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A striking image of Duffus Castle has been selected as the winner of the Benromach Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival Photography competition.

Outright winner John Macgregor Seasons - Frosty Morning at Duffus

Outright winner
John Macgregor
Seasons – Frosty Morning at Duffus

The stunning photograph showing the historic property on a frosty winter morning was taken by John Macgregor from Lossiemouth. Frosty Morning at Duffus was one of three images by Mr Macgregor to be shortlisted in the final of the competition – and all of them received prizes. He wins a five-day commission to capture the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival on film, along with a cash prize, trophy, bottle of Benromach malt whisky and tickets for the prestigious opening night dinner.

Michael Urquhart, managing director of Gordon & MacPhail, the owners of Benromach Distillery, says the competition always attracts entries of a very high standard. “I was really impressed by each and every one of the entries this year,” he said. “The very high calibre never fails to amaze me. This was one of the most difficult years to judge because of the quality, and to determine an overall winner was a real challenge. Each of the entrants has really taken the theme to heart and delivered results far beyond our expectations. We asked for images that encapsulated the spirit of Speyside, and the entrants have certainly delivered.”

John Macgregor Abstract - Seaside Sculpture

John Macgregor
Abstract – Seaside Sculpture

James Campbell, chairman of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, was delighted with the continuing success of the competition. “All of the entries this year have been superb,” he explained, “and John is a thoroughly deserving overall winner; his frosty morning shot of Duffus Castle captures the stunning pink hues of the sunrise. Not only does the competition put this beautiful part of the world on the map, but it also provides a platform for photographers whose work is exposed to thousands of people at the festival and at the viewing gallery online.”

Mr Macgregor’s shot – Seaside Sculpture – took the honours in the abstract category, while his photograph called Happy and Grumpy was runner-up in the people section. The runner-up in abstract was Gabriel Varga from Slovakia with her image, Out of Service – a photograph of an old red telephone box.

Alistair Petrie Seasons - Winter Pines

Alistair Petrie
Seasons – Winter Pines

In the category for seasons, Alistair Petrie from Carnoustie scooped first place with his Winter Pines image. The runner-up in this category was Helen Crowley from Elgin with Tattie Field. In the people category, the winning image of Tomnarieve – a farm worker overlooking a flock of sheep – was taken by Myrddin Irwin of Tomintoul.

The touring exhibition of the finalists’ photographs is currently at Benromach Distillery, but moved to the Grain to Glass Exhibition at St Giles’ Church in Elgin – another part of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival – from Thursday, April 17.

The images will take pride of place at the Festival Hub in the Square at Dufftown for the duration of the Festival from May 1 – 5. They will go on tour at libraries across Moray in May and June, the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh from July, and back to Benromach in September.

The finalists’ photographs are currently on display online at www.spiritofspeyside.com and visitors to the site are asked to vote for their contender for the People’s Choice. The winner of this competition will be announced later in the year.

Myrddin Irwin People - Tomnarieve

Myrddin Irwin
People – Tomnarieve

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, which is now in its 15th year, takes place at venues across the region. A signature event for Homecoming 2014, it will start Whisky Month – a four week national celebration of Scotland’s world class food and drink.

It will also launch a brand new event this year – The Spirit of Speyside Sessions – which aims to put to spotlight on the area’s traditional music heritage with concerts and ceilidhs being staged in venues closely linked to the whisky industry.

Tickets for all events in the 2014 Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival programme can be bought via the website. The Festival is also active on social media – facebook.com/WhiskyFestival and @spirit_speyside on Twitter.

Rare medieval letters relating to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are to be exhibited together for the first time. The exhibition entitled ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’ will open at Stirling Castle next month and brings together two unique manuscripts which provide a fascinating insight into the different paths taken by these two leaders in securing the Scottish crown.

Wallace Letter  Copyright of the National Archives

Wallace Letter
Copyright of the National Archives

On display will be a 700-year-old letter from King Philip IV of France to his agents in Rome commanding them to ask Pope Boniface VIII to support Wallace. Written in November 1300, the letter was discovered in the Tower of London in the 1830’s and is currently on loan to the National Records of Scotland from The National Archives in London. In 2011 a panel of experts concluded that it was likely to have been in Wallace’s possession, although how and why remain unclear.

