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To be a nation again

What are the chances of Scotland becoming independent for the first time in 304 years?

9 May 2011

Alex SalmondJust as I am in the middle of writing about Bannockburn, last stunning victory of the Scottish nation – up pops the Poisson Pair, Salmond and Sturgeon, with a bit of a stunning victory of their own. Five more years of SNP rule in Scotland – and with a MAJORITY - now has Westminster's Tories birling in a panic, particularly over the threat of an independence referendum.

The PM has announced that he will defend the Union, with a Churchillian air of fighting Scots on the beaches and the landing grounds. Sceptics rightly point out that the SNP majority only gives them the right to a referendum, not independence and most decent, sensible Scots don't want it.

So they said in 1307. And 1308 and the year after that. Go away and gie's peace, they said to Wallace and then Bruce. Now, as then, the nation's rulers only had to rely on the opposition in order to get their way – English Edward would not stay quiet, would not give in. The nay-sayers were won over, the armies were rallied, Bannockburn was fought and won by the Scots.
It was a historical lesson well learned by the Thirteen Colonies – intransigence at Westminster fuelled rebellion. In contrast, when the same thing happened in Canada, Westminster managed to address the grievances swiftly and the Republic of Canada never was.

They were less amenable with the Irish when the Home Rule movement began in the 1870s. Only a minority of Irish Radicals wanted independence. Most ordinary voters were more concerned about rents, security of tenure and such Anglo-Irish iniquities as absentee landlords and their brutal agents.

But the Tories defended the Union to the hilt and the blind vested interests, financial and political, in the Westminster Tory party rejected proposal after proposal for reform, so that the Irish became radicalised. In the end, the Buckingham Palace [Agreement] of [1910] set out a path to independence, infamously described as "a sentence of death with a stay of execution for six years".
So Scottish independence might be closer than everyone thinks. Defending the Union status quo and resisting all change is a strategy which will suit the SNP. Doing nothing will allow the Poisson Pair to set the terms of the debate – and hopefully avoid the debacle of the last time, when Westminster cynically set the terms of success for a similar referendum and pretty much doomed it to failure from the start.

I have heard the argument that Scotland entered the Union with England for the benefits. Our country was bankrupt, the economy in tatters and talented Scots recognised that a unified state gave them more opportunities for advancement than remaining in a northern backwater. Read the history. Scotland's economy was in ruins because England engineered it, callously and cynically, as yet one more arm of warfare in the age-old conflict. For 'talented' read venal and frightened.

It took 300 years to get a semblance of nationhood back and a lot of Scotland's people prize that. Of course it is a risk for Salmond and Sturgeon – a defeat at the polls will set independence back by a generation, as it did once before. But Bannockburn looked like a failure, too.

There isn't much left for the Tories to offer Scotland that isn't full independence. If the Tories had any balls – and a majority mandate of their own to rule - they could federalise the system, turning the House of Lords into a Federal Senate (and doing away with all that Peers nonsense) and giving all four countries of the Union equal status. That will scupper the cause of complete independence and allow scope for other political changes, long overdue. Beyond that, I can't see anything they can offer that the SNP would want – but, of course, you overlook the Parcel of Rogues at your peril.

The best case for sure success for the SNP is that the Government puts its foot down with a firm hand. Better still, if it stalls by calling for some pointless and expensive Royal Commission to look into the case for independence.

And then appoints the likes of Nick Clegg to chair it, as a sop to the increasingly irrelevant Lib-Dems.

That will ensure that the Saltire waves over a free Scotland, as surely as if Thatcher was wheeled out to head the Tory party in Scotland.

Scotland's land-rich list of shame

The sale of Ailsa Craig highlights how ancient property laws have been used against the 'wee people' of the nation for centuries

8 May 2011

The Kennedy clan are selling off Ailsa Craig, the unforgettable conical shape 10 miles off Girvan on the south coast of Ayrshire, seen from many of the golf courses of Scotland's West Coast links and by millions of TV viewers when the Open is held at Turnberry.

