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!

King’s Cave on Arran

Remember the story of Bruce and the spider? That tale of how a tiny creature’s persistence provided the spur that Bruce needed to keep going in the face of insurmountable odds? With the benefit of hindsight we know that success was eventually to be his. But he didn’t know that. He had to face his darkest moment without knowing what the future would bring.

Bruce had suffered terrible losses; the barbaric torture and death of some of his closest family, the imprisonment of others, the loss of Scotland. How much easier it could have been for him to turn and run. Give up and disappear from history. But he didn’t.

Visiting the cave and writing about it for the current edition of Scottish Islands Explorer, I found myself thinking that the central message of Bruce’s tale resonates just as strongly today as it did all those centuries ago. Like Bruce, we often have to take a leap of faith, not knowing what the final outcome will be, but hoping that the decision we’ve made is the right one.

Bruce faced terrible odds and knew only too well that his decision would impact on the lives of many, many people. That was a heavy responsibility. Right now, in countries like Syria and Yemen, men, women and children are facing the horrors of war, torture and starvation. Drug wars rage in South America. Torture and beheading in Saudi Arabia. Ours is not a peaceful world. Yet despite that, there are always those courageous enough to take the decision to stand up against oppressors, no matter how impossible the odds appear.

Fortunately our decisions seldom put us in physical danger, but they’re still important. They affect us as individuals, but also the wider community around us. So, like Robert the Bruce, what we decide to do – or not to do – is important for more than just ourselves.

Arran is a beautiful island; rich in geology, archaeology, history and natural beauty and this cave is full of signs that it’s been used for centuries. For one thing, it’s a treasure trove of carvings: everything from present day graffiti to ogham (Celtic) writing; animals, crosses, swords and much more. Carvings from the Bronze Age, early Christian era, Norse, Medieval, and Victorian times. It’s all there for the eagle-eyed to spot!

King’s Cave on Arran may or may not be the actual location of the Bruce story, but that moment in Bruce’s life was nonetheless a pivotal moment in Scotland’s history. The cave is an evocative place to visit and ponder on the courage it can take to stand up for our convictions. And should doubts arise, remember Bruce and his spider!

Scottish Islands Explorer June/July 2021

Dundonald – A Castle for a King

There’s definitely more to the village of Dundonald than meets the eye. On the surface it looks like a quiet little Ayrshire town, but it has an unexpectedly rich history: everything from kings, smugglers and Covenantors to swashbuckling naval heroes.

Visually, the most noticeable thing about Dundonald is its castle. It’s hard to miss! Perched imposingly upon a crag that rises steeply above the village, it’s a formidable building. It’s a commanding site and a natural place for a defensive settlement, and not surprisingly has a long and very ancient history of fortifications from Neolithic times onwards.

I knew very little of the castle’s history and so decided to join a tour (in accordance with covid restrictions). It turned out to be an excellent decision, as our guide was a young woman, Blythe Paterson, a PhD history student originally from Connecticut, and the castle’s education officer. She was able to guide us through the long, and often complex, history of the castle in its various permutations and various owners.

For the present castle was not the first medieval castle in Dundonald, but the third, commissioned by Robert II when he became King of Scots in 1371. By the end of our visit we had a much clearer idea about the history of the site and its significance to Scottish history.

But Dundonald has another claim to fame or, depending on your views,  infamy. For in the 18th century Dundonald was part of a highly successful smuggling route from the coast at Troon, to Dundonald Glen.  It’s telling that the guide to the trail opens with the words, “Virtually everyone in the Parish of Dundonald was linked to the 18th century smuggling trade.” Not in a haphazard or ad hoc way. Not at all. “This was highly organised by David Dunlop so that the Loans Smuggling Company (David Dunlop & Co) was the most successful in Scotland.”

And then there’s the larger-than-life adventures of the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane, whose naval exploits both at home and abroad made him the hero of many small nations fighting for their independence. And earned him the nickname of The Sea Wolf from none other than Napoleon!

His was such an eventful, and unconventional, life that it’s not surprising that he is said to have been the inspiration for both C. S. Forester’s hero Horatio Hornblower, as well as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey.

So quiet little Dundonald has had its share of swashbuckling sons and daughters and a visit to the castle, as well as a journey along the Smugglers’ Trail, make it well worth a visit.

You can read more about all of this in my article in issue 73 of iScot Magazine available in print or digital format!

Inverie and Scoraig – defying the odds

As land ownership in Scotland clings grimly to its feudal roots, there are still far too many obstacles that make it hard, if not impossible, for Scots to live on and work the land. But it’s not only who owns the land that affects people’s lives, it’s also access. Access is vital for communities to survive and there can’t be many places in mainland Scotland that are as inaccessible as Inverie and Scoraig! Yet these two communities have shown that it’s possible to defy the odds and to thrive.

