Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Photo: Historic Environment Scotland

If you are Scottish, there is a chance you might know about the Stone of Scone. If you are not, then you may not be aware of the cultural significance of this lump of rock – a significance signposted by its other name, the Stone of Destiny. There are many stories, legends and theories about the stone, so for the benefit of the unknowing, here is the stone’s brief(-ish) resumé.

Legend says the stone began its journey into legend in Palestine. It provided somewhere for the Biblical Jacob to rest his head whilst he dreamt of the ladder that connected heaven and earth, the preferred mode of travel for angels going up and down between the two realms. At some point, it became part of the personal sacred object collection of an Egyptian Pharaoh, whose daughter Scota fell in love with an Irish fellow and travelled to the outermost reaches of civilisation and founded Scotland. Allegedly. The stone (described in one account as made of black marble, covered in beautiful elaborate designs) was said to have been used by St Columba as a travelling altar, and was so revered in later years that it was taken to Dunadd hill in Argyll where it was used to crown the ancient kings of Dalriada. As Scotland grew as a nation, the centre of power was moved to the middle of the country, and the Stone of Destiny was placed in Scone Abbey. There, it provided historic gravitas and a focus for the coronations of the first Kings of Scotland.

During the turmoil of the Scottish Wars of Independence (brought on by the death of Alexander III in 1286), the English King Edward I laid claim to his northern neighbour in the most violent of terms (not for nothing was he known as the Hammer of the Scots), and ransacked the country. In 1296 he invaded Scotland and stole the symbols of her nationhood; these included the Scottish crown and an alleged piece of the true cross. He also prised up and carted off the Stone of Scone/Destiny and shipped it down to England. The stone, by this point, had undergone a mysterious transformation; instead of a slab of shiny black, inscribed marble, it had become a rectangular lump of Perthshire sandstone. Edward was so determined to crush the Scots and all their pretensions to nationhood, that he had his own throne modified with a special Stone of Destiny-shaped hole in the seat, so that the stone could be slotted in under his backside. And so, in Westminster Abbey, the throne of St Edward the Confessor housed the stone, and received the royal bottoms of every single English King or Queen crowned since the late 13th century. And from 1603 onwards, it saw the coronations of every Scottish monarch too, since the two thrones were joined under James VI and I. There were those who doubted its provenance, saying it was little more than the stone cover for a medieval cesspit, and that the real one was being safely stored, ready for the day when blah, blah.

So……whether you have been paying attention to that history lesson or not, the point is, the stone was and is considered a very important symbol of Scottish nationhood. And Edward stole it. Possibly. No matter that the event took place hundreds of years ago, it has been a sore (and moot) point for Scots ever since.

On Christmas Day 1950 a group of four young students from Glasgow University stole the stone and stashed it in the boot of their Ford Anglia before making a dash for the border. They crossed it too, despite road blocks, and a bit of banter with the policeman who stopped their car (along the lines of: ‘What’s in the boot then, Sonny?’ ‘Haha, oh, just the Stone o’ Scone, ye ken’ ‘Haha, very good son, on ye go’.). The establishment was outraged and after being hidden under the bed of an Orkney minister in Carnoustie (allegedly), the stone was taken, nearly four months later, to Arbroath Abbey. The custodian, a doughty chap called Wishart (another Orkney connection?) is reported thus in the Guardian newspaper:  Mr. Wishart said that…three men carried the stone on a wooden litter up what used to be the nave of the abbey between the ruins of the pillars. “They laid it at the three stones which marked the site of the high altar. They carried the stone in a reverent manner, their heads were uncovered, and it was a solemn and impressive little ceremony. The men shook hands with me and wished me the best of luck and then went. As soon as I knew that the Stone of Destiny had been placed in my charge I locked the gates.” 

The Stone was promptly taken back to England. The abductors had at some point dropped the stone and it had broken in two, whereupon they had cemented it back together. There are some that claim that the stone stolen by the students was never returned to the Abbey; there are tales of a signed scroll hidden in the ‘real’ stone, and yet more tales of brooches and other jewellery pieces containing fragments of Destiny rock dust being passed down through the generations….and there were, so I am told, other unsuccessful attempts to liberate the stone from its wooden confinement in Westminster Abbey.