Owned by the 8th Marquess of Ailsa, it is being sold by Knight Frank and by a group called Vladi Private Islands, the agent who sold Sanda Island off the east coast of the Mull of Kintyre and who is currently also selling Barcaldine Castle in North Argyll as 'an island-like property'. Farhad Vladi, the German-Iranian entrepreneur, is a consummate marketer, managing to parlay islands to rich folks willing to part with umpteen million dollars for mosquitoes, dengue fever and isolation. He sells dreams, he claims. He sells Seychelles more like.

The sale of a 245-acre rock for £2.5 million is a Vladi disgrace. For this is an icon of Scotland – every bit as much as Bass Rock or Iona or Ben Nevis. You would think that such a thing could not be for sale at all – or, in these days of community ownership, could even be owned by one landlord.

Ailsa Craig

But that's Scotland for you. Ever since the days of King Robert Bruce, that less than hero king who bundled up the barely-dry kingdom for his own gain, and for support of his kingship, Scotland has been bought and sold.

The people who worked the land never owned it. Down through the centuries, the rich and powerful sold off a Scotland they did not own, abetted by the Church – itself a great landgrabber – and the legal profession, whose works such as the Acts of Registration And Prescription (1617) effectively handed control to the rich, who could argue that sitting on the tenure of a bit of land for 20 years gave them the deeds to it.

The Abolition of Feudal Tenure Act eventually put an end to practices such as the Highland Clearances – but since that Act didn't become law until 2000, a lot of pain and misery was handed out in the years between.

In fact, some 800 years have seen 10 million of Scotland's 20 million acres handed to around 1500 landowners in estates in excess of 1000 acres. For example:

Forestry Commission: 1,600,000 acres
Duke of Buccleuch: 270,000
Scottish Executive (Rural Affairs): 260,000
National Trust for Scotland: 175,000
Alcan Highlands: 135,000
Blair Charitable Trust (a private organisation): 130,000
Captain Alwyn Farquharson: 125,000
Duchess of Westminster: 120,000
Earl of Seafield: 105,000
Crown Estate Commission (Ministry of Defence): 100,000
Edmund Vestey: 100,000
South Uist Estate Ltd: 92,000
Sir Donald Cameron: 90,000
Countess of Sutherland: 90,000
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (52 estates): 87,000
Paul van Vlissengen: 87,000
Scottish Natural Heritage: 84,000
Robin Fleming: 80,000
Hon. Chas Pearson: 77,000
Lord Margadale: 73,000

To put things those figures in perspective, the entire city of Edinburgh covers about 64000 acres.

But they are just these are the homegrown aristocrats. The following are absentee landlords for the most part, the most sinister being the man who owns as much as the Foresty Commission, and about whom we know nothing at all:

Unknown (Malaysian): 1,600,000 acres
Mohammed bin Raschid al Maktoum (Arab): 270,000
Kjeld Kirk-Christiansen (Danish): 260,000
Joseph & Lisbet Koerner (Swedish): 175,000
Stanton Avery (American): 135,000
Mohammed al Fayed (Egyptian): 130,000
Urs Schwarzenburg (Swiss): 125,000
Count Knuth (Danish): 120,000
Mahdi Mohammed al Tajir (Arab): 105,000
Prof. Ian Macneil (American): 100,000
Lucan Ardenberg (Danish): 100,000
Eric Delwart (Norwegian): 92,000

These figures are from 2000, the latest I've been able to find. A lot can change in eleven years – we now have the right to roam, a few national parks and there have been some successful community buyout schemes.

But the inconvenient truth is that Scotland is still being bought and sold by absentee landlords like American golf-obsessed millionaires with appalling comb-overs and the incognito rich from far-away places who may never even set eyes on their land, let alone try to live and prosper on it.

Hammer of the thoughts

Black Thor in new movie emphasises the dangers of interpreting history with a 21st-century agenda of political correctness in mind

19 April 2011

Out next month, the latest offering from ace lovie Kenneth Branagh is Thor, the movie of the Marvel comic book. Almost at once it has created controversy – well, that's what you want when promoting a movie – but not for quite the reasons you might expect. The Kouncil of Konservative Kitizens (sorry, they use the C, but the acronym is too good to pass up) has accused poor Ken of 'social engineering' and set up a Boycott Thor website.

