Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The Book of Kells

The trouble with being famous for your literary genius is that - unlike art or architecture - there's nothing to see. This isn't a problem for tourists visiting the land of Michaelangeo, Botticelli, Raphael and Bernini. But what is there to see in the city of Joyce, Yeats, Swift, Wilde, Beckett, Shaw and Kavanagh?

Take to Dublin's streets and pubs and enjoy the craic - what unease the dullard must feel! - but as far as sights and attractions goes, Dublin is neither a fairytale showpiece like Prague or Edinburgh, or a great capital stuffed with the loot of empire like Paris or London.

There is one thing to see though, and it's a cracker. Fittingly for Europe's most literary land, it's a book. The greatest work of European art from the Dark Ages. The Book of Kells - crafted by Irish monks on the Scottish island of Iona.

St Oran's cell, Iona:

So why isn't it called the Book of Iona? We went to the book's home at Trinity College to find out.

Trinity's quads and lawns are a tranquil oasis on a hot Dublin day, the queue to enter the old library short, the staff chatty. There's background to the book, who made it, where the different coloured inks came from. And why it came to be in Kells.

Like other British islands, Iona was repeatedly raided by Vikings at the end of the 8th century and dawn of the 9th. And so the treasures of Iona were sent away for safekeeping. The gospels ended up at the inland monastery of Kells, where they witnessed various events before being sent to their current home in Dublin.

the book (source, Wikipedia):

The exhibit climax is seeing a couple of pages from the actual book: around A4 size, it may seem a little underwhelming at first, until you get right up close and look at the detail. It is incredibly detailed, something that doesn't quite come across in internet pictures. I wanted to get my nose right up to the glass and get my magnifying glass out.

You think that is it, but there is one further treat as you leave the exhibit: Trinity College's elegant library.

library detail:

There's something else though, something not mentioned in the exhibition you should know. After the fall of the Roman Empire - we're talking 5th century AD, before the Vikings - Christian Europe was overrun by pagan emigrations from the north and east - the Saxons, the Angles (who would name England), Franks (who would name France), the Allemani (Germans), Goths, Visigoths, Huns and Vandals. The Christian faith and the Roman habit of writing things down went out of fashion - except in Ireland.

Across Europe this time became known as the Dark Ages, and Irish missionaries set out for Britian and Europe to covert these pagans. In Christian Europe's time of straights, Ireland shone a light in the dark. It is a little-appreciated fact in Europe that Irish literacy kept the gospels alive, not to mention old tales of the Ultonian Cycle, tales of the Fianna, and the great Homeric classic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Though to be honest my favourite piece of text might be the charming rhyme Pangur Bán, scribbled in the margins of a religious textbook by Sedulius Scotus now found in a monastery on the German-Swiss border:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Scottish Bastards

Long-time readers of this blog will be aware that I am ploughing - slowly but surely - through the first draft of a book on Scottish history. And the more I research, the more I am coming to the conclusion that the Scots down through the ages have been - how can I put it? Complete bastards.

This jars with the popular narrative of Scottish history, that tells of:
  • against-the-odds plucky resistance to Roman and English domination;
  • a political union with England arranged through bribery of the nobility;
  • the forced emigrations of the Highland Clearances;
  • famous losers like Mary Queen of Scots or Bonnie Prince Charlie;
  • Scotland itself disappearing into a twilight of Celtic mysticism, leaving behind tight-fisted alcoholics with massive chips on their shoulders against the English and their avatars (Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher!)
The Scotland I am discovering instead is one that invaded and wasted England as much as the reverse, failing to conquer Northumberland only through the greater resources of the English crown, rather than for any want of trying.

Area of Northern England under Scottish control, 1138-1157:

  A nation anciently reviled across England, Poland, the Holy Roman Empire and France as poor yet infuriatingly self-entitled: her people haughty, saucy, grasping, dirty and disputatious... though useful mercenaries in Europe's endless rounds of war.

