whangie, a very popular local walk and climb. Legend has it that Auld Nick, the devil, finding himself very late for a meeting at the local witches’ coven, rounded the mountain so swiftly that his tail sliced through the hillside, creating the bizarre cleft called the Whangie. Perhaps the Devil’s Pulpit was where he had been lurking with dubious companions beforehand. Who can tell!

Gorge walking in Finnich Glen

The gorge is a natural sandstone canyon created over millennia by the fast-moving waters of the Carnock Burn. Over-topped by a canopy of trees, the gorge can feel very enclosed and shut-off from the outside world. It can also be strangely silent, with no other sound than that of the ever-present rushing water.

And it should be mentioned that, in-between being a spectacular film location, Finnich Glen is an equally spectacular gorge-walking and outdoor adventure site.

It’s not necessarily a place for the fainthearted, but if Claire, Esca and Marcus could all get there and live to tell the tale, then so could you!

Eileach an Naoimh

The striking remains of the beehive monastic cells on Eileach an Naoimh

There’s something about islands. That unique sense of wholeness, containedness, apartness. A sense that you can really get to know a place where the borders are so clearly defined by the surrounding water. It’s not a new idea. And it’s one that has been used often in literature.

But islands have also long been seen as places of retreat from the demands of life. As places of sanctuary, where peace and tranquillity allow time for reflection and decision.

Early Christian monks favoured islands. Partly because the sea was the way people travelled, especially between Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland. It’s not surprising therefore, that so many Scottish islands have been – and some still are – home to monasteries, chapels and religious settlements of many different shapes and sizes.

Though these early travellers still had to live – grow food, build shelter, survive wind, weather and ill-health – so not easy in any physical sense, as few lives were in the past, but lives with a purpose, which in all probability, made a difference.

Today many people choose to visit these remote islands to see where these early Christians lived. What is it draws us? There’s the excitement and sense of adventure of the journey at sea in a small boat. Then there’s an interest in history and archaeology, for it’s fascinating to see how others lived in the past without the many resources we see as essential to life today. Life pared down to the minimum.

But there’s also something about setting foot on an island knowing that others have done exactly that all those centuries ago and felt this to be a special place. A holy place. A place where they could live and talk to their God. Be apart for a while and re-connect to what is essential in life. I suspect that’s a longing many of us feel at times throughout our lives.

Eileach an Naoimh is a good example of one of these islands. Favoured by Brendan, Columba and also his mother, Eithne, it was seen as especially holy – hence it’s lasting name, which means Rocky Island of the Saint(s). A visit there is one that offers a real adventure if you chose to reach it by crossing the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, as we did.

And it’s a place to explore and spend time on. To stop for a while and ponder on the lives of those men and women who chose to live here in the past. And perhaps even to wonder what they would make of our lives today? Of our priorities and beliefs? Of our feelings and actions towards our fellows? What would they think of us, I wonder? Now that would be interesting!

You can read more about this fascinating island in my article in the current issue of  Scottish Islands Explorer

Garioch Women for Change

Who are the Garioch Women for Change and why are they so keen for women to make their voices heard? The opening pages of my article in this month’s iScot Magazine

There’s something afoot in the Garioch! A century ago the first women on these islands got the vote: today women the length and breadth of the country are not only looking at what women achieved in the past, but also at what they hope to achieve today. And the Aberdeenshire based Garioch Women for Change group have organised a fantastic conference to this end.

A grant from the Scottish Government’s Suffragette Centenary Fund has helped finance the conference: an apt connection, as we have a magnificent heritage in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In fact, should doubts about our ability to promote change ever assail us, it’s worth remembering that our Suffragist/Suffragette sisters were no different from us! They weren’t any braver, or stronger, or more intelligent, or more patient than we are, yet they were prepared to stand up for what they believed and face the (often unpleasant) consequences. They were ordinary women who took on a seemingly untouchable establishment and won!

The Garioch Women for Change conference organisers

There’s much we can learn from their achievements, rifts and all; much that can help us face the growing challenges to our society, and even to our democracy. Challenges which call for our engagement now, just as those women acted in their time. And the speakers at the Garioch Women for Change conference certainly reflect that engagement. Speakers whose expertise covers politics, history, communications, science, environmentalism and much more!

Among the speakers are the journalist and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch; Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and Rector of Aberdeen University; Prof Sarah Pederson of Robert Gordon’s University, who led the influential ‘Suffragettes in North East Scotland’ project; Aberdeenshire East MSP, Gillian Martin; Petra Pennington, Art and Community worker at Deveron Projects; Alison Evison, president of COSLA and Dr. Cait Murray-Green, CEO of a young Scottish company Cuantec, which produces compostable packaging from langoustine shells, a natural alternative to plastic. An impressive line-up!

The Garioch Women for Change are an intelligent and thoughtful group, with a clear understanding of why it’s so important for ordinary women to make their voices heard. Their conference on 15th September is free and open to all. And even if you can’t be there, there’s much to be done – so whatever we do, let’s make our suffragette sisters proud!

Registration information at Make Your Voice Heard