The Wallace letter will appear alongside a letter to King Philip IV of France. Dating from 1309 it was written by Scottish barons attending the first parliament following Robert the Bruce’s seizure of the throne in 1306. Their declaration of support for Bruce as the rightful king of Scots marked an important moment in the recognition of his crown. The document is preserved in the National Records of Scotland.

Bruce letter  Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

Bruce letter
Copyright of the National Records of Scotland

Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop said that the bringing together of these documents for the first time would “provide a fascinating insight into one of the most turbulent periods in Scotland’s history. This is a fantastic opportunity for visitors to view these rare and special documents which provide a tantalising glimpse into the lives and legacy of two of Scotland’s most famous historical figures.”

Tim Ellis, Keeper of the Records of Scotland and Chief Executive of the National Records of Scotland, added that the “death of Alexander III in 1286 triggered a dynastic scramble that came to a head in 1306, when Robert the Bruce seized the Scottish throne. This exhibition brings together for the first time two archival treasures connected to William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, and adds to our understanding of this fascinating period of Scottish history. We’re delighted to be holding the exhibition which has been made possible through support from Historic Scotland and The National Archives.”

The ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’ exhibition will form part of a series of events at Stirling Castle which will tell the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Bannockburn, which marks its 700th anniversary this year. This will include a living history event ‘The Road to Bannockburn’ and an exhibition of paintings by renowned artist Iona Leishman.

Dr Lorna Ewan  Historic Scotland

Dr Lorna Ewan
Historic Scotland

Lorna Ewan, Head of Visitor Experience for Historic Scotland, who operate Stirling Castle, pointed out that the castle had “played a key role in the events leading up to Bannockburn. The siege of the castle was the catalyst for Edward II to send a 17,000 strong army to Scotland who met Bruce’s men at Bannockburn so it provides a fitting location to tell the story to visitors.

Over the weekend of the 24th and 25th May, the Road to Bannockburn living history event will explore the events that led to this decisive clash. Visitors can find out about the tactics and weapons of the armies and join our forensic team in discovering more about the injuries sustained by the soldiers.

“Meanwhile Iona Leishman’s exhibition of paintings will provide a poignant overview of the realities of war. Together with the Wallace and Bruce exhibition they will provide visitors with an insight into one of the most famous periods in Scotland’s history.”

The ‘Wallace, Bruce and Scotland’s Contested Crown’, exhibition which is part of the Year of Homecoming programme, will open at Stirling Castle on 3rd May and will run until 1st June.

The Statute of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

It will take place, as the original one did, over two glorious days, at the end of June. The 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce’s victory over King Edward II will be a battle for independence fought, not for real, but for a virtual reality…as befits our modern age.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The SNP’s propaganda war-machine will be using the images conjured up by the re-enactment of the battle, on the supposed field at Bannockburn on the 28th and 29th June, to lob a few emotional rocks at the No campaign. Meanwhile, up the road in Stirling, the No campaigners will be hoping that the British Armed Forces Day, will be attracting 100,000 spectators waving Union Flags. The flat carse-land at Stirling will not have seen anything like it since 1314.

It’s hard to resist the temptation to draw some parallels. Edward II (David Cameron) was coming north to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle ( occupied by the No campaigners). Robert the Bruce (Salmond) drew up his troops in front of the castle and, by skilful manoeuvring, beat off a force at least 10 per cent larger than his own (the current gap in the opinion polls).

Such amusing parallels may seem too obvious and too extreme but there’s no doubt that a lot of political strategy has gone into these visitor attractions. The 700th anniversary of Bannockburn was always going to be an important even – no matter what the political circumstances of the time. No doubt the National Trust set about rebuilding of the visitor centre, at a cost of £9m, in all innocence. This is due to open in March and will include, of course, a virtual reconstruction of the battle.

bannockburn 11It then looks like the Scottish government persuaded the National Trust to stage a real re-enactment of the battle and a whole weekend of colourful events over the 28th/29th June. It would include a number of themed “villages”, live music, craft shows, and food and drink stalls. It couldn’t help becoming a patriotic, if not nationalist, event. It was part of the euphoria package of Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and Homecoming which might persuade doubting Scots to vote Yes for independence.

