Where the wild things are!

I’ve been reliably informed by an elderly neighbour that Scotland is going to enjoy really good weather in May and June this year. In theory they should be good months weather-wise, but as that’s not always the case, I’m glad to have this confirmed by neighbourly bunions!

And if today’s weather is anything to go by, those bunions are on the right track! What a glorious day! So it’s time to get out and about as much as possible, and from Glasgow, Mugdock Country Park is not only close at hand, but packed-full of history and things to see and do.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the Park, is that it was once home to a zoo: complete with all the wild animals you would expect to see. Lions, tigers, llamas, panthers, even Charlie the elephant: all living in the grounds around Craigend Castle and all within striking distance of Milngavie. No, I’m not joking – it really did exist! And that story, as well as the tale of the zoo’s forerunner, housed in a Glasgow tenement, are at the heart of my article in this month’s iScot magazine.

The zoo is gone, and perhaps the most visible evidence of the past lives of the people of this area is Mugdock Castle itself. No one knows exactly how old this once formidable stronghold is, though it must have existed at least as far back as the 14th century for a document relating to the castle – an agreement over land between the castle’s owner, Sir Patrick Graham, and one Angus Hawinroyss – was signed there on the 24th of August, 1372. The castle is a dramatic ruin now: though I did see Robert the Bruce ride by recently – in the shape of actor Chris Pine and with the film crew for Outlaw King hot on his heels!

The mighty tower of Mugdock Castle

Over the years the Grahams extended their lands and the estate prospered, becoming both a centre for regular markets and fairs, and also the seat of the Barony court, where ‘justice’ would be meted out. If you were tried and found guilty in the Courthall of the castle what happened next?  Where would be your fate be determined?  Read on!

During the Dark Ages and Medieval times Mugdock Loch was far larger and deeper than it is today. On a small island, only a few hundred yards from the castle, was the Moot Hill, or Hill of Judgement. It was on this spot that the unfortunate criminal would hear his sentence: seldom a happy one!  In many cases it would be straight back across the causeway and over to the grimly named Gallowhill for execution.

Next to Gallowhill was the equally fearsome Drowning Pond, where unfortunate women accused of witchcraft were forcibly held under water: if you drowned you were innocent, if you survived you were guilty and burned at the stake. A lose-lose situation if ever there was one!   Walk round the pond today and listen for the ghostly laments of its victims.

From a war much nearer our own time are the silent remains of the Mugdock anti-aircraft gunsite built in 1942 in the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz. This gun emplacement was part of a series of anti-aircraft batteries constructed around the Clyde Basin to protect the heavy industries in and around Glasgow. The nearby Nissen huts housed the army personnel stationed to man the guns, complete with showers and sleeping accommodation.

Michael Gambon and Iain Cuthbertson, the rugged stars of 'The Borderers'!

Michael Gambon and Iain Cuthbertson, the rugged stars of ‘The Borderers’!

But to go back to Mugdock Castle. Here’s a question: what’s the connection between Mugdock Castle and the actor Michael Gambon? The answer: Gambon starred as heroic young Gavin Ker of Slitrig,  in the 1960s/70s television series The Borderers, which was filmed at Mugdock Castle. It was an exciting historical drama, set in the 16th century, which told the tale of the Warden of the Middle March (Iain Cuthbertson) and his family during the troubled and violent times of the Border Reivers. The Warden’s dashing young nephew, Gavin Ker, fought to protect his family and remain a decent man. It was stirring stuff!

There’s still plenty  of wildlife in the Park, but fear not – most of it is on a much smaller scale than those wild things in the zoo! So as you take that stroll in the park on a peaceful afternoon, stop for a moment and think about all that’s happened around you.  You’ll be surprised just how rich and varied the past has been!

 

Scotland’s women have been standing up for their beliefs for centuries!

Gerda Stevenson is a women of very many talents: actor, playwright, director, poet, singer, song-writer, to name but a few. Now she’s turned again to poetry to draw our attention to the lives and achievements – as well as the hardships and challenges – of sixty-seven amazing Scottish women. Women who deserve our admiration and respect. But first of all we need to know of their existence, for too often women are written out of history and allowed to become invisible.

