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)

  

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!

Through a telescope, darkly

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark (Polygon, 2011)

In the same way it was once thought the Earth was flat, people (important people) used to think that the sun, moon, planets and stars moved across the sky like props on a medieval stage, perhaps even helped along with jerky twitches on strings, or poked with sticks by an out of sight but kind hearted old puppeteer with a white beard.  The Earth didn’t move of course, said the wise, how could it?  No, it was everything else that revolved around it like so many clockwork toys.

We’ve come so far in this post-post-modernist second decade of the twenty first century, that it’s difficult to imagine just how different the world of ideas once was.  Four hundred years ago mildly eccentric old ladies were burned as witches: but the threat of burning also hung over anyone whose views differed from official church doctrine on any number of issues – doctrine which was anchored in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ brilliant (but by the 1600s looking rather shaky) marriage of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, set out in the numerous volumes of his Summa Theologica.  I mean no harm to Aquinas: on the contrary, his thirteenth century writings are among the first lights flickering from the darkness; but after more than three hundred years his ideas were struggling against the dawning light of reason.

We have all seen the stars with our own eyes, and that is exactly how they were observed – even by the Egyptians – right up until the seventeenth century when a few spectacle makers in Holland suddenly realised (no doubt by accident) that by holding one lens in front of another, next door’s windmill suddenly looked enormous.  Within a few years Galileo in Italy had developed the first telescope and was crashing around, knocking down the medieval stage scenery of the skies.

Then there is the great Austrian mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler who, separate from Galileo, applied his mind to the recorded observations of his time and deduced mathematically the motion of the spheres.

Nobody liked this, it seems: or at least not many people whose opinions counted – which meant the church, both Catholic and Protestant.

There is something rather obvious, with hindsight, about the advancement of science – and looking back upon the collision between the immovable objects of faith and tradition and the irresistible force of evidence which refutes it, is like watching a very messy car crash in slow motion.

To the Vatican priests of the sixteen hundreds, the view through a telescope presented the reality that Holy Scripture was not literally true, that the philosophers of antiquity whom they adored had limits to their understanding, and that they could not respond by making new theology on the hoof – for who knew what the men of science might discover next, and where would the church be then?

It is a perplexing but fascinating period of history brought to life by Stuart Clark, an enthusiastic British academic, journalist, author and broadcaster who has devoted himself to bringing the world of astronomy to life.  In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth he has created a fictional account of the development of stargazing from an eccentric and superstitious hobby through to the greatest scientific revelation of all time.  I enjoyed seeing the Jesuits, the brilliant schoolmasters of my youth, cast in their role as sixteenth century thought police, and the glittering circle in which Cardinal Robert Bellarmine moved.

The book is gripping (I read it over the course of two days) and it brings out very sympathetically the tensions of the time both from the point of view of the geniuses Galileo and Kepler and the established Catholic and Protestant authorities.

The even better news is that The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is only the first in a trilogy: the second book, The Sensorium of God, was published earlier this year by Polygon and the third, The Day Without Yesterday, is scheduled for publication in 2013.  The Sensorium of God deals with the life and times of Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society (such as Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley), while The Day Without Yesterday jumps forward in time to the twentieth century, Albert Einstein and his contemporary Father Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant Belgian astronomer and physicist; and proof that a person can be a visionary scientist and still see the hand of God in the marvels of the Universe.

Also published at Think Scotland

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.

Stair Society launches new website

The Stair Society, Scotland’s leading legal history society, has just launched an impressive new website: http://www.stairsociety.org/

Founded in 1934, the Society’s aim is to encourage the study and advance the knowledge of the history of Scots Law by the publication of original documents and by the reprinting and editing of works of rarity or importance.

The Society always welcomes new members, and the next annual lecture of the Society will be given in November 2012 by Professor Norma Dawson, President of the Irish Legal History Society & Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast.