Tuesday 28 September 2010

Greenock and Lyle Hill

Situated on a steep north-facing slope, Greenock recieves more rain than anywhere else in the Lowlands. It is the heart of Inverclyde - one of the most deprived areas in Scotland. It was once one of Britain's major ports - hundreds if not thousands of emigrant ships sailed for the New World from Greenock, and it was the major landing point for Glasgow before the dredging of the Clyde. It has a particularly handsome town hall, built at the height of its prosperity, and is the home town of James Watt and the pirate Captain Kidd. There is still a shipyard (Fergusons) in the area, and plenty of freight activity, but the tide of economic activity has receeded from Greenock; leaving behind, similar to many former mining villages, a larger population than the local economy can usefully employ. But still people stick it out in Greenock, hoping to transform the town and ensure a good future for the area.

And, you may ask, why shouldn't they? When the road above town has a view like this?

Clyde from Lyle Hill:

Friday 17 September 2010

Approaching Shetland

Shetland is the most beautiful place in Britain.

An April storm. We had been at sea in winds of up to force 10 for a week, sitting on station 62 degrees north in the Norweigan Sector, unable to do any survey work due to the bad weather. It was my first trip offshore and I had been seasick since leaving Aberdeen, subsisting on water and plain toast. Everyone on the boat was at a low ebb. The boat's video library included a Nicholas Cage film set in Las Vegas. I thought I had heard of it, it had parachuting Elvises - just what was needed! I put it on. But it wasn't Honeymoon in Vegas. It was Leaving Las Vegas, where Nicholas Cage drinks himself to death. The mood was even flatter afterwards. Eventually one of the boat's engines broke down, and we ran for port. I wedged myself in my bunk and tried to sleep, rolling from side to side.

I woke just after dawn. The sea was blue emollient. A sun-bronzed moor and cliff rose, widened, filled the whole western horizon. Not a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky. The hills of south Shetland were beautiful. Such colour, such variety! Did I not want to jump ship and stride out for a walk on those moors! The earthy land smells were intoxicating after a week of diesel, brine and vomit. I began to wonder that perhaps the offshore life was not for me.

Shetland croft:

Now some people might think that Shetland is bleak, barren, treeless, and storm-swept. But after a week at sea I had rarely seen anywhere more beautiful than this sanctuary from the battering ocean.

Monday 13 September 2010

The Pope's Visit to Bellahouston

What is most remarkable is that the Pope should come to Scotland at all.

Scotland was one of the most enthusiastic of Protestant nations. In 1560 Parliament was taken over by men who proclaimed a Presbyterian commonwealth.

These prophets were not practicioners of the bloated Episcopal flavour of Protestantism favoured by the English, with its bishops, decorated churches and human head (the monarch); but were of a stricter essentialist Protestantism of the puritan variety, Presbyterianism, that venerated only the word of God as manifested in the Bible, and supressed of all other expressions of piety like art or music.

This caused divisions within both Scotland and Britain, for fully half of Scotland remained either Episcopalian - mainly Aberdeenshire and Angus, or Catholic - the Western Highlands. Presbyterians fought against English Episcopalians in the religious wars of the 17th century. Ironically it was only with the 1707 Act of Union that Scottish Presbyterians felt their position secure, as one of the main carrots in the articles of Union guaranteed that Scotland could keep Presbyterianism as its established, state-sanctioned religion, free from the meddling by Episcopalians that had caused so much strife in the 17th century.

This did not stop war or prejudice: it merely strenthened the hand of the Presbyterians. Scottish Episcopalians and Catholics supported the return of the Catholic Stuart monarchs in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745, and the repression visited upon the Highlands in the aftermath of the '45 resonates to this day.

There things would have stood, with Presbyterianism triumphant: but thousands of hungry and poorly educated Irish Catholics were drawn for work to Glasgow and its surrounds in the 19th century. These people were treated as second class citizens, and the nationalism popular across Europe at the dawn of the 20th century manifested itself in Glasgow as an anti-Irish prejudice, with southwest Scotland's historic opposition to Catholicism as its fuel, the flames fanned by some ministers of the Church of Scotland.

Things reached the point that a Catholic congress on 25 June 1935 in Morningside attracted a stone-throwing mob of 10,000 of John Cormack's group Protestant Action. They had to be dispersed by police baton charges. In Morningside!

Fortunately for Scotland's Catholics, the British government paid little attention to the fears of the Church of Scotland, and the rise of nationalism in Germany brought home the evils of such attitudes. By the end of the Second World War, the Church of Scotland had transformed itself.

However, relations between the two sides were soured for well over a generation. Home Rule for Scotland, flagship policy of the Liberals and one of the founding principles of the Labour Party, was attacked from both sides. Presbyterians, mindful of the disloyalty to Britain of Irish Home Rulers and nationalists, had their fears stimulated with the slogan 'Home Rule is Rome Rule.' Meanwhile the working class Catholics who formed the base of the Labour Party asked themselves - did they really want more political power for a country whose national church wanted them kicked out? Better to be ruled by the disinterested English than the bigoted Scots.

Even today Catholics in Glasgow can imagine themselves persecuted against. The oppression is all in the mind, if persistent: witness Celtic Park flying the flag of Palestine, with Rangers fans reciprocating by flying the flag of Israel, perpetuating, if only in symbolic form, a victim:aggressor relationship.

What is significant about the visit of the Pope is that there is space in such a country for his visit. There are two sides of Scotland: all that is wild, generous, mythical about Scotland can be stereotyped as Catholic and Jacobite: all that is sceptical, hard-working, sober as Presbyterian and Whig. These two forces have long existed in tension, but in an age where few people now care for religion, can they be reconciled to the benefit of all Scotland?