Then some bright sparks in the No camp in Stirling – where the Conservatives and Labour have formed a Unionist coalition against the SNP – thought up the idea of bidding to hold the UK Armed Forces Day on the same weekend. It would reinforce “Britishness” and spike the guns of the SNP down the hill at Bannockburn. The Defence Secretary Philip Hammond jumped at the suggestion and announced that Scotland should again host this important annual event – even though it had only recently been in Edinburgh – and, of course, Stirling would be the ideal place. Let battle commence…for visitor numbers and TV coverage.

Bannockburn Re-enactment (Picture: NTS)

Bannockburn Re-enactment
(Picture: NTS)

The National Trust panicked. It had only sold 2,000 tickets out of 45,000 at that stage and it was fearful of making a massive loss. Mr Salmond sent Visit Scotland to the rescue but the event was trimmed from 3 days to 2 and its budget cut from £950,000 to £650,000. Visit Scotland bosses are currently in trouble with MSPs at Holyrood for not telling them about the changes when they gave evidence to the tourism committee in mid-January. The bosses at Stirling Council are also in trouble, explaining how they will pay the bill of £250,000 for staging the Armed Forces Day.

Faced with such jolly confusion, I decided I should do my patriotic duty and go to both events on Saturday 28th June. They both sound like a great day out – or, at least, half a day out each. But as with so many things these days, it’s not that easy to get tickets.

When I typed Bannockburn into my computer, I landed in the National Trust’s visitor centre with its game-boy presentation of the battlefield. No mention of the June weekend. The next two Bannockburn entries turned out to be “unavailable”. I then tried the Visit Scotland website but there was no link to a ticket office. There was however a telephone number, which turned out to be the rather harassed lady at the aforementioned National Trust visitor centre. Once her computer had been cranked up she was able to give me the name of a website, called Ticket Soup, which might sell me some tickets.

This indeed was a useful website. It didn’t sell soup but it did sell tickets for “the performance” on Saturday 28th. Prices ranged from £20 to £75, plus a £2 booking fee, plus an outrageous £2.30 for postage. They must be heavy and bulky tickets but I look forward to them thumping down on my door mat.

Not everyone will be as persistent in their patriotic duty. As often is the case, Scotland will need to get its tourism business up to speed if it’s to make a success of either of these events in the summer. We also need to get rid of the petty divisions and rivalries which have led to such a farce.

Craiglockhart – where Sassoon met Owen in 1917

We’re entering the second week of this year’s History Festival. What makes this event special is the way in which it blends expert knowledge with trips to the places where history was made, the way in which it takes history out of the classroom and into bookshops and tearooms, galleries and theatres.

Siegfried Sassoon  by George Charles Beresford (1915) (Picture: Public Domain)

Siegfried Sassoon
by George Charles Beresford (1915)
(Picture: Public Domain)

Tomorrow for instance (Tuesday the 19th), there’s a special event to celebrates the war poets of Craiglockhart. Now part of Edinburgh Napier University. the campus started life in 1880 as a Hydropathic establishment where the wealthy could take fashionable water treatments. However, it took on a completely different role during the First World War when it was turned into a hospital for officers suffering from shell-shock (what we’d now call PTSD). And in the summer of 1917, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met there. The University has a small special collection of material covering the history of Craiglockhart and Catherine Walker, its curator, will host a guided visit and talk about the many interesting characters who have had links with the place over the years.

On Wednesday, you can travel back in time to experience the classrooms of the Victorian era. The Victorian Schoolroom is located in Leith Walk Primary School and when ‘pupils’ can go through an hour long lesson using Victorian-style slates and slate pencils, old fashioned pens and ink from ink wells. The events are led by experienced, volunteer role-play teachers – corporal punishment however is NOT on today’s menu!

Billy Kay - speaking on both nationalism and wine!

Billy Kay – speaking on both nationalism and wine!

The historian Billy Kay is leading two discussions on his favourite topics – Scottish nationalism and wine! Earlier this year, he produced and presented a series for BBC Radio Scotland on the history of Scottish nationalism. ‘The Cause’ ranged from the identity forged in the Wars of Independence, through the radicalism of the 19th century, to the dramatic transformation of the SNP from a small, marginalised “sect” to a dynamic political machine capable of winning two elections and a referendum.

