Thursday, 22 September 2016

Lessons from the Bishops' War

Britain in 1638 was a powderkeg awaiting a spark. In Scotland King Charles I had, in the teeth of local Presbyterian opinion, decreed that all religion must follow the Book of Common Prayer. This was a high-Anglican pattern book that had been introduced into churches in England.

The spark had a name - Jenny Geddes. A market stall owner in Edinburgh's High Street, the minister in St Giles Kirk had barely begun reading from the new book when she flung a stool at his head, shouting:

"daur ye say Mass in my lug?"

And all hell broke loose.

In an act of fundamental rebellion against the King, Scots refused to accept the new Prayer Book. They signed the National Covenant in their droves. Today this long document makes a turgid read. There is no uplifting take-away phrase from the National Covenant, no 'we hold these truths to be self-evident', no 'liberté, égalité, fraternité', no 'for so long as a hundred of us remain alive', just a rambling furrow of Catholic-bashing. But at the time it was revolutionary, mass printing and widespread literacy enabling the population, for the first time ever, the tools to question their superiors and demand a better, more populist, more Godly rule. Archibald Johnston of Warriston was ecstatic. It was:

"the glorious marriage day of the Kingdom with God."

In the meantime, English Puritans weren't happy either with the pomp, circumstance, and knee-bending to authority that was inherent in Episcopalianism, the halfway-house brand of Protestantism that had been founded in England by Henry VIII and enthusiastically endorsed by royalty ever since. Charles I was a fan of course, and wished to bring Protestantism to new aesthetic heights. Many of Charles' MPs at Westminster opposed his plans, which he dealt with through the simple expedient of dissolving Parliament. As Parliament was the mechanism by which royalty raised money, Charles now had to raise funds by other, exceptionally unpopular means. But with the Scots rebelling, he realised he needed even more money to pay for an army to face them. Reluctantly, he recalled Parliament. They immediately presented him with a list of grievances and refused to fund him until their demands were met. Charles promptly dissolved Parliament again.

However where the English were divided, the Scots were united. Charles raised a motley army of 20,000 unmotivated men to face the Scots. In contrast General Leslie led a Scottish army of 12,000, who had been recalled from the Continent where they had been hardened as mercenaries fighting religious wars against Catholics. The fighting in the Bishops' War was desultory - neither side really wanted to hurt the other - but the result decisive. The Scots occupied Newcastle and issued quixotic demands to the English Parliament.

Because in the aftermath of victory it was clear to Scottish Presbyterians that Scots were the chosen nation, like Israelites in the days of old. As demonstrated by victory in the Bishops' War, it was manifestly God's will that the rest of the world - starting with England - should follow Scotland's lead in making Presbyterianism compulsory. Treaties were made with the English Parliament, who desperately needed the help of the Scottish army against Charles. But the English Parliament had neither the intent nor the ability to seriously enforce Presbyterianism on their countrymen.

In a time of rapidly shifting politics, it is striking that today England is again divided and chaotic over a fundamental issue, whereas Scotland is relatively united and well-led and would, if it could, impose its will on England for its own good. It is a situation where progressive opinion on both sides of the border has a common cause. There are massive opportunities for Scotland to gain from this situation. But it would behoove any Scottish leader to be aware of the risks too. For if we are looking back at history as any kind of guide...

The ultimate result of the events kicked off by Jenny Geddes was the military occupation of Cromwell.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

When Women Ruled

It's a town straggling eastwards down a hill with a castle on top. Edinburgh? Stirling? No - Clackmannan. The town gets its name (Clach Mannan = Mannan Stone in Gaelic) from the stone raised on a plinth outside the old tollbooth.

The Mannan Stone:

I was keen to see the Mannan Stone and visited this hilltop village after the Stirling 10k. There's a Co-op... a post office... a pub... some sheltered housing... otherwise, there is not much going on in Clackmannan. But oh, there's a story in the old stone!

Central Clackmannan:

This ancient fetish object was a ceremonial centrepiece for the people of Manau, the Maetae, the tribe who lived in this area during Roman times. The name of one chief is even recorded for posterity - Argentocoxus. It was he and his wife (whose name is sadly unknown) who submitted to Emperor Severus and his wife Julia in 209, when Severus brought the largest army Britain had ever seen to Caledonia to subdue his troublesome northernmost frontier.

Clackmannan vista:

As the men parleyed, the women had their own conversation. It was a memorable exchange. Julia questioned Argentocoxus' wife's virtue by referencing the fact she slept with the warriors of the tribe. The reply was stinging.
"I proudly sleep with the best of men in full public knowledge, while you skulk in secret with the worst." (Julia was rumoured to be having an affair with a senator.)
Because there is something worth knowing about the women of ancient Britain and Ireland. True, they lived in a man's world - but it was a very different world to that of the Continent, where women were treated as property of their fathers or husbands. Women in Britain and Ireland could own property in their own right - they could divorce on fourteen grounds from physical cruelty to male impotence - and they could occasionally lead tribes and armies, as Boudicca, Cartimandua, Maeve and Sgàthach attest. And - what really excited writers from the Mediterranean - they openly slept around. This practice died out in Roman dominated Britannia, but was clearly still in full swing in the Pictish lands outside Roman influence.

