Friday 24 October 2014

The Best Live Band Ever

THE BEST BAND I ever saw live was Hairy Banjo. From the first jangly strum of their wistful, indie fuelled chords, and the exceptional craft of their lyrics (as exemplified in their opening song, 'Hairy Banjo' - we're Hairy Banjo, who the fuck are you) I was hooked.

They were soon raised out of the toilet venue circuit by none other than Mark E. Smith, who booked them as the warm-up act for The Fall. However it all started to unravel at this point for Hairy Banjo. It was bad enough being such dicks that at one notorious gig the entire audience left before the main act, but spending their life savings on a street team to paste over The Fall's promo material with posters proclaiming 'the Mark E. Smith miserable cunt apology tour' was the last straw. They were dropped.

The seemingly inevitable end for Hairy Banjo came in Texas. They were paid by the Scottish Arts Council to visit SXSW where they strutted about as if they owned the place, insulting and alienating every band, roadie, and music journalist they came into contact with. At Rowdy's Salon, they drunkenly drove a Cadillac on stage two hours late, careering into the drumkit and crushing the guitars, before getting out wearing ten gallon hats, brandishing loaded handguns and breaking into an a capella version of a song they had just written, 'Texas is Shit'. The audience immediately shot every member of the band dead.

It was the first and only time a Hairy Banjo gig ended, not in a riot, but with applause.

Saturday 18 October 2014

In Torridon

Sometimes you just want to get away, reconnect with places you know are charged with goodness. One place I have never had anything other than a good time is Torridon. I have always been lucky with the weather, and the hills are amazing. A weekend in Torridon is a world apart from normal suburban life. The eerie keening of wildcats echoing off the banded tiers of Liathach at night. Eagles soaring on thermals during the day. An absorbing day on the hill, and a perfect pint in the Beinn Damph Hotel after talking to a stalker. This is the stuff of Torridon.

The bothy:

I arrived in Strathcarron on the south side of Torridon well after sunset, but the walk-in to the well-maintained bothy is straightforward. I had it to myself. The glen in which it sits is a beautiful one. There is a strikingly phallic white rock in the glen, to which legend says the hero Fingal tied his dogs when he went off hunting. Why he didn't take his dogs hunting isn't explained. But there is a feeling of rightness about this glen, the arrangement of water, land and trees. Once again I was lucky with the weather in one of Scotland's most beautiful areas.

The glen:

My targets were a Corbett and a Munro, An Ruadh-Stac and Maol Cheann-dearg. A good stalkers' path heads up to a bealach at 600m, making the initial ascent easy. Deer streamed across the flanks of Meall nan Ceapairean. I stopped at the lochans sitting in a rocky bowl below An Ruadh-Stac and bathed my feet.

Any stress drained out of me into the ground. Contentment at the situation welled up in its place.

Beinn Damph from the lochans:

The hills of Torridon are singular, rocky, banded, full of character. The way up An Ruadh-Stac looked intimidating, but on a clear day it is easy. From the summit, precipitous drops to shadowed corrie lochs. West, hilly islands of Rum and Skye interlock with the sea.

Distant Rum:

North, my target for sunset. Maol Cheann-dearg.

An Ruadh-Stac is grey. Maol Cheann-dearg is made of different rocks, red and pink underfoot as I peched my way to the summit cairn. I could sit up here for hours, nursing a dram and simply enjoying the moment. To the south, An Ruadh-Stac caught the evening light.

But it is the view north to Liathach that commands the attention. This is the place to be as sunset enroaches and the shadows lengthen, on the airy summit of Maol Cheann-dearg with a hipflask of Talisker. I waited until half an hour before sunset before reluctantly retracing my steps back down to the bothy, more content than I had been in a while.

Glen Torridon from Maol Cheann-dearg:

Saturday 11 October 2014

The North Britons

With Scots recently declining to run their own affairs, it is interesting to have a daunder down one of history's intriguing byways - the abortive project of North and South Britain.


The terms were first written down by James VI, soon after he took over the throne of England and Ireland in 1603. More than anybody, he was keen to unite his two kingdoms. In his very first speech to the English Parliament in 1604 he made reference to union:
"I am the Husband and the whole Isle is my lawfull Wife; I hope therefore no man will be so unreasonable as to think that I that am a Christian King under the Gospel should be a polygamist and husband to two wives."
But the English Parliament saw no advantage in union. The attitude had not changed even a century later. "He who marries a beggar," said Edward Seymour MP of Scotland in 1700, "can only expect a louse for her portion." However a brief window of opportunity opened when England involved itself in a continental war in 1701. Scots had been wanting trade with the English Empire, and now England wanted to close a potential northern front in its war with France. Thus, through mutual expediency, Scotland and England were dissolved - and a new state formed, Great Britain.

Project Britain

At first the union wasn't popular. But from the mid 18th century, the Scottish establishment and intelligentsia threw their weight behind the British state. An unfortunate but seemingly necessary element in embracing a new British identity was to erase the Scottish one. The phrase used for this new identity was not Scottish, but North British. A concept invented by Scots, this was to contrast with the new name for England - South Britain.

But there was a problem - the English. Why should they become South Britons, when England's institutions were effectively unchanged? And the Scots, the people who wanted this change, were unpopular in London. They were hoovering up positions of influence and then recommending their North British friends for further advancement. When a Scottish petition came before the House of Commons, polemicist John Wilkes MP refused to even consider it, saying "I care not who prevails! It is only Goth against Goth!" The reaction against increasing Scottish influence in empire, state and business culminated in anti-Scottish riots at the end of the 1760s. For their own protection in London, Scots were forced to drink together in Scottish-owned taverns, increasing their clannishness and alienation further. In the face of this rejection, the concept of South Britain survived no further south than Edinburgh.

The twist
It is a historical irony that Scotland was saved from becoming North Britain. Not, as a layman might assume, through any patriotic Scottish efforts, but as a result of English indifference to project Britain, and hostility towards the concept of losing their English identity. Even today, many English people habitually talk of England when they mean the UK. It's common for Scots to get annoyed at this casual conflation of the two. Perhaps instead we should be glad. For in never embracing a South British identity, the English allowed space for the concept of Scotland to live on - despite the best efforts of some Scots to the contrary.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Poem: The Cairn

It took sweat to climb
grind and grit
avoiding: "why?"
a focused mind
my highest reach
...and to mark it
(and for those who came before)
I placed -
on top -
a single stone.
View from Bidean nam Bian, September 2014: