Sunday, 25 September 2016


Glen Coe

Glen Coe

An epic drive back from Drimnin was broken by a geocache stop at beautifully grim Glen Coe. Apart from the brutal massacre of Glen Coe in 1692 (in fact three simultaneous slaughters in different locations along the Glen), the site it also familiar to film location hounds: (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban, Skyfall and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)
Skyfall, The Massacre at Glen Coe by James Hamilton, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkeban and Monty Python and the Holy Grail locations

Inveruglas and Hermitage Castle

Pretty Inveruglas where we later stretched our legs and had a cuppa had a view across Loch Lomond with an imposing hydro-electric station as a backdrop. Hermitage Castle was a further stop just before the Scottish-English border where ghostly memories of Mary Queen of Scots haunted the massive monolithic castle and chapel.
Inveruglas and Hermitage Castle

Bishop Auckland, near Durham – The Eleven Arches Company and Kynren

Our final stop before heading for home was an extraordinary event in the shadow of Auckland Castle. Around 1000 volunteers on a 7.5-acre site took part in a £30m specatacular pageant of the history of England. We were in an audience of 8000! Jonathan Ruffer, a city hedge fund manager, philanthropist and art collector grew up in the north and was inspired to spend some of his fortune buying the castle and some important art works and then investing in restorations and in this theatrical enterprise. The script focused on the history of the North East and the style of the show is influenced by the Cinéscénie at Puy du Fou in France. Jonathan Ruffer has managed to create an astonishing infrastructure of parking, food and drink stalls, toilet facilities and dazzling flower-strewn walks down to a state-of-the-art 8000-seater performance arena (the Tribune) with hydraulics, pyrotechnics, hundreds of costumes, props, sets and those unbelievably well-drilled, well-choreographed volunteers.

Kynren, the flower meadows walking down to the arena and, in the centre, philanthropist and creator of Kynren, Jonathan Ruffer with the Chief Executive of Eleven Arches, Anne-Isabelle Daulon

How was the Kynren experience?

The nearest thing I’ve experienced to Kynren is watching a big Disney show in America, but in Kynren’s case there were more people on stage – and they were all local amateurs! There was a true sense of Kynren (a word that means generation or community or kindred or family.) A cavalcade of English history paraded in front of our eyes:
  • Romans
  • Vikings
  • King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
  • St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the Normans at the Battle of Stamford Bridge
  • a medieval festival
  • the Battle of Neville’s Cross against the Scots
  • Henry VIII and the Field of the Cloth of Gold
  • Elizabeth I and Shakespeare
  • Charles I’s beheading
  • the Georgian Renaissance
  • the Industrial Revolution (especially an astonishing steam train and a moving account of the Trimdon Grange mine disaster)
  • Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee
  • the Christmas Truce in World War One
  • the Roaring Twenties contrasted with a Miner’s Gala
  • World War Two’s “Finest Hour.”
A young Geordie boy Arthur was whisked through time by Bishop Hensley Henson; water fountains suddenly revealed a ghostly projection of Durham cathedral’s arches; thundering horses with knights charged across the backdrop; cows, horses, sheep, goats, ducks and geese joined in the action; the Glastonbury Holy Thorn emerged out of the water like Excalibur. The script was sometimes a bit hard to follow, partly because the ever-changing spectacle meant it was hard to “keep up.” Filmic music by Nathan Stornetta and jaw-dropping lighting effects gave the whole event a rousing and emotional core which was impossible to resist. The plan is to revive the event every couple of years and I for one have signed up on the website for future updates and ticket sales.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Mary's Path

A Vanished World

Change happens. Time doesn’t stand still. Worlds and ways of life vanish. History can be seen as the struggle between the desire to keep things as they are and forces who want their world to progress. But who defines progress? Who controls progress? What are the costs of progress? Nothing stays the same. Everything evolves. Change sometimes happens by imperceptible degrees and sometimes by convulsive upheavals.

Ethnic cleansing or economic progress?

