Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who Stole St Andrew?

It would be disappointing if a land of myths and legends like Scotland didn't have a few Patron Saint stories. Fear not!

Because in the first half of the 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine planned to move the bones of St Andrew from their resting place at Patras in Greece to the city of Byzantium - a city he'd renamed Constantinople in his honour.

And people consider 'Trump Tower' a vanity!

A monk called St Rule learned of Constantine's plans in a dream. The dream also told St Rule what to do - move the bones to 'the extremity of the earth'. So that's how he wound up in the East Neuk of Fife with three fingers of St Andrew's right hand, the upper bone of an arm, one kneecap, and one of his teeth. (It is a little known fact that a piece of the saint's shoulder is held today in St Mary's in Edinburgh, gifted by the Bishop of Amalfi in 1870.)

Another legend is that Oengus, King of Picts, faced a Northumbrian army under Athelstan at Athelstaneford in 836. Oengus knelt and prayed to St Andrew, and in reply saw the divine sign of two white clouds crossed in a blue sky. Oengus won the battle and made the Saltire the national flag of Scotland.

Plaque at Athelstaneford © Copyright Lisa Jarvis at Geograph

So did St Andrew's bones arrive on Fife's shores in the 4th century? Did King Oengus win a great battle against his Northumbrian foes? Here's what most likely happened.

In the early 8th century, King Nechtan of the Picts wrote to abbots in Northumbria seeking assistance in building a church 'in the Roman style'. There were monks in Pictland but they were Culdees, aesthetic followers of St Columba bound to none but God, and Nechtan wanted more control over the church. He had a church dedicated to St Peter built at Restenneth and another dedicated to St Andrew at the Culdee site Kilrymont. To set up his new church of St Andrew, monks came from St Andrew's in Hexham and in 717 the Culdees were evicted. There is no historical record of St Andrew at the site before then.

And what about King Oengus? The legend may be true in spirit. But... Oengus died in 834. Scotland hadn't been born then. So the interesting inference is that the Scottish kingdom inherited the Saltire as an existing symbol from the Picts. Oengus' opponent is clearly called Athelstan in the story. But while there were a couple of Athelstans of Northumbria, neither lived at the same time as Oengus. And in those days East Lothian was part of Northumbria - Oengus was leading an invasion, not defending a homeland.

Every old country has legendary origins. But on inspecting the historical evidence, the real story of St Andrew in Scotland is based less on dodging Roman Emperors and kicking Northumbrian ass, and more on building Roman churches through enlisting Northumbrian help.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Ulva - Part 2, the Coast

One description of Ulva is that it has the best examples of columnar basalt outside Staffa. Keen to see this, we pressed on beyond the landing point and lush policies near the pier where you arrive on Ulva.

The columnar basalt was clear, although I expected something more. Perhaps the farthest, southwestern end of Ulva holds the real treasures?

It is a fascinating coast all the same. Complicated low cliffs, broken away to form little castles and redoubts all along the shoreline.

There are still trees along here, not quite as lush as around Ulva House yet in possession of an atmosphere of enchantment.

Tiered volcanic escarpments form south-facing suntraps, creating a 'lost world' microclimate. Huge toadstools grew in woody banks, the windswept, knarled hazel trees hugging the cliffs and hiding creatures from our view. We startled a number of deer hinds whilst buzzards plied the thermals and, in the distance - and at one occasion, not quite so distant - we could see the stags.

Stag and buzzard:

This side of Ulva is thick with abandoned dwellings. One was the ancestral home of explorer David Livingstone.

What an outlook the family had! Making a living here would breed resourcefulness.

Another abandoned village, Ormaig, was home to Lachlan MacQuarrie, a key figure in the development of Australia from a penal colony to a free country. Shortly after Lachlan's time, the population of Ulva was to grow to an unsustainable 859. Today it has swung to the opposite extreme, with only 11 inhabitants and no paved roads. At Ormaig today, the main activity was the rutting and roaring of red deer stags.

View over Ormaig:

We walked back from Ormaig along the island's main track, a high promenade with distant views of Ben More.

This is an incredible place, as exotic in its own way as a Mediterranean holiday. Would we really be back in our own home in the Central Belt just a few hours later?

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Ulva - Part 1, Arrival

Mull is a large island overshadowed in fame by its smaller neighbours - both Staffa and Iona are reknowned internationally.

But there is one island just off Mull that is far less well-known - Ulva. We decided to visit this beautiful spot when on Mull for a few days.

Ulva Pier:

Accessing Ulva is pretty fuss-free, if you are at the pier between the right times. Simply hail the ferry by sliding the indicator board to red. Unlike mainland-based Calmac boats though the Ulva ferry
lives on Ulva. Bear that in mind in case you are stuck on the island!

Arrival is cheery - the boathouse..

Sheila's Cottage:

We went inside and said hello to Sheila. She was the last resident of this cottage, living here until the 1950s.