The accusation's irony clearly slides off the shaven heads of this group, who would cheerfully socially engineer blacks, Jews, Mexicans and anyone who questions Christianity right off the face of the planet; but the main thrust of their insanity this time is that the movie portrays the great Norse God Heimdall as black, played by actor Idris Elba. It is hardly surprising that this group would be incensed by this – white supremacists have long since tried to hijack the Norse, runes and all, to promote their ludicrous dominant gene theories. The fact that the Nazis promoted it would be a warning, you might think, but groups like these are neo-Nazi and see this as vindication.

It is pointless trying to show people like this the truth of matters, since their minds are so narrow and low the rats that scurry there are humfy-backit – but the Norse certainly were no more pure a gene pool than anyone else. They intermarried with everyone, including the blacks they took as slaves. They called them Blaumen, or Blue Men, because the only other people of such a colour they had seen previously were those so long dead they had marbled, or turned blue. It did not seem to bother husky Vikings when faced with a nubile North African lass, nor shrink their Norse violet any. The result, inevitably, were almost certainly dusky-hued next-gen Vikings.

The Norse of the 10th century would have had some sympathy with the white supremacists all the same – racism existed, though the twist of it was different, just as it was in Roman times and probably before that. Everyone hates someone and if history teaches you nothing else, it hammers that into you like Thor on a bad hair day. Romans hated Germans. And Picts. And Sarmatians. The Norse of emergent Sweden hated Danes and vice versa. The Saxons of England hated all the Norse. The Franks hated the Norse (though the Norse quite liked the Franks, who made wine and paid loadsa money to stop the Vikings pillaging). The Russians hate the Swedes to this day, simply because they have to admit that it was Vikings from Sweden who formed their nation and gave it a name.

In fact, the entire Norse pantheon of gods, according to the Prose Edda, a 13th century collection of even older oral tales, places the origin of Odin and his brothers firmly and far to the East – at least Turkey and possibly beyond that. The very term 'Aryan' is eastern and Asgard, home of the gods, is always referred to as 'lying to the east'.

But I do have issues with a black Heimdall, same as I have issues with a cuddly, in-touch-with-his-feelings Thor and a peace-loving patriarchal Odin, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. These are 21st century values. Thor is the red-headed, exultantly slaughtering ultimate Norse warrior. Odin is a self-mutilating psychopathic sorcerer. That is the reality of the Norse mythology and what coloured and drove the Norse to be the people they were.

I am increasingly annoyed by attempts to Photoshop history. Romance writers do it all the time, which is fine – that's what fans of Romance want. Fantasy writers can do it because the universe they create is their own, no matter how close to history they try and make it – that's why the excellent TV series Merlin can have a black Guinevere and every peasant can read and write.

Historical fiction writers ought not to do it. If you have Vikings out on a raid, then they take what they want from a weaker victim, including the women. They do not come with a bouquet and a Hugh Grant stammer, and most readers understand this – though I have been criticised for my treatment of women in my Oathsworn series, by those who can't suspend their 21st century PC leanings for 340 pages.

This is why you won't find a single black face in The Lion Wakes or any of its successors. It isn't because I believe 13th century Scotland was more white than Midsomer – it's because I can't find any evidence, not one single mention, to the contrary.

Archaeology does not help. I know, thanks to an excellent TV series, History Cold Case, that a North African, possibly a monk, was alive and unremarkable in 11th century London, so I might have surmised and extrapolated. Or made it up, as we say. But I thought a black man struggling in the schiltrons of Robert Bruce was far too contrived and 21st century PC.

The same archaeology has dug up a new Prehistoric find and announces blithely that, because of the position of the skeleton, some cavemen were gay. This is because a male skeleton was buried in an established female position. Well, there is a 21st century touchy-feely vindication of homosexuality – our distant ancestors were doing it so There Is Nothing To Fear from all those NY parades. Better still, it opens up all sorts of possibilities that Jean M Auel never considered – and the chance of a remake of One Million Years BC with pecs in a loincloth rather than Raquel Welch.

