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Roger McCann

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The Isle of Skye - Where Dinosaurs Walked

2018-03-18 17:46:44

Dugald Ross remembers the day when his interest in archaeology was first sparked. He was helping his parents at their peat bank at Ellishadder on the Isle of Skye. On the way home, his father had drawn the boy’s attention to a large boulder which seemed out of place. His father went on to say that the previous tenant of their croft had named this particular rock the ‘money stone’.

For reasons unknown, possibly while he was cutting peat, that gentleman had dug below the rock and found shards of pottery which, it was believed, he eventually sold to some place or person in Edinburgh.

Being interested in pre-history, Dugald began scraping away the turf under the ‘money stone’ at his earliest opportunity. To his delight, as well as shards of pottery, he also uncovered six finely shaped arrowheads.

The boy had discovered a Neolithic site. Here, some five thousand years ago, perhaps only five or six thousand years after the last Ice Age a family, or a larger group of people, had set up an encampment.

Though there was no sign of a chambered cairn, the frequently found indicator of a Neolithic burial site, Dugald suspects the arrow heads and shards of pottery may have been placed there carefully as part of a burial ceremony for an important member of that community.

As well as being of ceremonial significance, someone, all those years ago, may have tied one of those arrow heads to a straight length of tree branch, added feathers to the other end and fired the arrow to catch their dinner.

With the arrowheads as a centre piece, Dugald founded Staffin museum in the 1970s at the age of 19. The museum is located just off the A855 at Ellishadder near Staffin in northeast Skye. As well as the arrowheads, the museum houses an impressive array of dinosaur fossils which are of international significance.

The first evidence of dinosaurs ranging across Skye came from the discovery of a single footprint in 1982. After much research and argument amongst scientists, the print found at Rubha nam Brathairean, not far from Ellishadder, is now thought to be that of an ornithopod, a large herbivore that would have stood up on its two long legs.

It was fifteen years later before more prints were found in blocks of sandstone in roughly the same area.

For visitors looking at the artefacts on display in the museum, probably the most impressive exhibit is a thick length of dinosaur limb bone. There are several separate broken parts to it which, when lined up, fit together. After these sections were found, Dugald went searching in the same area and eventually came upon other parts of dinosaur skeleton including a large vertebra and a tooth.

Now the limb bone, possibly the femur of a Cetiosaurus which roamed around 175 million years ago, gives an indication of the size its owner might have been. At 10metres tall this beast was closely related to the Diplodocus, a huge herbivore which would have been similar in size to the even better known Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Dr. Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, who was alerted to the dinosaur finds on Skye, has studied the fossil evidence and has also made his own remarkable discoveries there. As well as slabs of rock bearing numerous dinosaur footprints, he also found what are believed to be the world’s smallest dinosaur footprints (according to his entry in The Guinness Book of Records) on the northwest corner of Skye’s Trotternish peninsula.

He had had taken a particular lump of rock with black markings back to his office in Glasgow. It was only when he lifted the rock to look at it in bright sunlight that footprints could be made out more clearly, one almost on top of another. On measuring the clearest print he found it to be just under 1.7 cm in length. The rock is now on display in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow.

‘The significance of these prints,’ he said ‘is that they show evidence of dinosaurs breaking out of their eggs and leaving the nest at a very young age.’

It may be hard to imagine, but this area of the earth’s crust we now know as the Isle of Skye extends back some 3 billion years. At different times it has been part of an ocean floor, a tropical sea, a desert, a volcano and an estuary upon which dinosaurs roamed.

‘I’m constantly amazed,’ said Dr. Clark ‘that so much evidence of dinosaurs has been recovered from the storm swept beaches of the Atlantic Isle that is the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s Jurassic Isle.’

Sometimes, searching for dinosaur fossils is not for the fainthearted. After a particularly strenuous day on Skye when Dr. Clark and a few helpers had been hammering, drilling, chiselling and sawing apart a large rock, his leg broke and he had to be airlifted in a dramatic helicopter rescue to hospital in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.

