Wee Mac Arran – worth waiting for!

It should have been happening this September, however, like so much at the moment, it’s been put on hold. Yes, that’s disappointing, but I suspect it’ll be twice as enjoyable when it does take place!

Wee Mac will be a first for Arran, that beautiful island in the Firth of Clyde. A book festival with a difference. And one that will be open to all. But Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening in isolation, rather it’s to be held under the auspices of the island’s prestigious McLellan Arts Festival: and that’s something that pleases me greatly.

James Dey of the BBC (l) and playwright Robert McLellan (r), High Corrie, 1973

Growing up, we spent many a holiday on Arran, usually up in the small settlement of High Corrie, and it was there that we got to know Robert McLellan, the poet and dramatist in whose honour the festival is held each year.

He was an uncompromisingly honest, deeply caring, man who did much for the island. And I strongly suspect he would be delighted, not only at the festival in his name, but also that it’s expanding to bring in a new, younger generation.

So, while Wee Mac Arran won’t be happening this year, it’s something to look forward to in September 2021.

You can find out more about the festival and Robert McLellan in my article in the current iScot magazine: https://www.iscot.scot/

Or keep an eye on the Wee Mac Arran website for updates:  https://www.weemacarran.scot/

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

Lochranza Castle on Arran

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

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.

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.

Castlebay on Barra became the fictional Kiltoch in The 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!

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.

The tidal landing strip on Barra

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.

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.

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

Rev James Dey

A man who could make chocolate cakes!

I first posted this piece about High Corrie in 2015.  It was linked to the article I’d written about that unusual coterie of men and women for whom High Corrie was a special place. Just last week the last of that group, my father, Rev James Dey, passed away. In many ways it’s the end of an era. They were all men and women who had experienced the reality of war, of poverty, of suffering and hardship. Yet they were all men and women who looked to the future with courage and determination.

They helped make their world a better place for all, not just for a few. Something I’ve tried to do in my life, and see reflected in the words and actions of my own children. Life is never static. Change is always with us. I hope we always try and make those changes good ones. Just as my father did.

***********

Burnbank Cottage, High Corrie

If someone asks you to name your favourite book, or song, or food, or place, it’s not always easy to come up with an answer, even though the question itself seems perfectly straightforward.  Somehow it all depends on a host of factors, and in the end, for most of us, it isn’t really possible to come up with a once-and-for-all favourite.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t books, or songs, or places that are special to us – and  some that are more special than others.  For me, a very special place is High Corrie on Arran.

Sunshine on Burnbank 1973

It’s special because of the island it’s on, special because of its wonderful setting and special because of all the happy associations and memories it brings with it. Wonderful carefree family holidays, when the sun always shone (well, most of the time!) and we were free to roam the hills and shore and cycle safely wherever we chose (there were far fewer cars back then!).  Each year we stayed in Burnbank, one of the small cottages in High Corrie, a clachan designated by Historic Scotland as being of ‘outstanding historical interest’.

High Corrie United FC 1969

There was the High Corrie Burn to explore, Goatfell to climb, and a flat-ish area where we held our own ‘olympic games’ and football matches, along with a home-made two-hole golf course set on a steep slope with the sea far below.  Not far away was Corrie, and then Brodick,  so there was also putting and crazy golf and rowing boats and sandy beaches to enjoy. Adventure beckoned at every turn!

1973: My father Rev James Dey of the BBC (left) and playwright Robert McLellan relax during a break in filming in High Corrie

It was also a place where summer-holiday stories were written and where there was time to slow down and talk and think and unwind.  But it was also a place where adults could stop and unwind too.  For my parents it was a break from their challenging jobs at the BBC and in a tough Glasgow secondary school respectively. The cottage opposite Burnbank was the home of the playwright and poet Robert McLellan and his wife Kathleen. Nearby, the summer homes of the editor of the Guardian, later the Controller of BBC Scotland, the Director of the Royal Scottish Museum and many artists.  A small place but one alive with thoughts and ideas.

It’s a place I’ve been back to on many occasions and I’ve written about some of the things that made this place special not just to me and my family, but to many others. It’s good to have places like this, places that played their part in our young lives and continue to hold such a store of fond memories. Whilst I’d still find it impossible to name a favourite place, High Corrie comes pretty close!

