Glasgow, Edinburgh and some Scottish islands (2016 and earlier memories)

In December 2016 Lene and I went to Scotland for the first time for many, many years: an opportunity to check out my roots! We stayed with my aunt for a couple of nights on Clyde-side and then we rented a smart apartment close to the centre of Edinburgh for another three nights. I was happy to travel by bus and train from the airport through Glasgow – both the centre and the suburbs – catching a few glimpses of the city named on my birth certificate. Even better were the days exploring Princes Street and the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, where we admired the towers and walls of the castle from the Grassmarket, the snazzy Scottish Parliament, a fine collection of paintings in the Scottish National Gallery and the elegant streets of the New Town draped in Christmas decorations. We also found some very good eateries where we enjoyed several meals with pasta, fish, falafels and haggis! If the French, Italian and Turkish delights on offer are any indication, then Scotland is squarely in the European mainstream.

Edinburgh Castle rises above the Grassmarket, a steep climb

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Adam Smith with a seagull on his head – Royal Mile

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We went to Scotland more or less at the same time as I completed a very long essay on “islands I have known and loved.” The following are my notes on four Scottish islands.

Arran

In my childhood and particularly before we moved south across the border in 1961, the Clyde valley west of the city of Glasgow was an important reference in my map of the world. We often stayed with my grandparents in Johnstone – a weaving town some 30 kilometers from Glasgow – and they would often head down to the coast for holidays and day trips. They particularly liked to go to the little seaside resort of Largs, from which Great Cumbrae and the Isle of Bute are short ferry rides across the Firth of Clyde. More exotic and slightly further, on clear days the peak of Goat Fell on the island of Arran is also visible.

As far as I can remember, my childhood passed without an opportunity to travel to Arran. My parents (at least my father…) much preferred to go to Iona (see below). Then to my great satisfaction, when I was studying geography at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology in the early 1970s, the teachers decided that all we needed to know could be discovered on a field trip to the island. So we stayed for a week at a hostel and zoomed around with maps and binoculars and anoraks, estimating altitudes, reviewing ordinance survey symbols and gazing at the wild beauty of the fells. It was a long trip from Cambridge to Arran, but it was worth it!

Iona – my first island

At this stage I’ll go back to the beginning to describe Iona, which I guess was the first island that appeared on my mental map sometime towards the end of the 1950s. My father was a member of an organisation called the Iona Community, which drew inspiration from the works of an Irish monk Columba, a missionary on the west coast of Scotland. He established a religious order and was based on Iona until his death in 597. The distinctive Celtic cross spread as Columba’s monks converted heathens across Scotland. Many of the early Scottish kings including Macbeth are buried on Iona.[1]

The Iona Community appealed to my father as a Christian movement for social justice and peace. It was founded by a Glasgow cleric called George Macleod in the 1930s; dividing his time between social work in the city and worship on the island using the abbey as a retreat and spiritual centre. My father was a member of the Community all his life.

We went to Iona many times during my childhood. Sometimes we sailed from Oban around the much larger island of Mull (see below) and sometimes we drove across Mull to the little harbour of Fionnphort where tiny open boats operated the ferry service. There were no cars on Iona. The island is only about 5 km from north to south and about 2 km wide.

My memories of the ships and boats around Iona are mixed. I remember that we had to climb down the side of the steamer from Oban into smaller boats to be ferried to the jetty. It wasn’t easy in the swaying sea. The sailors sometimes teased kids like me. I remember being very frightened once that we would be left behind when the boats sailed back to Iona after an excursion along the coast of Mull. I guess I was only about 5 or 6 years old. I wonder how my nervous mother coped with the stresses and strains of sea going adventures and the good Christian souls who belonged to the Community. I guess the answer is that she didn’t…

Mull

Since my childhood trips to Iona I have been to Mull twice. In 1995 we went to Scotland for a holiday during a heat wave and sailed from Oban to Craignure for a day trip to see the castle and the miniature railway. It was an enjoyable outing as far as I remember, not least seeing the mountains and the lochs in bright sunshine, a rarity in the north of Scotland. 13 years later I went for a more typical wet and windy excursion. Martin and I had travelled by car to the Ardnamurchan peninsula for a short holiday in 2008. The weather was disappointing, so we hopped on a ferry and went to Tobermory, the largest settlement on Mull. But the rain didn’t let up, so after slouching around the town, we went for soggy walk in a park and then headed back across the sound to our B&B.

