Friday 30 November 2012

The Stone of Destiny

What links these three sites: Moot Hill at Scone Palace, Westminster Abbey, and Edinburgh Castle? Any ideas? The answer is a slab of sandstone called the Stone of Destiny, upon which Scottish kings, and later, English then British monarchs, were crowned.

A replica of the Stone on Moot Hill:

The origins of the Stone are shrouded in myth and legend. The origin myth has it as the stone Jacob used as his pillow in the Old Testament story of Jacob's Ladder, the totem of the Scottish race, whose ancestors moved from Egypt to Spain then Ireland and Scotland, carrying the stone with them. I'm not sure how old this story is: it might be thirteenth or fourteenth century rather than from the Dark Ages. Quite a lot of history was invented in those days for political reasons. The story of a divine origin also has the flaw that geological analysis of the Stone has shown it to be very similar to outcrops near Scone Palace. It is very likely that the stone came not from the Middle East, but from Perthshire.

What is not in doubt however is that the Stone, which had been used in the coronation of Scottish kings at Scone Palace, was removed to Westminster Abbey in 1296 (along with the Black Rood and the state records of Scotland which were subsequently lost) and incorporated into a wooden throne.

Photography is not permitted in the Abbey but here is a photo I found on the internet...

The Coronation Chair in situ:

My favourite part of the story of the stone came in 1950 when four Glasgow University students, led by Ian Hamilton, broke into Westminster Abbey and reappropriated the stone. Hamilton wrote a book about their exploits - The Taking of the Stone of Destiny - and is still alive and blogs today. Hamilton took the stone to highlight the beleagured nature of Scottish culture. It was subsequently left at Arbroath Abbey and returned to Westminster, in time for the coronation of the Queen. Hamilton was never prosecuted for his crime.

And although the Stone of Destiny is a Scottish shibboleth, it spent 654 years in England from Edward's 1296 theft to Hamilton's 1950 removal. In contrast, it can have spent at most 453 years in Scotland, from Kenneth Macalpine's 843 ascent to the Pictish leadership, moving his base from Dalriada to Dunkeld, to 1296. It is as much part of English, and British, history, as it is of Scottish history.

But consider the old legend. According to Frenchman Jaques Cambray in the 19th century, the Stone bore the inscription in Latin: If fate not false, Scots bound to reign, where this stone located. It took 307 years, but James VI ascended the English throne in 1603. Then in 1996, unpopular Conservative Secretary of State Michael Forsyth arranged for it to be moved permanently back to Scotland, this time to Edinburgh Castle's crown room. It took only another three years for a Scottish Parliament to be reconvened. Perhaps there is magic in the Stone after all...

The Stone in Edinburgh Castle with the Honours of Scotland:

The best place to find out more about the various origin myths, and myths about the location of the real Stone, is in Pat Gerber's The Stone of Destiny.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Ben Rinnes and Whisky Country

The northeast - Moray and Buchan - is an area of Scotland I have only been discovering in the last few years. Growing up in Glasgow and fixated on the Munros, for me 'the east' started at Ben Alder and ended at Mount Keen. The A9 was the eastern limit of anything of interest between Aviemore and Inverness. (I once fell into conversation with an easterner from Grantown on Spey who indignantly informed me he was from the middle of the country.) Downstream of Abernethy forest on the Spey, or Balmoral on the Dee was an unexpolored country - 'here be flatness'.

But this previously neglected northeast is not flat, except on the Moray coast. It is a land of dark rivers and many hills, albeit lower and more rolling ones than the recreational Highlands. These are working hills. These are whisky hills.

Whisky Barrels:

And some of these hills are interesting hills. Tap o' Noth with its vitrified fort. Bennachie, one of the most distinctive hills in the whole country. And the isolated Corbett (aren't they all?) of Ben Rinnes.

Ben Rinnes from Corryhabbie Hill:

Ben Rinnes is an easy ascent from the northeast, the most common route if erosion is any guide. The best route however is to ascend the northwestern ridge and its little tor, before descending via the northeast.

After Ben Rinnes, I decided to explore the area by doing a circuit of the hill. Dufftown, the town 'built on seven stills' is nearby.


I drove a circuit to see some more sights. To Glenlivet to see the distillery there. Glenlivet, a light and easy-drinking whisky, is one of my favourites. I need to be in the right mood and environment to enjoy some of Scotland's bolder malts, like Talisker or Lagavulin. Glenlivet however, always tastes good, whatever the situation. In the words of James Hogg:
'If one could but get the exact proportion [of Glenlivet], one might live forever, and kirkyards and undertakers would go out of fashion'
Glenlivet Distillery:

Next to Glenlivet is a spot I had never heard of, Bridge of Avon. This beautiful bridge is the gateway to Ballindalloch Castle.

