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!

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!