Old Ways through the Glens: Stoneymollen Coffin Road

We may not always realise it, but it’s surprising how often we’re following in the footsteps of General Wade or Thomas Telford when we travel around Scotland; particularly the further north we go. And though their roads were fairly basic, they were undoubtedly better that what went before, when the majority of people had no alternative but to walk and roads were virtually non-existent.

War, and then commerce, led to gradual infrastructure improvements in the 18th and early 19th centuries: initially under the military and General Wade, later Telford and the Highland Roads Commission. The stories of these two men and their achievements make for fascinating reading. Especially Thomas Telford, a Border Scot, who was the finest civil engineer of his day.  This is at the heart of my article in June’s edition of iScot magazine.

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

However, humans have always been on the move and, from necessity, have found ways to get about. And so the article also looks at drove roads, drowned roads, and one type of old road that served a very particuler 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.

The Stoneymollan Road is 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. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and these churches were often few and far between. Many rural settlements were remote from a church and so people were often faced with a long trek to the nearest cemetery. And the coffin had to be shouldered and carried the whole way!

Stoneymollen Coffin Road

Over time, numerous eerie superstitions became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad!

The crumbling shell of Woodhall House

Today the old Stoneymollan Coffin Road is part of both the Three Lochs Way and the John Muir Way and links Loch Lomondside with the Firth of Clyde (and vice-versa). And the people you’re most likely to meet today will be walkers, joggers and even cyclists!

Setting off from Balloch we noticed the crumbling remains of Woodhall House, with an array of rusty iron gates, nearly invisible under shrubs and trees: almost like the hedge of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty. This area used to be full of such grand houses even though the settlement at Balloch itself was small. But Balloch had its pier, and boats regularly plied the waters of Loch Lomond. Later came the railway, which for many years ran right up to the pier, until that spur was closed in 1986.

The hidden gates to Sleeping Beauty’s palace?

The track goes upwards and the higher the track, especially atop Stoneymollan Muir, the better the views back over Loch Lomond. When you reach the highest point a spectacular panorama opens up westwards, over towards Cowal and, if you’re lucky with the weather, sometimes even as far as Arran. There is a tremendous sense of space and openness on this track: a real sense of freedom.

Then it’s downhill all the way to St Mahew’s Chapel in Kirkton. This lovely old building was restored in the 1950s, but it’s history goes back to at least 1467, and it’s possible that there may have been a Christian missionary building on this site from the early sixth century onwards.  For almost two centuries the building served as a school prior to its restoration, but the site was one that had long been held sacred, and is so again today.

When you come to Cardross at the end of the walk, you can take the bus or train back into Glasgow. While if you walk the route from Cardross to Balloch (ie west to east and sometimes easier in the prevailing westerly wind), you can likewise take the bus or train from Balloch back into town: but don’t forget to check the timetables. Alternatively get a friend to pick you up from whichever end you arrive at!

Boo!

But watch out for any spirits that might just still be lingering along this old coffin road!

 

 

Behind the scenes at the museum with Dr Elspeth King

What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.

T.S.Smith’s remarkable painting The Pipe of Freedom, 1836, celebrated the abolition of slavery in America

A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.

We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.

The oldest football in the world, at home and in pride of place in the Stirling Smith Museum

Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!

But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?

The Smith’s very own Wine Bottle Lunette by GlasWorks

It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.

One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!)  At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!

The start of a new journey: Estonia celebrates the opening of its new national museum

In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’

So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!

iScot

Dun an Sticir – Uist’s Finlaggan?

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.

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 the May-June issue of Scottish Islands Explorer!

 

Monks, marauders and madmen

The fascinating tale of Inchmurrin’s exciting past is told in April’s iScot magazine

There’s something really rather appealing about alliteration, something that lends itself to article titles. They’re memorable. They’re snappy. They tell a little story of their own. Although it’s only an indication of what else there is to come: a taster of the treat that’s in store when you read the whole story. And if you haven’t visited Inchmurrin Island on Loch Lomond, then there is indeed a treat awaiting you!

An old sea dog!

It combines a boat trip, with good food and an island with a ruined castle to explore. Shades of an Enid Blyton adventure – but with grown ups! We tend to think of islands as being far away, out in the Atlantic or other great oceans. But here in Scotland we’re blessed with islands of every shape and size, some of them literally within minutes of our front doors. Yet despite being near at hand they’re still islands and that magical ferry trip, no matter how long or how short, makes them special. Loch Lomond is awash with islands. Twenty-two of them have names and Inchmurrin is the largest, not only on this loch but in any freshwater loch in Britain.

We were there recently with visitors over from Canada. The island ferry fetched us from the Burnfoot Jetty at Arden, just north of Balloch, and took us over to the island: though there are other ways to get there.

Looking up the loch from the ruins of 14th century Lennox Castle

The views up and down the loch on the short crossing are wonderful, and being in a small boat, sitting low in the water gives a real feeling of being at sea! Lunch was in the island restaurant, run by the Scott family, who own and farm the land and thanks to them guests are free to roam the island.

To the north-west lies mature woodland, especially alder and holly. To the south-west the ruins of the 14th century castle built by the Earls of Lennox when they fled the plague, abandoning their castle in Balloch. Although chiefly used as a hunting lodge, the castle nonetheless saw its fair share of murder and mayhem, and in the early 18th century was raided by Rob Roy during his lengthy conflict with the Marquis of Montrose. There was also a chapel dedicated to St Mirren – hence the island’s name.

Chirpy island residents!

The island sits along the Highland Boundary fault line and is rich in history and archaeology and makes for a delightful day out. There’s a great deal more to tell, but as this is just a taster, I’ll stop now. Though the full article is available in this month’s excellent iScot magazine.

