Friday, 13 January 2017

How Scottish is the Kilt?

I was walking down Argyle Street in Glasgow one Sunday morning with a bear of a hangover, having been to a football match the day before. We had wound up at a party after the game and I was only now heading home. I eventually became aware of being kerb crawled... by a bus.

I looked up. Half a dozen panoramic windows of Japanese tourists were hitting me with a full broadside of camera action. WTF?

Did I say I was walking down Argyle Street? The truth is I was marching down Argyle Street. In fact even with a head full of hammers I was schwinging my way down Argyle Street. I couldn't help it. I was wearing my kilt.

In my kilt:

What makes the kilt so potent? Clap a kilt on any moderately vigorous man and you impel him to stride out. There is a tactile pleasure in the feeling of rough cloth on naked thigh, the swinging of the material in rythmn with your stride... a kilt is not a garment to sit around in. And one purpose of the sporran, I have often thought, is to weigh down erections when dancing with a lady.

And it is a martial and manly garb. Kilt wearers are (sub)consciously following in the footsteps of the Jacobite rebels who put London in a panic. Soon after, Highland regiments were the shock troops of the British Empire. Men in kilts stormed the seemingly impregnable heights of Quebec; they fought against Napoleon, formed the thin red line in Crimea and raced to raise the seige of Cawnpore and Lucknow in the Indian Mutiny. A kilt was the Victorian equivalent of a green beret.

This heady mix of sex and violence is something few other national costumes boast - consider how an otherwise handsome man looks in lederhosen or the morris dancing outfit, for example.

But is the kilt really the ancient garb of Scotland? When did people start wearing them? Because by one interpretation, the kilt was invented in the 18th century by an Englishman.

Before you choke on your porridge, let me explain.

Plaid has been around for a long time. The ancient Celts who originated on the northern slopes of the Alps had checked cloth, and when they migrated to Britain it came with them. The oldest extant piece of Scottish plaid was found in Falkirk and dates from around AD 235. So tartan did not originate in Scotland, but it has been here longer than 'Scotland' has been.

And kilts were garments worn by many ancient people - Egyptians, Roman legionnaires, the ancient Greeks. The ancient Britons may perhaps have worn tartan breeks rather than kilts, but Pictish stones show that kilted designs weren't unknown.

Early kilts:

But look closer at the classic image of a clansman. The kilt he wears is a different garment to what we have today. The féileadh-mór (big plaid), is a large piece of cloth wound round the waist with the rest thrown over the shoulder and secured with a broch. It doubled up as a blanket for sleeping in and was discarded entirely in the heat of battle (yes, Highland clansmen fought battles wearing nothing but their shirts).

The modern kilt, or féileadh-beag (small plaid), is too small to sleep in and only goes round the waist, without the shoulder element. Tradition has it that this garment was designed by Thomas Rawlinson, an Englishman in partnership with Ian Macdonnell of Glengarry in the charcoal business. He realised that the philamore was interfering with the smooth operation of machinery and in 1720 designed the cut-down philabeg - which Macdonnell of Glengarry himself wore and popularised.

When the Jacobite Highlanders marched on London in 1745, they wore philamores. In the aftermath of Culloden, the kilt was seen as such a subversive garment that wearing it was made illegal. By the time the ban was rescinded and Highland regiments had distinguished themselves in the service of the Empire, the soldiers' garment of choice had become the philabeg. The royal seal of approval came when George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822, wearing a philabeg (and flesh-coloured tights) designed by Sir Walter Scott.

And so yes, the kilt is an entirely Scottish garment. But one with an intriguing English twist...

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

4 Reasons Why You Must Climb a Scottish Hill at New Year

  1. You start the year on a positive note, exercising in the fresh air.
  2. By committing to climbing a hill on New Years' Day, you moderate Hogmanay drinking and avoid the regrets next day.
  3. You meet old friends and have a great natter.
  4. You get to be somewhere incredible like this:
Climbing Beinn Ime, Arrochar:

Like this:

Or this:

If you were on holiday, wouldn't this be your new Facebook picture? A place just an hour from Glasgow?

So How Can You Climb a Scottish Hill for New Year?
  1. Find a local who likes to climb hills (quite a large group).
  2. Find a local who likes to climb hills and intends to stay sober on Hogmanay (a slightly smaller group).
  3. Have basic equipment (boots, waterproof, warm clothes, map, compass, food) and fitness.
  4. Cross your fingers for good weather (nobody likes climbing a hill in a howling gale and horizontal hail).
Descending Beinn Ime:

Safety note! There are also reasons why you must *not* climb a Scottish hill at New Year...
  1. You've got a crushing hangover and would rather die than drive an hour to some of the best scenery in Europe.
  2. The weather forecast isn't perfect - most Scottish hills aren't too dangerous in good weather, but in high winds, driving rain or snow, they are killers.
  3. You don't like cold, wet, strong winds, hard exercise, pain, avalanches, or blisters.
  4. You are alone - I love solo walking but the extra risks of winter beg the safety margin of companionship.
  5. You can't use a map. Most problems in the hills start with navigational errors.
  6. You're unfit or aren't well equipped.
  7. You've set off late in the day. If it is lunchtime and you haven't started yet, maybe do a shorter walk than a Munro? I love a summit sunset but the pay-off is descent in the dark.
These safety notes apply mainly to Munros and Corbetts - you can happily climb other hills like the Pentlands with little experience.

