Sunday 10 December 2023

A History of Scotland, Book Two: Covenant - out now!

How long does it take to write a book?

It depends who you ask.

George RR Martin has taken over a decade to write his next book, with no sign of it appearing.

Whereas Barbara Cartland could churn one out every few weeks.

And for me the answer is three years.

Three years ago I released Scotland's Story, Book One, a history of Scotland from the Ice Age to the Battle of Flodden in 1513.

Book Two is finally out, and there's been some changes!

The series isn't titled Scotland's Story any more, but A History of Scotland.

Book One now goes up to 1542 and the death of James V.

And there are new cover designs for the series...


Book One: Foundation covers Scotland's early story. It's a tale of brutality, drama, freedom... and a slightly surprising battle against royal taxation.

Buy A History of Scotland, Book One: Foundation on

Book Two: Covenant dives deep into the pivotal moments between 1542 to 1815 of Reformation, Union, Empire, and war with Napoleonic France... and answers the question: did the early Americans really hate the Scots that much?

Buy A History of Scotland, Book Two: Covenant on

What about Book Three?

I'm working on that now. Hopefully it doesn't take another three years to complete! But if it does, I'll be pitching you the whole series to enjoy in 2026 :)

Wednesday 6 December 2023

The Seven Tops of Holyrood Park: Part 2

 In Part 1, we visited the first two tops of Holyrood Park: Haggis Knowe and Salisbury Crags. It's time to take a wander over the rest!

From Salisbury Crags, a memorable vista of central Edinburgh opens up. Yet above you is a higher top, Arthur's Seat - the summit of Holyrood Park.  It's twice as high above the city, so surely the views from up there are twice as good? They aren't, but it makes a memorable ascent, so lets go. Descend the crags and take a zig-zag path up and right, to find yourself on a bald minor top of Nether Hill. There's not much to it, and to be honest it was only researching the seven tops that I realised this bump had a name! 

From here it is a short rocky scramble to the much more prominent Arthur's Seat. This is the highest point of Edinburgh inside the city bypass, the top of a long-extinct volcano. Wide and windy vistas open up - it is always windy up here, so bring a cagoule - to the Pentlands, Moorfoots and East Lothian, to Fife across the water, and beyond the Forth Bridges to the Ochils and Highlands. The view north is basis of an obscure list called the Arthurs: see how many of them you have climbed. From Arthur's Seat, it is a short walk over to Crow Hill, quieter than the summit which is thronged most days by tourists. A good place for a picnic and contemplate your surroundings.

Crow Hill from Arthur's Seat at sunrise:

Your eyes turn to Whinny Hill, sixth of the seven tops. This is an individual hill in its own right, much less frequented than Arthur's Seat or Salisburgy Crags. The paths on Whinny Hill are confusing, threading around the 'whin' or gorse that names this hill. There isn't an obvious single summit, so wander in the general direction of what seems highest. We enjoyed the peace and perspective from this top before heading down to the final top, Dunsapie, and a big surprise! The tiny loch at the foot of this bump is home to an otter! Seeing an otter this far from any rivers, in the centre of the city, was quite an experience.

Well, you couldn't top the unexpected sight of an otter in the middle of the city, so we walked back down Queens Drive to our starting point, happy to have climbed over all the tops of Holyrood Park, even if we didn't make it to the Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston!

Saturday 2 September 2023

The Seven Tops of Holyrood Park: Part 1

My colleague and I were cooking up a plan. Leave work in Edinburgh - run over Arthur's Seat - a couple of pints in the Sheep Heid Inn in Duddingston - taxi home. 

Yes! And have you noticed there are seven tops in Holyrood Park - let's do them all!

Yes! And make sure we do it on a fine evening!

 Yes! And let's invite a few friends to make it even more fun!

Yes! And let's hold off until everyone's calendars align... at that point, the plan stalled. 

The calendars never aligned. Eventually I'd had enough, and just went myself over the seven tops.

What are these seven tops, you are wondering? Arthur's Seat is the summit, the scenic Salisbury Crags below, but what else?

