“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

The Raising of Submarine K13

Tragedy in the Gareloch: the Raising of the K13

There would have been many more deaths that cold winter’s night in January 1917 if it hadn’t been for the sustained efforts of the rescuers. Rescuers who spent three long days and nights hoping, praying and battling to free the survivors trapped in the stricken submarine. They knew it was unlikely that all on board would have survived the submarine’s sinking: those four open hatches had let in a rush of ice cold water that instantly flooded the engine room and sent the submarine plunging down into the dark depths of the loch. But they knew there were some men still alive, and they were determined to do everything in their power to prevent the K13 becoming a tomb.

It’s a sorry tale that lies behind the K-Class submarines. Unwanted by the navy, this new design was pushed on them in the drive to create a submarine to match, and outdo, the deadly German U-boats. But instead it led to the creation of a vessel that killed not the enemy, but its own men. Over 300 submariners died in accidents on board these notorious craft.

Curiously though, some aspects of the K-Class submarines were ahead of their times. Certainly too far ahead for 1917, and wartime pressures that left too little time for trials and adequate training of the crews, men who had to deal with a whole new underwater beast at very short notice, and with disastrous results.

Thomas Grant Dey

My grandfather, Thomas Dey, was present throughout the rescue and wrote a first-hand account of events. It’s the sort of document that’s invaluable to historians and those with an interest in submarines alike. But it’s also an insight into the life and attitudes of a man I never met, but would have loved to have known.  It’s a document I treasure.

In one way, his account is of the men who would later become invisible in the story of the jinxed K13. Wartime secrecy played a part in that, but also the fact that commendations seldom go equally to those who deserve them. Take the men of the Merchant Navy who played their part in the Arctic Convoys, under the most appalling of circumstances, yet who had to wait decades for proper recognition of their bravery.

And yet it’s not rank or accident of birth that makes you braver, better or more worthy than other people. It’s how you behave and treat others that matters and that’s certainly not a new idea. Just think how well Robert Burns summed it up way back in 1795, in what’s arguably his best known poem, A Man’s a Man for a’ that. Yes, we still have a long way to go, and right now we seem to be going backwards in how the poorest and most vulnerable are being treated. But as has been the case throughout history, it’s up to us what happens and what sort of world we want for the generations that follow. Hopefully we’ll be as constant as people like my grandfather were, and that we’ll be as steadfast in our words and deeds. And maybe we will keep inching towards making Burns’ heartfelt desire a reality:

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

*********

 

Thomas Grant Dey

Thomas Grant Dey 1882- 1948

I never knew my paternal grandfather, Thomas Grant Dey, but I wish I had. He died in 1948, long before I was ever thought of. He was someone who lived a life very different from mine, and yet I feel sure he would have been pleased that his grandchildren have enjoyed the opportunities he never had.

When he was growing up, unemployment meant poverty, a grinding poverty that we can’t even begin to comprehend today. Only recently I discovered that he fathered eleven children, but of those only six survived into adulthood. What pain and sorrow all those deaths must have brought him and my grandmother, Janet.

During his working life as a shipwright he often had to travel far afield for work. To England, Spain, India and Africa. Early in his career he suffered a serious back injury and endured a lifetime of pain. But not working was not an option. The healthcare we enjoy now was unknown to him.  Doctors were too expensive. So people suffered in silence and all too often died young.

How different his life would have been if he had lived now. The lost children wouldn’t have been lost. The lifelong pain wouldn’t have needed to be endured. But back then the Welfare State was still undreamt of.

From talking to my father I know that my grandfather believed education was the way out of poverty and the opportunity for a better life. Thomas Dey wasn’t a forelock-tugger and saw the ruling elite for what they were, and still are. Greedy, uncaring and self-centered people, who enjoy a life of undeserved privilege, yet who hold the power and control the finances of the UK. Recently we have seen that they, quite literally, have the power of life and death over others. They are people who manipulate the system to their own benefit while letting others suffer, with no compunction whatsoever.

He’d be so angry at what’s happening today as the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable are targeted by the UK government. The UN and other organisations try to call Westminster to account, but are ignored. The rich are richer than ever before, ensuring the wealth of these four nations ends up in their pockets or in their offshore accounts. Britain is awash with money, yet the gap between rich and poor is greater here than anywhere else in Europe. And is greater now than ever before. Poverty and its ever-present henchmen, depression and suicide, are on the increase. While in England the NHS, perhaps the greatest achievement of post-war Britain, is being systematically dismantled and sold off by the Tories.


Link:  Selling off the NHS: How privatisation in England will impact on Scotland’s NHS


My grandfather died in January 1948, only months before the inauguration of the NHS, and so didn’t live to enjoy the huge changes that have improved all our lives since then. Yet so much of what was achieved in those post-war years is now being swept away. The enormity of the betrayal is staggering. The lack of responsibility or accountability in Westminster is staggering. Even more worryingly, laws are being passed without Parliamentary scrutiny, and Brexit legislation will allow Westminster to remove powers from the Scottish Government and alter the Scottish legal system without any say from the Scottish people.

