The Show Must Go On!

It’s been a long hard eighteen months. A year and a half that’s seen tragic loss of life, of jobs, of income, of hope for the future. And it’s not over yet. But while we’re still a long way from what passed for ‘normal life’ in 2019, we are beginning to learn to live and work in a world where covid is now endemic.

One noticeable green shoot of recovery is in the world of the performing arts. Recently I spent time with Roza Stevenson, a young woman who set up an amateur theatre company, Happy Sad Productions, in 2019.

Roza Stevenson

The company got off to a flying start with a hugely successful, sell-out production of Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier (you’ll never see Aladdin in the same light again!!), only to have covid arrive and everything close down around them.

But that didn’t stop Roza and her company completely. Admittedly there were no public performances, but they used what was available to them – namely Zoom! – to keep in touch, rehearse, share ideas and keep each other’s spirits up.

A scene from Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier

All being well, their first live performance will be in a few weeks time, 6th-10th October to be exact, in Edinburgh, opening with a family show, the popular musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

So if you’re looking for a great show with a vibrant, talented and committed cast, and a way to help both a fledgling theatre company and our performing arts, then this could be the show for you! And who knows, you might just be watching future household names treading the boards before your very eyes!

You can read more about Roza and Happy Sad Productions in my article, The Show Must Go On, in issue 76 of iScot Magazine

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Happy Sad Productions proudly present You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, at the Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 6th-10th October 2021

Booking information here: Happy Sad Productions

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.

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.

Inverie and Scoraig – defying the odds

As land ownership in Scotland clings grimly to its feudal roots, there are still far too many obstacles that make it hard, if not impossible, for Scots to live on and work the land. But it’s not only who owns the land that affects people’s lives, it’s also access. Access is vital for communities to survive and there can’t be many places in mainland Scotland that are as inaccessible as Inverie and Scoraig! Yet these two communities have shown that it’s possible to defy the odds and to thrive.

It’s not been an easy journey for either community. Neither have what we would consider ‘ease of access’, nor, until fairly recently, the opportunity to own the land they live on. However, you may have noticed that Inverie has been in the news again recently with talk of a community buy-out of the ‘remotest pub in mainland Britain’, which happens to be none other than the Old Forge in Inverie.

Inverie is a small settlement on the Knoydart Peninsula, and although not an island per se, it might as well be, because the only way of reaching the village, and thereby enjoying a drink at the Old Forge, is either by walking 15 miles (25km) over rough terrain or taking the little ferry from Mallaig and making a seven-mile (11km) sea crossing into Loch Nevis. The choice is yours! (tip: we took the ferry!)

The Falkirk Herald, September 1948

Fortunately, the challenge of a community buy-out is not a new one for the residents of Inverie. Like much of rural Scotland, Knoydart saw continuing depopulation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. So much so that there was even a suggestion in the 1990s that the peninsula be turned into yet another military training area. However, the community pulled together and in 1999 successfully bought out the old Knoydart Estate. Since then, under the auspices of the Knoydart Foundation, there have been a wealth of positive changes: everything from improved housing, affordable homes, the introduction of a Ranger service, expansion of local enterprises, forestry, a community owned trading company and, very importantly, their own hydro-electric scheme, Knoydart Renewables.

Press&Journal November 1969

Scoraig likewise, saw its population dwindle and almost die out over the years.  As with Knoydart, attempts to re-populate and revive the area, particularly after the Second World War, started off with high hopes, only to come to naught because of inequitable land ownership. But Scoraig has survived, thanks in no small measure to an influx of young people in the late 1960s. Although initially greeted with scepticism, they were determined not to be defeated.

Scoraig Heritage Centre!

At the time theirs was labelled a crackpot ‘alternative’ lifestyle. But in reality their approach to crofting and self-sufficiency, along with the harnessing of wind power, was ahead of its time and is now seen as a way forward for the rest of us. So much so, that one of Scoraig’s residents, Hugh Piggott, who helped build many of Scoraig’s original wind-turbines, now writes and teaches on the subject and runs Scoraig Wind Electric.

The story of both these communities is a long, and at times depressing one, so out-dated is land ownership in Scotland. But perseverance has paid off and they’re inspirational stories well-worth hearing and that’s what I’ve looked at in some detail in this month’s article in issue 71 of iScot Magazine.

It’s never too late – Creativity in later life

Flora Campbell 1921

As Albert Einstein commented, “Creativity is intelligence having fun!” And being creative – whatever form that creativity may take – is a vital ingredient in life. It’s a vital ingredient whoever you are, whatever age you may be. If we’re not creative we’re in danger of becoming passive, lazy in our thinking and in our living. Creativity comes from within us, but then takes us out of ourselves. And that’s no bad thing.

It’s especially important the older we become, when much of what we once took for granted becomes less easy. When we are, unavoidably, more limited in what we can do and where we can go. Being creative makes these limitations far more bearable.