 

Glorious Gorse, a great Scottish native

Glorious gorse

You know Spring has arrived when you walk past a gorse bush and the air is full of that delicious aroma of coconut rising from the yellow flowers in the warm sunshine. And right now the Island of Arran is positively awash with gorse.

Gorse, also known as whin or furze, is native to Scotland and has proved its usefulness over the centuries. A traditional winter feed for cattle and other livestock, it would be ground with mallets or with a whin-stone, until it reached an edible consitency!

You can add the flowers to a salad or use the leaf buds to make ‘tea’. Apparently the seeds are mildly astringent, containing tannin, and were used to treat diarrhoea, varicose veins and slow down infections. Then, like most plants, it can be used to produce a dye (replace the The Good Life’s nettle green with yellow!)

Goats love gorse!

Importantly, it was regularly used as a fuel, burning well even when quite green because of its high oil content. The ashes are rich in alkali and gorse was often burned off to improve the quality of the land. These alkali-rich ashes were also mixed with animal fat to make soap. And it’s a sanctuary for small birds, who can hide safely inside this thorny shrub.

On the other hand, there are few things worse than fighting your way through gorse that has been allowed to grow unchecked – then those spikes become just too vicious. But, on the whole, gorse has been a friend to farmers and crofters and fitted in well with rural life in this country.

Skunk cabbage fringes the pond at Brodick Castle

Gunnera aka ‘giant rhubarb’!

Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the rampant rhododendrons that grow unchecked in so many parts of Scotland. In the right setting, as in the gardens of Brodick Castle, rhododendrons flourish alongside other exotic plants that were brought here in the late 18th and 19th centuries to fill the gardens of the new, fashion-conscious, owners of country houses. In Brodick Castle grounds you’ll see American skunk cabbage (with its very curious smell) and Gunnera (looking for all the world like enormous rhubarb) arranged to create areas of great interest.

However, as the management of many large country estates has declined, their gardens have been left to run wild. As a result, some of these non-native species have been allowed to escape and are now too rampant, too invasive, and are causing wide-spread difficulties. In particular that ‘Victorian monster’ Rhododendron ponticum, has become a severe problem throughout Scotland.  It shades out other plants – and their attendant wildlife – and soon creates dense jungles which are not simply hard work, but also almost impossible, to clear.

There a numerous projects afoot now to try and contain and clear these plants which are deadly to all other growth if left unchecked. Though I would have to say that the relatively new-kid-on-the-block, Japanese Knotweed, is now regarded as the world’s most invasive species. It’s found a foothold here and is spreading, and any plant that can grow up through concrete floors and bring down houses is definitely a real menace!

Give me gorse spikes (and a pair of secateurs) any day!!

A bank of gorse protects the grass and sand dunes along the shore at Brodick Bay

The Problem with Ponticum

 

What is it about islands…?

Just what is it about islands that authors, playwrights and poets are drawn to use them as settings for their works? Especially crime writers? I wrote an article on this very topic, which is now in The Island Review.

If you haven’t come across The Island Review before, it’s an online magazine which is: ‘dedicated to great writing and visual art that comes from, is inspired by, celebrates or seeks to understand the extraordinary appeal of islands, as places and as metaphors.’

So if you like books, enjoy crime stories, are intrigued by islands and wonder what William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? Then read on, Macduff!:  ‘A distant isle, where darkest deeds are done’

Kildonan – Seal Song on Arran

It was a quiet morning as we followed the path along the shore from Kildonan towards Bennan Head on the southern coast of Arran.  The air was calm, the water unruffled – a lovely September day.  We’d heard that this was a good spot to see seals and sure enough there were people sitting near the start of the path armed with cameras and binoculars.  But not a seal in sight!

So we decided to go further afield and follow the path as far as the Struey Rocks boulderfield.  A sandy beach on one side, dramatic waterfalls on the other made for an interesting walk.  But it became so very much more interesting when we rounded a corner to see dozens of seals basking on the rocks, among them a large number of young animals.  It was a thrill to see so many of them in one place.