In 1996, under what kind of pressure I don’t know, the Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth negotiate for the Stone of destiny to be returned to Scotland. On a damp, misty St Andrew’s Day, the Stone crossed the Scottish border at Coldstream, accompanied by a detachment of Scottish soldiers and a piper. There were a few lumps in a few throats that day, as the stone made stately progress up to Edinburgh, transported in triumph up to the great castle on the rock, in Scotland’s capital.

And I knew exactly where to stand to get the best view.

The night before, I had been out late in the Royal Mile. I was dressed in a long black cloak, and I carried a black box containing a leather whip, a fake ear, and a set of keys to the Underground Vaults. There were no takers for the ghost tour of haunted Edinburgh that evening, but I loitered at the Mercat Cross for a while, scanning the deserted High Street for potential customers. I spotted a vehicle trundling through the mist down from the Lawnmarket, and clocked it at once for an army Landrover.

St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

This is not unusual, as Edinburgh Castle is still a working castle and barracks, and we would quite often see soldiers about the place. What was unusual is that the vehicle stopped round the back of the High Kirk of Edinburgh (also known as St Giles Cathedral), near to a flight of stone steps and a door that is rarely, if ever, used. Four squaddies hopped out, opened up the back of the Landrover, and positioned themselves around it. Under the command of an officer, they then proceeded to reach in and bring forth a wooden pallet which bore a large object. It was quite heavy, judging by the way they were straining, and from my place in the shadows, I could just make out that the object was a big lump of concrete. A lump that was exactly the same shape and size as the Stone of Destiny. The four soldiers carried the wooden pallet up the steps and into the back door of St Giles, whereupon the door closed.  The Landrover didn’t move, and neither did I. A few minutes later, the door opened and the soldiers carried the pallet and lump of concrete back down the steps again, before putting it back in the Landrover. They then did it all again. Out, up the steps, in the door, out the door, down the steps, into the vehicle. I was fascinated. One of the squaddies caught my eye, so I asked what they were doing. Practicing, they said. The Stone of Scone was going to be taken into the cathedral for a special service, before embarking upon its final journey to Edinburgh Castle, and they were practicing, to ensure that the transition from Army Landrover to church was smooth.

The next day I chose my spot carefully, and got a ringside view of the Stone being transported into the cathedral. Later that day, the Stone was taken to the castle, where it sits to this day, with the Scottish Crown Jewels as part of the Honours of Scotland exhibition. Whether it is really the ‘true’ Stone of Destiny, I have no idea. And I do sometimes wonder what happened to the lump of concrete.

Read Full Post »

There was a post doing the rounds on Facebook in the last couple of weeks, which required people to compile lists of bands they had seen live. It reminded me that I still had to post Part 2 in the series! Here it is….originally written a few years ago but all just as valid……

Regular readers of this blog (are there any? Show yourselves!) will know that for various reasons my blog-brain is having trouble shifting itself from the mid 1980s. I am going to ask that you indulge me once again as I have a little nostalgic wallow. I spent a long time, you see, distancing myself from my teenage years; but as an older dragon I am almost enjoying looking back at myself with the benefit of hindsight.

Let me take you to Battersea in south London in the summer of 1985. Picture a group of teens and early-twenty-somethings emerging from a dark blue, windowless Transit, engulfed in fag smoke, and suffering heat exhaustion, having driven down from Essex earlier that morning. One of them is a pale, skinny dark-haired girl in an ankle-length strappy sundress that she bought from Oxfam, her nails bitten and her shoulders rapidly burning in the fierce city sun. Meet me, the Young Dragon, and a bunch of people I barely knew, attending the second GLC Jobs for a Change free concert. Before its abolition in 1986, the Greater London Council, under the leadership of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, was a constant thorn in the side of the Thatcher government; one of its better wheezes was to post the London jobless total daily on the roof of GLC headquarters, where it could be seen directly from the Houses of Parliament across the river. The GLC campaigned for reduced fares on trains and buses, invited Gerry Adams to talks (in the event, he wasn’t allowed into the country), and championed Nelson Mandela when the Iron Lady still thought he was a terrorist. And for two years they also held a free music festival. The first one in 1984 (*checks interwebs*) was held in the Jubilee Gardens, and the acts included Billy Bragg, Hank Wangford (more of whom in Part III) and The Smiths. So popular was it that a second event was held in July of the following year, in the larger environs of Battersea Park, to an audience that has been estimated to number between a quarter and half a million people.

