Thursday 31 May 2018

Exploring Hebridean Isles: on the Edge

chapel Saint Barr on Barra
boat Oban to Barra
beach on south Uist

We took the Oban ferry to Castlebay on the isle of Barra. On the edge of exploring the whipped dark blue seas held time aloft and the tides carries us across. The bright westward skies shone brightly as we sailed oe’r swells and past looming mountains….
To the edge of Scotia’s Western Isles, to their stunning and varied landscapes, beaches, rocky outcrops, purple mountains, and a haven for wildlife, the roar of the Atlantic surrounds all here.  
This is a place of strong contradictions – from rugged coastlines, to the largest stretches of clear white sands and turquoise waters; and in the late light the bluest softest hues. 

I read of the great Bards and Myth makers. I read of the crofters forced to leave their homelands for unknown fates in far away lands – to Canada, to Indian reservations and not to the farms that had been promised and of how they missed the Atlantic seas.  At the  Castlebay museum I read of Father John MacMillan.  North Uist and south Uist are Protestant and Catholic – and they get along! 
Caisteal Chiosmull castle Barra
And the great war devastated these islands. Before the war Barra was the centre for the herring industry. The war meant all the young men left to fight in the navy. Then in 1921, 22, 23 there was UK government sponsorship to leave the islands. (to populate the colonies with white people)  The population went from 3,700 to 1,800.  Some managed to return, and some died on the journey. I read of the clan chief Macdonald in Edinburgh and his deciding on the fate of those living on the island. I read of Colonel Gordon of Cluny who bought the islands and ordered the clearances to make way for sheep over people.
Vatersay beach
Barra airport
Barra has a 17th century castle Caisteal Chiosmull castleat the entrance to its bay at Castelbay, owned by the McNeills. Similar to other islands, the drive on the west coast has picture perfect sandy beaches, and the drive on the east coast is rocky and more mountainous. To the north lies the only beach with scheduled flights and we had lunch at the café here.

Out on the peninsula we found the small chapel of Saint Barr.  South of Barra, lies the quiet island of Vatersay connected by a small bridge. We took photos at what could have been a tropical island, although there was cool there. Another photographer told us of the shrine to Eilidh MacLeod, who lost her life a year ago at the Manchester bombing. So sad she left this beautiful place to die at the Arianna Grande concert.


We then took the small ferry over the often difficult crossing to Eriskay and  Uist. Uist has large mountains on it east. We found the bonny location for the Polochar Inn and the drive over the causeways., funded by the EU We visited the interesting Uist museum which told the stories of the forced evictions to Canada. There was the nature reserve  to protect endangered birds such as corncrakes. This is part of an important European Conservation Machair environment, conservation, project to save endangered spices. I wondered, will the UK fund and set up a UK Conservation Machair project, after Brexit?

Uist beach

waves at nature reserve Uist

Early on the Friday we headed across on the carefully manoeuvred crossing to the more prosperous isle of Harris. Harris is the most developed Western isles. I had expected it to be more isolated and remote than Lewis. The Harris beaches on the west coast look out over the welcoming Atlantic and are well worth photographing. Tarbert is nestled in its northern mountains – a ferry port with Harris Gin and Harris Tweed shopsThen we took the treacherous Gold Road over the rocky eastern side and stayed at the beautifully renovated old school house.

On Lewis its worth visiting its historic sites – the Callanais stones, the blackhouse village, the Carloway Broche.  Then we headed for the port of Stornaway - it was a Sunday and all was closed except for the church and one hotel - and took the modern Caledonian McBrae ferry, which was like a floating cafeteria, back to the picturesque highland town of Ullapool.

the Callanais stones on Lewis

Carloway Broche

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Why Our Stories Matter

In London there is the Tate Britain, the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum, the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, Carnaby street, the Globe theatre and the Thames flowing past. My favourite London walk is from the National Portrait Galleries and Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall and no 10, past the now crumbling (and being rebuilt at a cost of millions) gothic Westminster, and on over the bridge to the Southbank and the late evening sun.

I am not very proud of the great wars, I think it is sad a generation of young men had to die to prove a point against Germany, not once, but twice. There are stories of great heroism, fighter planes, muddy trenches and gas gas boys, from the poignant Dulce et Decorum Est poem by Wilfred Owen. He ended up in a rehabilitation centre at Craiglochart in Edinburgh and then was sent back to die at the front. It all seemed pointless.

Thankfully out of the ashes the European project emerged (one of Winston Churchill’s ideas) sand we’ve had free trade, prosperity and peace now for over 70 years. After the war many of the British empire countries regained independence. At one time the British navy (along with the Dutch navy which joined forces with our navy under William of Orange or King Billy)  ruled the waves and many small islands around the world. And Glasgow and Belfast were the greatest centres for shipbuilding.

But times change. Our long reigning Queen has presided over a Commonwealth of faded past glories and now places like China and India have strong growing economies. And recently the stories coming from England have become defensive, confused, floundering. I don’t really know what modern Tory England stands for today. Has it lost its way? I am often reminded of the past stories that England once stood for - Bath and Jane Austen; Brunel Kingdom’s bridges; Cameron Mackintosh and Lloyd Weber and Cats; Liverpool and the Beatles; the great painters Freud and Hockney, Turner and Constable. Royal babies 

Campaigning in council elections recently in London, Tory MP Tom Johnson claimed, “Everyone knows the Tories will spend less and deliver more and better resources.” I am not sure I understand this logic unless they are miracle workers? Is it possible to spend less and provide more, like Jesus and his fishes? They are attempting to hire more nurses from Jamaica, which will drive nurses salaries down. And in London near the Thames there are shining empty monuments to failing London centric capitalism, the blackened Grenfell tower and tellingly knife crime and murders have increased. Whatever happened to training those British workers?

