My Best-Beloved Dog


Summit of An Caisteal – South of Crianlarich 2013

I thought that my best-beloved dog, Dylan, would make it to Easter. I felt that he had enough quality of life to make it to his fourteenth birthday. I was deluding myself. Beset by arthritis, prostate problems, a tumour and the onset of canine dementia he was struggling on at best. It was the last of this dreary list of problems that tipped the balance, for here seemed to be the clearest signs of actual distress. This was where the pain stopped him being himself.

Canine dementia can manifest itself in trembling fits, behavioural changes, shifting sleep patterns and obsessive repetitive behaviour. Again, it was the last thing in this next bleak list that seemed to cause him most distress. He would repeatedly circle and circle, often after one of the four or five nighttime visits to the garden he had been requesting. He would crash into things in the dark bedroom and was clearly distressed by the experience.He was shuffling, scuffling and thumping about and  I had taken to scooping him up into the bed and cradling him under the cover- something that he would never have tolerated at one point in his life.   It seemed to give him some comfort, or at least respite, from the stumbling, anxious circles he was caught in. He would tuck his head under my chin and sigh. I could feel the thin flesh over his ribs and the starkness of his hips: angular bone where there had once been firm muscle.

It was easy enough to say, “Maybe it’s time this week”. We all agreed that he was struggling on stoically and that there was only the promise of increased suffering for him in the future. We could save him that by taking on the pain of his loss ourselves. That’s the rational theory of compassion that euthanising a pet needs; the theory needed to help shape thoughts and feelings. The practice is harder.

Even at this late stage in his life Dylan had moments of brightness that brought fragments of sweetness into our days. I took him to the Bluebell Wood in January. There is a photograph of him charging between silver birches, grass like green fire and streams of bluebells on a day that is bursting with sunshine. Some serendipity of light, shade and shutter speed caught him, speed-blurred, in a perfect moment. It was the quintessential Dylan but this photograph was taken in May 2005: those old Nokia phones had good cameras…


The Bluebell Wood- Stepps circa 2005

Anyway, he recognised the place and got really excited, charging down the hills like a puppy. Right at the end of the little glen is the steep hill where the photograph was taken all those years ago. He couldn’t get up the hill now. We turned back and I had to carry him on the steeper sections of the path. But seeing his excitement, the shade of vigour from his glory days, was good. And he had started to eat well again, although he wasn’t putting on weight. And when he went on a walk he would sniff and snuffle and be interested in world of smell that we poorly snouted humans have no inkling of. And he still liked to chase a ball. And he was still interested in us…And I went on and on and on with thoughts to help me evade the truth of the pain that he was in.

The call to the vet was made early in the week and life went on, keeping things normal while trying to turn each moment into a memory, holding on when you know you have to let go. I wavered and thought of giving him more time but by Friday it was settled. Lynn, the vet who has been treating him for years, had kindly agreed to make a house visit on Saturday at 1:00 PM.

How do you prepare for a moment like this, preparing to lose a beloved friend of nearly fourteen years? The weird clarity of the day sticks with me. We were up early and he played in the garden. The weather was calm and still, a benign suburban Saturday morning, perfect for a walk in the park and Dylan sniffed and snuffled around his realm of scents, greeted some other dogs and seemed happy. Later, a sirloin steak was cooked, rare enough to satisfy him, and he gobbled the slices down.

It was still early, so another walk to the bigger expanse of the hockey field was in order but he seemed slower, maybe two walks was just too much? I hadn’t brought a ball, something that normally enthused him but he brightened when he spotted another dog. The owner was taken with Dylan and gave him a biscuit. Dylan mouthed it and dropped it, anything less than steak clearly wasn’t worth the effort. I told the man that Dylan was poorly and about what was about to happen. “Sorry wee man,  I’ll see you in another life” he said and patted Dylan. I thanked him and we walked back through corridor of dark green privet and laurel that led out of the park.

Everything was about preparation now. Family had called in to say goodbye. I picked some narcissus and crocuses that had just recently bloomed in the garden: bright yellow and clean white with lilac stripes. Candles were lit, and music selected. The room was warm and Dylan was sleepy, cosseted and serene on the couch with Morag. I put scent on cotton handkerchiefs: tears need comforting. I wrote him a card to take with him when he left us:

“To Dylan, the best beloved boy,

So, we’ll go no more a roving 

So late into the night, 

Though the heart be still as loving, 

 And the moon be still as bright.”

While looking out his fleeces to wrap him in I had a mild panic when my posy of flowers was moved. Morag told me to sit with Dylan and I did. He stretched across my lap and slept: oblivious and content.

Lynn arrived on schedule and was happy to see Dylan so settled. The normal protocol for euthanasia is a two step process, with sedative administered first followed by the barbiturate overdose that stops the heart. However, on seeing how profoundly relaxed Dylan was Lynn decided to move straight to the second phase. The sedative injection is intramuscular and this risked causing Dylan more distress than the drug would alleviate. Given how much muscle he had lost and his increasing sensitivity to injections this was understandable. Unfortunately, I had to lift Dylan to slip a fleece under him. I should have thought of this myself. The fleece wasn’t for Dylan as such, it was to protect clothing and furniture from the incontinence that would inevitably be the result of the last injection. I wish that I had just left him undisturbed at that point: the mess wouldn’t have mattered in the least.

Lynn located a vein in Dylan’s hind leg and the process began. The plunger of the syringe depresses and Dylan lets out three or four high and clear barks. Lynn’s cry is plaintive, “Oh no Dylan don’t!”. I stroke and shush and calm him and Lynn continues to depress the plunger of the syringe. Dylan takes a last breath and his whole ribcage stiffens. I know his heart has stopped. Lynn has to check with a stethoscope, but I know his heart has stopped- the rumbling whoosh and rush of his heart, a sound and feeling I know so well, is gone. His chest hardened and it was gone. Lynn knows Dylan well, she knew his strength, his resilience and his stoicism. She said that he hadn’t felt any pain. Who really knows? Lynn felt that those barks were just Dylan’s residual strength speaking. He barked clear and true before he died, a highly unusual reaction, but that great heart of his could hardly “go gentle into that good night” and although I have been vexed by this thought, maybe that was right.

After that there were the last moments with his poor little body. Placing the flowers between his paws and tucking the card under him: something physical from us had to go with him. Then wrapping him like a sleepy child in the blanket and lifting and carrying this lightest and heaviest of burdens to the Lynn’s car. I placed him on the back seat, patted the small bundle, hugged and thanked Lynn and walked away, empty-armed but not unburdened… It was then that I cried, a horrible wracking retch of a cry and yet, if this is the cost of the love and beauty that he brought into my life then it is a cost worth paying.


Bellachantuy Bay, Kintyre.

Phone download Aug 2010 016

Toward Jura from Kintyre 2008

Kintyre Sunset and Jura


My best beloved dog

April 25th 2003 – March 11th 2017


Winter Skills-Crisp and Even in the Cairngorms

Winter Skills Course – Glenmore Lodge 6th – 7th January 2017

There hasn’t been much snow this winter even so, as I stepped off the train into the cold air of Aviemore I could feel a deeper chill than my lowland bones were used to.

Despite buying the kit for winter walking I had found plenty of excuses not to really do it in earnest, although there were times when I found myself wishing for the security that an ice axe and crampons could have given me.

To sort myself out I had booked onto a winter skills course in Glenmore Lodge, Scotland’s National Outdoor Centre. I like this place, it has the presence of a benign institution that offers just the right level of comfort and reassurance to offset the possiblity of any austerity encountered in the mountains of the Cairngorms: a sort of Goldilock’s Zone between unacceptable luxury and self-mortifying rigour.

Sharing a room with a stranger is one aspect of going on a course that can be slightly worrying but the thing about Glenmore Lodge is that the people who elect to go on this type of experience tend to be okay. This is my third visit and the room-mates have always been fine.

The Mountain Weather Information forecast was pinned up and looked promising for the next day: minus seven degrees centigrade with clear skies and only light wind. That looked good to me and so it proved to be.

The ski centre on Cairngorm didn’t have enough snow to be open, so we followed the paths next to the empty runs upwards. When we reached the snow-covered plateau the stark nature of the cold became obvious. Even the slight breeze was creating a noticeable wind chill effect and Ian, the instructor,  decided to break out the group shelter for lunch and a warmer space to add extra layers of clothing.

