Edinburgh – more than meets the eye?

How often do we talk to a friend, thinking we know them well, only for something to be said or done and suddenly we find ourselves realising we don’t really know them as well as we thought we did? We might have to reassess our relationship with them, take a more honest view of the sort of person they are. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides which, aren’t we all far more interesting for all our own quirks and idiosyncrasies?!

In that respect places aren’t a lot different from people. We see bits of them, forgetting that the public face of a city is incomplete, omitting a great deal of what that place is really like. Like people, no city is perfect. And it’s worth taking another look at the places we think we know best. Which is exactly what poet Gerda Stevenson and photographer Allan Wright have done in this new book about Edinburgh.

Sculpture by Tim Chalk celebrating the work of Helen Crummy

Robert Louis Stevenson was well aware that the city he loved was far from straightforward. After all it was Edinburgh that was the inspiration for his chilling tale of human duality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s important to recognise that while human creativity can be a wonderful thing, human imperfection can feed destructively into our surroundings; whether in the concrete monstrosities that we expect others to live in, or the casual destruction of the earth’s resources we’ve indulged in for decades. This book asks us to stop and look again at how we live – and expect others to live. And how that feeds into the surroundings we create.

Take the concrete desolation of Craigmillar. A far cry from Edinburgh’s much-vaunted tourist image. Yet a place that couldn’t quell the courage and determination of Helen Crummy, who would go on to found the Craigmillar Festival Society, and whose son would grow up to be the creative genius behind such marvellous works as the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

While writing this month’s article for iScot magazine, I had the opportunity to look at some of the issues they raise in their book. Although it’s not my home now, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to look anew at the Edinburgh I’ve spent many years in: whether studying, working or being a parent. And just as we do our friends a grave disservice if we expect perfection from them, we do ourselves a grave disservice if we fall for the picture-perfect view of Edinburgh so often presented to us.  People and places are a complex, yet rich, tapestry of history and experience. Never static and always changing. Edinburgh is definitely worth a second look, and this book might just help you to do that.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

How time flies! It’s 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and 5 years since Border Crossings, my account of a long-term connection between a group of young Scots and young East Germans, came out on Kindle. Many of the hopes of those heady days of November 1989 have come to fruition, though not all. Intolerance and inequality are on the rise at an alarming rate. But there’s a growing resistance to that hatred and greed. Every new generation has to stand up against the evils of their own time – and understanding past struggles can be a pointer to what can be achieved. So to mark the achievements of those young Germans that I have known for so many years, I’m re-posting this piece about that Scottish-German friendship, a friendship that began in 1978 and has played such an important part of my life.

*****

It’s 25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall – 9th November 1989.  A quarter of a century ago the seemingly impossible happened and that grotesque symbol of a brutal totalitarian regime was breached.  Not through violence or bloodshed, but through the non-violent, patient, persistent refusal of the people of the GDR – East Germany – to tolerate any longer the brutal, unjust and economically inept rule of a decaying communist regime. It was a day not many had foreseen but what a day of rejoicing it was!

Sunday 9th November 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was delighted to be asked to take part in BBC Radio Scotland’s “Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross” programme to discuss that exciting time.  It was an historic turning point for Europe – and the world – and I was privileged to have made many visits to East Germany both before and after those amazing days.

The courage, determination and hope of the people who lived through that brutal regime is remarkable.  The endless shortages, the ban on travel to the West, the constant spying and fear of the dreaded Stasi (the secret police) made life extraordinarily hard.  But in the end the regime fell and life changed for the people of the former East Germany.

Bringing down that hated wall!

My friends there live a very different life now and although the transitional period was not always easy,  there was a whole new Europe for them and their children to explore, enjoy and contribute to. Political reform is rarely easy as those with power seldom wish to relinquish any of it!  But events in what was East Germany – and the other countries in the former Soviet Bloc – show what can be done if people are determined, courageous and persistent enough!

Links:

Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross,

BBC Radio Scotland, The Fall of the Wall, 9th Nov 2014

Border Crossings Kindle Edition

A Piece of the Berlin Wall

Bute Connections

Question: What’s the connection between Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, the explorer who died along with Scott in the Antarctic, James Dobbie, nurseryman and founder of the well-known chain of garden centres and a Syrian patisserie with the best breakfasts in town?

Answer: the Island of Bute!

Henry Bowers’ family lived on Bute for many years and he loved the time he spent there when on leave from the Royal India Marine: time spent walking, talking, playing tennis and even swimming all the way from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore every day before breakfast!