However, some of the most spectacular finds were first spotted by local people walking on An Corran beach, not far from Staffin Museum at Ellishadder. After the sand had been washed away by heavy seas, a big three-toed footprint of a very large meat eating dinosaur was discovered in a flat expanse of exposed rock.

Dugald Ross continues to search for dinosaur fossils. In summer 2013 he recovered a boulder from the shore nearby. Embedded in the boulder was a very large bone – from the time of this finding the process of identifying the bone has been on going. First published in The Scots Magazine

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HolyroodHouse Palace Gardens

2018-03-17 15:15:02

From its eminent position on a foundation of ancient volcanic rock, Edinburgh Castle’s massive, fortified doors open onto a flat parade ground known as the Esplanade. This square is always busy. Many visitors head for the Castle during the day. Others arrive for evening concerts or the displays of precision drills and musical skills at the annual Military Tattoo.

After the Esplanade, the Royal Mile slopes gradually downwards with a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways falling away to either side. These alleyways or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’ running through and between properties have long witnessed the day-to-day lives of people in the densely populated tenements.

On either side of the road, other well- known landmarks including St. Giles Cathedral and John Knox’s House have also known the mundane as well as occasional sensational events down through the years. You can almost sense the history in the old stones.

At the bottom of the hill, the Royal Mile continues into Abbey Strand and stops at the impressive gates of the Palace of Holyroodhouse , residence of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth when she is on official business in Scotland.

A few yards back from the gate, where the modern tarmac meets the old cobblestones there’s a large brass S fixed into the road. This letter marks the place where there was once a prominent painted line. Creditors were not allowed to cross this line. For those in debt who owed money, getting across that line meant they had reached safety, a place affording sanctuary!

Just as today, there were always lots of people in debt. To provide for their needs, a number of establishments offering accommodation with booths selling food and drink sprang up in the area. The few buildings of Abbey Strand are all that remain from the time.

If the Queen is in residence, the Scottish variant of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom will be fluttering on a flagpole above the Palace rooftop and the place will be closed to the public. However, if a flag bearing the Royal Standard of Scotland is showing, visitors are welcome to visit the Palace, the ruins of Holyrood Abbey and the gardens.

Away from the crowds on the Royal Mile the gardens are a haven of peace for much of the time, though down the ages, long before these acres were so lovingly tended, this was a backdrop for many moments of high drama.

Such a moment happened on a day in 1127 when King David 1 of Scotland was out hunting. At that time, a forest covered the land. When his horse was startled by a deer stag, the king was thrown to the ground. According to one variation of the legend, as the stag charged, he saved himself from being gored by grabbing the beast by the horns. Just then, the king saw a holy cross descending from the skies and the stag reared away.

As an act of thanksgiving for his escape, David 1 founded Holyrood Abbey on the site in 1128. ‘Rood’ is an old name for a crucifix or Christian cross. Augustinian monks were gifted the Abbey with rights to work the land, to pasturage and to draw rents from the villages within their bounds. For his endowment, King David expected prayers for the protection of his kingdom, his government and his hoped for heavenly salvation.

During the 15th century the Abbey guest house was developed into a royal residence until James 4th constructed a Royal Palace adjacent to the Abbey cloister a few years later.

There’s very little known about the garden around this time, but it’s been written that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 -1587) did enjoy games of real tennis (a bit like the game of squash). She also enjoyed archery for which she wore a velvet glove. She also played croquet, golf and liked hawking.

It was Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, who had the garden laid out much as we find it today. He was also responsible for getting rid of most of the untidy buildings that grew up nearby to provide shelter for sanctuary-seeking debtors. On occasions their numbers could reach 6500, including members of the aristocracy, fleeing from creditors.