Quines is a powerful collection of fifty-seven poems that will make you laugh, cry, rage, nod in agreement, wonder, smile and most definitely want to find out more. Poems that are accessible and manage to distill the essence of their subjects in a few short lines. And that’s a remarkable achievement in its own right!

Gerda and her husband Aonghas MacNeacail

I had the privilege of visiting Gerda to talk to her about the book: about how and why it came about; why she chose the women she did; and in what ways the women she writes about reflect her own hopes and aspirations. Like all of us, Gerda’s outlook on life is in part shaped by her family and upbringing: by her attitude to language, to poetry, to those around her, to those who perhaps see life differently. All this has gone into the mix that has given birth to this remarkable book of poems.

Her selection is highly personal. It’s not an academic tome, but rather for all of us. It’s a look across the centuries at the lives of women from all walks of life, from fish-gutters to queens, from missionaries to politicians, from the Iron Age to the present – and throughout it all is the growing realisation that time and history don’t really separate our experiences as women as much as we might have thought.

Quines: poems in tribute to women of Scotland was four years in the writing. Much reading, researching and tracking down of sources went into getting to know the women she wanted to write about. Women whom she found inspiring and hopes others will find inspirational too.

I certainly found the book inspiring and a reminder that despite life’s many hardships, particularly those faced by women, both in the past and today, standing up for your beliefs is something Scottish women have been doing from the word go. And in some remarkable ways – even to the extent of laying down their lives for others.

I’m grateful that Gerda has brought these women out of the shadows and back into the light. And we need as much light as we can get these days! But I also feel strongly that it’s Gerda’s own strength of character and determination that has achieved this. Her life and beliefs are inspirational too. She’s as much one of these Quines as any of her subjects. And I hope that’s what my article conveys.

Indeed, the March edition of iScot is a celebration of amazing women. And International Women’s Day this year has a special significance as 2018 marks the centenary of the first women in this country to get the vote. There’s still plenty to be done, but at least we’re heading in the right direction – and Quines might just be the bright star that leads others onto this path!

Quines is published by Luath Press

In search of Tintin: or how Arran and Barra played their part in Hergé’s best known ripping yarn!

Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran became the eerie Craig Dhui Castle in the Black Island

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

Castlebay on Barra became the fictional Kiltoch in The Black Island

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Though the police in Buchan’s ‘shocker’ could never have been quite as incompetent as that  pompous pair, Thomson and Thompson! Despite them however, both stories share exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement in the rugged, wild and isolated Scottish countryside.

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

The tidal landing strip on Barra

And how did this villainous band manage to get on and off the island? The answer to that comes again from Barra, as Hergé used the beach landing strip at Barra Airport as the model for the landing strip on the beach of the Black Island. All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

But this is just a taster, and there’s much, much more in the February issue of iScot Magazine, available from Pocketmags or from good independent newsagents.

 

“Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Scotland’s first woman in print

 “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (1578-1640)

What wonderful, bold and stirring words! Perhaps doubly so when you realise they were written by a woman living in 16th-17th century Scotland. Even though I studied Scottish History at Edinburgh University, I have to confess I’d never heard of Elizabeth Melville. Though as I was a student some decades ago now, that’s perhaps not totally surprising. Women have tended to be left on the back-burner when it comes to academic recognition. So it’s great that she’s finally being acknowledged for all that she achieved.

But if I didn’t know about Scotland’s first woman in print from  university days, how did I come to hear about her now? The answer is quite simple. It’s thanks to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter, a Scottish historian and former European Parliament translator, who has championed her work and brought it to attention as never before. In March 2017 he wrote a lengthy and fascinating article for iScot magazine, and from reading that I learned that Elizabeth was published in 1603, making her Scotland’s first woman in print. Her poem,  Ane Godlie Dreame, was such a success that by 1606 it was into its third edition, and by 1735 had gone through at least thirteen editions. Jamie describes the work thus, “480 lines long, it is a dramatic account of the human spirit’s journey from depression and despair to final affirmation, on a cosmic scale.”