Birdie Bowers

Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers

A small man, of boundless energy, he was one of last surviving members of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.  In March 1912, on realising that they had no hope of surviving, Scott wrote a letter to Bowers’ mother, “We are very near the end of our journey and I am finishing it in the company of two very gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son … As his troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end.”  Not long afterwards their tent was buried in a ferocious blizzard and their remains not found until eight months later.

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

By contrast, it was James Dobbie’s passion for plants that brought him to Bute. His overriding interest in horticulture led him to give up his job as Chief Constable and Public Prosecutor in Renfrew and move to Rothesay in 1875 to develop his growing horticultural interests: choosing Bute because it had what he considered to be the ‘perfect climate’ for growing plants. Even after he had officially retired from the company, Dobbie’s love of gardens and plants continued. On his death on 13th October 1905 he was buried at the High Kirk in Rothesay.

Bowers and Dobbie are but two of the thirty-six men and women who appear in the book Bute Connections, compiled by Jean McMillan, Margaret Lamb and Allan Martin, published in 2011 by the BNHS (Buteshire Natural History Society).

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute's rich and varied past

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute’s rich and varied past

It’s an island rich in history and archaeology, as was discovered when the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) completed a new survey of Bute in 2009/2010.  Aided by the knowledge and expertise of islanders, the survey team identified nearly two hundred previously unrecorded archaeological sites! RCAHMS archaeologists Alex Hale and George Geddes then produced The Archaeological Landscape of Bute – a must for all with an interest in Bute’s past and how that has formed its present and could shape its future!

So just what does Bute offer visitors today? For a start, you could get your bearings and brush up on the island’s history by spending an afternoon in the wonderful Bute Museum. Then head for the dungeons of Rothesay Castle!  Or sample the Gothic splendour of Mount Stuart.  Or why not be brave and explore the caves below the Iron Age fort at Dunagoil?

Helmi’s Syrian Patisserie, Rothesay

Or be energetic and hire a bike from the Bike Shed and cycle up the steep twists and turns of the Serpentine – or if that’s just too challenging go for a cycle round the island. Or take a walk through the atmospheric remains of the early medieval monastery of St Blane’s.  Later, should you feel like something a bit more strenuous, you could spend a week walking the West Island Way.

Or come along to Bute Noir – an annual crime writing festival second only to Stirling’s international Bloody Scotland event. Plus there are a growing number of music events to suit all tastes and ages. And Highland Games and agriculture are in the mix too.

Moumen Helmi, Bashar Helmi and Argyll and Bute MP, Brendan O’Hara

Life is never static and Bute continues to evolve and change. Take for example, the Syrian refugees who were welcomed to Bute in 2015 and who are now firmly part of the island community: the Syrian breakfast at Helmi’s Cafe is not to be missed!

In this month’s iScot magazine I take a look at all this and much, much more. A look at how our lives are interconnected in so many, and often surprising and unexpected, ways and how we’re all the richer for that!

To the Lighthouse

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Scotland’s geography and history are very closely intertwined. You can’t study the one without realising the impact of the other. Our long and illustrious maritime history is predicated on the great lengths of coastline, and in particular the innumerable islands that fringe the western seaboard. Before roads and railways facilitated land transport, most people travelled by boat. Whether the coracles of hardy Christian missionaries or the birlinns (galleys) of medieval warriors or the great vessels that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, ships were a major feature in Scotland’s social and economic history. And an integral part of that history are Scotland’s lighthouses.

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

There can’t be many of us who aren’t familiar with the Lighthouse Stevensons, that amazing family of engineers, who almost single-handedly designed and built the lighthouses of Scotland – and beyond. In fact, two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most enduring works, Kidnapped and Treasure Island, were inspired by visits to island lighthouses built by his gifted family. He was to write: There is scarce a deep sea light… but one of my blood designed it… and when the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, Western Australia

Very often built in rocky, remote and harsh parts of the country, the story of the construction of the lighthouses, and the vital role they played in saving the lives of so many mariners, is a grand one. Today the lights are automated and the former homes of those hardy keepers and their families have been sold off, many to become holiday accommodation or hotels. Yet that once-hostile isolation is now seen as a plus. Remote and peaceful places, they’ve become a welcome escape, far from the never-ending noise and bustle of our towns and cities.

