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Favourite Scottish Authors

Iconic Eilean Donan Castle, taken on my last visit to Scotland in August 2014

Iconic Eilean Donan Castle, taken on my last visit to Scotland in August 2014

Well, it has been a tense week as we all watched the Scottish Independence referendum with bated breath. We were quite emotional in our household when the results came in. In delighted recognition that Scotland has decided to stay as part of the United Kingdom, I thought I’d share some of my favourite Scottish authors with you (I’m including writers who have lived in Scotland for a long time or had Scottish parents, as well as natural-born Scots).

JK Rowling

Perhaps I should be starting this list with Robert Burns, but the Scottish author who has touched me most is J K Rowling, through her wonderful Harry Potter series. One of the most famous women in the world, her journey to stardom is as fascinating and inspiring as her books. Not only did she re-engage a whole generation with the magic of reading, but her recent career moves (like the Robert Galbraith series) suggests that the future is bright for this talented Scot.

Alexander McCall Smith

Technically, McCall Smith was born in Africa, but as he now lives in Edinburgh, I think I can call him an honorary Scot and include him in this list.  His No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series is one of those collections of books that I turn to when I need a little more sunshine in my live. Easy to read but deeply felt, the adventures and misadventures of Precious Ramotswe are an utter joy.

Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is a Yorkshire woman like myself, but now lives in Edinburgh. I have to confess that until recently, I didn’t particularly ‘get’ Atkinson’s novels. I had read Behind the Scenes at the Museum a few years ago and, although highly regarded by many, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, that all changed when I picked up Life after Life last Christmas (I was inspired by Cornflower’s excellent post). In my opinion, that book is a future classic, I adored it and feel in love with Atkinson’s style. Since then, I have been working my way through her back catalogue and wondering why I waited so long!

William Boyd

I am including William Boyd in this list because, although he has not lived in Scotland after his university years to my knowledge, he is the son of Scottish parents and was educated in Scotland. Any Human Heart introduced me to William Boyd and it is an underrated gem in my opinion. I’ve rarely read such an insightful and mesmerising catalogue of one flawed man’s life. I have a soft spot for journal or diary-style novels and this, along with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, is one of the best of the genre.

Sir Walter Scott

My personal favourite historic Scottish novelist is Sir Walter Scott. Ivanhoe has many faults, but I associate it with the romantic tales of my childhood, of Robin Hood, of the Saxons and Normans, dark forests and forbidding castles, of the Magna Carter and Richard the Lionheart. For that reason, I am very fond of it and I also like the way he illustrates the conflict between ideals and reality, a theme that is as relevant today as it was in the 1800s.  I keep intending to read more Scott…

There are many more Scottish authors that I have yet to try. On my iPhone notes  (do you do this, keep a wish list of books you’ve been meaning to read somewhere?) are Irvine Welsh and the poet George Mackay Brown among others. I also own an anthology of the work of Robert Burns which is lingering in my ‘to read’ pile. One day!


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Remembrance Day

Poppy, courtesy of wikicommons

Poppy, courtesy of wikicommons

It is Remembrance Day here in the UK and at 11am, I will be stopping whatever I am doing to take two minute’s silence and remember all those who have given their lives in wars. I wear my poppy with pride every year and, as we all step off our treadmills for those minutes, I never fail to be moved. I will think about my own family’s experiences in WWI and WWII; I will think about all the waste of young lives lost, even now; and I will also think about war poetry.

In honour of this day, I thought I’d share one of the most heart-stoppingly tragic poems about war I have ever read. I grew up knowing about Wilfred Owen, as it was a favourite local tale that he wrote this poem whilst stationed at my home town’s  WW1 army camp. This may or may not be true, but what I do know is that he died one week before the end of the war. It is indescribably sad. I then studied the war poets in depth for my G.C.S.E’s, including this poem, and shed many a tear over them whilst revising. Because of these things, I feel like these final lines are scratched into my heart, particularly on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year.


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 – March, 1918

We will remember them.

