A Childhood In Scotland

A Childhood In Scotland, by Christian Miller (1981, John Murray Limited, reprinted by Canongate Books)  

As the sun finally shines again over the rain drenched Lothians, summer seems to have returned, albeit momentarily; and thoughts of happy, lazy holidays drift back to mind.

Some books about childhood, as well as certain children’s books when revisited in adulthood, work magic on the memory and imagination; and recall to mind a world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations which, as adults, we have painted over many times like kitchen walls – but what if we could gently remove those layers, back through cornfield yellow, candy stripes, silver (what were they thinking?) and 1970s brown sunflower prints; and what if we could travel back through the years and return to the original patterns: what might we remember then?  In the words of English writer Leslie Poles Hartley, in the first line of his own childhood memoir The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

There are many classics of this kind of course, such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or my own favourite from childhood, Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s Brendon Chase written under his pseudonym ‘B.B.’– which I have only just discovered was made into a children’s television drama in the early 1980s, and can be viewed on You Tube here.

In this admittedly rather mixed genre I would also include Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his prolific fellow Scots writer and artist Robert M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and Laurie Lee’s magisterial Cider with Rosie, which contains the fabulous encapsulation of his reasons for recording childhood memories, for fear that otherwise looking back, all that he might recall would be a ‘salt caked mud flat’.

There is much of the summer in these books of course: rock pools, sand between the toes, camp fires, thirsty gulps of lemonade and going home tired but happy; and no doubt much that is pure nostalgia.  Written as these all were, however, in different times and places, they can remind us that childhood is always going on all around us and that we, just like children of today, are shaped by our snatched freedoms and imaginative experiences.  Has North Berwick really changed that much from Stevenson’s description of his own summers there in The Lantern-Bearers?

“…you might climb the Law, where the whale’s jawbone stood landmark in the buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties, and the smoke and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships.  You might bathe, now in the flaws of fine weather, that we pathetically call our summer, now in a gale of wind, with the sand scouring your bare hide, your clothes thrashing abroad from underneath their guardian stone, the froth of the great breakers casting you headlong ere it had drowned your knees.  Or you might explore the tidal rocks, above all in the ebb of springs, when the very roots of the hills were for the nonce discovered; following my leader from one group to another, groping in slippery tangle for the wreck of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march of the tide and the menaced line of your retreat…”

And again, like Stevenson, is it not the free and idle times of our youth that we savoured the most, as in his essay An Apology for Idlers?

Christian Miller’s ‘A Childhood In Scotland’ (1981), a part of which first appeared in the New Yorker, has been reprinted and is now available here, is a short classic about childhood from the point of view of a girl, the youngest of six, growing up in her father’s Highland castle in the 1920s.  I tracked down one of the original copies, read it the same day and found it utterly absorbing.  Better than Downton Abbey, this is a genuine and beautifully written account of the vanished life of a thriving Highland community, at the centre of which is the author’s family and their ancient ancestral home.

Christian Miller’s book paints a portrait of her childhood, describing the interiors of the castle, the ghosts, her noble parents and wild siblings, the serried ranks of maids, gillies and gamekeepers, the animals both domestic and wild: but most importantly, she does it all with an immediacy and poignancy that brings her lost world not only to her own mind but also to the reader’s.  There’s no sentimentality, only an honest and fascinating picture.

This book is ideal for a deckchair, possibly after cutting the grass or trimming the hedge; and if you get the chance to read it (or even if you don’t), you might ask yourself what books and stories shaped your own youth?  Why not share them here?

(published at Think Scotland)

  

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In praise of John Buchan

        www.thinkscotland.org

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

It’s August 1939 and war in Europe is less than a month away; but you’re in Ottowa’s stately Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, in the midst of a cocktail party.  A hubbub of polite conversation and chamber music wafts through the Long Gallery, and the late summer heat drifts through the open doors from the elegant gardens beyond.  The circling guests chatter about the King and Queen’s triumphal visit just two months earlier; the machinations of Herr Hitler; that strange man Mussolini; and as the sun sets, everyone drifts through the doors to watch the fireworks on the lawn.