It’s not been an easy journey for either community. Neither have what we would consider ‘ease of access’, nor, until fairly recently, the opportunity to own the land they live on. However, you may have noticed that Inverie has been in the news again recently with talk of a community buy-out of the ‘remotest pub in mainland Britain’, which happens to be none other than the Old Forge in Inverie.

Inverie is a small settlement on the Knoydart Peninsula, and although not an island per se, it might as well be, because the only way of reaching the village, and thereby enjoying a drink at the Old Forge, is either by walking 15 miles (25km) over rough terrain or taking the little ferry from Mallaig and making a seven-mile (11km) sea crossing into Loch Nevis. The choice is yours! (tip: we took the ferry!)

The Falkirk Herald, September 1948

Fortunately, the challenge of a community buy-out is not a new one for the residents of Inverie. Like much of rural Scotland, Knoydart saw continuing depopulation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. So much so that there was even a suggestion in the 1990s that the peninsula be turned into yet another military training area. However, the community pulled together and in 1999 successfully bought out the old Knoydart Estate. Since then, under the auspices of the Knoydart Foundation, there have been a wealth of positive changes: everything from improved housing, affordable homes, the introduction of a Ranger service, expansion of local enterprises, forestry, a community owned trading company and, very importantly, their own hydro-electric scheme, Knoydart Renewables.

Press&Journal November 1969

Scoraig likewise, saw its population dwindle and almost die out over the years.  As with Knoydart, attempts to re-populate and revive the area, particularly after the Second World War, started off with high hopes, only to come to naught because of inequitable land ownership. But Scoraig has survived, thanks in no small measure to an influx of young people in the late 1960s. Although initially greeted with scepticism, they were determined not to be defeated.

Scoraig Heritage Centre!

At the time theirs was labelled a crackpot ‘alternative’ lifestyle. But in reality their approach to crofting and self-sufficiency, along with the harnessing of wind power, was ahead of its time and is now seen as a way forward for the rest of us. So much so, that one of Scoraig’s residents, Hugh Piggott, who helped build many of Scoraig’s original wind-turbines, now writes and teaches on the subject and runs Scoraig Wind Electric.

The story of both these communities is a long, and at times depressing one, so out-dated is land ownership in Scotland. But perseverance has paid off and they’re inspirational stories well-worth hearing and that’s what I’ve looked at in some detail in this month’s article in issue 71 of iScot Magazine.

A Pilgrim People

There’s an old saying that “curiosity killed the cat.” But I don’t go along with that. In fact, I believe it’s the exact opposite, a lack of curiosity, that ‘kills’ us. That stultifies our minds and our imagination. That closes our eyes to the possibilities of life and blunts our ability to have a vision of better things. Indeed, I think the Book of Proverbs hits the nail on the head when it says “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Whether a vision for our individual lives, or for our nation, it’s curiosity that leads us to ask questions and explore different ways of doing things. It’s curiosity that leads us to say “What would Scotland be like if…?”

Without curiosity people wouldn’t explore or experiment. Without curiosity early man wouldn’t have gone to see what was over the next hill or on the other side of that wide blue ocean. Without curiosity scientists and doctors wouldn’t have made the breakthroughs they have. Curiosity fuels our imagination and opens our eyes to connections we hadn’t noticed before. Just think of the complex process required to turn cocoa beans into chocolate and you have to marvel at human ingenuity!

People have always been curious, trying to find ways – and the words – to understand the world around them. To explain the seasons, the floods and famine, as well as the bounty and beauty of the world. To understand why the world is the way it is.

Curiosity is a profound human trait, one that is not far from spirituality: a sense that there is something else out there, beyond our physical bodies and the here and now. With spirituality rather than religiosity at its heart, pilgrimage can offer the chance to walk, to think, to talk, to ask questions, to give thanks. To be close to the past, live well in the present and imagine the future.

Pilgrimage is nothing new: Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and James IV all made pilgrimages. But today there’s a whole new generation looking at the old ways with contemporary eyes. And there are flourishing pilgrim routes all across Scotland and Europe. A modern pilgrim may venture forth for different reasons than those of the past. But that time out, re-connecting with the land, seeking to re-focus on what’s important and what we’re trying to do with our lives, is an experience worth considering. And fortunately Scotland is a country with a wealth of pilgrim routes, enriched by a long history of Celtic and medieval Christianity. So wherever you live, chances are there’s one pretty close to your doorstep!

In issue 68 of iScot Magazine I look at the history of pilgrimage: its rise and fall, and rise again and its myriad of forms.

iScot Magazine

Faith in Cowal

Scottish Pilgrim Routes

The Way of St Andrews

History in the Time of Covid: memory, identity and the importance of recording our history

My mother aged 16

Just think for a moment about what makes each one of us a unique individual. It’s our memories. And just think how tragic it is when we lose those, when dementia strikes and robs us of who we are. Author Julian Barnes wrote, “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.”

