Eileach an Naoimh

Ancient beehive cells still exist of Eileach an Naoimh

There’s something about islands. That unique sense of wholeness, containedness, apartness. A sense that you can really get to know a place where the borders are so clearly defined by the surrounding water.

But islands have also long been seen as places of retreat from the demands of life. As places of sanctuary, where peace and tranquillity allow time for reflection and decision.

Early Christian monks favoured islands. Partly because the sea was the way people travelled, especially between Ireland and the western seaboard of Scotland. It’s not surprising therefore, that so many Scottish islands have been – and some still are – home to monasteries, chapels and religious settlements of many different shapes and sizes.

Reconstruction of an ancient curragh, a larger version of a corracle

Reconstruction of an ancient curragh, a larger version of a coracle

Though these early travellers still had to live. They had to grow food, build shelter, survive wind, weather and ill-health. So not an easy life in any physical sense, as few lives were in the past. But a way of life chosen by them: living with a purpose, which in all probability, made a difference.

Today many people choose to visit these remote islands to see where these early Christians lived. What is it draws us? There’s the excitement and sense of adventure of the journey at sea in a small boat. Then there’s an interest in history and archaeology, for it’s fascinating to see how others lived in the past without the many resources we see as essential to life today. Life pared down to the minimum.

St Brendan voyaging: from a 15th century German manuscript

But there’s also something about setting foot on an island knowing that others have done exactly that all those centuries ago and felt this to be a special place. A holy place. A place where they could live and talk to their God. Be apart for a while and re-connect to what is essential in life. I suspect that’s a longing many of us feel at times throughout our lives.

Eileach an Naoimh is a good example of one of these islands. Favoured by Brendan, Columba and also his mother, Eithne, it was seen as especially holy – hence it’s lasting name, which means Rocky Island of the Saint(s). A visit there is one that offers a real adventure, especially if you choose to reach it by crossing the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, as we did.

And it’s a place to explore and spend time on. To stop for a while and ponder on the lives of those men and women who chose to live here in the past. And perhaps even to wonder what they would make of our lives today? Of our priorities and beliefs? Of our feelings and actions towards our fellows? What would they think of us, I wonder? Now that would be interesting!

The full article is available in issue 94 of iScot Magazine

Forteviot and the Southern Picts

If the 8th century sculptured stone at Fowlis Wester is anything to go by, the Picts were a dapper looking bunch. The men, that is, as they’re the ones depicted on the carved stones we see today. With razor-sharp beards and nifty topknots, they’d be quite at home amongst today’s hirsute males. And as both mirrors and combs feature among the symbols carved on Pictish stones, they must have been deemed to be of great importance to be given such lasting status. Cool dudes, indeed!

Yet they’re an elusive bunch, our Pictish ancestors. We know they were tribes in northern and eastern Scotland who spoke a Celtic language and flourished from the 3rd to the 9th centuries, spanning the late Iron Age and the early medieval period. Yet there’s still much about them we don’t know.

Fortunately, there have been a number of Pictish-related archaeological projects in recent years. These excavations have unearthed (and are still unearthing) finds that have added greatly to our knowledge and understanding of the Picts. And as knowledge of the past is not static, as any archaeologist worth his or her salt knows, there’s always more to discover.

East of Fowlis Wester is the village of Forteviot: a small, unassuming place, yet one with a remarkable past. It was once the heart of the mighty kingdom of the southern Picts and would go on to be acknowledged as the ‘cradle of Scotland’. The place where the Scots and the Picts finally came together as the Kingdom of Alba, which in turn gave birth to the nation that would become Scotland.

That transformation is a fascinating story. And one which I examine in this month’s article. The story of our Pictish ancestors is riveting history. And slowly but surely, bit by bit, we’re learning more.

iScot issue 93

The Earthquake House

The first time I experienced a serious earthquake was in 1984 in Soviet Central Asia. We were in Uzbekistan, an area of high seismic activity, and though the local people took the quake in their stride, it left us more than a little shaken. It was soon obvious that the older, traditional, mudbrick houses ‘moved’ with the quake, thereby suffering little damage. But for the more modern Soviet buildings of concrete, steel and chrome, it was a different story altogether. Buckled metal and twisted doors were followed by a fair amount of consternation as to how, or even if, the damage could be repaired.

Fast forward to October 2005 and a family holiday on the Greek island of Zakynthos. On hearing a growing rumble, my first thought was that a very large plane was flying directly overhead. Living as we did then under the flight path to Glasgow airport, my initial reaction was one of annoyance – why was it that even on holiday we couldn’t escape the noise of those wretched planes! It didn’t take long however, to realise this was something very different, not an aircraft but an earthquake of magnitude 5.7.

Earthquakes can be fearsome things even when we know what’s causing them. But imagine what it must have been like for our ancestors as they tried to make sense of the mysterious and often destructive heaving of the planet. We can see their attempts to explain earthquakes in primitive myths and legends: those frightening tales of titans, giants and monsters. Tales of fearsome and unpredictable entities forever fighting, hurling huge, mountain-sized boulders at one another – causing, it was believed, earthquakes. And if not that, then blame the Wrath of God!

Fortunately we now have a far greater understanding of what causes earthquakes: of the geological forces behind Continental Drift and tectonic plates. Yet, the story of how we reached this understanding and the role played by the 19th century ‘Comrie Pioneers’ is a fascinating one. And one that I tell in issue 92 of iScot Magazine.