And what about those massive foghorns, that rumbled out into the impenetrable mist and fog that could so often play havoc with ships? Think on Whisky Galore and that fateful moment when, blinded by the fog, the SS Cabinet Minister hits the rocks and leaves its cargo open to thirsty islanders!

I’ve climbed lighthouses from Cape Wrath at the very north of mainland Scotland to Cape Leeuwin at the southernmost tip of Western Australia and enjoyed every single visit. On a recent trip to Galloway we went to see some of the many lights around that coast, and what we experienced there, along with a host of fascinating events associated with them, led me to write this month’s article in iScot magazine.

Killin and the Falls of Dochart

Two and a half thousand years ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously remarked that you can never step in the same river twice. Nothing stays the same. Not humans, or nations, or landscapes. For Heraclitus, ever-present change was the fundamental essence of the universe.

We grow and change and age every single day. And there’s nothing we can do to halt that process. Nations change too – they come into being, then welcome new citizens to help them grow and develop. Empires, where one nation uses force and brutality to enslave other nations, eventually crumble and fade away.

Geologically, landscapes change with infinite slowness. But while humans are capable of improving the world around them, all too often they do more harm than good, and damage with unfortunate alacrity. We can create such beauty, but also destroy and scar the landscape, and the lives of those who live there, with such thoughtlessness, not only for the present but also for the future.

It’s interesting to see how change in one community can reflect the way in which wider society and landscapes are altered. In the current issue of iScot Magazine, I look at how life in the beautiful village of Killin has changed over the years, and at how many of those changes mirror what was happening in the wider world. But more than that, I also look at what’s there to be enjoyed today – and that’s plenty!

iScot Magazine

Flanders Moss

Flanders Moss: it sounds like the site of a WWI battle, but in fact it’s a stretch of raised peat bog in the heart of the Carse of Stirling. By the 1970s this ancient peat bog wasn’t looking too good. Decades – if not centuries – of attempts to remove the peat had turned some of the area into workable agricultural land, but unfortunately left large expanses of the bog dried-up and barren. Today, however, the story is very different and this precious landscape is being restored to a much healthier state.

But why, you might ask, would you want to restore a bog! We tend to think of bogs as bleak, miserable places: difficult to walk across and even deadly (think Grimpen Mire in the Hound of the Baskervilles). But, in fact, they’re hugely important. Not only are they a vital habitat for many plants and animals, but they’re extremely effective carbon sinks, removing harmful carbon dioxoide from the atmosphere. We need them!

The Moss is so important that it’s both a designated SSSI, as well as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Thankfully, despite historic attempts to alter the nature of the bog, it remains one of the largest areas of near-natural raised peat bog in Europe.

But it’s also a fun day out!  With a hint of adventure, you have to take care not to step off the boardwalk into the water-logged ground beside you. You’ll hear birdsong and the hum of busy insects and there’s also a good chance you’ll spot some four-winged dragonflies, multicoloured butterflies, sun-bathing lizards, even juicy cranberries, or dazzlingly white bog-cotton and, if you’re really lucky, that tiny, carnivorous, insect-eating plant, sundew!

Near the start of the trail there’s a viewing tower which gives a glorious bird’s-eye view across the bog over to the surrounding mountains: Ben Lomond, Ben Venue, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich and many more.

The bog began its life over 8,000 years ago, sitting as it does on water-logged clay soil, and in places the peat is 23 feet (7 metres) deep – and still growing. But so slowly that there’s little danger we’ll sink under it! That depth of peat, however, is a goldmine to scientists who are able to use it to chart those 8,000 years of changes in climate and sea-levels; and to learn how humans interacted with this landscape.

Common lizard

Common lizard

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) care for the site and are working to repair and improve the balance of the land; clearing scrub and damming former drainage ditches to bring the bog back to what it once was: a wonderful world of wetness! All of which, I must say, sounds ideally suited to our renowned Scottish climate!

‘Wee Macgreegor’ and the Mystery of the Three Nuns

He was once a character known the world over, yet today Wee Macgreegor is little more than a footnote to Scottish literature. First published in 1902, the tale of wee Macgregor Robinson and his family made writer and journalist J J Bell (John Joy Bell), an overnight sensation.  Wee Macgreegor soon featured in many other novels, and was so popular it wasn’t long before he became a brand – on matches, china, biscuits, tablet, lemonade and even sardines!

John Bell was the son of a prosperous Glasgow tobacco manufacturer and enjoyed all that that entailed. After university John briefly joined the family firm, however writing was his real passion and, with his father’s blessing, he began writing for newspapers and magazines. But just as John’s star began to rise, his father’s company sank upon the rocks of American competition in the trans-Atlantic battle for supremacy of the vastly profitable tobacco trade.

