Forteviot and the Southern Picts

If the 8th century sculptured stone at Fowlis Wester is anything to go by, the Picts were a dapper looking bunch. The men, that is, as they’re the ones depicted on the carved stones we see today. With razor-sharp beards and nifty topknots, they’d be quite at home amongst today’s hirsute males. And as both mirrors and combs feature among the symbols carved on Pictish stones, they must have been deemed to be of great importance to be given such lasting status. Cool dudes, indeed!

Yet they’re an elusive bunch, our Pictish ancestors. We know they were tribes in northern and eastern Scotland who spoke a Celtic language and flourished from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, spanning the late Iron Age and the early medieval period. Yet there’s still much about them we don’t know.

Fortunately, there have been a number of Pictish-related archaeological projects in recent years. These excavations have unearthed (and are still unearthing) finds that have added greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the Picts. And as knowledge of the past is not static, as any archaeologist worth his or her salt knows, there’s always more to discover.

East of Fowlis Wester is the village of Forteviot: a small, unassuming place, yet one with a remarkable past. It was once the heart of the mighty kingdom of the southern Picts and would go on to be acknowledged as the ‘cradle of Scotland’. The place where the Scots and the Picts finally came together as the Kingdom of Alba, which in turn gave birth to the nation that would become Scotland.

That transformation is a fascinating story. And one which I examine in this month’s article. The story of our Pictish ancestors is riveting history. And slowly but surely, bit by bit, we’re learning more.

iScot issue 93

The Earthquake House

The first time I experienced a serious earthquake was in 1984 in Soviet Central Asia. We were in Uzbekistan, an area of high seismic activity, and though the local people took the quake in their stride, it left us more than a little shaken. It was soon obvious that the older, traditional, mudbrick houses ‘moved’ with the quake, thereby suffering little damage. But for the more modern Soviet buildings of concrete, steel and chrome, it was a different story altogether. Buckled metal and twisted doors were followed by a fair amount of consternation as to how, or even if, the damage could be repaired.

Fast forward to October 2005 and a family holiday on the Greek island of Zakynthos. On hearing a growing rumble, my first thought was that a very large plane was flying directly overhead. Living as we did then under the flight path to Glasgow airport, my initial reaction was one of annoyance – why was it that even on holiday we couldn’t escape the noise of those wretched planes! It didn’t take long however, to realise this was something very different, not an aircraft but an earthquake of magnitude 5.7.

Earthquakes can be fearsome things even when we know what’s causing them. But imagine what it must have been like for our ancestors as they tried to make sense of the mysterious and often destructive heaving of the planet. We can see their attempts to explain earthquakes in primitive myths and legends: those frightening tales of titans, giants and monsters. Tales of fearsome and unpredictable entities forever fighting, hurling huge, mountain-sized boulders at one another – causing, it was believed, earthquakes. And if not that, then blame the Wrath of God!

Fortunately we now have a far greater understanding of what causes earthquakes: of the geological forces behind Continental Drift and tectonic plates. Yet, the story of how we reached this understanding and the role played by the 19th century ‘Comrie Pioneers’ is a fascinating one. And one that I tell in issue 92 of iScot Magazine.

Cultybraggan

It’s not often that you get the opportunity to spend the night – or several nights, come to that – in a prisoner of war camp. A former POW camp obviously. But one that retains much of the look and feel of the original. Self-catering with a difference!

In some ways it might seem to be a bit of a time warp, but that would be deceptive. Cultybraggan started life as a POW camp and eventually housed some of the most brutal, die-hard Nazi prisoners – with grim results.

That was followed by nearly sixty years as a MOD training camp. Not only for regular army troops, but also for members of the Territorial Army, University Officer Training Corps and school cadets. But it’s a different being now. A community buy-out in 2007 saw to that.

Cultybraggan is an interesting example of how places change as time passes. It’s also interesting as a place where the past is still very visible.

And it’s also a place where good men, the likes of Germany’s Herbert Sulzbach and Scotland’s Hamish Henderson, worked with Nazi prisoners to try and break the mindset that had led to such barbarity and so much death.

Everywhere has its own unique history and its own story to tell. Cultybraggan certainly has a very unusual one. Hopefully one that will continue well into the future.

