‘Wee Macgreegor’ and the Mystery of the Three Nuns

He was once a character known the world over, yet today Wee Macgreegor is little more than a footnote to Scottish literature. First published in 1902, the tale of wee Macgregor Robinson and his family made writer and journalist J J Bell (John Joy Bell), an overnight sensation.  Wee Macgreegor soon featured in many other novels, and was so popular it wasn’t long before he became a brand – on matches, china, biscuits, tablet, lemonade and even sardines!

John Bell was the son of a prosperous Glasgow tobacco manufacturer and enjoyed all that that entailed. After university John briefly joined the family firm, however writing was his real passion and, with his father’s blessing, he began writing for newspapers and magazines. But just as John’s star began to rise, his father’s company sank upon the rocks of American competition in the trans-Atlantic battle for supremacy of the vastly profitable tobacco trade.

From iScot April/May 2019

An unassuming man, Bell was surprised, but pleased, when the books were dramatised for stage, radio and cinema. In 1911 Arthur Wareing, director of the Glasgow Repertory Theatre, suggested Bell adapt some of the stories for his company to perform. The Glasgow Rep had been established in 1909 in an attempt to break the stranglehold which the London touring companies had gained in Scottish theatres. Sadly, the company would be short-lived, falling victim to the wave of theatre closures caused by the outbreak of World War One.

Harold Chapin

However, working with a young American producer and playwright, Harold Chapin, Bell had the play ready by December 1911. Finding a boy to play the part of Wee Macgreegor wasn’t easy. But one of Bell’s former Evening News colleagues came to his aid, finding ‘a likely lad’ for them. This was Willie Elliot, a messenger-boy, a small fourteen-year-old, who although he had no ambition to become an actor, was able and intelligent and made a successful job of the part. Both Harold Chapin and Willie Elliot would later be caught up in the First World War, Chapin volunteering for the medical corps and losing his life in 1915 at the Battle of Loos. While Willie Elliot, although wounded three times, survived that bloodbath and after the war left Scotland to start a new life in Canada.

Betty Balfour

In 1923 a silent film, Wee MacGregor’s Sweetheart, appeared. The film told the story not of the eight-year-old boy, but the young man and was based on two later stories, Oh! Christina and Courting Christina, with the role of Christina played by Betty Balfour, one of the best-known actresses of the day. Betty Balfour was known as the ‘British Mary Pickford’, and worked in Germany and France, as well as appearing in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films, Champagne (1928).

I found it fascinating trying to track down the people, places and events that were part of J J Bell’s life. While he seems to have been a very quiet, almost reserved man, his writing brought him into contact with people from all walks of life. Up until his death in 1934, Bell continued to contribute to newspapers, was a theatre critic, produced some autobiographical volumes and wrote widely about Scotland, most notably The Glory of Scotland (1932) and The Rainbow West (1933).

One of his favourite, and oft-repeated journeys, was on the West Highland Railway up to Fort William and on to the fishing port of Mallaig. The growth of railways had opened up parts of Scotland that had previously only been accessible to the very wealthy. Now travel was there for all.

Bell’s love of Scotland was great, and he felt very strongly that, for all of us, personal knowledge of our land was important, “for after all, we ought to know for ourselves – not depending entirely on Sir Walter Scott – the land we love.”

And as for the mystery of the three nuns? You’ll have to read the iScot article to find the answer to that!!

iScot Magazine

What lies beneath? From Pictland to Scotland

“The past is still a place that is not safely settled,” wrote Michael Ondaatje, the Sri Lankan-born Canadian author, best known for his Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient. At the start of Ondaatje’s tale neither the patient’s name nor his past are known, but as the story unfolds his true identity, and the tragic events leading to his desperate state, are gradually revealed.

Just as the history of an individual is uncovered in this many-layered story, so archaeologists continue to delve into the past, unearthing new levels and discovering artefacts that reveal ever more about our country’s history and the lives of our ancestors.

The entrance to the Basilica (Church) di San Clemente

The entrance to the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome

It’s surprising how often we think of the past as something fixed and final – but nothing could be further from the truth. The past is not static and archaeology and historical research are our tools for learning more.  As new finds come to light, we’re able to reassess our understanding of how people lived in bygone days.