For once, eschewing the formal garb of his post in favour of demure black tie, the relaxed viceroy Lord Tweedsmuir stands to your right, a cigarette at his lips: but you, newly arrived in Canada and two gins to the better, have not yet been introduced.  “And who are you?” you ask him politely.

Amid the din of the first fireworks exploding in the sky he smiles and introduces himself; and within moments you are in the comfort of his affable company.  Yet in truth, echoing through the decades after his sudden death in February 1940 aged 64, the question is a good one: for who was this son of the manse John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, fifteenth Governor General of Canada, sometime schoolboy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and President of the Oxford Union, barrister, First World War spymaster, member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, Chancellor of Edinburgh University, and writer?

Well, as I hope is obvious from that introduction, John Buchan is someone who defies the pigeon hole.  He simply will not be put in a category, except to say that like Andrew Carnegie, James Clerk Maxwell, Elsie Inglis, James Watt, Mary Slessor or David Livingston, he is one of those Scots who belong not just to Scotland, but to the whole World.  Like them, Buchan still shows us today that Scots who believe in themselves can cry out along with Archimedes: “give me a place to stand and I will truly move the Earth.”

Despite a life which would stretch the bounds of credulity if featured in one of his own novels, John Buchan is a relatively unrecognised figure in modern Scottish life; indeed, if it were not for the enormous fame of The Thirty Nine Steps, even his name would perhaps have faded entirely.  For instance you will search in vain for a statue of Buchan anywhere in Britain (although there is admittedly a fine bust in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery), while the rest of his literary output, not to mention his political life, is surprisingly overlooked – something that the good people at the John Buchan Society hope to put right when an exciting new museum – The John Buchan Story – is unveiled in Peebles’ Chambers Institute next month. Here’s their website: www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk

All of a sudden there is something very modern about Buchan: perhaps it’s a product of our austere times, that heroic characters once again seem appealing?  And there was certainly much that was heroic about Buchan, both in real life and in the characters he created.

A recent review of Buchan in the Independent stated:

“[he] knew that you can’t buck the consequences of your actions, and that your life is what you make of it. Perhaps his peculiarly Scottish combination of Romanticism and Calvinism – daring living and high thinking – is due to return to fashion.”

An anthem for the credit crunch perhaps?

As regards politics, Buchan was a Tory; but a rather unusual one.  Politically he believed in the Union, but had strong nationalist sentiments, stating in Parliament, in the midst of the depression of the 1920s:

“I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish Parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.” 

In the same speech, Buchan reflected on the high emigration from Scotland of the time:

“We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”

The issues Buchan wrestled with resonate today; but his were very different times, and it would be simplifying his position to conclude that he was a nationalist in the modern political sense: for Buchan was someone who believed in a strong Scotland within the British Empire of his times; something which he viewed as a great community of nations with shared ideals and principals.  For example, after he was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 he quickly established himself as a stout promoter of the country’s national identity.  In 1937 he stated that a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” a pronouncement that saw him denounced as ‘disloyal’ in some quarters, when he was in truth anything but that.

Whether Scots, British or Canadian, Buchan believed in the power and identity of the individual, and respected it – something which sometimes caused fear in the hearts of the controlling political class of his day.  He liked people and nations to be true to themselves and reflect their singular characteristics, stating that the diverse ethnic groups within Canada should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” because “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.  Old fashioned language perhaps, but a clear and modern message in the world of the 1930s.

He was a tireless worker in the ethic of his upbringing, and overcame the natural shyness of the Scot to show the world his mettle.  Between 1896 and 1940 he wrote more than fifty historical works on subjects as diverse as Julius Caesar, the Somme, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott, while his fictional output was hardly less prodigious.  Aside from The Thirty Nine Steps and his hero Richard Hannay’s continued adventures in Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, many of Buchan’s novels are Scots historical masterpieces like Witchwood (Buchan’s favourite of all his works), an eerie thriller set in a seventeenth century village, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the newly appointed minister David Sempill, when he encounters dark forces in the primordial forest which looms above his parish.