My memories of the day are fuzzy, but happy. Surrounded by Amnesty tables and wholefood stalls, I wandered barefoot in the park, eating lemonade ice lollies and sitting on the parched grass listening to The Pogues, Terry and Gerry, The Men They Couldn’t Hang*, and Mr Red Wedge himself, Billy Bragg. How much of the political message hit home it was hard to say; and I am not about to go all misty-eyed and claim that back then, when the enemy was wearing a skirt and living in No 10, that it was all so much simpler and possibly even more innocent. Often when people claim this, it’s not the simplicity and innocence of the times they miss, it’s their own youth. But having said that, I still blame that woman for a large part of society’s ills, and I am still a member of Amnesty International, having joined at the GLC Jobs for a Change Festival. Thank you, Ken.

Whilst I remember little of what The Pogues played that day, I did use the fact that I had seen them live to impress the lassies in the Summer Isles café in 1987. I worked for a summer in Achiltibuie, on the north-west coast of Scotland, serving lunches, doing dishes and cleaning rooms at the Summer Isles Hotel. One of the girls there, Theresa, was a huge fan of Runrig and Silly Wizard (‘Oh, there’s sober men and plenty, and drunkards barely twenty….’ – the band that started Freeland Barbour and Phil Cunningham), and she also had a cassette of Rum, Sodomy and the Lash by The Pogues. We played that tape to death. We knew every word. We whirled and wailed like banshees to The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn, jigged furiously to Sally MacLennane and belted out I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day whilst roaring drunk on the four mile stagger home from the pub.

During my second year at Uni, The Pogues released If I Should Fall From Grace With God, and they announced a promotional tour, which included a date at the legendary/infamous/notorious Glasgow Barrowlands. I went with Steve, my boyfriend at the time, and the gig was just before Christmas, with the album’s single, Fairytale of New York, nearing the top of the charts. I can’t remember getting there or back, but I think it might have been in a minibus organised by Rocksoc of the students’ union. I do remember walking into the venue and being alarmed (well-brought up girl that I was) by the sticky floor, the crusty patches on the walls, and the general air of shabbiness. Two hours later, I was thoroughly convinced that this was a venue worthy of such an awesome band. Steve and I managed to get right to the front of the crowd, pressed up against the stage where the band played, and boy, did they play! It was utterly exhilarating to watch and listen, and those songs have never sounded better. A quick check on Wiki-p and I can tell you that Shane McGowan, who looked as if he could drop dead at any moment (and still does), wrote almost all those songs; and he performed them as if his life depended on it, whilst snarling with contempt at the world and its feeble efforts to understand his aching, tortured, simple, hungry, riotous, Irish heart. I fell head over heels in love with him. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better……they struck up the intro to Fairytale and Kirsty McCall walked onstage…..it was a blissful night, and I even bought the T-shirt. I still get misty-eyed when I look back to that gig, (especially given Kirsty’s tragically early demise) and were I to stick my neck out I would name it my favourite gig of all time.

*whilst doing ‘research’ for this blog I did an internet search for The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and they have their own website! The quality merchandise available includes a rather spiffy cigarette lighter: smoking is now the ultimate act of rebellion, so well done them. I am delighted to report that they are still going strong and have just started a 10-date UK tour, including Southampton, Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’ve got no idea whether they are still any good, but I intend to search YouTube for clues. See research? It’s great.

Read Full Post »

img_5622Last week there was an item of news that caused chuckles all around – a French fellow in New Zealand had lost his temper after hitching by the road in a small village, and failing to get a lift for four days. You’d think that after a while (30 minutes? Several hours?) he might have figured out that he wasn’t standing in the best spot, and changed location or tactics accordingly. I heard several seasoned hitchhikers on the radio talking about the best techniques, and how successful they had been over the years (and citing New Zealand as one of the best places for it). It got me reminiscing.

I first visited Orkney in the late 1980s, whilst I was at university. I had a new boyfriend (recently rediscovered on FB…. *waves*) who had been before, and I had just started a course in Orkney history. We were typically impoverished students. If my memory serves, we got the train to Inverness, spent the night in Inverness station, then took a bus to Thurso. We walked (laden with rucksacks, sleeping bags, tent, camping stoves) to Scrabster and sailed as foot passengers to Stromness. The bf had brought a map and the knowledge of one-who-had-trod-these-shores-before. I brought enthusiasm and a tin of Golden Virginia. We were sorted.

