Outlander – The TV Series

I recently started a free subscription to Amazon Prime and my wife and I have been watching the Scottish historical drama Outlander. It is a TV show set largely in Scotland in 1743 (and bits in 1946), detailing the challenges of a time-travelling English WW2 nurse who ends up in the pre-Jacobite rebellion Scottish Highlands.

With any historical drama, liberties must necessarily be taken in order to move the action along and Outlander is no exception, though the producers are at pains to stress that they have set out to minimise these as much as possible and to employ historians to set the scene as accurately as time and money allow.

At this point I have to stress I have not read the books so any comment is made purely about the TV show – the book my differ. Also, I have yet to view the final two episodes. Whilst I will try to minimise spoilers, obviously read at your own risk.

The initial episode shows Claire Randall as a competent combat nurse in war torn Europe who later travels to Inverness with her husband Frank on a second honeymoon. It is clear that they have spent the war apart and are taking the opportunity offered by the trip to re-acquaint themselves with each other.

On a visit to the ruinous Castle Leoch, they find a basement room where Claire feels a strong sense of deja vu. We later discover that Frank is researching his ancestor, a Government soldier called Captain Jonathan ‘Black Jack’ Randall, who was in command of troops in the area in the mid 18th century. The setting for Inverness was clearly the Fife village of Falkland – you can see the same view from Street-view here with the wonderful Falkland Palace in the background. That night they both witness a strange druid ritual at the stones of Craig-na-Dun and the following morning Claire visits the stones alone. When she touches the main stone she suddenly looses consciousness and awakes to the sound of shouts and gunshots. She runs into, what turns out to be, ‘Black-Jack’ Randall, her husbands ancestor, who mistakes Claire – who is wearing a loose thin 20th century dress – for a prostitute dressed in her undershirt.

Rescued by the highlanders she saves the life of a wounded man and is taken to Castle Leoch, their home.

From there her she has to survive using her wits and 20th century knowledge but quickly realises she must be careful what she says, not wanting to give away the fact she is from another time thinking they may brand her as a witch. Using her maiden name of Beauchamp to hide her connection with Randall, she claims to be an English widow travelling to France from Oxfordshire (though that doesn’t explain what on earth she is doing in the Scottish Highlands!).

The following episodes are part love-story – she falls in love with Jamie, the red-haired highland hero – and part action-adventure as they get caught up in the politics and intrigue of mid 18th century Scotland. Historically it is actually very well done, with some really nice touches. In one scene, Claire goes with the women of a village whilst the men talk business. At a long table the women are kneading a long bale of cloth soaked in urine in order to clean it, soap not being readily available. In another there is a travelling group of minstrels putting on shows in villages around the country as a way of making money.We see the Factors collecting the rents, often in kind, from their tenants and we see the brutality found in a harsh and brutal place.

There are some great cameos by Scottish actors  – especially Bill Patterson as a wily  Edinburgh lawyer, the ever watchable Douglas Henshall and Gary Lewis who plays the Laird of Clan MacKenzie. Apart from Claire, female roles are largely conspicuous by their absence, especially for a drama that is aimed at a female audience, the one exception is the Irish Actress Laura Donnelly who plays Jamie’s sister Jenny in a spirited performance.

The two leads, Sam Heughan and Catriona Balfe both give excellent performances. Sam looks the part – big, brawny & red-headed – and being Scots his accent doesn’t grate on Scots ears. With a name like Catriona you would expect that the lead is Scottish but she is originally from Ireland. There are a few actors who’s accent is unfortunately painful for Scots to listen to but thankfully they are few and far between.

My main gripe though with the show is geographical and the representations of places. In one episode Claire travels from Castle Leoch – which is supposed to be at least 2-3 days ride from Inverness and given that the MacKenzie lands were to the North & West of the town, it would put the castle around here somewhere – to visit Lord Sandrigham. The English lord seems to be renting a large stately home within a days ride. There is no way that any sort of building like that would be one days ride from the Western Highlands. At that time the only homes of that stature would have been south of the highland line given the lawlessness found above it and such a building would have been sacked. Even Inverary Castle was not built until after this period.

The use of Culross for the village scenes is inspired. The authentic 17th century village still standing (just a few miles from my home) is often used for movies and TV shows, (even standing in for a Norwegian town in Captain America!).  

Incidentally I got a nice surprise, in one episode Claire has to visit an old church known as The Black Kirk. This turns out to be a the ruined Culross West Kirk, where I often walk my dog. I recognised it immediately.

One last point on the theme tune. The music is more popularly heard as ‘The Skye Boat Song’ with different lyrics. They tell the story of Prince Charles’ escape from Culloden to the Isle of Skye

The Outlander version uses lyrics written by Robert Stevenson that make no reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul:
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

All in all the series is really well done, it moves along at a fairly brisk pace and whilst there are a few annoyances they don’t detract too much. As an introduction to Scottish history of the period, you could do much much worse!