I have used these before but it was a new experience to some of the group. There is no doubt that deploying one of these has its comic side- it is effectively like playing one of the parachute canopy games that nursery schools love. However, the immediate boost in warmth and the stillness of the air under the thin membrane of fabric that covered the group proved that this was a seriously useful piece of kit.

Re-energised with the substantial Glenmore Lodge packed lunch inside me it was time to make our way across the plateau around Cairngorm itself.

The range of useful skills,techniques and observations that Ian packed into the day was amazing.The snow was compacted and stable, topped by crisp hard layer of almost-ice: it was a delight to walk on. After some good coaching we were confidently, if inelegantly, edging, kicking, self-arresting and front-pointing across the snow before descending in darkening twilight with headtorches.

Things are really packed into this course and after some tea and cakes it was off to the lecture theatre for an hour on winter navigation. Some excellent dinner followed- mushroom and fennel soup, a hearty lamb hot pot  and dessert if you must know- and then the day was rounded off by a lecture on avalanche awareness: not quite After-Eight mints but probably more useful. A long day, but very worthwhile indeed.

The next day was warmer and involved a focus on the navigational techniques needed in winter. There was real attention to using contour features that would not be obliterated under layers of snow and using a compass to identify aspect of slope to confirm your position.We also got to do lots more slidey stuff- practicing ice axe self-arrest head first and backwards, which was interesting.

The second day ended with a really useful session on building the data from the Scottish Avalanche Information Service into route planning. Working in small groups to interpret the data was a really useful exercise and reinforced how to make things go right for you on the day by proper planning.

All told, another very good experience provided by Glenmore Lodge.

Blocking Weather

Blocking Weather.

There has been high pressure over Norway for most of the last month-“Blocking Weather” is what I heard it called. It has held back the wet, westerly gales that normally mark this time of year in Scotland. Instead, an autumnal calm has spread its breath across the country. Walking the dog this morning across a dew-moistened field and and watching soft cirrus clouds in a sky like faded denim was good.

But given my form for the past fifty years everything is an opportunity for metaphor. I am waiting for the storm, either a sharp frost or the tumult of one of those Atlantic gales, as the earth’s axis inexorably tilts away from the sun and brings in another dark and bleak winter. Really, I am waiting for something else.

Dylan, my dog, is still with me- he is lying by my side and gently snoring. After our walk we played with a ball in the garden. I would throw the ball a few metres and for a few seconds he would stretch out that stride of his: that loping gallop I love. But he is arthritic and sore, yet incredibly stoic and enormously resilient. Yesterday, he split a claw open down the quick on a walk. I didn’t realise what had happened until he tracked spots of bright red blood into the hall.

Another visit to the vet’s surgery followed- the injury itself isn’t serious but for the first time a vet asked, “Do you want to go on with him?”. So, the quality of life assessment followed: he is continent; he eats, pickily, but sometimes with relish; he enjoys exercise and chases a ball; his medication seems to take the edge off his pain. It is a stark and desolate fact that he  has lost huges amounts of muscle from his rear legs, but he is still mobile.

Anyway, the vet said there would be good days and bad days, put a protective boot on his paw, and gave him an anitbiotic shot to prevent infection. What could be done was being done. But last night I wept, not a slow, quiet trickle of tears but big convulsive sobs. I lay with him on his bed for a long time and he put his head along my forearm and let out the low crooning groan of pleasure that I have known for so long. He is about as human as a dog can be and curled around the warm curve of his back, I am as close to being one of his pack as I can be.

Walking him in the morning, watcing him stoically hirple when once he would have almost  flown over the ground lets me see the grace and dignity that he brings to these days. The tears came again, slow, unbidden but not entirely unwelcome: they are simply the price to pay, or maybe the interest on the loan of love on which we exchanged, non-verbal contracts obviously,  over thirteen years ago. How long before the final and bitter repayment now?

We were invincible once, he was my shadow-self. We were almost two parts of the same creature but the goodness lay in him. Energy and courage glowed in his heart. Faith and optimism shone in eyes and he remains the gentlest of souls. Between us, we made a good man. I dread the day when this respite, this last chance to be with him, breaks and the weather changes.

Bad Cat

This is a wee story that I put together as a writing model for a first year class in high school. I had been reading some of Kipling’s “Just So” stories and wanted to do something with sound for reading aloud and with imagery to develop character.

Charley Cat is a beautiful cat. A handsome pure-bred rag-doll with soft white fur just edged with golden tinges and deep mysterious blue eyes- like a clear sky above fresh snow.

Now rag-doll cats are bred to be placid and calm and steady. They love to be picked up and patted. They love to be sat safe and warm on the laps of their owners. They love to casually groom their silky fur with luxurious strokes of their long pink tongue.

However, dear reader, someone, somewhere, somehow forgot to tell Charley Cat his job description.

Actually, that isn’t exactly right because, if truth be told, Charley was all of the things mentioned above. He would purr and croon and stretch when his human patted him. He would roll on his back like a playful kitten and tilt his head to the side and extend his whole self like an ecstatic elastic.

And then…

He would bite and scratch and nip and race around the room. He would crash into the dark places behind the dusty furniture and wait and watch with those winter-blue eyes. And then explode out, a furry snowball with terrible sharp teeth, whizzing vicious claws and a fizzing, hissing snarl in his throat.

His human was perplexed by this ingratitude and felt that being attacked by a malevolent cat creature was really not how the relationship should develop. The human, who was an affectionate and kindly soul, fed the cat, brushed the cat and even cleaned out the smelly mess left in the litter box. The poor human bought many colourful toys and treats for Charley: bells and balls and even peacock feathers- all glittering green and purple just for him to chase.

And the poor human’s reward?

Her fingers were bitten to the bone, her hands were scribbled in a crazy mess of cat-scratches, her ankles were nipped until she felt that this supposedly peaceable feline had been mixed with a surviving sabre tooth tiger or some other ancient and savage presence from the darkest, densest and most dangerous of jungles or wild forests.

Charley Cat was put in a box and taken to see the cat doctor. After Charley had tasted the flesh and bone of the cat-doctor- who had just completed cat-doctor school- the young man wisely declared that this was just a phase. Charley would grow out of this behaviour. Yes, It was simply a phase. He would stop it in good time as he became a grown up cat.

So, Charley Cat went on growing up. He grew to an agreeable large size. Indeed, he could be mistaken for a fair sized dog such was his presence

Then Charley Cat learned to leap higher and higher. From a standing start he would bunch his long legs and stretchy muscles and spring higher and higher still. His poor human, who still loved him dearly, learned to fear these movements and it seemed that he was aiming for her face and throat. This was definitely not how she imagined life with Charley.

“No Charley! NO!” the human would shout as he leaped towards her.

“Ouch Charley! OUCH!” as his needle sharp claws caught her skin. “That’s it young cat. You’re going to be pie filling if you keep that up” said the human. But although she was sorely tried the human would be sad to lose the cat.

“That’s it Charley-boy, I’m giving you one last chance. It’s the cat-psychologist for you! She will look into your mind and tell me if you are mad or just plain bad” said the frankly rather exasperated human.

The cat-psychologist tried to show Charley some pictures of mice. He bit them

The cat-psychologist tried to show Charley sparkly new toys on a long wand. He caught the toy on the end and tore it into tiny pieces.

She tried to hypnotise Charley but those winter-blue eyes just stared and blinked and blinked and stared. He seemed to be telling her to stop all of her nonsense.

Then Charley bit the cat-psychologist.

“Ouch, you little monster!” squealed the cat psychologist.

Charley’s human sniffed and even shed a small tear. Charley didn’t know it, but this was his last chance. She made some peppermint tea for the psychologist and remembered that she had to collect the washing from the line in the garden. The human turned to the back door and opened it, just a crack, and then remembered to take the tea to the psychologist. It just wasn’t working out.

Charley would have to go!

The psychologist nodded sympathetically and sipped at her cup of tea. Charley would need a new home. The cat-box was brought out and they whispered their plans.  But where was Charley?

He was nowhere to be seen. He had disappeared as swiftly as a swirly puff of smoke on the wind. The psychologist sipped her tea and said maybe it was for the best. She was secretly upset that Charley had not responded to her scientific efforts and that he had dared to bite her.