The pair of us had only a few days to see Orkney, and we were hampered by having no car and very little money. To save precious cash we rough-camped (always with permission), ate Primula cheese at every meal, and hitched from one place to another, meeting some great folk along the road. For various reasons it was a truly memorable trip, but my greatest and fondest memory involves going across the barriers. We had got ourselves to the Italian Chapel (and oh, how I envy those seeing it for the first time!), and were planning on spending the night at the tip of South Ronaldsay, before boarding the John O Groats ferry the next morning. On Lamb Holm we hoisted the backpacks and stuck out the thumbs. Within a few minutes we had our ride – a battered, rusty, yellow Ford Fiesta, windows jammed shut with newspaper, already occupied by three people and a boisterous collie dog. The young lady who was driving somehow managed to cram the two of us and our packs into the already crowded car, and off we went. ‘Where’re ye gaan?’ the lass said. ‘The Tomb of the Eagles’, we replied. And she drove us all the way there. Only as we were approaching Liddle Farm did we discover that the lass actually lived in the ‘Hope, and had gone far out of her way to take us to our destination. ‘Oh,’ we cried, ‘there was no need’. ‘Well, it’s worth seein’ and I wouldna have wanted ye tae miss it’.

Our hitching adventures in Orkney were so successful that I vowed there and then that if I ever got a car, I would pick up hitchers wherever I could, in order to pay back the kindness that I had experienced. In the years that followed I have tried to honour the vow, although the number of people hitching on the road has fallen away to almost nothing.

One evening a couple of weeks ago I left work at 6pm as usual, and drove out of Kirkwall. It was raining hard and I was tired and eager to get home. Just after the Ayre Mills roundabout I passed a trio of hitchers laden with soggy rucksacks. I shrugged and gestured at my tiny car, already packed with bags and boxes and other detritus. ‘No room, sorry,’ my shrug attempted to convey. I drove on. Then my inner voice kicked in……I turned the car at the next opportunity, and went back to get them. Two lads and a lass smiled gratefully as we attempted to squeeze three huge packs and themselves into a Mini One. It was a squash but we got everyone crammed in eventually, and set off. I discovered they were from Spain, and were all studying archaeology, specialising in Egyptology. They were off to see Maeshowe (from the outside), from where they were planning to walk up to the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar. It was only a little out of my way, so I took them to Tormiston Mill. As they eased themselves and their luggage out of the car and we waved our goodbyes, the rain eased off a bit.

We all like to think we are good people, yes? I mean, when we are watching a film, or a great TV programme, or reading an amazing book, we are urging on the protagonist to great things, (mostly) safe in the knowledge that they will do the right thing, make the selfless decisions, be the better person. If they fail, we are disappointed. And we are generally confident that if that had been *us* in that position, we would, of course, have taken the right path, been a good, kind person. But it is so much harder in real life! Last week, you might have thought about sending a message to a friend who you knew was having a difficult time…..but the phone rang and the dog needed walking and the thought never became action. You may have passed an acquaintance in the street and not stopped to chat – you were busy, you had a meeting, there would have been some reason why you didn’t. A good reason. It’s not always easy to do the right thing; most of the time we don’t even realise we have missed the chance.

And so, following the car u-turn, I am trying to be a better, kinder person. I am in distress about a lot of what is happening in the world, and I don’t have the strength or energy to deal with it, so I largely avoid it. But after the EU referendum (when I spent a lot of the following day on the verge of tears), a friend said that the way to help the world was through kindness. Her words echo those of Roald Dahl, whose 100th birthday we are celebrating this year; ‘I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else…. Kindness – that simple word. To be kind – it covers everything, to my mind. If you’re kind that’s it’.

I’m a selfish person mostly, and I look in wonder and admiration at my friends who show generosity and grace under pressure. They are an inspiration. I might fail at kindness a lot of the time, but I am trying hard to recognise the opportunities when they arise. It’s got to be worth a shot. So if you seeing me driving by, stick out your thumb – I might pick you up!

Read Full Post »


Four years ago, I wrote this piece in response to the artwork Lullaby by Sheena Graham-George. Today I am going to see the follow-up piece Voices of the Cillin. 