 Reading Witchwood recently, it struck me that the book demonstrated just how much Buchan followed in the style and pace of Stevenson, whose short story Thrawn Janet must surely have been a key influence.  Buchan is credited with the creation of the modern thriller, but was he not in turn borrowing from Stevenson’s Kidnapped?  Is Buchan’s work not in fact a natural progression from his eminent Scots forebears in the nineteenth century?

One thing that is undoubtedly true of Buchan is the fluency of his prose: he writes as he was – a wise and natural storyteller at ease in himself and his subject; and I heartily recommend revisiting his novels, many of which have now been attractively reprinted by Edinburgh’s own Polygon Press. www.birlinn.co.uk

Buchan, today, remains fascinating and enigmatic:  you never quite get the feeling that you know him entirely; and like the chase sequences in his thrillers he is always two steps ahead and vanishing around a corner. A collection of political and personal contradictions to rival Whitman, he is nonetheless in the end very human: an honest and good humoured friend, and an optimistic tonic for the cares of modern living.  He deserves to be read much, much more.

  

This article was published on 9 July 2012 on the ThinkScotland website: www.thinkscotland.org

How to blow up a bank

Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain, by Ray Perman (Birlinn Publishers, Edinburgh 2012)

It seems strange to think of it now, but there was a time when that vast pile at the top of Edinburgh’s Mound was a bank – a real live bank with a queue of people inside, waiting to pay real money into their bank accounts.  I was one of them, and when I started my life at the Scottish Bar on Edinburgh’s High Street, the tradition was to open three accounts with the Bank of Scotland just round the corner on the Mound: a current account, a tax account and a VAT account, all of which I duly did.  You didn’t need to explain to the manager at the Bank what an advocate was, or why it was that I didn’t have a penny to my name but might have in a few years: because the manager knew all about that.  You see, they had been opening accounts with fresh faced advocates for over three hundred years.  It was relationship banking, though I doubt the manager would have used that term in those days.

Crossing the Royal Mile from Parliament Square and making the short walk to the Mound used to fill me with awe – here was the Bank, cheek by jowl with Scotland’s law courts, across from the Kirk at St Giles and just down from the Castle; and when I went through the doors and across the ornately tiled floors of the busy teller room, the windows on a bright day gave a breath-taking view right across Princes Street and all the way to the glittering Firth of Forth beyond.  The sound of bagpipes drifted in, while bank clerks quietly and politely dealt with each customer in turn.  This wasn’t just a bank building, it was a statement of national identity.

I had, in fact, been a customer of the Bank of Scotland since I was 7 and I opened my Super Squirrel saver account on Princes Street in Port Glasgow.  It never entered into my head to open an account with the Royal, because my father was with the Bank (though I daresay the opposite was equally true, and generations of Scots were tuned in to the Royal Bank).  I even remember signing up a friend from primary school, and getting one whole pound added to my Super Squirrel account book for having won them this new business.  That was the Bank: canny, thrifty and secure.

That branch was of course just like every other in towns and villages all across Scotland, places which shared certain key characteristics: there would be a kirk, a short high street or cross road and a branch of both the Bank and the Royal Bank close-by.  Association with one or other bank was almost tribal, and there was always a whiff of the Jacobites about the Bank, which I suppose is why I ended up on their books.  Adverts in the ’80s and ’90s would emphasise the close relationship between the Bank and its customers, with a bank bus typically winding through Highland scenery to the jingo: “The Bank of Scotland, a friend for life.”  The Bank was as Scottish as Irn Bru, Haggis or Oor Wullie.

And then came a shotgun marriage with the Halifax, following a heated bid by both the Bank and the Royal Bank to take over London’s enormous National Westminster Bank; a bid the Royal Bank won, and which was rather like watching a fly swallow an elephant.  Somehow the Bank, our Bank, which became HBOS, was never the same again.  Then came the hurricanes of the financial crisis; then silence.

