‘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

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!

Tall tales and tackety boots

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full article is available in iScot Janury 2019

Keeping you Posted

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

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

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

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

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

As old as the hills: the North West Highlands Geopark

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

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

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

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

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

The view from Knockan Crag, NWH Geopark

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

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

Glorious Clachtoll Bay

Outlander, The Eagle and the Devil’s Pulpit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorge walking in Finnich Glen

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

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

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

Perspective

In 1986 the Guardian newspaper showed a powerful advert in which a skinhead looks as though he’s about to rob a pedestrian. Then the whole scene is revealed and rather than being a thief, the skinhead is in fact saving the man’s life, dragging him to safety as a pile of bricks crashes down from the scaffolding overhead.

It was an excellent example of how seeing only half the picture, or hearing only half the story, can cause us to jump to some very wrong conclusions indeed. Called Points of View, it demonstrated how imporant it is to get the whole picture in order to really understand what’s going on. It obviously made a lasting impact on me, for thirty years later I still remember it vividly, and its message.

Sometimes all it takes is a slight shift in perspective and a whole new scenario opens up in front of us. Take the time to look at things from a different standpoint, and you’ll find a lot can change.  In a way it’s a bit like the fake news that’s so prevalent today. We need to step back and look at the other side of the coin before believing what we’re being told to believe. What we’re being presented with as ‘truth’.  But we’re intelligent beings. We can think. We can ask questions. Ask for proof before simply accepting the newspaper headlines

A change in perspective can also clarify the reasons things are the way they are. Think, for example, of the view from a plane as you come in to land. From above, you can see the neat patterns of fields and houses, appreciate the orderliness that we can so easily miss at ground-level. Sometimes things aren’t as random as we thought they were.

One of my favourite views is from the Skye Bridge. Not quite the same as being in a plane, admittedly, but even that elevation opens up so much, and gives views for miles around. In the midst of all that grandeur sits tiny Eilean Bàn. With a reputation for being haunted, it’s home to a Stevenson lighthouse and the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages that became the final residence of the author Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell became known world-wide for his Ring of Bright Water trilogy, books that opened the eyes of millions to the wonder of otters and the natural world.

It could be easy to overlook Eilean Bàn as the mighty Skye Bridge soars overhead. But it’s an island with a long and interesting history, and a visit to the Gavin Maxwell Museum or the island’s impressive wildlife hide is a worthwhile day out.

I’m glad that Maxwell’s life and work is celebrated here. I grew up with his books and laughed – and cried – through the eponymous film starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers.  And I’ve paid many a visit to Sandaig, the beautiful bay south of Glenelg, that was Maxwell’s home for so many years and immortalised as the ‘Camusfeàrna’ of his books. Maxwell was a gifted, but troubled and complicated man. And yet, despite being a mass of contradictions, he did so much to bring understanding and love of the natural world to many people.

In this month’s iScot magazine I look at all this, as well as the history of the surrounding settlements and islands. Everything from vicious Vikings, to a startling 19th century plan to turn Kyleakin into a city called New Liverpool! Now that really did surprise me. That the plan ultimately came to naught, however, didn’t. From Kyleakin to New Liverpool? I’d have to admit that that’s one shift in perspective I just can’t quite manage to make!

 

Garioch Women for Change

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

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

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

The Garioch Women for Change conference organisers

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

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

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

Registration information at Make Your Voice Heard

Atoms of Delight – the Art of Christian Small

There’s a lovely poem of William Blake’s, Auguries of Innocence, which opens with these lines: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour”: sentiments echoed in the writings of the 19th century Austrian author and poet Adalbert Stifter, who believed that if you couldn’t see wonder and beauty in a tiny flower, then you were missing some of the greatest glories around us.

There’s no doubt that magnificent spectacles – the crash, bang, wallops of life –  catch our attention and draw a reaction from us: take the noise and sights of explosive fireworks. But the beauty in the everyday, the people, places and objects around us, is a wonder too. This was something Borders-based artist Christian Small saw, and captured, in her art.

A very private person, it wasn’t until after her death in 2016 that the full extent of her work became clear. Since then her daughter, Jenny Alldridge, and actor and poet Gerda Stevenson, have put together a beautiful book to give Christian’s work the attention it deserves.

Though it’s not just her paintings that have come to light, but also the rich and complex story of her life. And I’ve tried to convey some of that in my article in the August issue of iScot magazine. For no-one leads a ‘straightforward’ life, no-one is just ‘ordinary’. Each and every one of us has a unique and complex existence. It may be a quiet, unassuming existence, one that doesn’t clamour for attention, but unique nonetheless. Discovering that uniqueness, whether in people, or places, or the natural world, is a central ingredient to finding life interesting, giving it depth: giving us depth.

Christian expressed that through her art. Others do so through writing. Others through music. Others again through their role in their families. Or their work. In welcoming strangers. Helping the needy. However we do it, there’s something special in all of us that we give to our world. And there’s so much that the world gives back to us if we take the time to see it: those Atoms of Delight that are everywhere around us, are just waiting to be dicovered!

For further information see: Christian Small