I like the number seven, and Edinburgh itself has a long-standing race over seven hills (Calton Hill, Castle Hill, Corstorphine Hill, Craiglockhart Hill, Braid Hills, Blackford Hill, and Arthur's Seat). But Arthur's Seat itself has six other lesser-known companion tops in the confines of Holyrood Park, and it was time to visit them all in one trip! 

Haggis Knowe:

The first and easiest top is Haggis Knowe. This is a tiny top, barely a hill at all, but it is ringed by a low line of basalt cliffs that make its ascent easy from one direction only and gives the summit an airy, precipitous feel out of all proportion to its height.

No wonder Will Ferrell chose it as the home of his Icelandic Elves in the Eurovision movie

If you are short of time or energy, Haggis Knowe makes a great viewpoint, looking back at the Royal Mile climbing up its hill beyond Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament.

Above Haggis Knowe looms the ruin of St Anthony's Chapel, but we aren't going there next: the crag the chapel stands on doesn't qualify as one of the seven tops. Instead I went to Salisbury Crags, the most spectacular of all the tops. This is one of the must-visit sites in Edinburgh. 

Wander up here, sit down and dangle your feet over the edge of the crags, look at the miniature city below going about its day, watch the sun set beyond the castle. You can climb all the way up to Arthur's Seat if you wish, but the views don't get any better: below the crags, a path built as a make-work scheme in the early 19th century called the Radical Road is currently closed due to rock fall. The crags are a popular spot for rock climbing, or would be if there wasn't a ban on climbing due to the risk of rock falling on pedestrians below. These rocks hold an important place in geology - James Hutton used used them to prove his 18th century theory of the volcanic formation of bedrock.

As well as beauty, science, and a bracing walk, Salibury Crags provided a mystery that remains unsolved to this day: a 19th century discovery of 17 miniature coffins in a small cave.

This alone makes a great walk. But so far, we've only visited two of the seven tops. Read about the rest in Part 2!

Sunday 9 July 2023

The National Library of Scotland

It's mind-blowing that someone like you or me can walk in off the street and consult original 17th century source material at the national library!

Yet that is what membership of the National Library of Scotland gets you. Membership is free and open to all, and so long as you can get to George IV Bridge in Edinburgh during opening hours, it is yours to enjoy. The library has a legal right to a copy of every book published in the UK. One of my own books, The Weekend Fix is in there:

But that counts as a modern book. I've been going to the NLS to get references for my next Scottish history book, 'Covenant'. As well as the Wars of the Covenant it covers the Protestant Reformation, Union with England, Empire in America, and the Napoleonic Wars which finished in 1815 - and to the NLS, only books published since 1850 count as modern. The books I've been needing to see are in the Special Collection, a rarified inner sanctum whose librarians treat their books with a monk-like reverence. 

When you get a book in the Special Collection, it is handed over in its own fitted box, as if you have been given something packaged just for your birthday. You take the box over to a reading station and carefully open it. Inside is the book you've requested - in the case above, a book from 1692 published in Paris of the deposed James VII's letters, one of which (his letter to the Convention of Estates which decided to depose him) is hard to find anywhere else, unlike William of Orange's letter to the same assembly. I wanted to show readers the comparison between their styles.

Sorry folks, but that's the level I am geeking out at these days.

The Special Collection has its own rules, and I fell foul of one. Each reading station has a cradle that lets you open a book only three-quarters of the way, so as not to damage the spine - and in my excitement, I failed to put the book in the special cradle. A librarian glided over to correct my mistake. Mi dispiace. I won't do it again!

Royal Tracts wasn't the only old book I consulted. My favourite was James Beattie's Scotticisms. In the second half of the 18th century Scots worried about being mocked by the English for how they spoke, and to the rescue came a series of books listing words and phrases to avoid. I suppose this was the start of the 'Scottish cringe'. But the surprise for the modern reader is that amongst the kens and outwiths are words and phrases that seem natural pain English, like saying 'pen' instead of 'quill' for a writing instrument, or 'come here' rather than 'come hither'. It's a delightful thought that modern English may have been influenced by the Scots language in subtle and unexpected ways.