Is the Bank of Scotland really gone?  Well, we still see its signs on our streets every day, but the sad fact is that the United Kingdom’s oldest bank, founded in 1695, is now just a minor limb of the Lloyds Group based in London.  The building on the Mound is an office now, converted on the whim of HBOS executives because they thought it would make a nice place to hold corporate dinners.  Now, aptly enough, the only part of it open to the public is a small museum to the history of Scottish money.

It’s hard to take in, and with a real sense of injured national pride we might ask: how did this ruination of the Bank happen?

‘Hubris: How HBOS wrecked the best bank in Britain’, by Ray Perman is the first book in the aftermath of the global financial collapse to look specifically at the Bank of Scotland and how its demise came about.  Veteran journalist Ray Perman is excellently placed to write on the subject, having followed the Bank’s fortunes since the 1970s when he was with the Financial Times. It’s clear from his writing that he really cares about the subject and feels strongly that the Bank’s demise should not have happened and could have been avoided.  He pulls few punches in a withering assessment, and brings home the clear message that without the Bank, Scotland is a far poorer place in many respects, beyond mere money.  The reason, he asserts, is that ‘Bank of Scotland was destroyed in seven years by men who were intelligent, hard-working and meant well, but focused only on growth.  Everything else was subordinated, with the result that they lost sight of the simple rules of banking, which had not changed since 1695.’

Before the financial crisis Scotland had, in the Bank, an organic financial institution which serviced the local needs of small and medium sized businesses, and which understood their particular business challenges.  This has been swept away now, and those left poorer are the ordinary people of Scotland.  It is a very sad tale, but one that has to be told; and as if to underline the importance of the topic, the excellent foreword to the book has been written by Alistair Darling, who was of course both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Member of Parliament for Edinburgh South West when the financial crisis unfolded, and therefore quite literally in a unique position to comment on how events impacted upon the Bank.

If you are involved in the financial industry in Scotland, or advise those who are, Ray Perman’s book is essential reading; but I think the book would also be of interest to those with a more general interest in Scottish history and society.  As for the future?  Well, I thought it particularly interesting to note that this year’s fireworks to mark the end of the Edinburgh Festival – an event which was always sponsored by the Bank of Scotland, whose headquarters would be lit up in the afterglow – is now sponsored by Virgin Money.

Let the boom times roll!

Fly Fishing, by J.R. Hartley

What I know about fly fishing could be written on the back of a particularly small fly: or at least that was the case until a year ago, when my good friend Charles decided to introduce me to the noble art.  Now, my assembled knowledge on the subject could easily cover a small postcard, but already I’ve become hooked on the whole experience.

It is a pastime which doesn’t exactly open itself out for the interested amateur.  For a start, the equipment is rather expensive (think golf).  Then there’s the whole question of where you do it:  it’s not immediately apparent where all the trout and salmon rivers are in Scotland, in the way that golf courses for example are well indicated.  Then there’s the impenetrable lingo of those already steeped in the subject (you don’t say ‘good luck’ to a fellow fly fisherman, for example, the proper greeting is ‘tight lines’) and finally, if you have the kit, know where to fish and can understand what your fellow fly fishermen are on about, there’s the disappointing realisation that wild fish are rather difficult to catch.

So far, my fishing career has been limited to two days on the River Tay at Kenmore and one day on the River Lyon just a mile or so to the north; from which I can boast one rather modest wild brown trout (which was of course returned immediately to the river).

Standing chest deep in a river and repeatedly flicking a fishing rod is, I accept, unlikely to appeal to everyone; but there is something so vital about the experience, something that brings you so close to your immediate environment of river, rocks, trees and mountains (but not fish of course) and so far from the daily grind, that it becomes almost spiritual.  Time doesn’t just pass, it evaporates; and after a day fishing you experience an appetite for food and desire for sleep that is really rather satisfying.  Besides that, there is the fact that fly fishing takes you to places that you might not otherwise see (I had a very pleasant stay in Aberfeldy and visited Castle Menzies) and unlike golf, you can fish just as happily in the rain as the sun, a definite bonus in post-greenhouse gas Scotland.

