A Pilgrim People

There’s an old saying that “curiosity killed the cat.” But I don’t go along with that. In fact, I believe it’s the exact opposite, a lack of curiosity, that ‘kills’ us. That stultifies our minds and our imagination. That closes our eyes to the possibilities of life and blunts our ability to have a vision of better things. Indeed, I think the Book of Proverbs hits the nail on the head when it says “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Whether a vision for our individual lives, or for our nation, it’s curiosity that leads us to ask questions and explore different ways of doing things. It’s curiosity that leads us to say “What would Scotland be like if…?”

Without curiosity people wouldn’t explore or experiment. Without curiosity early man wouldn’t have gone to see what was over the next hill or on the other side of that wide blue ocean. Without curiosity scientists and doctors wouldn’t have made the breakthroughs they have. Curiosity fuels our imagination and opens our eyes to connections we hadn’t noticed before. Just think of the complex process required to turn cocoa beans into chocolate and you have to marvel at human ingenuity!

People have always been curious, trying to find ways – and the words – to understand the world around them. To explain the seasons, the floods and famine, as well as the bounty and beauty of the world. To understand why the world is the way it is.

Curiosity is a profound human trait, one that is not far from spirituality: a sense that there is something else out there, beyond our physical bodies and the here and now. With spirituality rather than religiosity at its heart, pilgrimage can offer the chance to walk, to think, to talk, to ask questions, to give thanks. To be close to the past, live well in the present and imagine the future.

Pilgrimage is nothing new: Macbeth, Robert the Bruce and James IV all made pilgrimages. But today there’s a whole new generation looking at the old ways with contemporary eyes. And there are flourishing pilgrim routes all across Scotland and Europe. A modern pilgrim may venture forth for different reasons than those of the past. But that time out, re-connecting with the land, seeking to re-focus on what’s important and what we’re trying to do with our lives, is an experience worth considering. And fortunately Scotland is a country with a wealth of pilgrim routes, enriched by a long history of Celtic and medieval Christianity. So wherever you live, chances are there’s one pretty close to your doorstep!

In issue 68 of iScot Magazine I look at the history of pilgrimage: its rise and fall, and rise again and its myriad of forms.

iScot Magazine

Faith in Cowal

Scottish Pilgrim Routes

The Way of St Andrews

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

Gerda Stevenson is a woman 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!

Click here to read the iScot article

Estonia: The Magic of Laulupidu – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 2)

Choirs gather in Tallinn from all over Estonia and beyond

Music and song play a great part in life in Scotland. We have a long and rich tradition of songs that reflect all aspects of life in this country. We grow up hearing the profound message in Robert Burns’ A Man’s a Man for A’ That, sung so movingly by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.   Or For Auld Lang Syne, arguably the most-played and best-known song in the world. We have songs that talk of the common humanity we all share, despite the fact that it’s still very much an ill-divided world.

The procession from Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds lasted for hours!

There are also songs of anger and frustration that the greed and corruption of the few can make life a misery for so many. Songs that are full of history and the tragedy that is man’s inhumanity to man. But again there are songs like Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Caledonia, that celebrate the beauty of our landscape and our love for our country. Songs full of longing for justice and equality, for love, for basic human kindness. Songs that reflect the past and future hopes our nation.  Songs that add to what it means to be Scottish.

Beautiful traditional costumes

I was both intrigued and delighted when I discovered that music and song play a huge part in the life of the Baltic nation of Estonia, especially the song festivals that kept their culture and identity alive during centuries of foreign occupation. A few years ago a friend gave me a copy of a documentary called The Singing Revolution, made by a Canadian/Estonian couple, James and Maureen Tusty.  It’s perhaps one of the most moving films I have ever seen and tells of the brave and peaceful struggle by the people of Estonia to be free of the Soviet Union.  And, amazingly, how that long-standing tradition of music and song helped make the revolution possible.

The flame lit, Laulupidu could begin

This national Song Festival – Laulupidu – takes place once every five years, so when we returned to Estonia in 2014 we made sure we had tickets – and it’s an event I’ll never forget. Seeing people of all ages, from all over Estonia and beyond, descend on Tallinn in a breathtaking array of costumes was unforgettable. Then there was the patience of more than 25,000 singers as they waited in the blistering July heat to take their places in the opening procession from the heart of Tallinn to the song festival grounds.  Throughout the whole weekend the atmosphere was one of celebration, thankfulness, fun and friendship: hundreds of thousands of people and barely a policeman or security guard in sight – nor any mess either!

100,000 people undeterred by the blistering July heat!

The singing was a mix of old and new songs – songs from the early days of the song festivals as well as by musicians and composers who had lived through the Singing Revolution themselves.  It’s almost impossible to decide on a favourite song, but two that I particularly enjoyed were Rein Rannap’s Ilus Maa (Beautiful Land) and René Eespere’s Ärkamise Aeg (Time of Awakening): both with a hymn-like quality and performed with real conviction and sincerity by almost 30,000 singers on the stage – feelings echoed by 80,000 more in the audience.

More than 25,000 singers take to the stage!

The pride in country and history that the people of Estonia wear so naturally is something we can all learn from: a nation that has no desire to force others to be like them, but instead celebrates the  joy of finally being able to be themselves.  Something that is so important to all people.

History never stands still.  Empires come and go. We bring up our children to become free and independent people, not eternally dependent on us.  Over and over again history shows us that peoples and nations – on every continent in the world – reach a point when it’s time for them to be free to make their own decisions about how their country is governed and how it treats its citizens.

A child steps out confidently, secure in her future thanks to her past

For me, what Estonia achieved – and how it achieved it – is something to be remembered and cherished: and is an example to us all as to how, no matter how long it may take,  lasting change can be made.

Links: The Singing Revolution 

The Singing Revolution: trailer

Ilus Maa (song)

Ärkamise Aeg (song)

The Corries sing A Man’s a Man for A’That