Tuesday, 28 September 2010


Today marks the start of the Ryder Cup, which gives me the perfect excuse to mention one of Scotland's great inventions....the game of golf.

As you will know, the Ryder Cup, which this year is being held at Newport in South Wales, offers European professional golfers a chance to compete against their peers from the USA. The competition has taken place biennially since 1927, interrupted by WW11 and the terrorist attacks of 2001. It is considered one of the world's great sporting events, and is a particular favourite of golfers and fans alike.

I have to declare that although I am a Scot, I would never describe myself as a golfer. I have grown up surrounded by golf clubs, golfers and golf courses, and once, in a moment of enthusiasm, I helped to build a course (well, it passed the summer hols). Later on, I spent several years living in St Andrews, but, to the dismay and incredulity of most golfers, I never played the sacred game while living in the Home of Golf. I know...it's shameful, but I was busy.  

Nowadays, I restrict my playing to one or two favourite courses on small islands, often in fog, where the fairways are enhanced by the sheep that graze upon them and the planes that occasionally land there. My skills as a golfer are lamentable, but do at least allow me to venerate the great game with a suitable level of humility. However, much to my surprise, while in Norway, I did somehow find myself playing golf in the Arctic...at midnight, just because you CAN. 

There is some debate as to the exact origins of golf...there is a view that the Romans were busy clubbing balls as well as several other things as they went about expanding their empire. Some believe the Chinese are responsible, but nobody can prove a thing. What is generally accepted, however, is that the modern game derived from a few Fife shepherds who gained their kicks by knocking stones into rabbit holes with their crooks at the site of the Old Course in St Andrews.

Later, in 1744, a group of men met to establish some rules (and they were all men...believe me, when, in my youth, I gained employment as a 'plongeur' at the 'Royal and Ancient', the notice at the front door still said 'No dogs, and no women'). Since then, the original framework for these rules has been modified and updated from time to time, safeguarding the game and ensuring respect for its traditions. People visit the Old Course in St Andrews from all over the world...some of them play, but many simply look upon the hallowed turf in awe and wonder.

There are some who think that one is not a proper person unless one chooses to play and take an interest in this great game. I find this view extremely trying, knowing as I do many a good and courteous citizen who has no interest whatsoever. Golf can raise tempers and displays of less than perfect manners, particularly at the moment while Mr Donald Trump is busy establishing a course off the North East coast of Scotland, a scheme that has enraged many a Scot.

But whatever one's attitude to the game in general, however much one might play and however often one might enjoy watching golf, there is no doubt it lies at the very heart of our culture here in Scotland. It suits the climate, it suits our topography, it allows for a dose of exercise and fresh air that creates thrill without causing too much breathless effort. But I can't help suspecting it rather suits our character too....Scots like to grapple with things, to face challenges and seek to conquer them. The old jibe of golf being 'a good walk ruined' has an air of truth to it....is there anything more frustrating than trying to whack a wee white ball round some holes with accuracy and aplomb? Pent up frustrations can vanish.

I may not be a regular golfer, but, rather like old age, I can feel it coming on....there's a kind of inevitability about having to spend some of one's life playing golf. However, there is absolutely no inevitability about the outcome of a game, and that is why we can't resist watching a decent championship.

So, I'd like to know, whether or not you play golf, where in the world is your favourite course?

Friday, 24 September 2010


We're sitting in Children's Accident and Emergency with a broken finger which is still, just, attached to a traumatised child, albeit at a slightly jaunty angle. There are four of us trying to share two plastic chairs. We are also trying to write an essay on a truly appalling and disgracefully self-indulgent poem by Plath, and there's a physics test in the morning, so we're testing each other on electrical currents. None of us have had anything to eat for at least six hours, and all we can find is an an old piece of mouldy chocolate that was lurking in my non-designer handbag.

To make matters worse, I look completely mad. I am wearing a foul outfit that I had been using for gardening earlier in the day, so no doubt I smell of manure. I haven't looked in the mirror since dawn, my hair has suffered its usual reaction to the Scottish smir so I look like a cross between a firework and a demented loo brush. The only lipstick in my bag is jet black, a leftover from a recent dressing-up outfit. None of us have coats, or even a jumper of any kind and the weather outside is becoming less and less inviting. One of us managed to leave school wearing only one shoe, a trick which may defy all logic, but the sort of incident to which most parents of teenagers will merely raise a resigned eyebrow.