Independence

Why I support an Independent Scotland.

In September next year, all voters resident in Scotland will have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

It’s a simple enough question but it is packed with nuances and subtexts leading to different answers by people with similar outlooks. For my part I intend to vote yes to this simple question and I want to use this essay to explain why.

1. Scotland is, was and can be an independent nation. These three tenses would seem to be mutually exclusive but the key lies in the meaning here of independence. Before 1603, Scotland was as independent as any other nation in Europe and much more so than most.  Until 1707, our sovereignty was mixed with that of England but our parliamentary power (such as it was) was still independent. Between 1707 and 1998 we were a rump of the United Kingdom, which itself was increasingly centralised from London.

Before 1885, we had almost no separate voice from the wider British/English cacophony but from 1885 until 1998 we had an uneasy together but unequal relationship. Political power was still controlled by London, but we had a separate voice within the government in the form of a cabinet Minister for Scotland. Post 1998 we had, of course regained some political power through devolution and I think we can safely say this has been successful.

 Throughout all this time several factors have remained constant and are reminders of our separateness. We have maintained our own systems and institutions: education, ecclesiastical, legal, sporting, artistic and social. Scotland often feels different from the rest of the UK in so many unquantifiable ways and I believe it is because of the continuous maintenance of these systems that it has given us a different direction even whilst closely tied to England.

Unfortunately the ability to build on these differences is hampered by a lack of political and executive authority. Too often we have to go cap in hand to the UK government who may or may not be pursuing policies that, whilst they may be right for England – or more likely London – are manifestly not right for us. The devolved parliament has been a success but frequently we vote for parties and policies that Westminster overrules or opposes and so stifles.

2. Financial security. This is one subject beset with lies, damn lies and statistics. For me I think it is a near irrelevance. Scotland is part of an extremely wealthy United Kingdom and any separation would likely involve a split on population grounds. Essentially 10% of existing national wealth, assets and liabilities. I have yet to hear a good argument as to why we would immediately better or worse off. Of course, long term it is difficult to determine, but so is it difficult to determine if we stayed together. Suppose Westminster has to raise taxes to bail out the city once more or decides to wage another stupid and costly war?

 3. Political direction. Scotland politically is left of centre. We have a more egalitarian, less hierarchical society than found in England. Creating wealth and lowering tax rates is less of a priority than creating a better society and lowering poverty. Too often direction from Westminster governments has been in opposition from the democratic will of the people of Scotland. Even at Thatcher’s peak, she had little success in Scotland, yet the traditional, less divisive, Torry governments of Home and Heath, had a real presence in Scotland. At the local level, the Conservatives were once a major force in city and county councils.

For too long, the Labour party has held a dangerous political majority at many levels, especially in the Central Belt, and an independent Scotland will allow real political opposition without the extremes of London Conservative think-tanks. It may even see the resurgence of a distinctly Scottish Conservative Party, one that can appeal to Scottish voters and as a democrat I believe this is a good thing.

 4. Tradition. I like tradition, I’m a history graduate and, of course, I think we can learn much from the past; but we must never allow ourselves to be defined just by our past. Independence will give us the opportunity to remove the shackles of dogmatic indifference and build a modern, secular relevant state for the 21st century. We are too often stuck in the 2-party traditions of Westminster with its arcane rules designed to allow country gentlemen (and I mean men) to rule over the affairs of commoners as patricians over plebeians. I want to see a government that actually works. One that is truly representative of gender, class and ethnicity and where none of these things is a barrier to achievement and inclusion.

 I want to see a second chamber made up with those who achieve in business, arts and sciences; with members chosen by the public and not by fortune of birth or pointy hat and crucifix.

Scottish History must not be used to create dogma. As much as I admire Bruce and Wallace, they were of their time and have little relevance to creating the society we want to build now. Let’s leave Braveheart and the Jacobites to the tourists.

These four reasons are a start to the conversation. I believe I am open to changing my mind but at present I will vote for an independent Scotland so the people of this country – no matter where they were born or whether they voted no – can work towards a better, fairer and more relevant country for everyone.

A Walk in the Woods

At the weekend, the dog and I went for a walk in the woods above the charming little town of Inveraray on Loch Fyne. I parked up at the apex of the walk, intending on climbing the forest path over Leachan Mor before descending the Coille-bhraghad and stopping at the town for a bite to eat, From there it is a flat walk past Inveraray Castle and along the River Aray back to the car.

The weather looked to be very hot so I packed plenty of water, a hat and sunscreen but in the end the clouds came over and made it pleasantly cool. Warm enough for a t-shirt but cool enough to remain comfortable.