The work was written for imprisoned Scottish kirk ministers, one held in Blackness Castle, the other in the Tower of London, in the early 17th century. Imprisoned because they disagreed with King James VI’s policy for the church. Today many may find it hard to understand the strength of feeling that existed when it came to religious beliefs. Nowadays we can ‘take it or leave it’. Yet for many outwith the West today, and certainly for those in past centuries, what you believed was at the very core of your life. What you believed could determine whether you lived, or died a grisly death. Many of the freedoms we take for granted today only exist because of the struggles of people like Elizabeth Melville. To simply shrug off their beliefs and actions is to demean and belittle the sacrifices of previous generations. And who knows what future generations will smile at about the things we hold dear today!

But where this story takes an especially delightful turn is in 2002, when Jamie unearthed a huge collection of anonymous religious poetry written in Scots, and realised that it had been penned by none other than Elizabeth Melville. Not only have these works now been published, but Elizabeth has been recognised as one of Scotland’s great makars – poets – and in June 2014 her name was added to those other greats in the forecourt to Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh, right beside the museum dedicated to writers of Scotland. Germaine Greer unveiled the stone and there was an evening concert in St Giles, for like so much early poetry, the words were written to be sung.

Thankfully, over the past thiry years, there has been a sea-change in academic circles regarding women poets, but there’s still a  long way to go before their names become part of our national consciousness and we can all fully appreciate the women who went before us. As Jamie says, “People do want to take ownership of long-suppressed aspects of Scotland’s past. The role of the female 50% in creating what we know as Scotland is acknowledged in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, but most of the female images are anonymous because history has been written by men for men.”

Things are changing now, though there’s still a way to go. Yet, step by step, here in Scotland, we’re getting there. And I feel a debt of gratitude to Jamie Reid-Baxter and iScot magazine for bringing Elizabeth Melville to my attention. Not only do I feel sure that there is more to come that will enrich this country of ours for the better, but I can’t think of a better quote to help us on our way than hers: “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out”!

Good on you, Elizabeth!

Weighing the World – the Schiehallion Experiment

It’s amazing to think that the weight of Planet Earth was calculated in the 18th century thanks to the Scottish mountain Schiehallion! Read how hardy, be-wigged, astronomers and mathematicians worked it all out with little more than the mountain, the stars and a pendulum. Accompanied by some fantastic photos of Schiehallion taken by crime writer and photographer Douglas Skelton, you’ll never see science in the same way again!

To find out more, why not download a copy of this month’s iScot magazine from https://pocketmags.com/search/iscot

 

The Kellas Compass

Sometimes a chance remark can lead to something unexpectedly significant. I recently discovered that my grandfather, John Kellas, was given Alexander Kellas’ compass after Alex’s death in Tibet in 1921. That year, Alex Kellas, one of the most able and successful Himalayan pioneers, was on his way to Everest as part of the first official Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. A seasoned Himalayan mountaineer, the small, wiry 52-year-old medical chemist from Aberdeen, had reached mountains no other Westerner had. Sadly he was to die on that fateful 1921 expedition, and was never to set foot on that mountain of mountains himself.

John and Eveline Kellas, Aberdeen, 1929

But his compass was passed on to my grandfather, who went on to spend over thirty years of his life in India;  firstly as Professor of Economics and then as Principal of Scottish Church College in Calcutta/Kolkata. John Kellas taught, explored, trekked in the Himalaya, spoke with Gandhi, steered the college through the horrors of famine and bloodshed, raised the flag of the newly independent India from the roof of Scottish Church College and was in Nepal to meet the first men to climb Everest.

The Beaumonts cycle from Lhasa to Kathmandu, 2005

But the story didn’t end there, for, back in Scotland, after John’s untimely death, the Kellas Compass was passed onto a young boy, whose passion for mountains and India stayed with him into adulthood and saw him in turn go to work and explore that vast sub-continent. The Kellas Compass was still at work, and has been for over a century!

It’s a fascinating tale of adventure, resilience, integrity and continuity and shows clearly that there were Scots who didn’t share the pernicious racism of the British Raj, but who lived and worked in India as friends and equals – not as masters. And in light of the cruel and often barbaric behaviour of so many during the British Empire, that’s good to know!