I am also missing two meetings this evening, one of which I seriously needed to attend. I had three urgent phone-calls to make, but my phone is probably down the back of the sofa at home. Maybe. I have to find radishes for someone's Home Economics lesson, and I know I need to produce six pound coins to hand out to various offspring for very specific purposes. The car is sitting in a dodgy space outside, so I may well be fined, and it also has just a miniscule dribble of petrol left in it...the nearest petrol station is shut, so I'll have to hope we can reach one somewhere else on the way home. I must complete a vital letter to the Scottish Parliament on a subject currently being debated. Oh, and I have to make a Victorian costume for a nine-year-old before tomorrow morning.

Some of the most amazing people I know are single parents. I've now had a full four months of pretending to be a single parent, the TA being stuck in Norway up to this point. All oil wives know very well what it is like to have to hold the fort for days, weeks, months at a time, and they become highly adept at doing so. Our friends in the Military have an even harder time, often longer, and without nearly so much contact. And some people manage to be single parents all the time, for which they should be given a giant medal on a daily basis. So I have been trying to find a neat trick that will help me to cope....I didn't think I'd find it in A and E.

I shove the uninjured offspring off one of the plastic seats and sit back in contemplation. I'm stuck in here until the broken finger is dealt with, and I find this kind of incarceration curiously relaxing. I can't do anything. I'm trapped until all is resolved. A kindly nurse shows great concern for the patient, and so I share some of his kindness, pretending a dose of it is inadvertently intended for me. Then the doc shows up and I am immediately comforted by her Mask of Knowing Brilliance.

I am fond of The Mask of Knowing Brilliance. I've seen it quite a bit. It is something I believe all good medics acquire, almost by osmosis, at some point during their clinical training. Whether or not The Mask originated in Scotland, no-one can say, for it appears to be universal amongst the medical establishment.  I wonder if they realize what a comfort it is to those of us who are mere patients. It can have an immediate placebo effect, and that's not merely on the patient themselves but any hangers-on too. Even when the situation has taken the doctor by surprise, and they patently haven't a clue what is going on, as long as they present The Mask of Knowing Brilliance, we mere mortals can put up with almost anything.

After reflecting on this while we wait about, I think how useful it must be to have such a mask. Perhaps it could be used by mothers, by parents in general, when dealing with the inconveniences of life. So, once the finger is sorted, after buying petrol and radishes and acquiring six pound coins, after scrabbling about for some food (sorry, darlings, I know it's junk tonight, but close your eyes and pretend you don't like it and your mother didn't really buy it), after finding it is too late to phone anyone and my phone could stay down the back of the sofa for all I cared, after sewing a unique Victorian costume from an old table cloth and an absurd colour of thread, after the Plath and the physics were dealt with, the letter finished off and the youths had disappeared off to bed, I try pulling a few faces in the mirror.

Ah yes...you see? That's powerful. Even I can do The Mask of Knowing Brilliance. Good discovery. Maybe it's the black lipstick that does it.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


A 'fine piece' helps the world go around. It's just a fact.

Anyone acquainted with the North East of Scotland will know very well that a 'fine piece' is a treat, a little of what you fancy, naughty but nice, something a wee bit sweet, a wee bit tasty and a wee bit thrilling. In other words, a cake.

We all know that such delights should be approached in moderation, if not rationed. But in certain settings, preferably social ones, the opportunity to indulge in a 'fine piece' can produce more than mere pleasure and satisfaction. I have learnt that a 'fine piece' served at an appropriate moment can make things happen.

A friend of mine, a good citizen who contributes on a daily basis to our local community and to wider society in general, told me her view of how to run the perfect meeting. In addition to making sure that everyone was able to say their bit without people blethering on until we were at wrist-slitting point, she has adhered to a certain trick for most of her committee-filled life.

'Ye'll nae get onything done and decided wi'oot the offer o' a fine piece at half-time.'

How true. I have sat on many a committee in the past, and even chaired a few, and there is nothing finer than being able to say, 'Och, now, let's have a wee breather and scoff a plate o' French Fancies wi' a wee cup o' tea'. Just when things are getting a bit sticky, when the argy-bargy is threatening unpleasantness, when the bossiest person at the table is starting to needle the pedant (for most committees can provide such characters), oil can be poured on troubled waters with the offer of a 'fine piece' and a cup of tea.

