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.

*********

 

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

 

 

Follow the Dead

Unlike the characters at the opening of Lin Anderson’s new novel, we weren’t trapped in the Cairngorms by a blizzard. Unlike them we were free to walk away from the Cairngorms Mountain Rescue (CMR) Base in Inverdruie whenever we chose. And unlike her fictional protagonists, we wanted to be where we were. We’d come Aviemore for the weekend to hear about the 12th book in the Rhona MacLeod series, Follow the Dead.

A mountain rescue base must surely be a unique setting for a book launch, but it was also very apt, as the CMR team play a major role in the story and Lin had spent many hours in their company, picking their brains for tales of nail-biting rescues and learning about the real-life risks and challenges they face when trying to reach walkers and climbers trapped in the harsh mountain landscape of the Cairngorm Mountains.

Prof and Mrs James Grieve

The skill, commitment and bravery of mountain rescue teams is legendary. John Allen, whose exploits are described in the book Cairngorm John: A Life in Mountain Rescue, was at the launch. As was Willie Anderson, the current leader of the CMRT, who spoke about rescues the team had been involved in, some of them requiring extraordinary bravery and truly heroic efforts to bring bodies – alive and dead – down off the mountains.

Also present was Lin’s chief forensic expert, Dr James Grieve, Emeritus Professor of Forensic Pathology at the University of Aberdeen. A man with a long title and a great sense of humour! He confirmed the realism of the technical aspects of Lin’s books, applauding the work she does in ‘educating’ readers to the reality – and limitations – of forensic science in the solving of crimes. It’s this accuracy that gives the books such an authentic feel, and helps make the character of Rhona MacLeod so believeable.

The author (right) and the fictional character!

Among the audience was a ‘real-life-fictional-character’, Mary, who plays a pivotal and intriguing role in the story. But just what that role might be, is a mystery you’ll only be able to solve by reading the book for yourselves!

After Lin, the second most celebrated guest must have been Oor Blaze fae Skye – perhaps the best-known resident of that fabled isle. With a Twitter following in the thousands, Blaze is a mountaineering (and Portree pub) legend in his own right.

Oor Blaze fae Skye

He even has his own much-sought-after calendar: a calendar signed last year by the author and stars of the spectacularly successful Outlander series, amongst many others. The funds raised from the auctioning of the autographed calendars go to the Skye Mountain Rescue Team. So Blaze has a very appropriate connection to the book launch we were attending.

A brilliant book with the best set of autographs possible!

Some of you will already know that Blaze’s other great claim to fame is that he writes regularly for iScot magazine, sharing his mountain exploits with the magazine’s readership. There’s something rather special about having a fellow contributor who has four legs and a penchant for tennis balls: which, I must add, he catches with unfailing accuracy!

Shush! I’m reading!

And so, having spent time with Blaze (whose literary efforts are penned with a little bit of help from his ‘dad’ Steve) and having heard about the real-life background to the drama in Follow the Dead, as well as having met some of the real-life counterparts to the fictional characters, all I have to do now is get reading – so shush!

 

Crime wave!

Crime writing in Scotland has never been more popular. From Bute Noir to Bloody Scotland there are events taking place all around the country, giving readers a golden opportunity to meet and talk to their favourite authors.

However, rather than discuss their fiction, I wanted to pose a different sort of question to these dealers in death. Tracking down three of the Tartan Noir brigade – Douglas Skelton, Lin Anderson and Louise Hutcheson – I asked them where in Scotland they would choose to be when they’re not penning the dark deeds and murderous machinations of their characters, and their answers took me to three very different parts of the country.

Lin Anderson

Douglas Skelton

For Douglas it was the Kinloch Rannoch area stretching from Pitlochry to the wilds of Rannoch Moor.  Lin chose the Highland village of Carrbridge, with its historic coffin bridge. While Louise plumped for the Queen of the Hebrides, the Island of Islay. And their reasons for these choices? Well, that’s for you to discover when you read this month’s iScot magazine: and you won’t be disappointed!

Louise Hutcheson

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Glenelg – Spacemen and Spies!

It’s easy to dismiss small or seemingly remote communites as offering nothing much of interest. But that’s a very mistaken assumption. Everywhere has a history. Everywhere the impact of human life leaves a mark. And small places are no different. In fact, it’s in these places that change is often felt more intensely and with far greater repercussions.

Glenelg in Lochaber is a good case in point. As the title of this article shows, a lot more has happened there than you might expect! Sometimes it can take a bit of digging to discover past events and fully appreciate the legacy they’ve left behind. But echo down the years they do: leaving their mark on the land and the people.

Iron Age brochs, redcoat barracks, Gavin Maxwell and his otters, sailing over the sea to Skye: Glenelg has all that and much, much more. I know Glenelg well and have visited often, but I still find there’s always something more just waiting to be experienced.

If it’s a place you don’t yet know, or even if you have visited, but would like to find out more, then my article in the June issue of the iScot magazine is just right for you: and costs less than a pint of beer in the pub! So treat yourself to something that will last a lot longer than that pint – and probably do you more good to boot!

iScot from Pocketmags

Cape Wrath – remote but reachable

It’s genuinely remote, there are plenty of obstacles to getting there, but it can be done – and it’s definitely worth it! Time of year, weather and MOD activity in the bombardment range, all have to be taken into consideration before you set out. Once these factors are sorted, however, you’re on your way. And fear not – there will be a cup of tea waiting for you when you finally reach the lighthouse!

We felt a real sense of achievement when we visited Cape Wrath. There’s the lighthouse and the welcome Ozone Cafe, as well as the decaying Lloyds Buildings, which are described on the Visit Cape Wrath website as: “a signalling station complex established by Lloyd’s of London Marine and Commercial Insurers to monitor passing ships, tracking their cargos, ports of departure and destination along with estimated arrival times”. Built between 1894 and 1903, advances in communications led to their closure in 1932, although they were reused at the start of World War II as a coastguard station.

The decaying Lloyds Buildings, closed in 1932

The small group who travelled on the ferry and minibus with us were from all corners of the globe. There’s obviously something very addictive about getting to the (almost) unreachable parts of the world!

I’ve written an article describing the journey and the history of the Cape – from the terrifying arrival of the Vikings – those fearsome Sons of Death – through the trials and tribulations of the Clearances, to the present day set-up where the MOD own vast tracks of the land. The article is available in the April edition of the excellent iScot magazine. iScot is a wide-ranging publication, which looks at what’s happening in Scotland today: what’s going on in the news and what there is to see, do and think about in this wonderful country of ours. If you have an interest in Scotland it’s well worth considering a  subscription, whether in paper form or in a digital edition.

Cape Wrath was the hvarf, the ‘turning point’ for the Vikings. Life is full of turning points and our reactions to these can have a profound effect on how we live our lives and relate to those around us. At times life can be more challenging than we might prefer, but, with places like Cape Wrath to visit, at least we can’t complain that it’s dull!

Visit Cape Wrath

iScot Magazine

Walk Highlands