Some years ago I read Ngaio Marsh’s novel When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of the Basilica (Church) di San Tommaso. The setting is based on the real Basilica di San Clemente, an ancient site where archaeologists have discovered at least three levels of buildings, the oldest being deep under the present ground level.

The underground portico at the west end of the 4th century church

The rediscovered underground portico of the 4th century church in San Clemente

On top is the 12th century basilica. Below that archaeologists have unearthed a 4th-century basilica, originally part of the sumptuous home of a Roman nobleman. Below that again, a lower basement served as a mithraeum (a temple for the worship of Mithras) until that religion was outlawed.

It’s even possible that the home of that wealthy Roman nobleman had been built on the foundations of a much older republican-era building, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 64 AD. These exciting discoveries have shed a great deal of light on the turbulent history of Rome and the varied lifestyles of its inhabitants.

The crypt under St Colman's Church at Portmahomack

The crypt under St Colman’s (Tarbat Old Church) at Portmahomack

But what about Portmahomack? Similar far-reaching discoveries were made here between 1994 and 2007, when archaeologists uncovered the site of what seems to be the largest Pictish Christian Monastery in Scotland. Founded around 560 AD, perhaps even by Columba himself, this monastery in Pictland grew and flourished for the next 300 years. Archaeological evidence suggests that the monastery had a farm and a cemetery, as well as workshops for the making of sacred church objects, intricate sculptures, and illustrated books (similar to the Book of Kells).

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Calf Stone, a fragment of a Pictish Sculptured Stone from Portmahomack. Illustration by Elizabeth Hooper (c) University of York

The Picts have long been one of history’s great mysteries, but discoveries like these at Pormahomack have given us unique insights into their civilisation. They were not simply the barbaric ‘painted’ warriors of Roman propaganda, but an artistic, highly cultured people, skilled craftsmen, well-organized, well-travelled and not isolated from contemporary politics and events, with Portmahomack a key point on the North Sea trade routes.

But then tragedy struck when, around 800 AD, the monastery and the surrounding community were destroyed by Viking invaders. The wonderful treasure that was this unique Pictish monastery was reduced to rubble and gradually disappeared beneath the earth, to be eventually forgotten.

Portmahomack

Portmahomack

But sacred sites draw people to them, and other churches were built on this hallowed ground.  Until finally, centuries later, gravediggers unearthed fragments of ancient carved stones and it became clear that something very ancient and substantial lay beneath their feet. And the re-discovery began.

One way or another we are all shaped by the past. A better understanding of that makes for a better understanding of ourselves.  And who knows what else is waiting to be discovered?

You can read about this, and much more, in my article in this month’s iScot magazine.

Tarbat Discovery Centre

Unlocking the Past: Crossraguel Abbey

“Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime. Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Powerful words from Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Words that are echoed by many others, including Julian Barnes, who writes, “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.” Which raises the question of just how do we preserve the past? Who decides what remains of that collective memory? Who writes our history?

There’s a familiar quote which runs like this, “To the victor the spoils.”  Those spoils, however, are more than just material gains. They include the power to create the account of events that will become history.  Those victors are allowed to give the ‘official’ version of what happened. Versions that glorify particular events or people, and all too often fabricate a past that didn’t exist, taking the collective memory down a path of untruth. It’s been happening since the dawn of time, and it takes time and effort to redress the balance. Just think how many people still believe Shakespeare’s version of Macbeth, unaware of how successful a monarch he was, so much so that he could leave a stable, well-governed country and go on a pilgrimage to Rome.

Wartime secrecy is a boon to those who wish to create history with a particular agenda. Churchill is a prime example of that. His orders to destroy so much at the end of WWII gave him room to write an account of events that put him centre stage and ‘do a Richard III’ on former colleagues. Fortunately there are now versions that show events more honestly, Clive Ponting’s Churchill being one of them. Accounts which redress some of the imbalance.

We’re awash with fake news today. Statements are made by politicians that are blatantly untrue, yet go unchallenged.  And, more dangerously, seep into the public consciousness to become fact. Yet there are ways to counter this. Knowing where to look for original source material is one. Being aware that all historians, journalists and broadcasters present news from a particular viewpoint – no-one is totally impartial – is another.