I mention this because I was once witness to the Norwegian amusement at we Brits, particularly over the 'cup of tea' issue, although the 'fine piece' was all part of the joke. This Norwegian laddie had been a student in Scotland, and could not get over the fact that his fellow-students and flat-mates, about every five minutes, said things like, 'Time for a cuppa', or 'anyone fancy a brew-up,' or 'char's ready' or 'I could just murder a cup o' tea right now.' The Norwegian fell about laughing at the memory of his student days, slapping his thighs with mirth at the very thought of this tea-obsessed nation in which he was seeking to further his education.

'I thought it was all a huge cliché until I actually lived with you guys,' he chortled as he mopped his tear-filled eyes. 'But every time I entered a room, or stood up, or spoke, I was instantly offered a cup of tea...it was hilarious....you Brits really are totally hooked on tea and little cakes.'

I tried to explain. I pointed out that this habit is probably a relic of our imperial past....what better way to ensure the prosperity of a nation and its empire than to create a population of addicts? Whether it be tea, sugar or some rather more dodgy commodity, there is no doubt that we fell for it all and haven't recovered yet.

But why worry? If you need to cajole and persuade people to do things, if our PM Mr Cameron is to achieve his aim of establishing a 'Big Society' (we are all still trying to work out exactly what this means, but we THINK it means we all have to contribute more, in one way or another) then I reckon a 'fine piece' strategy won't do any harm. So, if you'll excuse me for a tick, I must, in my capacity to contribute to The Big Society, email Number 10 and tell the Coalition to get baking.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010


If someone offers you a 'boatle a' soup' in Glasgow, you would be wise to decline politely. You could end up 'blootered', if not 'heavily bongoed'. The lingo may be splendid, but the habit is not. Sad to say, the culture, and therefore the language, surrounding the drinking of alcohol in Glasgow is maintaining the stereotypical image of my favourite city. But Glaswegians aren't the only ones...the stereotype has relatives throughout the whole of the UK these days. We Scots, we Brits, are drinking copious quantities, and it's not pretty, especially for our young people.

So this week, the British Red Cross announced that it is to offer First Aid classes for children so that they can help their friends if they become dangerously drunk. That is the state we have got ourselves into here in the UK. The British Red Cross has carried out a survey which reveals that amongst every 2,500 young people (11 to 16 year olds), 10% have been left with a drunk friend who was sick, injured or unconscious, and 14% reported that they had been in an alcohol-related emergency. Between 2006 and 2009 there were more than 7,000 hospital admissions involving under-15s and alcohol.

I have long been an admirer of the Red Cross. I like the organisation's 'finger-on-the-pulse' attitude and its practical, non-judgemental approach to need. Wherever the Red Cross works, it somehow manages to understand what a society is most in need of at any one time. In Norway, I know that at the moment the Red Cross is particularly concerned with 'social isolation' and works hard to ensure that the those who are hidden from society are not ignored. I have witnessed this work in Norway at close hand, and I have to report it has changed lives for the better.

You will recall that one of my favourite Norwegians is Fridtjof Nansen. I have already mentioned his achievements as a polar explorer and scientist, but so far, I have not mentioned how he went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1922, the last of the German and Austria-Hungarian soldiers, who had been in Russian captivity after WW1, was shipped home. In exchange, the ships they arrived in returned with the last Russian POWs from Germany. Over 400,000 prisoners were exchanged within two years, thanks mainly to Nansen.

Nansen was grateful to the International Red Cross for carrying out the bulk of the practical work. As a result of working with him, the Red Cross decided to use his name in another regard. Lenin had deprived thousands of Russians of their nationality, after they had fled to the West following the civil war. This 'statelessness' prevented them from crossing borders, so the Red Cross proposed using Nansen's name on a special passport for refugees. As a result, the Nansen Passport became much sought-after, allowing many to make a new life for themselves in the West, including Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Pavlova and Chagall.

I realize the link to Scotland's drink problem is somewhat tenuous, but after this week's announcement, I can't help recalling all this as the Red Cross goes about its work. Whether the need is local, national or international, it delivers...with one eye on the Pakistan Flood Appeal, there is another, more local eye, seeking solutions here. (Scotland's links with Pakistan have meant Scots, and Britain as a whole, have donated considerably to that disaster, and we continue to do so.)