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Black Diamonds: The Rise and Fall of an English Dynasty

I vividly remember the first time I went down a mine. I am claustrophobic and it felt like hell on earth to me, descending in the lift into Stygian gloom. When I was down there, the back-breaking low tunnels, the smell of dust and damp and the unexpected heat all took me by surprise and I was thankful that neither myself or my ancestors had to endure that (to my knowledge anyway). I was particularly moved by the plight of the pit ponies, the hardy little beasts stuck down in that nightmare through no choice of their own. I didn’t see at the time that their human masters often had no choice about going down the mine either.

Black Diamonds  by Catherine Bailey is the story of both mining in the early twentieth century and the story of the downfall of a family that owned mines. I picked this book up as  (if you’ve read this blog for a while you know of my love of stately homes and their stories) it centred around one of the biggest unknown stately homes in the UK. I can’t quite remember where or how I heard of Wentworth Woodhouse, but it has one of the longest frontages of any stately home and yet is virtually forgotten. Wentworth was bought in 1999 for £1.5m which, this book claims, was cheaper per yard than a council house in nearby Rotherham. How did it come to that?

Wentworth Woodhouse

Wentworth Woodhouse, courtesy of Wikicommons and Jeff Pearson

The fortunes of this great house and the family that lived there were tied to the South Yorkshire coal fields. With the backdrop of the depression, the General Strike and World War II, they didn’t stand a chance. The coal mines were nationalised in 1946 and despite that fact that the Fitzwilliams were generally recognised as the best of private employers, there was, and could be, very little objection to that given the general circumstances of appalling private safety records, exploitation and hardship for mining communities. What the Fitzwilliams and local people objected to alike though was the near destruction of Wentworth House by open cast mining. After WWII, Britain was desperate for coal and, although Earl Fitzwilliam had already opened up most of his estate for mining, the government of the time set their sights on the park and gardens as well. One of those most moving passages in the book describes when the diggers moved in:

The brutes of contractors rushed in, two days before they were due to start, mowing down shrubs, trees and specimen Rhododendrons of every kind, to say nothing of miles of every sort and kind of daffodils – things we had collected for years and the overburden is to be put 50 ft high in the gardens up to the gallery window. It is absolute vandalism, as the coal could have been got far better from below…they just would not listen – 10 ft of the spire of the church has already gone, and I should think the house is bound to crack. It is utterly heartbreaking. Letter from Maud Fitzwilliam to Lucia, Viscountess Galway.

Luckily, the house did not crack, but the park and gardens were ruined and the family looked out on slag heaps piled high against their windows. It was convincingly proved that the coal mined in this way was not good quality and, as Lady Maud said, there were alternatives that would not have been so spiteful. The Labour government of the day appeared to have turned the quest for a national resource into a punishment of the privileged. I think anyone with any sense would deplore the wanton destruction of beauty and  feel distress watching years of work put into someone’s home being ripped up. I read this with a very bitter taste in my mouth and I don’t think there is any better symbol of the violence of this activity than the fact it snapped the church tower.

In the book, there is a picture of what open cast mining looked like at Wentworth, but here is a modern picture so you can imagine how hurt the earth looks and what kind of destruction is involved.

Open cast mining

Open Cast Mining, courtesy of Wikicommons and James Allan

I found Black Diamonds very interesting. It filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge about coal mining in the twentieth century and the people associated with it. It was also the story of a fascinating family and home. My only criticisms were that I felt the beginning and ending were matched a bit too conveniently. The author had set this book up as a story of the secrets of an aristocratic family and the lengths they went to keep them and she was determined to stick to that line. I felt that theory didn’t entirely fit by the end of the books and it was actually more about a compelling snapshot of the end of the great country houses and the tragedy of coal mining and the Fitzwilliams (and others whose lives they touched). I also felt that the subtitle, ‘The rise and fall of an English dynasty’ was not entirely correct as there was little about the rise, more about the fall.  However, that did not diminish my enjoyment of it and so if you are interested in learning a bit more about this period, Yorkshire mining and how British society changed forever, this is for you!


Monkeying around

A Barbary Macaque looking out over Gibralter

Master of all he surveys!

Last weekend, we were lucky enough to go to a friend’s wedding in the south of Spain. The day after the wedding, we took the opportunity to visit Gibraltar which was 20 minutes down the road.