Were the Highland Clearances I mentioned in my last blog an example of rich and greedy aristocrats evicting vulnerable communities to increase their own share of profit and power? Or was it the inevitable result of devastating weather conditions, poor harvests and the need to improve the economics of farming in the Highlands? Was it an attempt by the Westminster parliament (in collusion with the clan chiefs) to dismantle the clan system in Scotland by banning collective communities and their cultural symbols (tartan, kilts and the bagpipes, those “notorious instruments of war”?) Or is it better seen as part of the 18th and 19th century diaspora of Europeans which included many Irish people, Germans, Italians and Spaniards who also moved over to the New World to seek a better life? (Many Highlanders inevitably found their way to Canada and the state of Nova Scotia – New Scotland – Alba Nuadh.)
Scottish Clan Pride

Inniemore (Aoineadh Mor) and Mary’s Path

The abandoned town of Inniemore has haunted me since our visit there a short while ago. The derelict walls have largely been reclaimed by nature. Whatever the arguments for or against the Highland Clearances, the result is the same: land once populated by working self-sufficient communities (even if the life was hard) is now land for tourists to walk through and wonder. First hand accounts (from the viewpoint of the crofters) are rare, so the Scottish Forestry Commission’s audiopost reading by Anne Sinclair on the Ardtornish Estate is an important testament to the impact on an individual. Social history is always compelling, I find.
The "cleared" settlement of Aoineadh Mor (Inniemore) on the Ardtornish Estate

Mary Cameron’s story from Norman MacLeod’s 1863 Reminiscences of a Highland Parish in Gaelic

“That was the day of the sadness to many, the day on which Mac Cailein (the Duke of Argyll) parted with the estate of his ancestors in the place where I was reared. The people of Inniemore thought that the 'flitting' would not come upon them while they lived. As long as they paid the rent, and that was not difficult to do, anxiety did not come near them; and a lease they asked not.

“It was there that the friendly neighbourhood was, though now only one smoke is to be seen from the house of the Saxon shepherd. When we got the summons to quit, we thought it was only for getting an increase in rent and this we offered to give; but permission to stay we got not.
Thomas Faed's 1865 The Last of the Clan

Mary’s story continues – the bleat of the goats

“The small cattle were sold and at length it became necessary to part with the one cow. When shall I forget the plaintive wailing of the children deprived of the milk which was no more for them? When shall I forget the last sight of my pretty cluster of goats bleating on the lip of the rocks as if inviting me to milk them? But it was not allowed me  to put a pail under them.

“The day of the flitting came. The officers of the law came along with it and the shelter of a house for one night more was not to be got. It was necessary to depart. The hissing of the fire on the flag of the hearth as they were drowning it reached my heart. We could not get even a bothy in the country; therefore we had nothing for it but to face the land of strangers (the Lowlands).
Erskine Nicol's 1853 An Ejected Family

Mary’s story continues – James carries his mother out of the Glen in a basket

“The aged woman, the mother of my husband, was then alive, weak, and lame. James carried her on his back in a creel. I followed him with little John, an infant at my breast, thou who art no more, Donald beloved, a little toddler walking, with thy sister by my side. Our neighbours carried the little furniture that remained to us and showed every kindness which tender friend could show.

“On the day of our leaving Inniemore I thought my heart would break. I would feel right if my tears would flow; but no relief thus did I find. We sat for a time on Kioch nan carn (Hill of the Cairns) to take the last look at the place where we had been brought up. The houses were being already stripped….”
Late-Victorian photograph of a "clearance"

Thursday, 22 September 2016



In Scotland, we’ve been to Edinburgh, Skye and Mull in years gone by, but never to Morvern. We hoped for a hunkering down away-from-it-all break and that’s what we got. We stayed in an AirBnB house, Tigh Darach, in Drimnin, a remote spot with a small pier and a postbox.

Tigh Darach

One of Sally’s rules about going on holiday is that we should be somewhere that is better than home, either in location or facilities. The house of Roderick and Amanda, our hosts, was a fantastic place for those who truly do want a “break” from urban life.

Hunkering down

Being at Tigh Darach felt a bit like being in a Grand Designs house. There was plenty of light, space, and luxury in terms of comfy places to sit (inside and out), restful textures, muted colours and oak beams crafted into the protective frame of the well-designed cocoon. Everywhere were nooks and crannies with quirky objects or higgledy-piggledy books about local history and geography. We spent a week snuggling into the sofas, relaxing on the verandahs, feasting round the table, and sleeping with the gentle tidal background of the lapping waves on The Sound of Mull.

