Museum of Islay Life: home to an island’s memory

When we come out at the other end of this corona virus pandemic, just how will we look back at what happened to us, to our families, to our communities? Every generation lives through history in the making, but when you’re in the middle of events the end result is unknown: you don’t have the luxury of hindsight. And that uncertainty isn’t just unsettling. It’s frightening.

Life is very strange right now. On one level, everything looks just the same, be it your house or your street: but in reality it’s very different indeed. The silence for one thing. Virtually no traffic, or planes; even the sound of children playing is diminished.

Fishing and ferries – an island’s lifeblood

In an earlier article I looked at how vital our memories are for our personal identity. You only need to see the devastating effects of dementia on a loved one to appreciate that. The writer Julian Barnes puts it very succinctly: “Memory is identity….You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.”

The Tuscania Bell and the flag sewn by Islay women for the burial of the young American dead

But equally, we are social beings and the collective memories of our communities are an integral part of our existence too. Who we are today is influenced by the lives of those before us. Japanese author Haruki Murakami examines this in his unsettling novel 1Q84, with his protagonist Tengo saying, “Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It’s a crime. Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.” Powerful words.

Bottles recovered from the WW2 airbase, including Brylcreem!

We can contribute to, and access, that vital collective memory in many different ways: books, films, photo albums, family history and tales told us by our parents and grandparents. But we’re a tactile species and sometimes seeing and touching objects brings the past to life in a very immediate way. And that’s where local museums come in.

One of my favourites is the wonderful Museum of Islay Life. In the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at that museum and how its contents reflect the life and times of the people of that island. From the mesolithic right up to the present day, Islay’s people, places and history are there to discover in the Tardis-like building. The good and the bad. The joyous and the heartbreaking. Bravery in the face of war and cruelty. Kindness and generosity in times of adversity. The exciting and the mundane. The patterns of day-to-day life.

We’re all in limbo at the moment. We can’t go anywhere. Yet, inadvertantly, we’ve been given a unique opportunity to pause and take stock. To be inventive. To realise what we can actually do without and what really is essential. To create positive memories for ourselves and our families, even when that’s not easy. And be ready for the time we are once again free to go!

Islands to die for

“It was a dark and stormy night …” I wonder how many stories have opened with those famous words? Words first penned by American author Washington Irvine in 1809. Although much parodied, it’s an opening phrase that was used to great effect by Madeleine L’Engle in her ground-breaking novel A Wrinkle in Time, a book that had a profound influence on me as a child. L’Engle opened the door to a whole generation of children in the 1960s onwards with her stories that combined science fiction and fantasy with the spiritual and questions of good and evil. The first in a series, the book went on to win many literary awards and be dramatised for stage, radio, television and film.

That question of good and evil, right and wrong and the responsibility we hold for our actions and words, has stuck with me ever since. And it’s a question that’s been with humankind from the word go! Cain and Abel, those murderous Greeks and Romans and every ‘civilisation’ before and since has been built upon murder and violence. Curiously, but also happily, murder is far, far less common today than at any other time in the past – so perhaps we’re learning!

It’s also an issue that’s at the heart of much literature, in particular the crime genre. Add an island to the mix and you have a winning combination. Long used in literature as settings for dark deeds thanks to their enclosed and isolated communities, islands been used to great effect by authors as varied as Homer, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton!

Scotland, with its wealth of islands, has long been fruitful territory for crime writers, perhaps the best known being Peter May and Ann Cleeves, featuring the Hebrides and Shetland respectively. But there are many others and in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at novels by two Scottish authors, Lin Anderson and Craig Robertson, who use distinctive and very different island settings for their characters’ dark deeds!

We tend to think of islands as idyllic holiday destinations, but pick up a crime novel and you’ll find an able author can turn them into something very different indeed. A safe haven or a sinister setting? Have a read of this article and then decide!

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!

 

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.

 

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

 
 
 
 

Plague, Priests and Pirates – Islay’s intriguing past

The standing stone by Cill Tobar Lasrach

From Port Ellen on the south of Islay to Kildalton, five miles to the east, lies a wealth of archaeological and historic sites, all of which add to the rich story of this beautiful island.  Ancient place names, standing stones, early Christian ruins, a battle-scarred castle, deserted villages, shipwrecks, the tragedy of the plague village of Solam, beautiful and weathered medieval crosses – all speak silently and potently of the lives of those who lived here in days gone by.  It’s an area of the island that I know well and have written about in Scottish Islands ExplorerI would recommend a visit to everyone.

The article also appeared in the wonderful Islay Blog website.