Outlander, The Eagle and the Devil’s Pulpit

Finnich Glen, The Whangie and the Auld Wives’ Lifts all feature in October’s iScot

Question: What’s the connection between Outlander and the lost Roman legion in the film The Eagle?

Answer: The dark, dank and decidedly creepy gorge in Finnich Glen, that comes complete with a  curious sandstone rock known as the Devil’s Pulpit!

Imagine you’re a film producer and you need a location that’s shadowy, murky and menacing. Somewhere timeless and atmospheric. Secret, subterranean and definitely spooky. The gorge at Finnich Glen, also known locally as the Devil’s Pulpit, fits the bill exactly.  And so it was that it came to feature in both the Outlander television series and the film The Eagle.

South of Drymen, the gorge is 100ft deep, at times very narrow, with sheer, dripping moss-covered walls. An old Victorian stone stairway is one way down to the bottom of the gorge. Over the decades the steps have slipped and become precipitous. Winter gales have brought down trees, some of which have crashed onto the steps, dislodging sections. But despite that it’s still possible to get down as ropes have been strung across the most difficult sections.

Several scenes in the feature film The Eagle, starring Jamie Bell, Channing Tatum and Donald Sutherland, were filmed in the gorge. The plot is closely based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which was written in 1954, and has remained popular ever since. It was the first in a very successful series of stories set in Roman Britain and recounts the tale of the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion. A mystery, and a matter of heated debate among historians, to this day.

Diana Gabaldon’s phenomenally popular Outlander series, has caught the public imagination and interest in its filming locations in immense.  Finnich Glen is the setting for St. Ninian’s Spring, where a drink from the sulfurous water acts as a type of lie-detector.  Should Claire lie to Dougal after drinking it, she will suffer dire consequences. However, she tells him again that she is not a spy and remains unharmed, at which point Dougal finally accepts this as the truth. This ‘truth forcing spring’ has brought more and more visitors to Finnich Glen.

But what does the devil have to do with it? And why his pulpit? The answer may lie close-by in another strange and outlandish geological feature known as the Whangie, a very popular local walk and climb. Legend has it that Auld Nick, the devil, finding himself very late for a meeting at the local witches’ coven, rounded the mountain so swiftly that his tail sliced through the hillside, creating the bizarre cleft called the Whangie. Perhaps the Devil’s Pulpit was where he had been lurking with dubious companions beforehand. Who can tell!

Gorge walking in Finnich Glen

The gorge is a natural sandstone canyon created over millennia by the fast-moving waters of the Carnock Burn. Over-topped by a canopy of trees, the gorge can feel very enclosed and shut-off from the outside world. It can also be strangely silent, with no other sound than that of the ever-present rushing water.

And it should be mentioned that, in-between being a spectacular film location, Finnich Glen is an equally spectacular gorge-walking and outdoor adventure site.

It’s not necessarily a place for the fainthearted, but if Claire, Esca and Marcus could all get there and live to tell the tale, then so could you!

Garioch Women for Change

Who are the Garioch Women for Change and why are they so keen for women to make their voices heard? The opening pages of my article in this month’s iScot Magazine

There’s something afoot in the Garioch! A century ago the first women on these islands got the vote: today women the length and breadth of the country are not only looking at what women achieved in the past, but also at what they hope to achieve today. And the Aberdeenshire based Garioch Women for Change group have organised a fantastic conference to this end.

A grant from the Scottish Government’s Suffragette Centenary Fund has helped finance the conference: an apt connection, as we have a magnificent heritage in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. In fact, should doubts about our ability to promote change ever assail us, it’s worth remembering that our Suffragist/Suffragette sisters were no different from us! They weren’t any braver, or stronger, or more intelligent, or more patient than we are, yet they were prepared to stand up for what they believed and face the (often unpleasant) consequences. They were ordinary women who took on a seemingly untouchable establishment and won!

The Garioch Women for Change conference organisers

There’s much we can learn from their achievements, rifts and all; much that can help us face the growing challenges to our society, and even to our democracy. Challenges which call for our engagement now, just as those women acted in their time. And the speakers at the Garioch Women for Change conference certainly reflect that engagement. Speakers whose expertise covers politics, history, communications, science, environmentalism and much more!

Among the speakers are the journalist and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch; Maggie Chapman, co-convenor of the Scottish Green Party and Rector of Aberdeen University; Prof Sarah Pederson of Robert Gordon’s University, who led the influential ‘Suffragettes in North East Scotland’ project; Aberdeenshire East MSP, Gillian Martin; Petra Pennington, Art and Community worker at Deveron Projects; Alison Evison, president of COSLA and Dr. Cait Murray-Green, CEO of a young Scottish company Cuantec, which produces compostable packaging from langoustine shells, a natural alternative to plastic. An impressive line-up!