It's astonishing that the only place you can find most of these books of Scotticisms is in the National Library of Scotland. There are thousands of ancient books on esoteric subjects digitised for posterity on the likes of the Internet Archive, but just not enough Scottish ones! Maybe, once my series of history books is done, I will see what I can do about that...

Saturday 27 May 2023

Morven: The Serpent at the Breast

I always thought Caithness was a flat county, beyond the hills. Morven, Scaraben, and Maiden Pap beg to differ.

Approaching Braemore:

Maiden Pap must be one of the most distinctive small hills in the country, yet it is virtually unknown.

From some angles it looks like the Roseberry Topping of Caithness (which itself is the 'Matterhorn of Yorkshire').

From other angles it lives up to its name, an improbably pert breast. It just fails to reach 500m, but you would not get tired of looking at this peak.

But I was not here for Maiden Pap. I was here to climb Morven, at 706m the county top of Caithness. Hidden behind Maiden Pap, it slowly reveals itself as you travel the estate track from Braemore. In a backlit headwind, it looked much higher and further away than it actually is.

After the track I took to moorland bashing, glad of the sunshine and clear skies despite the powerful headwind. 

Finally I found myself at the base of Morven and the 400m pull up the summit cone. There are two ways up, both awkward. One involves a trackless traverse round the mountain to find a steep grassy gully that pops out just below Morven's east top. The second tackles the hill direct, but peters out into an unpleasantly steep and loose boulderfield, before also popping out at the east top. I started the traverse and enjoyed a moment out of the wind, sheltered behind the steep bulk of Morven. A rush of wind like a mighty river in the corrie below.

A cuckoo was calling. But where were the trees?

Higher up a lizard slinked out my way, before I breached the final steepening and the summit cone. The wind tore at me as I staggered to the summit, bright superstreams of light-saturated air. An intense and happy moment before starting the descent.

Morven summit:

With the wind at my back and going down, the walk back along the moor, which earlier had been such a trudge, seemed effortless. Marching across the bog and singing at the top of my voice, I suddenly came across this foot-long snake:

An adder! I doubled back to take another photo and it coiled and faced me as if about to strike. Nope nope nope! I beat a retreat and decided not to bivvy out here tonight. But I had been up Morven, my penultimate county top.

Maiden Pap from the west:

I started bagging county tops in the lockdown, when we weren't allowed out our own county and I realised I hadn't been up its highest point. Now only Rona's Hill in Shetland is left to visit for my completion.

Monday 8 May 2023

Where is the Real Stone of Destiny?

We have a king, and his name is Charles - Prince Charles, if you must know, which I can't stop calling him. Remember as a child forgetting the new year had come, and by sheer force of habit, writing the old year in your jotter on your first day back at school after Christmas? Well, it's like that.

But though I'm not one for royalty, even I was aware of Charles' big day yesterday, with all the pomp and tradition of hundreds of years. There's the ride in a gold coach, Zadok the Priest, anointing by the archbishop, carrying the sword and sceptre and orb and wearing the crown. And there's something else he did, something that caused a lump of Perthshire sandstone to be taken out of Edinburgh Castle a few days earlier and be transported to London. The stone is the Stone of Destiny, and it had to be in Westminster Abbey specifically so Charles could sit on it. I'm sure the coronation would still be valid without it, but the stone is one of the oldest parts of the ceremony, having been in London since the late 13th century.

Or has it?

The twist is that after being damaged during the 1950 heist, the stone went to a stonemason's yard in Glasgow for repair. And that mason, Bertie Gray, made two copies. According to the Reverend John Mackay Nimmo, Chevalier of the Knights Templar of Scotland, it was one of these copies that went back to London in 1951, and the real stone hidden in a location that he alone knew. When the Scottish Parliament recovened in 1999, Nimmo offered his stone to the nation. X-ray analysis showed that Nimmo's stone was not broken and repaired in a way consistent with the stone taken in 1950, and it subsequently disappeared from view. 