But Charley’s human was upset. The thought of Charley out in the wild world outside upset her. Charley had always been a house cat. How could he possibly cope with the dangers out there: the barking dogs, the snapping foxes, the rushing traffic?

The human worried and wept and wept and worried some more and then she sat slumped on the sofa and her head slouched onto her chest. The human had fallen asleep.

She awoke with a start and there was Charley, curled into a soft sleepy circle on her lap. How long had the human been asleep? She did not know but Charley seemed very calm and very happy. She wriggled out from under him but he didn’t bite, he just stretched and yawned.

He appeared to be be a very good cat indeed. Inside the house he remained a very good cat indeed. But outside…

…he hissed at the barking dogs until they put their tails between their legs and skulked off. He danced crazy circles round the snapping foxes until they were so dizzy that they fell over. What is more he learned to ride the rushing traffic.

Outside he was a very bad cat indeed but in his soft warm home he would stretch and yawn and snooze and for this his dear human was very glad.



Thinking About my Dog



I am amazed when I look at my dog. His eyes are mahogony brown with just a touch of amber, gleaming jet pupils; in my sentimental  imagining they are deep liquid jewels. The high curve of his tight belly could have been drawn on the wall of a neolithic cave, the hounds chasing down the deer in the leg-stretching lope of the eternal hunt. The deep “V” of his chest is a cage for huge heart and lungs: an incredible aerobic machine full of seemingly limitless strength. He has run and walked with me on suburban pavements and remote mountain tops, sailed with me on dive-boats and yachts, always at my side, always my shadow. I know the grain of skin on his lips, the cleft above his lip, the webbing between his paws, the delicacy of his eyelashes, the thump and rushing rumble of his heart-beat. I can feel his warm breath on my face and have come to love the odour of butterscotch and mildew that he emits after getting a soaking.


Just watching his perfect movement, that beautiful extension of the stride that made him more a creature of the air than the earth, is a delight. His legs have taken him from the wild beaches of Kintyre to the moors and mountain tops of Scotland. Rock or sand or forest floor, he is in the words of Edwin Muir, “like a wild wave charging”. He is at one with the land in a way that eludes me. The soft rush of his stride is evanescent and eternal. He is perfectly made with tangled fur, knotted ears and mud-dipped to the shoulder.



Putting my face against the soft velvet of his cheek, my hand entwined in the thick guard-hair above his shoulders and hearing him let out a crooning groan of content will always make me smile.  For so long his tail, held out straight from his back, would flicker like a crazy metronome- ever-increasing speed until it became blur.


It was when his tail dropped that I knew something was wrong. I felt that he would go on forever, this elemental powerhouse, tough and strong. After all he is a spaniel from the working line who was built for a life flushing game on the moorlands, finely muscled and beautiful in temperament. He was no soft and neurotic show breed. He was walked, trained, stimulated, loved- all of this would make him strong eternally.

So to see his tail droop and curl mournfully and painfully between his legs was a blow. To be on the  floor with him hand feeding pieces of chicken that would have been hoovered from his bowl a few weeks ago was mystifying. The visit to the vet told us that he was suffering from an enlarged prostate gland. It could be treated with hormones and there was an immediate boost in his vitality. But the sense that he was invincible and eternal was gone.

A couple of weeks after that we were on a walk in Mugdock Park. He had a great time- he remembers places well. When he leapt into the River Allander this was just normal, but he struggled to get up the high bank again, something that would have been a breeze to him only a few months ago. I helped him up an we went on with the walk. He was fine. Back at the car he went to jump into the boot. Whether it was lack of power in his hind legs or the oblique angle that he attempted the jump, he didn’t make it and landed heavily on his lower back. It looked sore but he didn’t make a fuss and I scooped him up and put him in the car.

On the journey home I started to feel tears roll down my face. The two events happening in such quick succession had told me a story: he was not invincible.

His appetite then fell away and there was something strange about his movement in his rear legs. On a Saturday morning at the local park, on a perfectly mundane walk compared to his epics on the mountains I saw him dragging his rear-end and thought that his anal glands were troubling him: a routine irritation for a spaniel and easily dealt with. His glands were engorged, but there was also the beginning of a tumour. Another blow for this tough and sweet little dog.


As I sit here images present themsleves in my mind: his needle sharp milk teeth biting my finger when he was only weeks old; the restless surge of his energy as he leaped up at me and knocked a bottle into my front teeth; his attempted devouring of a bloated seal-pup carcass on the beach at Bellachantuy on the Kintyre penninsula- I had to dive full length on the sand to catch him and remove the putrid flesh from his mouth; his refusal to run with me and the sit down protests that ensued- running was never his sport.

Now all this stuff is little anecdotes, moments of pleasure caught in the amber of memory. And that was just the “bad” stuff. I am forever grateful for other moments, in dark times, in a house alone, when he jumped on my bed and thumped against my side with the length of his back. Some ancient pack solidarity can be quite a restorative to the spirits. His old and quiet days still have their compensations, softened by sleep and warmth.







Ben Macdui


Mountain Haiku


The Great Moss wrinkles

and walkers stumble blindly.

Compass needle spins.



Plateau shrugs off rock.

Steep and broken ground is hot.

Man runs like a boy.



Ben Macdui dusk.

Pink and gold fade out. Fearful

Hare held in torchlight.



Awakening mist

Senses me in a small tent.

I steal sips of air.


(Thanks to John Torbit for the great photograph of the summit plateau of Ben Macdui)

Private Lazarus

This is a short story that came from two things: the rediscovery of how my great grandfather died in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 and the poem “Last Post” by Carol Ann Duffy Text and Audio recording of Last Post

“If poetry could truly tell it backwards, then it would.” Carol Ann Duffy

Private Lazarus

It wis dark and the mud wis runnin’ under ma collar. Christ ah wis tired but ah wisnae for moving. Ah wid lie here an let the cauld run through me, let the wee bit o’ heat still in me run out. But what in the name o’God was that pain? It wis sair and getting sairer so ah wanted tae coorie intae the cauld mud tae get away fae it. The damned pain widnae let me but. It wis pushin’ me up and pushin’ out ae me at the same time.

Then ah wis oan ma feet like a daft puppet loupin’ about on a string. Ah wis wobbling like a wis steamin’, felt like a man wi’ jeely for bones. Somethin’ ripped out ae me, like a wasp, but bigger. A hun bullet burstin frae ma chest and ma tunic fixin’ itself back thegethir as it goes out. Ah’m letting out a big tearin’ rasp o’ a breath.

Then ah’m fine. Ah’m breathin’ a bit heavy fae the weight o’ the the pack, but ah’m fine.

“Private Graham! Private Lazarus Graham!”Sais this big Sergeant Major, loud but awfy hearty like. Kinda smilin’ as he barked ma name. He tapped ma chest where the bullet had been.

Is that me? Is that ma name? Ah think it sounds right.

“Yer faither or yer grandfaither or somesuch wis a pal ae mine a lang time ago. Ah’ve lost ma runner. Drap yir kit an tak this letter back tae the fat major in the base. Ye know the wan wi the rid face? Aye ye dae! Get a move on laddie!”


Ah take the message. It’s a heavy bit ae paper an’ looks right official. Ah wis just about tae ask what this Major wis called but the big man wis away.

Ah drop the pack a bit reluctantly, that last time ah loast kit the bastards fined me a week’s wages. Ah start tae trot back. Ah’m no messin about wi’ orders fae that big RSM, smiles or nae smiles.

It’s awfy quiet about the field now an’ ah mak my way careful like, o’er the mud an’ the wire an’ the deid. The grun clears afore our wire. Ah see mates fae the squad, but ah keep gaun. Ah try no tae look at them an’ a wish ah knew a prayer but ma voice is stuck as far as praying goes, even inside ma heid ma voice is stuck.

Ah’m runnin’ past the stretcher bearers. Ah try no tae see the faces o’ the wounded. Ah let ma legs and feet roll under me an afore long ah’m at the command post in Aubigny, coupla miles behind the front. Ah’ve remembered the officer’s name, he’s cried Campbell, cousin ae some Duke ah heard, an a carnaptious auld sod tae go wi’ it. Dae’in the biddin’ o’ the big RSM sae readily might no’ have been a good idea efter aw.

