“Hunting the Shark”: or Bearsden’s oldest resident!

Walking alongside the Manse Burn as it flows through Baljaffray to the north of Bearsden, it can be hard to imagine that 330 million years ago the land here not only lay close to the Equator, but was covered in tropical lagoons and teeming with marine life!  But thanks to Bearsden’s oldest known resident – the Bearsden Shark – it’s possible to know what kind of creatures lived here and what sort of environment they lived in.

The first indication that the Manse Burn was a rich source of fossils came in 1981 when a young boy found something that he couldn’t identify and took it to Stan Wood, a local fossil expert.

The Bearsden Shark fossil can be seen at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, while a replica is now on display in Bearsden Library

Not long after, the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University organised an excavation and began to unearth an abundance of fossils which eventually included the most complete and best preserved fossil shark of its kind in the whole world!  In fact the area along the Manse Burn turned out to be so rich in fossils that it was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is one of the best Carboniferous fish sites anywhere.

Dr Neil Clark’s reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark

From the reconstruction it’s easy to see that it was a strange looking beast and scientists have discovered that not only did it have teeth in its mouth, but also along the top of its head and around its distinctive dorsal fin!!  A formidable foe indeed!

It was identified as a male shark belonging to the group known as Stethacanthidae: and not only was the Bearsden Shark fossil complete – or as ‘complete’ as a fossil can be – but it was so well preserved that it was possible to identify muscles, blood vessels and even his last meal!  However, even though unearthed forty years ago, it took nearly twenty years to finally decide that it was indeed a new species and in 2001 it was given the name of ‘akmonistion zangerli’: though most people (understandably) still refer to it simply as the Bearsden Shark!

The new ‘Bearsden Shark’ fencing across the Manse Burn in Baljaffray

Such is his fame that he has had a poem composed about his life (The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan), as well as a number of PhDs written in his honour! And thanks to the work of the Bearsden Shark Group, volunteers who have done so much to keep the shark in the public eye, there’s now a cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn in Baljaffray. The board, which marks the shark’s importance in our understanding of life all those millions of years ago, was unveiled by Dr Neil Clark, curator of Palaeontology at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, whose reconstruction of the Bearsden Shark is shown above.

The cairn and information board beside the Manse Burn

And should you visit the library in Bearsden you’ll be able to view the display set up by the Bearsden Shark Group, complete with a replica of the fossil. You can also buy a small booklet telling his story.

So there you have it. A cold-blooded killer from the Carboniferous Era, our shark, like millions of other creatures “softly and suddenly vanished away”.  So suddenly in this case that he didn’t have enough time to fully digest his final fish supper – made up of shrimps! – but nonetheless he did leave a lasting legacy from 330 million years ago.  Not bad for a Bearsden Boy!

The Bearsden Shark by Edwin Morgan

Stoneymollan Coffin Road

Our earliest ancestors were nomads, so it’s not really surprising that we humans have always been on the move, one way or another. I’ve written previously about old ways through the glens: drove roads, drowned roads, and one type of old road that served a very particular function: coffin roads. Though I have to say right away that they weren’t ‘roads’ in the sense we understand them, rather narrow tracks or paths, often over harsh and hostile terrain. (You can read more here: Old Ways through the Glens)

A recent edition of the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme, hosted by Edward Stourton, looked at an excellent new book by Professor Ian Bradley; ‘The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the West’ and I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the item. I chose a route not too far from my home which we’ve walked many times: The Stoneymollan Road. It’s a former coffin road that runs from Balloch, at the foot of Loch Lomond, to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. You can listen to Professor Bradley and myself in the coffin roads item here (at 18.04 minutes in): Scotland’s Ancient Coffin Roads BBC Radio 4 Sunday, 31/07/22

While Stoneymollan may no longer be used as a coffin road, it’s a fascinating part of our country’s history. One that ties in with Scotland’s long maritime past that saw early missionary monks travelling the sea roads of the west, bringing Christianity with them. It also shows the importance of landscape in shaping the life of a nation. And, for me at least, knowing the history of this route adds a very memorable element to walking the Stoneymollan Road.

Island Tales

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

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

The Colonsay Hotel

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

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

The landing strip on Barra

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

“I to the hills will lift mine eyes”

And when the hills look like these at the far end of Glen Arklet, there aren’t many better places to be!

Travelling north-west on the B829 from Aberfoyle in the Trossachs, you pass four very different lochs. There’s mighty Loch Ard, tiny Loch Dhu, slim-waisted Loch Chon – Loch of the Dogs – and Loch Arklet, lying at right angles to the rest. A short distance beyond the end of Loch Arklet you reach a T-junction and here you have the choice of turning left to Inversnaid on Loch Lomond, or right to Stronachlachar on Loch Katrine. Lochs galore to choose from!

Just short of that T-junction, we stopped to savour the view. Looking westwards along Glen Arklet, the snow-covered peaks of the Arrochar Alps rise to form a magnificent backdrop to the loch, which, like many a loch in the Highlands, is now part loch, part reservoir and linked to the hydro-electric scheme that changed life in the Highlands forever.

Then there’s the Rob Roy MacGregor connection – this is the Trossachs after all! Mid-way along Glen Arklet sits the tiny settlement of Corriearklet, and it was here, in January 1693, that Rob married Mary MacGregor of Comar.

Loch Arklet lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and on The Great Trossachs Path. There’s an excellent off-road walk from Stronachlachar to Inversnaid that runs the length of the glen. Parts of the route follow the tracks of old Statute Labour Roads and old Military Roads – so you really are walking through – and on – history!