The wide garden path beginning near the ruins of the Abbey leads alongside deep borders studded with mature trees, backed by hedges and a wall on one side. The first notable piece of sculpture is a stone sundial carved by John Mylne in 1633 to commemorate Charles 1’s Coronation in the Abbey. It carries the insignia of Charles 1 and his grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots.

As we follow the path round a corner, the next stone sculpture to come into view is a much weathered, slightly hunched fiddle player. Supposedly, Queen Victoria didn’t like this particular figure and it has been moved within the garden a few times.

It’s not long before we turn the next corner and are facing south. Now the views over the large area of grass are expansive and lead over mature trees to the top of Arthur’s Seat. This is Edinburgh’s very small mountain, the remains of another volcanic plug surrounded by wild land. It’s a popular walk, minutes from the centre of town.

To the east, the lawn appears to stretch for a vast distance over flat parkland to distant houses. This deception has been created by an effect known as a ha-ha. Here the grass reaches up a gradual incline to end on top of the unseen high boundary wall.

We’re now passing the foundations of what were once monastic buildings on one side and the ruined Abbey on the other. The Abbey was a magnificent building, worked on by craftsmen from abroad. Inside it was richly painted and furnished. Now the walls are open to the sky.

Near the ancient sunken foundations of other monastic buildings there is a grass covered mound that was once a source of intrigue. Could it be concealing some dark secret? However, on investigation, the lump proved only to be hiding an old kitchen ‘midden’. Now it serves as a podium for the conductor whenever a band plays here during receptions.

Every year, usually in early July, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh host a garden party on the grassed area. They arrive from a room at the back of the Palace and come down a red carpeted flight of steps in the corner where the ruined Abbey is joined on to the Palace.

Over the course of the afternoon, many of the 8000 guests will take the chance to admire the gardens, brought to their best for this particular occasion by a team of up to 14 gardeners.

Some of the guests will be presented to The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh as the Royal couple proceed down an avenue formed by the Queen’s Royal Company of Archers- the Sovereign’s ‘Body Guard’ in Scotland. When they are not practicing their archery skills in the garden, they add an extra dash of colour to ceremonial occasions.

Over hundreds of years there have been many changes worked in the gardens. The mulberry sapling that was recently planted for Charles, Duke of Rothesay appears to be thriving. When King James 1 of England and 6th of Scotland had 10,000 mulberry trees imported, they didn’t grow so well. They were the wrong variety. His hopes of creating a silk industry came to nothing.

It may be helpful to know that even in a Royal garden things don’t always go as planned.

We may not all be invited to the garden party but a visit is always a delight.

First published in The People’s Friend

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Loch Katrine North Shore Cycle

2018-03-08 12:11:33

Minutes after docking at Stronachlachar Pier for passengers to disembark or come aboard, the steamship Sir Walter Scott, was again sailing serenely down Loch Katrine, completing the 16 miles round trip that starts at Trossachs Pier. Meanwhile, much less serenely, my wife and I were pedalling a mountain bike built for two along the traffic free road that runs along the north side of the loch.

We’d been acquainted with the tandem on Trossachs Pier about an hour earlier at the bicycle hire station. The mechanic had judged our leg lengths, made necessary adjustments to the bike, then watched with practised eye as we took a few tentative turns around the car park. He then allowed us away and we pushed the shiny blue machine up the gangplank of the SS Sir Walter Scott.

We found the boat busy with visitors from various countries. Safety announcements in English, French and German sounded before we set sail. Then, with bagpipe music playing softly in the background, we were on our way. Every few minutes a commentary over the loudspeakers described features of the passing scene. Tales were told of this pure water, source of Glasgow’s supply since 1859.

We heard about cattle rustlers, secretive whisky distillers and smugglers who once plied their trades in the surrounding hills.

As the steamer’s engines rumbled rhythmically, our passage rippled the calm loch. Small waves fleetingly disturbed the perfect reflections then died away. Mirrored images of larch trees and birch trees, gold-coloured in their autumn splendour, reformed in the ship’s wake.