All in all, I look forward to my next outing, and I’ve even purchased a copy of Trout and Salmon to improve my lingo – but I doubt I’ll ever progress beyond an enthusiastic amateur.

Fly fishing has a rich literature, and many of the best books were written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford (pen name ‘BB’) who also wrote children’s classic Brendan Chase.  Here is a selection of three of his better known works on fishing available here:

In the meantime, however, Charles has lent me copies of his favourite works on the subject, which include the gloriously titled The Way of a Trout with a Fly by GEM Skues and Loved River by HR Jukes.  I’ll give you just a few lines from the first chapter of Loved River, which sets the tone rather nicely:

“You must not think of my river as one of those royal streams whose photographs appear so frequently in all the illustrated weeklies – generally, I have noticed, as a background.  No, my river is not like that.  Really it is very little wider, and just as winding, just as flower strewn and fragrant as a country lane.  And just as gossipy.  Sometimes, like the road, it encroaches on to the grassy banks, so that you can hardly tell which is grass and which is river; and like the road, too, it has rough places, delightfully rough and bumpy places which create groans or laughter according to your quality as a fisherman or of the car you own.  Perhaps you would call it a beck.  But it is a river; it is marked so on the map.”

Wonderful stuff.  Tight lines everyone!

Edinburgh Fringe Review 2012: The Magicians of Edinburgh

  The Magicians of Edinburgh ***** (5 stars)

Venue: Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row; 15 & 23 August (5.45pm); 22 August (8.30pm)

This review published today at FringeReview.com and ThinkScotland

I followed the early evening crowd through Edinburgh’s famous Italian deli, not entirely sure what to expect from the show’s billing. It proved to be a superb combination of poetry and music by trio Dick Lee on bass clarinet, Anne Evans on flute and Ron Butlin reciting from his latest collection of poems, The Magicians of Edinburgh (2012, published by Polygon).

Ron Butlin was appointed Edinburgh’s own offical poet (or ‘Makar’) in 2008 after a lifetime in music and writing (including novels, short stories and plays); and since then he has celebrated the city’s highs and lows in some of the most original and evocative verses to come out of Scotland.

The opportunity to hear him talk about and recite his poems was something special and the music is more than just an afterthought: Butlin and Lee have worked together on operatic projects and both Lee and Evans are highly accomplished musicians. The combination of all three promised great things.

As the lights dimmed Evans and Lee took to the stage, beginning with their specially crafted piece ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’, the lighter notes of the flute combining beautifully with the darker chocolate tones of the bass clarinet in an evocative melody. They were then joined on stage by Ron Butlin, who proceeded to take the spellbound audience through a selection of his works accompanied by Evans and Lee. The whole performance was magical, witty and a tribute to the poetic genius of Butlin: it is always special to have a poet recite his own work with special emphasis, but the experience was added to here by the beautifully arranged music. A truly wonderful experience.

Cosily, Butlin took the audience through the thoughts and inspiration for his poetry in between readings, and we were treated to trampolining bankers in ‘The New Town’s Response to the Threat of Global Warming’, ghosts and bogles in ‘Beware!’, a talking tram car in the gloriously Burns-like satire ‘Oor Tram’s Plea tae the Cooncillors O’ Edinburgh’ and the poets shining love of this city in ‘The Magicians of Edinburgh’.

Ron Butlin is the voice of Edinburgh; and for any Fringe follower intent on learning about the modern city behind the Festivals, or wishing to become the sorcerer’s apprentice, this production is a must.

An ever closer legal union?

An ever closer legal union?  Published today at The Guardian

Something interesting is happening to the legal services market in Scotland.

Firstly, like everywhere else, Scotland is feeling the effects of a double dip recession. This has shrunk the legal sector, dried up a good deal of commercial and domestic property work and left smaller law firms concentrating their billable time on wills, trusts and executries.