Bridge of Avon:

Downstream of Bridge of Avon, and nearly back at Dufftown, is Craigellachie. I was especially interested to see the old Telford Bridge across the Spey, but the real surprise was the bar in Craigellachie Hotel. I have never seen so many whiskies in my life! A shame I still had a bit further to drive, as I had further Corbetts to bag in this previously neglected area...

Craigellachie bridge:

Monday 19 November 2012

Damn Few, and They're a' Mugs

On reading that Amazon pay hardly any tax in the UK, I decided to boycott it for a while. But consistency in this approach was harder than expected, as alternative online retailers, I discovered, also avoid tax as far as legally possible. Five minutes research (on Google, who also avoid tax where they can) showed me that Amazon were the norm amongst multinationals, not the exception. I'm not blaming them - in their shoes, I expect I would do the same. But you don't have to be Tommy Sheridan to think the UK's rules on tax avoidance have got to be tightened.

As a result I wrote this little piece, inspired by the Whas Like Us teatowel. If you like it, spread the word! (Please note, figures are taken on trust from the sources noted at the bottom).

After going on an errand for his wife to Boots, which paid £14m on profits of £475m in 2009-10, John Bull relaxed for a while in his favourite cafe, Starbucks, which paid no tax at all in the UK between 2009-12 on revenues of £1.2bn.

He connected to the wi-fi on his laptop made by Apple, who report a UK turnover of £1bn for tax purposes, when their real turnover is closer to £6.7bn.

Browsing Amazon, which paid €5.5m in 2010 on a turnover of €7.5bn, his interest was piqued by a book called Treasure Islands, about offshore tax havens.

He decided to log into Facebook, which paid £238,000 in corporation tax in 2011 on UK revenue of £175m, to discuss the issues with his friends.

Seeing nobody online, he texted his best friend via Vodafone, who recently arranged with HMRC to leave a £6bn tax bill unpaid.

To try to forget the tax dodging he was seeing everywhere he went to watch his favourite team, Glasgow Rangers, who had been forced into the third division over unpaid tax bills.

He tried to look up what to do on Google, only to find out Google paid just £6m in tax in 2011 on a UK turnover of £2.6bn.

He phoned Newsnight but was unable to get on air, partly because they are currently preoccupied, but also perhaps because the BBC employ 25k contractors, 4k of whom - including presenter Jeremy Paxman - are as 'companies'.

He decided to inform the authorities, only to discover that HMRC's offices were owned by Mapeley, a company based in a tax haven.

In despair he wrote to his MP, only to find out his MP was too busy switching main residence for financial purposes to respond.

Perhaps his only remaining hope would be to set himself up as a private service company, which would entitle him to ask ... "wha pays tax? Damn few, and they're a' mugs."


Wednesday 14 November 2012

The Scottish National Trail

Recently a new long distance footpath was launched, from Kirk Yetholm (at the northern end of the Pennine Way) to Cape Wrath. Cameron McNeish (for it was his idea) explains the concept in the video below:

I wondered what route the trail would take, especially through the Lowlands, so was interested to see a map:

The trail follows St Cuthbert's Way, then a route to Edinburgh I don't recognise, the lowland canals, the Rob Roy Way, the Corrieairack to Fort Augustus, then disappears into trackless country in the northwest. It was with surprise I realised I've already walked the majority of the way from the border to Cape Wrath, albeit in installments and by a different route to the proposed trail.

The border near Berwick:

I've walked the Berwickshire coast and John Muir Way as far as Aberlady, the Union and Forth-Clyde Canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Glasgow to Milngavie, the West Highland Way to Fort William, and from Ardnamurchan to Cape Wrath. The only gaps in my own route are from Aberlady to Edinburgh, and from Fort William to Ardnamurchan - Ardnamurchan being, as I described before, a superior starting point to Fort William for the route to Cape Wrath.

Cape Wrath:

I always think of official footpaths more as suggestions than fixed routes anyway (Wainwright's Coast to Coast is the right idea) but there is no doubt it is much easier to sell a fixed route than a vague 'choose your own adventure' one. Selling, I think being the operative word. It is the first national trail to have a commercial sponsor (Goretex). Will there be more in the future? An RBS Way from St Andrews Square to Threadneedle Street? A Tunnocks Way from Uddingston to Largs? A Cairn Energy Way from St Fergus Gas Terminal to Aberdeen Harbour? The possibilities are there to be exploited...

Wednesday 7 November 2012

The Bothy and The Hill

It can happen. The bothy you have just walked in to in the dark and rain is a roofless ruin. There is nothing to be done except walk back out again to the road, a full rucksack and a night's worth of peat chafing at your shoulders, the rain dripping down the back of your neck.