My article is in issue 91 of iScot magazine

Island Tales

I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and amongst these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people … that find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island fills them with an indescribable intoxication.” Lawrence Durrell, from Reflections on a Marine Venus.

At a very young age I too was diagnosed with islomania. And it seems there is no known cure. Not that I’d want there to be one, as it’s a malady I’m more than happy to suffer from. Rarely fatal, though often chronic, it means, basically, you can’t get enough of islands! And as there is no known cure, the only way to live with it is to visit as many islands as you possibly can. And I do.

The Colonsay Hotel

What is it about islands? They come in all shapes and sizes. Even continents are little more than enormous islands. Land surrounded by water. There’s a children’s book by American writer Margaret W. Brown called The Little Island and a line in that sums up beautifully what it means to be an island: “A part of the world and a world of its own.” I suspect that also sums up the way many of us feel at times! An island offers that bit of distance, that apartness that we often need to slow down and deal with all that goes on in our busy, and at times stressful, lives.

Not that life on an island is without its ups and downs. Wherever people are, there will be challenges and tensions along the way. You only have to look at William Golding’s chilling novel Lord of the Flies for a horrific example of what can go wrong! I doubt there’s a perfect utopia for any of us. But I do find that people I’ve met on islands, or remote communities, often have the ability to apply ingenious lateral thinking when need arises.

The landing strip on Barra

And it’s this ability to look at things differently that I write about in the current issue of iScot Magazine (issue 79). Whether it’s that narrowly avoided storm in a communion cup, or the young doctor who appeared on a boat out of nowhere, or getting the right patient to hospital, or even defining ‘Mañana’, there are very many wonderful stories to tell!

Thank you for the Music

There’s something about music. Indeed, as Shakespeare didn’t quite say, “If music be the food of life… play on!” And when it does, it makes the world a better place for us all.

Music is such an integral part of human life. I doubt there are many who don’t get real pleasure from listening to music or playing an instrument themselves. In fact, it’s reckoned that our ancestors started developing musical instruments as long as 50,000 years ago – and haven’t stopped since!

Music has real power to lift our mood. There seems to be a deep connection between music and human wellbeing. It’s not surprising that Jane Austen commented, “Without music, life would be a blank to me.”  Or Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese philosopher and poet, for whom music was the language of the spirit, “It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.”

Making music doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be at a professional standard. Making music can, and should be, fun!

As our ancestors discovered, almost anything can be used to make music. To produce a few notes. To create a rhythm. And there are people still putting that into practice today, as this biscuit-tin-ukulele proves!

Music brings people together. The 19th century American poet, Henry Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” A sentiment echoed by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen who wrote, “When words fail, music speaks.”

Being furloughed by covid lockdowns, I took up the ukulele and discovered a whole new world of music.  And fellow ukulele novices who are enjoying the musical journey as much as I am.

A favourite author of mine, Mark Twain, wrote, “The human race has only one really effective weapon, and that is laughter. The moment it arises, all your irritations and resentments slip away and the sunny spirit takes their place.” And learning to play the ukulele has certainly prompted much laughter within my group!

Put laughter and music together and you’ve got a winning combination. So pick up a ukulele, or the instrument of your choice, and play!

You can read the full article in issue 78 of iScot Magazine.

The Vaccine Challenge

Viruses will continue to appear and to mutate. They’re not likely to disappear any time in the foreseeable future. So how do we deal with them?

In the 19th century we fought epidemics with clean water and the creation of a sanitation infrastructure. These days we need an effective vaccine infrastructure.

But how do we respond, quickly and equitably, to the current worldwide lack of manufacturing capacity in the face of pandemics? Can a resilient Scotland rise to the vaccine challenge?

We could create a National Pharmaceutical Company to secure the supply of essential medicines under greater public ownership and to help manufacture and deliver them to the world’s most vulnerable.” Anishka Cameron

Will Scotland establish regional bio-hubs to produce and distribute vaccines rapidly and effectively? We have the knowledge and the skills to do so. But is there the political will to set this up? That’s the six-million-dollar question.

I spoke to microbiologist Lynne Copland in a search for answers. You can read about her proposals in issue 77 of iScot Magazine

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!