The initial climb (not particularly strenuous) gave views back to the Arrochar Alps with the peak of Beinn Ime disappearing periodically into low cloud.

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The path continued along the valley, eventually curving back towards Loch Fyne and down the Coille-bhraghad.

WP_20130714_008At the bottom of the path as the land flattens dramatically, there was a small monument which seemed to be fairly new, yet commemorated the death of a young woman in 1942. Later I discovered that her body had been found close to that spot and to date her murderer had never been found. The details can be found here.

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Inveraray was packed with day-trippers but I found a convenient bench by the waterside to sit and eat my lunch, Lucky was happy for some of my egg sandwich and a bowl of water.

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We continued on past Inveraray Castle, the seat of the Duke of Argyll and the home of Campbell power in the SW Highlands.

WP_20130714_019Walking on up the river through the Argyll estate and flat farmland, there was a delightful Dovecot shimmering white in the sun further up the valley.

WP_20130714_032Walking upstream further we crossed a lovely old bridge to reach the car. WP_20130714_034

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The walk was around 7 miles and though there was some climbing, it was suitable for most walkers.

Archeology

Last week I was in Stirling, specifically the site (or at least the supposed site) of the Battle of Bannockburn, Scotland’s most famous and iconic battle. It was the weekend of the 699th anniversary, which means that 2014 is the 700th and – as I’m sure Nationalists knew – the same year as the independence referendum.

The National Trust for Scotland, in conjunction with the BBC, called for volunteers to dig 1m sq test pits on various sites in the area in an effort to try and pinpoint the actual place of the battle itself. Whilst the general layout can be supposed from various accounts, the actual fields where the fighting took place across the two days in June 1314 are still largely a mystery.

The historian Neil Oliver and the Battlefield archaeologist Dr Tony Pollard (who had done a TV programme on the subject several years ago) were there filming a special to be shown next year and were wandering around with cameras filming us at the dig – yours truly had a camera just inches from my face as I panned and sieved the soil!

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On the first day we were given a talk by Oliver and Pollard about what we could expect and once we had collected our buckets, sieves, spades etc, we selected a patch of ground that had had the turf removed and set to work.

After several hours of scraping, sieving and digging, I had a fairly smooth 1m sq hole dug to about 30cm, with one corner dug a further 10cm or so and a fairly large pile of sieved soil and stones.

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Unfortunately I found very little other than some Victorian pottery and the end of a clay smoking pipe probably dropped by some 19th century farmer.

There were people digging trenches all around and in the neighbouring trench, two strapping lads had dug down about 60-70 cm, and had found what the experts reckoned was a Bronze age pottery shard (2000 – 2500 years ago) and this caused much excitement. But of the battle and any surviving remnants, nothing was found.

That night I was completely knackered and my forearms and knees ached from the exercise but I nonetheless turned up for the next day. This time during the briefing I was talking to one of the strapping lads – named Stewart –  from the next trench and he said I could team up with him if the the other guy didn’t turn up – they had met for the first time the day before. Gregor, the other chap, turned up but we agreed to work together to cover more ground.

This time we selected a patch near the Pelstream Burn and we hoped that this relatively undisturbed ground might be more fruitful. Another trench found a medieval belt buckle but that was our limit and at lunchtime the three of us were asked to go up to the grounds of Bannockburn High School on the ridge above the flat carse, where the Scots army may have lined up, to try our hand up there.

The soil here was much easier to dig but despite digging two further pits, little was found.

Speaking to my two companions, it transpired that Gregor was a published author and had recently had a book – Charlie, Meg & Me – published by Luath books. He conveniently had a stock in his car and I agreed to buy one off of him – signed of course – to take home.

In the book he walks the course that Bonnie Prince Charlie took after the Battle of Culloden; Gregor follows the trail around the wilds of the Highlands and Islands without a break, accompanied by his dog Meg. I’m around half way through the book and must admit I don’t regret buying it.

Getting back to the dig, I can heartily recommend it if it comes around again anywhere else. The sense of history down and dirty you get even when finding a piece of clay pipe is tangible. I’m also looking forward to the programme as I understand that our dig was a small part of the show and that some objects may have been found in other professional digs in the area.

Scottish Industry

Scottish industry is synonymous with shipbuilding, steel, ironworks and coal. The heavy industry that dominated the central belt is, in reality, long gone. The mines are all closed, the steelworks are derelict and the Clyde shipbuilders that once employed thousands are a now in reality final fabrication yards kept alive by government defence contracts.

One industry, though is thriving and that is the whisky industry. Scotch Whisky is known throughout the world and is Scotland’s greatest export by a long long way. But what is the history of uisge beatha and its production in Scotland? Where did it begin?