The ruin:

Fortunately there was another bothy nearby. A draughty one, but one with a fireplace and, we were glad to discover on arrival, a roof.

The substitute:

The heart of any bothy is the fireplace. By daylight, a bothy is a cold and dirty hovel. But darkness hides the dirt, and the fire brings life and warmth, drawing in people around it. A bothy at night is a convivial gathering of story telling, contemplation, of getting away from it all, staring at the magical flames.

The fire:

Next day dawned grey and wet. We prevaricated before setting off. I desperately wanted a winter hill as I hadn't used my iceaxe for the whole of last season, but the conditions were uninspiring. We trudged up the hill, a Munro, through rain and bogs. About 400m up we entered the cloud, and the rain turned to wet, slushy snow. Goodbye views. I got my axe out, even though it wasn't really necessary. The sound of axe metal chinking on rock.


We argued about where we were. About 800m up, I thought. No, said a companion, only about 600m, and they were right. This was taking ages. Maybe we would even turn back. At this rate, I would certainly be soaked before the summit was reached. The hill steepened in white blankness before us, and everybody unfurled their axes. And then something amazing happened. The snow stopped falling, and, slowly, the clouds started to clear.

Emerging views:

We were still fairly far from the top, but re-energised. This was turning into a beautiful day!

In summer, a hill is climbed by following a path. Even if that path is nothing more than a faint muddy line, we still follow in footsteps of others. But with every fresh snowfall, the same hill becomes virgin territory.

Distant summit:

What a day this had turned out to be! We reached the summit at 3pm, the Cullin of Skye and Ben Nevis grey but visible, shafts of sun through high clouds on a few hills, lower clouds wrapping others. A pair of ravens circled us as we descended, snow briefly glowing orange as the short winter day came to an end. My walk of the year so far.

Snow trail:

Thursday 1 November 2012

Fyvie Castle

Earlier, I posted about investing in an NTS season ticket, and how this would lead to a flurry of National Trust related posts as we spent our weekends visiting houses and gardens across the country in a concerted campaign of getting my money's worth. But now, suddenly, without us going anywhere all year, our membership has nearly run out. At least the money has gone to a good cause (unlike, say, an unused gym membership) - preserving the nation's heritage.

So time to plan. I've always wanted to see Craigievar. But then I discovered it was closed for the season already!

Aberdeenshire near Fyvie:

But at the weekend we finally made it somewhere, at - and this is the important bit about a season ticket - a saving of £2 for car parking and £11.50 per adult. Fyvie on a Sunday was the haunt of pensioners, the last tourists of the season and families with well-wrapped toddlers, enjoying some late season sunshine.

Fyvie pond:

The estate has a pond with ducks, waterfowl and a viewing hide. I wanted to look at the River Ythan too to get an idea of the defensive situation of the castle, but the Ythan is a small burn at this point. Like many other areas in the 18th century, the surroundings were drained and improved from swamp to parkland.

Fyvie frontage trees:

Inside, Fyvie is impressively well-preserved with a fine collection of Raeburns. The castle dates from the early 13th century, and became national trust property in 1984. Before that it was owned by five families - each of whom added an extra tower to the building. It bears the strongest imprint from its 19th century owner, Alexander Leith, who was generous enough to the previous four families to include their coats of arms in all his ornamentation. Famously, the castle is subject to the Fyvie Curse, laid by Thomas the Rhymer in the 13th century, which supposedly predicts that its owners will never inherit the estate down the male line:

Fyvie, Fyvie thou'se never thrive,
As long as there's in thee stanes three:
There's ane intill the highest tower,
There's ane intill the ladye's bower,
There's ane aneath the water yett,
And thir three stanes ye'se never get.

The 'stanes three' were supposedly parish boundary markers removed from their sacred sites for the building of Fyvie. They can't be accessed unless the castle is dismantled - and as the 'water yett' is supposedly the River Ythan - there is no hope for the house of Fyvie. Perhaps this is why it has passed through the hands of so many families.

Fyvie detail:

Probably the castle's most impressive feature is the  great stair, vaguely reminding me of the spiral ramp in Chateau Amboise on the Loire. The ramp at Amboise was designed for cavalry to access the town from the chateau, so it was no surprise to discover that the Gordon family, who took over Fyvie from the Seton family who built the staircase, habitually rode their horses up it, racing each other to see who could get to the top first.

Fyvie frontage:

And what a top! The gallery in the top floor is bathed with light, with 17th century ornament, an organ and a beautiful baby grand piano. My fingers itched to play it... this room can be hired for weddings. According to the guide, somebody had been married here just the day before. I hoped the marriage would prove happier than that of Lillias Drummond, who in 1601 was starved to death in the next door Douglas Room by her husband Alexander Seton for failing to produce a male heir. With actions like that, it sounds like the house of Fyvie deserved not to thrive.