“Runner for Major Campbell!” gets the sentries out o’ ma way an ah’m led up tae a grand big hoose. A wee corporal wi’ a neb like a craw takes the letter. The paper is a creamy white against the clattiness o’ ma haun.

“Yer name an’ section?” sais the wee corporal, an he writes ma answer “Graham, L. 274874 1st and 7th Argylls”
“Whit’s the L for?” he nebs in.

He just smirks, an’ a sais nothin’ as he taks the letter awa’.

Lookin in the windae o’ the big hoose ah see stewards in white jaikets pourin’ wine intae crystal glasses. “The blud red wine”. This wee phrase fae the school starts tae knock about in ma heid. Some auld ballad about Sir Patrick Spens that Susie Sharnley, infant mistress in Campsie tried tae knock intae ma heid wi’ her scrawny auld knuckles. Ah could dae wi’ a glass o’ the real stuff right now but ah find the cook tent and get some tea that’s in danger of nearly being warm.

Ah’ve just sat doon when the wee corporal turns up again. He’s lookin’ soor an’ there’s a big Provost Sergeant behind him. The sharp wee face points in my direction and sais

“Aye that’s him there, that’s Graham.”

“Right Graham, Major Campbell wants you right away”

The big Provost Sergeant takes ower an’ ah’m marched double-time intae the grand hoose.

There’s tiles and doors and mirrors and fine plaster work everywhere.It’s the grandest place ah’ve ever set foot in, but wi’ the sergeant screamin’ in ma lug ah don’t really relax much in ma fine surroundings.

Major Campbell is wee an’ fat an’ angry. The pale white of the letter looks drained o’ life against aw the red on his face an’ hauns. He’s haudin’ a sheet ae paper that’s been crumpled intae a wee ba’ at some time and then opened up and smoothed out.


“Graham is it?

“Aye Sir”

“Don’t ‘Aye’ me my man. You will speak the King’s English here”

“Yes Sir”

“Have you seen the contents of this communication Private Graham”

“The what sir?” sais ah, confused by this turn of events as much as his words.

“The letter, the chit, the paper man! Did you know what was on it?”

“No Sir. Orders from the Sergeant Major to make sure it was delivered to you.” Ah sais, bein’ polite as ah can.

“Really… and this Sergeant Major, what was his name?” he sais bein’ aw suave an polite but gettin’ mair rid under the collar.

“He didnae gie himself a name sir, an’ ah didnae ask, havin just been wounded maself.”

“Wounded Graham? Where is this wound? Were you shot man? Are you in need of medical attention? Where is the blood?”

Ah touch ma chest where the Hun bullet came back out again an’ ah just feel daft. Ah say nothin’. Ah cannae even say the word maself: miracle.

“Can you read man? Were you brought up to read scripture from the bible?”

“Yes sir, ah wis” ah reply a wee bit slowly as ah don’t know where this is leading me.


“Then read this!” He pushes the heavy crumpled paper to the wee corporal wi’ the smirk who passes it tae me. Nae risk o’ the muck on me touchin’ the major.

“’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’Matthew 25:40 “

Ah read it out and ah’m truly puzzled. Ah mean ah know it, the auld infant mistress put in an extra shift on Sunday tae grind this stuff intae our heids when we were weans, but what wis the big Sergeant Major thinkin’ ae? Sendin’ me back wi’ stuff like that?

Ah kept ma mouth shut.

“Nothing to say Graham? Strange. I thought that religious prophets and rabble rousers liked an audience for their fanciful ideas. It would seem that you are neither of those, for both require a deal of physical courage that it would appear you do not possess. You arrive here bleating about a non-existent wound and present my staff with words that have no place on a battlefield. You interrupt the chain of command upon which the offensive depends and waste my time with gibberish. Are you aware of what you are Graham?”

“Aye sir, ah mean naw sir… ah don’t know sir.” Ah’m dead, second time the day, is what ah sais tae maself.

“You are either a madman or a coward and I have time for neither. Sergeant Provost, take this man to the cells and have him examined by the duty Medical Officer. Return him to me along with the MO’s preliminary report at 09:00 tomorrow.


He sais this an ah can hear the wasp sound o’ the bullet somewhere in ma heid again…

“Listen to me jock, I’m taking you to see Captain Durrant, the Medical
Officer. He’s another Scotsman, but he can talk proper. He’s a good bloke,
tell him your tale of woe and get yourself sorted out. I don’t want to be
leading another firing party….” sais the big Provost Sergeant.
Ah must be the only soldier who’s double-timed down into the hospital
tent. Ah’m checked over by a wee nurse. The Provost whispers something
to her an she sais
“Well Captain Durrant will be two to three hours yet. He can assist the
She’s no the type o’ wumman that ye argue wi’ , an she reminds me o’ my Annie: tight dark hair an’ a stormy face. So, ah spend an hour or so
moving stretchers wi’ the Scot’s lads and Canadians who’ve
been up on Vimy Ridge for the push. Ma heid’s spinning wi’ what’s
happened. That Hun bullet hit square in the chest an ah wis very near
dead when something hauled me up an ripped it back out o’ ma body. Nae
mark in ma tunic, nae blood and the pain o’ it aw gone. As for
the big ba’faced Sergeant Major wi’ the smile and “guid laddie” patter,
ah’ve never seen anything mair real. He gie’d me the letter for God’s
Ah need to make up my mind, dae ah shut up about it or dae ah tell
somebody? Ah’m no sure, Ah’ll need tae see this Durrant lad afore ah
decide whit tae dae.
Durrant comes in, he’s tall and a wee bit stooped for a young man. He

looks to be in his twenties but he’s got droopy eyes ringed wi’ black circles. Makes him look auld or ill, or baith.
“Good evening Graham. So, you are the evangelist that has had our dear
Major Campbell turn such a delightful shade of puce? As he sais this he lights a cigarette and pushes the silver case ower the table tae me.

Ah take one, thinking its the only thing ah’ll be gettin’ aff this toff who’s no that tired that it stops him loving the sound o’ his ane voice.
“Aye sir, ah’m Graham. Ah’m nae evangelist, ah ken that, but ah dinnae ken onything about puce.”

He laughs an ah’m on the point o’ saying naught tae him when he answers,
“My apologies Corporal Graham, let’s to your business.”
Ah decide tae tell him the story, the lot ae it.

He listens and nods and scribbles wee notes in his pocket book.
“So, Graham, you are aware that there is no physical evidence of a
wound on you at all? Major Campbell is of the opinion that you are a coward and a malingerer. He’d like you shot. Has you marked as a cool
and calm chancer who is working his ticket home by playing mad. I, on the other hand , see cool and calm in you but it is mixed with a great deal of confusion. In my view you have suffered a major concussion injury from a shell explosion that has left you unable to separate your dreams from the reality around you. You are entirely lucid but your overall understanding of the world is created by neurasthenia, what the press refer to as “shellshock” sais the Captain.
“Aye, right… sir” sais I.”Ah’m no right sure about whit ye just said there.”

“Corporal Graham, you may hear me as an Englishman, but I am a Scot
like you, born and raised in Dunblane and glad to see a man from the Argylls. As my old anatomy professor liked to announce at the start of his
lectures in Edinburgh – if you have a wheesht, now would be a grand time
tae haud it”

Ah stays quiet and nods at him.

“Thank you Graham. Now hear me out for a minute or so. One of the most common effects of shellshock is catatonia. A very long word for a simple idea: basically it means that many men who have suffered the effects of high explosive become mute, they retreat into themselves, they say nothing. Occasionally this is preceded by a manic phase. This is where I think you are right now, in the grip of a mania, a delusion, a strange waking dream. It may be that you will shortly become mute, confirming my medical opinion about your condition. Do you understand me Graham?”

Ah hear him awright. His eyebrows are aw arched up and there’s a wee smile playin’ oan his face. He’s tellin’ me tae keep ma mooth shut and play the daftie wi’ him and the major. So, ah look at him and nod.

“I’ve checked your record, and your name is James Graham. This “Lazarus” business is just another symptom. Have a look at your tags and check the initial. It will be “J”” .

The Provost sergeant takes me back tae a cell, “Alright Jock, the MO got you sorted then?” Ah’m about to reply but keep ma mooth shut an ma heid doon as ah shuffle ma way back out.