From iScot April/May 2019

An unassuming man, Bell was surprised, but pleased, when the books were dramatised for stage, radio and cinema. In 1911 Arthur Wareing, director of the Glasgow Repertory Theatre, suggested Bell adapt some of the stories for his company to perform. The Glasgow Rep had been established in 1909 in an attempt to break the stranglehold which the London touring companies had gained in Scottish theatres. Sadly, the company would be short-lived, falling victim to the wave of theatre closures caused by the outbreak of World War One.

Harold Chapin

However, working with a young American producer and playwright, Harold Chapin, Bell had the play ready by December 1911. Finding a boy to play the part of Wee Macgreegor wasn’t easy. But one of Bell’s former Evening News colleagues came to his aid, finding ‘a likely lad’ for them. This was Willie Elliot, a messenger-boy, a small fourteen-year-old, who although he had no ambition to become an actor, was able and intelligent and made a successful job of the part. Both Harold Chapin and Willie Elliot would later be caught up in the First World War, Chapin volunteering for the medical corps and losing his life in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. While Willie Elliot, although wounded three times, survived that bloodbath and after the war left Scotland to start a new life in Canada.

Betty Balfour

In 1923 a silent film, Wee MacGregor’s Sweetheart, appeared. The film told the story not of the eight-year-old boy, but the young man and was based on two later stories, Oh! Christina and Courting Christina, with the role of Christina played by Betty Balfour, one of the best-known actresses of the day. Betty Balfour was known as the ‘British Mary Pickford’, and worked in Germany and France, as well as appearing in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films, Champagne (1928).

I found it fascinating trying to track down the people, places and events that were part of J J Bell’s life. While he seems to have been a very quiet, almost reserved man, his writing brought him into contact with people from all walks of life. Up until his death in 1934, Bell continued to contribute to newspapers, was a theatre critic, produced some autobiographical volumes and wrote widely about Scotland, most notably The Glory of Scotland (1932) and The Rainbow West (1933).

One of his favourite, and oft-repeated journeys, was on the West Highland Railway up to Fort William and on to the fishing port of Mallaig. The growth of railways had opened up parts of Scotland that had previously only been accessible to the very wealthy. Now travel was there for all.

Bell’s love of Scotland was great, and he felt very strongly that, for all of us, personal knowledge of our land was important, “for after all, we ought to know for ourselves – not depending entirely on Sir Walter Scott – the land we love.”

And as for the mystery of the three nuns? You’ll have to read the iScot article to find the answer to that!!

iScot Magazine

Islands to die for

“It was a dark and stormy night …” I wonder how many stories have opened with those famous words? Words first penned by American author Washington Irvine in 1809. Although much parodied, it’s an opening phrase that was used to great effect by Madeleine L’Engle in her ground-breaking novel A Wrinkle in Time, a book that had a profound influence on me as a child. L’Engle opened the door to a whole generation of children in the 1960s onwards with her stories that combined science fiction and fantasy with the spiritual and questions of good and evil. The first in a series, the book went on to win many literary awards and be dramatised for stage, radio, television and film.

That question of good and evil, right and wrong and the responsibility we hold for our actions and words, has stuck with me ever since. And it’s a question that’s been with humankind from the word go! Cain and Abel, those murderous Greeks and Romans and every ‘civilisation’ before and since has been built upon murder and violence. Curiously, but also happily, murder is far, far less common today than at any other time in the past – so perhaps we’re learning!

It’s also an issue that’s at the heart of much literature, in particular the crime genre. Add an island to the mix and you have a winning combination. Long used in literature as settings for dark deeds thanks to their enclosed and isolated communities, islands been used to great effect by authors as varied as Homer, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton!

Scotland, with its wealth of islands, has long been fruitful territory for crime writers, perhaps the best known being Peter May and Ann Cleeves, featuring the Hebrides and Shetland respectively. But there are many others and in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at novels by two Scottish authors, Lin Anderson and Craig Robertson, who use distinctive and very different island settings for their characters’ dark deeds!

We tend to think of islands as idyllic holiday destinations, but pick up a crime novel and you’ll find an able author can turn them into something very different indeed. A safe haven or a sinister setting? Have a read of this article and then decide!

