“I could have been a spy!”

It can often take  someone asking you to answer very specific questions about yourself to make you stop and think about what you’ve done in your life. And, obviously, the older you are, the more there will be to think about!

When I was asked to write a guest blog for the Autumn Voices Project, I was also asked to answer their “Quick and Quirky Questions.” Questions like: “Tell us four important facts about yourself?” or “Tell us something about yourself that’s surprising or unexpected.” Not as easy to answer as you might at first imagine!

Yet it can be a very productive exercise. Anyone who’s attempted to research their family history knows how important it is for there to be written records of the doings of their ancestors. And if there’s little, or even nothing, written down, tracing them and their life stories can be frustratingly difficult. But do we leave a traceable record ourselves? Often not!

Answering some simple questions can be an interesting start to a process that will give the next generation of family historians a point of departure when they come to add you to the ever-growing family tree. And may make you realise just how interesting your life has actually been. Below is a link to the questions and my answers, but why not try them for yourself and see what you discover!

And yes, I could have been a spy – for either side. But in retrospect, I’m glad that I wasn’t!

Try the Quick and Quirky Questions here!

High Adventure in Ardtornish

There’s a lot to be said for literary tourism!

Certain books have meant a great deal to me and I’ve enjoyed visiting the places that play a key role in them. Three spring immediately to mind: The Black Isle of Jane Duncan’s novels. Wester Ross and Sutherland of Sheila Stuart’s Alison books. And Ngaio Marsh’s When in Rome, where her suave gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn joins a select group on a murderous tour of a famous church, which was based on the real, very ancient and with an extraordinary archaeological significance, Basilica di San Clemente.

Many different things trigger novelists to write a particular storyline. A conversation overheard on a bus, a dream, a snippet of information on the news – then the writer’s imagination takes over and the process of “What if…?” begins.

Sheila Stuart

But whatever the inspiration for the plot may be, I’m a firm believer that the location, a convincing sense of place, can make a good story even better.

On a visit to Ardtornish in the Morvern Peninsula I discovered that this had been a special place to Scottish novelist John Buchan (1875-1940).

It’s hard to describe Buchan as he was a man of so many parts: a son of the manse, lawyer, novelist, historian, poet, war-correspondent, diplomat, colonial administrator, army intelligence officer at the Western Front and later Director of Intelligence, politician and finally Governor General of Canada. All these and more. But predominantly a man who loved to write.

John Buchan

If you’ve read The 39 Steps, or seen one of the cinema versions, you’ll be familiar with the derring-do of his hero Richard Hannay. And be familiar too with the global, and at times very fanciful, conspiracies and evil-doers of the day.

However, one of his other classic tales, and perhaps a more plausible one, is John Macnab, first published in 1925. It’s a tale of adventure, the story of an unusual  challenge taken up by three men, plagued by inertia and depression in the aftermath of the First World War, a time when the world was for very many people a bleak, sad and difficult place.

Andrew Greig

It’s also a book which I feel is worth reading in conjunction with it’s ‘sequel’, The Return of John Macnab, penned by author and poet Andrew Greig in 1996. Both novels revolve round tales of poaching and challenge at a time of personal crisis for their characters.

In Buchan’s John Macnab, it’s three dissatisfied and world-weary establishment figures who take the challenge; in Andrew Greig’s it’s a very different cast of characters, with a strong critique on present-day land ownership in Scotland to boot. Both different, both of their times, and yet they make for an intriguing pairing.

It was John Buchan’s visits to Ardtornish that shaped the setting and action behind his fictitious tale of John Macnab. And in issue 75 of iScot Magazine, I take a look at Buchan’s time spent there and how this magnificent landscape shaped both him, his imagination and the high adventure of John Macnab.

Comings and goings in Morvern

Life is seldom static but some changes are much more far-reaching than others. Losing your home and all your possessions, to be left with only the clothes you stand up in, happens to refugees from war-torn countries today. Yet it also happened in the past in Scotland, and the Clearances are a well-documented and grim part of our country’s history.

While staying in Morvern a couple of years ago we visited two deserted settlements, one at Aoineadh Mòr, the other at Arienas Point on the shores of Loch Arienas. Settlements that were cleared by landowners to make way firstly for sheep, then for deer and the “huntin’, shootin’and fishin'” brigade. The fate of all the people – men, women and children – made homeless was not something that caused many of the landowners to lose sleep. Profit was the great god.

Very occasionally however, there has been movement in the other direction. To my surprise, I discovered that the bulk of the people who were evacuated from St Kilda in 1930 came to new homes and a new way of life in Morvern.