A country that enthusiastically participated in the British Empire, whose entrepreneurs ran slave plantations in the Caribbean and fought the Qing Emperor over the right to sell opium to the Chinese people; entrepreneurs whose extortion of debt from impecunious American colonists was one of the contributing factors to the American War of Independence.

Ruins of the Chinese Emperor's Old Summer Palace, looted & burned by British forces in 1860:

A people whose anti-Catholic prejudices and Hibernophobia long predate the Union, the roots of which prejudice have never properly been tackled. A people whose once stolid unionism has recently fractured into Scottish and British nationalism, waking who knows what sleeping monsters.

Personally I find that a much more interesting story than the standard narrative. Celtic twilight? Meet Bastard dawn.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Cnoc Coinnich and The Brack

The Argyll Forest Park. Dense ranks climb steep hillsides, logging roads and military vehicles, lochs with deep detours and always dampness, seeping out of everything, sour tasting water and metallic schistose.

Head of Loch Long:

But sometimes the clouds break, the sun comes out, and magic happens. Mist drifts though the dawn, drawn out of the dew to join the sun's dance.

Logging road:

Behind, the fairy peak of  Cruach an t-Sithein wreathed in mist:

Ahead, broken black cliffs stud the gleaming snows of The Brack, set in a blue sky.

At the forest edge I climb upwards towards the summit of The Brack, pulling on tufts of fescue as shaggy as a sheep's winter coat, driving the axe into semi-frozen turf, glasses fogging over with the effort. Before long, I am in the snow.

Glen Douglas:

Which way upwards will I choose? I thread a gully, kicking steps. The obvious way further is straight up. Instead I contour round to see a lochan, realising once halfway across a small flattish area that I am standing *on* the frozen lochan! From here the ground steepens and I attack another gully with relish.


And then the fun stops. The gully steepening and the run out invisible, I traverse to solid ground, which is frozen and provides no grip. The sound of tinkling ice as pieces fall off the surrounding cliffs and skitter down the gully. What a stupid route. I traverse back to the relative grip of the snow, controlling my breathing, talking encouragingly to myself, taking great care with each change in balance.

Foolish route:

The top: but the joy had left the day. It had clouded over, and I cursed the snow that I had to trudge through to reach my second peak, Cnoc Coinnich. Beinn Reithe as well? No, sod that.

Beinn Reithe and the lochs from Cnoc Coinnich:

But the joy returned in descent, admiring my line of footprints, a record of the judgement of the placement of each foot punched into the snow. I had survived a little scare, had good exercise and fresh air, and was going home intact.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018


This may surprise you, but four years ago I started writing a musical. Provisionally titled Gette!, it was the story of women gaining the vote in the UK. The curtain is raised at an early Edwardian dinner party where the first song - 'Hush Woman' - follows one of the heroines giving an informed opinion on the Schleswig-Holstein question to the horror of the assembled gentlemen:
Hush woman, Hush woman!
You are an inferior race.
Hush woman, hush woman!
Your opinions are a disgrace.

When it comes to matters of state
Only men can be first rate
Hush woman, hush woman!
You've got me quite irate.
There follows public meetings, parliamentary defeats, the formation of the Womans National Anti-Suffrage League (a genuine organisation, astonishing to relate, of women campaigning against gaining the vote), smashings of windows with toffee hammers, force-feedings in jail, and the martyrdom of Emily Davison.

Women go on strike, the leader of the WNASL has second thoughts, and then the Great War begins. After a subplot involving right-on Labour saint Keir Hardie who supported universal suffrage and raging Tory imperialist Emmeline Pankhurst, women gain the vote and in the final scene, women in fashions from across the 20th century line up on stage, ballot papers in hand, singing the Suffragette Hymn March of the Women,  and vote one by one.