Much longer ago, Billy wrote a fascinating book on what he genuinely believes should really be regarded as “Scotland’s other drink” – Claret! Though made in Bordeaux from grapes not girders, claret once linked Scotland with France, so closely that it was known as the “Bloodstream of the Auld Alliance.” Billy looks at the fascinating history of the Scots involvement with not just claret but also other great wines of the world. Both events will be held at the Adam House Theatre in Chambers Street.

Assynt – one of the last wilderness areas

They say Scotland has some of the last wilderness areas left in Western Europe. But where exactly are they? And how particular should we be about protecting them? The government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is inviting views on its latest map of 43 “wild land” areas which will be offered some sort of protection under the planning laws. The haggling over this map will pitch conservationists against developers, city dwellers against country folk, romanticists against realists and will define the sort of country we want to live in.

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the wilderness area are in the Highlands

Most of the 43 areas are, of course, in the Highlands and Islands. But there are three in the south of the country – Merrick, Talla-Hart Fells and Broad Dollar-Black Laws. Waterhead Moor-Muirshiel, just north of Glasgow, is also included. The rest stretch from Arran to Shetland by way of the Arrochar Alps, Ben Lawers, Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms, the Cuillins, Torridon, the Flow Country, Harris and the Orkney island of Hoy. (see full list below).

“Measuring wildness in inherently difficult,” SNH admits. One man’s wildness is another man’s wasteland. But the agency has tried to come up with a scoring system that is scientific. Four factors are taken into account: naturalness, ruggedness, remoteness from public roads, and a visible lack of built developments or “modern artefacts” such as wind turbines, pylons, telemasts etc.

Some compromises have had to be made where features do not spoil what’s called “the wider sense of wildness” eg the General Wade road that runs through the Corrieyairack Pass or the railway line through the Flow Country or an isolated farm building. On the other hand, some borderline areas have been left out of the map that some people might think should be included eg the Lowther Hills, Strathy Forest and North Lewis.

All in all, about 20 per cent of Scotland’s landmass has been classified as “wild” which means that planners will have to take the new designation into account when they are deciding on any new development, whether that be a wind farm, or a fish farm, or radio mast or a hotel or housing estate, or, dare we mention it, a golf course.

We’ve seen that such designations are not sacrosanct. Donald Trump has demonstrated that you can build a golf course on a SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. And there are a dozen other such designations – NNR, SPA, SAC, NSA, AONB, not to mention national and regional parks – where such exceptions have been made. The John Muir Trust estimates that you can see a wind turbine from more than half of Scotland’s land area.

JohnMuirTrustGreenThe John Muir Trust is leading the campaign to preserve Scotland’s wild land and it has welcomed the new map. Other conservation organisations, like the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and the National Trust are similarly hoping the new map will be widely accepted.

But it is likely to be opposed in detail by local councils, developers, farmers and tourism businesses. An earlier draft of the map was sent back to the drawing board and SNH has had to carry out further statistical analysis to prove that certain areas really are “wild”.

There are those who argue that nowhere in Scotland is wild. All of our landscape, they say, has been influenced by human habitation but grouse moors, farmland, crofts and fishing villages still make for a beautiful, peaceful and spiritually pleasing experience. But even those opposed to wild land designations, or particular lines drawn on the map, admit that there is a balance to be struck between economic gains and preserving the natural wildness that is attracting businesses in the first place.

The Scottish government’s National Planning Framework hints that the presumption will always be against developments in wild land areas. Paragraph 99, for instance, reads: “ Some of Scotland’s remoter mountain and coastal areas possess an elemental quality from which people derive psychological and spiritual benefits. Such areas are very sensitive to any form of development or intrusive human activity and great care should be taken to safeguard their wild character.”

We shall see whether the government will live up to these fine words when the final map of wild land is written into the planning rules. And then we shall see if we can stick to them. The consultation period ends on 20th December.

Images courtesy of Historic Scotland

Jarlshof is perhaps the best known prehistoric site in Shetland with remains dating from 2500 BC right up to the 17th century AD.