Clackmannan Castle:

And this leads to an interesting speculation, one that I've never seen in any history book. Beyond any moral implications, there is a very good practical reason to promote monogamy. Where this reason doesn't exist - the island of Tahiti before the arrival of Europeans for example - society can be structured quite differently. Could it be that as well as rabbits and aqueducts, there is something else the Romans introduced to Britain - sexually transmitted diseases?

Monday, 8 August 2016

Beinn a' Ghlo in the Pissing Rain

It would be the height of folly to climb the Aonach Eagach in Glencoe whilst drunk. This isn't the aim of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse - just one pint in the Kingshouse, which should be sweated sober well before tackling the Aggy Ridge's scary bits, then a final triumphal pint in the Clachaig - a fun challenge combining Glencoe's two famous hostelries plus her most notorious ridge traverse.

The Aonach Eagach on a dry day:

So doing the Aonach Eagach drunk is not the purpose of the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse at all. But there are safety limits. And they have more to do with the weather than the booze. The height of folly is attempting the Aonach Eagach at all - whatever your state of sobriety - with rain and gales forecast.

Between showers:

And that's how we ended up on Beinn a'Ghlo in Perthshire in high winds and pissing rain.

Beinn a'Ghlo is one of the best-known hills in Scotland, familiar to anyone who has driven up the A9. Its rounded bulks dominate the view of Blair Castle and the Pass of Killicrankie. Its access path forms a distinctive white scar from a distance, as thousands of boots over the years have worn the dark peaty moorland away to expose the quartzite bedrock beneath.

Fungal flora of the moor:

The path is so obvious from afar I assumed we would see it from near to hand. However low clouds caused confusion and we marched right past the traditional start of the walk, followed by a couple who had perhaps been fooled by our confident manner. We walked the hill anti-clockwise, the long bash through heather tackled first, rather than last.

But this was no hardship: I am sure the last time I was here (twenty three years ago!) there was no such path as this, and the going was easy, rather than the scratchy heather slog I vaguely remember from my youth. Today the heather was in full bloom.

I did recall the delicious tasting water, and we thirstily drank our fill from the stream. Soft and fresh, running through peat over granite, the very waters of life.

Fresh waters, source of whisky:

As we started on the climb, the rain stopped. Might we be in luck? Would there be a view from the summit?

Graham contemplates more ascent:

It started to clear. We could nearly see the top!

But no. We were being toyed with. The clouds closed in again and the rain came on, the wind rising.

Summit selfie:

Beinn a'Ghlo is not just one hill but a small massif, containing three Munros, a number of smaller tops, and a great deal of flowing, rounded ridges. A random fact that has stuck in my head is that Beinn a'Ghlo has nineteen corries, and a gun fired in any cannot be heard in any other. Now there's a sporting fact!

En-route to the second Munro:

The weather had turned foul but there was plenty to see close by as Perthshire is richer in wildlife than Glencoe. Through the mists we saw raven, mountain hare, ptarmigan, deer, wheatears. A grouse in its panic exploded at my feet and flew straight into me, before flapping off in a flurry of squawking and feathers.

Before the steep descent back to the access track we were treated to a final visual treat as a brief break in the clouds brought a rainbow.

It had been a grand day out in good company, a satisfying exertion over three Munros - the first time I'd been over more than one in a single walk since the Crianlarich hills in May 2014. Would the Glencoe Pub to Pub Traverse have been as enjoyable? I would have to try again another time to find out!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Puffin Island

Thousands of Puffins. Thousands of them! And they are right there in front of you. Literally at your feet.

You approach Skomer hoping that you might see a puffin or two. A dozen maybe would be quite a result. They start appearing before you even land.

Out at sea, fishing, returning to their burrows...

And then you realise just how many of them there are...


Skomer is internationally important for its Manx Shearwater population. 'So what?' is the general reaction. When there are so many puffins on the island to see instead!

If you compare ease with reward, a trip to Skomer is about the best wildlife trip you can do in Britain. A ferry takes you to the island from the Pembrokeshire mainland, with the instruction that you have to be back five hours later. Will this be too much time on the island, which is only two and a half kilometres across? In fact, it is nowhere near enough time.

Because there are ten thousand puffins to watch.


There's seals, and seagulls, and gannets, and various other creatures too. But there is just one star for 90-odd percent of visitors.

I have a confession. On my site is a picture of a puffin. But it wasn't taken in Scotland. It was taken on Skomer. A puffin's a puffin, right? But there is nowhere in Scotland I know of that combines the accessibility of Skomer with the sheer wonder of THOUSANDS OF PUFFINS JUST FEET AWAY!!!!