It's an amazing idea and when I put it to a director four years ago her eyes lit up. She immediately started discussing the logistics and how, with great determination to overcome the many difficulties involved with putting on a live show, it could maybe be put on in the back room of a pub with a cast of two and a piano. Fuck that. I wanted a The Lion King spectacular or nothing. The idea went into hibernation - I had four years after all - and now here we are four years later at the centenary of women's suffrage still with nothing more than the original outline and some song fragments.

Instead I've been concentrating on writing my book of Scottish history. And one of the most notable aspects of the subject is the invisibility of women in much of written history. The first Scotswoman to enter the stage (unless you count the legendary warrior Scáthach) doesn't even have a name - she is described merely as Argentocoxus' wife. It is really only now that women are gaining parity - with a female First Minister and Prime Minister, female leader of the opposition in the Scottish Parliament, and increasing number of women leaders in business and public life.

So a challenge for the girls of today: it's over to you to make sure that when the history of the next 100 years comes to be written, there will be a lot more women to write about.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The City With a Park in the Sky

Most cities have parks. But how many do you know with a park in the sky?

Edinburgh is one.

The citizens of Edinburgh are spoilt for choice. On a sunny day they can visit the beach at Portobello, the miniature mountain of Arthur's Seat, riverside walks along the Water of Leith and River Almond or city centre parks like Princes St Gardens and the Meadows.

And when the sunshine is combined with snow there is one obvious choice. The Pentlands, easily accessible at the end of a couple of city bus routes.

The Pentlands used to be the haunt of the shepherd and the nature-lover. But that was a few decades ago. Now they are a popular destination for local people, a couple of broad new paths cut across their slopes that can be taken to with ordinary shoes and bicycles.

Not everyone is happy about this desecration of the landscape. But everyone we saw seemed happy enough today.

And why wouldn't they be, when you get to the top and gain vistas like these just a couple of miles from the city's edge?

Monday, 15 January 2018

Heaven is a Place on Earth...

Climb Rois Bheinn on a fine winter day and you will probably be able to work out where it is.

Rois Bheinn (pron. Roshven) is a Corbett in one of Scotland's most under-appreciated areas.

Not Skye, whose hotspots are apparently overrun by tourists, or the North Coast 500, whose success means some tortuous roads in the north-west will have to be upgraded.

This is Moidart, part of a 45 by 30 mile lozenge of land south of the A830 still only lightly touched by tourism or outdoorsy types.

Rum from Rois Bheinn:

Heaven requires a bit of work: there's hoof-churned fields to wade through first (reminiscent of Gigha's Isle of Mud) and a relentless climb up steep, tussocky ground. These bogs are hard going in descent, especially if you've stayed up high for sunset and are coming down in the dark.

Seasoned hillwalkers are used to this: it's the price you pay for getting the good stuff.

Cold river:


The figure in the photo below was taking pictures of the sunset. He was disappointed because the views weren't as good as he hoped. Apparently if the north-west hadn't clouded over an hour before sunset it would be even better.

Let that sink in a bit.

He thought this was shite.

But for us it was a little slice of heaven, carved out of a sunny winter's day.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

A Borders Christmas

To the Borders for Christmas. Berwickshire and Roxburghshire. Frost and snow and a black wind out a blue sky, cosy homes with crackling fires overlooked by craggy castles.

Fatlips castle on a crag above Denholm, Roxburghshire:

The days after Christmas we climbed Rubers Law. We started in the village of Denholm, parking by the green, a single rugby goalpost for practice.

Above the village a muddy, but frozen track led to a forest, from where we could see our objective: Rubers Law, a miniature peak rising 340m above the village.

The snow deepened and we made our first snowballs of the year, before climbing to a stand of trees with a magical outlook over Teviotdale.

From the top The Cheviot came into view and the whole range of snowclad Cheviot Hills on the southern horizon, marking the border with England.

What a glorious place to be! If this would be our last decent walk of 2017 (it wasn't - we also went to St Abbs Head) then it was a cracker to end the year on.

Descending Rubers Law:

May 2018 bring you much joy and interest: I certainly intend that to be the case for me.