The Garioch Women for Change are an intelligent and thoughtful group, with a clear understanding of why it’s so important for ordinary women to make their voices heard. Their conference on 15th September is free and open to all. And even if you can’t be there, there’s much to be done – so whatever we do, let’s make our suffragette sisters proud!

Registration information at Make Your Voice Heard

Behind the scenes at the museum with Dr Elspeth King

What is it that makes us who we are? What are the experiences that shape and define us? The circumstances that create our beliefs and values? What are the factors that have made Scotland the country it is today; the country we call home? Intriguing questions that lead in turn to the question of how we preserve our identity, both as individuals and as nations. How do we protect the integrity of our past, our history, our heritage? And crucially, who is it that decides what is important, or significant enough to be preserved? Why are some people and events remembered and celebrated, while others are brushed to one side, forced into obscurity? These were some of the questions I put to Dr Elspeth King, director of the Stirling Smith Museum, and her answers were enlightening.

T.S.Smith’s remarkable painting The Pipe of Freedom, 1836, celebrated the abolition of slavery in America

A woman of great erudition and insight, Elspeth firmly believes that museums are at the very heart of our national memory: the key to knowing and understanding our identity. They hold the objects that mark the great moments in our history. The moments that had a lasting impact on our parents and grandparents and beyond. Museums preserve, display and interpret artifacts that are at the very core of our lives, our values, our passions. Our tangible, but also our intangible, inheritance. And reflect our place in the world. From local to global.

We need museums. But we need to ensure the history they portray really is our history. Museums, like newspapers and television, can be only too easily manipulated to distort history, just as they were by the totalitarian regimes of which there were no shortage during the 20th century! Yet it’s a sad truth that most countries today still have their own ruling elites, those people who use their power and wealth to influence the selection and interpretation of artifacts, to create a view of history that reinforces their own position of dominance and control.

The oldest football in the world, at home and in pride of place in the Stirling Smith Museum

Stop for a moment and just think how many national museums are littered with antiquities looted from more ancient, but poorer, nations. Antiquities stolen on an international scale by European empire-builders, with the British more often than not setting the worst example. There’s nothing noble about theft under the guise of imperial aggrandisement. It would be interesting to know whether any of these national institutions are hurrying to give back what they stole: the on-going saga of the Elgin Marbles being a very sorry case in point!

But local museums are a very different kettle of fish and more likely to genuinely reflect the history and heritage of the communities they serve. Yet they are all to often neglected and underfunded. Why? Is it because the holders of the purse-strings are exactly those people who control the decisions about who or what is important, and who ensure that it is their elitist view that prevails – whether in the world of art, music or museums?

The Smith’s very own Wine Bottle Lunette by GlasWorks

It’s a challenging situation for the dedicated staff and volunteers of local museums, and there are a lot of issues involved. But, as I hope I demonstrate in this month’s iScot article, there are countries like Estonia and Australia where museum staff are showing clearly that different attitudes are possible. There’s a whole lot going on out there! And here in Scotland, Elspeth King has been at the forefront of saving the past that really is ours from oblivion.

One country which faced just such oblivion is the small Baltic state of Estonia. They finally regained their independence in 1991 and with great joy, and amidst much celebration, opened their wonderful new National Museum in 2016 (with not a stolen artifact in sight!)  At long last, after centuries of some of the most horrific foreign subjugation, they been able to present their own history, culture and identity. And it’s not without a wonderful touch of irony that the new museum is built on the site of a former Soviet airbase!

The start of a new journey: Estonia celebrates the opening of its new national museum

In the foyer are these heartfelt words: ‘Not only the Estonian National Museum but the entire Estonian people find themselves in a new era… But Estonians have not forgotten that one becomes a citizen of the world through one’s own culture, which is why it’s important to know one’s roots. And it is not only necessary, but also interesting and lots of fun.’ Then they add these lovely, hopeful, words, saying that the creation of their own national museum is ‘the end of a long journey and the start of a hopefully even longer one.’

So, if you’ve ever wondered how you became the person you are, or why you live the way you do, or why some objects fill you with joy, sorrow or pride, or why you feel so strongly attached to the values of the country that you call home, then, to misquote the immortal bard, ‘Read on, Macduff!’, for you’ll find this article a pertinent read indeed!

‘Behind the Scenes in the Museum’ in iScot, May 2018

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

Gerda Stevenson is a women 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!

Quines article in iScot

Quines is published by Luath Press

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

Lochranza Castle on the Isle of Arran became the eerie Craig Dhui Castle in the Black Island

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

The Black Island 1943 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.

The Black Island xxxx cover

The Black Island 1966 cover

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.

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!

Castlebay on Barra became the fictional Kiltoch in The Black Island

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.

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.

The tidal landing strip on Barra

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.

 

“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!

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.

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