However, there’s much, much more to the tale of the Kellas Compass and you can read the full article in the December edition of iScot Magazine, which is available in both digital and print formats:

iScot digital

iScot print

Kanchenjunga from Sandukphu, 1938

 

 

 

 

The Three Distilleries Path on Islay

Port Ellen in the South of Islay and the opening pages of this month’s iScot article

It’s a winning combination. A glorious walk on a Scottish island combined with visits to some of Scotland’s finest distilleries. But what makes The Three Distilleries Path even more inviting is the fact that the route is chock-a-block with historical and archaeological sites.

You can wend your way through this ancient landscape, moulded into shape hundreds-of-millions of years ago, and discover the effect the island’s unusual geological make-up has in the creation of its unique and very distinctive whiskies. Whiskies that all come from one not-very-large island, and yet have an unexpected range and variety of tastes.

The starting point of the path at Port Ellen

You can look, and pause to wonder, at the standing stones our neolithic ancestors took such pains to raise. Mysterious stone circles. The wells that were so important to our Celtic forefathers. The tumbled remains of stone walls that reveal the sites of early Christian chapels. Mighty Dunyvaig Castle, powerful even in its ruinous state, as it guards the entrance to Lagavulin Bay. The sad tale of an act of kindness that led to the death of the settlement of Solam and all its inhabitants.

The wide skies. The ever present sea. The abundant plant-life.  The winged and four-legged wildlife. The hills to climb. The lochs to fish. The peace and tranquility. Both the calm and the stormy weather. A place to enjoy and explore whatever the elements may throw at you!

And of course an island that, more than any other, really does offer whisky galore!

iScot Magazine

The Raising of Submarine K13

Tragedy in the Gareloch: the Raising of the K13

There would have been many more deaths that cold winter’s night in January 1917 if it hadn’t been for the sustained efforts of the rescuers. Rescuers who spent three long days and nights hoping, praying and battling to free the survivors trapped in the stricken submarine. They knew it was unlikely that all on board would have survived the submarine’s sinking: those four open hatches had let in a rush of ice cold water that instantly flooded the engine room and sent the submarine plunging down into the dark depths of the loch. But they knew there were some men still alive, and they were determined to do everything in their power to prevent the K13 becoming a tomb.

It’s a sorry tale that lies behind the K-Class submarines. Unwanted by the navy, this new design was pushed on them in the drive to create a submarine to match, and outdo, the deadly German U-boats. But instead it led to the creation of a vessel that killed not the enemy, but its own men. Over 300 submariners died in accidents on board these notorious craft.

Curiously though, some aspects of the K-Class submarines were ahead of their times. Certainly too far ahead for 1917, and wartime pressures that left too little time for trials and adequate training of the crews, men who had to deal with a whole new underwater beast at very short notice, and with disastrous results.

Thomas Grant Dey

My grandfather, Thomas Dey, was present throughout the rescue and wrote a first-hand account of events. It’s the sort of document that’s invaluable to historians and those with an interest in submarines alike. But it’s also an insight into the life and attitudes of a man I never met, but would have loved to have known.  It’s a document I treasure.

In one way, his account is of the men who would later become invisible in the story of the jinxed K13. Wartime secrecy played a part in that, but also the fact that commendations seldom go equally to those who deserve them. Take the men of the Merchant Navy who played their part in the Arctic Convoys, under the most appalling of circumstances, yet who had to wait decades for proper recognition of their bravery.

And yet it’s not rank or accident of birth that makes you braver, better or more worthy than other people. It’s how you behave and treat others that matters and that’s certainly not a new idea. Just think how well Robert Burns summed it up way back in 1795, in what’s arguably his best known poem, A Man’s a Man for a’ that. Yes, we still have a long way to go, and right now we seem to be going backwards in how the poorest and most vulnerable are being treated. But as has been the case throughout history, it’s up to us what happens and what sort of world we want for the generations that follow. Hopefully we’ll be as constant as people like my grandfather were, and that we’ll be as steadfast in our words and deeds. And maybe we will keep inching towards making Burns’ heartfelt desire a reality:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

*********

 

Thomas Grant Dey

Thomas Grant Dey 1882- 1948

I never knew my paternal grandfather, Thomas Grant Dey, but I wish I had. He died in 1948, long before I was ever thought of. He was someone who lived a life very different from mine, and yet I feel sure he would have been pleased that his grandchildren have enjoyed the opportunities he never had.