But there’s also the pleasure of finding out for yourself. Of getting out and about in your own country and visiting those places which, through their very antiquity, have so much to tell us about past events and what those events meant to those who lived through them. And how those events shaped the lives of generations to follow. Taking Crossraguel Abbey as an example, I’ve tried to do just this in my current iScot article.

What you remember defines you. What a nation remembers defines it too. The past is all around us – just waiting for you to come and find what really happened!

Tall tales and tackety boots

The 25th of January 2019 sees the 260th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Burns has been voted the Greatest Scot by the Scots themselves and his work is known and admired the world over. For a man who died when he was only thirty-seven, that really is an amazing achievement.

Burns lived through personal poverty and ill-health, and also witnessed the harshness of life faced by his fellows on a daily basis. Yet he didn’t shy away from writing about these things. What, to me, makes his work so special, and why I believe it still resonates so strongly with so many of us today, is the way he wrote: for despite all the difficulties, he wrote with warmth, humour and with hope.

The first stamps commemorating Burns were issued in the Soviet Union in 1956

Writing in both Scots and English, Burns’ work moves easily from the comic to the romantic to the political, ringing true in every case.  And I have to admit that while researching and writing this article, I discovered that there was much, much more to Robert Burns than I had realised when I started!

Burns was always generous in acknowledging those who inspired him. And he, in turn, has inspired generations of people ever since. Among that number was Thomas Grant Dey, my shoe-making, ship-building grandfather who grew up in Ayrshire, not many miles from Alloway, where Burns was born. For him, the egalitarian ideals expressed so vividly by Burns, were something all of us should strive for and be proud of.

How fortunate we are to have a man like Burns as part of our nation’s history and culture.  How worthwhile it is to take a longer look at who he was and what he did.  How worthy he is of that glass raised in his honour at your Burns Supper – a man whose works are definitely worth remembering, not just on the 25th of January, but all year round!

The full article is available in iScot Janury 2019

Scoraig – almost an island

There are one or two places on the west coast of Scotland that are not islands as such, but which are, to all intents and purposes, islands. Scoraig on Little Loch Broom in Wester Ross is one. To reach Scoraig you can either go by boat (the easy way – though always weather dependent!) from Badluarach on the south shore of Little Loch Broom – or you can walk. There is no road, no vehicular access, only a dramatic 5-mile cliff-side path. This was the route we chose. The walk starts at the road end at Badralloch and offers spectacular views down the length of Little Loch Broom.

Until the mid 1800s the peninsula supported a number of farming townships: houses grouped together surrounded by feannagan – ridge and furrow rigs for growing crops. By the mid-19th century, however, the estate had been sold and the new owner dramatically changed the landscape of the area by breaking up the townships and laying out crofts. These were hard, harsh times in the Highlands and Islands. New homes had to be built from scratch, infertile land worked until a living could be eked from it.  And all the while increased rents, both in kind and in labour, were being demanded by landlords.

But battle on they did, and that so many survived is a tribute to the courage and determination of the inhabitants. Life continued, families grew and according to Scoraig’s community website, there were 61 children at the school in 1873. However, as steamer transport declined and road and rail routes passed Scoraig by – as well as the drastic toll of two world wars – the population began to dwindle and it looked as though Scoraig was finished.

The path alongside Little Loch Broom towards Scoraig

But surprisingly Scoraig didn’t die. The story of the hard-work, determination and ingenuity that have kept Scoraig alive is one well-worth the telling. And in this month’s Scottish Islands Explorer I’ve tried to do just that. It’s a story with plenty of hardship and heartbreak along the way, especially when resistance from landowners doomed a ground-breaking post-war scheme to rebuild and repopulate the area. But persistance paid off and a new wave of settlers arrived in the 1960s and 1970s and have succeeded in rebuilding this unique community.

New housing in Scoraig!

Back then some of their practices were regarded as odd – but their approach to self-sufficiency, wind and solar power are now seen as the way forward for the rest of us. They were real innovators, hard-working pioneers ahead of their time. And thanks to them, Scoraig has continued to grow and thrive; that the community supports a nursery and a primary school is proof of that. What was once seen as ‘alternative’ living has stood the test of time and proven its worth. And can teach us all something for the challenges we face today.