So if a day out on the water appeals, then head for Inchmurrin. And be glad that you don’t have to go far in Scotland to find an island!

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!

 

Take a walk round Bowling Basin – and bring your dog!

Even on a very chilly day, it’s hard not be impressed by the changes taking place at Bowling Basin and Harbour. Many of the rotting hulks have gone, landscaping is well underway, and the old Customs House is the setting for new ventures. Looking at it now, it can be hard to believe that the canal closed in 1963 and that it was only after decades of campaigning that it was finally re-opened in 2001.

Bowling is a small village that sits on the northern shore of the Firth of Clyde, between the towns of Dumbarton and Clydebank, and is the western entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal. The canal opened in 1790, and if you follow the towpath, it will take you from Bowling all the way to Grangemouth, across the narrowest stretch of Lowland Scotland, linking not only two of Scotland’s finest rivers, the Clyde and the Forth, but also the west and east coasts of the country.

But your jaunt needn’t end there for it’s possible to take a spin in the amazing Falkirk Wheel and be lifted upwards onto the Union Canal and thereby onwards into the heart of Edinburgh. The whole route is excellent for both cyclists and walkers. And obviously for boats too!

At Bowling, you’ll find the marina, and the canal itself, have lots of interesting boats to have a look at: from the sleek and shiny to the slightly more rickety and ramshackle. You’ll also find that the old railway arches have been tastefully refurbished, housing shops and a cafe with a difference: the Dug Cafe, where we saw lots of dogs and their owners, and walkers and cyclists, enjoying tea and toast. Although we no longer have a dog ourselves, it was good to find a cafe that is so welcoming to (well-behaved) dogs.

A tidal tepee!

Walking along the towpath you can admire the fine engineering and the powerful gates of the locks, or watch the varied and colourful wildfowl on the water. All very peaceful. Yet there would have been none of this tranquillity in its heyday, when Bowling would have been full of ships of every shape, size and description, all laden with cargoes of timber, coal and fish, with other boats being built or repaired in the thriving workshops and yards in the basin. The whole place would have been buzzing with life and full of noise and smells.

The old Customs House with the disused railway bridge behind

All this activity was added to when the first railway station opened in 1850. Then, some forty years later, a second station opened, this one on the Caledonian Railway’s Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire Line. That line closed sixty-seven years ago, in 1951, but the trackbed is now used as a cyclepath through the village. The industrial history of Scotland, although much of it relatively recent in historical terms, is nonetheless fascinating. And there’s plenty of it here at Bowling.

But there’s a much more ancient connection here too! Bowling is only a short distance away from Old Kilparick, which marked the western end of the Antonine Wall, the northernmost barrier of the vast Roman Empire. Rome’s very own final frontier, you could say! The Wall had sixteen forts (with many fortlets in between), all linked by a road known as the Military Way. Commissioned by Emperor Antonius Pius in AD 142, it was abandonned less than a decade after completion. It seems those ancient Caledonians were, very understandably, not too keen on having Roman masters! But, tempora mutantur, as those self-same Romans would have said, and thankfully you’ll find that there’s a very different welcome for the visitors of today!

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.

 

The Falls of Dochart

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It certainly knows how to rain in Scotland. It can be torrential. Bucketing. A smirr. A drizzle. A downpour. Dreich. Pelting. Horizontal. Lashing. Pouring. Raining cats and dogs (why them, I wonder?). Coming down in sheets. Weather for ducks. Spitting. Soaking. Wet. Stotting. Chucking it down (who is?!) Driving. In floods. Well-drookit. And many, many more. They say the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – but it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more words than that for rain!

On the other hand, take a trip out on a wet day and you’ll be rewarded with some astonishing sights. Today we drove up to Killin and watched the fast-flowing waters of the River Dochart as they roared down the falls. And there were plenty of others out doing just the same.

Water can be very powerful and very impressive. No doubt also very dangerous if not treated with respect. But it’s not hard to understand why writers, artists and poets have all found inspiration in its ceasless motion.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.537-c.475 BC) once said, “You can never step in the same river twice.”  For me, that conjures up a striking image, one that mirrors the idea at the heart of his doctrine. For Heraclitus believed the very essence of the universe is change. Everything changes. Nothing stands still. Everything flows. Nothing stays fixed. Everything is in a state of flux.

A Glenelg burn

That change can be the infinitesimal movement of the great tectonic plates that wrap the Earth and grind imperceptibly beneath us. Or the swift unstoppable destruction caused by a tsunami thrown up by a powerful undersea earthquake.  The slow growth of a fingernail. Or the all-too-rapid melting of an ice-cream on a hot day.

Fast or slow. Visible or not, change is happening all the time. And although it can be frightening, it can also be wonderfully freeing. You make a terrible mistake, but you can atone for it. You get a disastrous haircut, but your hair will grow again! An election brings a bleak result, but you can vote again. Yet it’s surprising how often people fear change so much that they choose to stick with the known, the familiar, no matter how bad that familiar is. We’re a strange contrary lot, the human race!

But, like the river rushing over the rocks at the Falls of Dochart. Or the burn roaring down the hillside at Glenelg. Or the breakers being driven ashore on the back of an Atlantic gale, life’s rarely static. Rather, it’s always changing and moving in new and unexpected ways.

How we deal with change has a huge bearing on how we live our lives. We can try to pretend it isn’t happening (think ostrich, head in the sand). Or try to hold back the tide of change (think Canute, though that wasn’t the point of the original tale). Or, despite the unknown and unfamiliar, we can look on change as bringing the possibility of new and better things, and embrace that. And I think that’s the one I’d like to go for.

Atlantic breakers crash ashore on Barra

Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

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