It’s not often that you get the opportunity to spend the night – or several nights, come to that – in a prisoner of war camp. A former POW camp obviously. But one that retains much of the look and feel of the original. Self-catering with a difference!

In some ways it might seem to be a bit of a time warp, but that would be deceptive. Cultybraggan started life as a POW camp and eventually housed some of the most brutal, die-hard Nazi prisoners – with grim results.

That was followed by nearly sixty years as a MOD training camp. Not only for regular army troops, but also for members of the Territorial Army, University Officer Training Corps and school cadets. But it’s a different being now. A community buy-out in 2007 saw to that.

Cultybraggan is an interesting example of how places change as time passes. It’s also interesting as a place where the past is still very visible.

And it’s also a place where good men, the likes of Germany’s Herbert Sulzbach and Scotland’s Hamish Henderson, worked with Nazi prisoners to try and break the mindset that had led to such barbarity and so much death.

Everywhere has its own unique history and its own story to tell. Cultybraggan certainly has a very unusual one. Hopefully one that will continue well into the future.

My article is in issue 91 of iScot magazine

Scottish Pilgrim Routes

In 2019 I came across a book called Travels with A Stick, written by Richard Frazer, the minister of Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. It describes his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, one of the oldest, and best known, pilgrim routes in Europe. Not a controversial topic you might think, yet it’s one which, until recently, would have been frowned upon by many protestant denominations.

For the Reformers, pilgrimage was regarded as little more than a money-making enterprise, the proceeds of which made their way to Rome, leaving poor peasants even poorer: part of a church-run money-making scheme to encourage people to buy their way into heaven. A commercialising of Christianity and definitely not in keeping with the gospels. With the Reformation the medieval heyday of pilgrimage came to an end.

Yet for our ancestors pilgrimage was important – and no easy matter. It involved hardship and expense, often travelling long distances over land and sea in the hope of a cure for illness, or enlightenment, or to atone for sins, or for protection against the vagaries of life. Sometimes simply a sense of freedom from very restricted lives – a holiday. Their destinations were the shrines of saints noted for specific powers. To see, touch and be blessed by proximity to holy relics. To us this may seem more like superstition than belief. Yet, despite that, our modern world has seen a renaissance of pilgrimage.

The 19th century saw changes in the understanding of spirituality. While material progress was evident in the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, there was still a hunger in many people for something more in their lives. And this was not necessarily a need that was being met in conventional religion. Bodily needs were acknowledged (though all too often not met), but what about spiritual needs?

By the 20th century some of the older pilgrim routes in traditionally Catholic countries were slowly revived and today they are flourishing. One of the best known is undoubtedly the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St James. It’s made up of a vast network of smaller pilgrim trails, trails that flow like burns into an ever-widening river. A river that leads in this case to the shrine of St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, ancient routes from the Baltic states have rejoined the trail, running through Poland, Germany and France on their way to Spain.

But what of Protestant attitudes to pilgrimage? One man who has been instrumental in the revival of pilgrimage in Scotland, and in particular the Church of Scotland’s decision to reverse 450 years of opposition to it, is the above-mentioned Richard Frazer. For him the journey, wherever it is made, is less about religiosity and more about spirituality: our faith seen as an ongoing journey. “Pilgrimage,” he writes, “If undertaken with an open heart can offer profound spiritual renewal, bring us to the mystery of what it is to be human and vulnerable, and open us to the gifts of the new and the unexpected.” And it’s a search that’s not exclusive to Christians.

Despite the Reformers historic disquiet with pilgrimage, we’re surprisingly fortunate in Scotland, where many places combine the ‘ingredients’ of pilgrimage. Landscapes rich with spiritual significance, be they megalithic stone circles, caves, beehive Celtic cells, monasteries or cathedrals. Places where peace and stillness prevail. Places where generations have prayed and sought God. Places that have become regarded as special, holy sites. Sacred because of their closeness to something other, something spiritual. The thin places of the Celts. Intangible, yet definitely there, the power of place can be very strong indeed.

When we think of sacred sites in Scotland, Whithorn and Iona are two that come to mind. But there are others, and the Scottish Pilgrim Routes Forum is a fascinating source of information on these. The physical act of walking these routes allows a re-discovering of the landscape, a re-connecting to the natural world. And (thankfully!) they need not always be long-distance routes!

Take for example, Faith in Cowal, a direct response to the General Assembly of 2017 which encouraged congregations to embrace pilgrimage locally. The project focuses on the exploration of the early Christian landscape of Cowal, linking fifteen sites, all with ties to Celtic or Medieval Christianity. One is Ardtaraig Chapel, another Ardnadam, just north of Dunoon, one of the earliest Christian sites in Argyll. As well as the footings of the ancient chapel walls, burials were found, marked with primitive cross-carved stones. The chapel and graves sit within in the middle of a pre-Christian Iron Age enclosure. Layer upon layer of history in one place.

Faith in Cowal is only one of a growing number of local pilgrim trails, and is an opportunity for a break with a difference, a walk with a purpose. Time for reflection and to enjoy the glorious landscape. To walk in the footsteps of other Christians, with a sense of pilgrimage to add a spiritual dimension to the journey.

Scotland may have come late to this particular party, but we’re definitely making up for lost time now!



(This article first appeared in Jordanhill Parish Church Link Magazine, March 2023)

“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.