And sadly some have decided that Britain’s leaving the EU project will sort out Britain’s housing and NHS crisis. It won’t. Europe has given Britain prosperity by being an integral part of the world’s largest trading block and I fear this self-harming will seriously damage our economy. Brexit has become this strange word banded about like a dangerous football.

But there are other stories among these crisis. After two weeks of Commonwealth Games this April at the Gold Coast, we discovered that there is a Windrush generation – those from Jamaica who were invited to help Britain rebuild after the war. They came here and worked in our hospitals and buses and have lived here all their lives since the 50s and 60s., mostly in Birmingham and the south east. Scandalously their rights have been taken away – their right to work, health care, passports and some have been put in detention centres and deported. Because of Ukip’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and May’s hostile environment at the Home Office, these grandparents suddenly found they had no rights to citizenship. We were asking Commonwealth citizens to leave!

There are many other stories often forgotten in ‘Britishness’ though – the Welsh valleys, the Scottish mountains, islands and seas, and the Irish rolling hills and dairy farms. During the Brexit debates I heard no mention of the British ‘regions’. So much is centralised on the white cliffs of Dover, the London’s financial markets and the cosy shires, that the regions are looked on as peripheral and unimportant backwaters. Recent polls suggest those in England would sacrifice the union for their Brexit and care more about Gibraltar.

For the people who live in Belfast or near the Irish border in Newry or Derry or in the busy harbour of Aberdeen or the remote Hebrides or historic Edinburgh, they feel isolated and cut off from this ‘British’ story. I recently visited the western isles and it struck me to have a healthy economy we must care about all our remote regions. Scotland has run its own devolved parliament since 1997 with limited powers, and now dominated by the SNP since 2007 for ten years now. In fact ever since the Union of the Parliaments 1707, Scotland has been run by some kind of Scottish government (or over lord suppressor). At that time only the landowners, or less than 5% of the population had a vote – so this take over was never democratically voted on. In fact, most Scots at the time, rioted in the streets!

The south east of England knows even less of their Irish cousins and the Irish border was never mentioned before the referendum vote - would the English have voted for Brexit if there was a risk of the dreadful Troubles starting again? I remember the horrific nightly news broadcasts of knee capping, bombs and murders. The DUP are presently propping up May’s Tories, so how the customs alignment is to be achieved is beyond most people’s understanding and some think a few cameras might suffice at the three hundred mile border. 

A majority of Scots want home rule or devolved government: the question might be, how much should Scotland be run by those in London- on defence (trident in Scottish lochs); on welfare (bedroom tax), on foreign affairs (Brexit, Windrush), pensions (lowest in the OECD). The Scots language has been protected within the EU by a European charter. One third of today’s population speak a modern version of the same language used by Burns. Will old Scotia’s heritage, laws, rights, language, culture and arts be protected once we leave the EU? Will our wildlife be protected?

Westminster may not imprison Scottish indy supporters, instead they tie our hands with limited free press or media. Around half of Scots support indy and undemocratically less than 5% of the media represents these views. Scotland’s stories have always been different, and Scotland kept its church, law and education and runs its separate health service. Three hundred years ago, politics mattered less than the church, which held the dominating powers. 

Are there British stories in Scotland - well yes but mostly not good ones? In St Andrews Square Edinburgh we have the tall, dominating statue of the tyrant who enforced the highland clearances Henry Dundas. Overlord of the clearances. Also in Edinburgh the new town has streets named after the Hanoverian kings (rather than the Stewarts) although I discovered recently that George of Hanover was the grandson of Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James VI of Scotland). I read of the golden eagle being endangered by these large Robber Barons grouse shooting estates. Our Britishness here means the flag waving of aggressive Orange parades or the empty shipyards on the Clyde… 

Otherwise I struggle to think what Britishness means here in Scotland. Most of our statues are to great Scottish thinkers or poets. Edinburgh had a great 18thcentury enlightenment and then in the 19thcentury series of books by John Prebble, which put out a false myth of a poor downtrodden Scots people. Scotland has many unique and different stories we must be proud of – Reformation, radical thinkers, enlightenment, expressive Scots Poets, Gaelic song, scientific and engineering discoveries.

The young Robert Burns admired independent minded freedom fighters such as Hannibal and William Wallace and from his writing it is clear he supported democratic values and votes for all men. A Mans a Man for o That, the Slaves Lament, Parcel of Rogues to the Nation, the Tree of Liberty. At this time (1765 to 1783) the American and (1789 to 1799) French revolutions were raging and there were great fears of rebellion in Britain too. Equality means we all deserve equal rights – but equality does not mean we are all the same. Humans have succeeded because of their diversity and also from co-operation. I believe in some capitalism (as in Sweden) but also far more social programs to benefit all. 

Edina now runs one of the world’s most important International Arts festival. I had no idea though, growing up in Edinburgh how major it was, or of all Edina’s important stories. I studied history at school, but it was all English imperialist history and literature. I am teaching myself Scottish history now and I am sad for the not knowing when I once walked down her cobbled high street to college. 

Milngavie folk club PHOTOS

Banny Gallagher

MY PHOTOS at the very popular local Milngavie folk club, run by Jason Smith . I’ve taken some of my favourite images here at some wonderful intimate concerts from some of the cream of Scottish folk talent – Dick Gaughan, Michael Marra Kris Drever, Karine Polwart, Rab Noakes, Benny Gallagher, Cara Dillon, Dougie MacLean,  Donovan, Rose Code Blue. 


Kris Drever
John McCusker
Rab Noakes
Michael Marra
Karine Polwart
Dougie MacLean

Michael Marra
Rab Noakes & Barbara Dickson
Blue Rose Code