However, if you study shamanism – and I have – you find that magic was the province of women. It was for the Romans. It was for the Huns. It was for the Norse. Men could do it, of course, but were looked at as strange and 'womanish' as a result. Didn't mean they were gay – but it did mean that, when they died, they might well be buried as women – which is an honour, not an insult.

The Norse view on gays, incidentally, was suitably robust – you could shag anything you chose, from sheep to Sven, and no-one thought anything less of you. UNLESS you 'took the woman's part'. In other words, you could biff with impunity, but would be shunned at the mead bench for bending. Because that made you a woman and not a man.

You might think this displays a horrid misogyny – but you would be wrong again. Norse women had more power that any other Dark Age females, from owning property in their own right, to being able to divorce in their own right. But they were never warriors. That was the province of men and the reason for them being in the world – so anything that diluted that was unacceptable in male eyes.

But Thor is fantasy, a comic book portrayal of Norse life as true to history as Spiderman is. The white supremacists who see it as muddying the pure waters of their chosen gene pool are idiots. History will not drown them – but it will wash them into the shallow end of that pool until the next target for race hatred surfaces.

I hope it takes all 21st century PC with it.

Bring back the Bothwell Body

It seems we'll see victory in Wallace Letter campaign – but there's a more important battle
to be fought with Denmark

19 March 2011

The Wallace Letter is going home at last, according to my 'sources close to the event'. Not to France, obviously, where it originated, but to Scotland because Wallace purportedly had it in his pouch when he was betrayed and arrested.

Supposedly a safe conduct, cynically ignored by the English, the letter is one I have commented on already, particularly its provenance as a 'safe conduct' for anyone, never mind Sir William Wallace.

But let's not be churlish. The Scot Nats and the Wallace patriots have banded together in a blue-bonnet show of force and achieved their design. We now have a slip of dubious paper to add to the sparse collection of Wallace artefacts. Not for ever, of course – its only a 'loaner' for Homecoming 2014, though the potential is there for a longer term. And once we have it, of course …

Still, James Hepburn must be spinning in his grave.

Who, I hear you ask? The 4th Earl of Bothwell, that's who. Husband to a dead queen, supporter of a dead cause and he will have his revenge, in this life or the next…

Though it looks more and more unlikely that the Earl of Bothwell, lover and latterly husband of Mary Queen of Scots, will ever have his revenge on those who forced him into exile, to die a raving madman after a decade shackled to the lonely wall of a Danish prison.

Dragged out and mummified, his body was displayed until the mid-1970s in a glass case in Faarevejle Church, near his prison cell in Dragsholm Castle, where generations of Danes became acquainted with his fate. He became perhaps the most famous Scot in Denmark and, in his preserved form at least, a part of Danish national heritage.

Yet when his ancestor, Sir Alastair Buchan-Hepburn started inquiring about getting the body back for burial in Scotland, the Danes hummed, hawed and then announced that they couldn't do it – because it probably wasn't the Earl of Bothwell at all.

That was in 2006. Five years and the offer of Sir Alastair's DNA have resulted in… zilch. No SNP demands. No blue-bonnet patriots surging to their feet in angry denunciation of such a son of Scotland having been so displayed in the first place and still held prisoner after nearly five hundred years.

Now there's a homecoming that would be worth more, historically and politically, than a wee loaned piece of paper.

The past is another country – but it's full of people like us

Latest attack by historian slamming historical fiction underlines the practice is not only missing the point, it's hypocritical

16 March 2011

Last month, historian Antony Beevor launched an attack on historical fiction. I say 'attack' – but it was closer to a battering dispensed with a balloon on a stick.

Mr Beevor, excellent writer that he is, could not quite bring himself to join the ranks of Niall Ferguson, who recently announced that historical fiction 'contaminates historical understanding'. However, Beevor does say that writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to the history, and gets no carping from me; after all, Braveheart is a constant and running sore on the historical face of Scotland.