Rhenium Tales

My fantasy novel made a few leaps of detail, inspired by the setting and stories we came across of castles, churches, stoic Highlanders and brutal massacres. Every morning I managed an hour or two of writing overlooking the water off Drimnin pier.

St Columba’s Chapel

The weather was mostly splurty and misty but we managed to get out at least once a day and had two days that could be positively identified as sunny. Scotland survives any weather, in my opinion, and the Drimnin Estate near the house where we stayed had a clifftop chapel, dedicated to St Columba, built in 1838 overlooking The Sound of Mull with Tobermory in the distance and seals bobbing about in the water.

Drimnin Estate

All over Morvern there were mini-rapids breaking through woodland slopes, winding down creeks, and making their way to the coast. It was as if the land was bleeding fresh water. Forsaken ruins, probably left over from the Highland Clearances, and ancient trees covered in moss were scattered haphazardly through the landscape and reminded me regularly of Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings.

Lochaline and the Wishing Stone

The nearest shop was a 40 minute drive down a track with nerve-wracking passing places. But the Lochaline stores proved well-stocked and near a super-friendly, homemade-cake-filled O2 Café, run by helpful staff, who let me do some printing on their office computer. An odd geological phenomenon on the road to Lochaline called the Wishing Stone (Clach na Crich) boasted a legend that if you filled your mouth with spring water and jumped through the hole three times, without spilling or swallowing a drop of the water, or touching the sides of the stone, your wish would be granted. Hmm….

Squelchy bogs

Trudging through marshy ferns one day we were rewarded with a great picnic spot on a promontory overlooking Tobermory. Highland cows, caterpillars, dragonflies, crickets and frogs were all unimpressed with our urban terror of losing our boots in the mud.

After the bog, the banquet!

Incredibly, miles from large population centres, Lochaline also boasts The Whitehouse Restaurant, an award-winning unpretentious building with friendly service and food to savour.
We enjoyed starters of
  • Bread, olives and sun-dried tomatoes
  • Smoked salmon with quail’s eggs and caviare
  • Potted hog and toast
Mains of
  • Halibut
  • Trout
  • Lamb
  • Duck – (aka Jemima in the brambles)
Puddings of
  • Chocolate Dram
  • Highland Hedgerow Fruity Pudding
  • Whitehouse Border Tart
  • Scottish Cheeses, Oatcakes and Port
Chefs Mike and Lee and server Shirley gave us a great evening and, lo and behold, our AirBnB hosts, Amanda and Roderick were dining there with friends too. The food (and wine) was beautifully-presented and pleasurably-flavoursome.

Ardnamurchan Charters

In the middle of our holiday we made an early start along a picturesque road, via Strontian and Loch Sunart, to reach Laga Bay. Skipper Andy and faithful companion, Tag, a benign sea-faring Labrador, took us to the Island of Càrna, the Cairns of Coll and the Island of Muck. On Carna we learned about local conservation issues and the otter population; round Coll we gawped at the hundreds of seals on the skerries, rocks and pretty beaches; on Muck we stretched our legs, had a cuppa and a toilet break. What is life like for the people who live amongst these small islands? Hard to truly imagine, but Andy gave a good account of the hardships and the joys.

A life on the ocean wave

We were confined on the trim boat Laurenca for the best part of nine hours with Andy, Tag and eight other tourists. I’m sure Tag acted as a calming influence on us all, particularly when weird mists rolled over the sea or one or other of us started getting cabin-fever….! The point of all this out-of-the-comfort-zone nautical behaviour was to attempt to see wildlife and we did.

Arion on the dolphin’s back

Seals of all types and sizes, porpoises, sea eagles (an individual and two pairs, one pair posing and one pair wheeling spectacularly in the skies) and, most excitingly of all, a pod of common dolphins – sleek, sophisticated, synchronized, curling up and over in ones, twos, threes, fours and more, sliding by, following the boat for a time, seemingly entertaining us, being – well – dolphin-like. Wild and wonderful.

All that lives must die

Scotland, in my experience, has a tender melancholy air; the landscapes contain the echoes of hardships and massacres. Not far from Tigh Darach stood the ruins of St Fintan’s church which we reached by walking along what was described as a “coffin road,” apparently a route that Drimnin residents took carrying coffins across the land to burial sites at Lochs Arienas, Durinemast and Teacuis. The Killintag burial ground next to St Fintan’s church was poignant and bespoke untold stories; some cherished graves had been tended very recently. Cows and sheep, manure and rain, life and death. Every grave tells a story.