Computer reconstruction of the Broch as it might have looked like

Computer reconstruction of the Broch as it might have looked like

The earliest settlers from the Bronze Age lived in small oval houses with thick stone walls. By the Iron Age, there were several different types of structure including a broch and a defensive wall around the site. The Vikings left a lot behind them. These ruins, including a longhouse, are the largest site visible anywhere in Britain. Some of these remains were only discovered after a storm at the end of the 19th Century.

The name ‘Jarshof’ itself was coined by Sir Walter Scott and it appeared in his novel ‘The Pirate’. The name stuck and was first attached to a Scottish fortified manor house and now to the site as a whole which is in the care of Historic Scotland. Earlier this year, it supported a project to create this short computer generated film by Kieran Baxter which tells the story of Jarlshof through the ages.

The film drew on aerial photographs taken from a kite-suspended camera – it needed to have special permission because it was so close to Sumburgh Airport. The project was completed at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, part of the University of Dundee. Glasgow School of Art was also involved in creating the speculative reconstructions of lost buildings, based on aerial photographs from a number of other sites across Scotland.

The film is now on display in the museum at Jarlshof where it can be seen to full effect accompanied by an exploration of the site itself. More of the story and images behind the project can be found here.

Coigach-Assynt Panorama
Picture credit Alex Nail

It’s one of Scotland’s least populated areas. The far North-West – the area from Ullapool to Lochinver and beyond – is special in many different ways. It has one of the most diverse geologies in the world – so much so that it’s one of the few Geo-Parks in the UK. Its mountains – the so-called Inselbergs – are unique in Scotland. Isolated peaks such as Stac Pollaidh, Cùl Mòr, Suilven and Canisp are striking features rising out of the landscape. Its mountains, moorlands, lochs and coastline provide habitats for species such as golden eagles, wildcats, black-throated divers and freshwater pearl mussels.

Stac Pollaidh from Sgorr-tuath   Picture - Alex Nail

Stac Pollaidh from Sgorr-tuath
Picture – Alex Nail

This is a special area which deserves protection; and now the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has announced a grant of £3million, including £100,000 development funding, to do just that. One of the remotest places in Europe, the investment will bring long-term social, economic and environmental benefits to the area.

As Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, explains, “nature lies at the very heart of what makes Scotland special and no where is that more evident than the astounding scenery of Coigach-Assynt,. However, the enormous pressures upon these landscapes mean that we have to tackle their restoration and conservation on a bigger scale than ever before. The Landscape Partnership programme does just that, and more. It brings real cohesion to the natural and built heritage of the region while reconnecting its communities with the nature that lies on their doorstep.”

The area covered is massive – some 606km2. As part of a 40-year vision for the area, a partnership called Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape (Call) has been set up. Led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), the work will involve restoring blanket bog and heath moor, repairing paths and reconnecting fragmented native woodland.

Coigach-Assynt  The least populated part of Europe

Coigach-Assynt
The least populated part of Europe

Some of the money will also go towards excavating and preserving Clachtoll broch, an internationally significant Iron Age settlement which was a local centre of power around 300BC. And finds are still being made. Last year, archaeologists reported finding the remains of what they believe was an important Bronze Age site – a pit with a channel to a nearby stream discovered at Stronechrubie. While not entirely sure what it had been made for, there’s speculation that it could have been used for bathing, though it could also have been used cooking and feasting or even brewing.

The Project Manager of the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape (CALL), Viv Halcrow, said that the funding “could have a great impact across the whole Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape. It would not only benefit the natural, cultural and built environment, but could help to increase integration between communities, landowners, and organisations. The CALL partnership is very grateful to have received a stage one pass and are looking forward to developing the project in preparation for a stage two submission.”

The Birks Cinema – a celebrity re-opening

For a time, it seemed as if the commercial cinema was, if not doomed, then limited to the big multi-screen complexes and the occasional specialist centre such as the Filmhouse in Edinburgh or the GLasgow Film Theatre. But none of the worst predictions has come to pass and there’s a growing interest in the ‘big screen’ productions away from the city centres. The Screen Machine is currently touring the Highlands and, shortly, the new Birks Cinema will be formally opened in Aberfeldy. And the town is gearing up for the event next month because Hollywood star and Scottish actor, Alan Cumming OBE, has agreed to carry out the opening ceremony.