Yes the puffins come this close:

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Appeal of Sir Benfro

You like Cornwall, but not its summer crowds? Well the great news is there's a solution just across the Bristol Channel -  Pembrokeshire.

Like Cornwall, Pembrokeshire - Sir Benfro in Welsh - is a county of surfing beaches:

Quaint creeks like Solva:

A rugged coast:

Moorland walks with Marilyns and prehistoric remains (Mynydd Carningli):

A county town with a cathedral (atmospheric sea fog in St Davids):

Lurid summer flora:

And like Cornwall with the South West Coastal Path - and the main attraction for us - Pembrokeshire has its own coastal path girdling the county. Over and above that, there are some very interesting islands to explore, something Cornwall can't boast.

Given the vast popularity of Cornwall, it's a mystery to me why Pembrokeshire isn't hoaching with more tourists...

Whitesands Bay gloaming:

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Dunnottar Castle

At the eastern end of the Highland Boundary Fault a stone fist punches out to the North Sea. The Highlands squeeze the Lowlands to a narrow coastal strip at Stonehaven and, just at its narrowest point, geology has provided a near-impregnable citadel of rock, surrounded on three sides by the sea. On top of this rock sits Dunnottar, the Stirling Castle of Aberdeenshire.


Dunnottar entered written history in 680, when it was beseiged by King Bridei mac Bili, a Moray man who was in the process of reuniting the Picts after their defeat at the hands of the Angles of Northumbria.

(The history of the Picts is the great unknown story of Scotland. Between the departure of the Romans from Britain in 410 and the slow consolidation of the new country around 900 a huge amount happened. A dynamic patchwork of rivalries and small kingdoms fought across Britain and Ireland. There were invasions of Scots, Angles, Saxons, and Vikings. In those days monarchs had fantastic names like Eadbert, Rienmelth, Urien, Talorcan, Sigurd the Mighty. Saints in the newly-introduced Christian religion travelled the land performing miracles. But there is no compelling narrative of the period for history fans to enjoy. The events were too many, the sources too patchy.)

Honours of Scotland (source,

The castle was prominent in other sieges of the middle ages, but its most famous moment came in the 1650s. Charles II had been defeated at Worcester in 1651 and had fled to France. Cromwell invaded Scotland, determined to get his hands on the Honours of Scotland - a crown, sceptre, and sword used in the coronation ceremony - and destroy them as he had done the English crown jewels. Rumour had it they were in Dunnottar. The siege took eight months, and in May 1652 Dunnottar became the last place in Britain or Ireland to fall to Cromwell. But where were the Honours? They had gone!

After Cromwell's death all became clear. They had been spirited out by the wife of the minister of nearby Kinneff Kirk, whom the English had allowed in to administer to the garrison's spiritual needs. When Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne, the Honours were restored.

Kinneff Kirk (By Martyn Gorman, CC BY-SA 2.0):

Dunnottar is deceptively large. After going through the gatehouse the full extent of the castle site is revealed, sloping gently towards the east. It makes a great visit. When you consider the number of armies from the 7th to the 17th centuries which have besieged Dunnottar, it is a modern miracle that these days anybody can pay their small entry fee and walk around unmolested.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Will the UK Survive Brexit?

I have supported independence most of my adult life. The reason is mundane - it's because I am Scottish. Now there are people who think that supporting self-determination is small-minded. And it is only natural for people who feel British, rather than Scottish, to think so. That's hardly surprising; but wanting your country to run its own affairs, and being outward-minded, do not have to be mutually exclusive. There are uncertainties about finances of course, with claim and counter-claim. But taking a step back and looking at the fundamentals shows that (provided we avoid electing numpties which is a whole other issue) there's no reason an independent Scotland cannot thrive.

No reason except one.

Uh oh - EU Referendum results:

There is and always has been one key pre-requisite for Scottish success, whether inside or outside the UK, and that is good relations with England. The days of cross-border peace before the 14th century Wars of Independence were prosperous, as was the age of the British Empire when we were inside the tent, pissing out. But between the 1300s and the first Jacobite rising, life in Scotland was often a struggle for survival in the face of hostile English attention. The tone of England's relations with its neighbours is key to their security and prosperity.

Membership of the EU and NATO altered that. One guarantees trade, the other physical security. Small European countries flourish in a way that was impossible in the 19th century, when they were gobbled up by empires. And while the consensus now seems to be that Brexit will trigger Scottish independence, I am not so sure. England and Wales being out of the EU is a problem for Scotland. While everyone else rushes to the Indyref 2 banner, I'd rather see how things pan out first.

Perhaps there is now no way of avoiding a period of awkward relations with the rest of the UK. If so that would be a shame. And it would be an ironically Scottish outcome - similar to the failure of the 18th century Scottish elites to rebrand England as 'south Britain' - to gain independence not through a self-empowered choice, but by England declaring it first...