We had been a bit nervous about border problems, as sovereignty issues are being raised by Spain again at the moment. This small piece of land and enormous rock is probably one of the most disputed areas of the world. Its history is fascinating but more on that below.

After crossing the border, with no problems at all, we then walked over a narrow spit of land and the airport runway into Gibraltar town. If walking across an international airport runway was not odd enough, on the other side we then found ourselves in a hot, alien version of the UK. Husband breathed a sigh of relief on seeing British traffic lights and signs and muttered something about it being good to be home! I looked back behind me towards the border where, through a chicken wire fence, lay Spain. I then looked ahead and there lay Gibraltar, with an unmistakably British flavour. It felt a very odd juxtaposition.

After wandering around the town and seeing familiar sights like Morrisons and M&S, we decided to walk up the Rock to the Siege Tunnels. I was feeling a little grumpy as we stumbled up a myriad of small roads and alleys in 35 degree heat. However, near the Moorish Castle, we were rewarded by the sight above. A macaque gazing out solemnly over the bay. It was a lovely surprise as I had completely forgotten about the monkeys of Gibraltar. They have an awful reputation for causing mischief and so later, as one strode towards us, we backed away and Husband whispered ‘Watch out got your bag!’ – just like in London, just a different kind of mugger!

We ended our visit by exploring the siege tunnels carved out of the interior of the rock to defend Gibraltar from the last serious attempt by Spain and France to take it back from the British in the late 1700s. This was the fourteenth siege of Gibraltar! Being inside the Rock was a wonderful experience, slightly eerie but cool and safe feeling. I found it fascinating to learn that inside the Rock is a network of tunnels (34 miles) and even reservoirs for the town. The people here have had to be ingenious with their use of scarce land. Interestingly, the oldest tunnels are the safest in the Rock. This is because the older tunnels used natural fissures in the rock as well as picks and explosives that led to much more stable tunnels than later excavations. In the Second World War, many more tunnels were dug but diamond drilling and nitro-glycerine explosions means that many more stress fractures developed and most of these tunnels are now sealed off and not safe. The lesson that sometimes older, slower ways are better was put in my pocket and brought home with me when we said goodbye to Gibraltar a few hours later.

An interesting article about the history of Gibraltar can be found here if you’d like to know more.


Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors, Xi'an, China, July 2013

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, China, July 2013

This is one of the pictures that I find the most moving of all my many photographs from our recent trip to China. His unique clay face peers out of the Earth, waiting to be brushed and glued and returned to his former glory, like the rest of his comrades in Pit 1. For two thousand years he has guarded the Emperor Qin faithfully, long after the roof fell in, the lights went out and those that made him died. To me, these soldiers are as much of a legacy to the ordinary people who made them, modelling them after brothers, friends and cousins, as to the Emperor himself.

There are six excavated pits at the Xi’an location of the terracotta warriors and there could be more. The tomb of the Emperor himself is half a kilometer away from Pit 1 and has not been excavated. Ancient texts talk of rivers of mercury in his tomb, and initial modern probes into the tomb show unexpectedly high levels of mercury, perhaps confirming those ancient reports. This is one of the reasons the Emperor’s tomb remains undisturbed and will do for the foreseeable future. This feels the right, respectful course of action and also sensible given Qin’s legendary ruthlessness – who knows what horrors will be down there!

I had the good fortune to see some of the terracotta warriors when they visited the British Museum a year or so ago (actually, just checked and it was 2008, opps, time flies!), but I am so glad I saw them in their proper context. Nothing will make me forget the first view of Pit 1, an aircraft hangar filled with row after row of ancient memories; a last effort by an incredible ego to control, even in death.

Terracotta Warriors, Pit 1, Xi'an, China

Terracotta Warriors, Pit 1, Xi’an, China

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One more step along the wall I go…

I am still pinching myself that I have actually stood on the Great Wall of China. That monument to human endeavour that we learnt about at school and which I was told could be seen from space (I know now better!).

The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu region

The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu region

Standing at what seemed like the top of the wall, you could easily see the flatter, calm urbanised side and the mountainous, savage side. It was clear what they were trying to keep out. However, the wall also kept things in of course and so controlled both emigration and trade.

