Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Explorations in Angus

I was writing some pieces for an online course I'm teaching for Cherry Hill Seminary, and developed a photo-essay from a trip out into the Angus countryside on Saturday. So I'll attempt to post it here too. Alas I can't just post the pdf, apparently!

Last Saturday I  drove out towards the Sidlaw Hills, a few scant miles from my house on the outskirts of Dundee. My purposes were vague, only to explore a couple of places I had not seen, possibly investigate one of the local stone circles, and have a gentle walk in the wild.

Balkello Community Woodland is a good place to explore. As summer draws to its close and autumn nears, rowans are laden with berries and the trees display their varying shades of green, with the richness of oak and alder against the darker spruce and pine. A good place to wander: and as I reached the north side of the woodland, the hills beyond - Balkello and Auchterhouse - caught the afternoon light.

The derivation of 'Sidlaw' is not clear. 'Law' is a hill (so 'Sidlaw Hills' is Sid-Hill-Hills). The first part, though, is more difficult. Some say that 'Sid' means 'seat', and indeed one of the hills is named 'The King's Seat'. Others have names that come from older languages or blend two, as indeed 'Sidlaw' may do: Dunsinane, Auchterhouse, Balkello, Balluderan and Craigowl. The last of these is from Creag gobhal, 'forked hill', despite its name having meaning in English also. But an alternative derivation of Sidlaw is from Sidhe, the 'fairy folk', the hidden people, by which the Sidlaws would be the Hills of the Sidhe.

I think I prefer that derivation, though it may owe more to hope than to linguistic analysis.

Balkello woodland is young, and managed by the Forestry Commission: the trees were planted only in the 1990s, to create a community place which contrasts with the farmlands around and uplands beyond. It lies to the north of the road which connects the villages of Auchterhouse and Tealing.

Just south of the road is a standing stone, the Balkello Stone, which will be a visit for another day. However, I'd hoped to catch site of a circle nearby at Balkemback, and find the Pictish carved stone known as Martin's Stane. 

The field in which the circle sits was occupied by many cows, and would have required climbing over several barbed wire fences: again, not for this day as the afternoon was wearing on. Views from the roadside, though, showed the heather coming into its own on the hills behind, and the plain beyond stretching to the coast - a landscape farmed for thousands of years, by people who left their marks on the land, clearing fields, creating cairns, erecting stones to mark places that, perhaps, called especially to them, building roundhouses and digging souterains, carving on rock and boulder, building houses of stone and later of brick, then churches for each group of villages as those became parishes. This landscape is not 'wild', even on the heights of the Sidlaws, but changed in the interaction of humans and others through millennia.

Finally, I headed for Martin's Stane, on my way home to Dundee. Some information on this Pictish carved stone is at http://www.scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/record/rcahms/31864/balluderon-st-martins-stone/rcahms
Alas, it was broken long ago, so that only part of the stone remains, with figures of a horse though the rider is no longer present, with, below, another rider and horse and a pair of 'Pictish symbols' one of which has been said locally to be a 'dragon'. Local folklore has therefore created its own meanings for this stone, linked to place names towards Dundee, but what it commemorated, or its inscription as 'sacred', may never be known.

The stone, minutes from Balkemback and Balluderan, is in a field which on my visit held glowing golden barley, waist-high or even higher, waiting for harvest. There was a narrow trackway across the field, on which I walked with care for the barley, which let me come close enough to photograph such of the images as could be seen through the waving grass around the stone and the barley between it and me. Again, this calls for a visit once the crop is harvested.

And so, the final images here are of that field and the waving barley, farmer's gold, with the stone visible through its protective railings. That I could not approach closely did not, on this visit, matter: the ripeness of the barley was, for today, enough.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

On Petrushka and 'illegal' migrants

This evening I turned over to BBC4 without knowing what was on - and was delighted to find Stravinsky's Petrushka being played in a Proms concert.  And then I browsed through a bit of my email, while listening, to find a statement by Tim Farron on the Calais situation.

And they were so much in tune. For those who don't know it, Petrushka is the story of three marionettes, at a Russian town's fair, manipulated by the puppet owner, and performing under his rule for the entertainment of the assembled people at the fair. And the people have their own lives and things to do, their dance, their joys, and take no notice of the puppets.

But the puppets have their own lives, offstage or out of sight of the crowd, and there are tensions between them, ending when one kills another. Petrushka, mortally wounded, breaks from his booth, attempts to take agency and runs out into the fairground, the town square, and with his dying movements accuses those who have not known of the puppets' situation, effectively that of slaves of the puppetmaster; and his death - the death of one whom the crowd thought of as not a person - troubles them.