Perhaps it’s the enormity of what’s being done to the democratic process, coupled with the sense of helplessness that this brings, that’s causing so many people to shut their eyes to what’s going on. Heads down. Watch reality TV. Agonise over which channel Bake Off should be on. Pretend it all has nothing to with them. I’m all right, Jack. Walk by on the other side. Keep below the radar. Don’t stand up to be counted. Concentrate on Strictly.

And yet at the same time, we’re repeatedly told how brave and courageous people were in WWI or WW2. How Black Africans stood up to Apartheid. How women fought for votes. How the Chartists struggled for the most basic of rights. How Thomas Muir is the ‘greatest democrat’. We’re encouraged to celebrate their actions and sacrifices. Yet we’re in the process of losing so many of the things they fought for. It’s as if we’re sleepwalking through events while being systematically stripped of what those before us achieved.


Link: Thomas Muir: Father of Scottish Democracy 


Change doesn’t happen by itself. Progress doesn’t happen by magic. Evil grows if not challenged. And each generation has to do its own challenging. It is our responsibility, not someone else’s. Remember the Big Yellow Taxi, that Joni Mitchell song where she sings, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

How I hope we’re thankful for what we have, and understand just what others have sacrificed for our sake. And how I hope that we will all fight to preserve such precious gifts for the generations to come. For our children’s sake. But also for those who had so little and struggled so much: our grandparents.

Glorious Glen Finglas

For those living in the Central Belt of Scotland the countryside is never far away. Despite being the area with the highest population density in Scotland (3.5 million out of 5.4 million), it doesn’t take long to reach the clean air and open spaces of the countryside.

For many of us, heading north or west leads to the Trossachs, an area of woods, glens and lochs that lies within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. And right in the middle of this expanse is glorious Glen Finglas.

Made famous by Walter Scott (as with so much of this part of Scotland), Glen Finglas has never lost its popularity, and today is managed by the Woodland Trust for Scotland. But it’s also part of ‘a forest in the making’, the Great Trossachs Forest, a long-term project (200 years!) that aims to create 160 square km of native woodland across this area. This innovative and far-sighted venture is the brainchild of the Forestry Commission Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Woodland Trust.  Described as a ‘forest for the future’, the Great Trossachs Forest is also the largest National Nature Reserve in the country. Quite an achievement.

A cottage in the village of Brig O’Turk, Glen Finglas

While this work is being carried out in the present and will provide great benefits for the future, Glen Finglas has a long and varied past. And it’s this past that has shaped the landscape we see here today.

In the current issue of iScot magazine I’ve written about the past, present and future of Glen Finglas under the headings found on the unusual stone compass that’s set into a rocky hillock up the glen. Carved into the stone are three mottoes: Enjoy the Present, Sense the Past, Ensure the Future. It’s a wonderful encouragement to get out and walk (or cycle), to learn about the people and events that have gone before and to discover what is planned for future generations.

To find out more about what this all entails, get hold of a copy of September’s iScot and then be inspired to pay a visit yourself!

iScot magazine digital editions

 

 

Coire Fhionn Lochan – Arran at its best

‘Climb every mountain …’

… and take this walk to the beautiful Coire Fhionn Lochan on the west coast of Arran. It’s name means the Little Loch of the Pale Corrie, and its crystal-clear water is fringed with white granite sand. There’s something quite strange about coming to a beach up in the hills, but its a lovely spot for a rest or a picnic. And for the more energetic, there are walks that head further into Arran’s stunning mountains. I’ve written about this walk in the September/October issue of Scottish Islands Explorer.

What intrigues me about exploring the landscape of Sotland is just how much has happened in almost every area of the land. Even in places that seem deserted and remote to us today, you’ll find that not so long ago they were home to generations of people who lived and worked the land. And that usually means there’s something left behind that tells their story, if you know how to look for it.

You can find clues in the place names that describe the natural features of the land. Or those place names with a mixture of linguistic roots, that tell of the invaders from other lands, with other cultures, who descended upon these shores. Often arriving as deadly raiders, many then returned as settlers, marrying into local communites and adding to the mix of nations that make up who we are today.

Then there are the myriads of old tales and legends, which although fictitious at one level, do very often contain a grain of truth about otherwise long-forgotten events.

Even the shape and size and hair colouring of a commmunity can tell you something of its background. Whose blood flows through your veins? Are you descended from dark-haired Celts, or fair-haired Norse Vikings, or those unfortunate Spanish sailors whose ships floundered in the stormy waters off the Scottish coasts in the aftermath of the Spanish Armada of 1588 and stayed on (think of Jimmy Perez!).

This walk has echoes of St Columba, a visit from Robert the Bruce and a beautiful poem, amongst other intriguing aspects. It’s a walk in the present that resonates with the past and contains hopes for the future. Not a bad mix at all!

Should you wish to find out more, you can read my article in the latest edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Print copies are for sale in many local newsagents and it’s available online for only £1.99 at:  pocketmags-scottish-islands-explorer-magazine