So, can the Red Cross help to ease the risks of our young folks' binge-drinking? We have to hope so. I have just seen a questionnaire which asked school children about their attitudes to alcohol...it makes one's hair stand on end.

At the moment, the Scottish Parliament is debating whether or not to increase the price of cheaper brands of alcohol....those against an increase fear that such a move would merely line the pockets of retailers, could potentially create greater hardship as manufacturers lose part of their market, and that hardened drinkers would still find alcohol somewhere anyway.

Well, try telling that to a medic working in a Casualty ward on a Friday night, or a school head who has to deal with the aftermath of pupils recovering from a drunken weekend, or the policeman who patiently returns plastered teenagers back to their parents' doorstep of an evening, or a parent whose child is having their stomach pumped.

I think this is a moment for the current parlance...'it's a no brainer'.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


I was required to go out and purchase a chanter for a certain acquaintance of mine. You will know, of course, the significance of a chanter....in Scotland, a 'chanter' is either a person who sings a great deal, or it is part of a set of bagpipes. You blow into one end, and your fingers play the tune further down the pipe. If you have picked the bagpipes as your instrument of choice, you will learn and practise on the chanter. If you insist on practising on a full set of bagpipes all the time, you will have no friends.

I am well aware that the bagpipes are not everyone's ideal sound. Firstly, they are preposterously loud, particularly if you are in the same room(there are rumours that they can be heard 10 miles away). In the past, many a Christmas dinner Chez Nous has been enlivened by a set of bagpipes, and there is no pretending they are quiet. ....glasses shatter, small children cry, dogs whimper, cats howl, old ladies block their ears before bolting for the nearest exit. It's a jolly good way to clear a room, but it's fair to say, the pipes are not exactly 'easy listenin'.

But oh, how they make my heart ache...your ears, my heart. I have to admit, I cannot listen to one note on the pipes without my spine tingling, and before long, there's a glistening about the eyes. The skirl o' the pipes must be one of the most atmospheric sounds there is, a sound which lies very close to the soul of this nation. Wherever I am in the world, the slightest hint of the pipes is the fastest route back home, enough to induce instant projectile weeping and a ridiculously self-indulgent longing for the mountains and glens of one's childhood. You'd think I might grow out of this kind of thing, but no...it's becoming worse with age. In a decade or so I'll be a jibbering emotional wreck if I go on like this. It really is verging on the pathetic.

It's odd that bagpipes are so peculiarly Scottish nowadays. After all, a form of the instrument is mentioned in the Bible, and it is almost certain that they were played in Ancient Egypt. Many countries had some form of bagpipes at one time, but today, if you think of the pipes, it's almost impossible to think of any nation other than Scotland. While many countries were becoming less and less interested in the instrument, it seemed to suit the culture of the Highlands. The pipes were spectacular for playing outside, so useful for weddings, funerals, Highland games, processions and battlefields (they still play a significant role in theatres of war today). At one time, a Highland piper was a person of immense esteem, and in battle, if he could play well, nothing else was required of him.

Nowadays, you might think all this piping nonsense is just an act, a piece of kitsch cow-towing to the tourist market...really, in 2010, what is the point of dressing up like something off a short-bread tin and parading about in the cold?

You might also think piping was going out of fashion, that the younger generation are not particularly interested in this most ancient of sounds. After all, it looks like the most appalling effort to have to get a note out of the things...why bovver?

I can assure you, there is no cow-towing, and there's plenty of keen young lungs being puffed up to deliver a decent 'skirl'. A set of bagpipes is a seriously cool piece of kit round here, and nobody messes with the piper, wherever he, or she, may pipe. And check out the clothes? The togs are a total groove...only a wimp would miss out on the chance to put that lot on.

Since our return to this fair land, you wouldn't believe the number of times my shell-likes have been treated to a quick blast from someone's pipes. I hadn't realized they were so prevalent, nor that I had missed them so intensely while abroad....they are everywhere, from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, to the Kirk door, to the village hall on a Thursday night.

It's tremendous. If you listen to a good piper, and if you can afford to risk having your ears blown off, you will find no better illustration of the turbulent emotional undercurrent that lies beneath the stoical outward appearance of many a Scot. Prepare to be moved.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


'Hey, don't diss me, Mum.'

'If I had the slightest idea what that meant, I probably wouldn't 'diss' you, but if you'd take your elbows off the table and speak English, I wouldn't have to comment.'