So then to Tim Farron's piece: the central message of which is while we do need to 'police' boundaries and work on security issues, the situation of those caught within this dreadful system of politics, seeking freedom or new futures and issues of trafficking needs our attention in other ways. I will add that we do seriously need to take on board the predicaments of the people attempting to transport goods, and those who depend on this trade (particularly important for Scottish seafood transporters who are hit very hard by the situation). How do we balance this, somehow, with the need to think of those breaking free of the camps as both victims of the 'puppetmasters' of their initial trafficking, and people attempting to take agency and do whatever they can to draw our attention, the attention of those sitting comfortably in our British homes, to what drives them to assay these difficult and dangerous ploys?

Farron said that 'While the Government is focussing on building bigger fences and bolstering security, we cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis. Tear gas and dogs will never solve the problems that these people are facing, and we should not turn a blind eye to their suffering.'

Indeed: and a photo accompanying his text showed a sign on the side of a makeshift tent, 'We are not dangerous, we are in danger.' But I'd put his message more blatantly - that the solutions, if there can be 'solutions', to the queues of lorries and the people dying on the Mediterranean, the Calais camps and the problems of lorry drivers, have to be in tune. We have to take our share of migrants to Europe, and in particular we have to open doors as and how we can, to help with this crisis; at the same time as exploring what the possibilities are in North Africa and Syria, and what we might do that recognises the ordinary people and the everyday, dreadful, things that they are facing there. And to take on board at least some of the historical reasons for these fearful situations.

This doesn't mean that we should blame the West for all the problems of North Africa and the Middle East. It does mean that we need to see ourselves as part of an interconnected system, with what we do and have done affecting other people's lives there; to acknowledge responsibility for some actions and some mistakes, and to think about what kinds of connectedness we can help create, and who we might connect with; and in the meantime to recognise what privilege we have and to extend that hand of help to others who, because of a specific situation at this specific time, have it not.

Sunday, 30 November 2014


Dundee, in the last week of November. I was coming across the bridge at just the right time to see the wonderful sunset and its reflection - and that of the city and the hills - in the so-still water of the Firth of Tay. This was begun three nights ago, when a possible frost was forecast, and completed just now.

A finger-nipping chill is in the air,
and in the earth, as I dig, even now
to plant and seek to grow, for hopes of sping.
Though days continue mild, their warmth now fades,
and soon dark gathers, evening deeps to show
how near we are to solstice.
And daily flocks of chaffinches now gather,
forgetting their rivalries of summer
for winter friendships here.

At night, again, my candles blaze, to mark
a time between the times, a time so late,
a time when winter hovers on her dark brink
and darkness holds the calling owls, who greet
the winter’s chill, the driving rain,
the last wind-fallen leaves.

Yet today, with winds moderate, then stilling,
it seems December pauses on the threshold
as marigolds unfurl their still-bright petals
to drink the sun that gives life to their brilliance,
and stubbled fields and hills hold promised beauty,
the bare trees limned by low-slanting sunlight;
when evening chill returns, a gold-red sunset,
glowing, is mirrored in stillness of the firth.

(© J Blain 2014 - still draft of course.)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

NOT HOME RULE: The Smith Commission and the Lib Dems' need for critical perspective

Well, I am disappointed. Very disappointed.

Not, though, so much with the Smith Commission’s report (which you can read in full online at https://www.smith-commission.scot/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/The_Smith_Commission_Report-1.pdf). OK, I’d have much liked it to go further, but knew this was unlikely – the time-frame, aside from anything else, militated against true ‘home rule’ proposals. There were compromises, many of them, and not too surprisingly today’s proposals were probably most in tune with the Tory submissions. So the report, in what it says, is just about meeting (my) expectations, indeed maybe even meeting some hopes a little better than I’d feared. It might even – just might – be another stage on the way to some kind of federal situation. Britain needs to change and this may move things on.

My disappointment, therefore, is not so much with the report – it’s with the comments that followed it.  First, I thought that John Swinney’s immediate comments were a bit too negative – he, after all, was one of the people presumably agreeing to this. He could have made it more evident that he did welcome what was proposed – his short welcome appeared a grudging one, followed as it was by all that was wrong… even while largely agreeing with him I found the timing misplaced.  Nicola Sturgeon’s comments in the Scottish Parliament were rather more welcoming – she made the same points, but made them rather better and I respect that.  However, Swinney’s comments gather only a minor quibble from me.