So why wait? If you are going to experience Scotland properly, you need to have climbed a hill!

Heading towards Beinn Ime, Arrochar:

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Memory of the Year, 2016

There have been some great trips this year. Orkney in February. Mull in October. A washed out walk in pissing rain across Rannoch Moor, great mainly in retrospect. Solo backpacking in Fisherfield.

But the year has been marked by trips I didn't do for various reasons... the pub to pub traverse of Glencoe. A trip to the Cuillin of Skye. Bad weather seems to have dogged my plans all year.

The Edinburgh touch squad:

But the big memory from 2016 is not an individual event, more an ongoing process of change. I got a new job, had a taste of touch rugby at a higher level, smashed all my race PBs, made positive progress for the first time in years on my next book, trained in digital leadership and meditation, stopped getting hangovers, gained focus on my goals, ditched other commitments that weren't working for me, started mentoring others and am being mentored myself. The seeds have been sown for 2017 being an amazing year.

So this is more a forward projection into 2017 than a memory. I'd love to bring all my various interests into harmony. I am interested in history, the outdoors, writing, citizen engagement, Scotland, and new digital technologies. And I'd love to get together with you to talk through ideas in any of these areas. If that sounds like you, drop me a line in the comments or email me craig at loveofscotland dot com and let's do something amazing together!

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Presidents of the United States

How many Presidents of the United States of America have Scottish ancestry? It is perhaps both more, yet fewer, than you think.
For example there is a list that states that an incredible 23 of 43 US Presidents have Scottish ancestry. But most of the bloodlines are pretty thin. Whilst a number have Scottish great-grandparents, or grandparents whose families had settled in Ulster from Scotland, only two US Presidents qualify for the honour of representing Scotland at international football through FIFA's grandfather rule. Those two Presidents are Woodrow Wilson - and Donald Trump.

The Donald does not even have to go back to his grandparents to pull on the dark blue jersey with the lion rampant. Trump's mother was from Tong in Lewis, which makes him the most Scottish person ever to lead the USA.
No need to thank us.

Now Trump's own relationship with Scotland has been mixed. All seemed great at first when he visited the maternal homeland with a business plan. First Jack McConnell, then Alex Salmond were swept off their feet by Trump's considerable dynamism, allowing the best golf course in the world to be built on the dunes of Balmedie, despite opposition from environmentalists and the people who were already living on the land. But Salmond fell foul of Trump when the toupéd Twitterer discovered plans for an offshore wind farm visible from Balmedie. And well before then, questions were asked about how keen the government had been to please the American tycoon, whose unneighbourly behaviour was documented in You've Been Trumped.

Trump's second golf course in Scotland - Turnberry:

Then Nicola Sturgeon antagonised relations further, publicly castigating Trump's election stump comments about women, Muslims and Mexicans. She removed his Global Scot status. The President-Elect was undeterred, who by now had also bought the famous old golf course Royal Turnberry. (Renaming it Trump Turnberry.) When Trump visited the course in a blizzard of publicity on 24 June this year, he congratulated Scotland in voting for Brexit, despite the opposite being the case. 'Scottish Twitter' replied with ripely surreal insults.

When Barack Obama became president, the people of Kenya's pride was piqued that his father was one of them. By contrast the people of Mary Anne MacLeod, mother of the next President of the USA, have elected to brand her son a 'cheeto-faced shitgibbon'. But you know, insults like that aren't meted out to just anybody.

It's almost a tribute.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

How Welsh is Scotland?

One of the earliest surviving Welsh texts, Y Gododdin, describes a war raid on the Angles. 300 warriors under Mynyddog Mwynfawr feasted for a year, fell on an overwhelmingly superior army of Angles near the Pennines, and were slaughtered.

But here's the thing. You're probably imagining this war band riding out from a mountain eyrie like Snowdownia. I did when I first heard of it. But no! The first Welsh text was written by a man called Aneirin from Din Eidyn. Din Eidyn is better known today as Edinburgh. Today Aneirin would be considered a Scot!

But there was no such thing as Scotland in those days. Up to the middle of the 7th century, the Ancient Britons were the dominant culture in what is now Southern Scotland. The language that most closely matches their old Brythonic tounge is not Scots, Gaelic, or English, but modern-day Welsh. It is found in place names like Penicuik, Lanark, Penrith, Glasgow, Cramond, Caerlaverock, Traquhair, or Carlisle.

The story of Scotland is sometimes told as a cultural battle between two opposing factions, the English-speaking Lowlands and the Gaelic-speaking Highlands. Told like this, other stories are silenced. The Vikings of the islands. The Picts north of the Forth. But the most forgotten voice is an Old Welsh one. It is the voice of the Lowlands before the Angles came.

Glasgow Cathedral: founded by a 'Welshman'.

Yet the stories are arguably the most colourful in the whole legendary history of Britain, able to stand comparison with the rich lore of old Ireland. Old King Cole? Arthur and Merlin? The Three Futile Battles of Britain? The Praise of Urien and the Excoration of Maelgwn? These are the stories of what is now Southern Scotland and the English border. The three great named early writers were Aneirin, Taliesin, Gildas, who came from Edinburgh, Carlisle, and Dumbarton.

You will struggle to find Scots aware of any of these stories except perhaps the later, medieval retellings of Arthurian legend which relocate the action to the West Country. But if you are Scottish (or indeed English), these stories of the native Britons are as much your heritage as they are of the people of Wales...

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?