Art, of course, is a subjective thing. We bring ourselves to it, and depending on our life experiences thus far, we might respond with anger, with joy, with amusement, with melancholy, or maybe with boredom or non-comprehension. I don’t think anybody could have responded with indifference to the art installation I saw today, because every single one of us was, or is, a child.
Lullaby, by Sheena Graham-George is at first glance a simple piece, comprising thousands of paper butterflies pinned to the wall of a first floor room in The Orkney Museum. They sweep around the room in a great swarm, high and low, crowded in some places, breaking away in others. The floor is bare, but the air is filled with sound; through a discreet speaker, a female voice sings an unaccompanied, wordless melody. I didn’t recognise the tune, but I would guess that it is an Irish lullaby.
The piece is inspired, you see, by a visit made by the artist to Ireland, to study the cultural phenomenon known as the cillìn burial grounds. These areas of unconsecrated ground, often hidden away on the wrong side of the churchyard wall, were the final resting place for unbaptised children, as well as suicides, shipwrecked sailors, and others of the dead who could not, for whatever reason, lie in holy ground.
Graham-George spent time seeking out these strange places, many of which are disappearing without trace. Because the burials were often unmarked, and memories fade, sometimes all that remains of these poignant spaces are dips in the ground, mounds of earth, or small unmarked stones. She discovered that mothers who gave birth to stillborn children would often be so ashamed that the burials would be carried out at night, and in secret, away from the judgemental eyes of society.
Running parallel to this sad tradition run the Irish folk tales, wherein the soul is represented by a white butterfly. Butterfly-souls that can cross into the otherworld can be found in many ancient belief systems, but in the case of Ireland, it applied particularly to the souls of dead children. These were the two themes – the cillìn, and the butterflies, that the artist brought together when she created this work.
The butterflies in Lullaby are between 1-3 inches wide, and are cut out of paper. Even if they had been plain white, the effect of them swarming joyously across the walls would have been powerful enough; but look closely and you discover that they contain text, and black and white illustrations. Drawn in to read the words, you find that they are all from classic works of children’s literature – Mary Poppins, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan. These books are often the touchstones of our childhoods, and many of them are stories that engage with the magical, involving children that can enter different worlds, or enable them to have special powers, like the ability to fly. Pulled in by these echoes from past, my eyes were caught by the name Mary Lennox, character from one of my favourite childhood books, The Secret Garden. Mary’s garden was a place where she found joy and acceptance; the contrast with the resting places of the unbaptised children was heartbreaking.
Reading as many of the paper butterflies as I could before my eyes began to ache, it struck me that they were all utterly individual – no two were alike. Some were crammed with excited dialogue – others had a few simple words, or no words at all – just a pen and ink drawing of a small hand, or a tree, or a scruffy little dog. The differences between them gave every single one a personality; it was as if the creation of the butterflies had given all these children a voice of their own, at last.
This feeling of childhood recreated is also apparent in the way that the butterfly swarm flows across the wall. In some places they are crammed happily together, jostling for position whilst still surging forward. Others have broken free and are flying off to the edges of the room as if to explore this world of space into which they have been released. I stood back into an alcove, butterflies to the left and right and above me, and imagined them flitting by me, brushing my face with their paper wings.
All the while, the lullaby played; the same soothing, simply melody, over and over again. It could have been any mother, singing to any child, but the sound seemed very personal and intimate, helped perhaps by the fact that I was the only person in the room.
In the corner on the floor sat two wooden boxes of butterflies, unpinned and packed together. I picked a few up and looked at the rough cut edges, trying to work out how long it must have taken to make them; who did them? Did Sheena Graham George create them all, or did she enlist the help of small hands to help her? I had to resist the urge to take a handful and throw them into the air and watch them fall. I resisted too, the desperate need to put one in my pocket and take it home. I imagine that many women, and men, might feel the same; particularly those who have suffered the melancholy, pain and perceived shame of miscarriage, terminated pregnancies, stillborn children, or infertility.
I am not alone, it seems. The comments in the visitors book reveal how much the artwork has touched people – several were moved to tears, others found it soothing or calming. This beautiful, simple artwork commemorates little lost souls; and in doing so, it finally gives them a home.


Read Full Post »