Ah’m lying in a cell an. Ah pick bits o’ crusted mud aff ma tunic and stare intae the dark. The red an’ green tags are inside ma tunic and right enough, stamped hard and clear, is a “J”. How did ah think ah wis called Lazarus?

James… James Graham fae Milngavie, is who ah am. Ah signed up, ah volun- bloody-teered tae come here. An’ ah start tae think o’ my wife and weans. Ah’m no a man for tears but ah think o’ Annie and say her name oot loud, like a prayer.

“Aye, she’s a braw lass is Annie”
Ah very near wet maself. Who wis that? Ahm ah gaun mad here?

“Don’t worry laddie. Ah got the key fae the provost sergeant and let maself in while ye were asleep.”

It’s the big sergeant major fae earlier the day, the wan that gi’ed me the orders to take the daft message tae the major

“A wisnae sleepin’ an I didnae hear any door” ah sais to him.

“Dinnae fret yersel’ laddie, I can be right quiet when ah go about ma business” he replies.

Ah wis feelin’ angry enough to talk back tae him, so ah sais “Aye sergeant major, ah’m sure ye can be quiet. But if ye don’t mind, then a few words about that message that I ran for you wid be appreciated.”

“Aye. Well…I’m sorry about that laddie. Ah wis just tryin’ tae find a way tae get ye back tae the casualty station. Ye were right confused by that shell blast…” He tells me, his big deep voice gettin’ a bit blustery, like a wean tryin’ tae think up a story.


“It’s funny that sergeant major, ah don’t remember any shell burst. No’ a lot of artillery at a’ fae the Huns side. Plenty of ours though, even if there wisnae enough tae deal wi’ the machine guns. It wis a bullet that put me down sergeant major an ah think ye’ saw it yersel’. An anyway, how dae ye know about ma Annie?”

“Aye, the nurse at the casualty clearing station must ha’e spoken about her when ah wis there askin’ efter ye.”

Ah know he’s haverin’, ah’ve thought about Annie but huvnae said a word about her. Ah keep quiet, thinkin’ that it’s time tae let him explain himself. His back an’ big shooders block the light fae the lamp in the passageway, an’ he just stauns there. Shell burst or bullet which one wis it? Ah’m beginnin’ tae think that ma memory is mangled in the way that Durrant said it wis. If this is pure imagination, a “waking dream” like the doctor said, then the big Sergeant can explain his biblical message tae the torn-faced Major an’ everything is settled. Nae cowardice, nae insubordination and nae firing party for me. Ah’ll mibbe even get hame for a while. See Annie an’ the two weans.

My mind takes me right back tae the time we’re courtin’. It’s May and the hawthorn is thick wi’ blossom like spoonfu’s o’ cream. The blue o’ the sky is washed out and faded wi’ the heat. A stir o’ midges is hingin like smoke in the stillness. The air is pricklin’ wi pollen and ah sneeze. She tells me a sneeze like a wummin’. Ah’ll need a more manly sneeze than that tae win her she tells me. Snortin’ an’ sneezin’ like ah’ve had pepper blown up its nostrils ah play the fool tae make her laugh. Her tight black curls bounce and her bonnie tanned face splits intae a smile, “You’re a big daftie James Graham”.

She wants tae show me somethin’ near a ferm that she had worked in two year afore. Up behind Blairskaith Muir she takes me, the land quickly gettin harder away fae the

hedgerows. We go up a steep brae and it leads us tae country that’s open an’ bleak; tussocks o’ rough grass broken by muddy hoofprints . The cattle bellow at us, they reckon were a bit strange, ah think. Ah’m an Asylum Attendant in the toon, no used tae bein’ sae close tae the beasts in the field. Ah can tell she knows that Ah’m a bit feart o’ them. She pulls at ma arm and tells me its no long now.

Ah ask her what she’s dragging me away up here for. “It’s the Auld Wives Lifts that ah want ye tae see.”

“The whit?” Ah let this slip out and feel like a real fool this time as she glances at me and tuts.

“See for yerself.” Annie says as the track crests the hill and we walk intae a hollow ringed wi’ what looks like a circle o’ earthworks- auld wans though, like something that ye’d find at a Castle, no freshly dug trenches like out here. The mossy ground is spongy and wet but there’s what looks like a raised grassy path pointing straight out tae the centre o’ the big circle. In the middle there are three huge stanes, each o’ them hauf the size ae a house. One o’ them is sitting across the tap o’ the others an’ the whole thing looks like some great stone altar that’s been here forever.

“Who built that?” ah sais, a bit glaiket still, “the Romans or somethin’?”

“James Graham, for a reasonably educated man wi’ a decent enough job behind him you know precious little about the land you live in. This place is very near famous. When ah worked at the Galston’s ferm doon there, many’s the scholar and fine gentlemen fae the university came out tae see this place.”

“Oh aye, fine gentlemen and scholars is it” ah sais tryin’ tae embarrass her a bit. Her lips purse an’ it looks like she’s about tae hae a wee silent rage tae herself but she comes back at me.

“Aye, they were fine enough gentlemen, but no for me. Step up fae a tinker, ah know what’s said about me. Ah like their stories and their learning but don’t think for a minute that a clean collar, a fine suit an a posh voice would turn ma heid”

“Ah’m sorry Annie, ah didnae mean tae… Ah mean, its no like a I can talk, there wis nae faither in ma hoose an’ ma grannie never had a man wi’ her either. Whole family were the black sheep o’ the place”

“Ach, mibbe we’re mair alike than ah thought… Your still a dunderheid an’ a big fearty but.” Ah feel ma face go rid at this an she laughs an slips through the gap between the two great black stanes. Ma haun stretches tae catch her but she’s too quick for me. It lands on the cool face o’ the rock an when ah take it away ah see that somebody has chiselled a date, 1796, intae the big stane. Ah got the sudden feeling that this wis nothing, this hundred odd years was just a minute or even a second in the time that these things had skulked here and brooded.

Ah hear a laugh fae the far side o’ the great boulders an skirt round the marshy ground tae the side o’ them; ah don’t fancy gaun inside that crack in the rock that Annie disappeared through. “Shite!” Ah spit out this wee curse as one ae ma boots sinks intae this brown water under the spongey grass an’ the cauld seeps intae ma foot.

“No that way James,. Ye need tae come through the crack in the rocks.” sais Annie. “An’ how d’ye work that out. Have ah no made enough ae a fool of myself already!” “Only you know the answer tae that James.” and ah get treated tae the laugh again.

“Anyway James Graham that was shocking language to use in the presence of a lady! The story goes in this place that if ye climb through the crack a’ your previous sins are forgiven and ye’ll never dies childless.”

Annie teases, an ah push myself through the cool dark ae the gap, twistin’ maself tae fit throught the weird triangle ae the openin’. The rock is wet and there’s dark pockets ae mud under me. There’s a deep cauld in the rock, the air and even the smell o’ the black mud has a chill in it.

“Ah’ve heard that there’s a grand view fae the top o’ this thing. Ye’re supposed tae be able tae see aw the way tae Ben Lomond and beyond. The gentlemen fae the university brought a wee ladder wi’ them tae get up there but ah’ve always reckoned that wi’ a wee bit ae spirit about ye a ladder widnae be needed.” Her head’s tilted so that she’s takin’ her eyes aff me an then aff the rock. Ah feel the wildness in her. Her face cracks wi’ that smile again an ah’m forgiven but ah know an’ ah’m trapped in whatever happens next.

There’s a whirl ae skirts an the scratching sound of boots on stone an she’s planted herself halfway up the boulder, her boots in a gap between a stane that’s like a pillar and the one that’s like a tabletop.

“Ah think that wis the easy bit James. The top ae this thing sortae slopes away fae ye before it flattens out . Ye’ll need to gie me a haun up” She’s matter ae fact about this, nae panic in her voice.

“How can ah dae that fae doon here?” sais Ah, soundin’ like a daftie again.

“Get your hauns under the heel ae ma boot an steady me as ah push up James.”

Ah cup ma palms under her heel and get a glimpse o’ her calf, feel her muscles and bones flex inside the boot. Ah sense ma face get rid and turn ma heid tae the side. As ah dae this ah feel her weight and power flow through my hauns and intae ma arms. There’s a jolt as we find our balance, then ah push back easily and she flows aff ma finger tips an’ scrambles tae the tap ae the boulder. There’s her laugh again, a silvery rattle, before she steadies herself an’ sais, “Aye, they were right about the grand view. Ye need tae get yerself up here James.” She looks miles away, her face wee an distant, like a wean’s.