Alan Cumming Photo Credit - Kevin Garcia

Alan Cumming
Photo Credit – Kevin Garcia

The cinema has been operating since the Spring but its transformation from derelict Bingo Hall to its current glory has been a story of true grit, determination and enthusiasm by local film buffs. And the actor has played a considerable part in the story. Alan Cumming has been the cinema’s Patron since 2009, lending his considerable support to a local fundraising campaign that eventually saw the building undergo a £1.3million renovation programme and return to its original use as a local cinema at the heart of the community.

To celebrate the official opening of the renovated cinema, Alan will be welcomed into town on Saturday 30th November for a red carpet gala event and a private screening of his latest film, Any Day Now. “I’m truly delighted to be visiting Aberfeldy,” he said, “and I’m very much looking forward to seeing The Birks Cinema in all its finery. Everyone involved in this project has shown true dedication and commitment and I’m very excited to finally see it for myself.”

A special screening of 'Local Hero'

A special screening of ‘Local Hero’

General Manager, Paul Foley is also looking forward to welcoming Alan, saying that the community was “very grateful to Alan Cumming for his support and delighted that he has been able to make the trip over to Scotland to formally pronounce us open. I’m looking forward to rolling out the red carpet, welcoming Alan to The Birks Cinema and making this St Andrews Day a very memorable and historic one for Aberfeldy.”

But Aberfeldy isn’t the only place to see the arrival of famous folk from the films. On Saturday 2nd November, a 30th anniversary screening of Local Hero will be shown in Mallaig, one of the locations used in the film. Director Bill Forsyth and international producer Iain Smith will introduce the screening and talk to the audience about the inspirations behind what is regarded as one of the giants of Scottish cinema.

Then on Sunday 3rd November, Scottish actor Bill Paterson will unveil a rare 40th anniversary screening of the BBC film production of 7:84 Theatre’s seminal play The Cheviot, The Stag & The Black, Black Oil in Dornie where it was partly shot and where many local residents were involved in the making of the film.

The film screenings are part of the Creative Scotland funded Natural Scotland on Screen project that showcases how films and television have imagined and represented Scotland’s rich landscape and biodiversity. The Screen Machine – Scotland’s mobile cinema – will host the screenings as part of its own 15th anniversary touring programme.

Douglas Dougan

Douglas Dougan

Douglas Dougan, Natural Scotland on Screen Film Project Manager, pointed out that “we have 60 films and 30 television programmes which have been collected together to show off the beautiful locations and natural resources Scotland has to offer. So far we have shown 50 films in cinemas in the Highlands, Islands, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with more still to come before the end of the year. This special weekend is the highpoint in the programme with outstanding films and high profile guests.”

Iain Munro, Deputy Chief Executive at Creative Scotland added that “Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero is a Scottish cult classic, with The Cheviot, The Stag & The Black Black Oil a rarely seen masterpiece. This is a great opportunity for people to experience these two landmark Scottish films as they come back home to their roots.”

The waterfront at Seattle
Creative Commons

Andrew McDiarmid

Andrew McDiarmid

by Andrew McDiarmid
Owner of Simply Scottish in Seattle

Greetings! I’m Andrew McDiarmid. I was born and raised in Edinburgh in Scotland and emigrated to the States with my family in 1990. I now live and work in Seattle and produce a podcast of music and features called Simply Scottish.

Previously a weekly radio show on radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, it’s now a podcast on iTunes, the Celtic Radio Network, and at www.simplyscottish.com. I’m going to be writing for the Caledonian Mercury, and I thought a good way to introduce myself and get to know you would be to explore with you what the phrase “simply Scottish” means!

SS Podcast Hi-Res Logo 2208x2208Could there be anything more simply Scottish than a dry stane dyke? Found all over Scotland and elsewhere in the British Isles, these walls are made of large stones held together without the use of mortar by the compressional force of each interlocking stone. You’ll find them lining driveways, forming boundary walls between fields, and standing as retaining walls in towns and villages.

Actually, a number of things could visually symbolize the words “simply Scottish.” For me, it’s my mother, Samantha. Her personality and character embodied a number of qualities I deem to be simply Scottish: an unshakable belief in God, loyalty to family, an adventurous spirit, unselfish kindness, a no-nonsense attitude, thriftiness, and a healthy dose of humor. She traveled the world and had a 40-year career as a teacher. Her students and friends loved her for these virtues. And I am largely who I am because of her influence.