He admits that there are works which give people a historical voice simply because it has been previously denied and is almost unknown. He will get only slight demure from me on that – it hints that the only permissible historical fiction is from times or places so obscure as to be, well, unattractive to more than niche readers.

He starts to lose me when he insists that you can't write fiction about known people from the past. 'The key point', he fulminates, 'is that when a novelist uses a major historical character, the reader has no idea what he or she has taken from recorded fact and what has been invented in their re-creation of events'.

It is the key point in historical fiction, no question about it. But Antony thinks this is A Bad Thing and suggests that writers should change the names of historical characters to emphasise that their creation is one step away from reality.

Now there's a high horse for you. But I have to look back up at the long-nosed haughty staring down at me and say, 'Oh, really?'

So… you restore Constable's The Hay Wain to the way it looked before age got to it. You preserve and return Paul Bril's 16th century masterpieces in Rome's San Silvestro Chapel. But, if you are Antony, you have now to call them something else. It is not enough to publicly announce that they have been restored, that they are meant to look as they did when once painted – that they, are in fact, a work of historical fiction, and none the worse for that.

Historical fiction is not masquerading as fact. It unashamedly announces its credentials in the marketing, lauds them in Author's Notes and Historical Notes and, unlike a deal of history, does not rely on that old journalist get-out of 'allegedly' and 'reportedly'.

Niall Ferguson has a 'what-if?' speculation or two in his work, but does not consider that to be historical fiction. Antony's excellent work on Olga Chekhova, Hitler's favourite actress and sometime Soviet spy, relies on 'accepted' fact, occasional speculation where the firm evidence is lacking. Ian Mortimer, brilliant historian and writer, has a bee in his bunnet about proving Edward II was not executed at all and all his writings on it are 'informed speculation' at best.

Nor are historians free from fiction even when they studiously try to avoid it. If I see one more reference to "From the fury the Norsemen, good Lord deliver us", that ancient monk's prayer variously attributed to the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries and carefully Latinised, then I will scream. Because it is from Brondstedt's Sixties book on the history of the Vikings, and it was made up by him.

"To lie like a witness" is a phrase culled from bitter experience, while myth and folklore accrete to historical characters with every history written.

In 1840, Napoleon's body was returned, in state, to Paris. When an old horse escaped and staggered into the middle of the procession, the story persisted that it was Marengo, the Emperor's famous mount. It couldn't possibly be true, and people knew it; at the same time, they believed it might be and the story has been quoted and re-quoted as fact since.

History can also be coloured by personal points of view or deliberate propaganda. Every line written about Wallace and Bruce, from Blind Harry to the Scotichronicon, has had an agenda attached to it. But since they are as extant a source for these characters as you can get outside of the original medieval Rolls, their myth has been perpetual.

Braveheart, after all, is based on Blind Harry's epic version of Wallace's life, which threw in references to Robin Hood among others, because he knew what his audience wanted. Even he, mark you, did not go as far as to assert that Wallace shagged the Queen of England and so produced Edward III for the English. But only a complete fool blindly follows Blind Harry and bloody Mel Gibson for their history.

Nor are your historians above deliberate hoax. In the 18th century an antiquarian called Charles Bertram produced a work purporting to be a comprehensive history of the peoples of ancient Britain. This was quoted for over a century before the hoax was uncovered, and bits of are still being endlessly disseminated – you have the world wide interweb thingie to thank for that.

Let's also not lose sight of that other historian's tool, the firmly written quote, backbone of many an informed biography. The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. In fact, there were no playing fields at Eton in the Duke's time. What he actually said, in 1815, was, "Gentlemen, I think I owe my grasp of strategy to the tricks I used to get up to in the garden".

That was translated into French, then translated back into English 50 years later – et voila, we have the version that we now know and more interesting as a speculation on possible sly revenge for Waterloo.

There is a disturbing tendency to think it's cool to dislike historical fiction, because it muddies the 'truth' of history, and because the past is, as LP Hartley famously said: "a foreign country; they do things differently there."

If the reason you don't like historical fiction is because it is an alien land to you, then I suggest you are missing the point. LP Hartley was wrong – the past is full of people just like us, with the same dreams and hopes; and that's what history misses and what historical fiction writers don't.