All through history humans have fermented alcohol for drinking and someone somewhere discovered that distilling the brew made it much more potent. The process reached Scotland in the late medieval period and given the lack of grapes for wine or Brandy, and the poor quality of grain for beer, whisky became more common in the north of the country. In the 17th century, two families came to dominate the process and in doing so started Scotland’s industrialisation. The Haigs and the Steins.

Preston 'Island'. Notice the sealed off pit-head.

Preston ‘Island’. Notice the sealed off pit-head.

Three things are needed to produce spirit: water, grain and fuel and West Fife had these in abundance. The area was a fertile flood plain of the River Forth and stood on rich coal seams. Seams which had been exploited to produce Scotland’s other early industry; salt. Off the village of Culross is Preston Island on which was a pithead and salt panning complex

 Preston 'Island'

Preston ‘Island’. The buildings at the back are the pans, which burned coal under huge metal pans of seawater to produce salt.

built onto the small island a km or so off the coast. The Island is surrounded now by reclaimed land using slag and waste from Longannet Power Station but it has been preserved. Unfortunately the walls and mine-workings make it dangerous so it is fenced off to the public.

Kennetpans harbour now silted up.

Kennetpans harbour now silted up. The remains of the pier are still visible in the mud.

Just a couple of km away, past the port of Kincardine was the Stein’s Whisky manufacturing complex at

The remains of the canal with Kilbagie about a mile away.

The remains of the canal with Kilbagie about a mile away were the two pylons stand.

Kilbagie. Unfortunately this complex, though no longer anything to do with whisky, is still used for local industries and any original buildings have long since disappeared under modern facilities. However, the Stein family built a canal about 2km long to Kennetpans, on the shore of the River Forth that had a small harbour. Here was the second whisky distillery and warehouses with easy access to the river for export to the continent and to the

The distillery buildings

The distillery buildings

lucrative London market. This was the beginnings of commercial and industrial distilling and some may say of large-scale industry in Scotland. The Stein’s had invented a quicker and cheaper process that could produce thousands of gallons of cheap grain spirit that the rapidly industrialising population could use to forget their troubles. The Shallow Still in 1786 and then the Continuous Still in 1826 were introduced. The latter was the invention of Robert Stein of Kilbagie and meant that the distillery here could produce 150,000 gallons a year of spirit; for comparison, a traditional pot still could produce no more than 5000. The same process is still used – with a few modern modifications – today by manufacturers of mass-produced spirits.

The Harbour with the Clackmannan Bridge in the background

The Harbour with the Clackmannan Bridge in the background

The Harbour in 1890

The Harbour in 1890

Of course, what was produced here was not the fine golden liquid we know today, but course clear grain spirit for consumption by the labouring classes in quantities that could help them forget the dire lives most of them led. Unfortunately, producing whisky in these quantities made price so cheap that many distilleries could not compete and Kilbagie and Kennetpans were among them, closing their doors in 1852. That the buildings are still standing a testament to their endurance but they are deteriorating fast as the pictures show.

I’d recommend anyone who wants to explore further to check out the website http://www.kennetpans.info/ which has lots of details on the place and the history of the families.

The Distillery in 1939 - notice the flooded harbour

The Distillery in 1939 – notice the still flooded harbour

The same view today with the sited up harbour

The same view today with the silted up harbour

A long running saga

This chap has been a thorn in the side of the Scottish judicial system for several years.He is obviously a little eccentric but from what I can gather he is completely harmless. He aimed to walk the length of the UK, from Land’s End to John O’Groats, naked.

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Now most people would think it a little strange, if not downright dangerous but he was free to walk all the way through England unencumbered only to be arrested in Scotland. Because of his refusal to wear clothes even in court, after several trials with higher and higher fines, he was imprisoned.

Each time he was released, he would walk out the prison naked to resume his walk and be promptly arrested, tried and imprisoned. It seems that Scots Law is impervious to persistent low-level offenders like this. The cost to the tax payer of all these trials and sentences is astronomical. It would have been easier to let him proceed on his way, finish his walk accompanied by a police car and that would be the end of it.

  

The Ochil Hills

Not too far from me is a range of hills called The Ochils. They are not very high by most standards – the highest Ben Cleuch is only just over 700m (2,300ft) high – but they rise almost like a sheer cliff from the flat River Devon Valley and are the result of ancient geologic fault lines. They are visible for miles around, as this picture I stitched together shows.

Nokia's photo stitch is quite good. Ochil hills in the distance, West Fife in all its glory.

The pic below is the top of Dumyat, that majestic hill that rises as a backdrop behind StirlingThe Top of Dumyat

This one is the view as you climb Dumyat of the meandering River Forth where it meets the River Devon.

The River Forth from the Ochils

The River Forth from the Ochils