Highland Clearances

On the Ardtornish Estate we learned a first-hand account of the terrible Highland Clearances when long-standing settlers were evicted by rich landlords (in Ardtornish’s case a woman from Edinburgh, Christina Stewart, who never visited Morvern having bought the land from the Duke of Argyll.) Old ways of living and collective farming were thrown out to make way for the more lucrative sheep farming business, a practice that needed land but few workers. (The Dress Act of 1746 added insult to injury by banning the wearing of kilts and all tartan or plaid patterns. Is it any wonder that kilts are now a source of national pride in Scotland?)

Aoineadh Mor (Inniemore)

The Scottish Forestry Commission have done a great job restoring the walks around the abandoned village and commemorated Mary Cameron and her husband James by naming key pathways after them. Actress Anne Sinclair reads Mary’s sad story in both English and Gaelic in an audio-post with a great view out towards Loch Arienas. The walks are through mixed pine plantation of fir, pine and spruce, sometimes moss-covered, and heather and scrubby bushes lined the tracks. Perfect (apart from a sprained ankle.)

Getting away from it all?

One of the great pleasures on holiday is having the time to chat about any and everything, trying to make sense of the past, the present and what might happen in the future. So “getting away from it all” inevitably means reflecting on the reality of what is waiting back home and, in the case of this particular holiday, discussing the way the media is manipulated by vested interests – a topic prompted by our holiday box set of The Newsroom – a thought-provoking TV show with plenty of shout-at-the-telly moments. Like The West Wing it is a predictably fantastical left-wing hallucination of how things could be but never will be, raising many relevant issues but dealing with them in a soap opera style that is both infuriating and entertaining. The American patriotism is sometimes a bit cloying but the overall sentiment is absolutely admirable. Many thanks to Maggie for recommending (and loaning) The Newsroom!

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes

Scotland’s history, culture and attitude to education and the arts fascinate me for deep-seated reasons I don’t understand. So hopefully we’ll return to Scotland again; and stand "on the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond."

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

And each man have enough

Greg Doran's RSC production of King Lear

A play for our times

I have seen Shakespeare’s King Lear on stage over a dozen times and it is always a harrowing experience (sometimes for negative reasons but often for powerful and profound reasons.) The recent Royal Shakespeare Company production by Greg Doran, in Stratford-upon-Avon (soon to be in cinemas and in London,) reveals fresh ideas about particular lines and characters but, more than I’ve ever felt before, it strikes me as a play that needs to be understood by the current government. An elderly audience member from Liverpool sitting next to me, a man I didn’t know, was moved to turn to me at the end and say “all politicians who favour austerity as a policy should be forced to see this.”

Oliver Johnstone as Edgar, Antony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester, Antony Byrne as Kent, Paapa Essiedu as Edmund, Natalie Simpson as Cordelia

Reason not the need

Faithful (disguised) son Edgar leading blinded (deceived) father Gloucester
As Lear’s power is stripped away, literally and metaphorically, Lear begins to see humans for the “poor, bare, forked” animals they are and he realises that, as the king, he has “taken too little care of this.” The trajectory of Lear’s journey on stage is from the pomp of his court where he controls land and distributes wealth to the blighted English countryside where he is a broken, homeless, poor and hungry beggar looking for shelter. From king to beggar in two hours…. Doran's production charted this journey vividly. 


How much is enough? How much (Money? Shelter? Clean Water? Food? Safety? Entertainment?) is enough to live a civilised life? How much money does a banker need to live a happy life? How much welfare does a disabled veteran need to survive with dignity? What about a rich and generous benefactor who gives plenty to charity? Or an unemployed drug addict who is suffering because of parental abuse? Who has the right to make judgements about what rich people do with their money or who can judge the vulnerable person who relies on the state to keep them alive? Well…. Governments claims the right by taking and using taxes from workers and loans from financial institutions. Governments make judgements and then create legal and financial policies based on those judgements. The government distributes the country’s revenue as a result of the judgements they make. Like King Lear. Lear makes judgements in the first scene of the play and the consequent unfolding tragedy destroys the kingdom and his three daughters as well as himself.
Faces of Antony Sher: as Richard III, as Tamburlaine, as The Roman Actor, as Macbeth with Harriet Walter, as Falstaff, as Leontes with Alexandra Gilbreath as Hermione

