Scotland’s women have been standing up for their beliefs for centuries!

Gerda Stevenson is a women of very many talents: actor, playwright, director, poet, singer, song-writer, to name but a few. Now she’s turned again to poetry to draw our attention to the lives and achievements – as well as the hardships and challenges – of sixty-seven amazing Scottish women. Women who deserve our admiration and respect. But first of all we need to know of their existence, for too often women are written out of history and allowed to become invisible.

Quines is a powerful collection of fifty-seven poems that will make you laugh, cry, rage, nod in agreement, wonder, smile and most definitely want to find out more. Poems that are accessible and manage to distill the essence of their subjects in a few short lines. And that’s a remarkable achievement in its own right!

Gerda and her husband Aonghas MacNeacail

I had the privilege of visiting Gerda to talk to her about the book: about how and why it came about; why she chose the women she did; and in what ways the women she writes about reflect her own hopes and aspirations. Like all of us, Gerda’s outlook on life is in part shaped by her family and upbringing: by her attitude to language, to poetry, to those around her, to those who perhaps see life differently. All this has gone into the mix that has given birth to this remarkable book of poems.

Her selection is highly personal. It’s not an academic tome, but rather for all of us. It’s a look across the centuries at the lives of women from all walks of life, from fish-gutters to queens, from missionaries to politicians, from the Iron Age to the present – and throughout it all is the growing realisation that time and history don’t really separate our experiences as women as much as we might have thought.

Quines: poems in tribute to women of Scotland was four years in the writing. Much reading, researching and tracking down of sources went into getting to know the women she wanted to write about. Women whom she found inspiring and hopes others will find inspirational too.

I certainly found the book inspiring and a reminder that despite life’s many hardships, particularly those faced by women, both in the past and today, standing up for your beliefs is something Scottish women have been doing from the word go. And in some remarkable ways – even to the extent of laying down their lives for others.

I’m grateful that Gerda has brought these women out of the shadows and back into the light. And we need as much light as we can get these days! But I also feel strongly that it’s Gerda’s own strength of character and determination that has achieved this. Her life and beliefs are inspirational too. She’s as much one of these Quines as any of her subjects. And I hope that’s what my article conveys.

Indeed, the March edition of iScot is a celebration of amazing women. And International Women’s Day this year has a special significance as 2018 marks the centenary of the first women in this country to get the vote. There’s still plenty to be done, but at least we’re heading in the right direction – and Quines might just be the bright star that leads others onto this path!

Quines article in iScot

Quines is published by Luath Press

Take a walk round Bowling Basin – and bring your dog!

Even on a very chilly day, it’s hard not be impressed by the changes taking place at Bowling Basin and Harbour. Many of the rotting hulks have gone, landscaping is well underway, and the old Customs House is the setting for new ventures. Looking at it now, it can be hard to believe that the canal closed in 1963 and that it was only after decades of campaigning that it was finally re-opened in 2001.

Bowling is a small village that sits on the northern shore of the Firth of Clyde, between the towns of Dumbarton and Clydebank, and is the western entrance to the Forth and Clyde Canal. The canal opened in 1790, and if you follow the towpath, it will take you from Bowling all the way to Grangemouth, across the narrowest stretch of Lowland Scotland, linking not only two of Scotland’s finest rivers, the Clyde and the Forth, but also the west and east coasts of the country.

But your jaunt needn’t end there for it’s possible to take a spin in the amazing Falkirk Wheel and be lifted upwards onto the Union Canal and thereby onwards into the heart of Edinburgh. The whole route is excellent for both cyclists and walkers. And obviously for boats too!

At Bowling, you’ll find the marina, and the canal itself, have lots of interesting boats to have a look at: from the sleek and shiny to the slightly more rickety and ramshackle. You’ll also find that the old railway arches have been tastefully refurbished, housing shops and a cafe with a difference: the Dug Cafe, where we saw lots of dogs and their owners, and walkers and cyclists, enjoying tea and toast. Although we no longer have a dog ourselves, it was good to find a cafe that is so welcoming to (well-behaved) dogs.

A tidal tepee!

Walking along the towpath you can admire the fine engineering and the powerful gates of the locks, or watch the varied and colourful wildfowl on the water. All very peaceful. Yet there would have been none of this tranquillity in its heyday, when Bowling would have been full of ships of every shape, size and description, all laden with cargoes of timber, coal and fish, with other boats being built or repaired in the thriving workshops and yards in the basin. The whole place would have been buzzing with life and full of noise and smells.