Whether 'to diss' is to disappoint, disapprove, disassociate, dispense advice, discipline, disparage, or despair, I am desperate to discover. But, despite the long road towards the creation of civilized youths, this plaintive plea from the young caused me to pause. We probably ARE too critical of our young people, and perhaps we DO demand too much of them...the awful thing is, I don't think we should allow standards to slip simply because 'things are different now, ' and there's a recession on and we're all a bit strapped for cash. I don't think I'm the only one either. This morning I heard that the journalist Simon Heffer thinks we have been slipping way too far...he's been sending round-robin emails to his colleagues at The Telegraph pointing out grammatical errors. They may have found this kind of pedantry deeply irritating, but I suspect they were fascinated too...so now he's done a book about all our mistakes. (I'm scared, let me tell you.)

I think we're talking 'constructive criticism' here, and I mention it because I care....about grammar, about standards in general, but primarily about our young people. After all, they are the ones who have to find employment one day, and look after us lot in the future. And I object to everyone telling them things are easier nowadays, that they know nothing, that they are spoilt. Things ARE different, but they are certainly not easier.

Right now there is an almighty scramble going on amongst many school-leavers and their parents. The scramble is caused by the seeking of, preparing for and taking up of university and college places. Apart from deciding where and what to study, there are so many other major details to sort out. Where to live, what in, and with whom? What equipment will they need? How will they travel? And what to wear...we're talking 'image' and that in itself is enough to induce a paralysis of indecision. And then there's the vulgar question of cash...none of this comes cheap. It's all very new and confusing. By the time the new student is established in his or her room with their brand new duvet and fresh stationary, a microwave curry sitting on the desk, the parental hearts are aching in a toxic mix of relief and empty-nester angst.

I'm told, this wears off. Later on, however, many students admit to the real shock, a nasty surprise that many of them hadn't anticipated. They have to work. Imagine! I cannot believe how many times I have heard of students admitting to their parents that they had no idea what hard work was until they went to university...these are A Graders, with stars, bells and whistles, who sailed though school without any problems, collecting music exams, trophies, medals and awards all the way in addition to their glittering academic results. Sure they want to do a degree while making new friends and broadening their horizons, but oops...the fly in the academic ointment is, they have to sit down and work hard for it.  ( This is not the universal experience, of course...it does rather depend what and where you are studying.)

I know it is not fashionable to say that school exams are not what they were, but everyone past a certain age isn't daft. However, criticising the system does not make things any easier for our school-leavers. They have to work within the system of their day. The struggle to pass exams with top marks while winning medals for Scotland, becoming a concert pianist and saving the world is immense. How on earth the Universities are meant to determine who should win a place and who should not is impossible to fathom... we are producing vast numbers of apparently brilliant school-leavers, and it is hard to pick between them...they might as well pick names out of a hat.

As Scottish education in schools moves towards the 'Curriculum for Excellence' we have to hope that it will do what it says on the tin...create 'excellence'. Perhaps it's a matter of opinion, but I don't feel I am unusual in hoping schools will teach children to spell and add efficiently, all children, academic or not. We need a population of well-rounded human beings that can communicate properly, a population that can work to the very best of their ability. I like the sound of 'excellence'.

But we also need a population that cares...and by 'caring', I mean a rounding-off of the edges, as well as the more obvious respecting, nurturing, and loving. I can't stand it when people criticize our young people...I think they are fantastic.... but equally, I don't want them to be short-changed because we can't be bothered to make them aim high. It works both ways...I won't 'diss' you if you, just once in a while, pay attention to the boring details I, in my decrepitude, witter on about.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010


70 years ago tonight, The Blitz started over London, the horrifying bombing raid carried out by Germany's Luftwaffe that went on from September 1940 to May 1941.Hitler's aim, apart from destroying Britain's docks, shipbuilding potential, munitions factories and more, was to destroy morale, to defeat us psychologically as well as physically. Somehow, despite almost 1000 planes being spotted in the sky on the first night of it all, we didn't let him. We still talk about The Spirit of the Blitz. And still, somehow, in 2010, we know what it means.

