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!

Museum of Islay Life: home to an island’s memory

When we come out at the other end of this corona virus pandemic, just how will we look back at what happened to us, to our families, to our communities? Every generation lives through history in the making, but when you’re in the middle of events the end result is unknown: you don’t have the luxury of hindsight. And that uncertainty isn’t just unsettling. It’s frightening.

Life is very strange right now. On one level, everything looks just the same, be it your house or your street: but in reality it’s very different indeed. The silence for one thing. Virtually no traffic, or planes; even the sound of children playing is diminished.

Fishing and ferries – an island’s lifeblood

In an earlier article I looked at how vital our memories are for our personal identity. You only need to see the devastating effects of dementia on a loved one to appreciate that. The writer Julian Barnes puts it very succinctly: “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.”

The Tuscania Bell and the flag sewn by Islay women for the burial of the young American dead

But equally, we are social beings and the collective memories of our communities are an integral part of our existence too. Who we are today is influenced by the lives of those before us. Japanese author Haruki Murakami examines this in his unsettling novel 1Q84, with his protagonist Tengo saying, “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.

Bottles recovered from the WW2 airbase, including Brylcreem!

We can contribute to, and access, that vital collective memory in many different ways: books, films, photo albums, family history and tales told us by our parents and grandparents. But we’re a tactile species and sometimes seeing and touching objects brings the past to life in a very immediate way. And that’s where local museums come in.

One of my favourites is the wonderful Museum of Islay Life. In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at that museum and how its contents reflect the life and times of the people of that island. From the mesolithic right up to the present day, Islay’s people, places and history are there to discover in the Tardis-like building. The good and the bad. The joyous and the heartbreaking. Bravery in the face of war and cruelty. Kindness and generosity in times of adversity. The exciting and the mundane. The patterns of day-to-day life.

We’re all in limbo at the moment. We can’t go anywhere. Yet, inadvertantly, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to pause and take stock. To be inventive. To realise what we can actually do without and what really is essential. To create positive memories for ourselves and our families, even when that’s not easy. And be ready for the time we are once again free to go!

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

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!

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.

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).

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 di San Clemente

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.

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 at St Colman’s Church

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 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

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