The old Customs House with the disused railway bridge behind

All this activity was added to when the first railway station opened in 1850. Then, some forty years later, a second station opened, this one on the Caledonian Railway’s Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire Line. That line closed sixty-seven years ago, in 1951, but the trackbed is now used as a cyclepath through the village. The industrial history of Scotland, although much of it relatively recent in historical terms, is nonetheless fascinating. And there’s plenty of it here at Bowling.

But there’s a much more ancient connection here too! Bowling is only a short distance away from Old Kilparick, which marked the western end of the Antonine Wall, the northernmost barrier of the vast Roman Empire. Rome’s very own final frontier, you could say! The Wall had sixteen forts (with many fortlets in between), all linked by a road known as the Military Way. Commissioned by Emperor Antonius Pius in AD 142, it was abandonned less than a decade after completion. It seems those ancient Caledonians were, very understandably, not too keen on having Roman masters! But, tempora mutantur, as those self-same Romans would have said, and thankfully you’ll find that there’s a very different welcome for the visitors of today!

In search of Tintin: or how Arran and Barra played their part in Hergé’s best known ripping yarn!

Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran became the eerie Craig Dhui Castle in the Black Island

There’s something very dramatic about a castle perched on a rocky island, waves crashing against its rugged walls, its turrets defiant against all comers. Hergé, the Belgian creator of the redoubtable reporter Tintin, obviously thought so too and looked to Scottish islands for the inspiration of one of the most famous and best-loved of Tintin’s adventures – The Black Island.

Hergé wanted an adventure set somewhere remote and mysterious – and Scotland’s islands provided just that. The story was originally published in 1937 at a time when the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were still little-known at first hand to most people; shrouded as much by myth as by mist. By using a small mysterious, frightening island, Hergé created the perfect setting for strange goings-on.

The Black Island 1966 cover

The Black Island 1943 cover

In the 1960s the British publishers Methuen asked for the book to be updated and inaccuracies in the original edition to be corrected. Accordingly Hergé sent his chief assistant, Bob de Moor, to Scotland where he visited both Arran and Barra. De Moor was impressed by what he saw – wild landscapes, ancient castles and remote windswept locations.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

And so Castlebay on Barra became the template for Kiltoch, the fictional Scottish village where Tintin ends up during his hair-raising pursuit of a gang of dangerous counterfeiters. While Lochranza Castle on Arran provided the inspiration for the ruinous and supposedly-haunted Craig Dhui Castle, perched menacingly on the mysterious and unwelcoming Black Island.

Hergé’s stories were often set in real-life situations, dealing with contemporary events and headline news – as befits a reporter hero. Forgery and counterfeiting were growing concerns in the 1930s, while the growing number of light aircraft made it easier for the wrong-doers to flee to distant parts and escape justice. But obviously not when Tintin was around!

Castlebay on Barra became the fictional Kiltoch in The Black Island

In many ways The Black Island is a straightforward detective thriller, its lasting popularity boosted by the “ripping yarn” nature of its plot. Hitchcock’s film version of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps had come out not long before the first edition of The Black Island and there are similarities between the two. Both have a hero who accidentally stumbles across a gang of villains, who is then wrongly accused of a crime, but escapes capture and heads for the wilds of Scotland, all the while being pursued by criminals and police alike. Though the police in Buchan’s ‘shocker’ could never have been quite as incompetent as that  pompous pair, Thomson and Thompson! Despite them however, both stories share exciting pacing and plotting, leading to a denouement in the rugged, wild and isolated Scottish countryside.

Cinemagoers would also have recognised The Black Island’s terrifying ‘beast’ as King Kong had hit the silver screen not long before. And contemporary newspapers were full of reports surrounding first ‘sightings’ of the Loch Ness Monster. In his tale, Hergé skilfully uses the power of superstition as a tool used by the villains to discourage people from visiting the Black Island, while they use the island as the centre of their counterfeiting ring.

The tidal landing strip on Barra

And how did this villainous band manage to get on and off the island? The answer to that comes again from Barra, as Hergé used the beach landing strip at Barra Airport as the model for the landing strip on the beach of the Black Island. All in all, it’s one of the best constructed and thrilling of Hergé’s Tintin canon – thanks in no small measure to the islands of Arran and Barra!

But this is just a taster, and there’s much, much more in the February issue of iScot Magazine, available from Pocketmags or from good independent newsagents.

