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.

The Hydro Boys: the men who brought power to the glens

Clunie Arch, a memorial to some of the men who lost their lives building the hydro schemes

The dramatic story behind ‘Power to the Glens’ has interested me for years. So widespread was the scheme that you don’t have to go far to find a dam or power station linked to the Hydro. Wonderful feats of civil engineering, with clean and beautiful designs that leave no scars on the landscape.

The scheme was designed to bring power to the glens through the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board (1943–1990) and was masterminded by Kirkintilloch-born politician Tom Johnston (1881-1965). Johnston was a Labour MP and Secretary of State for Scotland during WW2, and was determined to improve life for the people of the Highlands and Islands.

Pitlochry Dam

The Hydro Board was tasked with the enormous challenge of designing, constructing and managing hydro electricity projects throughout the Highlands of Scotland: an expanse that covers almost a quarter of the total land area of Britain, yet with only about three percent of the population.

However, as it’s an area with the highest mountains, largest inland lochs and most bountiful rainfall in Scotland, it definitely has the perfect ingredients required to create hydro electricity!

The Hydro comes to Out Skerries, Glasgow Herald, October 29 1983

Think how much we take heat and light for granted. It may be wet and miserable outside, but we know we have bright, warm homes waiting for us. Every now and then an unexpected power cut might serve to remind us what life was like before everything was available at the flick of a switch. But it’s not a situation we’d want to last for long! And I suspect most of us would be hard put to really understand what life was like before mains electricity was available throughout Scotland.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until the 1960s, and thanks to the work of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, that 90% of the Highlands were finally attached to the national grid. A figure more than double pre-war provision. And many more years passed until that connection was nationwide. It’s an inspiring story of how belief in a better society for all can change the lives of so many. If there’s a will to do so.

And Tom Johnston had that will. I often wonder what he and his contemporaries would make of Westminster today? Not a lot, I suspect. But without a shadow of a doubt, there’s much that today’s politicians could learn from Tom Johnston!

My article about the advent of hydro-electricity, Tom Johnston, the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, the Hydro Boys and those extraordinary Tunnel Tigers, appears in issue 62 of iScot magazine. And what a story it is!

Wee Mac Arran – worth waiting for!

It should have been happening this September, however, like so much at the moment, it’s been put on hold. Yes, that’s disappointing, but I suspect it’ll be twice as enjoyable when it does take place!

Wee Mac will be a first for Arran, that beautiful island in the Firth of Clyde. A book festival with a difference. And one that will be open to all. But Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening in isolation, rather it’s to be held under the auspices of the island’s prestigious McLellan Arts Festival: and that’s something that pleases me greatly.

James Dey of the BBC (l) and playwright Robert McLellan (r), High Corrie, 1973

Growing up, we spent many a holiday on Arran, usually up in the small settlement of High Corrie, and it was there that we got to know Robert McLellan, the poet and dramatist in whose honour the festival is held each year.

He was an uncompromisingly honest, deeply caring, man who did much for the island. And I strongly suspect he would be delighted, not only at the festival in his name, but also that it’s expanding to bring in a new, younger generation.

So, while Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening this year, it’s something to look forward to in September 2021.

You can find out more about the festival and Robert McLellan in my article in the current iScot magazine: https://www.iscot.scot/

Or keep an eye on the Wee Mac Arran website for updates:  https://www.weemacarran.scot/

Fort of the Skulker: Dun an Sticir, North Uist

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. If you’re familiar with Finlaggan on Islay, the medieval seat of power of the Lords of the Isles, then you’ll get an understanding of Dun an Sticir.

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 issue 60 of iScot magazine!

Crime Scene Investigation

What connects a Highland wilderness, a former east-coast fishing town and Glasgow’s respectable West End? The answer? Crime! But fear not, it’s fictional crime I’m talking about!

Assynt, Arbroath and Glasgow’s West End are the settings used by three crime writers in their latest novels. And the locations could hardly be more different. Yet even though they may not have much in common geographically, each one is shaped by the passage of time and the layers of history that add, bit by bit, to their unique heritage.

Whether the stark – and at times terrifying – beauty of Assynt, or the long, low, narrow streets of Arbroath, or the grand, self-important buildings of Victorian Glasgow, location plays a huge part in a successful novel. An authentic setting will draw readers in, help create a gripping atmosphere and be a believable backdrop to the twists and turns of the author’s tale. Readers have to believe in the setting as much as in the plot and the characters. Credibility matters.