Unlike the Clearances, this was a voluntary evacuation. One looked on with regret perhaps, but unavoidable once the island’s population had fallen to only 36 souls. Life there had finally become unsustainable.

Lochaline, where the St Kildans settled after the evacuation of their island

But land ownership in Scotland is still benighted and unequal. Land reform well on the Scottish Government’s back-burner, despite previous promises and hopes. So much so that author, broadcaster and expert on all things outdoors, Cameron McNeish, recently spoke of his dismay at the lack of progress in Scotland, a dismay that led to his resignation from the SNP:

It’s been coming for a while. The party has done absolutely zilch on land reform and the environment since Nicola Sturgeon came to power, and I have had a deep frustration over issues like raptor persecution, grouse moors all over Scotland, and what muirburning is doing to the environment.” He also described progress on land reform as being “glacier slow” and argued that the previous environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s efforts in that area had been frustrated. He said: “There is no real interest in the SNP on these issues.”

Sunday Times, July 25th 2021

In the 1990s Karen Matheson of Capercaille sang the song “Waiting for the Wheel to Turn’, which contains the words:

‘Don’t you see the waves of wealth
washing away the soul from the land

Here come the Clearances, my friend
Silently our history is coming to life again
We feel the breeze from the storm to come
And up and down this coast
We’re waiting for the wheel to turn’

Has anything changed since then? There are tiny shoots, for example the community at Achabeag on the Ardtornish Estate in Morvern, where new housing is available to families who want to live and work there. But the work of individuals isn’t enough to turn that wheel in the right direction. Only genuine land reform and housing policy at governmental level can do that. And it seems to me that despite Scotland having had the opportunity to make those changes for quite some time now, we’re still waiting. Waiting for the wheel to turn in favour of the people of Scotland.

Waiting for the Wheel to Turn, my article in issue 74 of iScot Magazine.

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.

Tonie Ritchie: An inspiration to us all

There are few things better than a good news story – and this has to be one of the best! When I posted news of my great-aunt’s debut novel on Facebook and Twitter, a novel completed at the age of 97 no less, I could never have foreseen the extraordinary outpouring of congratulations and good wishes it would give rise to. But more than that, there was a huge tide of thanks, and appreciation, from people to whom she has given hope. Her achievement has encouraged so many others.

Shortly after the publication of Spur of Light, I was contacted by Denny Andonova, a young reporter with the Press and Journal, a newspaper that serves the north and east of Scotland. She was keen to interview Tonie and find out the story behind the writing of the novel. Tonie was born in Aberdeen and grew up in Huntly, so has a strong connection to that area and was delighted that there was interest in the book from her old stomping ground.

Yet the comments and good wishes came from all around the globe. And from some quite unexpected sources, including one from Iseult White, grandaughter of Sean MacBride, a founder of Amnesty International, who wrote, “Tell her we love her. She is an inspiration!!!”

The responses were a delight to read: “She’s inspirational, just what I needed to hear about right now. Just a little bit more than half her age, and having an internal crisis about the future, and what I’ve achieved. This has really cheered me. Hope she’s planning a sequel?”

And they came from such an assortment of people: readers, writers, would-be-authors, young and old, male and female, a Guardian journalist, a researcher for LBC radio – people of every shape, size and colour sent their congratulations. It was wonderful!

“Respect! She is a real role model for hundred thousand writers who find lifetime excuses for procrastination or renunciation to writing itself.” “Blessing & inspiration, Lady! You deserve the best of everything! Thank you for brightening our day!”  “What an achievement! And a reminder it’s never too late for anything!”

And it isn’t! At that age you often live life through your children and grandchildren, which makes it all the more special that she has an achievement of her own to celebrate. And it’s great that her achievement has been an inspiration and a blessing to so many others.

 

So there you have it, a good news story that has been a positive encouragement to many others, at a time when good news is all too thin on the ground.  And a story that brings people closer together, even if they’ve never met. Tonie’s is a remarkable achievement, and here’s a fitting comment, all the way from Tokyo, to end with: “Say hi to Tonie for me! Tell her I love her!”

Spur of Light by Tonie Ritchie is available from Amazon as both an ebook and a paperback.

Nonagenarian Novelists : Spur of Light by Tonie Ritchie

I created a new hashtag on social media yesterday, #NonagenarianNovelists. I created it to celebrate the publication of a debut novel written by my amazing 97-year-old great-aunt! Aberdeen-born and Huntly-bred, Tonie Ritchie completed her first novel this year. A great achievement for anyone, let alone a nonagenarian!