Seals basking on the rocks at Kildonan

Seals basking on the rocks at Kildonan, Isle of Arran

But what really made the day special, however, was their singing.  At first we weren’t quite sure what it was we were hearing, but soon realised they were ‘talking’ to each other – or rather singing to each other!  It was a sound that I remembered from the time when my parents lived in Shetland and my mother would sit on the shore and sing – the seals joining in with their own special song.  And so at Kildonan we sang and to our delight there was a whole chorus of seal voices in response!  It was a wonderful experience and not one that we will forget in a hurry.  And a reminder of just how fortunate we are in Scotland to have so much fascinating nature right on our doorstep.

Arran: Corrie Connections

Cottages in Corrie

Cottages in Corrie

Corrie: It’s been called the prettiest village in Europe and has been both inspiration and home to many artists.  Elegant sandstone villas and sturdy sandstone cottages face out to sea, while the mountains of Arran rise majestically behind.  It’s a beautiful village, one full of history and character, but which only really came into being as we know it today during the major social upheavals of the 19th century.  When the surrounding land was cleared of small farming communities, the inhabitants of these areas had to leave their homes and find work elsewhere.  Some went to the growing industrial cities of the central belt of Scotland, others emigrated to new lands such as Canada.  But some were fortunate enough to be able to take up quarrying and fishing in the new village along the shore, Corrie.

Transport improved and slowly but surely the the famous Clyde steamers made access to the beautiful islands of the Firth of Clyde quicker and easier.  Tourism grew and the villages of Arran became a favourite haunt of the growing urban middles classes from mainland Scotland. Then World War Two brought a new wave of visitors when large numbers of children were evacuated from Glasgow and sent to the relative safety of Arran.  Some found the contrast between town and country too much and went back to the mainland – despite the risk of bombing.  For others it was the start of lifelong connection to Arran and Corrie in particular.

Corrie Port

Corrie Port

Life is never static and Corrie is a good example of this.  For different people it’s meant different things.  The artist Joan Eardley loved it, as did the Sandeman family.  For the author and illustrator Mairi Hedderwick it was the beginning of a lifelong love of Scottish islands.  While the family of the founders of the great publishing house of Macmillan started life there too. And it’s a place we can make our own connections with today as well.

 

‘Memory hold-the-door’ – looking after our past

The Isle of Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick

‘Memory Hold-the-Door’ is the title of John Buchan’s autobiography. Buchan was an amazing man: born in Perth in 1875 he became a lawyer, worked in South Africa after the Boer War, wrote best-selling thrillers, was an eminent historian, an MP and finally Governor General of Canada. Thanks to his autobiography we know a great deal about him and what was important to him. But he would have been one of the first to stress that of no less importance are the lives of ordinary people. How though, if not the subject of biographies, do we know how others lived? We are the people we are thanks to our memories – memories of ourselves, of the places we live, of the families we belong to. Our lives are also shaped by the landscape in which we grow up. Landscape in its full sense – historical, geographical, cultural, religious, climatic and linguistic. If, as individuals, we lose our memories we lose our identities.

The Isle of Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick

The same is true for communities and peoples. That’s why I have such respect for local museums and one of the best that I know is the Isle of Arran Heritage Museum. Take a step back into the distant – and not-so-distant past – and see why this island and its people are the way they are today. Museums of this quality are lifelines to the past and to our understanding of others and of ourselves. And this is certainly one to treasure!

Scalpsie Bay – A Walk through Time

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

Scalpsie Bay looking across to Arran

The Isle of Bute, although lying in the Firth of Clyde and close to the main centre of population in Scotland, is often called ‘The Undiscovered Isle’.  Many people think of it only in terms of the main town, Rothesay, once a thriving summer coastal resort, now rather run-down and tired.  But beyond the town lies beautiful countryside, magnificent bays and a wealth of history – just waiting to be discovered!

Scalpsie Bay, on the south-west of Bute, is home to a populous seal colony, as well as having magnificent views over to Arran.  It also holds thousands of years of history – from a Bronze Age barrow and Iron Age dun, to the water channels built by the 19th century engineer Robert Thom to power the islands then flourishing cotton mills and the “Russian Cottage” used during the Cold War to listen for possible Soviet submarines in the Firth of Clyde.  But there is much, much more to this beautiful bay than this, so go and discover it for yourself!

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010

Fragments of Bronze Age pottery found in the Scalpsie Barrow in 2010