Edinburgh – more than meets the eye?

How often do we talk to a friend, thinking we know them well, only for something to be said or done and suddenly we find ourselves realising we don’t really know them as well as we thought we did? We might have to reassess our relationship with them, take a more honest view of the sort of person they are. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides which, aren’t we all far more interesting for all our own quirks and idiosyncrasies?!

In that respect places aren’t a lot different from people. We see bits of them, forgetting that the public face of a city is incomplete, omitting a great deal of what that place is really like. Like people, no city is perfect. And it’s worth taking another look at the places we think we know best. Which is exactly what poet Gerda Stevenson and photographer Allan Wright have done in this new book about Edinburgh.

Sculpture by Tim Chalk celebrating the work of Helen Crummy

Robert Louis Stevenson was well aware that the city he loved was far from straightforward. After all it was Edinburgh that was the inspiration for his chilling tale of human duality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s important to recognise that while human creativity can be a wonderful thing, human imperfection can feed destructively into our surroundings; whether in the concrete monstrosities that we expect others to live in, or the casual destruction of the earth’s resources we’ve indulged in for decades. This book asks us to stop and look again at how we live – and expect others to live. And how that feeds into the surroundings we create.

Take the concrete desolation of Craigmillar. A far cry from Edinburgh’s much-vaunted tourist image. Yet a place that couldn’t quell the courage and determination of Helen Crummy, who would go on to found the Craigmillar Festival Society, and whose son would grow up to be the creative genius behind such marvellous works as the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

While writing this month’s article for iScot magazine, I had the opportunity to look at some of the issues they raise in their book. Although it’s not my home now, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to look anew at the Edinburgh I’ve spent many years in: whether studying, working or being a parent. And just as we do our friends a grave disservice if we expect perfection from them, we do ourselves a grave disservice if we fall for the picture-perfect view of Edinburgh so often presented to us.  People and places are a complex, yet rich, tapestry of history and experience. Never static and always changing. Edinburgh is definitely worth a second look, and this book might just help you to do that.

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!

“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!

“Even if we lose our Lives” – Amnesty International and the struggle for women’s rights in Afghanistan

"Even if we lose our Lives"

“Even if we lose our Lives”

Imagine not being able to read or write.  Not because you are unintelligent or too stupid to learn, but because in your country it is forbidden.  Not forbidden for all, though – but only forbidden for women.  Imagine having no rights, having no say in your own life.  No say in who you marry.  No say in your health.  Imagine facing violence and brutality on a daily basis – not just from strangers but also from the people you should be able to trust to care for you, the people who should be there to protect you, not to harm you. Fathers, brothers, uncles, even some of the other women around you: who in an istant can turn on you and inflict pain and humiliation.  And there’s nothing you can do about it.  No safe place to go.  No-one to turn to.  No authorities there to help.

That’s still the fate of far too many women in far too many countries of the world today.  But none more so than in present-day Afghanistan, regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman.

From the word go life is harsh: denied education, 87 percent of Afghan women are  illiterate.  Nearly 80 percent are forced into marriage, with over half of all girls married before they are 19 and very many to much older men.  Giving birth without medical help has led to a maternal mortality rate of 400 in every 100,000 – while here in the UK the ratio is only 8. Domestic violence is almost the norm and redress in the courts virtually non-existent.

#ActForAfghanWomen badges

#ActForAfghanWomen badges

Under circumstances such as these, you would expect that any women in a position to leave this horrendous situation would do so.  Yet surprisingly there are women who choose to stay and choose to work and fight towards bettering the lives of Afghan women.

Through the play “Even if we Lose our Lives” Amnesty International tells the stories of three such women. It’s challenging and horrific and moving and shocking and wonderful in turn.  The bravery of these women – and the husbands and children who support them – is at times beyond our understanding.  But they fight on.  This play offers insights into into their lives and actions, told through their own words.

St Marks Amnesty Group in Edinburgh recently staged this work and by doing so transformed the all-too-often faceless and nameless people of Afghanistan into real people, suffering and struggling to make their world even a little bit better.  Their humanity and courage is incredible.  Staged by Alison Martin, Hollie Ruddick and Emily Ingram, this is a play to look out for.

Follow this link to see what you can do to support women in Afghanistan:  Women’s rights in Afghanistan: Amnesty International

And for details of the content of the play see the St Marks Group play website: Even if we lose our Lives