I defy any 'serious' historian to tell me that War And Peace is bad history because it is fiction, and that the best thing about it is not the major historical characters it portrays, but the brilliant living-history portraits of those Tolstoy made up.

Sign of the tongues

1 March 2011

Gaelic is one of the oldest spoken languages in the world. It is a fundamental part of Scottish history. In 2009, the Scottish Government’s Audit of Current Scots Language Provision  in Scotland (there’s a catchy title) concluded that ‘Scots’ is not a dialect of English but a language in its own right. In October 2009, a new agreement was made which allows Scottish Gaelic to be used formally between Scottish Government ministers and European Union officials.

The practical use of the latter sort of sums it up for me – I can’t see the Polish Cultural Attache being overly impressed by a fulsome speech in Gaelic. But since the Scottish Government is Nationalist, it is fairly safe to assume that they are right behind this and the provision of Gaelic TV at £11m a year, and the National Gallery of Scotland’s £1m spend on putting up Gaelic signs as well as English – despite a four per cent cut in its budget.

I, on the other hand, am getting heart-sick of this strange notion that seems to pervade this country that it is fluent in two languages. Three if you agree that Scots is, in fact, a language in its own write. I could see the sense in Gaelic signs (though why does it cost £1m? I know a wee signwriter who could knock them out for a cash-in-hand £500) if we were like, say Quebec, where all the Canadians seem to think they are French and speak it as fluently as English. Or Belgium, where they speak Flemish as well as English. Or Switzerland, where they have four - German, French, Italian and something called Rhaeto-Romansch – in addition to English.

Do you see where I am going with this? The key is English.

I could see the worth of the NGS signs if they were in Spanish, or German, or even Catalan since that at least caters to a mass of tourists. Are there are droves of teuchters coming down to visit the NSG? If so, they will, of course, use the West Highland Line, all suitably Gaelicised right down to the big sign in Glasgow’s Queen Street Station – but unless they come from Brigadoon, they all already know English.

I have no objection to the Gaelic language, slightly more to this attempt to foist ‘Scots’ on us, as if it is a language and not a dialect of English. I just wish the people in charge of the purse-strings would stop pretending that this country is bilingual. There are, in fact, very few truly bilingual countries – India is one and is, in fact, multilingual, but those lucky enough to actually undergo an education there learn English.

It is, like it or not, the international language of diplomacy, business and trade. I would be right behind any provision which spent £1m or more on getting Scots to actually speak and write English properly since that way we might get apostrophes in the correct place and avoid the use of my pet hate ‘centred around’.

In Largs we have Gaelic signs - a total waste of money. If you don’t know where you are then you should seriously consider learning English or mapreading or both. We had them put up because we once hosted the Mod and they have been of little or no use to anyone since.

Let’s face it – the Mither Tongue is a rich dialect worthy of study and keeping alive as a cultural icon, but most people, sensibly, learn to curb their enthusiasm with it and speak clear English in order to be better understood. Gaelic is a minority language spoken regularly by a small percentage of the population and frequently by every musician worthy of the name north of The Grampians.

Like Welsh and Breton and a host of other half-forgotten old tongues, they are not mainstream. They are hobby languages. Lashing out £1m for art gallery signs, or using taxpayers money to stick up road signs of no practical value in a cash-strapped society is a bloody waste.

In any language.

In the bad books – while there still are such things…

1 March 2011

I have just been listening to a piece on radio about the threat of library closures all over the UK. The station dragged in an expert to give his views on whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. On the surface, there seems no argument – closing libraries is a Bad Thing. But that's not the case if you're one think-tank director Eamonn Butler, who reared up on his hind legs and pontificated that, perhaps, the library has had its day.

In this age of bookshops with sofas, he opined, the library really has to offer something more than mainly non-fiction and dvds for inherently middle-class folk at the tax-payer's expense. The internet, with a vast array of material, offers it up for free.
And anyway – they were so much better under free enterprise, when benevolent millionaires such as Carnegie ran them. Perhaps he would like to see Tesco take over – after all, they flog books now, so they have a vested interest in getting people to read.
What a twat. You really want to reach through the radio and give his smug face a slap while telling him to get down to a local library. While you have him by the lapels, you want to add that he should do it somewhere other than the posh end of whatever major city he lives in.