The first bit is nae bother, ah’m bigger an’ stronger than her, but when ah try tae cross the sloping part near the tap ah realise that there’s distinct lack ae places tae pit ma feet. The wet soles ae ma boots are smearing an’ slipping under me as I haul maself, ma thudding heart and ma suddenly sick belly oantae the top. Ah roll on ma back, gasping for air. Her face is above mine. The sun is behind her an’ its put pale gold round her dark hair. “Ah told ye that we widnae need a ladder, just a wee bit ae spirit, that’s aw.” she sais.

“Aye, right a wee bit o’ spirit or a touch lunacy. Either ae the two would dae it.”

“Ach James, don’t spoil it, ye did well there- getting us baith up. Ah tried this before when ah worked at the ferm but couldnae manage the last step. I needed that shove ye gave me. Onyways, look at that.” Annie has drawn her knees up under her chin and wrapped her arms round her legs. Ah follow the line o’ her gaze and see hills and mountains on the edge of the calm Blane valley below us. “Aye, yer toffs fae the univeristy were right about the view Annie, it’s grand”

“Aye James, it is, mind you ma ain grannie told me as much about this place as the university men. She said that these rocks got here when three auld women had a contest among themselves tae see who wis the strongest. They lifted these rocks up here in their peenies. The winner wis the wan who didnae just carry up her rock but lifted it up on top of the other two.”

Ah laughed an’ told her that there must ha’e been some right strong wummin about tae dae that. “They’re still here yet James Graham” is what she comes back wi an’ I just smile. She goes on, “An’ see that bit at the end o’ the Campsie hills? That’s ca’d Dumgoyne but some folk say its a sleepin’ warrior, lying there waiting tae come back for his last battle. Ma granny told me that tae.” Ah told her that I thought I had heard that story tae but that ah couldnae see it maself, it just looked like a big bump at the end of the Campsie Hills tae me- it wisnae gaun anywhere.

“Ach, there’s aw sorts ae arguments about this place James. Ah like the auld stories maself. Ah told ma grannies story tae wan ae they professor types fae the university when they came up here. ‘Interesting example of folklore’ he called it. Then he went on about this place being the ‘finest example of a neolithic cathedral in Scotland’. Have ye any idea whit that means?

Ah look blank…again.

“Naw. I didnae either… so ah asked him whit he meant. Stone age man, he told me, dragged these boulders up here and used them as an altar for their pagan sacrifices. Sounded about as likely as ma grannies version tae be honest. Anyway, the auld professor who’s tellin’ me this gets interrupted by another toff who sais that this is ‘Preposterous unscientific speculation’ and that the boulders were dumped there at the end ae the ice age. Can ye imagine it James, aw this covered in thick ice? But the two ae them get a bit sulky wi’ each other efter that an Ah made masel’ scarce,,, didnae want the blame for starting a row.

So, as ah’m headin back to the ferm an’ ma heids reelin’; cave men, ice sheets, pagan sacrifices aw jumbled thegither. Ah get tae thinkin’ it could’ve been baith, ye know? The boulders could’ve been dropped there by the ice then the auld yins, cave men,or whatever they were, found them and started using them for an altar. Ah wished ah’d thought of it sooner an told the two toffs about ma explanation…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, eh Annie” is how ah respond. Ah want her to know that I nearly understand, that ah can keep up wi’ the way her ideas tummel out, that ah’m fascinated. Ah think ah just ended up soundin’ like a pious diddy.

“See you and your Sunday School, is it no time that ye started tae dae a wee bit ae thinking for yerself instead ae just quoting scripture at folk? Is it you that’s talkin’ or is it that auld targe ae a teacher, Susie Sharnley puttin’ words in yer mouth for ye? Besides, ye’ll no find

much peace up here if the Professor is right. He sais there’s a circle carved intae the top o’ this rock that channeled the blood intae the gap between the rocks ” sais Annie and then lets her eyes settle on the horizon.

Ah’m sitting on top ae pile of rocks that naebody can explain the purpose ae wi a lassie who ah’m fascinated wi’ and she thinks ah’m a big stuck up ba’head. Ah decide tae tell her how ah feel about whit she said, about how much ah’m taken by her. Ah decide tae tell her it aw, and she decides tae kiss me.

When we staun up ah look at a’ the names carved intae the stane underneath us. They’re no that auld- still sharp edged and clear. “The folk that carved them must hae brought up a good chisel tae make their mark.” ah sais.

“Aye, but look James, underneath them and bit worn, ye can see that shape they scholars talked about.” Annie traces her fingers in an auld groove and Ah see the curve begin stand out fae the newer chipped names. “ The circle for the sacrifices is here right enough.” she sais.

“Aye, a gutter for the blood” Ah respond, thinking ae the cauld black mud in the still air o’ that wee passageway between the rocks.

“Aye, that’s a fine name for it. No a pleasant one, but an accurate one. There was some right dark work done in that place when they tried tae find the faither.”

“For God’s sake, are you inside ma head ya big shite! Can ah no have a thought tae maself.” Ah rage at the Sergeant Major, he’s broken ma memory o’ Annie.

“Calm yersel doon son, ye’ve been bletherin’ away like an auld sweety wife for five minutes now. A man cannae get a word in when ye start that carry on.”

Again, Ah’m telling maself that not one word about Annie has been spoken aloud. Ah’ve been totally silent but ah’m starting tae doubt ma ain mind. The doctor, Durrant, wi’ his talk of mania and catatonia wid be lappin this right up, scribblin’ away for aw he was worth in his wee notebook.

“Bletherin’ Sergeant Major? Ah’m no the only blether in this place . Who’s this faither? Who’s this Lazarus? Who’re you tae be sittin’ here listening tae ma thoughts?” Ah rage at him again.

“Listening tae yer thoughts? Ye’re desperate for the idea that somebody is bothered about yer thoughts” he sais ”Just remember that everything ah know about ye came out ae yer ain mouth laddie.”

He waits a second and rumbles on

“Listen tae me son.” He softens his voice and his shoulders slump, nae anger, just weariness settling on him. “Ah took this out ae ye th’day because I thought it would make a difference tae things.” His big haun opens an there’s a bullet. No the shiny brass cartridge, just the dark metal ae the thing that had been inside me earlier that morning. Ah hear the sound ae a wasp again.

“Ah thought if ah brought one ae ye back, just the one, and sent the right message wi’ ye then it would make a difference. That sort of thing used to impress folk mightily. Ah must have been too near tae some ae they shellbursts maself…addled my understanding of things. I thought it might help us find the faither again.Wherever he went. He’s been awfy quiet this weather…” He sais before his voice rumbles to a stop.

“Sergeant Major, your talking like one ae they religious maniacs ah used tae pit intae a straight-jacket when Ah worked in the Asylum.Oh, for Christ’s sake Sergeant Major, who’s the mental case here? You or me or both ae us?” ah sais.

“Aye, yere right there laddie, both ae us. There’s neither of us should be here. There’s nae sense in it.” he replies

“Ye cannae come back son. Ye have tae forget about this life Lazarus. Nae mair miracles fae me laddie. Nae sleeping warriors returned” He stauns up as he sais this, a big shadow edged in weak light fae the door. Ahm tired an a can hear the buzzin’ ae that wasp again. “My name is James, James Graham, no Lazarus.” Ah manage tae whisper.

“Ah know laddie, Ah know…” He sais as his big haun lays itself oan my chest. There’s a sense of a kick. Something sharp. Oh Annie…



Cambusnethan Priory

If you park up in Gowkthrapple, across from where the powerlines stoop down to ranks of squat grey electrical transformers, next to the white burger van in the layby- I need to add that this is thoroughly decent fast food outlet- then you are in for a big surprise.

Everything has been urban and busy and a bit grey but you are now faced by a line of mature trees and the prospect of green fields to the south of you.

There’s a gap in the trees- it’s not that inviting, it’s not that obvious, it’s not signposted at all… and yet this passage through the trees will take you to somewhere amazing. You go past the dog kennels, the big beech and birch trees looming over you in an intricate latticed canopy. You go past the fly-tipping sight that makes you shake your head about anyone who could scar the land like that. You go past all that and the path curves out of the trees and the calm green of the Clyde Valley opens itself out before you: beautiful and unexpected.

