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.

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!

To the Lighthouse

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

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

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

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

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, Western Australia

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

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

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

Killin and the Falls of Dochart

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

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

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

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

iScot Magazine

‘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 di San Clemente

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.

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 at St Colman’s Church

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 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

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!