 

The Falls of Dochart

Falls of Dochart, Killin

It certainly knows how to rain in Scotland. It can be torrential. Bucketing. A smirr. A drizzle. A downpour. Dreich. Pelting. Horizontal. Lashing. Pouring. Raining cats and dogs (why them, I wonder?). Coming down in sheets. Weather for ducks. Spitting. Soaking. Wet. Stotting. Chucking it down (who is?!) Driving. In floods. Well-drookit. And many, many more. They say the Inuit have dozens of words for snow – but it wouldn’t surprise me if we have more words than that for rain!

On the other hand, take a trip out on a wet day and you’ll be rewarded with some astonishing sights. Today we drove up to Killin and watched the fast-flowing waters of the River Dochart as they roared down the falls. And there were plenty of others out doing just the same.

Water can be very powerful and very impressive. No doubt also very dangerous if not treated with respect. But it’s not hard to understand why writers, artists and poets have all found inspiration in its ceasless motion.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.537-c.475 BC) once said, “You can never step in the same river twice.”  For me, that conjures up a striking image, one that mirrors the idea at the heart of his doctrine. For Heraclitus believed the very essence of the universe is change. Everything changes. Nothing stands still. Everything flows. Nothing stays fixed. Everything is in a state of flux.

A Glenelg burn

That change can be the infinitesimal movement of the great tectonic plates that wrap the Earth and grind imperceptibly beneath us. Or the swift unstoppable destruction caused by a tsunami thrown up by a powerful undersea earthquake.  The slow growth of a fingernail. Or the all-too-rapid melting of an ice-cream on a hot day.

Fast or slow. Visible or not, change is happening all the time. And although it can be frightening, it can also be wonderfully freeing. You make a terrible mistake, but you can atone for it. You get a disastrous haircut, but your hair will grow again! An election brings a bleak result, but you can vote again. Yet it’s surprising how often people fear change so much that they choose to stick with the known, the familiar, no matter how bad that familiar is. We’re a strange contrary lot, the human race!

But, like the river rushing over the rocks at the Falls of Dochart. Or the burn roaring down the hillside at Glenelg. Or the breakers being driven ashore on the back of an Atlantic gale, life’s rarely static. Rather, it’s always changing and moving in new and unexpected ways.

How we deal with change has a huge bearing on how we live our lives. We can try to pretend it isn’t happening (think ostrich, head in the sand). Or try to hold back the tide of change (think Canute, though that wasn’t the point of the original tale). Or, despite the unknown and unfamiliar, we can look on change as bringing the possibility of new and better things, and embrace that. And I think that’s the one I’d like to go for.

Atlantic breakers crash ashore on Barra

“Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Scotland’s first woman in print

 “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out.” Elizabeth Melville, Lady Culross (1578-1640)

What wonderful, bold and stirring words! Perhaps doubly so when you realise they were written by a woman living in 16th-17th century Scotland. Even though I studied Scottish History at Edinburgh University, I have to confess I’d never heard of Elizabeth Melville. Though as I was a student some decades ago now, that’s perhaps not totally surprising. Women have tended to be left on the back-burner when it comes to academic recognition. So it’s great that she’s finally being acknowledged for all that she achieved.

But if I didn’t know about Scotland’s first woman in print from  university days, how did I come to hear about her now? The answer is quite simple. It’s thanks to Dr Jamie Reid-Baxter, a Scottish historian and former European Parliament translator, who has championed her work and brought it to attention as never before. In March 2017 he wrote a lengthy and fascinating article for iScot magazine, and from reading that I learned that Elizabeth was published in 1603, making her Scotland’s first woman in print. Her poem,  Ane Godlie Dreame, was such a success that by 1606 it was into its third edition, and by 1735 had gone through at least thirteen editions. Jamie describes the work thus, “480 lines long, it is a dramatic account of the human spirit’s journey from depression and despair to final affirmation, on a cosmic scale.”

The work was written for imprisoned Scottish kirk ministers, one held in Blackness Castle, the other in the Tower of London, in the early 17th century. Imprisoned because they disagreed with King James VI’s policy for the church. Today many may find it hard to understand the strength of feeling that existed when it came to religious beliefs. Nowadays we can ‘take it or leave it’. Yet for many outwith the West today, and certainly for those in past centuries, what you believed was at the very core of your life. What you believed could determine whether you lived, or died a grisly death. Many of the freedoms we take for granted today only exist because of the struggles of people like Elizabeth Melville. To simply shrug off their beliefs and actions is to demean and belittle the sacrifices of previous generations. And who knows what future generations will smile at about the things we hold dear today!

