Sea Roads of Wester Ross

The Covid pandemic has turned life upside down. So many things that we took for granted suddenly became impossible. For the benefit of everyone, we’ve had to curtail travel and holiday plans. Frustrating perhaps, but a frustration that pales into insignificance in light of the horrendous loss of life all four nations of the UK have sustained.
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We may not have been able to go out while lockdown restrictions were in place, but for many of us it’s been an unprecedented opportunity to spend time at home and discover new interests and abilities.
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Yet even when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, we’re still in a position to travel and explore ‘virtually’. To read and think about places we want to see again and to discover new places that we can look forward to visiting when the time comes. For me, one of those places is Wester Ross. We’ve visited many times before and hope to visit again when circumstances allow.
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For those of us who live in more densely populated areas, Wester Ross is often regarded as remote or isolated. But that’s a misconception. Not only is Wester Ross no stranger to excitement or danger, it’s also an area of outstanding scenic beauty. And rich in history. Everything from Russian Arctic Convoys to Gruinard (Anthrax) Island, to the Summer Isles and to what was the smallest distillery in Scotland. Be in no doubt there’s plenty to discover!
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In the first part in a new series, I’ve taken a look at the coastal area from Ullapool down to Loch Ewe. And even in lockdown I’ve discovered plenty to interest, and even surprise, me on the way!
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It’s all in issue 63 of iScot magazine.
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The Dead of Jura

Angus Blue and his team are back. A shooting on a Scottish island opens up a can of worms. Those in power want to keep it closed. But DI Blue’s not one for giving up. 

The Dead of Jura is the second novel in the Inspector Blue series and will be published on September 27th.

Inspector Blue is called to the island of Jura after a  junior Defence minister is shot by a sniper at his estate. However, they find security personnel at the site less than willing to co-operate, especially Special Branch Chief Inspector Ffox-Kaye. The crime scene has been tampered with, the victim has been whisked away, and no witnesses will talk. There is more to this than meets the eye, and Ffox-Kaye has his own agenda, but Blue and his team will not be deterred. And forensic archaeologist Alison Hendrickx is back too.

The action moves between Scotland, England, Ireland and Germany, as Blue and his team home in on a crime covered up by those who should know better.

“A ‘must read’ for fans of Scottish crime fiction.” Marion Todd

“Subtle, complex and intense as a fine island malt.” Olga Wojtas

It’s a brilliant follow-up to The Peat Dead, which was shortlisted for the McIlvanney Debut Prize 2019!

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!

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.

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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!

Read the full article here:

Bute Connections

Or download the full magazine FREE here:

https://pocketmags.com/iscot-magazine/issue-56

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.