Sir Antony Sher

Sher played Lear as a horribly vain tyrant at the beginning summoning curses from an ancient religion at which the younger characters rolled their eyes. By the end he became a vulnerable dad who had seen into the abyss and realised his part in its creation. The ancient religion no longer produced a drum roll on cue, just silence and a bleak "Nothing." Sir Antony Sher’s line delivery of Shakespeare always sounds to me as if the play he is performing had been written yesterday and his character is working everything out there and then. Sher makes me hear the play as well as see it. A great performance, I think, all the more remarkable since he was in the first production of King Lear I ever saw playing The Fool to Michael Gambon’s Lear.
Antony Sher's own painting of himself as The Fool and with his Lear, Michael Gambon, as the modern tragic hero-fool, Willy Loman, and now, as Lear, with his own Fool, Graham Turner

Gwynne, Williams, Simpson

Where is a girl’s mother when you need her? The three sisters (Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Kelly Williams as Regan and Natalie Simpson as Cordelia) all suggested complicated back stories of the need to be loved by their omnipotent (but old-fashioned) father. The elder two daughters were definitely more “sinned against than sinning” in the first half of the play. Goneril’s anxiety and Regan’s desperation were more affecting than Cordelia’s rather steely “I know I’m right” attitude in the opening love trial, which made the arcs of the three sisters more complicated than usual. By the end Cordelia broke my heart and the emerging viciousness of Goneril and Regan was palpable but the opening scenes of this production didn’t foreground the final destination of the sisters. Excellent interpretations.
Nia Gwynne as Goneril, Natalie Simpson as Cordelia, Kelly Williams as Regan

Byrne, Troughton, Essiedu, Johnstone

Antony Byrne was a convincingly loyal (“blunt and saucy”) Kent. The magnificent David Troughton was a tough, vigorous and then traumatised (blinded) Gloucester and his sons were memorable: Paapa Essiedu fresh from Hamlet, was an insinuating and attractive Edmund and Oliver Johnstone, topping even his sensual Iachimo in Cymbeline, was a gullible and then truly heroic Edgar, both in his Poor Tom disguise and his knight-protector role, duelling his half-brother Edmund to Edmund’s death. (“The wheel is come full circle.”) Sometimes at the end of King Lear I feel that the remaining world will not be safe in Edgar’s hands but at the end of this production I felt Oliver Johnstone had taken his father’s words into his heart:
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.
Long Live King Edgar!
Lears: Brian Cox (with David Bradley), Timothy West, David Calder, Wu Hsing Kuo, Frank Langella, Nigel Hawthorne, Warren Mitchell, Pete Postlethwaite, Jonathan Pryce (with Phoebe Cox), David Warner, John Shrapnel (with Trevor Cooper), Greg Hicks, Tom Courtenay, Corin Redgrave (with David Hargreaves), Derek Jacobi, David Hayman (with Owen Whitelaw), Simon Russell Beale, Nonso Anozie, Ian McKellen, Tim Piggot-Smith and David Haig

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Happiness is not a potato

Blowing away the cobwebs

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – going for a stretch on the moors above Haworth is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I feel lucky to live in Yorkshire where there’s enough city life (enough for me at any rate) but also enough easily-accessed countryside with inspiring views. The world is a big and scary place so I think that finding places of sanctuary is important. The colour of moorland heather always heartens my spirit, whether it’s blazing in the sun, drenched in teeming rain or shrouded in eery mist. Heather makes me happy.

Cultivating happiness

Happiness is an elusive thing. It can creep up unexpectedly. It can disappear in a trice, like mist on the moors. Charlotte Brontë reflected in the sensational Villette:
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure.
Yet it seems to me that you can do things, say things and be places that help you find some level of happiness. Without the tyranny of a working week I find it much easier to appreciate the small and beautiful things that happen every day. I wish I could have done that more readily when I worked. What prompted the good folk of Haworth to hold a Halloween parade last October? Sinister pagan rituals, or fun communal activities? (They were collecting for charity so whatever the reason for dressing up, some good came out of it.)
Haworth - a town of regular surprises.... and a base for marvellous walks.