A steep hillside with wooded slopes leads down to the the river and sitting on the shoulder of the hill is Cambusnethan Priory. Sandstone turrets and grand cathedral-like windows begin to reveal themselves through a tangle of trees that have crept towards the old house. Unfortunately, it is in ruinous condition. Gutted by fire in the 1980’s, the shell of the building is teetering on the edge of a final calamity. What would be lost if it was to simply crumble back into the land?

A little bit of research into the house reveals that this house and this place have an amazing history. It even has a Facebook page: The Friends of Cambusnethan Priory. They point out that this spot has always been significant.

Our pagan ancestors worshipped the goddess Clotta here.She gave us the name of River Clyde.  Wishaw had its very own Naiad- a female spirit that lived in the water running through the land. Who would have thought it? If it were ancient Greece it would be mythology by now: a waterway that launched a thousand ships. In reality it did far more  than that.  It seems like the Clyde and and Classical Greece have a lot in common: from the wooden walls of Athens to the riveted steel of the Clydebuilt battleship isn’t such a leap. Ancient carved stone heads have been dug from the ground, Celtic or Pictish remnants of our shared past. There are traces of Christian worship here from the days when Celtic saints and holy men first spread their word in Scotland. Norman Lords built forts and keeps and became Scottish Barons, one of whom got on the wrong side of the independence debate that was led by Robert the Bruce and was executed as a traitor.

Powerful orders of monks were given sway over the site and it was a satellite priory of the mighty Kelso abbey. A fine manor house, one of the earliest in Scotland was built in the seventeenth century but destroyed by fire and rebuilt in fine Neo-Gothic style in 1816 with some architectural nods to its history as a religious site.

My first view of the priory saw the pale sandstone warmed by the May sunshine, the silhouette of the building framed by the fresh foliage of the encroaching trees and the roofline and spires picked out against the bluest of skies. But it is battle-scarred by graffiti, shabbily-dressed in moss and ivy and sadly littered with domestic refuse- yet somehow still unbowed.

It is easy to look up at the rose window, the gothic arches of the main window and see how the central hall is built like the nave of a medieval cathedral. You can imagine the interior filled with shafts of still light on a summer’s day or the windows luminous with golden warmth in the depths of winter. It all seems so close, yet the desolation of the site will soon make it out of reach from anywhere, except the imagination.

Should we work to keep it? There are plenty of historic sites, plenty of worthy causes fighting for our attention and nowhere near enough money to fix every crumbling relic of bygone times.

At one point the house was the family home of the Colville’s, steel magnates who made a fortune from the fire and thunder of the vast mills that processed the coal, the ore and the men of Lanarkshire. They owned the works that became the sprawling Ravenscraig steel mill. The family left their home a generation ago and the immense industrial complex of Ravenscraig has been discarded, levelled, detoxified and reimagined in shining glass and concrete as a college campus and prospective retail development. Maybe the priory needs to go the same way? Maybe we need to go in the direction of building for the new millennium rather than cossetting the past? Maybe we need to forget the past?

Maybe, but maybe not? Wilful amnesia might work but letting go of this beautiful space with its rich history, its sense that something special has happened here since early humans realised that this was a good place, may not be the healing that the house needs, that we need.

I wouldn’t argue for some Downton-esque, cash-intensive rebuild to recreate a hyper-authentic simulation of the landed gentry’s dream. Instead let’s think about what this place was, what it is now and what it could become.

Reconnecting the fine folk of Wishaw with this fragment from their past could allow them to develop a sense of the deep history and culture of the place that the trauma of industrial boom and bust has displaced. It’s also a great place for a picnic on a warm spring day.

I know this from pleasant experience.

My second year English class took a trip to the priory and as they slipped off the regular timetable and unleashed themselves from their desks to sweep down that hill to the old building, something special happened. Yes, there was the surge of joy that students of all ages experience when you get a break from the routine.  However, hot on the heels of this feeling of release came a deep sense of interest in Cambusnethan Priory from the students. They seemed intrigued by the connection with nature, with other times and other people that was inspired by the old house and its surroundings. When our young people make such an instant connection with the land and its history in the post-millennium age of virtual experiences it can only have a positive effect upon you.

Cambusnethan Priory is ruinous but not thoroughly spoiled, so let’s apply our minds to finding a solution for the future. Stabilise the walls and make it safe to explore without the danger of plummeting masonry. Signpost it and connect it in with the Clyde Walkway. Link it into cycle paths and local walks that let people know it’s there. Connect it physically and let people discover the history and the spirit of the place and a solution might start to present itself.

A Bad Night on Braeriach

A Bad night on Braeriach

I had planned a  big circuit around the highest mountains in the Cairngorms. I had checked and rechecked the equipment and packed enough food for four days. My plan was to do a short walk in on the first day- about 4km to the point where the deep glen of the Lairig Ghru rises upwards to the ridge of Sron Lairige. However, when I arrived at the Lairig Ghru at 6:30 I was feeling strong and the evening sun was promising. Things looked benign and I felt that I could push onto the first  Munro summit I had planned: the mighty Braeriach.

However, I only had one water bottle with me: full it would give me a litre of water. I cursed myself. I had lifted another bottle and put it back in my kit box, trying to shave off some weight. I had to make the summit of Braeriach and go beyond it to the stream feeding Falls of Dee if I wanted to have enough to drink and rehydrate the packs of food that I had brought.

At nine o’clock, after a strenuous ascent of Sron Lairige I was on a grassy bealach that led up to Braeriach. The sun was out, there was hardly any wind and there was a flat grassy patch of ground that would make an ideal pitch for the tent. I thought of my litre of water – now depleted by a few sips on the way up and decided that I would push on to Braeriach and beyond.

Just a little way up the bealach I found some twisted metal- it looked like aircraft wreckage, maybe hydraulic parts. I find this stuff intriguing, it sparks up my childhood interest in aviation and warfare but now I find these lumps of twisted machinery sad reminders of fragility and mortality. I found a piece that I recognised as the undercarriage struts of a WW2 vintage aircraft. I remembered the shape from a childhood spent assembling airfix models. The delicacy of the little plastic parts held in childish fingers confronting heavy hydraulic struts and alloy.  Because they are mainly made from aluminium and high grade steel these smashed remnants linger, uncorroded for decades- the violence of their ending frozen forever.

On the summit plateau the weather rapidly changed. The cloud rolled in as approached the summit. The deep crags of the vast right angled ring of cliffs of Braeriach looked dark and hard. One of them glowed luminously white with the remnants of winter snow- oddly bright in the fading greyness of the cloud and dusk. Having made the summit I took a bearing on the stream leading to the pools that fed the Falls of Dee. Then the weather abruptly changed. A fierce wind and driven rain hit. I forgot about finding the water, what I had would see me through the night. It was time to get the tent pitched.

I was about to discover that the Vango Blade is not a tent that is suitable for use in the Scottish Hills. I like this little tent, on numerous low level expeditions and wild camping trips where it has been left set up low it has been roomy and weather proof and stable. However, it pitches inner first. A gravelly patch of flattish ground looked like a reasonable pitch. The inner tent was soaked in seconds so I knew things were going to be wet. What I wasn’t ready for was the fact that the wind wouldn’t let the big alloy pole that the entire tent takes it strength from to sit correctly. It was flexed and twisted out of shape by the force of the wind. Moreover, I had forgotten to put on my waterproof over-trousers, so my lower half was instantly soaked in the driving rain.

It took over twenty minutes to get the tent looking even half way habitable- pegs and guy-lines were popping out and where the fabric should have been taught and tight it was flabby and sagging- collapsing in on itself.

But it would have to do.