For the medium to large firms in the Scottish market, however, the seismic event of the past few years has been the falling away of work from the two most significant clients in the country: The Bank of Scotland and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

To give an idea of just how central this work is, I recall a discussion some years ago with a senior partner in one of Edinburgh’s grandest firms. He pointed out that in 1800 their two largest clients were the banks and that this was still the case over two hundred years later. Indeed, the decline of bank business in Edinburgh – which all the major firms share in — has been compared by some to Glasgow’s loss of heavy industry in the 1950s, or the disturbance of an ecosystem in which surveyors, lawyers, accountants and even sandwich shops have traditionally lived and thrived. Of course both banks are still very much present in the Scottish market, it’s just that the transaction work which they consistently provided may not return on anything like the scale it once was.

Despite these changes, however, there is a great deal for lawyers to be optimistic about: the market has dynamism and Edinburgh is growing again as an eminent financial centre with secure funds under management; it’s attracting headquarters for banks such as Virgin Money, Tesco and Green Investment; the city has over 700 established financial services firms; it’s building a significant reputation for technology start-ups with IPO ambitions; there’s oil and gas work and development; and it’s still one of the top places in the world to live, work and study.

But the thing which is most interesting in the industry at the moment is the rapid trend of mergers between Scots and English firms. The most prominent link up earlier this year was between McGrigors, one of Scotland’s lead firms, and Pinsent Masons. Others have followed: DWF and Biggart Baillie, Shoosmiths and Archibald, Campbell & Harley, DAC Beachcroft and Andersons. A number of other firms have featured in the rumour mill. The trend is a very significant one for a jurisdiction which has always been fiery about its independence: equally, however, its very independence from the rest of the UK legal sector has perhaps led Scots firms and their lawyers to underplay their hand on a wider stage.

Why are these mergers happening, and what are the incentives on both sides?

From the Scottish perspective, a link up with a strong London or regional player gives the strength and support of a larger firm in these tough economic times — for even the biggest in Scotland are small when compared to the likes of the magic circle firms. Many clients will have interests across the border, and it makes sense in those circumstances for the same firm to be able to offer a joined up service. For lawyers in Scottish firms, a link up with a global practice brings the potential to work and travel far beyond the jurisdiction’s traditional boundaries.

From the opposite perspective, merger with a Scots firm is likely to bring in a high quality team of lawyers with an established share in some very lucrative markets including, for example, oil and gas work. As an added bonus, for those working on high value London deals there will suddenly be the availability of a skilled team of commercial lawyers working out of Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen, who would then be in a position to share the workload at a competitive rate.

Overall, the trend of cross border mergers meets a number of needs on both sides, as well as being a timely reminder that despite obvious differences (such as land law) there is much which is shared across the two jurisdictions. After all, the Act of Union in 1707 gave Scots the commercial freedom to reap the benefits of England’s trade networks, whose doors had until then been closed to them; and it gave England the talent, drive and imagination of some of Scotland’s best people. The combined strength from working together across the border is greater than the sum of the separate parts.

Scotland’s War

 A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War, by Trevor Royle (published by Birlinn, 2011) – this article published today at Think Scotland

If you have never seen the view into the valley of the Clyde from the hills above Greenock, then that is something wonderful you have yet to experience in life.  With the sun shining and a gentle breeze tugging at the yellow whins, you can see the blue river snaking down from Glasgow, past Dumbarton Rock, and Ben Lomond looming like an iceberg on the horizon; you can see it as it flows toward you growing wider, the channel of its navigable waters neatly pegged out like a putting green, red to port, green to starboard, all the delicate way between yawning sandbanks; and over your left shoulder now there’s the Tail o’ the Bank, where the water turns salty, then lazily moves south round the headland of Gourock and opens out into the mouth of the Firth, with Largs, Troon, Turnberry and the Ailsa Craig, and all the promises of fish teas and ice cream which those sunlit pavilions have to offer.

