The Fall of the Berlin Wall

How time flies! It’s 30 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall and 5 years since Border Crossings, my account of a long-term connection between a group of young Scots and young East Germans, came out on Kindle. Many of the hopes of those heady days of November 1989 have come to fruition, though not all. Intolerance and inequality are on the rise at an alarming rate. But there’s a growing resistance to that hatred and greed. Every new generation has to stand up against the evils of their own time – and understanding past struggles can be a pointer to what can be achieved. So to mark the achievements of those young Germans that I have known for so many years, I’m re-posting this piece about that Scottish-German friendship, a friendship that began in 1978 and has played such an important part of my life.

*****

It’s 25 years since the Fall of the Berlin Wall – 9th November 1989.  A quarter of a century ago the seemingly impossible happened and that grotesque symbol of a brutal totalitarian regime was breached.  Not through violence or bloodshed, but through the non-violent, patient, persistent refusal of the people of the GDR – East Germany – to tolerate any longer the brutal, unjust and economically inept rule of a decaying communist regime. It was a day not many had foreseen but what a day of rejoicing it was!

Sunday 9th November 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and I was delighted to be asked to take part in BBC Radio Scotland’s “Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross” programme to discuss that exciting time.  It was an historic turning point for Europe – and the world – and I was privileged to have made many visits to East Germany both before and after those amazing days.

The courage, determination and hope of the people who lived through that brutal regime is remarkable.  The endless shortages, the ban on travel to the West, the constant spying and fear of the dreaded Stasi (the secret police) made life extraordinarily hard.  But in the end the regime fell and life changed for the people of the former East Germany.

Bringing down that hated wall!

My friends there live a very different life now and although the transitional period was not always easy,  there was a whole new Europe for them and their children to explore, enjoy and contribute to. Political reform is rarely easy as those with power seldom wish to relinquish any of it!  But events in what was East Germany – and the other countries in the former Soviet Bloc – show what can be done if people are determined, courageous and persistent enough!

Links:

Sunday Morning with Ricky Ross,

BBC Radio Scotland, The Fall of the Wall, 9th Nov 2014

Border Crossings Kindle Edition

A Piece of the Berlin Wall

Bute Connections

Question: What’s the connection between Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, the explorer who died along with Scott in the Antarctic, James Dobbie, nurseryman and founder of the well-known chain of garden centres and a Syrian patisserie with the best breakfasts in town?

Answer: the Island of Bute!

Henry Bowers’ family lived on Bute for many years and he loved the time he spent there when on leave from the Royal India Marine: time spent walking, talking, playing tennis and even swimming all the way from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore every day before breakfast!

Birdie Bowers

Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers

A small man, of boundless energy, he was one of last surviving members of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.  In March 1912, on realising that they had no hope of surviving, Scott wrote a letter to Bowers’ mother, “We are very near the end of our journey and I am finishing it in the company of two very gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son … As his troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end.”  Not long afterwards their tent was buried in a ferocious blizzard and their remains not found until eight months later.

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

By contrast, it was James Dobbie’s passion for plants that brought him to Bute. His overriding interest in horticulture led him to give up his job as Chief Constable and Public Prosecutor in Renfrew and move to Rothesay in 1875 to develop his growing horticultural interests: choosing Bute because it had what he considered to be the ‘perfect climate’ for growing plants. Even after he had officially retired from the company, Dobbie’s love of gardens and plants continued. On his death on 13th October 1905 he was buried at the High Kirk in Rothesay.

Bowers and Dobbie are but two of the thirty-six men and women who appear in the book Bute Connections, compiled by Jean McMillan, Margaret Lamb and Allan Martin, published in 2011 by the BNHS (Buteshire Natural History Society).

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute's rich and varied past

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute’s rich and varied past

It’s an island rich in history and archaeology, as was discovered when the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) completed a new survey of Bute in 2009/2010.  Aided by the knowledge and expertise of islanders, the survey team identified nearly two hundred previously unrecorded archaeological sites! RCAHMS archaeologists Alex Hale and George Geddes then produced The Archaeological Landscape of Bute – a must for all with an interest in Bute’s past and how that has formed its present and could shape its future!

So just what does Bute offer visitors today? For a start, you could get your bearings and brush up on the island’s history by spending an afternoon in the wonderful Bute Museum. Then head for the dungeons of Rothesay Castle!  Or sample the Gothic splendour of Mount Stuart.  Or why not be brave and explore the caves below the Iron Age fort at Dunagoil?

Helmi’s Syrian Patisserie, Rothesay

Or be energetic and hire a bike from the Bike Shed and cycle up the steep twists and turns of the Serpentine – or if that’s just too challenging go for a cycle round the island. Or take a walk through the atmospheric remains of the early medieval monastery of St Blane’s.  Later, should you feel like something a bit more strenuous, you could spend a week walking the West Island Way.

Or come along to Bute Noir – an annual crime writing festival second only to Stirling’s international Bloody Scotland event. Plus there are a growing number of music events to suit all tastes and ages. And Highland Games and agriculture are in the mix too.

Moumen Helmi, Bashar Helmi and Argyll and Bute MP, Brendan O’Hara

Life is never static and Bute continues to evolve and change. Take for example, the Syrian refugees who were welcomed to Bute in 2015 and who are now firmly part of the island community: the Syrian breakfast at Helmi’s Cafe is not to be missed!

In this month’s iScot magazine I take a look at all this and much, much more. A look at how our lives are interconnected in so many, and often surprising and unexpected, ways and how we’re all the richer for that!