A few years ago I lost my mother to cancer. Yet in some ways I’d lost her to Alzheimer’s before that. I’m sure many others have gone through the same loss. As her memories went, the person she was gradually slipped away. It’s a terrible thing to happen. I remember vividly the day she looked at me and asked “What did your mother do?” “A good question!” I replied, trying not to cry. That comment however, spurred me to write a biography of her life. I contacted those who had known her at different stages of her life: growing up in India, teaching in one of the toughest schools in Glasgow, as well as in schools in London and Shetland, travelling to Bosnia in the wake of that terrible war, campaigning in local elections in Edinburgh. For a time, even as her memories gradually disappeared, looking at what she called “The Book”, helped her cope with what was happening to her, reminded her for a while of the person she had been and the life she had led. Words and images that spoke of her history, and offered brief respites from that insidious disease that was slowly but surely robbing her of her identity.

I’ve written about these issues before, but feel they’re worth revisiting because loss of identity doesn’t only apply to individuals, but also to nations. If we lose our collective memories we lose our identity as a people. 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? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? And why did so many of us in Scotland grow up with so little knowledge of the rich history of our own country?

In this month’s iScot article I look at all these fascinating issues and at the wealth of places that exist that make it possible for us to know more about our past and, by extension, ourselves. If we hope to create a better future for ourselves and our country, we have to not only be able to make sense of the present but also to understand the role of the past in our lives. Our history is preserved in a myriad of ways. The more we learn about it, the more we want to know. And it’s all just waiting for us out there!

Around Loch Torridon

Lower Diabaig

The Beatles famously sang about a ‘long and winding road’, and while it might lead to the door of a loved one, I think we would all agree that it would be a much more comfortable journey on a road that is smooth and not one made from crushed rock and gravel. And yet that’s exactly what many roads in the Highlands were like until the 1960s and 70s.

Travel was hard going. Communities could only survive and thrive if travel and communications were, if not good, at least adequate. And very often they were neither. But the eventual arrival of tarred roads was to make a great, and very positive, difference to the lives of people in remote areas.

‘Cycling county’ 1930s style!

The roads around Loch Torridon in Wester Ross were a classic example of the tough going involved. A time when travelling by bike, bus or car involved a ‘right good jolting’ for both passengers and goods.

Poor roads also helped exacerbate worrying trends in depopulation, as they made trading, shopping, visiting friends and family, getting to secondary school, to church, to hospital, to and from work all much more difficult. While some today may hanker to be ‘off the beaten track’, it most certainly wasn’t always seen as a good thing!

Fortunately much has improved not only for Torridon’s residents but also for the many visitors drawn to this area of rugged and spectacular beauty. From the dizzying heights of Beinn Alligin, Liathach and Beinn Eighe to the rolling breakers and dunes at Redpoint Beach, there’s much to experience. And we are fortunate to be able to do so with an ease and comfort that our forebears could only dream of!

In the current issue of iScot magazine I take a look at the story behind the lives of the people of Torridon both past and present. At the challenges faced both then and now. And how we owe a great deal to those who went before us. It’s a fascinating area and though remote, there’s much more to it than you might at first believe.

iScot magazine

The Road to Shieldaig

Red Roof Cottage, Loch Torridon

It’s been a long lockdown but we’re gradually getting out and about a bit more – albeit very, very carefully. From home, I’ve been using the time to write more about that glorious part of northern Scotland, Wester Ross. I’ve been looking at the lives and times of the people who live and work there. Discovering places to be enjoyed at leisure like the gorgeous Attadale Gardens. Or the not-to-be-missed experience of that nail-biting drive (or cycle) up the hair-pin bends of the Bealach Na Bà. Or looking at the fascinating history of the village of Shieldaig, set up in the early 19th century to provide cannon fodder for the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Or discovering why Strome Castle ended up a ruin!

Yet there’s a lot more than just magnificent scenery here, though that’s undoubtedly a huge part of the appeal this area has for visitors. For it’s also a part of Scotland that’s lived through good times and bad, where people have had to struggle simply to survive in the face of both the rigours of the landscape and the depredations of landowners. Challenges indeed!

The Road to Shieldaig takes you on a journey from Glenelg to Shieldaig via Eilean Donan Castle, Attadale Gardens, Lochcarron, Strome, up-and-over the Bealach na Bà, around North Applecross and down onto the shores of Loch Torridon. And once there, you’ll also find some of the finest mountain scenery Scotland has to offer.

It’s all just waiting for you in iScot Magazine issue 64.