What I find wrong, yes wrong, indeed very wrong, is the response of my old ‘home’ party – the Scottish Liberal Democrats, whom I had been thinking to rejoin. That’s been pushed aside yet again. Michael Moore presumably does know that these proposals are not ‘home rule’ and should not have used that term, but his ‘welcoming’ comments were somewhat measured. Alistair Carmichael has promised to see them through, and I respect him for this. But the ‘welcome’ of Willie Rennie, online at http://www.scotlibdems.org.uk/more_powers_for_scotland is ridiculous. 

I mean that. Ridiculous. Laughable. The comments are laughable for people with no knowledge of the Liberal long-standing commitment to federalism, who’ll see Rennie’s claim that ‘we argued for these Home Rule powers’ as irrelevant – and also laughable, in a very sad way, for people who do know of that long-standing commitment and see this claim and 'welcome' as a serious backsliding, and as a serious inability to take any kind of critical view of what's going on here.

The STV news tonight had a comment from Bernard Ponsonby that 'Some traditional Liberals may well say that "home rule" amounts to a whole load more powers than is on offer'. Just so. Indeed this is very far from a federal or even a ‘quasi-federal’ solution, whatever that might have meant. Do we laugh or cry?

So why could not the Scottish Liberal Democrats be honest?  Why can they not say,  ‘We have a long-standing commitment to a Federal Britain. We know this is not Home Rule. Nevertheless, we pushed for such powers as could be got at this time. We much welcome the result, and it may be a stepping stone to a true British Federalism. We certainly hope so and will continue to work for such a solution.’

Had they said that – or something like it – they would now have had a rejoined member. As it is, I’m back to weighing up my political options, feeling more disgruntled than ever – and not because of the Smith report.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Of English students and Scottish history...

This past week I was invited by my previous university (Sheffield Hallam) to meet with some colleagues in Edinburgh and there give a lecture to their second-year undergraduate students. (They had secured funding for a sociological field trip and picked Edinburgh as a good place to go to.) So I took up their offer.  They had a room booked in the top of the Museum of Scotland, and I had two hours to give the students some sense of ‘Scottishness’, the Scottish Diaspora and so forth.

So, I used a good part of the time in an attempt to give them some sense of Scotland’s history, that it wasn’t all ‘tartan’ and that we had culture, heritage, civilisation, and some moves towards ‘equality’ before that last became fashionable elsewhere.

I think my task was made very much easier by the tour of the National Portrait Gallery that students were given in the morning, before my talk. I caught up with them there and heard part of what they were given by Gallery staff – being shown portraits of men and women of the mediaeval and early modern periods, and the ‘age of progress’, with only a small group of tartan-clad chiefs and a discussion of Walter Scott’s organisation of Georgy-Porgy’s visit in his very expensive ‘highland dress’. Hooray for the tour guide I heard! She saved me at least ten minutes of a talk that was otherwise going to be too long… (and still was too long – I needed to skip over some of the sociological content of what ‘diaspora Scots’ had said to me about what this land means to them, but the students will now have the slides which have quotations in and I hope will now read these).

But the ‘Highlandism’ which is the commonest set of ideas about Scotland is still very entrenched, among much of the diaspora and among not only English students, but many Scots. And it has several sides. On the one hand is the romanticism of misty isles, rocky glens and heroic chief and warriors; on another, though, the view of such as ‘barbarous’ and so discountable. Well, I did give the students one ‘Highlander’ from history, whom they may have seen also in the Portrait Gallery, not dressed in tartan and certainly not waving a claymore; Adhamh MacFhearghais or Ferguson of Raith, born at Logierait in 1723, first a pupil in the local parish school, eventually Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, past chaplain to the Black Watch, writer who, while himself Christian, worked to develop a science of humanity… you’ll know him better as Adam Ferguson, the ‘father of sociology’.

I do hope the students enjoyed their trip, and that they will now have a sense of Scotland as a complex country which is different from their own, but not so different as to be beyond their comprehension. One of my colleagues, in the short question session at the end of my talk, gave me a lovely opportunity to say what kind of political situation I’d like to see post-referendum… but that’s for discussion now another day.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Samhain night

This was from tonight's thought on the year's turning, and seeing a crow high on a tree in the late evening's dusk, just before the pink-footed geese and greylags flew over.