It started over London, and in thinking of The Blitz, London is often the background image that comes to mind....sirens sounding through the dark, fire belching from blown-out windows, lines of people sheltering in underground stations, pictures of the King and Queen picking their way across heaps of rubble that had once been a street of houses. But the bombing raids took place right across Britain. In Scotland there were raids over Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee and smaller places...but the worst, in terms of loss of life, was over Clydebank where 528 people were killed in one night, Scotland's biggest loss of life. Whole families were wiped out, communities physically destroyed, and 35,000 people were made homeless.

By the end of the Blitz over 43,000 civilians had been killed, half of them in London, and well over a million homes had been destroyed. But throughout it all, throughout Britain, the trains kept running, the traffic kept moving, people went Christmas shopping, held parties, sang songs, and children kept playing.

Norway's experience of World War 11 was of course very different from that of Britain. I have written about it already, back in April on the 70th anniversary of the Occupation of Norway. Although 70 years may seem like a long, long time, it is clear that the War and the Occupation have had a lasting influence on Norway. Older generations worry that the younger ones will not know enough about Norway's experience of the War, and not be able to understand it. But I have often been told that the War influenced the culture and the structure of the nation more than anything else, so I cannot believe that younger generations are wholly ignorant of the events of the 1940s. To have lived under Occupation for 5 years must have been shattering, a 'slow-burn' sort of wound that inevitably left a lasting impression.

Like Norway, people in the UK often think the young know nothing of the War and do not care to hear about, as though it is irrelevant to their 21st century lives. But I would argue with that. Apart from the fact that I have always found young people to be very interested in WW11, our children are taught about it all in school. However, outside the history classroom, the War has left a mark that runs deep within our psyche. For most of us, Remembrance Day in November is still significant, whichever war we are remembering....every city, town and village has a War Memorial, we've all seen the films and the documentaries, and we all have families who have stories from those times to pass on.

It is still known as Britain's Darkest Hour, and it was seven decades ago, but if someone talks about The Spirit of the Blitz, we still have a fairly decent grasp of just what the phrase might mean.

Sunday, 5 September 2010


Will you or won't you? Should you or shouldn't you? Could you or couldn't you? Or maybe you've already gone and done it.

Bought the book, I mean. And read it. That one just published, you know, by that ex Prime Minister of ours, Mr Blair. We're all a-flutter over here in the UK, because you kind of want to read it, but you kind of don't. It sounds fascinating, but to be caught flicking through the latest ex PM's offering could be seen as a lapse of taste.

I suppose it's inevitable that if you've been a PM you will succumb to the urge to pen your memoirs. Most of them do, and some of them are good reads. But this particular example is apparently rather startling, revealing all sorts of indiscretions about the PM's colleagues and acquaintances that leave the reader wincing. All the political correspondents and journalists who have spent years covering the goings-on at Westminster are shattered by it, their eyes watering in disbelief at the cringe-worthy content....one dedicated soul offered an honest apology to his listeners and viewers, saying that he was sorry he had reported mere rumours and tittle-tattle because the truth was FAR worse and he should have been more 'on the case'.

The especially jaw-dropping aspect to these memoirs is the manner in which our former PM reveals the thorny relationship he had with his Chancellor, and ultimately his successor, Gordon Brown. Having met one protagonist, but not the other, I can only say that one is rumoured to be absolutely charming, while the other IS absolutely charming, but not necessarily rumoured to be so. To read an account of the relationship between the two would feel like being forced to examine their dirty washing, an experience I feel I can live without.

We all know politics is fraught with argument and discussion, and riddled with strong characters firing off on ruthless ambition. No, what shocks us is the blunt, unforgiving indiscretions, the seeking of excuses, the terrific effort to ensure that the narrator of these memoirs carves out the right sort of historical legacy for himself. It's all so horribly undignified and the very antithesis of statesmanlike behaviour.

The national consternation at these memoirs has left me wondering about the manner in which people write about their own lives. A second, extremely distasteful political story of the week, which I shall not recount here, was initiated by the thoughts of one of those dreaded bloggers...so now, bloggers are being reported to be bitter, vindictive, talentless losers. And I cannot deny that SOME blogs appear to fall into that category...but not all (we live in hope).

But why do so many of us feel the need to write memoirs, diaries, and now blogs? Undoubtedly such scribblings can offer a place for the writer to record events, to 'download' their feelings, and unfankle their thoughts. They may even offer a form of comfort and therapy. But memoirs are of course intended for public consumption, and so inevitably contain a level of spin, as in Tony Blair's case, where he is apparently desperate to explain himself in order to alter the public's perception of his time in office. But such works do not necessarily make the best reading. If we're talking politics, you can't really beat the Diaries of Alan Clark, Conservative MP, self-confessed snob and bounder....the intrigue, the back-stabbing, the bullying of Westminster is there for all to see, but perhaps most-surprising of all, he admits to his endless love/lust for Margaret Thatcher, not something most people would admit to if they were seeking 'spin'. But what a writer.