The jetty at Scoraig

The jetty at Scoraig

Keeping you Posted

Spent time in a queue in the Post Office recently? Stamps for Christmas cards? Parcels to post? This is probably the one time of year many of us use stamps. They’re such small things that we tend to take them for granted. Yet, before their introduction in 1840, you had to be rich to communicate with anyone who didn’t live close to home. The Penny Post was a huge, beneficial, change for ordinary people and letter writing flourished. Postcards appeared and greeting cards for every occasion soon  followed.

There’s a whole history in stamps. Not only do they get your letters and parcels from A to B anywhere in the world, but they also commemorate major events; illustrate who and what certain countries see as important; and even reflect changes in the very existence of countries themselves. As in these Irish stamps:

Postmen in rural areas travelled mile after mile over rough terrain to make sure that the post got through. Getting mail to Scottish islands could be a real test of ingenuity. Everything was tried; from sheep’s bladders to rockets! Post offices abounded and were at the heart of small communities everywhere. Everything came by post!

The vital contribution made by postal workers was celebrated in the 1936 GPO film Night Mail, with W.H. Auden’s famous poem recited to the rhythm of the rushing wheels of the train.

And there’s much, much more! Whether you prefer print or digital download, it’s all there to be discovered in December’s wonderful 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) trys 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.

For very often life does find a way, with or without human help, and in some of the unlikliest 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. Absorbant 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 senario, we really need to be kinder to the natural world, and hopefully it’ll continue to be kind to us!

As old as the hills: the North West Highlands Geopark

Time and tide may wait for no man, but the hills do. And in Scotland we have some of the most magnificent hills and mountains in the world. Mountains that were forced into being over 400 million years ago when three continents collided, creating a mountain chain of umimaginable proportions. Mountains that, over millenia, have been worn away by ice, wind and water to reach the forms we see today.

Sadly there’s no Tardis to take us back to witness those times, but the story of the Earth’s formation can be read in the physical landscape itself. One man in particular came to understand the language of the rocks and that was James Hutton (1726-1797). Hutton was one of those remarkable Scots who fuelled that great intellectual and scientific movement, the Scottish Enlightenment.

Prof Lorna Dawson, ‘soil sleuth’.(Photo: Ross Johnston)

It was an exciting time when many people started to look at the world with new eyes and came to a new understanding of how the world had been shaped, and how it worked. They not only discovered the patterns at work within the natural world, but also those which applied to the social structures that shaped human life and society.

Hutton’s work was so groundbreaking that he would become known as the Father of Geology. And it still impacts on us today, even if not always in the most expected of ways! Take, for example, the work of forensic geologist, Prof Lorna Dawson, of the James Hutton Institute, whose work in soil forensics has brought some very vicious criminals to book, both here and around the world.

The view from Knockan Crag, NWH Geopark

Reading the landscape isn’t always straightforward, but a visit to the North West Highlands Geopark can help you understand some of the processes involved in the creation of modern Scotland. And offer one of the best holidays you can imagine!

The North West Highlands are a part of Scotland that I’ve visited often and love deeply. In this month’s iScot Magazine article I look at some noteable places in the geopark and at why they are important to us all. If you don’t know this part of the world, it’s an article that will give you plenty of ideas and much food for thought. And, I hope, the desire to head to the hills for a visit. They’ve been around for a very long time and are just waiting for you!

Glorious Clachtoll Bay

Glen Fyne

The path to the tree house

The clocks have gone back and the nights are definitely drawing in. Autumn is firmly in place and the trees are looking glorious in their shades of red, russet and gold.

With the days noticeably shorter, those long days out-of-doors are over until next spring. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t still places that can be visited and enjoyed in the shorter daylight hours available. From where I live, Glen Fyne and the surrounding area is just such a destination. Starting at the walkers’ car park by the old Telford Bridge at the head of Loch Fyne, or from the Oyster Bar car park, there are walks aplenty to choose from.

The shortest of these walks takes you firstly to Kilmorich graveyard, a medieval burial ground, then on to the ‘Tree Hoose’, half a mile or so further up the hill. As the tree house is full-size, there won’t be many adults or children who won’t enjoy a visit. From the upper platform, set in the canopy of a large ash tree, you can savour the long views up and down the glen, or let your imagination run free and be a pirate in the crow’s nest of a many-masted galleon!

