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Charles Dickens (1812–70) reading to his daughters

Charles Dickens (1812–70) reading to his daughters

By John Knox

We are now entering the year of the dragon, the rainforest, the co-op, the Olympics, the Jubilee, the year of culture and what-the-Dickens-else – yes him, too.

The Chinese New Year begins on 23 January, the start of the new lunar calendar. As part of the 12-year cycle of animals, it is the dragon’s turn. Which means, apparently, that it is going to be either a quiet year or a year of catastrophe – a flood or earthquake or great political change.

Certainly, the era of “Who and When” is about to change. President Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao are due to hand over to the next generation of Chinese dictators. Vice-president Xi Jinping is the favoured son at the moment, but it seems that ultimate power in China is passing from a small cabal of leaders to a wider constituency of around 400 top Communist Party apparatchiks. We live in interesting times.

And so to the rainforest. This is a campaign run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It seems, though, that the society is a little late, not just to save the rainforest but to catch up with the United Nations’ year of the forest, which was last year. Curiously, the RSPB is concentrating on East Africa and Indonesia and is rather ignoring the problems of deforestation in Pakistan and the Amazon basin, not to mention Scotland. We cut down our native forest years ago and even now we are struggling to increase our tree cover from 17 per cent to the target of 25 per cent.

But saving the tropical rainforest would certainly be a good thing. Around a billion people depend on it for their livelihood, as well as 70 per cent of the world’s species of land plants and animals.

The UN itself has moved on to the year of the co-operative. My Co-op store down the road will certainly be glad to hear this. So will my bank, which is in the process of taking over the good bits of Lloyds. The UN tells us there are over 800 million members of co-operatives in 100 countries, mostly in farming and retail. In the USA, the land of free enterprise, there are 29,000 co-operative businesses. In the UK, there are 5,450. And this month a new law comes into effect which eases the restrictions on membership and shareholdings. In these hard times, when capitalism is stumbling, the co-operative movement may be the job-creator we are all looking for.

The Olympics will certainly be a job-creator. There are 7,000 people currently working on the various construction sites and up to 100,000 temporary jobs are expected to be created in staging the games. And it is hoped the redevelopment of the Olympic areas of London will lead to 10,000 permanent jobs.

Goodness knows how many jobs will be created by the Queen’s diamond jubilee as pageants are staged, cities spruce themselves up for royal visits and new forests are planned. It is hoped that six million trees will be planted, in diamond jubilee woods, each at least 60 acres in size. One of them, in Leicestershire, is to be 460 acres.

Here in Scotland, the government has announced that 2012 will be a year of “culture”. The highlights begin with Celtic Connections, which will see over 2,000 singers swarm into Glasgow later this month. There is then to be a Festival of Visual Art, also in Glasgow, in April. On midsummer’s night, the Simón Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from Venezuela will perform in the open air at Stirling Castle.

Then, as the nights darken in August, Edinburgh will stage a “Speed of Light” show in which hundreds of runners, with lights attached, will sprint around Arthur’s Seat. It will be Scotland’s answer to the Olympic Games, reminding people that the next big event will be the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. August will also see the 65th Edinburgh Festival, the greatest show on earth.

All this, of course, takes place against a black economic curtain. It is a most suitable year to be remembering the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. We are living in hard times, our great expectations have been dashed. Money has corrupted us, uncaring capitalism has brought us to this bleak house. We must now all live most ’umbly. Only love and the simple life remain. We must all live like the blacksmith Joe or Barnaby’s dear old mother and hope that 2012 will be the year of Something-Turning-Up.

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Scots have long enjoyed the reputation for being handy in a scrap. But the country doesn’t rely on mere flesh and blood bruisers, oh no. There are tales aplenty of altogether different scary scrapers too and here are just a few of them.

Big Grey Man of Ben MacDui

The summit of Ben MacDui. <em>Picture: Oliver Mills</em>

The summit of Ben MacDui. Picture: Oliver Mills

In the Highlands of Scotland, hidden in the hilltops around Ben MacDui is a terrifying beast. For sometimes from out of the swirling mist the creature known as “Liath Mor”, or the Big Grey Man, appears to hill walkers. This yeti-like creature brings with him a presence, and it is often this rather than a visual sighting that is reported. Hardened walkers are reduced to shivering wrecks as this pervasive sense of dread comes over them. Then they hear the footsteps. And then they run. The best recorded meeting with the Liath Mor was Professor Norman Collie, who in 1891 wrote graphically of his terrifying encounter. Others who have encountered the beast record him keeping pace with them at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour. All record the sheer terror that accompanied the creature. Once experienced, few climbers return to Ben MacDhui and the terror that lurks there.