This part of Ulva is pretty, but it is not immune to the juxtaposition of natural beauty and manufactured ugliness that Jonathan Meades characterised, with some enthusiasm, as  'The Isles of Rust'.

There were other, more picturesque ruins. There is something about the shape of a boat that is beautiful no matter what state it is in.

Between the sea and the interior, delightful woods drew us on.

These woods are utterly enchanting. Lush, dense, quite unlike the Hebridean stereotype. We took a green lane heading towards the sea and wondered what we would find. But that will be in Part 2...

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Calgary Bay

Mull is an island of surprises to the person who assumes it is all about climbing Ben More, visiting Iona, spotting an otter and going home. To the person like me, for example.

Calgary Bay:

And one of the things we did not know about Mull is its collection of fine beaches. There are superb beaches at the tidal island of Erraid for example, we knew about that. And there are other beaches tucked away on the Ross of Mull.

Beach at Fidden, Mull:

But we did not know about the beaches of North Mull, the superb Langamull beach for example. And we had never been to the only one that is widely known beyond Mull - Calgary Bay.

On arriving we discovered a wonderful sculpture trail, Calgary Art in Nature. It is free to wander round with donations accepted.

Here's a clever metal pea-pod with beach boulders for peas:

The trail is set in a beautiful wood tumbling down the hillside from the cafe to the shore.

Ferns real,

and imagined...

At the edge of the wood the sun came out and we could see the beach below us.

There is something special about these pockets of ancient, windswept woodland that run the length of Britain and Ireland's west coasts.

At the edge of the North Atlantic Rainforest:

The 'golden hour' was just passed as we reached the beach. A fine sunset instead.

The house in the distance is Calgary House. Lt-Col James Macleod, Hebridean-born Commissioner of the Mounties in the later 19th century, was inspired to christen the city of Calgary in Alberta in its honour having enjoyed excellent hospitality at Calgary House.

We are a long way from the gleaming city of over 1 million people here. The entire population of Mull is only 2,800. Only two of them were out on the beach with us on this fine sunset.

As we made our way back through the trees the trail took us past more sculptures. With stags roaring in the gloaming in the hills all around us the sculptures seemed to gain presence in the fading light, hurrying us back to our car.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

On Mull

We'd been to Mull before. Twice to visit Iona, I had been up Ben More a couple of times, and we had cycled down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Craignure on the last leg of an island-hopping holiday.

Duart Castle, Mull:

So we thought we'd seen Mull. But we we were wrong.

And of course we were! Mull is the fourth largest island in Scotland. From Fionnphort to Treshnish it's 65 miles, two and a quarter hours drive on Mull's single track roads. There's a couple of castles to visit, 27 Marilyns to climb, a galaxy of offshore islands including Iona and Staffa, one of the west coast's most picturesque villages, seacliffs, waterfalls, loch and forest walks, beautiful white sand beaches, and a whole load of wildlife.

In Mull's interior: Ben More:

We were keen to see some of this wildlife so asked Jacqui and Mike of Enjoy Mull to show us around. What a great investment that was! Without knowing where to look we would never have seen Mull's famous white-tailed eagles, despite their size. (Now the chicks have fledged, eagles spend most of their time hanging around in trees.) We watched a huge bird, up to a metre tall - imagine a bird of prey that tall standing next to you - perched on a tree, taken aback by its piercing glare.

"It seems to be staring right at us," we said.

"It has a better view of you than you do of it," replied Mike.

Our sea eagle:

There was an otter on Loch Spelve, geese and young stags at Loch Don, and herons. A lot of herons. If Mull is famous for anything, it probably should be herons.

Loch Don reflections:

And Mull is lush. There are woods all over Mull. Those on Loch na Keal and around Loch Ba are particularly entrancing.

Wooded croft at Aros:

We looked up to the hills. There are few paths on Mull, and while Ben More is popular, nobody really comes here to climb any other hills, despite this being a very hilly island. Why aren't these hills more popular? Standing on the shores of Loch na Keal with the late afternoon sun dappling their slopes, it seemed a great mystery.

Mull's neglected hills:

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Calmac Conundrum

We took the boat to Mull. It was important we arrived in Oban before the last ferry, so I consulted the timetable. And noticed something funny.

The last sailing of the day was back to the mainland.

On the last boat to Mull:

This is not a boat for the island. It is a boat to the island.

I looked at other timetables. Arran, Islay, Jura, Colonsay - the same pattern. The first boat of the day leaves the mainland, the last arrives on the mainland.

Am I alone in thinking this is the wrong way about? The impression is that the ferry to Mull is a service for the convenience of mainlanders. If a boat was needed for an emergency or other event, it is out of the islanders' power to do anything about it. It's not their boat. It's our boat. But we don't depend on a boat. We don't live on an island.

Are all Caledonian MacBrayne services like this? No. The boat from Ardnamurchan to Tobermory, for example, stays the night on Mull. It's just... one part of the mainland arguably more remote than the islands is Ardnamurchan. Tobermory is Oban when compared to Kilchoan.

The Calmac conundrum - a right maritime mystery!

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.