The passengers were captivated. Through binoculars, some of them scanned the mist wreathed mountains. Cameras clicked on all sides.

We were informed that the Sir Walter Scott is driven by the original 3-cylinder triple expansion engine and has two locomotive–type boilers that have been converted to run on biofuel. She is the last of many such steamers that plied their trade on Scotland’s beautiful lochs.

She was built in 1900 at William Denny & Brothers, once a well - known shipbuilding firm on the River Clyde. The sections of the ship were prefabricated and bolted together at Dumbarton then dismantled and transported by barges up Loch Lomond to Inversnaid. From there they were taken overland by horse and cart to Stronachlachar. The ship was then reassembled - this time with rivets in place of bolts.

We left the ship at Stronachlachar Pier.

After a wobbly start, and having to get off the tandem when we met our first hill, we were now travelling in the same direction as the ship. We had never been on a tandem before, but as the cycling became easier, we began to relax, to enjoy that good-to-be-alive-feeling from breathing the fresh mountain air.

Leaves were falling as we passed through the woodland sheltering Glengyle House where Rob Roy MacGregor was born in 1671. It’s a beautiful spot. Loch Katrine shone like polished silver in front of the house.

Rob Roy grew up to become a respected farmer and cattle dealer but was involved in an unwise financial speculation in which he lost his own savings as well as money entrusted to him by the Duke of Montrose.

He was declared bankrupt and a warrant was taken out for his arrest. The cattle dealer became a cattle thief who also ran a protection racket. He was arrested more than once, but always managed to escape. Seen by some as a Robin Hood figure he died in his own home of old age, almost a national hero.

As we pedalled on, the air was full of birdsong. Perhaps the birds were rejoicing over an abundance of brilliant red rowan berries. Ferns were turning from green through yellow to russet near the roadsides. Against these autumnal colours, the small wild flowers still in bloom stood out like blue jewels. Fat, juicy blackberries begged to be picked.

There are easy stretches and some exciting downhill runs on this traffic free road skirting the north side of Loch Katrine. Where the hills are steep, we had no qualms about dismounting, taking time to marvel at the dramatic views.

Information boards along the route are good places to stop for a breather. From one of them, we learnt a little about the local wildlife and then attempted to discern where the roaring of a red deer stag might be coming from, far up the mountainside.

Further on, we stopped above a Clan Gregor’s cemetery on a man-made promontory extending out into the loch. Direct descendants of the MacGregors buried there have right of access to the graveyard to this day. After slogging up a particularly long incline we were glad to reach a popular picnic area. From this high point just off the road, we could see a few small islands poking out of the water, and away to the west, the peaks of distant hills.

Across the loch, surrounded by trees, Queen Victoria’s cottage looked like a doll’s house. With Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Family, Victoria stayed there on 15th October1859.During the day she had turned the silver handle which started a small hydraulic engine that primed the operation allowing the clean water of Loch Katrine to be pumped to the citizens of Glasgow 34 miles away.

Many famous people travelled here specifically to marvel at the beauty of Loch Katrine and the surrounding countryside. But it is Sir Walter Scott who is credited with starting the fashion for such visits, which were the beginnings of the tourism industry in Scotland.

His epic poem, ‘The Lady of the Lake’ was based on an older story and tells the tale of a young knight who, with his hounds, had been hunting a stag on these steep mountainsides. When his horse had an accident and died, the stranded knight was rescued by a young lady, the fair Ellen. In her boat, he rowed out across Loch Katrine to what is now known as Ellen’s Isle.

Today, at another viewpoint opposite Ellen’s Isle, there is a contraption known as a sound-store box. Turn the handle and you’ll be rewarded with a lovely voice singing ‘Ellen’s Third Song’, or ‘Ave Maria’, as it is better known. The music was composed by Franz Schubert, who was inspired by the words of Ellen’s prayer in Sir Walter Scott’s poem.