And at both ends of the walk you’ll find food! Whether at the Inversnaid Hotel or the Inversnaid Bunkhouse to the west, or the Pier Cafe to the east at Stronachlachar.

It’s a wonderful part of the country and we are very fortunate to be able to enjoy this wild landscape. Returning from a day out, you realise just how much we benefit from spending time outdoors, especially among our hills and lochs. The natural world gives us so much, and for that I am truly thankful!

Thank you for the Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dead of Appin

DI Angus Blue is back! From solving mysteries on Islay and Jura (with visits to Ireland, Germany and Poland along the way) he’s now back on home territory and has another crime to solve.

Just outside Oban, within sight of the Connel Bridge, there’s a burnt out car containing the charred remains of a human body. A woman is missing, but this body is male.

In a high stakes game of business and politics, what secret does the bustling port of Oban hide that’s worth killing for.

The Dead of Appin will be published on November 30th, 2021 and can be ordered from Amazon, Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

The Vaccine Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life finds a way

If you’re a fan of the Jurassic Park films, you’ll remember the scene where the park’s owner John Hammond (aka Richard Attenborough) tries to reassure Dr Ian Malcolm (aka Jeff Goldblum) that there’s no need to worry about the park’s dinosaur creation programme. Totally unconvinced, Dr Malcolm replies with those prophetic words, “Life finds a way.”  And it certainly did in that film! Whilst in some places humankind is busy destroying vast numbers of species, in others, nature makes a come-back as soon as our backs are turned.

I was delighted to be asked by Autumn Voices, an organisation that seeks to celebrate creativity in later life, to write a guest blog on their theme of the natural world. In my post I looked at how, very often, life does find a way, with or without our help, and in some of the unlikeliest of places. Rock becomes home to lichen and even trees. Trees become home to fungi of every shape, size and description. The tiniest foothold is all it takes and growth begins, however precarious. Given half a chance plants will make a go of it. And we need them to do just that! We need them for food and for our health. Go for a walk in the countryside and you’ll see trees draped with Old Man’s Beard and other lichen, telling you the air is clean and free from pollutants.

And bogs. You’ve probably noticed that there are a lot of bogs in Scotland, but before you curse them for your wet feet, it pays to remember that sphagnum moss takes in, and holds onto, the nitrates that are so harmful to humans. And as long as the bog remains wet enough, these won’t be released back into the atmosphere. We need our bogs!

Old Man’s Beard lichen

Sphagnum moss has also been used for centuries as an antiseptic dressing for wounds. Never more so than during World War I. Absorbent and extremely acidic (think preserved bog bodies), it inhibits the growth of bacteria. The horrific prevalence of sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by the body’s response to infection, was killing more men than their actual wounds did.  And even by December 1915, field hospitals were running out of bandages. The situation was critical as the numbers of wounded continued to rise unabated.

The work of two Scots, eminent botanist Isaac Bayley Balfour and military surgeon Charles Walker Cathcart, saved the day. They identified the mosses that served best to staunch bleeding and to heal wounds. Unsurprisingly, both were mosses of which there was no shortage in Scotland! Their research saved the lives of many young men. Which makes it all the more heart-breaking that Cathcart’s only son died of his wounds during that barbaric war.

Mr Grumpy Fungi

We know that the human race is wiping out other species faster than ever before. But what if, ironically, our civilisation, our way of life, was the one to go first, and nature (think nettles, brambles, bracken and dandelions) ended up taking over the world? At school we read John Wyndham’s terrifying Day of the Triffids and I don’t think I ever quite looked at some plants in the same way again! Yet we need plants for our survival far more than they need us. So rather than have a Day of the Triffids scenario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

Read my post in Autumn Voices: If you go down to the woods today…

“I could have been a spy!”

It can often take  someone asking you to answer very specific questions about yourself to make you stop and think about what you’ve done in your life. And, obviously, the older you are, the more there will be to think about!

When I was asked to write a guest blog for the Autumn Voices Project, I was also asked to answer their “Quick and Quirky Questions.” Questions like: “Tell us four important facts about yourself?” or “Tell us something about yourself that’s surprising or unexpected.” Not as easy to answer as you might at first imagine!

Yet it can be a very productive exercise. Anyone who’s attempted to research their family history knows how important it is for there to be written records of the doings of their ancestors. And if there’s little, or even nothing, written down, tracing them and their life stories can be frustratingly difficult. But do we leave a traceable record ourselves? Often not!

Answering some simple questions can be an interesting start to a process that will give the next generation of family historians a point of departure when they come to add you to the ever-growing family tree. And may make you realise just how interesting your life has actually been. Below is a link to the questions and my answers, but why not try them for yourself and see what you discover!

And yes, I could have been a spy – for either side. But in retrospect, I’m glad that I wasn’t!

Try the Quick and Quirky Questions here!

Across Atlantic Airwaves

“I feel I may have come into this world with a whimper, but it looks as if I may be going out with a bang!!”

So said my 98-year-old great-aunt to me after being interviewed for an American podcast. Not that this was her first interview, nor, hopefully, the last. But there’s no doubt that the past year has been quite a roller-coaster ride for this remarkable debut novelist.

Born in 1923, Tonie Scott Ritchie has had a long and adventurous life. Married to a Naval Surgeon, she and her five children lived all over the globe. And without doubt it’s been a life lived to the full. A life, as with so many of us, filled with a never-ending mix of  joy, tragedy, challenge, bad times and good times. All ingredients that can fire imagination and creativity. As they have with Tonie Ritchie.

And that’s a great example and inspiration to everyone. No matter the circumstances, it’s never too late!

You can listen to Tonie’s interview here:  Old Women Who Write Interview