That way he would see mothers and toddlers groups introducing pre-school kids to a love of reading. Where else will you get this? The internet isn't really an option at this age and, if the true measure of a Big Society starts in the home, then a love of reading begins there, too. But you won't get it without books, lent free. Take away the libraries and your pre-schoolers are less primed when they get to school, a loss which will drag them back – as far as I can see, matters are bad enough as regards basic reading and writing in schools without throwing a hobble on weans.

He would see people meeting there to have job advice on how to fill in a cv, or legal advice on all sorts of problems from debt to getting your factor to fix the leaky roof. This is because the local community center is probably based at the local library - or replacing it.

You will see folk photocopying stuff because they don't have an office one they can ponce off. Getting internet access because they can't afford a PC – or have an office one they can ponce off. Getting training on how to access the internet, because they have never owned a computer and are now at the late stage in their lives where, reluctant old dogs that they are, they have to learn a new trick. Or are retraining and really need to learn to use a mouse and keyboard without having to fork out a fortune to some free enterpriser. And if the latter ran the library none of the above would be free.

Mr Butler would say – has said, in fact – that authors like me will howl, of course, since libraries are our fourth biggest customer. I don't know whether that's true or not - but I will tell you who isn't even on our customer list.
Bookshops with sofas and coffee.

That business model has clearly failed because there are hardly any left, though Eamonn clearly thinks they are still around to be a role model for libraries. This tells me two things – one is that Eamonn, for all he writes books (mainly on financial theory) no longer visits bookshops either. The second is that, for an alleged financial expert, he seems a little thin on practical marketing.

I would not be so stoked about Mr Butler's fatuous and ill-informed comments were it not for the fact that he is Director and co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute, a highly profiled, highly-regarded think tank which influences government strategy.
I don't know why he has such a sneer on about libraries – he can't have outstanding fines, since he clearly never visits one.

Scots war heroes were the neds of their time…

27 January 2011

The Peter Mullan film Neds is all over the news, gaining plaudits and critical acclaim. The red-tops and broadsheets all have a different take on the story of Scots chavs, townies or whatever you want to call them, although it's 'neds' here.

But all the papers have started exploring the ethos of the ned, and dragged a few of the older and suitably cleaned-up ones for comment. I saw one, a former member of some gang, talking about his old life while some social commentator banged on about how these lads were the product of their time, forced by circumstance into a path not of there own choosing, a path dominated by violence.

There was, the auld ned opined, never any thought of taking over another gang's territory, only of raising the profile of your gang to be pre-eminent.

Fresh from examining the evidence of the 13th century and the life of Bruce, I am staring at a photo of the ned, with a face like a creased linen sheet. I am also look at a reconstruction of what Bruce might have looked like, above, taking into account the damage to his skull.

They could be one and the same.

All the accounts I have read of knights and men-at-arms of this period detail how they were brutal, scarred, aggressive gangs of men constrained by breeding and circumstance into a life not of their own choosing and dominated by violence. Their entire raison d'etre was to join in with a gang and make it pre-eminent over all the others.

Now we laud them as pillars of chivalry and recognise the leaders of the most pre-eminent gang as kings.

In the 13th century, I suspect, they were considered by those who just wanted to get on with building and growing their lives as dangerous wee nyaffs with blades, about whom something should be done.

Neds, in fact.

Truth about the Wallace Letter

26 January 2011

William WallaceIt's about the size of a decent postcard and is locked away in a drawer somewhere in the National Archive of England and Wales – but the Wallace Letter has recently been trumpeted as genuine and, yet again, the 'proud to be Scottish' brigade are up on their hind legs braying about the injustice of it all and demanding it be returned to Scotland, where it rightfully belongs.