By way of diversion, I have been following the Diary of Samuel Pepys, handily presented every day on the blogosphere. He recorded his daily life in the London of the 1660s, a life led on the fringes of many important parliamentary, state and other events, including the Fire of London in 1666. He wrote in code, so clearly his diary was private...it is therefore extremely honest, personal, and opinionated. But as he left a key to the code hidden in his library, he must have meant it to be read after his time. Perhaps he knew, in the back of his mind, what a significant historical account he was creating for the future.

However, if you've had enough of politics and affairs of state, I was thinking about one of the most charming and successful memoirs I know, and one which gives a personal but well-observed account of family life and social change in Scotland in the 1840s. 'Memoirs of a Highland Lady', written by Elizabeth Grant (1797 - 1886) concerns life on and beyond her family's estate at Rothiemurchus. It remains proof that not all of us who record our lives are doing so with 'spin'.

I am interested to learn of any other favourite memoirs or diaries. Let me know.

Friday, 3 September 2010


'D'ye fancy a Glesga' Salad?' asked the Glaswegian waiter.

'Fit's a Glasgow Salad,' replied the confused, but hungry, Aberdonian.

'Och, it's a big poke o' chips wi' two pickled onions on the top.'

There's nothing like a decent jibe at ourselves to tickle the humour valves of many a tartan heart. And there's plenty of material involving food since a number of choice dishes in Scotland are hilariously unhealthy. Really, it's just as well we can laugh, although we should, of course, be appalled...the amount of fat, sugar, salt and other naughty delights stashed into the Scottish diet is enough to stop those tartan hearts well before their time.

I hate to deflate the thrill of that Deep Fried Mars Bar you were about to scoff with your Hot Chocolate Marshmallow Sundae, but this is a frightening fact. We know that most of the western world is putting on too much weight and not taking enough physical exercise, but within Europe we Scots are amongst the worst culprits. Researchers into these matters have recently declared that Scots are the most unhealthy of the four nations in Britain. We drink more, we smoke more and we eat more junk. As a result of all this over-indulgence, our life expectancy is lower than people south of the border. Men in Scotland could expect to live to 75 years, women to 79.9, while in England, male life expectancy is 77.7 years and female 81.9. We now have the highest death rates from heart disease and lung cancer and the second highest death rates from stroke in Western Europe.

What the blazes is going on? Why are we like this? Some might say 'well DUH, it's obvious if you eat, drink and smoke to the ludicrous extent that you do'. I always think it must get awfully dull for GPs to keep having to tell patients to stop indulging in rubbish when they know they'll have to repeat the same message to the same people before they see either a negative or a positive outcome (I think that's how medics put it).

So perhaps we should do that very British thing of blaming the weather. The Scottish climate may not be the loveliest, but it's not the worst one either, and when the sun DOES shine, the place is positively award-winning. (Come see, if you're not here already.)

So is there something in our Scots genes that makes us prone to indulge? We don't know that yet, but some boffinish types have their suspicions, so we'll have to hope enough cash is found to keep doing research into these matters.

Perhaps the statistics reflect the considerable levels of deprivation that still exist in our society....where poverty creates depression, seeking solace through unwise substances is not uncommon. And Scotland, sadly, still has horrifying levels of deprivation in certain places.

But I have another suggestion. It was around lunchtime when I watched a bloke in a suit park his car while stuffing a sandwich into his gob. Without removing the sarnie from his nashers, he jumped out of the car, locked it, checked his watch, frowned, swore, and ran up the road with his briefcase in one hand and his mobile wedged between ear and shoulder. It was Stress-On-Legs, and it made me sigh.

A recent French study has found that HOW people eat can affect their health, not just WHAT they eat. The French have always taken meals very, very seriously as we know....but now, what with the recession, long working hours and all, even THEY have been skipping the three course lunch-around-a-table in favour of a hasty and solitary slurp between meetings. And guess what? Their health is apparently suffering. It seems that food should be enjoyed with others, in a sociable setting around a table, where the participants are likely to eat less, more slowly. 'Breaking bread together' might be more important than we thought, and meals should not be seen as mere nourishment for the body, but for the mind and the soul too.