The novel, Spur of Light, was begun after attending a creative writing course on the Scottish island of Iona in 2002, but lay unfinished for many years until Tonie’s eldest daughter encouraged her to finish it and now, at the age of 97, she has finally completed the task.

Tonie’s life certainly hasn’t been quiet or uneventful. Just the opposite in fact. And perhaps that’s where some of the ideas in her novel came from! She was born in Aberdeen in 1923 and grew up in Huntly, attending Gordon School until she was 16. She then worked for the Clydesdale Bank before joining the WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) in 1943. She lived in Hong Kong, Malta and Gibraltar with her husband Jimmy, who was a Naval Surgeon Captain, and while in Hong Kong she worked for BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) as a radio announcer. They had five children – at one point she was left looking after them all plus two aged parents while her husband was away at sea.

She now lives in Plymouth where she’d returned in 1990 after Jimmy died. She then studied English at GCSE and A Level, before taking up creative writing and having several short stories and poems published.

When I was a child one of my favourite books was Joyce Lankester Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories. Milly-Molly-Mandy, properly Millicent Margaret Amanda, had a great-aunt and I envied Milly-Molly-Mandy for this. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I discovered that I had a great-aunt of my own! Though there, it has to be said, the similarity ended, for while Mily-Molly-Mandy’s Great Aunt Margaret was a “little, little white-haired lady in a black bonnet and dress spotted with little mauve flowers,” mine was the complete opposite. Not remotely a little old lady, but rather a woman of great energy and full of fun and laughter, my Great Aunt Tonie.

Tonie and Vivien in Plymouth, September 2019

Tonie and my Great Uncle Jimmy seemed very exotic to us. They had travelled the world and had many marvellous tales to tell. Including terrifying encounters with the Triad in China, where, despite living through events that could vie with The Third Man for their menace, they lived to tell the tale. Perhaps even ruthless Chinese gangsters recognised that Aberdeenshire folk have iron in their souls!

Now, very many years later, Tonie has another tale to tell and this is it, Spur of Light, her first novel, completed at the age of 97. A remarkable achievement by a remarkable woman.

Spur of Light is published by Vival Publications and is available from Amazon both as an ebook and a paperback.

Death in Tallinn

The computer keyboard is getting well worn! From the author of The Peat Dead and The Dead of Jura, comes the first book in a spectacular new series – Death in Tallinn.

Set in a newly independent Estonia, poised precariously between the growing threat of Nazi Germany and the menace of the Soviet Union, Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets has to tread a fine line between political opponents. A man of integrity, he’s determined to see justice done. But that’s not always as straightforward as it might seem.

The 1930s were a time of great unrest and turmoil throughout Europe. The so-called War to End All Wars seemed to have failed to be just that. Stormclouds were everywhere and the rumblings of future conflicts never far away.  In the midst of this, the small republic of Estonia is trying to find its feet and decide what sort of country it wants to be after centuries of foreign suzerainty.

Against this backdrop, Tartu-based Chief Inspector Jüri Hallmets is invited to head north to Tallinn to take over the investigation of the suspicious death of a senior policeman. But his presence is not welcomed by all.

To mark the launch of Death in Tallinn, Sharpe Books are offering, for a limited period only, the eBook at a special discounted price of 99p! Details here:  Death in Tallinn

Lockdown living – the virtual launch of The Dead of Jura

It’s not that long ago that virtual reality was the domain of science fiction writers. The idea of communicating via our computers wasn’t something we took that seriously. But how quickly that’s changed and how quickly we’ve had to adapt to our virtual lives!

Not least when it comes to the launch of a new book. Instead of being in a bookshop, surrounded by every type of literature, chatting over a glass of wine while books are signed, you’re sitting in your own home and interacting with people through a microphone and a tiny camera. A different kettle of fish altogether. Especially when the technology decides not to play along and you’re faced with a last minute change of plan – and room!

However, although it may be different, it’s actually as much fun in its own way! And that certainly proved to be the case last night at the virtual zoom launch of The Dead of Jura!

With good hosting from Thunderpoint’s Seonaid Francis, a good audience, good questions, and good answers from both Allan Martin and fellow crime writer Marion Todd, it was an evening to savour and one that left us with lots to think about. Especially as crime covers such an astonishing array of scenarios: everything from the petty thief to the corporate criminals who do so much damage to so many.

It doesn’t look like Covid is going anywhere fast anytime soon, so it’s more than likely we’re going to be living online for the foreseeable future. But, it has to be said, there are some compensations. After all it’s quite pleasant not having to out on a cold, dark night. And to toast the author with a glass of wine without the thought of that long drive home. And of course, you can’t beat being able to sit there and enjoy it all with your slippers on!

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!