This is a popular trip with walkers and cyclists of all ages. But beware - if you haven’t been on a bike for twenty years, or in our case, on a tandem before - first consider the easy run from Trossachs Pier westwards. Of course, if you still don’t fancy all that sweaty effort, you could always stay on the boat for the return trip.

First published in The People’s Friend

Further Information: From Glasgow, a 60 minute drive along the A81 passes through pleasant rural countryside into the mountains of the Scottish Highlands. At Trossachs Pier there is an information centre, craft shop, bike or electric buggy hire and the Captain’s Rest restaurant.

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Whisky Smuggling in Glenlivet

2018-02-21 12:08:38

Whisky has been made in Scotland for a very long time though the earliest written records date back only to 1494 when it was noted that Friar John Corr was commissioned to buy 8 bolls of malt (a quantity of grain) to make aqua vitae for King James 1V.

In those days, whisky making was very much a cottage industry. In wintertime, when sodden fields kept farmers off the land, they would turn to other work, making use of any excess barley, to produce Uisge Beatha, the so-called ‘water of life’.

When taxation was introduced by the Scottish Government in 1644 the whisky distillers were distraught but did pay up grudgingly. The tax system seems to have been fairly complicated with farmers being taxed at different rates – the size of the farm, or the size of the still on the farm determining how much money had to be paid.

That system lasted until 1707. On the 16th January in that momentous year Scotland signed the Treaty of Union.

By 1713, the power of government had moved from Edinburgh to London and when finance was needed to keep British soldiers fighting wars all over the world, it was decided the best way to do this was to raise the tax on Scotch whisky. However, taxes were raised too high and whisky makers refused to pay them.

As if this hardship was imposed only yesterday, the tour guides at Aberlour Whisky Distillery on Speyside tell groups of visitors, “at that(taxes being raised too high) we were driven into the hills, forcing us to make our whisky illegally!’’

There were many bloody battles in these hills between the gaugers, (customs and excise men) and the illicit distillers. It got so bad that the Red Coats, soldiers of the English Army were ordered to rid the hills of illicit stills, of which there were hundreds.

“But we fought back to save our amber nectar,” the guide relates as if he had been there, personally wielding a sword.

This battle raged on for over 100 years.

In 1822 King George 1V visited Edinburgh. He came dressed in full highland regalia – kilt and sporran with a Tam o’ Shanter bonnet on his head. He demanded Glenlivet whisky knowing full well that the output was illegal. Of course, this caused the Government great embarrassment – even though they knew where to find a supply.

“Everybody,’’ an observer noted, ‘‘including lords and lairds, members of parliament and ministers of the gospel, drink what is in reality, illicit whisky. It is far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise’’.

But now the matter was out in the open and everyone was aware of it. The Government now offered a reward to anyone who would give them information on the whereabouts of illicit stills. The reward offered was £5.00.

With this chance of easy money the illicit distillers would keep working on their product until their whisky stills had burnt out. When that happened, they would report the whereabouts of their burnt out still to the government officers and claim £5.00 reward. A government agent would come and inspect the burnt out evidence before handing over the money that enabled the distillers to buy new equipment and carry on making more whisky.

It wasn’t always so easy. The smugglers’ bothies (secreted dens) were dark, smoky, unhygienic places. Camouflaging a site was crucial as the work places had to be difficult to find. A story is told of how one smuggler was shocked at finding a local gamekeeper reclining on the heather topped roof of his still house! Another smuggler constructed his chimney in such a way so the issuing smoke blended with the spray of a nearby waterfall.

Great ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various distilling processes, but in warning other whisky makers of the approach of the excisemen.