When he was growing up, unemployment meant poverty, a grinding poverty that we can’t even begin to comprehend today. Only recently I discovered that he fathered eleven children, but of those only six survived into adulthood. What pain and sorrow all those deaths must have brought him and my grandmother, Janet.

During his working life as a shipwright he often had to travel far afield for work. To England, Spain, India and Africa. Early in his career he suffered a serious back injury and endured a lifetime of pain. But not working was not an option. The healthcare we enjoy now was unknown to him.  Doctors were too expensive. So people suffered in silence and all too often died young.

How different his life would have been if he had lived now. The lost children wouldn’t have been lost. The lifelong pain wouldn’t have needed to be endured. But back then the Welfare State was still undreamt of.

From talking to my father I know that my grandfather believed education was the way out of poverty and the opportunity for a better life. Thomas Dey wasn’t a forelock-tugger and saw the ruling elite for what they were, and still are. Greedy, uncaring and self-centered people, who enjoy a life of undeserved privilege, yet who hold the power and control the finances of the UK. Recently we have seen that they, quite literally, have the power of life and death over others. They are people who manipulate the system to their own benefit while letting others suffer, with no compunction whatsoever.

He’d be so angry at what’s happening today as the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable are targeted by the UK government. The UN and other organisations try to call Westminster to account, but are ignored. The rich are richer than ever before, ensuring the wealth of these four nations ends up in their pockets or in their offshore accounts. Britain is awash with money, yet the gap between rich and poor is greater here than anywhere else in Europe. And is greater now than ever before. Poverty and its ever-present henchmen, depression and suicide, are on the increase. While in England the NHS, perhaps the greatest achievement of post-war Britain, is being systematically dismantled and sold off by the Tories.


Link:  Selling off the NHS: How privatisation in England will impact on Scotland’s NHS


My grandfather died in January 1948, only months before the inauguration of the NHS, and so didn’t live to enjoy the huge changes that have improved all our lives since then. Yet so much of what was achieved in those post-war years is now being swept away. The enormity of the betrayal is staggering. The lack of responsibility or accountability in Westminster is staggering. Even more worryingly, laws are being passed without Parliamentary scrutiny, and Brexit legislation will allow Westminster to remove powers from the Scottish Government and alter the Scottish legal system without any say from the Scottish people.

Perhaps it’s the enormity of what’s being done to the democratic process, coupled with the sense of helplessness that this brings, that’s causing so many people to shut their eyes to what’s going on. Heads down. Watch reality TV. Agonise over which channel Bake Off should be on. Pretend it all has nothing to with them. I’m all right, Jack. Walk by on the other side. Keep below the radar. Don’t stand up to be counted. Concentrate on Strictly.

And yet at the same time, we’re repeatedly told how brave and courageous people were in WWI or WW2. How Black Africans stood up to Apartheid. How women fought for votes. How the Chartists struggled for the most basic of rights. How Thomas Muir is the ‘greatest democrat’. We’re encouraged to celebrate their actions and sacrifices. Yet we’re in the process of losing so many of the things they fought for. It’s as if we’re sleepwalking through events while being systematically stripped of what those before us achieved.


Link: Thomas Muir: Father of Scottish Democracy 


Change doesn’t happen by itself. Progress doesn’t happen by magic. Evil grows if not challenged. And each generation has to do its own challenging. It is our responsibility, not someone else’s. Remember the Big Yellow Taxi, that Joni Mitchell song where she sings, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

How I hope we’re thankful for what we have, and understand just what others have sacrificed for our sake. And how I hope that we will all fight to preserve such precious gifts for the generations to come. For our children’s sake. But also for those who had so little and struggled so much: our grandparents.