The Linton Worm

Woodcut of the Henham Dragon

Woodcut of the Henham Dragon

In days of yore, worms, or dragons, used to inhabit this country. Or, at least that’s what people claimed. One well-documented beastie was the Linton worm, who lived in Linton Hill in the Scottish borders. A 12th century writer described it as “bigger than an ordinary man’s leg”. The worm terrorised the countryside, eating livestock and anything else that crossed its path. Its reign of terror was only ended when John de Somerville fought the monster, forcing a burning block of peat covered in tar into its mouth. It is said that the writhing of the worm as it dies is still visible to this day as the undulations of the ground around the hill. De Sommerville was knighted for his bravery and anointed Baron of Lintoune, and the Borderers sighed mightily with relief at the demise of such a ferocious enemy.

The Kelpie

'The Kelpie' (1913) by Herbert James Draper

'The Kelpie' (1913) by Herbert James Draper

Beware the water’s edge if you’re travelling in the Highlands. Or at least do if you believe in old tales of kelpies, or Celtic shape-shifting water-horses. Although they look like a normal pony, these monstrous mounts are just waiting to drag you to a watery death. And if you don’t fall for the “honest horse” routine, then the Kelpie has the ability to transform itself into a beautiful woman in order to lure men to their deaths. Should you jump up and go for a ride, then the Kelpie will drag you down to the depths of the loch before eating your heart and liver. Top tip: if you see a pony by the side of a loch with a continually dripping mane and a hide that is cold to the touch, walk on by.

The Boky Hound

Noltland Castle. <em>Picture: SA Mathieson</em>

Noltland Castle. Picture: SA Mathieson

Noltland Castle in Orkney has a number of scary residents, but none more so than the Boky Hound, the castle’s spectral dog who lives in a hole under the stairs and howls whenever there is a death in the family. Legend holds that the dog was a family pet of one 13th century owner, Sir David Balfour. Returning from a hunt, Sir David was displeased when his dog jumped up to him, knocking his drink to the ground. Balfour killed the dog in a rage, only to discover later that the drink had been poisoned by his wife. Balfour subsequently took himself off to the Crusades, and when he died in Turin in 1270 it is said that the blood-curdling howls were heard around the castle. At the same time his wife was found strangled in her bedroom.

The Bean Nighe

Graveyard in St Andrews Cathedral. <em>Picture: macieklew</em>

Graveyard in St Andrews Cathedral. Picture: macieklew

This malevolent Scottish fairy known as the “washer woman” (but much scarier in the Gaelic) is someone to avoid on a dark night. She lives near water, washing out the bloodied grave-clothes of people who are close to death. Like the Kelpie on occasion this fairy can appear as a beautiful woman although usually the giveaway is her one nostril, one long tooth, webbed feet and single hanging breast.Tradition has it that if you can sneak up on her and suckle on this one protuberance then she grants you a wish. Although why anyone in their right mind would seek to do so must be part of the mystery.

The De’il

Part of the ruins of Ardrossan Castle. <em>Picture: Travis Nygard</em>

Part of the ruins of Ardrossan Castle. Picture: Travis Nygard

Old Nick pops up in many a traditional tale in Scotland, and if it’s general advice you’re seeking then it would be to decline should he ever ask you for a game of cards. In castles all across Scotland from Glamis to Ruthven Barracks, lairds are trapped in perpetual limbo playing snap for their soul. If you manage to avoid the old cards entrapment, then you should also watch out for strangers bearing gifts. At Ardrossan Castle, Sir Fergus Barclay, or the De’il of Ardrossan, was renowned for his horsemanship. As it turned out, the skill lay in the saddle, which Satan had traded for Sir Fergus’s soul. The laird tricked the devil into losing his power over him. But not for long. His fortunes waned, he murdered his wife, and he died not long after.