The burial ground at Kilmorich is very ancient and first appears in written records in the mid-13th century. Although once home to a parish church dedicated to an Irish saint, St Muireadhach, nothing remains today of the medieval chapel. Interestingly though, the path up to the tree house is on the route of an old ‘coffin road’. These coffin roads were used in the days when only certain churches had burial rights (as Kilmorich had) and the coffins of the dead often had to be carried long distances to their final resting places.

The path follows the line of an old coffin road

The D-shaped enclosure around the burial ground dates from the 19th century, while the present day church of Kilmorich, situated in Cairndow, was built in 1816. But the old graveyard wasn’t totally forgotten and some of the trees around it are thought to have been planted by parishioners in 1819. According to Kirk Session records, a group took young trees to the old kirkyard to mark its special place in their lives, planting them ‘for to ornament the place where their Relations who have gone before them & their Forefathers have been Deposited’.

Also in the 19th century, a late 15th century font, complete with an incised galley, was removed from the old graveyard. It was then forgotten about until it found again very many years later at Inveraray Castle. It was finally returned home in 1990 and can now be seen in the vestibule of Kilmorich church in Cairndow.

The incised galley on the ancient baptismal font now in Kilmorich church in Cairndow

There are a host of other walks and bike rides up and down this lovely glen and some take you well up into the surrounding hills and mountains. And you certainly won’t go hungry, as there are eating places here too. There’s a great café at the Tree Shop, which sits beside the Here We Are centre in Clachan. Then there’s the smoked seafood of your choice at the Oyster Bar, or the beer of your choice at Fyne Ales, or over in Cairndow the Stagecoach Inn.

When winter approaches and the weather can be daunting, even a few hours out-of-doors can be just the boost we all need. So get a map and see what’s near you that’s worth exploring, and go for it!

‘Neolithic chic’ – Coillabus on Islay

Holiday accommodation comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the reality turns out to be not quite as it seemed in the brochure, while on other occasions you arrive to find it’s even better than expected. Coillabus on Islay was one of those, especially when we arrived at the lodge and saw the breathtaking 180° views over the north-west of the Oa. In fact, we could even see all the way along Glen Astle to the Rinns of Islay lighthouse on the small island of Orsay!

Set into the hillside, the lodge is almost invisible from the road, with curving stone walls and a turf roof that blend into the surrounding landscape: “Traditional black house meets neolithic with a healthy dose of contemporary chic”, as one description imaginatively puts it! And that’s not far wrong. Even the instructions on how to get there were magical: “The road becomes narrow with twisty corners in places. Continue past…the house with hens and other livestock.  Go up round past Connachan’s Grave, a chambered cairn on your left…then up a really steep bend past a house with…more hens who might be responsible for your breakfast eggs”!  How often do you get directions like this!

An example of a traditional black house of the kind that inspired modern-day Coillabus

The Oa is home to a large RSPB reserve as well as a wealth of archaeological and historical sites. The American Monument, visible from miles around, marks the tragic loss of life when two US troop ships sank off the peninsula in 1918. And, as on so many Scottish islands, there are signs of old abandoned settlements, many from the time of the Clearances, when landlords forced tenants to leave their homes. This area once supported many more families than it does today.

However, there is continuity with the island’s past as the Coillabus lodges lie within a family-owned working hill farm and were built with local stone by local craftsmen. The modern, environmentally-friendly underfloor heating makes for a warm and comfortable stay. We were fortunate to have good weather during our visit, but the lodge is so well insulated the weather almost didn’t matter! In fact, you could say it’s a ‘weatherproof’ house where the drama of a storm raging outside would be thrilling to watch through the magnificent panoramic windows.

In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at some of the ways architects are taking the best from the past and combining it with modern technology.  Coillabus, and properties like it, give the lie to the notion that eco-friendly living means a primitive existence! In Scotland we’re well on the way to meeting our electricity needs through renewables. Using air and ground source heat pumps, it’s great to see a growing number of buildings where the old meets the new to create something both sustainable and comfortable – and in this case very much in keeping with a glorious island setting. Coillabus is undoubtedly an example of the way to go!

Coillabus Ecoluxury Lodges

Caledonian MacBrayne Hebridean & Clyde Ferries

Isle of Islay