What lies beneath? From Pictland to Scotland

“The past is still a place that is not safely settled,” wrote Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, best known for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient. At the start of Ondaatje’s tale neither the patient’s name nor his past are known, but as the story unfolds his true identity, and the tragic events leading to his desperate state, are gradually revealed.

Just as the history of an individual is uncovered in this many-layered story, so archaeologists continue to delve into the past, unearthing new levels and discovering artefacts that reveal ever more about our country’s history and the lives of our ancestors.

The entrance to the Basilica (Church) di San Clemente

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

It’s surprising how often we think of the past as something fixed and final – but nothing could be further from the truth. The past is not static and archaeology and historical research are our tools for learning more.  As new finds come to light, we’re able to reassess our understanding of how people lived in bygone days.

Some years ago I read Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica (Church) di San Tommaso. The setting is based on the real Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

The underground portico at the west end of the 4th century church

The rediscovered underground portico of the 4th century church in San Clemente

On top is the 12th century basilica. Below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, a lower basement served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed.

It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. These exciting discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The crypt under St Colman's Church at Portmahomack

The crypt under St Colman’s (Tarbat Old Church) at Portmahomack

But what about Portmahomack? Similar far-reaching discoveries were made here between 1994 and 2007, when archaeologists uncovered the site of what seems to be the largest Pictish Christian Monastery in Scotland. Founded around 560 AD, perhaps even by Columba himself, this monastery in Pictland grew and flourished for the next 300 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the monastery had a farm and a cemetery, as well as workshops for the making of sacred church objects, intricate sculptures, and illustrated books (similar to the Book of Kells).

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Picts have long been one of history’s great mysteries, but discoveries like these at Pormahomack have given us unique insights into their civilisation. They were not simply the barbaric ‘painted’ warriors of Roman propaganda, but an artistic, highly cultured people, skilled craftsmen, well-organized, well-travelled and not isolated from contemporary politics and events, with Portmahomack a key point on the North Sea trade routes.

But then tragedy struck when, around 800 AD, the monastery and the surrounding community were destroyed by Viking invaders. The wonderful treasure that was this unique Pictish monastery was reduced to rubble and gradually disappeared beneath the earth, to be eventually forgotten.

Portmahomack

Portmahomack

But sacred sites draw people to them, and other churches were built on this hallowed ground.  Until finally, centuries later, gravediggers unearthed fragments of ancient carved stones and it became clear that something very ancient and substantial lay beneath their feet. And the re-discovery began.

One way or another we are all shaped by the past. A better understanding of that makes for a better understanding of ourselves.  And who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?

You can read about this, and much more, in my article in this month’s iScot magazine.

Tarbat Discovery Centre

Unlocking the Past: Crossraguel Abbey

“Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime. Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Powerful words from Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Words that are echoed by many others, including Julian Barnes, who writes, “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.” Which raises the question of just how do we preserve the past? Who decides what remains of that collective memory? Who writes our history?

There’s a familiar quote which runs like this, “To the victor the spoils.”  Those spoils, however, are more than just material gains. They include the power to create the account of events that will become history.  Those victors are allowed to give the ‘official’ version of what happened. Versions that glorify particular events or people, and all too often fabricate a past that didn’t exist, taking the collective memory down a path of untruth. It’s been happening since the dawn of time, and it takes time and effort to redress the balance. Just think how many people still believe Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth, unaware of how successful a monarch he was, so much so that he could leave a stable, well-governed country and go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Wartime secrecy is a boon to those who wish to create history with a particular agenda. Churchill is a prime example of that. His orders to destroy so much at the end of WWII gave him room to write an account of events that put him centre stage and ‘do a Richard III’ on former colleagues. Fortunately there are now versions that show events more honestly, Clive Ponting’s Churchill being one of them. Accounts which redress some of the imbalance.

We’re awash with fake news today. Statements are made by politicians that are blatantly untrue, yet go unchallenged.  And, more dangerously, seep into the public consciousness to become fact. Yet there are ways to counter this. Knowing where to look for original source material is one. Being aware that all historians, journalists and broadcasters present news from a particular viewpoint – no-one is totally impartial – is another.

But there’s also the pleasure of finding out for yourself. Of getting out and about in your own country and visiting those places which, through their very antiquity, have so much to tell us about past events and what those events meant to those who lived through them. And how those events shaped the lives of generations to follow. Taking Crossraguel Abbey as an example, I’ve tried to do just this in my current iScot article.

What you remember defines you. What a nation remembers defines it too. The past is all around us – just waiting for you to come and find what really happened!