Let's do lunch.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010


I stated a while ago that we Scots are now a far more urban society than you Norwegians. But of course this was not always the case, and our roots lie very deeply within our landscape. It’s exactly 80 years since the evacuation of one of the remotest places in Europe, the island of St Kilda. Situated 41 miles (66 K) west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides, the St Kildan archipelago is about as remote as you could be, a veritable outpost, where only the hardiest of folk could survive.

And they did, for centuries. Archaeologists have discovered Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, and judging by the Norse brooches and vessels found there, and with place names like Oiseval and Ruaival, anyone could tell Vikings showed up too...most likely the Norwegian variety.

The St Kildans eeked out a living any way they could. Cattle and sheep were kept, barley and oats were cultivated, and fish were caught. The steep cliffs of St Kilda still provide a major breeding ground for fulmars, puffins and gannets, all of which the inhabitants caught for food, feathers and oil. They were undoubtedly resourceful, but they were not necessarily in charge of their own destiny. The records of 1697 show a population of 180, hardworking people who paid rent (in kind) to their distant landlord, MacLeod of Dunvegan in Skye.

The people lived together at Village Bay. They were of Hebridean stock and spoke Gaelic, and there was very little contact with the mainland. By the 19th century a church, a manse and a school had been built. The factor arrived once a year to collect rent, accompanied by a minister who would conduct weddings and christenings. But as contact with the outside world increased, many young people started to leave the island for a better life.

Having lost most of their able-bodied inhabitants, the elderly population were becoming fearful for their future. Resources were few, medical emergencies were proving too hard to cope with, and the remaining 36 people asked to be resettled. So eighty years ago, they packed up their belongings and left the island for good.

You’ll be wondering why I don’t have a nice picture of St Kilda itself. Well, of course I haven’t been there...it’s a World Heritage Site, owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland and visitors are few and far between. But as the eightieth anniversary of the evacuation is marked, I’ve had ‘remote populations’ on my mind for another reason. I find the old black and white pictures of these remarkable islanders extraordinarily moving...unassuming, diligent, dignified folk who sought to remain independent, but who ultimately found life on the edge intolerable.

The world is currently wising up to the true costs of oil, underlined as they are by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, recent discoveries have sparked off a new wave of interest in the North Sea. As I write, activists are making their views on deepwater drilling very clear as they demonstrate off the coast of Greenland. But it’s not just environmental activists that are worried about the hazards of this kind of extraction...we are all concerned about our environment , and that includes every oil man and woman I have ever met. I think we’ve had one of the most graphic demonstrations of WHY a safe, clean industry is vital to our future prosperity.

When one looks at what oil has done for Norway (Norway’s Oil Fund is currently estimated to be around £300 billion) and Scotland (although some would say we should have benefitted far more than we have....answers on a postcard please) the question of how we and our neighbouring nations approach the future is crucial. The leader of Greenland’s Inuit people has been in Scotland this week to discuss this very issue. Aqqaluk Lynge, who chairs the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, says he fears his people’s lack of experience in negotiating oil deals will allow the international community to take advantage (Denmark granted Greenland self-rule last year, but land remains the property of the Danish Crown, so any profits from oil in the surrounding seas could go to Denmark or other countries).

Here’s the thing. St Kilda lies along the Atlantic margin, a line of north-westerly trending troughs that run from Ireland to Northern Norway...it marks a split between Europe and Greenland which started 80 - 110 million years ago. The intrusive rocks of St Kilda date to 55 million years – a similar Tertiary age to those of Skye, Rhum, Eigg, Mull and Staffa, where magma entered the cracks and fractures adjacent to the newly opening North Atlantic. The basins off the coasts of Norway, Greenland and the Faroes have allowed marine microplankton to form the potential source rock for the recovery of oil in the future. In other words, any population situated on either side of the Atlantic margin could potentially benefit from the natural resources beneath them. I wonder what those St Kildans would be thinking if they were still on their island now.

The harsh realities of making a living in small, remote communities is often misunderstood, whether by activists, multi-national companies, governments and the rest of us who prefer a more comfortable existence ....let’s hope that however we approach the future, we do it with the utmost care, fairness, safety and concern for both people and planet.