Well that's a nice story. A quirky anecdote for something that was definitely taken in 1296 by Edward I, and definitely taken back again in 1950. That must be it, surely? No! Strap in, because the Stone of Destiny has more legend and myth attached to it than anything else in Scottish history.

Other legends go back to 1296 and the original theft of the stone. Knowing Edward was coming to steal it, the monks of Scone swapped it for a worthless lump of local sandstone - reputed to be a cludgie cover - and hid the real thing in a nearby hillside. And there it sits, hidden to this day, awaiting its moment... or perhaps not! Because Robert the Bruce found and used the real stone, according to another legend, and entrusted its keep thereafter to Angus Og Macdonald. It's actually hidden somewhere on the Isle of Skye, its whereabouts known only to the chief of the Clan MacDonald. Why else would the Scots not have demanded the stone's return from London after the Bruce's victories? Because they knew the one in London was a fake.

Ach no, say the people of Argyll. The real stone - the actual, proper Stone of Destiny - still lies in Argyll, somewhere near Dunstaffnage Castle, brought over when the Scots first migrated from Ireland. Whatever the Scottish kings were crowned on at Scone in Perthshire, it wasn't the real McCoy. 

Head spinning yet? Don't worry. The Irish have a story to resolve the mystery. The Stone of Destiny - originally the Irish Lia Fail - never left Ireland in the first place. A switcheroo saw the Scots sail off to Argyll with a fake, as the real stone, its origin the Holy Land rather than Perthshire, still lay under the ground of the sacred Hill of Tara.

(For more detail behind these legends, the best read is Stone of Destiny by Pat Gerber.)

The Stone of Destiny fairly gets about. Its travels inspired scupltor George Wyllie to create portable 'Destiny' stones the size of briefcases, with a convenient handle for anybody to carry about. And that inspired the closing lines to my poem 'The Stone Room':

For boys of destiny
still play under Argyll skies -
freedom is a noble thing.
I found myself some bedrock
and in time-honoured tradition
have proclaimed myself a king.

Saturday 18 March 2023

Kilantringan Bay

Kilantringan Bay has haunted my dreams for the best part of two decades. 

We'd driven to the lighthouse for sunset after the Stranraer half marathon. Ireland lay clear across the water, velvet on gold as the sun sank. The breeze whipped up a wee bit colder, sea air in our lungs, as the lighthouse above us began its revolutions. Away in Ireland, other headlands winked back. 

Leaving Kilantringan:

They say you should never go back. But I had a hankering to see Kilantringan Bay again after that magical first time. 

The weather today was not as fine as I had hoped. But we were here, and dressed for torrential rain.

With the tide half in, a simple walk on sand becomes an adventurous scramble up and down the craggy shoreline, the dog pathfinding.

Pathfinder pup:

Beachcoming over slippery seaweed, we found things washed up on the beach. A lifejacket. A lot of plastic. Mermaid's purses. (In reality, the eggs of shark and dogfish.)

Finally we made it to the beach. Thanks to the clouds, we couldn't see Ireland. But we'd had a scrambly adventure reaching this long-imagined spot and had the place to ourselves, gulls fleeing our approach. Maybe we'll come back on a day of sun-kissed promise. Today, we turned our faces into the rain and looked forward to drying out in our holiday cottage.

Tuesday 3 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 3

4. The Black Dinner.

One of the most infamous incidents from Scottish history, the 'black dinner' of James II was gruesome enough to inspire George RR Martin's 'red wedding' in the Game of Thrones novels. When James I died (see previous post), his son and heir, James II, was only six years old. The keepers of the two most powerful castles in Scotland, Stirling and Edinburgh, connived to increase their own influence and power by holding the young king effective prisoner. Only William, the vigorous young Earl of Douglas had the power to shake them. The castellans conferred with the earl's uncle, who would inherit the earldom should anything happen to young William. With a nod and a wink, he confirmed that he would not interfere. The groundwork laid, William Douglas and his younger brother were invited to dine with James II by the keeper of Edinburgh Castle. In front of the horrified king, who pleaded for their lives, they were seized and summarily beheaded. Acording to legend, as the dinner drew to an end, a platter was brought in bearing the head of a black boar - the traditional symbol of death, and signal to act to the assasins.

