Around Loch Torridon

Lower Diabaig

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

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

‘Cycling county’ 1930s style!

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

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

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

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

iScot magazine

The Road to Shieldaig

Red Roof Cottage, Loch Torridon

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

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

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

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

Sea Roads of Wester Ross

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

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

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

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

Pitlochry Dam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wee Mac Arran – worth waiting for!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fort of the Skulker: Dun an Sticir, North Uist

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

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

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

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

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

Crime Scene Investigation

What connects a Highland wilderness, a former east-coast fishing town and Glasgow’s respectable West End? The answer? Crime! But fear not, it’s fictional crime I’m talking about!

Assynt, Arbroath and Glasgow’s West End are the settings used by three crime writers in their latest novels. And the locations could hardly be more different. Yet even though they may not have much in common geographically, each one is shaped by the passage of time and the layers of history that add, bit by bit, to their unique heritage.

Whether the stark – and at times terrifying – beauty of Assynt, or the long, low, narrow streets of Arbroath, or the grand, self-important buildings of Victorian Glasgow, location plays a huge part in a successful novel. An authentic setting will draw readers in, help create a gripping atmosphere and be a believable backdrop to the twists and turns of the author’s tale. Readers have to believe in the setting as much as in the plot and the characters. Credibility matters.

Surprisingly, though, settings don’t necessarily have to be dark and Gothic to create a menacing atmosphere. That impenetrable Victorian fog, or the flickering candlelight, or the howling of a gigantic hound out in the mire aren’t the only ways to create suspense. Just the opposite in fact, for in the hands of a skillful writer, even the most ordinary, everyday settings can become something very much more sinister. We all like to feel safe in our home territory, but what if that’s the very place where the threat lies? In fact, sometimes that’s the most effective way crime writers can unsettle us: take the familiar – the known – give it an unexpected twist and suddenly it becomes very menacing indeed!

In the Highlands I’m often struck by that curious juxtaposition between the breathtaking landscapes and the tiny settlements scattered across them. Towering mountains and huge skies. All that space and yet so few people. What made Gareth Halliday chose this place for his debut novel From the Shadows?

Moving south-east, I suspect that even if you’ve never been to Arbroath, you’ll have heard of its abbey. Arbroath Abbey is special. Without doubt it’s lasting importance rests on an event that took place 700 hundred years ago, yet one which still resonates today. In 1320 Bernard, the Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, drafted a document which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the key documents in Scottish history. A document that contains the famous lines, “For so long as but a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never under any circumstances submit to the domination of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” And this is the ancient town where Jackie McLean sets her crime novels.

For Michael Mackenzie, it’s the University of Glagow, one of the oldest in the country that lies at the centre of his work. And with good reason! But to find out what that reason is, you’ll have to read the article in the Jan/Feb issue of iScot magazine!

A Fyne Day Out

I suspect some visitors head to Scotland believing it consists almost entirely of castles and ghosts. Not a surprising misconception, as that’s all too often the image presented to visitors by tourism agencies. While I agree that understanding the past is important, it’s also equally, if not more, important to be aware of what’s going on now and how that takes Scotland forward. There’s much more to Scotland than a romanticised past.

The great Scottish author and artist Alasdair Gray once said “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”, a quote now engraved on a wall of the Scottish Parliament. It’s a very positive sentiment and a good starting point for looking at what’s going on in Scotland today. Seeing what people are doing right now and how these activities work towards making Scotland that better, independent nation Alasdair so longed to see.

With that in mind I took a trip up to Loch Fyne head to see what’s happening there. It’s an area I know well – long school holidays spent in the rambling manse in Inveraray saw to that! And then there’s the wonderful drive to get there – a real treat in itself. Up along the shores of Loch Lomond. Past Ardgartan and up into the Arrochar Alps with a welcome pause at Rest and Be Thankful. Then down to the small settlement at Clachan at the head of Loch Fyne.

I soon discovered that for such a seemingly small place, there’s an impressive amount going on. Alongside a hefty dose of fascinating history, there’s a present day array of businesses and projects all of which are helping create a sustainable environment for people to live, work and flourish in this beautiful area.

The visitors’ hub Here We Are is central to an impressive number of wide-ranging projects, showing just what can be achieved when a community is determined enough and not afraid to accept challenges. On their website I noticed an interesting and very pertinent quote by Magnus Linklater, “If we are not aware of our own values we become victims of other peoples’ decisions. We have to bend to their agenda rather than ours, and that means not just a lack of trust in ourselves, but an aversion to risk and an inability to take decisions of our own.”  This local community has certainly shown how well trusting in themselves can work!

In this month’s iScot article I talk to some of the people involved with these projects and look at the positive difference they are making to the future prospects for this area. Take a look at the Here We Are website and get a feel for what’s afoot. Or better still, visit Loch Fyne head yourself and discover its wealth of attractions and enterprises. Enterprises that aren’t there simply for the benefit of passing tourists, but are the lifeblood of the people for whom this is home.

My article can be read it full in this month’s iScot Magazine : https://www.iscot.scot/

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.

Download the full issue of iScot for free here:

iScot Issue 57

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!

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.

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).

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!

Read the full article here:

Bute Connections

Or download the full magazine FREE here:

https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine/issue-56