Sometimes I think that boats are close to my heart. However, I have not been much of boatman; I have never owned any vessel and have not made any special effort to go sailing. Perhaps there’s some regret in these words, in the same way as I sometimes wish I had disciplined myself to learn a musical instrument. But the sea is also a bit scary…

As a child I was always happy to be entertained by my aunt and uncle; they owned a yacht and often went sailing in the Firth of Clyde. Their lifestyle contrasted considerably with that of my parents and there were enormous pleasures in being taken for excursions “on the ocean wave”, even just for a few hours. After my uncle died my aunt became a keen world cruiser.

Skye – which Union?

Speed bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing… over the sea to Skye…[2]

Which I did, once, back in the early 1970s, when I was a keen highland walker. The island is now linked to the mainland by a bridge, but back then there were ferries. Unfortunately I wasn’t equipped for climbing in the spectacular Cuillin Mountains, where the weather conditions are often dangerous. I think I vowed to return for a more thorough exploration, but I haven’t. The island points tantalizingly north westwards towards the Outer Hebrides, which I haven’t visited either.

I was in the Netherlands in 2014 when the Scottish held a referendum on independence and the majority voted to stay in the United Kingdom. Sitting in a café by a canal in Amsterdam I met a group of four Scottish women, two of whom were “better together” and had voted for the Union, while two had voted against. It seems that the campaign had been an interesting opportunity for the Scots to debate desirable economic and social policies in an independent country, in contrast to the moribund, minimalist political debate that seems to characterise many countries.

Maybe after the Brexit referendum the Scots will get another chance to vote for independence from the UK. Given that almost two thirds voted to remain in the EU, the first minister in the Edinburgh parliament, Nicola Sturgeon, has been negotiating with both London and Brussels to find a way forward within a Union, which may mean leaving the UK. We’ll see in the next year or two I suppose.

[1] As summarised on www.ionahistory.org.uk: Iona is one of Scotland’s smallest inhabited islands. Yet its historical significance is enormous. It was here that St. Columba founded his monastery, a major influence in the spread of Christianity. Viking raiders ransacked the monastery around AD 800, but Iona’s role as a beacon of faith was never extinguished. An abbey and nunnery were established here around 1200 and the island was a focus for medieval pilgrimage. Iona’s spiritual importance endures, enhanced by the foundation of the Iona Community in 1938.

[2] This song refers to Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart (31 December 1720 – 31 January 1788), commonly known in Britain during his lifetime as The Young Pretender and The Young Chevalier, and often known in retrospective accounts as Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was the second Jacobite pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland, France and Ireland (as Charles III) from the death of his father in 1766. This claim was as the eldest son of James Francis Edward Stuart, himself the son of James VII and II. Charles is perhaps best known as the instigator of the unsuccessful Jacobite uprising of 1745, in which he led an insurrection to restore his family to the throne of Great Britain, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Culloden that effectively ended the Jacobite cause. Jacobites supported the Stuart claim due to hopes for religious toleration for Roman Catholics and a belief in the divine right of kings. Charles’s flight from Scotland after the uprising has rendered him a romantic figure of heroic failure in some later representations. In 1759 he was involved in a French plan to invade Britain which was abandoned following British naval victories.

2 thoughts on “Glasgow, Edinburgh and some Scottish islands (2016 and earlier memories)

  1. Great piece, McMike! Lovely to read about your childhood memories and more recent experiences in Scotland. Let’s take a trip to the roots, sea and highlands once Carl is a little older.

    Like

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