But where this story takes an especially delightful turn is in 2002, when Jamie unearthed a huge collection of anonymous religious poetry written in Scots, and realised that it had been penned by none other than Elizabeth Melville. Not only have these works now been published, but Elizabeth has been recognised as one of Scotland’s great makars – poets – and in June 2014 her name was added to those other greats in the forecourt to Lady Stair’s Close in Edinburgh, right beside the museum dedicated to writers of Scotland. Germaine Greer unveiled the stone and there was an evening concert in St Giles, for like so much early poetry, the words were written to be sung.

Thankfully, over the past thiry years, there has been a sea-change in academic circles regarding women poets, but there’s still a  long way to go before their names become part of our national consciousness and we can all fully appreciate the women who went before us. As Jamie says, “People do want to take ownership of long-suppressed aspects of Scotland’s past. The role of the female 50% in creating what we know as Scotland is acknowledged in the Great Tapestry of Scotland, but most of the female images are anonymous because history has been written by men for men.”

Things are changing now, though there’s still a way to go. Yet, step by step, here in Scotland, we’re getting there. And I feel a debt of gratitude to Jamie Reid-Baxter and iScot magazine for bringing Elizabeth Melville to my attention. Not only do I feel sure that there is more to come that will enrich this country of ours for the better, but I can’t think of a better quote to help us on our way than hers: “Though tyrants threat, though Lyons rage and rore/ Defy them all, and feare not to win out”!

Good on you, Elizabeth!

Weighing the World – the Schiehallion Experiment

It’s amazing to think that the weight of Planet Earth was calculated in the 18th century thanks to the Scottish mountain Schiehallion! Read how hardy, be-wigged, astronomers and mathematicians worked it all out with little more than the mountain, the stars and a pendulum. Accompanied by some fantastic photos of Schiehallion taken by crime writer and photographer Douglas Skelton, you’ll never see science in the same way again!

To find out more, why not download a copy of this month’s iScot magazine from https://pocketmags.com/search/iscot

 

Estonia – where the past is preserved to protect the future

In Raekoja Plats, Tartu

It’s pouring with rain: and no, I’m not in Scotland, but back in the beautiful city of Tartu, the ancient university town in the centre of the Baltic country of Estonia. I have to admit there’s something reassuring about knowing that heavy rain isn’t just a feature of life back home!

Estonia isn’t a large country geographically. It’s population isn’t large either. Tragically, the number of Estonians still hasn’t caught up with figures from before the Second World War. There are still fewer Estonians today than in the 1930s and ’40s, when hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the Germans, and then by the Russians, and murdered: here or in Siberia, or in all the other places the Soviets chose to destroy the lives of those unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And for the Estonians that lasted 50 years, until they regained their independence in 1991.

The villa where the Treaty of Tartu was signed between Finland and Russia in 1920

All this is in the past now. But the effects linger. And sometimes that past isn’t so far away. On visits to the DDR, East Germany, when it was still firmly behind the Iron Curtain, I heard of torture being inflicted on those who wouldn’t follow the ‘party line’. Yet this wasn’t centuries ago. Only a few decades. Democracy is a precious but fragile gift and needs to be nurtured – and sadly all too often fought for.

But today we visited Estonia’s brand new National Archive building where the past is conserved and preserved, both for today and for the future. In these days of fake news and spin doctors we’re as much under the sway of propaganda as any generation before us. Day in and day out we’re fed lies, untruths and deliberate omissions that would have done Goebbels proud. And no matter how much that thought angers you, or you think you couldn’t be fooled like that, the fact remains that manipulation and distortion have become widespread and  more important than truth.

The brand new National Archives of Estonia in Tartu

The majority of our newspapers are owned by billionaires who neither live in the UK nor pay taxes there and whose political agenda certainly doesn’t include telling the truth. But what I find hard to understand is why so many people today don’t question the ‘information’ they’re fed. Don’t ask for evidence, for sources. When I was at school, then unversity, any essay that didn’t include a sound argument would have been deemed unacceptable.

Painstaking conservation work restoring old maps and documents

So when, and why, did so many of us give up questioning the ‘news’ we’re fed? Is it really so much more comfortable to live with fake news than to make the effort to challenge it?

This is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that archives, and libraries too, are of vital importance. They are repositories of facts. Of contemporary accounts. Who said what? Who did what? What was decided and why? And so often the answers to these questions are held in archives. And yes, what is held there can sometimes be the product of ‘to the victor the spoils’, but very often there are other records to balance out the actuality of events.

The criminals of the past are not necessarily those we’d see as criminal today

Propaganda is nothing new. Far from it. How many people happily believe Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth, a portrayal which is miles from what actually happened? Or his version of the reign of Richard III? Or just what really went on in Britain’s colonies during the dark days of the British Empire? Or why wealth in Britain can’t be shared out more equally? Or why the NHS can’t be afforded when we have more millionaires and billionaires in the UK than ever before?

It’s so important that we question and ask for proof, otherwise we become as much victims of today’s propaganda as anyone else. It’s not just the foolish that fall for it – even the most intelligent can be victims of their own self-belief. So when in doubt consult the archives.

Marking the founding of the city in 1030

I’m very glad that Estonia is investing so heavily in its past. Not only has the country given its archives a new home, they’ve also just completed a whole new National Museum. The past IS important. Who we are today depends on our past. Where countries stand today depends equally on their past. Archives hold and guard these pasts and we need them more than ever to understand the present and be vigilant about our future.

If there’s one thing we need to hold onto in the face of so much fake news and spin, it’s to ask questions and insist on proper answers. And to teach our children to do the same. Never stop asking questions and, if the answers aren’t forthcoming, know where to find out the truth for ourselves!

National Archives Estonia

 

The Kellas Compass

Sometimes a chance remark can lead to something unexpectedly significant. I recently discovered that my grandfather, John Kellas, was given Alexander Kellas’ compass after Alex’s death in Tibet in 1921. That year, Alex Kellas, one of the most able and successful Himalayan pioneers, was on his way to Everest as part of the first official Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. A seasoned Himalayan mountaineer, the small, wiry 52-year-old medical chemist from Aberdeen, had reached mountains no other Westerner had. Sadly he was to die on that fateful 1921 expedition, and was never to set foot on that mountain of mountains himself.

John and Eveline Kellas, Aberdeen, 1929

But his compass was passed on to my grandfather, who went on to spend over thirty years of his life in India;  firstly as Professor of Economics and then as Principal of Scottish Church College in Calcutta/Kolkata. John Kellas taught, explored, trekked in the Himalaya, spoke with Gandhi, steered the college through the horrors of famine and bloodshed, raised the flag of the newly independent India from the roof of Scottish Church College and was in Nepal to meet the first men to climb Everest.

The Beaumonts cycle from Lhasa to Kathmandu, 2005

But the story didn’t end there, for, back in Scotland, after John’s untimely death, the Kellas Compass was passed onto a young boy, whose passion for mountains and India stayed with him into adulthood and saw him in turn go to work and explore that vast sub-continent. The Kellas Compass was still at work, and has been for over a century!

It’s a fascinating tale of adventure, resilience, integrity and continuity and shows clearly that there were Scots who didn’t share the pernicious racism of the British Raj, but who lived and worked in India as friends and equals – not as masters. And in light of the cruel and often barbaric behaviour of so many during the British Empire, that’s good to know!

However, there’s much, much more to the tale of the Kellas Compass and you can read the full article in the December edition of iScot Magazine, which is available in both digital and print formats:

iScot digital

iScot print

Kanchenjunga from Sandukphu, 1938

 

 

 

 

The Three Distilleries Path on Islay

Port Ellen in the South of Islay and the opening pages of this month’s iScot article

It’s a winning combination. A glorious walk on a Scottish island combined with visits to some of Scotland’s finest distilleries. But what makes The Three Distilleries Path even more inviting is the fact that the route is chock-a-block with historical and archaeological sites.

You can wend your way through this ancient landscape, moulded into shape hundreds-of-millions of years ago, and discover the effect the island’s unusual geological make-up has in the creation of its unique and very distinctive whiskies. Whiskies that all come from one not-very-large island, and yet have an unexpected range and variety of tastes.

The starting point of the path at Port Ellen

You can look, and pause to wonder, at the standing stones our neolithic ancestors took such pains to raise. Mysterious stone circles. The wells that were so important to our Celtic forefathers. The tumbled remains of stone walls that reveal the sites of early Christian chapels. Mighty Dunyvaig Castle, powerful even in its ruinous state, as it guards the entrance to Lagavulin Bay. The sad tale of an act of kindness that led to the death of the settlement of Solam and all its inhabitants.

The wide skies. The ever present sea. The abundant plant-life.  The winged and four-legged wildlife. The hills to climb. The lochs to fish. The peace and tranquility. Both the calm and the stormy weather. A place to enjoy and explore whatever the elements may throw at you!

And of course an island that, more than any other, really does offer whisky galore!

iScot Magazine