To the Lighthouse

Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Scotland’s geography and history are very closely intertwined. You can’t study the one without realising the impact of the other. Our long and illustrious maritime history is predicated on the great lengths of coastline, and in particular the innumerable islands that fringe the western seaboard. Before roads and railways facilitated land transport, most people travelled by boat. Whether the coracles of hardy Christian missionaries or the birlinns (galleys) of medieval warriors or the great vessels that crossed the Atlantic Ocean, ships were a major feature in Scotland’s social and economic history. And an integral part of that history are Scotland’s lighthouses.

Mull of Galloway Lighthouse

There can’t be many of us who aren’t familiar with the Lighthouse Stevensons, that amazing family of engineers, who almost single-handedly designed and built the lighthouses of Scotland – and beyond. In fact, two of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most enduring works, Kidnapped and Treasure Island, were inspired by visits to island lighthouses built by his gifted family. He was to write: There is scarce a deep sea light… but one of my blood designed it… and when the lights come out at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think that they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.”

Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, Western Australia

Very often built in rocky, remote and harsh parts of the country, the story of the construction of the lighthouses, and the vital role they played in saving the lives of so many mariners, is a grand one. Today the lights are automated and the former homes of those hardy keepers and their families have been sold off, many to become holiday accommodation or hotels. Yet that once-hostile isolation is now seen as a plus. Remote and peaceful places, they’ve become a welcome escape, far from the never-ending noise and bustle of our towns and cities.

And what about those massive foghorns, that rumbled out into the impenetrable mist and fog that could so often play havoc with ships? Think on Whisky Galore and that fateful moment when, blinded by the fog, the SS Cabinet Minister hits the rocks and leaves its cargo open to thirsty islanders!

I’ve climbed lighthouses from Cape Wrath at the very north of mainland Scotland to Cape Leeuwin at the southernmost tip of Western Australia and enjoyed every single visit. On a recent trip to Galloway we went to see some of the many lights around that coast, and what we experienced there, along with a host of fascinating events associated with them, led me to write this month’s article in iScot magazine.

Flanders Moss

Flanders Moss: it sounds like the site of a WWI battle, but in fact it’s a stretch of raised peat bog in the heart of the Carse of Stirling. By the 1970s this ancient peat bog wasn’t looking too good. Decades – if not centuries – of attempts to remove the peat had turned some of the area into workable agricultural land, but unfortunately left large expanses of the bog dried-up and barren. Today, however, the story is very different and this precious landscape is being restored to a much healthier state.

But why, you might ask, would you want to restore a bog! We tend to think of bogs as bleak, miserable places: difficult to walk across and even deadly (think Grimpen Mire in the Hound of the Baskervilles). But, in fact, they’re hugely important. Not only are they a vital habitat for many plants and animals, but they’re extremely effective carbon sinks, removing harmful carbon dioxoide from the atmosphere. We need them!

The Moss is so important that it’s both a designated SSSI, as well as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Thankfully, despite historic attempts to alter the nature of the bog, it remains one of the largest areas of near-natural raised peat bog in Europe.

But it’s also a fun day out!  With a hint of adventure, you have to take care not to step off the boardwalk into the water-logged ground beside you. You’ll hear birdsong and the hum of busy insects and there’s also a good chance you’ll spot some four-winged dragonflies, multicoloured butterflies, sun-bathing lizards, even juicy cranberries, or dazzlingly white bog-cotton and, if you’re really lucky, that tiny, carnivorous, insect-eating plant, sundew!

Near the start of the trail there’s a viewing tower which gives a glorious bird’s-eye view across the bog over to the surrounding mountains: Ben Lomond, Ben Venue, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich and many more.

The bog began its life over 8,000 years ago, sitting as it does on water-logged clay soil, and in places the peat is 23 feet (7 metres) deep – and still growing. But so slowly that there’s little danger we’ll sink under it! That depth of peat, however, is a goldmine to scientists who are able to use it to chart those 8,000 years of changes in climate and sea-levels; and to learn how humans interacted with this landscape.

Common lizard

Common lizard

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) care for the site and are working to repair and improve the balance of the land; clearing scrub and damming former drainage ditches to bring the bog back to what it once was: a wonderful world of wetness! All of which, I must say, sounds ideally suited to our renowned Scottish climate!

Islands to die for

“It was a dark and stormy night …” I wonder how many stories have opened with those famous words? Words first penned by American author Washington Irvine in 1809. Although much parodied, it’s an opening phrase that was used to great effect by Madeleine L’Engle in her ground-breaking novel A Wrinkle in Time, a book that had a profound influence on me as a child. L’Engle opened the door to a whole generation of children in the 1960s onwards with her stories that combined science fiction and fantasy with the spiritual and questions of good and evil. The first in a series, the book went on to win many literary awards and be dramatised for stage, radio, television and film.

That question of good and evil, right and wrong and the responsibility we hold for our actions and words, has stuck with me ever since. And it’s a question that’s been with humankind from the word go! Cain and Abel, those murderous Greeks and Romans and every ‘civilisation’ before and since has been built upon murder and violence. Curiously, but also happily, murder is far, far less common today than at any other time in the past – so perhaps we’re learning!

It’s also an issue that’s at the heart of much literature, in particular the crime genre. Add an island to the mix and you have a winning combination. Long used in literature as settings for dark deeds thanks to their enclosed and isolated communities, islands been used to great effect by authors as varied as Homer, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton!

Scotland, with its wealth of islands, has long been fruitful territory for crime writers, perhaps the best known being Peter May and Ann Cleeves, featuring the Hebrides and Shetland respectively. But there are many others and in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at novels by two Scottish authors, Lin Anderson and Craig Robertson, who use distinctive and very different island settings for their characters’ dark deeds!

We tend to think of islands as idyllic holiday destinations, but pick up a crime novel and you’ll find an able author can turn them into something very different indeed. A safe haven or a sinister setting? Have a read of this article and then decide!

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!