Some years ago, when Simply Scottish was a radio show airing on various public radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, we commissioned Vincent Rooney, an artist in Scotland, to create a painting called “Simply Scottish.” He painted a small cottage by a burn, nestled at the foot of rolling Scottish hills. The artwork still hangs in the bedroom of my father, my co-host on Simply Scottish during the initial years of its production.

Simply Scottish  Painting by Vincent Rooney

Simply Scottish
Painting by Vincent Rooney

When my father and I chose the name for our show, we did so not only because it employs the memory-enhancing technique of alliteration, but because we wanted to get to the heart of Scotland and being Scottish, past all the hype, stereotype, assumption, and misunderstanding. We want to present Scotland simply and earnestly. We want to let the country’s beauty speak for itself and allow the friendliness and authenticity of Scotland’s people send its own invitation. In true Scottish fashion, we don’t want to boast. We want to welcome people to our land, because we know they will grow to love it and appreciate it in their own fashion and in their own time. And those who are Scottish by birth or who live there will gain new appreciation and insight about this small but mighty nation.

So what do you think embodies the phrase “simply Scottish?” It could be an object, a place, a person, an event, a sound, a taste, or a smell. It won’t be the only thing, but to you, and perhaps to many others, it communicates “simply Scottish.” Beyond hype or stereotype, it is pure and powerful. It is Scotland, distilled.

I will highlight your responses in upcoming posts in the Caledonian Mercury and perhaps build an episode of the podcast around them. If there’s enough response, I’d like to attract the attention of a publisher with the idea of a beautiful coffee table book with pictures and descriptions of the various things that embody the essence of Scotland. Whatever happens, we’ll all have a better idea what Simply Scottish means to Scots and Scotland lovers around the world.

Send me your ideas today!

Join the “simply Scottish” conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #simplyscottish.

The River Esk today, looking up towards Roman Bridge

September was not a good month to be a Scottish soldier in the 16th century. The disaster that was the Battle of Flodden Field has entered the national psyche is one of the great failures of Scottish arms. That battle was fought on September 9th in 1513 – but on September 10th just 34 years later, another equally catastrophic battle, equally devastating in terms of the number of Scots killed, was fought in East Lothian. The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was the last ever pitched battle to be fought between Scotland and England. However, for some reason, it seems almost to have been expunged from the national memory.

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh Memorial

The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh Memorial

The battle took place in an era which has come to be known as “the rough wooing” of Scotland. It was war which lasted between 1543 and 1550. King Henry VIII of England was attempting to force the Scots to accept a marriage between his son Edward and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots.

The battle was fought near Musselburgh. The English army led by the Duke of Somerset, at the time the Lord Protector of England, had entered Scotland supported by a large fleet. The Scots, under the command of the Earl of Arran, had a much larger force – but the English were much better armed, including substantial cavalry, artillery and mercenaries from both Germany and Italy who are skilled in using the then new arquebus.

Lord Protector Somerset

Lord Protector Somerset

The Scots, having crossed the River Esk by way of the Roman Bridge, came under extensive fire to which they could not effectively reply. It turned into a full scale rout. Some historians say that the main reason for the defeat was that the Scottish mediaeval army had been overcome by a modern Renaissance one. The English armies and navy had been reformed under King Henry VIII. However, there is also a point of view which suggests that the Scots’ heart was not in this battle in particular, thanks to growing support for English policy.

Nothing however can detract from the fact that this was undoubtedly a military disaster for Scotland. There is some dispute over the figures – but at worst, Scotland lost anything up to 15,000 of its fighting men, with a further 2000 taken prisoner. By contrast, the English lost a mere 600. Small wonder then that the day of the battle became known as “Black Saturday”.

To mark the anniversary – and indeed the creation of a new battlefield trail – a series of events is being held in Musselburgh this month. The battle itself will be the subject of a talk by military historian Dr John Sadler this Thursday as part of Musselburgh Conservation Society’s autumn lecture series. The Pinkie Cleugh Battlefield Group will also unveil a series of information panels along a route from the Roman Bridge in Musselburgh to the Battlefield Memorial Stone in Wallyford.