I threw everything into the tent. The ground sheet was virtually awash with water. I fumbled for a head-torch in my pack, switched it on- dead. Switched on the spare head-torch- it started to blink out its low battery warning. Shivering and more than a little panicked at the prospect of pitch darkness in this bleak night I found my spare set of batteries and after a few minutes had them installed before the other head-torch blinked its last. I inflated the air mattress and lay back exhausted. I had to get out of the wet gear, into something dry and into my sleeping bag. At this point the side of the tent gave way and pushed towards me. I burst out of the tent expecting the worst but it was simply that a guy had given way and the tent had flopped on its side. The central ridge pole had also taken on a weird serpentine kink. It did not look good. I pegged in the guy again and did my best to straighten the alloy pole. I had come out of the tent so quickly that I had not put my waterproof jacket on. I was now soaked through top and bottom. Back in the tent I was starting to shiver and to feel panicked again. I rationalised and thought of the spare gear that I had- down jacket and a complete set of clothes in dry bags. I even had a survival bag. If the tent did burst or collapse I could get into that with my sleeping bag and would easily get through the night. I was fine- I was uncomfortable but I was fine.

Then I discovered that some of my ‘dry bags’ did not perform in a manner that matched their name. My down jacket, warm as toast, a snug comfort blanket in cold tents was soaked. This worried me.

It would be a shivery night if all the gear was equally wet. Thankfully the dry bag with the clothes was fine and the sleeping bag was okay. Within ten minutes I was in warm and dry clothing, cocooned inside the sleeping bag. The wind and the rain coupled with the flabby fabric of the tent to create conditions that made sleep impossible but I was warm and dry. I did manage to convince myself that the whispery snuffling that touched each corner of the  tent was just the sagging flysheet and not a malign presence: the Grey Man of Ben Macdui was in all probability not paying me a courtesy visit but I wasn’t getting out of the sleeping  bag to check.

I discovered that my phone had a perfectly serviceable 3G connection to the internet. It was weird to be connected like this in such a remote place: it was a welcome distraction but the reach of the mundane onto the mountain top was also unsettling and unwelcome. I read the Guardian and checked weather reports on two different sites. More immediately important, I constantly pushed the central pole back into place as the wind tried to flatten the tent against the summit.

Then, sometime after three in the morning, the wind abated and the rain stopped. I slept and didn’t wake up to the tent collapsed around me. I had decided that the tent wasn’t up to the job, another night like this wouldn’t kill me, I could keep things together, but it would be enormously uncomfortable and I wasn’t up for that. I was packing up, heading back down the Lairig Ghru and going home to buy a new tent and some new dry bags.

And in the end that all came about because of the lack of one extra water bottle- “Because of a nail the shoe was lost/Because of a shoe the horse was lost… and so on and so on.

Danger! England’s Dreaming


Watching the results come in from last Thursday’s referendum on membership of the European Union was strange. Early indications were not good and as I moved fitfully between websites the incremental advantage for the leave side grew. By four o’clock the result was being confidently called by the BBC and I tried to sleep. It was no good. A dumb sickness was growing in my gut as I tried to come to terms with this moment. Maybe the nausea was from low frequency sound waves propagated by tectonic plates grinding and shifting as the British Isles sheared away from continental Europe? I had managed to leave home without going out the door of the house.

I immediately thought of my no vote in the Scottish Independence referendum: how I had justified my decision by thinking of our intricate economic ties and our intimate emotional kinship with Britain, with England. Now we are on the brink of destroying something even bigger- disrupting the global relationships that have fuelled our prosperity and made us safer for a generation. The sense that we will all be diminished and impoverished, economically, politically and culturally, was strong. Disbelief was hardening into a desire to embrace division, to define myself through estrangement. I was not ready to simply accept this and move on.

In the last week I have been drawn to Shakespeare’s language in order to try and find something allusive and resonant- the funeral speeches in Julius Caesar said something about how populist politics is a fickle creature:

“O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts

And men have lost their reason.”

The Prince’s final words indicating the grey stillness of a tragic aftermath and the forewarning of justice to follow  in Romeo and Juliet seemed morose and portentous enough

“A glooming peace this morning with it brings

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head”

Hamlet’s trauma and angst caught my my mood of sullen despair.

“It is not and it cannot come to good”

All had something to say but it was the sneering nihilism of seventies punk that won the day

“There is no future

In England’s dreaming.”

No future because the dream of many, of far too many, is my nightmare. (The irony of a Scottish man who carries an Irish name using the words of an Englishman writing about Italy and Denmark only provokes a bitter smirk at this moment.)

There will be good people who have voted to leave, there will be people of honest heart and integrity who hold a different vision of what this country is, or perhaps more relevantly, was. And then there are those who allowed fear and loathing of immigrants to motivate them. The pot of tar and the brush are standing ready but I will walk on by.

I was  someone who believed in Britain. I even gave some thought to what the Britain I believed in was. Growing up in a small village with a small Catholic population near Glasgow made me aware of the flag-waving propensities of both sides of the sectarian divide. Ultimately, I became wary of flags.

The allegiance required to Celtic Football Club and its explicit championing of Irish Identity was needed to assimilate in school, so it left a mark.The grim scars of sectarianism were also carved by the opposition- the union flag corrupted by the bullies who made the streets uneasy places to walk. My neighbour’s son screamed that I was a Fenian bastard straight into my face. This and many other humiliations left their mark. I know what it is like to feel like an outsider in the streets of your home.

However, the childhood fascination with the myths of Britishness channelled through Commando Comics, Victor and Warlord also left a layer of sediment. At age ten I would rather have cuddled an Airfix model than have hugged my mother: I cried real tears when I broke an Airfix Hurricane that I left under the covers. Putting on Scout uniform and pledging an oath of honour to God and to the Queen was a secret, guilty pleasure: an outdated militaristic and imperialist pantomime and definitely not on trend.- even in the late seventies.

When Thatcher came in and cemented her electoral win with a fluke victory in the Falklands for the remnants of our faded forces from the old empire I was even more troubled. Was this a glorious adventure or bloodletting over “a little patch of land that hath  in it no profit but the name”? (I had read Hamlet for the first time in that year)

We voted labour by reflex in our house: I was starting to ask why. Two years later, watching her politicise the police and send them in against the miners made me ask which side I was on: I would never be voting Tory.

It took years for me to think about my identity, the complexity of it, and in 2014 the British component of it. I arrived at something surprising, something made from my education, from the things I had learned  and the people I knew but also from a rediscovery of people that had been half-forgotten and long-buried. A piece of writing about a memory of my grandfather’s medals that I began as a model for Higher students in personal writing started to take a deeper significance. I thought of what they had been through in the second world war. I tried to take the memory of their war out of the toy-box and the kid’s comic. Both of them served five years, one on the battleship HMS Ramillies and the other as a gunner attached to the Highland Light Infantry. One died in his late fifties, the other in his early sixties- the first to cancer the second to heart disease. Why worry about smoking untipped senior service or drinking cask strength grain spirit that had mysteriously found its way home  from the distillery you worked in when you had been through a whole war?

I realised that they were a part of that great upswell of opinion, a quiet and confident assurance that things had to change, that led to the creation of the welfare state and the inception of a period of consensus in British politics that lasted until 1978. The landslide election victory of Labour in 1945 was driven by the votes of men not unlike them. This was the great achievement of my grandparents- ordinary people being taken seriously and the wealth of the nation flowing into health, education and housing. Everyone believed in it- even the Tories. Harold MacMillan, would boast that he created more council houses in the UK than any Labour minister ever did. So what did my grandfathers think about this? How can I pretend to know? One was a Tory and one was Labour but they were strikingly similar. I know this because my own father, a labour voter born of a labour voter, who believes in the ordinary working man, told me of his undying respect and affection for this good man- his father-in-law, the Tory.

I thought that this consensus could be recovered. I thought that Britain was more than the nationalisms within it. I was wrong.

Like many, I wanted a better yesterday. My dream of a benign progressive consensus was fit for purpose twenty years before I was born in the mid 1960’s but was extinguished under the twin attacks by the divisions of Thatcher and the deceptions of Blair.

The scant comfort I will give myself about the wrongness of my dream is that it is more benign, more inclusive and more human than the return to imperial bluster that the other side appear to cherish. When we have built our wall around these islands and sally forth on commercial and military feats of daring we will surely be happier. We will re-engage with the Commonwealth, “Look! Your old imperial masters are back! Did you miss us?”

The sad fact is that my failed dream, my broken notion of Britain is just as much a delusion as this reinvention of imperial fantasy is.

It is necessary to face the fact the referendum vote will entail the rupture of union between England and Scotland. Home has become a different country: it is no longer Britain. Once it would have broken my heart to think such a thing but my eyes are clearer now.