Across the water from you now are the Holy Loch, Loch Long and Gare Loch, where you could hide seventeen Royal Navy Frigates like so many kilted Jacobites in moorland heather: because you can see clearly now from where you’re standing, plain as the nose on your face, that these are some of the best natural harbours anywhere in the world, bar nowhere.  This is a home for giants: where ships were incubated then born onto the river like calving glaciers; and spread out before you it is a natural amphitheatre as glorious in its way as the view over Edinburgh from the North Bridge.

The mighty channel is usually empty these days apart from the occasional dredger heading up to Glasgow, or the quaint sight of the Waverley ploughing the waters like a mechanical swan.  Indeed on a day like this, with the sun in the sky, the waters and shores look natural and clean: fish swim far upriver and razorbills and oystercatchers perch along the banks; but sprawling supermarket complexes and burger joints now fill the void of what was once the vast grimy, noisy, relentless, unceasing, ceased to exist glory – the clanging heart – that was shipbuilding on the lower Clyde.

Close your eyes; go back over seventy years to 1940 and the scene before you when you open them again is very different.  I have mischievously convinced my four year old daughter that the world before 1980 was entirely black and white, but in this instance it’s not hard to believe that the sky and the sea would have been a little less blue, the grass a little less green, the air thick with grey smoke and coal dust.  In those days the Clyde was a seething mass of shipping, with every conceivable vessel butting its way through the choppy waters, crossing and crisscrossing before you like scars on a riveter’s glove.  Or as Trevor Royle describes the scene in A Time of Tyrants:

“Not only was the Tail of the Bank home to some of the warships of the Free French Navy, together with 1,500 of their sailors at Fort Matilda, but as the assembly point for Atlantic convoys it meant that the waters ‘held the biggest small boat pool in Great Britain with French, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian and other vessels.  Greenock was as a consequence highly internationalised then and each of its public houses a veritable Babel.’”

In those days of war the Clyde was alive with ships: so alive, in fact, that the Nazis knew that it had to be addressed through bombing raids; and so first Clydebank and then Greenock received their share of the bombs.  As Royle describes, 35,000 people were made homeless in Clydebank and 528 killed, while in Greenock and Port Glasgow the figure was 320, with hundreds more seriously injured.  There was tragedy and high drama, but I also remember the story of the Tate and Lyle factory on Greenock’s Drumfrochar Road being bombed, and molten sugar running down the cobbled streets: why do I always imagine ragged schoolboys delightedly following its lava-like course?

It’s rather difficult today to bring to mind the Scotland of the Second World War, since so much has changed both here and abroad.  That’s why it takes a past master like Trevor Royle to tell us the story: to lead us through the people, the politics, the honour and the sacrifice of the most important period of the twentieth century, and the immense involvement of Scots and Scotland in that global struggle.  Following on from his successful appraisal of The Great War in The Flowers of the Forest, A Time of Tyrants has been thoroughly researched by Royle in the National Archives of Scotland, the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh: providing him with material which he has then knitted into a seamless account of the period in a lucid and engaging style.

There are, of course, many single volume histories of the Second World War (for example those by Anthony Beevor, Andrew Roberts or Sir Max Hastings, all published in the last twelve months) and very good they are too: however A Time of Tyrants looks at the phenomenon of the War both within Scotland at that time and as contributed to by Scots across the globe.  It is, therefore, both a unique and important contribution to our stock of knowledge of the period.

If I had one small criticism, however, it would be this:  it seems to me that the history would have benefited more from real stories from the war: for example where is the dramatic explosion of the Free French destroyer Maille Breze off Greenock?  Where is Bill Millen, piper to Lord Simon Fraser the fifteenth Earl of Lovat, who on D-Day heroically played The Road to the Isles on Sword Beach and survived only because the German snipers assumed he had lost his mind?  But these are mere trifles, interesting whimsies, compared to the hard work of Royle’s impressive and wide ranging achievement.

The book is available from Birlinn publishers here: and if this has whetted your appetite for some stunning photographs of the Clyde, you’ll find many at Gerard Watt’s excellent River Clyde photography website here.