So what is it? Well, it is a few lines of Latin from the French king of the time, Philip IV, known as The Handsome. The claim is that it was a 'safe conduct' sent by the French king to Wallace and found in his possession when he was, if you believe the saltire-wavers, cruelly betrayed to the English, taken to London and then illegally hung, drawn and quartered.

Recently, the Scottish Government set up a team of academics to examine the authenticity of it and they have, not unsurprisingly, announced that it is genuine. Note that – the Scottish Government. Who are SNP – you never heard of the bloody Wallace Letter until now, when elections loom.

Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to have the document returned, saying the case had 'been proven'. There is, she announces: 'a 70/30 chance of it being in Wallace's possession is proof on the balance of probability. How else would it have got into English hands?"

No, you daft wee wummin, it is not. It is no better than a probability and no better than it has always been. The letter, in fact, is an instruction from King Philip of France tocertain unnamed agents to assist Sir William Wallace to get to Rome and meet the Pope. There is every chance that it was sent to Wallace. There is also an equal chance that it never went near him, but went to anonymous wee spies of King Philip and ended up in English hands from there.

The importance of the letter, for me, is that it is another historical link with Wallace and there are all too few of them so, yes, it probably should be sent back to Scotland where we might, at least, stick it on display. As far as the English National Archive is concerned, this is a minor footnote of history, so it would be no loss in that sense.

They would have to send it for free, of course – in this time of financial insecurity I would not spend a single bawbee to get it back. For me it is still a piece of worthless paper, as it might have been to Wallace if he had it in his purse and tried to wave it at his captors.

I would much rather get the Lewis Chessmen back, but I doubt if we will see either returned – why would a Tory/Lib Government office return culturally expressive items into the gloating hands of an SNP Government looking to wave them triumphantly at potential voters?

We don't need a Robin McHood

6 January 2011

Wallace seal on the Lubeck letterMuch as I have enjoyed the works of Canadian Scot author Jack Whyte, his latest revelations regarding Wallace plunge me into the deepest of head-shaking misery. Wallace is the real Robin Hood? I think not - poor Jack has plunged headfirst into the myth and failed to surface, sad to say, to examine more closely what he has dredged up from the murky depths. And him originally from Renfrewshire, too.

He bases this claim on the fact that the brigand Wallace lived in Selkirk's forest, used a 'longbow' as his seal on the Lubeck letter and was married to Mirren (Marion).

Wallace fled frequently to the forests of Selkirk, it being the best place to hide and fight running battles from - him and hundreds more like him. With two notable exceptions - Stirling Bridge and Falkirk - Wallace never fought pitched battles with anyone, since he had neither the men, weapons nor resources to do it. His was the warfare of the brigand, the 'herschip' (raid) on the defenceless and unwary and he employed it so successfully that, when Bruce came to the fore, he did the same and for the same reasons.

Wallace's Robin Hood 'longbow' seal is not what it seems. It is a bow, no more. There was no such thing as the longbow - there were simply bows, some longer than others. It is an indication, however, that the statements on Wallace's size (6ft 7') are perhaps true, since those with longer arms and bigger muscles could wield a longer, stronger bow and, if he did and was known as a bowman, Wallace would have used this on his seal. It is hardly surprising that Wallace used such a weapon, since it is cheap and easily made, perfect for the warfare he preferred - striking from cover and avoiding head-to-head confrontations.

There is absolutely no evidence at all that he was married, let alone to a Marion. My own suspicion is that Blind Harry and others, cunning wee tale-tellers that they were, took the existing legend of Robin Hood and wove it in with the story of Wallace; let's not forget that Harry was writing in the 15th century, when the Robin Hood myth was well established. Again, that is no surprise - there are a score of candidates for the feathered hat of Robin Hood, all of them created by medieval journalists.

Scotland does not need a Robin McHood, certainly not one called Wallace, whose place as a hero in Scottish history is already assured. The only real mystery of his life is how so many of his descendants came to live in Canada - on a recent visit there, I could have been a millionaire if I had a dollar for all the residents of Calgary, Toronto and elsewhere who came up to announce that their ancestor was none other than William Wallace.

A lot of them from Renfrewshire, too.

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