Surprisingly, though, settings don’t necessarily have to be dark and Gothic to create a menacing atmosphere. That impenetrable Victorian fog, or the flickering candlelight, or the howling of a gigantic hound out in the mire aren’t the only ways to create suspense. Just the opposite in fact, for in the hands of a skillful writer, even the most ordinary, everyday settings can become something very much more sinister. We all like to feel safe in our home territory, but what if that’s the very place where the threat lies? In fact, sometimes that’s the most effective way crime writers can unsettle us: take the familiar – the known – give it an unexpected twist and suddenly it becomes very menacing indeed!

In the Highlands I’m often struck by that curious juxtaposition between the breathtaking landscapes and the tiny settlements scattered across them. Towering mountains and huge skies. All that space and yet so few people. What made Gareth Halliday chose this place for his debut novel From the Shadows?

Moving south-east, I suspect that even if you’ve never been to Arbroath, you’ll have heard of its abbey. Arbroath Abbey is special. Without doubt it’s lasting importance rests on an event that took place 700 hundred years ago, yet one which still resonates today. In 1320 Bernard, the Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, drafted a document which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the key documents in Scottish history. A document that contains the famous lines, “For so long as but a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never under any circumstances submit to the domination of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” And this is the ancient town where Jackie McLean sets her crime novels.

For Michael Mackenzie, it’s the University of Glagow, one of the oldest in the country that lies at the centre of his work. And with good reason! But to find out what that reason is, you’ll have to read the article in the Jan/Feb issue of iScot magazine!

John de Graham’s Castle

The view might be very different from John de Graham’s time, but the setting is still as commanding. De Graham, friend and ally of William Wallace, is believed to have had his home on this spot, overlooking the Carron Valley in Stirlingshire. There’s a picture on the information board showing what the ‘castle’ would have looked like: a medieval earthwork with a substantial timber-framed hall, defended by an impressive square moat. The line of the moat is still very much in evidence, though nothing remains of the hall, and today the mighty Carron Reservoir fills much of the valley below.

John de Graham of Dundaff (another name for this fortified site), was a 13th century Scottish noble who fought alongside Wallace in the First Scottish War of Independence, and who fell at the Battle of Falkirk on 22 July 1298. On that terrible day the Scots, unable to withstand the force of the heavy English armoured cavalry and the deadly Welsh longbows, were defeated by Edward I of England. De Graham died but Wallace survived and is said to have sought out de Graham’s body and carried it from the battlefield himself. De Graham was the most notable casualty of that terrrible day and is buried at Falkirk Old Parish Church. Wallace then retreated to de Graham’s home by the Carron Water.

Many years later a famous narrative poem, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (also known as The Wallace), was written by the poet Blind Harry. It portrays Sir John de Graham as one of William Wallace’s principal supporters and describes Wallace’s feelings of loss and sadness at the demise of his friend. There’s no doubt that de Graham’s death was a sore blow to Wallace, who lost not only his right-hand-man, but also a close friend.

How certain can we be that this was John de Graham’s family home and that he was the man so close to Wallace? Matthew Ritchie, an archaeologist with the Forestry Commission Scotland who manage this site, writes, “A 13th century charter records ‘the whole waste lands of Dundaff and Strathcarron, which was the King’s forest’ being granted by Alexander II to John’s father, Sir David de Graham. That a John de Graham was the third son of Sir David de Graham is not in doubt – but was this the same John immortalised in The Wallace as having fallen at the Battle of Falkirk, or perhaps a son or relative?”

Ritchie continues, “Although Blind Harry’s poem was written long after the event, it does clearly link his Sir John de Graham to the area; and although the earthwork was likely built some years beforehand, it does mark the feudal estate of Dundaff, property of the de Graham family. Fact and fiction do seem to meet at Sir John de Graham’s castle to tell a story of place that is firmly rooted in the past.”

In the past spelling was not fixed or final and you’ll find that John de Graham’s name appears in different forms. In Blind Harry’s The Wallace his name is given as ‘Schir Jhone the Grayme’, while his tomb has him as Sir John the Grame. Then there’s the Society of John de Graeme, a group set up in 2016 to highlight the role of de Graham and Scottish history in general. But that’s not all. His name also survives in the Grahamston area of Falkirk – even in Falkirk Grahamston Station!

The Carron Valley

This site in the Carron Valley is an important part of Scotland’s story and heritage and as as such is a protected Scheduled Monument. We may never have known the man, but we can stand where both he and Wallace stood, and that’s a fine thing.

The Society of John de Graeme