Turns the Year, Turns the Wheel:
Dusk lengthens, and the wind-whirled birling leaves
fall faster now, as days draw in apace.
An evening crow sits high upon her tree
to watch and call throughout the gathering dark.
Days remain mild yet, autumn so warm,
denying Samhain’s scents, with roses flowering,
and colours blending summer days and dusk:
Deep pink of cosmos, gold of fallen leaves.

A hedgehog grunts through heaped leaves, rustling spines
and goldfinches chime night greetings to their charm
and great skeins fly, in dusk, almost unseen,
their sounds upon the night winds bourne, to herald
winter’s coming, harbingers of cold.

This night, our candles flame and bonfires blaze,
a light before the dark, remembrance yet
of spring, of youth, of glowing summer light
as we turn to the dark of sleep, of dreams,
dormancy, reflection, visions past
and future, inward seeking for each promise
of memory and hope:

                                    and so we know

that at midwinter, light will come again.

©J Blain 2014

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Reflecting on the Liberal Democrat conference and the referendum

Yes I watched this on telly (the conference). No, I didn’t see all of it – not all was on telly (including I’m told a ‘Scottish’ component on the first day which seems to have gone rather well but was private not public) and not all that was on telly was at times when I could watch.  But I’m pulled in several directions by the pieces that I did see.

First, the Liberal Democrats are NICE. They had strongly voiced and strongly voted-on things that do matter to people, often desperately. These weren’t necessarily, though, strongly worded – they were nicely worded, sometimes almost denying the passion that was voiced by some of the speakers. But at the end of the day, are these what people remember?

Second, the Liberal Democrats claim to have taken over the old Liberal policies of Home Rule – some Liberals (or Lib-Dems) articulated, again with passion, the need for a proper and fair distribution of ‘powers’ (whatever that means) to the four quarters of the universe – sorry, of the UK. And some, a few, made a strong case that the ‘powers’ for Scotland should not be conditional on those for other places which have not just undergone what we did. Indeed, today’s ‘emergency resolution’ made this plain – but again, few of the speakers really took this up, although those who did, did so very strongly. They were Scottish.

Third: I didn’t only vote ‘Yes’ but I campaigned for ‘Yes’. I did so for several reasons, both practical and emotional, but in particular that a strong Yes vote and indeed a Yes victory would give a lead into a CONFEDERAL system. What we had at stake, as one leading journalist’s opinion suggested, was ‘Indy Lite’. We didn’t get it (more senses than one here). What we have now is a system with ‘some powers’ devolved and a promise of ‘some more’ in the pipeline. Maybe.

I would like to have something along the lines suggested by Michael Moore, for the issue to be what ‘powers’ – let us say, sensibly, ‘areas’ - need to be ‘reserved’ – all others to be vested in the national*, or let's say regional or local areas as appropriate. And this gives me pause. What party or what people do express this idea? Not the SNP – though I support them in many ways – because there is need for powers to be local and not centralised: The centralisation which we are currently seeing in Scotland is not my vision.

(*Just for clarification, 'national' here means Scottish, or Welsh, or even English.)

And so, I continue to be conflicted, between Scotland as an independent state – which Scotland well could be – and Scotland as part of a United Kingdom which is compassionate, moderate and has more pulling power as a world power. But let’s revise that – UK as compassionate? I don’t currently see that, not at least to its own citizens. Similarly with moderation – how do we moderate between the new poor, the old poor, and the state which makes rules, drawing lines on a conceptual or economic map, that today seem to deny citizenship where it is most needed. I am thinking here to the numbers who registered for the referendum, who had previously not registered to vote, because they may not have considered that their vote mattered or that they were even counted as people, as humans, as political, social and hence voting beings within our land of Scotland.

As for the political world power – I will refrain from comment for now.

One thing does remain. Why, in all this flood of ‘we are doing this’ from the Lib Dems at their Glasgow conference – and yes, the venue is important – has nobody acknowledged that among the ‘45%’ of ‘Yes’ voters were almost 40% of previously-identified Lib-Dem voters?  Are we so unworthy of acknowledgment? Do we not factor into Lib-Dem thinking? If somebody would just say – ‘We know that the Lib Dems as a party campaigned for a ‘stay in the UK’ vote, but we are aware that many, many of our members and supporters voted ‘Yes’ for a number of reasons – including that they might think this as the only way to gain a sensible and sane Federal system’ – this would mean very much to me, and I think many others too.

But in an era of agonistic expression, is this just too ‘nice’ or even just too ‘Liberal’ to state?