Tonie Ritchie 1947

Bette Davies once said, “Old age ain’t for cissies!” And it’s true. As our bodies start their slow decline, we inevitably face a multitude of new challenges, both physical and mental. But fortunately what we mean by ‘old’ is changing. Particularly noticeable is how we look when we grow older. Previous generations aged more quickly and died younger. Life was harder, food scarcer, homes colder, daily chores more draining, families larger, health care more limited. But now we live longer and we have the means, and the freedom, to look and dress very differently. Dress codes have changed dramatically. I don’t think my grandmother ever wore a pair of trousers in her life, my mother sometimes did, but I seldom wear anything else. And you have to ask yourself, why did it matter so much?

Tonie Ritchie: debut author at 97!

There are two members of my family who’ve certainly proved that being creative doesn’t have a sell-by date. One is my great-aunt, who at the age of 97 completed the manuscript of a novel, Spur of Light, which was published last November as both an ebook and a paperback! That’s been a huge boost to her both mentally and physically. Good news tends to have that effect!

Another long-lived relative of mine, was the poet Flora Garry (1900-2000). In the 1940s she wrote plays and was an occasional contributor to national papers. This was also when she started to write poetry, often in the local Buchan dialect, but it wasn’t until she was in her seventies that her first collection was published, with her final collection appearing when she was 95. At the age of 98, she was made a Master of the University of Aberdeen, the principal, Professor Duncan Rice, visiting her in her retirement home in Comrie, to confer the honour on her.

Flora Garry 1976

Like Tonie, and my grandmother Eveline Kellas, all three of them strong Aberdeenshire women, Flora remained creative and firing on all cylinders until the very end. So while there may be some who feel that age devalues us, I certainly don’t agree. Nor did Flora, whose self-penned epitaph read: “Here lies Flora Garry much against her will.”

The relationship between aging and creativity is a fascinating and complex one. Much wider, and, I believe, more important, than we often realise. And one that I look at in this month’s iScot article: It’s Never too Late! And that goes for us all!

iScot issue 70, February/March 2021

 

A Pilgrim People

There’s an old saying that “curiosity killed the cat.” But I don’t go along with that. In fact, I believe it’s the exact opposite, a lack of curiosity, that ‘kills’ us. That stultifies our minds and our imagination. That closes our eyes to the possibilities of life and blunts our ability to have a vision of better things. Indeed, I think the Book of Proverbs hits the nail on the head when it says “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Whether a vision for our individual lives, or for our nation, it’s curiosity that leads us to ask questions and explore different ways of doing things. It’s curiosity that leads us to say “What would Scotland be like if…?”

Without curiosity people wouldn’t explore or experiment. Without curiosity early man wouldn’t have gone to see what was over the next hill or on the other side of that wide blue ocean. Without curiosity scientists and doctors wouldn’t have made the breakthroughs they have. Curiosity fuels our imagination and opens our eyes to connections we hadn’t noticed before. Just think of the complex process required to turn cocoa beans into chocolate and you have to marvel at human ingenuity!

People have always been curious, trying to find ways – and the words – to understand the world around them. To explain the seasons, the floods and famine, as well as the bounty and beauty of the world. To understand why the world is the way it is.

Curiosity is a profound human trait, one that is not far from spirituality: a sense that there is something else out there, beyond our physical bodies and the here and now. With spirituality rather than religiosity at its heart, pilgrimage can offer the chance to walk, to think, to talk, to ask questions, to give thanks. To be close to the past, live well in the present and imagine the future.

Pilgrimage is nothing new: Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and James IV all made pilgrimages. But today there’s a whole new generation looking at the old ways with contemporary eyes. And there are flourishing pilgrim routes all across Scotland and Europe. A modern pilgrim may venture forth for different reasons than those of the past. But that time out, re-connecting with the land, seeking to re-focus on what’s important and what we’re trying to do with our lives, is an experience worth considering. And fortunately Scotland is a country with a wealth of pilgrim routes, enriched by a long history of Celtic and medieval Christianity. So wherever you live, chances are there’s one pretty close to your doorstep!

In issue 68 of iScot Magazine I look at the history of pilgrimage: its rise and fall, and rise again and its myriad of forms.

iScot Magazine

Faith in Cowal

Scottish Pilgrim Routes

The Way of St Andrews

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!

From Arran to Africa – supporting the work of Mary’s Meals

We live in an ill-divided world, but three Scots are doing their bit to help feed some of the world’s neediest children. In this month’s iScot magazine (issue 66) I look at how Alison Page on Arran and Gerard Butler in Holywood are helping Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow with the work of his life-changing charity, Mary’s Meals.

Just how Magnus, from a shed in Dalmally, has managed to create a charity that now feeds well over a million children every day is an extraordinary story. But there’s even more to it than that. For it’s not just food that Mary’s Meals provide. It’s also hope. That meal, given to them each day at school, helps these children get the education they need to get themselves out of poverty. It makes a better future a real possibilty.

Both Alison’s Westie stories and Gerard’s film, Love Reaches Everywhere, show that books and films really can help change lives.  And that we can all do something to help redress the balance.

More about Corrie’s Capers

More about Mary’s Meals

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