3. Kenneth II. 

Of all the deaths on this list, none can be as colourful or as unlikely as that as that of Kenneth II, who died in 995. Legend has it that after Kenneth had executed the son of the Mormaer of Angus as a traitor, the boy's mother, Fenella, vowed revenge. When the king was hunting in her area she approached him, vowed loyalty, and said she had information of a conspiracy against him if he would just follow her to a house on the estate. Intrigued, Kenneth entered the house where he saw an incredible sight: a statue of himself, holding a golden apple. The king lifted the apple out the statue's hand. But the statue was a booby-trap, and moving it triggered hidden crossbows, which skewered the king with arrows.  

2. Sigurd the Mighty. 

Sigurd the Mighty, Jarl of Orkney, had already conquered Scotland north of the River Oykell for the Norwegian king, when he issued a challenge to Máel Brigte, the Mormaer of Moray. Meet me on the shores of the Moray Firth with 40 men, said Sigurd, and we will see who is the better warrior. Máel  turned up with 40. But Sigurd brought 80 men to the fight, and killed and beheaded Máel Brigte. Máel was famous for having a crooked tooth: and as Sigurd rode home with his enemy's head tied to his saddle as a trophy, the tooth grazed his leg. The wound went septic, and Sigurd died, buried in 892 at Cyderhall (Sigurd's Howe) at the edge of the land he had conquered.

1. Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty.

A polymath who translated Rabelais and created a new mathematical system, Urquhart was also a committed royalist during the War of Three Kingdoms. He paid for his support for Charles II with capture at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and busied himself in the production of works such as Logopandecteision, a universal 'perfected language', with eleven cases, eleven genders, and eleven tenses. Such an eccentric genius deserves a notable end, and you'll be pleased to know that is exactly what he gave himself. On hearing of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Urqhuart laughed so hard he died.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Top 10 Scottish Deaths: Part 2

Happy New Year! Last time, we looked at three notable deaths. Today let's continue the countdown of top ten Scottish deaths with these memorable moments from history:

7. James I.

James died for a game of tennis! Having annoyed and alarmed his nobles with persecutions and land grabs, aggrandising his own position at their expense, James probably should have preferred the stout walls of castles to poorly defended houses. For while relaxing in the undefended Blackfriars in Perth in 1437, a minor noble with a grudge burst in with a small band of assasins looking for the monarch. James fled for the sewer, but his way to safety was blocked - just days earlier he had the exit covered over as he kept losing tennis balls down the hole from the court next door. His assasin cornered the unfortunate monarch and stabbed him to death.

6. Percy Pilcher. 

Pilcher was an English naval engineer based at Glasgow University as the 19th century drew to a close. On the gently sloping land near Cardross on the Clyde, he perfected his designs for a hang glider. But Pilcher had grander ambitions: heavier-than-air powered flight. Having built a plane, he intended to demonstrate it on 30 September 1899 in front of sponsors at Stanford Hall, Leicestershire. The weather was too bad to fly: Pilcher went up in his glider instead, and crashed. Pilcher's death is a case of lost opportunity: had he lived a few more months who knows, he may have added heavier-than-air flight to the list of Scottish inventions.

5. William Wallace.

No list of historic Scottish deaths could be complete without the end of Sir William Wallace. Like Joan of Arc he died resisting English invasion, in a cause that would ultimately triumph: in part, thanks to the inspiration of his own example. Wallace was betrayed by a Scottish noble who had made peace with Edward I of England - as, to be fair, had the rest of the nobility. Wallace was taken to London and tried as a traitor, which he denied:

"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I owe him no allegiance."

Wallace was hanged, taken down while still alive, had his genitals cut off, disembowelled and his organs thrown in a fire, and finally beheaded. His body was quartered and his limbs sent to be placed on spikes above the town gates of Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth as an example to the population.

Edward had found he could beat Wallace when he had been a fugitive and alive. It was another story once he became a dead legend. 

Read on for the last in the installment of top ten Scottish historical deaths!