The Great Wall of China does not have just one architect, instigator or builder. It is the work of many generations which started in 7th century BC. Work continues to this day, although the restoration is now about tourism and heritage rather than defence and empire.

The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu region

The Great Wall of China, Mutianyu region

Despite that, the Great Wall does owe its development to some key individuals. Emperor Qin Shi Huang united China for the first time around 200BC and set about developing the wall by connecting old fortifications to protect from northern invaders. Emperor Qin was also the architect of the Terracotta army, on which I will write a future post, and the unification of the Chinese script and measurements. I can’t decide if he was a visionary or a megalomanic or a bit mad or perhaps all of those things. I did hear one of our guides explain that he burnt books in the name of stability, which is disappointingly destructive and tends to confirm my megalomanic opinion! His achievements are certainly impressive though and if you are interested in reading more about him, this article is very good and makes interesting links between Qin and Chairman Mao.

Emperor Qin’s wall has long since been eroded though and what we see today is largely the work of the Ming Dynasty in the 14th century (with some modern restoration thrown in).  The Ming dynasty used bricks for their wall rather than the earth of the Emperor Qin. The Chinese have used fired bricks in their buildings for at least 3,000 years. This is so much earlier than in England and had the effect, to my eyes, of making very old buildings, like the city walls of Xi’an, look much more modern than they actually are.  I found that interesting.

Standing on the wall was a highlight of my holiday. The weather was beautiful and the feeling of deep history was palpable. Have you been or would you like to go? Do let me know!

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We went for a short break to Northumberland last week and had a thoroughly relaxing time. I also managed to get a slight suntan in the far north of England which I consider to be an achievement I will dine out on for years to come! Today I thought you might like a few small stories about our trip away. I’m going to have to rely on word pictures and any images I can snaffle free from the internet though I’m afraid as I was awaiting a new memory card so took none of my own photos (an excuse to go back I  think!).

First stop, the picturesque town and castle of Alnwick, seat of the Dukes and Duchesses of Northumberland, and location of Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. I did find a Creative Commons image, isn’t it beautiful?

Alnwick Castle: Creative Commons

Alnwick Castle: Creative Commons

Whilst we were there, the castle was being prepared for a wedding, that of Lady Melissa Percy I believe and I can’t think of a better venue. One place to avoid if you’ve had a few drinks is the ‘Oubliette’ though. From the french word meaning ‘to forget’, this is little more than a deep hole in the ground on either side of the interior gatehouse where prisoners were put in days gone by. It is very easy to believe that they then would be just forgotten about. A harrowing fate I think, even for lawless times, especially as the drop appeared deep enough to break several bones but probably not kill you outright when you were chucked down there. The information board did say people were sometimes lowered down with ropes though I should explain. The ‘sometimes’ in the sentence is revealing!

Almost as interesting for me  as the castle though was the short wander into the town of Alnwick itself, where I stumbled across an Aladdin’s cave of books. Marketing itself as ‘the British Library of second-hand books’, Barter Books is a revelation. Based in Alnwick’s old station building, the magic begins as you step inside into a delicious smell of loved books and the chug-chug and whistles of a model train weaving its way around the rafters. I don’t think I’d see everything they had to offer even if I spent a week there, the selection was so diverse, from the modern (I did see a Fifty Shades of Grey lurking in one stack) to the almost priceless antiques in glass cabinets. Given that selection, I was remarkably restrained in my purchases. At one point while drooling over a signed edition of Great Expectations I had to remind myself that I buy books to enjoy and read, not as a collector, but it was very tempting! In the end, I left with a nearly new copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which has been on my ‘To read’ list for a while. For £2.50 I felt I had bagged a bargain! I’ll let you know what I think of it in a future post. One final interesting fact about Barter Books is that is the place the craze for the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ typographic poster was born. The owner found a wartime original that has since spawned countless copies and tapped into a slightly strange ‘state of the nation’ zeitgeist, love it or hate it.

We had a wonderful few days. The people were friendly and there were the kind of big skies and big landscapes that just feel good for your soul. Combine that with the best second-hand book shop I’ve ever found and lots of history and you have the recipe for my perfect short break!