Even as late as 1904 it was written, ‘In Strathspey and neighbouring localities where a mutual bond of protection exists, it is the practice, when the exciseman is seen approaching, to display immediately from the house top, or a conspicuous eminence, a white sheet which, being seen by the people in the next ‘town’ or farm steading, would indicate a similar signal should be hoisted. Thus, the alarm passes rapidly up the glen. Before the officer can reach the transgressor of the law, everything will have been carefully removed and so well concealed that even when positive information has been given, it frequently happens that no trace of the work can be found.’

Because the actual still represented an expensive item of equipment, much trouble was taken to hide it when the distilling operations were completed. Some distillers would tie a cord and a float to their equipment then throw the lot into the waters of a nearby loch. Others would hide their equipment in the pulpit of the Kirk. For his help in this skulduggery the church officer would expect a good dram.

These nefarious activities were commonplace until the Duke of Gordon, owner of the Glenlivet Estate at the time and a powerful man in government circles, decided to do something about this illegal activity. He knew there were hundreds of men and women on his land making whisky illicitly, but he didn’t want to stop this work completely. Otherwise, how would his tenants be able to pay the rent he demanded?

The Duke went to the Government and made a case for his tenants for the reduction of their taxes. He also asked for a reduction in the cost of a licence and in the legal size of a still. At that time, the legal size of a still was 400 gallons.

After much deliberation, the cost of a licence was set at £10.00. The legal size of a still was reduced to 40 gallons and taxes were cut in half. This was a much more viable proposition. The bootleggers could now consider making their product legally. .

The Duke went back to his Glenlivet estate and tried to persuade his tenants that whisky making within the law was best.

The very first tenant the Duke managed to convince was a man called George Smith from Upper Drumin Farm. Mr. Smith was granted a licence to make whisky legally on 1st November 1824. He could now produce and sell his whisky openly. However, at the same time, to those yet to be convinced, he became the most hated man in the glen.

George Smith had a ready made customer base – King James 1V had made sure of that.

“The rest of us,” the guide at Aberlour Distillery will tell you, “kept on making our whisky by dead of night and we felt that George Smith was a threat to our livelihood!”

“So much so, we tried to get rid of him, to burn his premises down with George Smith inside.”

“On a number of occasions, we even tried to stop him as he delivered whisky to his customers.”

But Smith was made of stern stuff. With the help of a pair of pistols he had received from his great friend, the Laird of Aberlour, Smith used the weapons to great effect – not only to save his whisky still, but also his own skin.

As Smith began to prosper, more and more of the illicit distillers came to realise he had made the right decision. Eventually they began to make the trip to Elgin and pay for this new licence which allowed them to produce whisky legally.

By the 1840’s, it was believed there were no illicit stills left in the glens. Whisky was still sold in casks holding eight and a half imperial gallons and as yet there was no bottling. When the bottling process did appear in the 1850’s, George Smith took an interest. His agent, Andrew Usher from Edinburgh, was the first to brand and bottle Old Vatted Glenlivet.

This was the beginnings of the huge Scottish whisky industry that reaches round the world today.

Glenlivet lies between the Ladder and Cromdale Hills in the Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland. Nowhere in Glenlivet is lower than 600 feet and winter snows can last into the spring. The estate is managed to provide opportunities for sustained employment in agriculture, farming, sporting and tourism.

As part of the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, there are a number of guided walks. One of the walks follows tracks taken by the whisky smugglers who made their way with their precious cargo, perhaps being harassed by excise men, to customers as far away as Edinburgh or Aberdeen.

Wildlife watching from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle also gives an insight into the lives of the whisky smugglers. An estate tour guide will drive to the best places where visitors may spot roe deer, red deer, brown hares, red and black grouse as well as smaller birds. These creatures were a necessary food source for the smugglers.

Knowledge of grasses and other plants, such as heather, was also important. As well as camouflage, heather could be made into ropes or a belt to sling a couple of small kegs of whisky over each side of a pack horse.

Close up, smuggling was hardly a romantic lifestyle. It was more of a necessity, as was the ability to make use of whatever materials were available.

First published in The Highlander

The Magazine of Scottish Heritage

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