Friday, 1 February 2013

Free Beer and Chancellors

Alistair Moffat is one of my favourite historians. He makes bold assertions that more technically correct historians avoid like the plague (such as being definite about the site of the 603 Battle of Degsastan), but this taste for painting a clear picture helps the novice understand something of the periods he writes about in books like Before Scotland, The Sea Kingdoms, The Faded Map, or The Scots: A Genetic Journey. When I heard he was to give a free public talk at Loretto School, Musselburgh, I arranged to get tickets.

On Edinburgh doors open days past I have had a nosey round Fettes, Heriots, the Signet Library and the amazing Phoebe Traquair Centre. My nosiness to look inside normally inaccessible buildings is established. So the opportunity to see Alastair Moffat *and* look inside Loretto - alma mater of two of the most hapless chancellors of the 20th century, Norman Lamont and Alastair Darling - was irresistible. What would Loretto look like?

Pinkie House, Loretto (source, wikipedia):


The school was smaller than I expected, more couthy somehow. Pinkie House is the tower house of a middling 16th century aristocrat, rather than the vast, Hogwartian pile of Fettes.

Inside, the painted gallery was more Crathes than Versaillies, the wooden ceiling warped with age. A more interesting diversion during classes than the polystyrene tiles in my own school's ceilings, but a homelier venue than one or two other Edinburgh private schools.

Painted Gallery (source, John Wood):


The school's motto is an interesting one - 'Spartam nactus es, hanc exorna'. It is Latin, apparently mistranslated from a Greek play by Euripides, and means 'Sparta's yours, adorn that'. In the play the lines were said by the king of Argos to his wee brother the king of Sparta, when the wee brother was interfering in Argosian affairs. It has been interperted as 'make the most of what you've got'. Interesting that the aforementioned chancellors got into trouble because they were trying to make the most of what they did not have - surplus public money.

And so to the lecture! Alistair Moffat stood up in the painted gallery, made some jokes about Gala RFC's front row, and launched into an informative and entertaining talk without notes - a compelling story with just the right amount of technical detail and plenty of human interest. He would make a good TV presenter if he ever gave up the day job.

Alistair Moffat:


Did you know that 4,000 years ago, there was a mass injection of continental male DNA into Britain, with only 3% of today's men descended from Britain's earlier inhabitants (but a far larger proportion of women, about 40%). I didn't. Alistair explained it as a mass slaughter of male hunter gatherers 4,000 years ago by organised farmers who then took the remaining women (and introduced sheep at the same time), a forgotten genocide, a spilling of blood brought to notice only through the dry application of modern science. Afterwards it occurred to me that farming arrived in Britain far earlier than 4,000 years ago, but by then we had left the lecture. If you are at all interested in geneaology though, I can recommend his company, Scotland's DNA, where for a spit in a test tube and a few pounds you can find out if your great great granddaddy was a Viking, Taureag, Niall Noígíallach or Ghengis Khan.

Which is where the free beer comes in. Shortly after the lecture, I recieved a message I have been looking forward to for a while. I had signed up via a marketing company to help a brewery do market research for new products, and this market research involved being given half pints of beer and being asked to rate them. Now free beer sounds good - hence this post's title - but the reality was even better, something I still can't get my head round. I was paid to drink beer - paid to do it. I never even knew such work existed. OK, it is was one-off - but being paid to drink beer must be right up there near the top of all time dream jobs!

Paid - for this!

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